I pushed the hypodermic needle through the skin while jamming down the plunger. Wrong. Half the saline spurted back at me. Nurse Ellen coached me through the steps, which are meant to be sequential – puncture skin, push needle until barrel rests on skin, depress plunger, pull needle out.
Thank goodness training took place in the nurse’s breakroom, and not in front of Mom. Her bravery, her stoicism, her efforts to make her cancer diagnosis easier on us grown-up kids might quaver if she saw my ineptitude. I wanted to administer the Neupogen at home after each round of chemo, sparing her five exhausting trips to the oncologist for a two-minute procedure. This only appealed, however, if any pain was as trifling as Nurse Ellen’s shots.
My performance improved with practice. After thirty jabs, my patient the orange bulged with saline, and got so sticky that I had to ask for a replacement. With a slight shake of her head, Nurse Ellen handed me a second orange. It suffered less than the first, and Nurse Ellen told me I was done.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, when Mrs. Dickens drove carpool home from Springfield Elementary, I’d burst in the door to the welcome sight of Mom sitting at the kitchen table with a book in hand and an orange peel neatly stacked in a dish. Seeing her, running into the bright smell of her orange, soothed me – if I’d fallen on the playground, or gotten a wrong answer on a test, it was forgotten when Mom and I reunited.
Even among her many mom powers, her technique for starting an orange awed me. After washing it (“you’ve got to wash it, you don’t know where it’s been”), she set her front teeth at an angle on the top of the orange, pulled back, and off peeled a thick, even flap of skin.
“Would you like one?” she’d ask.
“Only if you start it,” I’d say. I didn’t want to repeat my first try, when I overcompensated for the tough skin by biting all the way into the juice of the orange. I hated the bitter taste of the too-dry pith.
Mom and I strategized that she’d be better off not knowing the chemo side effects that most commonly arose from her drip. We didn’t want her mind suggesting something to her body that she might otherwise avoid. That first evening we learned it didn’t matter what she knew. Without absorbing a word from the drug pamphlet, she experienced leaden exhaustion, nausea in waves, and an assault of thrush.
Twenty-four hours after the chemo stopped seeping into her body, I helped snug Mom into her new flannel bathrobe. She settled in at the kitchen table to a breakfast of toast and applesauce. We hoped she’d muster enough hunger to get this bland nutrition down before the step that had made me nervous all morning. One tiny bite at a time, she ate through half of each, which thrilled me. She perked up when she noticed the Blue Willow bowl on the counter, filled with oranges to brighten the February bleakness, then said, “No, I better not try. Sounds crazy, but oranges look too spicy.”
Deciding that my sweaty, slightly shaky hands wouldn’t inspire confidence, I detoured to the sink for a second handwashing and a deep breath. Back at the table with Mom, I turned the vial of Neupogen end over end to make sure it was mixed. No one had indicated this was necessary, but it served to put off the injection for two seconds. Finally, I snapped the cap off the needle, drew the medicine into the barrel, and gently pulled up the top of Mom’s thigh muscle between the second and third knuckles of my left hand. I had no idea how long we’d been holding our breath, but our exhalations exploded when the shot was done. Mom’s “You are such a natural,” gave me the same pride that had filled me when she praised hundreds on spelling tests, hard fought basketball games, and excellent table manners at restaurant dinners.
Fifteen times we endured the shot ritual, and only once did I hurt her. She flinched and tried to pretend away the moisture that had sprung to her eyes. I couldn’t hide my tears. We said “I’m sorry” in unison, she for feeling like a burden, me for adding to her pain.
Chemo and winter ended, spring and radiation began. Exhaustion pervaded all six weeks of radiation and the month after, but the nausea abated. Her favorite oranges finally showed up at the market, and I couldn’t wait to surprise her with one for an afternoon snack. She thanked me, but looked sad. “To tell you the truth, honey, I can’t taste much these days.” I squeezed her shoulder while she considered the orange and rubbed the uneven skin with her thumb. She started the orange in the usual fashion, and ate with determination while I used my best Howard Cosell voice to narrate the sweet, tart, vibrant notes that released with each bite. “In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I think we can all agree that this tasty snack smells like nothing so much as an orange.” Her burble of laughter at this nonsense returned us to brighter days.
Twenty years have passed, and I have not had the heart to eat an orange on my own. My husband loves them, though, and starts an orange the same way Mom did. He plunges in. The fresh scent smacks me, and I look for Mom. I watch him and feel her. He says, “Want a bite?”
“I open up. He pops a pithless section in my mouth, and I accept it, eyes closed, a communion.”