cancer · family · mother


When I was a little girl, I would sit on my parents’ bed and watch my mother go through her ritual of getting dressed in the morning. She was the type of woman who put a lot of care and effort into what she looked like. I was raised thinking you should always be on a diet and you should always take at least an hour or two to prepare for leaving the house. Obviously that shit went out the window when I got to college, but growing up I was taught to believe you should make an effort to impress; otherwise people might judge.

Mom would curl her hair to perfection, delicately apply layers of skin cream and make up to her face, and litter her bedroom floor with dozens of discarded outfit choices that made her “look fat” before selecting whatever was suitable enough to wear in public on any given day. Throughout the years, her weight would fluctuate between very slim and slightly chubby. Her self esteem would fluctuate in matching accordance.

My mother cared about appearances in other ways, too. Most importantly, she wanted us to be perceived as a good, loving, Christian family.  The hard-working husband. The well-behaved kids. Volunteer minded. Church going. Middle Class.

When Lindsay, dad, or I did anything to upset the Rockwellian image we were supposed to uphold for the outside world, there was always hell to pay within the walls of our house. It wasn’t just that we disappointed mom in those moments. It was that we must have disappointed everyone looking at us as an example, too.

I think (I know) I grew up resentful of this, and as such, I would find subtle ways to fight against it throughout my life. I aimed for B+’s in school rather than A’s. I dressed in raggedy thrift store clothes. I eschewed hairbrushes, make up, irons. As I grew older, my rebellion against mom’s perceived image of me was more outright. I did drugs. Denounced God. Slutted it up with anyone who would have me.

And through it all, my perfectly coiffed, perfectly manicured, perfectly mannered Christian Conservative mother would demand more. Expect better. Reject any version of me that didn’t fit within her ideals. Renounce anything I said or did of my own accord as a phase. And I would look at her and wonder how the hell we came from the same line of DNA.

Flash forward to now:

Mom sits in front of me with half-applied, gooped-up eyeliner. Her clothes don’t match. They are inside out and backward. She is missing a few teeth in the back of her mouth.  The morphine has altered her voice for the second time since the onset of the cancer. She is heavy. Her soft body is covered in bruises. She shuffles instead of steps. She pads along with a hand outstretched in front of her chest, like a person blindfolded. (Except when she is on a mission to prove someone wrong. Then she walks like a speed racer. A blind speed racer, but still.)

She runs into walls. She runs into chairs. She loses direction and walks out the front door of her apartment, into her neighbors living room, thinking it’s her guest bathroom. She talks non-stop. She repeats stories. She interrupts and interjects. She changes her mind from second to second. She has severe mood swings. She has severe energy swings. She makes no god damn sense.

And I look at her, thinking about how important appearances are in her world. I think this is not my mother. My mother would be horrified by this woman. This is not the mother who once paid me $20 to throw out a pair of plaid pants she didn’t want me to wear in front of people. This is not the mother who dressed up in full leotard fashion, like Olivia Newton John,  to teach exercise classes at the local YMCA in the 80s. This is not the mother who lived to host parties and house guests. This is some drooling, sticky, round, blubbering, mother-plucking imposter.

In many ways she is still herself. Her morning ritual hasn’t changed much except for the fact that she no longer sees what she’s doing. She still feels the need to entertain and charm. She dedicates half her college-dorm-sized fridge to food supplies for visitors.  She fixates on telling and re-telling the handful of tales she can remember that have proven to make people laugh or smile or nod their head in agreement.  She punctuates punchlines with extra, desperate enthusiasm. She laughs the exact same way my grandmother laughed during her alzheimer’s battle. She asks me to hold on to her treadmill and her bicycle and the 2 million boxes of small and medium sized clothes that are still boxed up at her old house, so she can she hop back on and back in them as soon as she “gets better”. As soon as she “loses the weight”. As soon as she can “move back home”. She says this with the hospice nurse in the next room. She says this with 24-hr morphine running through her system. She says this the cancer in her brain proceeds with its plans to take over for good.

I watch this transformation as I pack up her books on brain function. Books on memory loss. Cognitive thinking. Traumatic brain injuries. Some of the books were bought before the cancer, as resources for mom’s career as a speech pathologist. Some of the books were bought after, as last-ditch attempts to fix/reverse/stop the inevitable. I throw away binders and binders of research notes as we pack her up her house. I toss  A+ papers and highly praised thesis work into garbage bags for eventual shredding.  I am moved to keep anything that references plays or literature-a reminder that she sometimes dipped her toe into my universe. I am also moved to keep the papers whose claims infuriate my own personal political beliefs most- reminders that she and I have never been cut from the same cloth. Reminders that it isn’t just the disease; in many ways, she and I have always had cancer-sized communication obstacles between us.

It is, of course, absurd that I need mementos to recall any of this. I know the complexities of my relationship with my mother better than I know anything else. I know our bond has always been akin to two people trying to tell each other a very important story while speaking a language the other one knows nothing of. And it’s getting even harder to reach one other. The woman has always had the constitution of a middle weight prize fighter.  She is scrappy, dogged, and stubborn. So even with the decline, she continues to fight. She fights herself when her wants and desires do not line up with her reality. She fights to reclaim any of her independence from her former life. She fights me, and her siblings, and her friends, and the doctors.

“I would rather fall flat on my face on my own than have you tell me I need to walk differently or take a different path, or move anything out of my way!” she told me and my aunt the other day. “I don’t care if I hurt myself as long as I get to do what I want without everyone trying to tell me what I should do!”

And so the ugliness gets even uglier.  I find myself reasoning, rationalizing, and screaming at a person without a brain. I find myself thinking terrible thoughts. Wishing terrible wants. Vocalizing terrible, terrible things. And then I erupt in a seemingly unending cycle of tears when considering what might happen if and when any of those terrible musings are brought to fruition.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that I am completely overwhelmed with anger right now.  I imagine it is incredibly trite to note how unfair it all is. How unfair it is to see a woman who helped others treat brain injuries suffer from the cruelest sort of slow-encroaching brain injury herself. How unfair it is to see a woman who took care of her own alzheimer’s stricken mother for a dozen years develop a mind-stealing disease and watch her own daughter take over her former role as unwitting caretaker. How unfair it is for a mother and two estranged daughters to be granted a second chance, only for the disease that brought them back together to impede any real, true progress toward understanding and acceptance in those relationships. How unfair it is to be taught such a vicious lesson in appearances. How little they matter. How little anything we pretend matters does matter in the end.



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