As I walked into my living room, I slid my dusty softball bag from my shoulder and plopped onto the couch.
“Kate! You killed it today! You’re lightning around those bases! Like you been doin’ crack or something.”
I laughed and shook my head as my mom smirked at me over her shoulder. “What does that even mean?” I asked, but she didn’t offer up an answer.
“Go hop in the shower. We gotta celebrate!”
Mom was right. After suffering a four-game losing streak, my softball team was rolling in our win, even if it was against the worst team in our division. My mom knew, of course, because she was our number one fan—she never missed a game.
The phone rang, and “Jim Campbell” popped up on our TV’s caller ID. Mom gave me a look threatening not to take me to dinner unless I got in the shower immediately, but I jumped up and grabbed the phone off the wall anyway.
“Hey, Uncle Jimmy!”
“Hi, Katie.” He sounded more solemn than I’d heard him since his father’s funeral.
“Is everything okay?” I asked carefully.
He breathed heavily. “That’s what I’m calling to see. Is Mom around?”
“Yeah. One sec.”
My mom had stopped washing dishes and was standing at the sink looking at me intently. I shrugged and handed her the phone. I loitered around the sink to eavesdrop on their conversation. Uncle Jimmy and my mom were twins, so every time he called about something serious, it was because he was having a “twin telepathy” moment, and that always interested me. Instead of my mom laughing and calling him an idiot like she usually did, she dropped her dishrag, leaned one weak hand against the glass sliding door to our backyard, and began sobbing. My mom doesn’t cry often, so I knew that whatever Uncle Jimmy said was serious. I walked over and rubbed her back. When she didn’t respond, I went to take my shower.
Any time I’d seen this kind of reaction from my mom, someone had died. I went to my room, sat on my bed, and tried to fight jumping to any conclusions. By the time I got out of the shower twenty minutes later, the self-centered teenager I was had forgotten about the phone call entirely.
When we got into the car to go to dinner, my mom put her Mary J. Blige CD on and sang the words as obnoxiously as she could, laughing at herself the whole time. When we arrived to the restaurant, though, she didn’t say hello to the chefs through the kitchen window or give her opinions about the specials. When we sat down at the table, I noticed my dad grab my mom’s hand. She looked at him, and her bottom lip began to quiver.
“Mom, what’s up?” I asked softly. She looked at me with teary eyes and then looked down at her menu. I looked at my dad for support, but he had suddenly become intrigued by the burger options. Frustrated with always being left out of important family matters, the bitchy fifteen-year-old girl overcame me.
“Seriously, what the hell is going on?” They both stared at me with open mouths. “You guys never tell me anything. It’s bullshit.”
I expected them to scream at me right there. I had visions of my mom yanking me up from my ponytail, pushing me into the bathroom, and washing my mouth out with soap. Realizing that they weren’t going to yell at me and that something was seriously wrong, I began to cry.
“I got some tests done at the doctor last week.” My mom spoke firmly. “They found a tumor in my colon.” I stopped crying and looked up at her.
“I have cancer.” Her voice cracked and her shoulders curled into her chest as she cried.
Images of coffins and my dad crying rushed into my head. I thought of the party her office would have in her memory and what font we would choose to carve “a mother of two” into her gravestone. I was thinking a thousand things, but I couldn’t force any of them out my mouth. I would’ve told her I loved her, but I couldn’t breathe. Instead, I blew a shaky stream of air through my nostrils and let a tear fall onto the menu.
“Katie,” she asserted as she grabbed my hand, “I’m not going to die. I refuse. I’m not going to let it be a thought. Not even for a second.”
How could I have believed her? I got out of my chair to hug her, and we left the restaurant without ordering.
I’ve never felt more helpless than I did as I watched my mom battle her cancer. My dad, the man who never struggled to find the right words, bought her a pleather reclining chair, with money he didn’t have, to show his support. We called it “the cancer chair.” My mom needed time and good doctors to get her health back, and the chair was useless. The purchase goes to show how helpless you can feel when a loved one is using free time to write their will and plan their funeral. When I came home from school and saw the chair sitting to my left, I knew exactly what my dad had been thinking, but I was sad for him. He met my mother as a thirty-year-old with no future plans. She gave him hope, love, and two children, and he became the happiest man I have ever met. And in her time of need, he bought her a clearance recliner chair from Bob’s Furniture. I watched his eyes slump when he presented it to her. She said it was just the thing she needed, and that’s where she spent the majority of her recovery.
My mom underwent surgery to remove her tumor; it spread through fourteen inches of her colon, all of which had to be removed. When we went to visit her at the hospital, she seemed victorious. She had bags under her eyes and a weak, raspy voice, but still found the energy to ask about my softball game and make a joke about my dad’s wrinkled shirt. She gave a half smile when I told her all my teammates’ parents had been asking about her. Immediately I felt bad; I knew how she longed to be there with them. I wondered how much work it would take to tape a game for her.
After a bad reaction to pain medications and nights of sleeplessness, my mom was released from the hospital. Her eight-inch incision, running from the bottom of her ribs to just below her belly button, became highly infected. Every time she would stand, fluids gushed from the incision. Mom was embarrassed, and the area was on fire. I knew she was uncomfortable because she couldn’t even force a laugh for Dad. To stop the infection and avoid ruining another summer dress, they scheduled an emergency visit with my mom’s oncologist. The doctor cut open the incision with scissors right there in the middle of her in-home office. The doctor taught my dad to stuff strips of gauze in the incision himself at home. After that crisis, though, it seemed that my mom was going to be fine. Other than being home from work, everything seemed as usual; Mom was preparing delicious, multi-course meals, and the house was cleaner than ever.
“They took it outta me!” she would say. “Why are they making me wait to go back to work? I’m going stir crazy!”
As soon as I walked into the house, I heard her crying. I took a deep breath and walked across the living room slowly. I had expected to be greeted by her smiling face. It surprised me that the cries were coming from the back of the house, her bedroom. My mom lay in the middle of my parent’s queen-sized bed with her feet tucked under her butt and her chin pressing into her chest. One clenched fist rested on the bed and my father held the other with both of his hands; he was sitting in a chair next to the bed, his face pressed into the mattress. I climbed onto the mattress behind my mother and draped one arm over her as I fit my body to hers on the bed; my hand reached out and caught hold of the pile of my parent’s hands.
We must’ve fallen asleep like that, desperately grabbing onto one another, because the next thing I can remember is that moonlight shone through the window, and our cats had climbed onto the bed, meowing for the dinner they hadn’t been given. Dad told me that the cancer had reached a good percentage of Mom’s lymph nodes as she lay there, a defeated child. The oncologist had promoted her to a stage-four cancer patient. She was prescribed eighteen rounds of chemotherapy.
“Kate,” she whispered, “I’m really going to need you now.” Her mouth was straight, but her eyes were searching for my support. I promised that when it didn’t interfere with school, I’d go to all of her chemo sessions with her. Of course my Dad couldn’t always go; he was a full-time father to my little brother, who was low-functioning autistic. When she asked for my support, I knew my mom really meant it. Having a parent with cancer is always difficult, but being right there on the front lines with her was really going to test me as a person.
We were all happy that my mom’s first treatment was on a Saturday. We got up at 9 a.m., she put on her “ritzy sweats” with the cheap rhinestones along the neckline, and Dad dropped us off at the building. The waiting room inside was packed. My mom looked awfully out of place among the rest of the patients. She had just turned fifty, and her closest peer must’ve been twenty years her elder.
When we were called into the back room, a pretty young nurse led us to a soft tan recliner, much like the one my dad had purchased. My mom sat down and with a serious face and a puffed chest said, “This is the real deal cancer chair,” as she rubbed her hands along the microfiber arms. We giggled quietly.
As we sat she had begun running a hand through her thick short black hair. An old man behind her said, “Soon when you do that you’ll be pulling out chunks.” My mom told him, “Fuck off,” and turned around in her chair. She winked at me, but she didn’t smile once in the next four hours.
Despite those four-hour sessions of sitting in the chemotherapy office with the chemo IV dripping through the port into her chest, my mother’s stage-four severity required her to take a substantial gray box home with her for three days. The poison would be pumped through her veins for seventy-two hours every two weeks.
“It’s not going to kill me,” Mom told me on that first ride home with her box. “If this is the worst of it, I’ll take it.” She was admiring the thing. She named it Josephine.
Within an hour of being home Mom was green, but she couldn’t make herself sick. She walked around the house swallowing hard to calm her body down. She said she felt like she was on fire. My dad and I kept asking if there was anything we could do, and she just kept shaking her head. She sat in her cancer chair, reclined all the way back, and dug her fingernails into the pleather arms. I always finger the tear stains she made when I sit in it now. My dad and I sat on the couch across from her with our elbows on our knees and hands grasping together, something to grab onto. It sounds selfish now, but I think we needed some comfort then, too. Mom was swallowing again. She bobbed her head back and forth and rocked in the chair.
“Don’t fucking look at me,” she spit out. She had more rage than I had ever seen from her. We just kept staring. “I said look the fuck away!” She was yelling now, and she broke out crying. Not knowing what to do, my Dad and I went into our separate bedrooms and left her rocking in the chair.
I needed to sit and cry without feeling selfish, and I’m sure that’s why my Dad went into his bedroom instead of following me into mine. We couldn’t let ourselves leave her alone for too long, so after I heard my dad take her into the backyard and return by himself to their bedroom, I ventured outside. I walked up to the glass door and let my head rest against it. The sun was beaming down, and it felt warm against my skin. My mom was sitting in a fold-up chair under the oak tree with her back to me. She was kicking her feet against the grass. Probably trying to fight the neuropathy, I thought.
“Hey. You feeling any better?”
My mom laughed. As I walked in front of her, she looked into my eyes, put a joint to her lips, and inhaled deeply.
I can’t imagine what my face looked like then, but the smoke escaped her mouth as she laughed at me. My mom had always drilled into my head that drugs were bad.
“Where’d you get that?”
“Your father,” she said as she took another hit.
I began laughing in disbelief as I shook my head.
“Want some?” she asked, holding it out to me.
“Who even are you?!” I said dramatically. I sat in front of her with my legs crossed and she started asking me about school. I was amazed by the smoke leaving her lips. I think she could tell I wasn’t really listening. As she smoked, it was clear that she began to feel better.
“I think this will be how I make it through,” she told me. “Don’t throw me to the cops, okay?” She was laughing her usual, billowy laugh. I hadn’t heard it since she started chemo.
My mom’s family comes to our house every Christmas Eve. For us, holidays consist of a lot of Italian food (even though there’s no Italian blood) alcohol, and laughter. My dad always says he’s amazed that there’s never been a fight considering how much everyone drinks.
“That’s what Irishmen are!” my cncle would reply, “controlled alcoholics!”
The Christmas Eve event was the pinnacle of all family gatherings throughout the year, but this Christmas fell within the three days that my mom had her chemo box at home. My mom began to panic when she started that chemo session. She smoked as usual, but couldn’t control the nausea. Still, she insisted that she had to host the holiday. She had planned to come home and begin cooking, but before she finished constructing her lasagna, she had vomited in the sink. She cried on the phone to her sister as she asked to break tradition and have Christmas Eve elsewhere.
When we showed up to my Aunt Eileen’s house the next evening, everyone fawned over my mom, saying how great she looked.“It’s the cancer diet,” she’d say with a loud chuckle. She was wearing her biggest red sweater to hide her box. No one even knew she was wearing it other than the few times it beeped; every time the wires got tangled the wrong way, the box would give a loud squeal. “Maybe I can get them to program Jingle Bells into this,” she said, and everyone laughed.
We left that Christmas party much earlier than usual. The chemo really drained her, so my mom was exhausted. She climbed the stairs slowly, clinging onto the steel handrail leading into our house. Her size was half of what it had been six months prior; the chemo made it hard for her to eat. She got inside and fell into the cancer chair next to the door. I climbed into her lap and lay my head on her chest with my arms around her neck. Her box started beeping. I laughed, she groaned, and I lifted her sweater to reset her box. She grabbed my hand. I was surprised at her sudden urgency; I could tell by the way that she was looking at me that she had something to say.
“Mom . . .”
She shook her head to silence me and pulled me into a tight hug.
“Thank you, my love,” she whispered.
The doctors deemed my mom cancer free. The treatments had worked, and everything was looking up for her. She got a serum to strengthen her thinned-out hair from the hairdresser, and got her Cheshire grin back, permanently. These few months taught our family three things:
1) You cannot ignore your routine colonoscopy;
2) A little bit of pot can help anything; and
3) With each other, we could accomplish anything.