Early in my college career, I wrote a story about my mother and her cancer and I. People seemed to like it and I got an award and it was published and someone said I would receive one hundred dollars for being the winner, but I never got that check, which is a shame because I’d had the same swimsuit for four years and had really wanted a change.
A lot of people said the story was sad. A lot of people told me they cried. They said things like, “shit…” and “this is really sad.” Which makes sense. It’s a Cancer Story after all, and if you don’t pull punches, you can leave some pretty dark bruises.
That story, which I wrote at nineteen, includes a heartbreaking realization of parental fallibility and ends with the narrator talking to her mother on the phone—her broken but healing mother. The story worked at the time because of the distance. I could write a sad story with a fake but convincing ending because everyone real, at the time, was damaged but okay. We were in year one of Remission. I set the final scene seven years in the future, seven years after the cancer went away. But as much writerly sense as I thought it made for me to do that, the truth is I was doing nothing more than tying up a bunch of imaginary loose ends in the name of optimism and a deadline.
There’s a line in the story about my mom’s missing uterus that everyone says really got to them. The absence of something always leaves a bigger impression than the thing itself. Thing is, the uterus that used to be there turned out to be the least of her problems, and now there’s not a whole lot happening in the bottom half of her torso, organ-wise. But back to me.
* * * *
Tonight I am alone. I am usually alone. As I write this, I’m having a grim three-month memorial celebration of the day I picked up my mom’s phone call and could hear bad news in her breathing.
It seemed the cancer hadn’t died. There was, she explained, no further treatment that could be done. Any more chemo or radiation would do more harm than good. Another try. Another round. These weren’t options. It was hardly fair.
The diagnosis of her vaginal cancer’s return had been several months ago, and the doctors were confident that stronger, longer rounds of radiation and chemo would blast that shit away. Everything so far had gone…well, the best that this sort of thing can go, and the various MRIs and CAT scans had recently revealed a cancer-free zone. Unfortunately, as many adolescent males will agree, the female vagina is mysterious and full of infinite hidey-holes beyond the reaches of even the most advanced scanning machines. A cancerless biopsy was the only guaranteed “all-clear” signal and she didn’t get it.
The options, the doctors said, were to let the cancer spread and “see what happens,” that is to say, “see how long you take to die,” or to remove every inch of flesh, blood, and organs anywhere close to her vagina. Urgently. I skipped class to see her. We drank beer, we talked about basketball, but we remained mostly silent.
That was three months ago. Two months ago was the day of the surgery, and tonight, she is nestled in a hospital bed and I am sitting alone in a Starbucks, weeks away from my college graduation and toasting misfortune with a sweaty cup of iced coffee. I have just called her hoping for, well, something, but all the Percocet and Ativan, the morphine and the dilaudid, don’t allow for much of anything, conversation-wise, though the meds did play into a pitifully genuine plea for me to avoid public Laundromats because “those places aren’t safe anymore.”
* * * *
A lot of times my mom talks about wanting to give up. When she says these things, usually to my dad or to her doctors, she means something along the lines of “kill me,” and it’s no joking matter.
Once, after my mom had been briefly sent home by some naïve medical staff, my dad called me at work in a grumbling panic.
“Are you busy?” he asked with a strained whine in his voice. He then took a slow, breathy croak that sounded like it came from deep in his throat. He has many of these noises and I’d often rather hear what they have to say than what his words do.
I started to say I was at work but he continued over me. He had to attend a meeting with some doctors and he needed me to go stay with her at the house while she was alone. All she had talked about for days was the pain and how she wanted it to end. She wouldn’t move or eat. She was sick of it, she said. She regretted the surgery. She didn’t want to be alive.
My dad was scared of what my mom would do if she were alone for too long. I thought for a moment and figured she was in too much pain to pull off a successful suicide but that didn’t stop my sudden surge of nausea. I also thought about my job, and the money I would lose if I left, and the rainstorm outside, and the traffic I would encounter on my way to the hospital, and the gas money I would waste on the trip. A lot of shameful parts of me just didn’t want to do this.
But a bigger part of me did. The overwhelming desire was to go to her and be her savior. Sit with her. Make her better and show her I was strong and I could help and I was important. I didn’t even want to do it for her, though, really. Just for me. I sometimes wonder if anyone is as selfish as the loved ones of people who are suffering. Yes, we sacrifice for the ones we love and we hurt for them, but we hurt more for ourselves for hurting for them, and we get a filthy, indulgent high from the contribution we think we are making in their lives. Oh, your body is rejecting the skin grafts and you’re delirious from the pain of the infection? Why don’t I just read you a nice news story like the long-suffering good-girl daughter I am? I can sit in silence with you for twenty minutes while you writhe and hope for death…but not much longer than that. I’m awfully uncomfortable over here, you have no idea.
My dad was still on the phone. I still hadn’t responded.
“I don’t think she’ll want to see me.” My voice faltered as I said this and felt the fact settle deeply inside of me.
The words weren’t a lie. This is when things become all the more complicated—when your sick mother doesn’t want you to be near her, despite any need you have to show the world how good you are at this…thing. When she’s too ill to put on a happy face and too proud to let you see her without one, despite any need you have to make something tangible out of the vagueness of the word “family.” How do you even begin to examine a concept like selfishness in a situation like this?
Some sighs on his end, and then he spoke.
“Yeah. You know, you’re right.” I could hear anger in him, and shame and guilt and helpless desperation. The same things he might have heard in me if he was able to. The same things I know I would hear in me if I could only step far enough back to get even the slightest sense of myself.
* * * *
Last night I had a dream about her.
It began with me returning home from work to find her in my apartment preparing food. I was confused. She didn’t live there. But here she was, anyway, surrounded by heaping bowls of…something. With a focused frown on her face, she mixed and stirred and sliced and scooped.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She looked up at me and glared. “It’s Thanksgiving,” she said. “And you’re late.”
I found myself immediately on the verge of tears as I struggled to remember if Thanksgiving really was in April every year. I love Thanksgiving. How could I have forgotten?
“It’s not Thanksgiving,” I said. “It’s April.”
She spoke louder. “It’s Thanksgiving.”
I spoke louder. “Thanksgiving is NOT in April.” As she narrowed her eyes at me, I surveyed the food.
I was angry now. “What are you even making?”
She spat back, “Mayonnaise.”
I was shocked and furious. Mayonnaise. The only food I hated. And on Thanksgiving of all days. Mayonnaise.
I screamed at her, begging her to tell me why she would do this to me, and then I ran right out of the room before she had a chance to respond.
Suddenly, I was with my father, and he was bellowing at me, demanding that I stop ruining Thanksgiving, and I was shouting back at him that it wasn’t Thanksgiving goddammit, it was April, and he kept yelling and I kept yelling and he told me to stop hurting my mother.
And then just as suddenly, we were all standing in a field—my mother and my father and I in cluster of wildflowers, along with my siblings. Slowly, I noticed aunts and uncles coming into focus, and then my mother’s parents and her closest friends, and they were all standing serenely with the wind blowing through their hair. I was furious and could feel my cheeks fiery red but everyone else was so calm. They smiled sadly.
And I looked at the giant table that had appeared, place settings and all, and I looked at my mother, with all that skin hanging limply around her small face, and I realized that I was right. It wasn’t Thanksgiving. But she wanted it to be. And everyone was letting her turn a random April afternoon into Thanksgiving, because that was what she wanted, and because it was the last meal she’d ever eat before she was gone. And everyone seemed to have known except for me.
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Loser City, Kayleigh has written for Pitchfork, Ovrld and xoJane. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.