She drank the contrast with a grimace. “This isn’t going to stay down,” she predicted. I returned to Gathering Blue, and tried to appear nonchalant. She talks to me more, confides in me more, when I appear nonchalant. I like the talking, the confiding. I knew the moment I saw her yesterday morning that Mom felt unwell. It created a vacuum of niceties; Dad and I set our jaws and kept our gaze forward. She doesn’t like the attention. She’s been in pain. She doesn’t like the noticing.
After the scan, we sat in the oncology waiting room, the three of us. Dad and I sipped coffee. He people-watched, I read. Mom stretched across three waiting room chairs situated in a row…the sitting being too much to bear. We had a long time to wait. Every now and then, one of us would make a benign comment. “The construction is really coming along.” “It isn’t as busy as it normally is here.” Little nudges to remind us of the humanity amidst the antiseptic air. Then, in a quiet voice, mom asked us to follow her when she was called back.
This was a big deal. There is only one other time that Mom has allowed people back to the oncologist’s exam room…I was not home then. It was that fateful day last June—Mom still has the appointment notification slip in her wallet—when time became endangered. She said she knew when he came in the room that day that it hadn’t been a good scan…and indeed, it had not. Asked if she’d like him to break the news to Dad and Charlie, she nodded gratefully, and they were brought back to the room—to hear the ugliness, receive grief counseling, and think of infinity against a ruler of months. I was to receive the news via phone, from 1200 miles away. A return to Wisconsin was in the works within 24 hours.
She typically likes getting the news herself, coping with it on her terms, then telling us. We afford her this right, imagine away the gnawing hunger to know everything as soon as it is there to know. We can’t give her much…but we can give her her dignity. Yesterday, her preference for private counsel was negligible. She knew what was coming. We all knew what was coming. She was saving a nurse a trip back to the waiting room to call my father and me back. We were all on the same page, though reading to ourselves. “Weeks….” We were expecting them to give us mere weeks. The suffering has been evident.
But such tidings did not come. We sat in that small exam room…dad sipped coffee, looked around…I sipped cappuccino, read…Mom fidgeted on the table, gave in, and reclined to seek a release from the pain. It hurts her to be awake…and she’s too uncomfortable to sleep. Constant fatigue and discomfort: this has been her reality. Dr. Holen came through the door on jaunty step and said, “It was a good scan!” Huh? How is this possible? The tumors still grew…but by tenths of a centimeter…much reduced rate of growth. The pain though, what is the pain? They don’t know.
We left the hospital after nine hours. We were weary with the waiting. Mom held a prescription for morphine in one hand, and the overnight pack of chemo over the other shoulder. I’m about ready to write off this whole concept of logic. I don’t understand how a perfectly strong, in-shape, prime-of-her-life woman of 46 can go in for a routine physical to find that she has end-stage cancer—and at 48, she suffers constantly, knows ever-present exhaustion, and her cancer is slowing in growth. I don’t think any of us really know what to think. She caught me sixish weeks ago crying quietly at her bedside. I was jobless, husbandless, and—I was sure in no time at all—I would be motherless as well—the next day’s scan would prove it, of this I was certain. I, myself, was feeling like a cancer. My powers of prediction proved wrong with that scan, too…I suppose it is a lesson. We’re not meant to grasp the live wire of a timeline.