I was there when she received the diagnosis. It changed my life forever.
|TEN LITTLE WORDS
I suppose I always knew we’d end up there, in the cold, white-washed cubicle hospital administrators called a room. But I still didn’t want to believe it. We told Mama for years she needed to have that cough checked. “Damn allergies,” she’d choke out in the middle of a coughing fit. Then, when she found the lump behind her collar bone, she told us not to worry. “It’s some kind of cyst, or something,” she said. “I’ve had them before.” Her children were not convinced. Neither was her doctor. Sure enough, the x-rays determined it was time to bring in a surgeon. Daddy and I were with her when she saw him. He had been clinical in his description of the tumor and the diminished state of her lungs. She had been determined.
“The x-ray clearly indicates the need for a biopsy,” he said as he pointed to the mass. “I would be surprised if it is not cancer.”
“I don’t have cancer,” Mama countered. “You can do the biopsy, but you won’t find cancer.” She hadn’t even blinked. She sat right up, back rigid, eyes blazing, and told the surgeon he had no idea what he was taking about.
“Mrs. Prescott, I’ve been doing this over thirty years and I am ninety-eight percent positive we’re looking at cancer.” I wasn’t fond of this guy’s bedside manner. Instead of softening his approach, he seemed to bristle with the challenge.
“Do the biopsy,” she said, pointing her index finger in his direction. “I’m going to fit into that two percent category. You’ll see!”
“We’ll find out tomorrow morning,” he said over his shoulder as he was leaving.
“I don’t think I’d piss off the man who’s going to be cutting on me,” Daddy told her.
By the time we all went to bed that night, Mama had almost convinced Daddy there was nothing wrong with her. I think he knew the truth; he just didn’t want to face it. Sleep evaded me as I counted down each hour until morning, trying with all my might to believe her, too.
After he completed the biopsy, the surgeon didn’t come speak with us. A nurse came in and told us the procedure had gone well and Mama would be back in her room within the hour. “I really don’t like that doctor,” I told Daddy as we made our way down the hall. Our plan had been to grab something to eat, but neither of us felt hungry.
“If he's been doing this thirty years, you’d think he would know her loved ones are sitting in that flipping waiting room, waiting to hear what he found!” I knew the tissue he removed had to be sent to the lab for a definitive diagnosis but, really – to totally ignore us? He knew what the lab would find, and so did we.
We spent the day in Mama’s room as she entertained friend after friend who slipped in to check on her. She smiled and joked as if she were at her apartment, welcoming them in for a glass of tea instead of lying in a hospital bed, waiting for answers. As the day wore on, the walls around my heart began to sag. They had been solid, sturdy, ready to bolster me, preparing for an answer I already knew. But being with her all day, watching her smile, her strength as the rest of us wilted, had caused me to hope. Maybe she was right. Maybe it wasn’t cancer. Maybe the lab would find the mass was, indeed, benign. How could it not be? How could we function without her there, the sun around which we all spun?
When the doctor walked in shortly before six, his demeanor had changed. He glanced at Daddy, then me, both of us visibly anxious, then walked over to Mama’s bed. Pulling a chair close to her he gently took her hand and said, "I'm so sorry, my Dear . . . I'm afraid it is cancer."
The words rang out in my head -- screamed, as they flew, a racquetball, smashing, again and again, into each wall of a brain that had emptied. My brain. The brain that had been grounded, to such a large extent, by her.
Like so much delicate glass, my once-resilient spirit collapsed into tiny shards. Tiny red shards, the color of blood. And anger. I had been blessed to be born to this incredible woman. This woman who, even then, sat straight up in the hospital bed, smile never wavering. Didn't she hear him?
Didn't she hear those ten words spoken so softly I had had to strain to understand? Didn't she hear those ten words that were already in the process of changing her life, and mine, and all those who had ever met or would ever meet her? Didn't she hear?
It was one thing to fear I knew the answer, and another to have that fear confirmed.
As the days and months went by, the realization I was helpless to change the fact my mother was dying crept into every fiber of my being. Never before had I experienced such a feeling of helplessness - or hopelessness. Never before had I felt so inadequate.
I was not able to save my mother, of course. That was not my job. But the fierce, noble, dynamic spirit that was my mother continues to strengthen me. The knowledge that her life was not lived in vain strengthens me. She lives on through me, and through mine. And that fact strengthens me.