by Jackie Snax
“Are you scared I’m going to die?” I said nothing. “I’m not going to die.”
|The cart was full of good things.
A blue tube of cinnamon rolls, the kind that comes with a little tub of icing. Brownies. Buttercream frosting and sprinkles. Ice cream. Chicken fingers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese.
When we were little my mom fed us nothing but squash and greens. She used to bake spinach into our brownies. Dried apricots were a special treat; we called them candy. “You can only have one,” she’d say, offering us each a soft, wrinkled drop of sunshine, and we’d eat them reverently, savoring the sticky sweetness.
“You can have as many as you want,” she said now.
We piled more into the cart, thrilled, of course we were thrilled.
She was wearing a hat, because we were in public, and the sloping scar lined with twiggy black spider stitches scared people, normally. So she wore a hat. She had a few. I remember a purple one she stole from me, velvet soft and rimmed. Another with sunflowers. Another - a baseball cap for later, when the stitches had been taken out and the hair had grown in a little. It was denim, and said ‘Life is Good’ across the front.
“I’m fine,” she’d said to us this morning, “It’s all going to be fine now. They just reached right in and plucked it out! And if it ever comes back, they’ll just do the same thing again.”
I’d looked up the kind of cancer she had and then forgot, pushed it out of my mind, believed her, my stunning mother, I would always believe her - from now on, from now on, from now on. I had to listen, because I was a good daughter, now, I had to become a good daughter, I had to have enough time to become a good daughter.
According to her, I had all the time in the world. So I believed her.
A box of twinkies, dropped on top of the tower. They were nothing but whipped corn syrup, unnatural, horrible, she’d said so before. Now, she smiled, and then flinched - it stretched the stitches.
The cancer came back and she had another surgery. Stitches again, little spiders standing guard. Chemo this time - her cheeks puffed out like marshmellow, her words a little slurred, and she started repeating things. We kept eating hot dogs. I started making them, now, boiling the tubes until they split at either end, burning baked beans on the stove.
“I want to do that,” she’d say sometimes, on a good day, and make something better.
Her hair grew in. We watched television and ate brownies, half un-cooked, frothy with frosting. She didn’t care anymore if we had more than two hours of screen time per day. I’m not really sure if it was because she couldn’t keep track or because she felt guilty.
While driving her home from work, three months before she had to leave on disability, I broke down crying at the wheel. She made me pull over into the parking lot of a park we called ‘the mountain playground,’ a park I’d played in as a child. My sister and I had always climbed up the ‘mountain,’ a shallow, man-made hill we’d been able to see the entire world from on top of. Then we’d dropped on our side and tumbled, rolled down with our arms crossed across our chests, rising itchy with grass rash and shrieking, running up to go again, the world a wild blur, thrilling. It used to be so exciting, to be afraid and moving too quickly.
I sobbed until I couldn’t while my mother asked me, again and again, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m scared,” I said, finally.
“Scared of what?” She scoffed, and I remained silent, too scared to tell her, to betray myself as someone that did not believe her when she said ‘everything’s fine,’ I wanted to be a good daughter.
“Are you scared I’m going to die?”
I said nothing.
“I’m not going to die.”
Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
“I’m really not. And I mean, even if I did, well, so what? You’ll be fine!”
This startled me into laughing, and she laughed with me and added, “A little messed up, but life’ll go on.”
I graduated high school. She was in the audience, so proud, so very proud, she cried a few times, and I did too, when she kissed my cheek, pushed her puffy pale one against mine, kept hugging me, holding me close at the party we had after full of pizza and soda and store-bought full-of-bad-sugars cake, and the world was dazzling.
The cancer came back.
She came back from the hospital with a new scar and puffed cheeks full of half-sentences, disjointed words stuttering alone when she could get them out. Hats put on with clumsy fingers. She moved like a toddler, and frequently needed our help. “Everything fine,” she told us, “It comes back, they take it out.”
We ate KFC chicken buckets. She licked the grease off her fingers - fingers that used to work compost into gardens, food from seeds and soil, pull snap peas from their vines, make zucchini bread and swear against fast food. “Love this,” she said, lips smacking, “Always loved this.”
We had to help her to the bathroom. In the shower. She developed bedsores that had to be drained. She sat on the couch and stared vacantly at the tv. Sometimes, someone would read to her. Sometimes, we would just sit with her, head on her puffy shoulders, her arms around us, stroking our heads. “My babies,” she’d say, voice tender. “My babies.”
The cancer came back.
She sat us down in summer, with the windows all open, light like honey drizzled over the crisp, green world. I could see her old garden from the window, could see bean vines and tomatoes gone wild, lavender taking over the whole left side, bees thick in the marigolds and the butterfly bush, all of it a cacophonous burst of disorganized life.
“I’m dying,” she told us, gently.
My sister started crying. I remember she gasped first, too. She hadn’t known, I realized, had never googled it, had just trusted. She was a good daughter.
I whispered, “I know.”
I was older. I had googled it more than once at this point, stared at the sentence that said “95% die within the first five years after diagnosis.” It had been four years.
“You know?” She said, offended, so clearly offended, “How?”
I opened my mouth and then closed it. The birds called gently to each other outside. Our cat rose from his perch on our mother’s lap and hopped down, flopping into the warm square of sunlight. I didn’t know what to say.
My sister saved me though, rising, crying, and my mom reached out for her, arms wide, and the sun was on them, on my sister’s curls, on my mom’s puffed face, her scarred head. The air tasted like green.
She got worse.
It happened slowly at first, and then all at once, in a sudden drop from there to hospice, to her prone form being transferred from bed to bed. There was a day when we had to put a catheter in - I held one of her knees open, my eyes on the ceiling. She barely noticed, jerking once, and then fell back into her fitfull sleep.
She would move her hands sometimes, mouth opening and closing like she was talking. Her mother sat shell shocked at her side, eyes blank. “Her father did the same thing, when he was close,” she whispered, “I think she’s seeing spirits.”
My sister and I lived on her bed, beside her. We read our books there. Talked to one another. Watched tv on her tiny screen instead of the big one in the living room.
She took so long to die the horror became almost normal. At one point we were sharing stories from our day, just talking to each other, eating chinese takeout and ice cream. She suddenly jerked a little, a signal of her being there, being present, and we both turned to look as she reached, searching, and then found her own hand and lifted it to her lips, kissing it, the way she used to kiss ours, sometimes.
It was hilarious. We were practically crying from laughter. She smiled, eyes shut. “What’s so funny?” We stopped, trying to push it back. Our stepfather stood in the doorway, circles under his eyes.
“Nothing,” we said quickly.
She eventually needed to be in a hospital bed instead of her own bed, though it was still in the living room - she’d been clear about that, her desire to die at home. A hospice nurse came - clearly new at this. She was peppy, bright, barely older than me, so I hated her already upon first seeing her. I hated people my age who were doing jobs or school, doing normal things. Her voice stuttered when she talked to us, and we all stared her down. How dare she. How dare she be scared.
My mother moved her hands around those spirits like clay, moved her hands like she was talking, the way she used to. She came from people who moved their hands while they talked. My grandfather had, apparently. My great grandmother had, apparently. I wouldn’t know. I never met them. She cried sometimes, eyelashes damp, eyes squeezed shut. Let out small, moaning whimpers.
I read so much about ways to kill people, gently. My favorite was Julijonas Urbonas’ Euthanasia Rollercoaster. You got on at the beginning, experienced a euphoric, swooping, soaring sensation, and then simply let your life flow out of you, into the sky, the clouds, the world spinning, dazzling before you. The cart would come back into the station with a body strapped in, no more soul, a gentle smile on dead lips.
It had never been built, though, so I couldn’t bring her to it. It had been declared ‘inhumane’ by stupid people, ignorant people, people who had never been here.
“We’ll be fine,” I whispered to her one night, when her breathing sounded like drowning and her forehead was in its customary wrinkle of pain, “I’ll take care of Maddy. We’ll take care of each other. We’ll be fine, because you raised us so well.”
We could feel it coming the day it happened. I woke up in my room, sun on my face, birds calling to each other. It was summer, it was warm, it was ten in the morning. Ants were crowded over my windowsill, crawling over sticky bowls of spaghettios, half-consumed snickers bars, five or ten meals partially consumed and then abandoned.
(She used to make us eat well. She used to nag us to clean our rooms. I used to snap back at her. I used to-)
Outside, someone was mowing the lawn. Sweet, clipped grass, leaves whispering, the fuzzy, sour smell of decay.
It would happen today.
My grandmother had said she would sleep on the couch, but when I came out she was in the same straight-backed wooden chair she’d been in when I went to bed. My mother’s face was a melted lump of playdough, like the kind she used to make us when we were young, colorless until food dye was added, flour starch and water boiled in a pot, her tan hands working the dough afterwards on our wooden table, the window open to a bright fresh world just like this one.
She breathed at a steady, creeping pace.
Until she didn’t.
Her last breaths left her in two great, agonized bursts, her whole body shaking with the force of them. Then there was nothing, no more, all of us waiting for a moment, suspended, cicadas trilling outside, light from the window muddled only slightly because no one had cleaned it in so long.
Nothing else came.
My grandmother walked into the kitchen and began to cry in hyperventilating bursts, shoving me away when I tried to hold her. I went to my sister in her room - she’d been woken up by those final breaths - and I took her in my arms, stroked her head, whispered, again and again, “It’s over. It’s over. It’s over.”
Later, I sat under the holly tree outside, watching as her body was taken out, wrapped in a white sheet, my grandmother following, with a lingering hand on her child’s shoulder.
When we were young, when my mom still fed us steamed squash as a snack and wouldn’t let us watch tv for too long, when we lived outside with scraped knees and mosquito bites like a balm of pain to keep us raw and real in our limbs, we used to say ‘I love you’ to each other in sign language, palm on the chest, then both fists with arms crossed, then a gesture, a point - you.
I did this under the tree, thorny leaves biting into my pale bare legs. Watched as neighbors came out to look, to watch her body being taken away. Many were crying. They hadn’t known her for a long time, for so long, but before she got sick, my mom was everybody’s friend.
My sister had run to her friend’s house after. As I was walking there to find her, I realized I’d left my phone at home for the first time in four years, that I wasn’t scared, waiting for a call to rush back, to rush to the hospital, to rush, like blood in a terrified animal, everything the frantic beat of a great wet heart. The sky was so very blue, and the trees were all heavy with green leaves and summer heat.
Maddy’s friend’s mother hugged me, too, even though I’d met her maybe once before. We walked back together, the sun at our backs, every sensation standing out to me as if in each pore I held a magnifying glass. The texture of the pavement under my bare feet. The smell of the air, of crushed plants and cut grass, damp earth and hydrangeas. An ice cream truck sang gently in the distance.
I’d lost my callouses. I grew up with callouses on my feet, the soles permanently darkened from running barefoot through our yard, my mom sitting on the steps with her legs outstretched and arms out on either side, sunning herself. “Ahhh!” She would say when the sun came out from behind the clouds, face upturned, eyes shut. “Beautiful.”
When we got back, my family huddled on those steps, in the sun, arms around each other. Our grandmother stopped crying. My sister and I were silent, the world so loud and bright, grass and dandelions poking through the pavement of our walk, moss thick on a dying tree, the world eating itself and living, again and again.
We held each other and didn’t shake, didn’t cry. Accepted home-made food from our neighbors. Squash and spinach and chicken. Real food, wholesome food. Felt the sun on our faces.
Sometimes the survivors of a family struck by cancer say, “I lost my childhood,” but my mother’s brain cancer was an integral part of mine. I was a child, so it was childhood. I faced it like a child. I ate brownies and hot dogs and watched too much TV. I was confused, and I was faithful. I did not grow up too fast. If anything, I didn’t grow up fast enough. She never knew me as an adult. It will always be a blank, an empty space - her opinion of the me I am now, of the me who has been formed by this, the me who is just a little messed up, but fine.
I’m fine. Really, I am. I’m fine.