River House Home - Refrigerator
"Mama" by Lindsey Morrison
I am my mother’s lover; I want to scoop her brittle body up in my arms and nurture her. I want her to feel how beautiful she is through my fingertips. “I have no eyelashes or eyebrows, my teeth are discolored, and my arms are disfigured,” she will tell me, averting her eyes while her voice trembles. I will place my hands on her smooth cheeks and tell her, “That makes you beautiful,” and my I will make her believe it for once. I will trail my fingers across her, tracing her scars and blown veins and mottled skin. Instead of grimacing while looking at her reflection, she will see herself reflected as I see her.
Her bald head is framed with a corona of delicate little hairs. Despite being a smoker all her life (she is afraid to quit because she superstitiously thinks nicotine is helping keep her alive), her facial skin is enviably smooth and soft. The years of radiation treatments and chemotherapy have created a gap between her two front teeth; this makes her self-conscious about smiling. The area around her right clavicle has a deep scar in which you could fit a small stack of coins from repeated staph infections and surgeries; below that is the older, smoother scar from the mastectomy. Her hipbones are pinholed and cracked, fragile as hollow bird bones. When she doesn’t think I’m looking, I see her stumble as she walks, the oxycodone hardly taking the edge off the pain that plagues her throughout each day. She looks at herself in the mirror and is always shocked to discover the utter absence of the image she envisions in her mind’s eye.
After having yet another nuclear bone scan she tells me, “The cancer seems to have decided to stay in the bone.” It was born in the pliant tissue of her right breast, but crept stealthily through the network of her bones before it was discovered. Her cancer eschews the soft and delicate; it does not want to make its home in the fatty tissue of her liver or the tender lining of her stomach or the grape-like alveoli of her lungs. It is gritty and determined, like her, to claw out a home in the toughest of spots, first invading her spine, then spreading out to the rest of her body. It gnawed at her clavicles until a bone splinter came loose and began rubbing on raw nerves. It nested in her hips, creating holes and cracks and crevices that threaten to cave in at any moment. Knees, ribs, shoulder blades. It prefers to stay in the core of her body, generously leaving her skull and arms untouched. For now.
It’s difficult to keep track of what has been pumped into her body over the years. The names all sound like natural foes of Mothra or Godzilla: Gemzar, Lovanox, Decadron, Zometa, Femara, Abraxane. The dreaded Zometa, rising from the depths of the earth’s core, ready to attack! And attack they do. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is worse: the cancer or the treatment. She has undergone years of poison being pumped into her body to kill the tumors faster than they can kill her, but it is still poison.
She is getting frailer by the day: her legs look deflated from all the weight she has lost, her breath is labored as she walks from her room to the kitchen, and her system can hardly tolerate food. Her vertebrae are crumbling from years of being consumed from the inside out. I want to envelop her into my body, in a space between my ribs and my heart, to protect her for as long as I can. I know she’ll have to leave at some point; how long can a body survive when it is deteriorating inside? Despite living with this for half my life, her death will still blindside me. How can she die, this woman who conquers each day with grace? How will I stay together without her glue connecting all my bones?
Sometimes it feels like I am hollow inside, like I have eviscerated my internal organs. I’ve developed something of a steel core, an emotionless center, a place to retreat when I am smothered by the need to be near her. A place where I can be cruel and pitiless and wish for her to die so I can have my rightful life back, a place where I can be resentful and bitter like my heart was coated in bile. That cold place is often more reassuring than the warm arms of others. I often hear, “If you need anything, just ask.” We both know I won’t ask. Sometimes I say she’s doing okay, just because it’s easier. It’s not really a lie most of the time; she might have felt well enough to get out of bed or was able to eat something without vomiting. How that matches up to their ideas of “okay,” I’ll never know.
Cancer terminology is the language of war: cancer battles and cancer survivors, fighting cancer with all one’s might. When you hear about a woman who has lived with breast cancer for twelve years, the first thing always said is, “She must be so strong.” I do want to remember her strength, but I want to remember the insidious nature of cancer, too. I want to remember my sister crying when my mom told her to leave her to die alone in bed. I want to remember the times when I grit my teeth at the sound of her stream-of-consciousness, pain-pill-induced chatter, my jaw muscles clenching. I want to remember how she once told me, “I know exactly how much Phenobarbital it would take to kill me, and I almost have enough.” I want to remember the years I blamed my father for triggering the cancer to come out of hibernation. I want to remember my guilt about not making her life as easy as I could and resentment that I was put in that position to begin with. I want to remember how I hardly went out in my early twenties because my mother couldn’t eat if I wasn’t there to get it for her. I want to remember the times I wished for her to die so I could grieve and finally move away.
I am awed by her strength and tenacity to stay on the precipice for as long as she has, but I wish we both could spend less time there together. We are inextricably linked together, she and I, and it is hard to prepare myself for the loss of someone so fundamental to who I am. Her body is wearing out, disintegrating slowly, and I can no longer burrow in the comforting denial that she will miraculously be able to keep fighting. When her body finally turns to ash I hope I will have learned to finally let her go, like lovers are supposed to do.