After the doctor broke the news to my mom and dad and me that mom would die soon, I held onto the 15 cent spiral notebook like it was a life raft.
There isn’t enough time to ask and get answers to the really big questions in life before life says “I’m outta here.” It seems I’ve asked lots of questions, but they were all, ultimately, “how was your day?”
I understand now what it means to be shellshocked. No bomb went off. No heavy mortar rounds rendered us temporarily deaf or maimed. Just the simple word “weeks”.
The three of us filed out of the doctor’s office. Three nurses stood flat against the walls like Beefeaters. How many of them knew before we entered and had to pretend? The nurse who took Mom’s blood pressure, whose smile stretched across the state? She surely knew.
Once a person opts for “no treatment” the oncologist becomes a ghost. The doctor’s office visits end. They don’t tell you that when you leave that last visit. That this is the last visit. The don’t say goodbye. They do what we all do, which is to pretend that everything is normal. The Weather Channel cycles on the big flat screen on the wall, and will again tomorrow.
I wonder how a doctor doesn’t go to all those funerals. I would. If it were me, I would be at the funeral home, paying my respects and hearing stories about who she was to each of them. I’d have to.
I suppose I would not make a good oncologist.
When we got into the car, I let Dad drive. That was before I knew he would need major surgery two days later. We sat there in the parking lot and tried to figure out what action should occur next. Who do we call and in what order? Do we call my sister on “I-just-need-to-get-away” vacation in Orlando or just wait?
Where do you go after the end of the world?
We went to Walmart. To get the prescriptions filled. Some useless pills that probably wouldn’t help at all. It had started already — though I didn’t know it. I had begun to rev up into “control and protect” mode. The way I had with the kids for the first few years. High octane actions. Problem solving. Organization to the max. Constant motion.
Except I wasn’t there yet. We were in the Walmart parking lot. I had Dad drop Mom and I off at the door. We rolled together inside. ‘Rolled’ because we were like two hamsters inside a bubble, faraway from anything real.
The greeter said welcome to Walmart but I didn’t hear her until I was 10 steps past.
Halloween. Mothers, with children in their carts scolding them. Cardboard displays draped in spiderweb. Piped music. Fresh chemical scent of new clothing.
I looked at it all as if underwater and thought: what a waste. What a goddamn waste of time.
At the pharmacy consult window, the three of us huddled together as the lady explained to us what the medications were and how to take them. Anti-biotic, anti-fungal. Then a pause.
“Hydroxy Urea. This is a chemotherapy drug,” she said as is she’d just woken from a dream.
“Yes. My mom has leukemia.”
Just a small pause, a slight glance, then she went on explaining. Take with food. Yes that can be taken all the same time.
I’ve had many jobs in my life. I like working. When I go places, I imagine what it would be like to do that person’s job. I imagine every step of it… seeing the opening for “pharmacy assistant” in the paper. Showing up and filling out the application. Selecting the clothes to wear to the interview. The slam-dunk interview (I always get the job, in my imagination). The sick butterflies of the first day and the onset of drudgery, waking up everyday to be at work.
And the paycheck, of course. That wonderful payoff.
I have forgotten to imagine the work — the moment a stranger tells me her mother is dying, and what would I do then.
I am back home in Connecticut. I have to get pumpkins to carve. I have to get work done. I have to teach a workshop tomorrow and 4th graders on Thursday and turn Isaiah into a zombie on Friday.
Meanwhile, in Iowa.