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One Small Crack


           Looking back, it all began with a backache. On balmy August afternoon my mother suddenly experienced a sharp pain in her back that lasted for three days. We thought it was a pulled muscle, or a slipped disk.

I went off to my junior year of college in the fall and everything seemed fine. I came home for winter break and my parents seemed uneasy.

It was nothing, they said.
We’ll talk later, they said.

They took my sisters and I to our favorite childhood restaurant and told us to order whatever we liked. I ordered steak fries and peel n’ eat shrimp. My mother picked at her food. My dad ate as if on a schedule. Its funny the things you remember.
As we were finishing our food, my mother quieted us down from conversation and bluntly stated, “They have found a reoccurrence of the cancer in my bones. We don’t know much more about it but they are doing everything they can. Please do not look it up on the Internet.” That’s about all I heard before the ringing in my ears became too loud; it suddenly felt excruciatingly hot in that restaurant. I stood up and blindly walked out of the restaurant. I called my best friend. I couldn’t get the words out; they were stuck on my tongue like all the food I had just eaten and was now sitting so poorly in my stomach. I had to say it four times.

My mother has cancer. Again.

           In a medical family, we all knew what that meant. Clinical scenarios, numbers, statistics, images, and prognoses swirled around a silent dinner table. Our favorite foods remained untouched.
As I went back to school in January I tried to act as if nothing happened – we weren’t supposed to tell people what happened so my mother wouldn’t have to deal with the stares and the well-intentioned phone calls. She’d made that mistake before.
           Spring and summer came in a blur, then fall and winter again. As the muddy grey skies of spring came once again, I noticed that I had heard little news from my parents on The Subject. I started coming home more often, and realized how weak she had become. I would have never known by her attitude during our daily phone conversations.

I returned to school on the weekdays to finish my studies, write my thesis, and continue my interviews at medical schools. I got into Johns Hopkins medical school. I called my mother to let her know - she emphatically declared “hooray!” on the phone. I was so excited to finally know I was accepted to medical school, and wanted her to share the moment.  I had no idea how hard that phone call was for her. Then the call from my father came.

I think you need to come home.

           I left early for Easter break to help bring my mother to chemotherapy so my dad could work. I realized almost immediately that it was now precarious to let her move unassisted. I called her best friend, my aunt Jane, to help. My mother donned her beautiful clothing - as always, and wore a silk scarf to adorn the simple cotton hat she had taken to wearing. My aunt told me, “all she mentioned was that she didn’t want to lose all her hair.” Again.
           The next chemotherapy visit included my aunt Jane and both of my parents. They had a consult with her oncologist, Dr S. She was a stern, silent woman with an equally severe appearance. Yet she was paradoxically empathetic and caring. She was the type of woman my mother respected.  I helped my mother into the office and went to grab her purse.

When I came back, I confronted a room thick with knowledge, and Dr. S in tears.
My father told me to leave.

           Deep down I knew what had taken place – there were no more treatments available. Her liver was failing. The light yellow I had mentioned to my mother several weeks ago had transformed into a hue tinting all her skin. Yet somehow she remained beautiful in her navy clothing and scarf.
           My last trip with my mother was to a hospital for blood transfusions.

“Oh my god” she said, as she looked into her bathroom mirror.

           I ignored the comment and continued my energy all the way through the appointment. I helped her keep her skin from drying out and gave her hand massages. I went outside at one point and fell asleep, on the ground of the garden next to the parking lot.

I woke up to a packet lying next to me that read “Jesus Loves you”; a sympathetic shuttle driver had left it beside my sleeping form.

In the car, my mother opened the window and gently laid her head down on the door, so the breeze could run across her face. At one point she rubbed my back - I was so surprised I winced at the affection. Then I savored it.
           The rest you can imagine, and I cannot forget. That day with Dr. S – her face, her body language, her expressions, said it all. To see her tears said more than any neatly tied explanation could have.

My mother fought until the very end.

Dr. S came to my mother’s wake and silently hugged my father. I fended off the hoards of people looking to express their condolences. I received consolations, hugs, nervous chatter, and strangely offensive questions. I went home to a quiet house and a lonely puppy that was my mother’s companion, waiting patiently at the window for her return.

I remember wearing my mother’s scarf, tied around my shoulders.  ■

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