“This should be interesting, us living together again,” my mother says when I sit down beside her on the couch to watch the news. Her colon is polluted by cancer cells, but she still knows how to bite. She is in a paisley house dress and her obese orange cat is nuzzled on her lap. “I can’t believe that law firm just fired you, just like that.”
I have only been home an hour and my boxes litter the house, inside and out. When the doctors announced that the last round of chemo failed, I left my condo in Philadelphia to move in with her. My father passed away four years ago from an aneurism and my brother, Sam, lives 1,000 miles away in Wisconsin with his successful news anchor wife.
“A leave of absence,” I tell her. “I asked and they let me take a leave of absence.”
“You’re not getting paid, are you?”
“So they fired you.”
“When you’re fired, you don’t have an open job offer. When you’re fired, that’s it.”
“But they’re not paying you.”
I say no, they’re not paying me, because it has always been easier to agree with her than to put up a fight.
I move the rest of my boxes in from the lawn before it gets too dark and I fall asleep in my twin childhood bed only to have her wake me with a knock early the next morning.
“That cat needs to be fed,” she says.
She is in a mint green nightgown and there are pink sponge rollers looped into her white hair.
“I don’t hear him.”
“I heard him. He knows it’s morning. He looks through the window and sees the sun.”
“OK, I’ll go feed him.”
“No, he only likes it when I feed him. He’ll scratch you. He’s very protective.”
“Then go feed him.” I roll over to face the wall.
“I need you to get me down the stairs.”
My body is sore from moving and I can feel my lower back tight from the drive and moving boxes.
She stands at the top of the staircase with her arm out for me to take.
“Ok,” I say, “let’s go.”
It is a struggle getting her down the stairs. Her limbs are long and it seems to me that there is always another arm or leg searching for a home on our journeys to the first floor. On the first steps we teeter, unsure of the formation of our descent.
My mother refuses to say the word cancer, and begins to call her disease “It,” like an unnamed pet that shares our bathroom and kitchen. It sneaks up on her when she walks from room to room. It makes her tired after reading one section of the newspaper. It is the reason I am here, living with her. It is spreading quickly and she can feel It growing like mold on her insides.
Our time together is a lit firecracker in the hand, a jack waiting to come out of its box.
“I’m starting to hate this house,” she says. “Sell it.”
“It’s not mine to sell,” I say. “You love this house.”
“What did you do with your place in Philadelphia?”
“I’m renting it out.”
“There’s a stranger in your house?”
“It’s a friend of a friend.”
“You should sell it. On TV they said it’s a good time to sell.”
“I’m going back eventually.” I blow on her soup and set it down beside her.
“I know, I know. When I die. When I die you’ll probably burn down the house with me in it.”
“I’m not burning down the house.”
“Well, you should.” Her “d” hangs in the air and I prop up the pillow that’s under her shoulders. “To get even. That’s what children do these days. They get even with their parents for missing ballet recitals or getting them the wrong color backpack twenty years ago. They send them off to nursing homes and leave them there until the inheritance comes through.”
“I’m not putting you in a nursing home.”
“No,” she says, “then you wouldn’t be able to watch me suffer, I suppose.”
“Give it a rest.” I take her slippers off and slide them under the couch, pull a blanket over her so she can nap.
“Why’d you come here, Elizabeth?”
“You’re my mother and you’re sick. What do you mean?”
“I’m something you have to take care of.”
“Yes,” I say as I turn toward the kitchen and start walking. “You’re my burden to bear.”
At the edge of the living room where the carpet ends I see a mouse scurry across the floor. I take a leap and then jump up onto the couch where she’s lying, nearly knocking her to the ground. The mice have been living here for years but I don’t remember them being this brave. They’ll come out into the kitchen while I’m eating breakfast and take a crumb to eat, like they’ve been invited. The cat will see them out of the corner of his eye and then scamper into the other room. He is a worthless feline.
“What’s that mouse going to do to you, Libby?” she says, then taps the back of my calf, “Now get down off the couch, you’ll wreck the springs.”
I suspect my mother would set out tiny plates of cheese for them, just for the company. It has always been easier for her to make friends with animals and plants – things that have no choice but to rely on her help. But the mice make me sick to my stomach. I think about how it would feel for their tails to sweep across my toes.
“They’re more scared of you than you are of them,” she says.
“Isn’t Wallace supposed to handle this?” I say and look around the corner at the cat craning his neck into the living room to see if it is safe to return.
“He knows there’s nothing wrong with them being in here,” she says, then calls him to her and he jumps up on her chest and nestles his orange face into her armpit. She scratches the top of his head. “Don’t you, Wally?”
I carry her up the steps each night. She smells nothing like a mother should. She has the skunky scent of an old shed. Her pee-stained gown rubs against me. I worry that I’ll catch her old age and I panic, imagine myself throwing her over the railing and dowsing myself in bleach, but I take us all the way to the top of the landing, drop her softly into bed and fall asleep until morning.
At dawn she vomits and I bring her a plastic trashcan. When she has finished, I dump the bile into the toilet and rinse the basin out with bleach. There is a rag beside her bed to wipe her mouth. My free hand smoothes back what is left of her hair that grew back in a bright wiry white. I used to wear gloves for this, but have since saved them for scrubbing the tile floor. This ritual once repulsed me – the act of watching her explode – but it has now become so ordinary that it’s as comfortable as bringing in the groceries from the car or folding her laundry. Throwing up is merely something she does, what has to be done, before the day can begin.
My brother Sam comes to visit from Wisconsin. He swoops in for a few days, buys her cherry popsicles for the sores that have swelled in her mouth. He rents a wheelchair that has a sticker on the back of it, which reads “Rollin’ Right Along.” He pushes her around the neighborhood twice a day and when people stop them he is introduced as her boy. “Sam lives in Madison,” she tells everyone, “His wife is an anchor on the 6 o’clock news.”
When she is sleeping, Sam and I drink cheap beer on the back porch.
“You come back for three days and she’ll be talking about you for weeks. I change her shitty sheets every day and she won’t look me in the face.”
“If you saw my shit I wouldn’t look you in the face either,” he says.
Sam has always been this easy going. Through breakups, through disappointments, he just floats through to the other side and it makes me think it’s me that gets too tangled up in bad memories. It’s me that can’t let past hurts go.
“She knows she can get to you.” He opens two more beers and hands one to me. We crack them open and shotgun them like we are in high school again when we used to sneak them in the basement.
“So it’s my fault she hates me?” I say, crushing the can and throwing it into the hedges.
“She doesn’t hate you.”
“So what if she does a little?”
“Look at you, of course she hates you. Big shot lawyer. No kids to get in the way. Look, I’m not saying it’s right or whatever, but give her a break.”
“Who’s gonna give me a break?”
“You could give yourself one. You look like hell.”
Sam is wearing shorts and a Badger’s t-shirt and looks like he could still be in college.
When our father died, there were none of these conversations to make us squabble. He got a clot in his sleep and never woke up. The fury of the funeral arrangements was over within a week and then we were both able to return to our own lives. It didn’t hit me that he had died until a month later when I had my refrigerator door open and was staring at the eggs. But to have our mother unravel is more difficult. There are responsibilities and sacrifices which Sam and I have never been good at negotiating.
“Lib. Go easy on yourself. Try not to think so much for once.”
“Easy for you to say.” I know I sound bitter, spiteful, and I am.
Sam reaches over and holds out another beer so I take it even though I don’t need it.
“You’ve got the better end of this deal, you know,” Sam says as he starts the rocking chair back and forth.
“Your end doesn’t seem half bad.”
“I mean you and her. You’re not the one waiting to die.”
“We’re all just waiting to die,” I say, and then feel badly when I realize what he’s trying to say. How strange it must feel for her to know that death is so close.
“You know what I mean.”
I take a big gulp so I don’t say anything I might regret about him leaving me alone with her and the mice. Or about him having someone to go home to after this. I’m uncertain which one I resent him for more – the fact that he’s got a wife at home or that he’s able to have her and still have my mother waiting eagerly for his brief visits.
“You know I wish I could be here,” Sam says.
The cat is out roaming the garden that’s been years covered over by clover. He flops down where the peonies used to be and then rolls on his back against the cool grass as if he is a dog.
“Just set the mouse traps for me,” I say.
We sit on the porch for a while longer and laugh at the tabby that is still rolling on his back with his paws up worrying the air.
Sam leaves quickly to go back to his wife, but extends the wheelchair rental for however long is necessary. The wheelchair becomes her favorite accessory. She tapes all of her Get Well cards to its side panels. When she slams the empty tape roll down on the coffee table and orders me to get more, I ask her if she doesn’t think it’s getting a little gaudy.
“Gaudy? You have never had taste, Elizabeth. People like seeing the cards. It makes them feel better. Then they don’t feel like they have to smile at me all of the time. I hate that, people smiling at me, trying to be pleasant. I just hate pleasant people.”
“You mean like yourself?”
“I need more tape.” She waves the empty roll at me.
“Please,” I say, swiping it out of her hand before it hits the table.
“And by tomorrow you’ll have to start taping them for me,” she says.
“Forget about it.”
“It’s my fingertips,” she pinches all five fingers together like a claw, “I can’t feel them.”
My life is so much different here than it was back in Philadelphia. I haven’t dressed in anything that requires ironing for weeks, and I eat lunch every day at 11am watching The Price is Right with my mother. It seems like I’ve been lifted back to a younger time and suspended there, waiting, just hoping for something to give.
When I was seventeen, my mother found me on my knees, gagging, hovering over the toilet, wiping my sleeve across my mouth. She looked at me and shook her head, leaned over the sink with a hand on each side.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” she said and then squeezed Crest onto my toothbrush and filled a cup with water. “What are you going to do?”
I stared into the toilet bowl. I was concentrating on the yellow ring that marked the water level as I shook my head and spat the loose saliva that had pooled in my mouth.
“I don’t know.” I’d been throwing up for days and tried to keep quiet enough so no one could hear me in the upstairs bathroom.
She told me it’s the baking soda in the Saltines that settles the stomach and I was able to keep them down and nothing else. A week later, she threw a sleeve to me on the couch and opened a generic bottle of ginger ale.
“Well?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I said. “Ethan and I haven’t decided.”
“You’re running out of time.”
“I know,” I said.
She started wiping the kitchen counter, paused and looked straight up at me. “Decide,” she said. “And soon.”
I turned up the television and made it clear I had nothing else to say. She left for the grocery store, where she didn’t need to go. The store was her excuse to leave me for a while without really leaving me. She came home with another package of Saltines. We hushed around my father and brother so they wouldn’t suspect and she tried whatever she could to keep my sickness down. She’d say there was no need involving everyone in the house, especially the men who wouldn’t know what to say, and by the end of the week my nightstand was piled with half eaten crackers, day-old toast, gingersnaps and water.
Although neither Ethan nor I would say it aloud, we had been dating out of habit since we were fourteen and were waiting until we went to college the next year to break up. When I told him I’d missed my period he and I sat on the phone for hours each night, talking in circles, waiting for the other one to make the final decision.
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I can’t decide. What do you think?”
And this went on and on, both of us too worried we’d say the wrong thing so we didn’t say anything at all. My mother kept reminding me we were running out of time.
Three weeks later, she came in to wake me. I lie in my bed awake the night before already dressed in jeans and a pink t-shirt, so when she opened the door I lifted out of bed quickly, neither of us saying a word.
When I was done and pushed out in a wheelchair, she was in the waiting room reading Ladies Home Journal and refused to leave until she had finished her article. On the ride home, she pulled over as I vomited, held my hair back on the side of the road and turned up the radio when I began to cry. When we got home, she handed me the phone in the kitchen, her back to the refrigerator, arms crossed.
“Well,” she said, “It’s either you or me.” After a long pause, she walked to the refrigerator and took the number off, dialed and handed me the receiver. “It’s easier this way.” I turned my body away and put my finger on the hook switch, but she heard the click and the dial tone. She took my wrist in her hand and redialed. He answered on the third ring. Just one more ring and it would have been the machine.
“Ethan. It lost us,” I said, and once I heard myself say it out loud I knew it wasn’t the line my mother had told me to say. “We lost it,” I corrected myself, found the right words.
My mother’s hand reached out, grabbed the phone and she said, “Libby’s not feeling well, Ethan. She’ll talk to you later.”
I dropped my head into the crook of my elbows on the counter. Then she said, “That’s settled,” and opened the cabinets, dumping the saltines into a plastic bag, crushing them with a rolling pin. She reached for a casserole dish and a can of cream of broccoli soup.
“Casserole,” she said. “How does that sound?”
I thought about killing. I thought about how no lie I told would ever be as bad as the lie I’d just told. And how calm she’d been and how I hated her for it. I thought about jumping off of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, about beating her with the rolling pin, but instead I hovered the counter, snatched the bag and shook the crackers all over her and her pristine floor, leaving edges of saltine scattered on her breast.
Maybe she’d had enough of her own burdens and what she wanted was less of them for me. But I never let her off that easy and instead I carried that time around like trick knee that would remind me, every so often, of its pain. We never once talked about what happened after that. It just sat there like cement, filling in the gap between us.
I am impatient and wait poorly each time I take her in for an appointment, which she insists on going into alone. If there are others waiting, I sit and flip through ripped magazines, not reading, just flipping, trying to look like I am busy waiting all alone. I think this must be what illiterates do, move their eyes from left to right, scanning the same photographs hundreds of times, looking for some kind of pattern or hidden message. The people in this room come in groups: husbands and wives, sisters, nuns, grandparents, friends. I can tell that they are waiting for their loved ones to get better and the more times I come here with my mother, the more I realize we’re both waiting for her to die.
I know the other visitors feel sorry for me sitting alone without someone else to share the wait, and they always offer me donuts to try and cheer me up. When two middle-aged women enter the room carrying coffees, I dodge their pity by heading to the cafeteria for pudding.
“I think you’ll want to go to this.” I jump when there is a tap on my shoulder and turn around. It is a woman in a blue warm-up suit with stripes down the sides, handing me a flier. Though the suit is made for people who do not want to get dressed, she is covered in full makeup and jewelry, three rings on her right hand, two on her left.
“I’m sorry. Chris’ mom,” she says, pointing to herself, “from last week. Second stage Hodgkins. Remember?”
This is how people introduce themselves in hospitals, by disease.
“This is that circus, for the kids. Not this Saturday but next. I thought you’d want to bring Beth with you.”
She looked over her shoulder, “To tell you the truth I think my Chris has a little crush on your Beth ever since they met the other day.”
I have no idea who this woman is or who Beth is, but I like that she is talking to me like a friend. My friends are far away in Philadelphia and our phone conversations have dropped off because I have nothing new to tell them except for where I’ve last seen the mice. But this woman is talking to me, and she is interested in what I will say.
“So will you go? He’d love to see her. It’ll give him something to look forward to.” The flier she has handed me is promoting a circus for the Pediatric Oncology patients of hospitals in the area.
“It’s a whole circus, just for them. Well, not all of them. But the ones who are well enough. Some foundation is sponsoring it. You know, so they can feel normal. Chris’ doctors said the junk food was OK for the day. Anyway, you have to come. It would mean so much to Chris, really. So will you? Will you come?”
I like her welcome and want to do whatever she suggests. I want to make her lasagna and put it in her freezer when she is too tired to cook. She’s trying to fool herself into thinking she is capable of whatever lies ahead and I imagine us talking on the phone late at night. We’ll exchange books every week and watch movies together when my mother and her son are sound asleep in bunk beds we’ll buy for them. We’ll set it up one afternoon and tuck them in before heading back downstairs and drinking wine out of coffee mugs. She will be the brave one who will face the mice and we will laugh as we watch them wander into the traps she’s set. It has been so long since I have talked to a woman my own age who does not wear scrubs or issue directions on how to crush pills and give sponge baths. And because it feels so good to have her talk to me, and because I don’t want to disappoint her, I say, “Yes. Of course we’ll come. Me and Beth.”
The elevator door slides and I hold the open button to watch her walk out. When she goes to gather Chris, I see his small bald head, an unripe honeydew, his eyes weepy. She points me out to him and at first he smiles to the side forming a perfect dimple, then wrinkles his face, unsure. He rests his head on her thigh and she cups his face, allowing him to be tired.
“So next Saturday,” she says as she waves me goodbye. I push the close button and as the doors close I say, “Yes,” waving back heartily. “Saturday!”
The hospital floor echoes the squeak of each rubber-soled step. They wheel my mother out and her greeting cards scrape the side of the door when they turn the corner. The nurses have found her wheelchair amusing and take time each week to read the new cards, saying “Isn’t that a great idea!” They do their jobs well.
“How was it?” I ask, taking the handles of the chair and push her to the car.
“Just ducky,” she says. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I’m in a good mood,” I say.
“Since when do you have good moods,” she says and holds up a greeting card MaryJo, one of her regular nurses, had given her. “Rosa setigera,” she says.
“Prairie Rose,” she says to me, and I can tell she is proud to know the difference even after all of this time. When Sam was six months old, she found out she was pregnant with me and instead of finishing her degree in botany, she got a job in the housewares section of JC Penney selling china patterns and candlesticks. I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me for being born at the wrong time.
“What are your plans for next Saturday?”
“My plans? I’m dying, Elizabeth, my plans don’t change from day to day.”
She says this as simply as if she is ordering lunch, and I realize she must have felt the end of her life coming for some time. My return home from was her final warning sign. She looks like another woman, so delicate in her chair fingering the edges of that card, and I think how she must have gone to great pains to hide the apprehension and foreboding that comes along with dying.
“Well, since you’re not busy, I’ve made plans for us.”
She claps her hands together, mocking me. “Plans,” she says, “oh my.”
When we arrive at the circus, the show has already begun. The tent is red and yellow striped, a cascade of shiny tarp from a giant center pole. The ground is hay and peanut shells and I push my mother who is in an old shift dress she had worn to my sister-in-law’s bridal shower. She insisted on dressing up if we were going out and the dress was the only thing I could manage to pull over her; wrangling her legs into pants had long ago become a luxury.
There are free hotdogs and cotton candy so I leave my mother who has begun to nod off in her wheelchair, 2nd row on the left end, to get them and bring them back to our seats. The tent is filled with children, some bald, some laughing, balancing on the metal benches, legs dangling in the air. They carry around IVs like their favorite toys. The small ones fall asleep drooling on their parents’ shoulders. They wave light sticks and balloons in the air.
I see Chris struggling to poke a straw through his soda lid and walk towards him. His nose is running so I offer my sleeve, which he accepts. He is used to women fawning all over him because he is the perfect cancer child. He does not deserve to have low white cells. All of these other children, maybe. Maybe they kicked their mothers’ stomachs too hard in the womb, kept saying “peas” instead of “please,” sucked their thumbs (some of them are snaggle-toothed). But this boy, he is faultless.
I worry about his mother more than my own, but I have responsibilities. I give him both of my hotdogs and cotton candy. What else do you give a boy whose lymph nodes are poisoned? It is meaningless, but it is all I have to offer. He accepts them because by now he has gotten used to accepting things: balloons, stuffed animals, pitiful smiles.
He takes a pinch of cotton candy and squishes it between his fingers. “My mom thinks you’re Beth’s mom, but you’re a different lady.”
“I know,” I say as I wipe ketchup onto my jeans.
“I saw Beth and her mom over there, by the elephants.”
“Yeah. She was throwing them peanuts and they were catching them with their trunks. You have a daughter at all?”
“No, I don’t.”
“That’s OK. I didn’t think you did.”
“Why’s that?” He is so perceptive, this perfect cancer boy.
“I can just tell.”
I wonder what it is about me that lets people assume I don’t deserve a child.
“You won’t tell your mom, will you?”
“I think it would hurt her feelings. And I don’t think she needs her feelings hurt right now.”
“Well,” he takes a bite from his first hotdog, “I guess I won’t tell. If you think it’d make her sad.”
I watch Chris totter off to his seat, his hands full of junk food. His head gleaming.
I return to the 2nd row on the left end to find the wheelchair, all greeting cards intact, abandoned. I ask the parents next to me if they have seen the sleeping woman who used to occupy this spot and they point, simultaneously, to the center ring. My mother is being hoisted up onto a camel by three oil-chested men wearing fezzes and vests. They lift her so she sits sidesaddle on the first hump, then the shortest of the three jumps up behind her on the second hump. He wraps his arm around her waist and the camel rises, its knobby knees extending first front, then back. Once they are up, they are off, making a slow, regal lap around the ring. The whole tent is cheering, the sleeping children are waking, and parents lift their bald babies onto their shoulders as they pump their fists in the air. My mother’s dress has become twisted and the man behind her pulls it back over her knees. She raises her arm and waves to her crowd, elbow-wrist-elbow-wrist, as the camel struts and blinks its lashes. I begin to realize that she has been chosen as the guest star from the crowd. I sink into the wheelchair because my legs stop working. The man places his fez on her head and the tassel swings into her eyes then back again with each step. The kids are jumping up and down and whooping. I can’t move anything except my arms, so I start waving like a maniac. Confetti drops from the ceiling and there is a grand finale where all of the other camels come out and follow the lead camel around once more, showing off and spitting. I want a sign, so I rip off the biggest card I can from the chair and hold it like a poster. Thinking of You! A sunshine with a smiley face. Potted flowers in the right hand corner. Look at me! I’m here watching you!
“Did you see that?” she says, clapping for herself when they deliver her back to her seat. “That beast is huge! I never thought they were that tall. And mine didn’t spit at all. Not even once.”
“I didn’t want to go at first, but all of those kids were cheering me on, and the next thing I know, these handsome men are carrying me over the wall into the ring. And I didn’t want to let the kids down, you know, they’re sick and all. I wish you would have been there to see.”
“I was, I saw.”
“I wish you could have seen me, up there. An old dying lady on a camel!”
“I was there. I saw you.”
“Oh, it was something.”
On the drive home, I turn off the radio so she can rest. There are posters and balloon hats thrown into the back seat. Peanut shells crusted to the bottom of my shoes. Souvenirs.
Her head leans against the seatbelt strap and her dress is wrinkled up past her knees. At a stop sign she says “I should have taken you to the circus, Libby. I really should have. You would have…” she takes her spotted hand and hesitates before barely patting my knee exactly once and then returns it to her lap. “You would have loved it.”