You might realize your mother is dying of cancer when your mother first tells you she has cancer. It is more likely that you will remain in denial for a considerable amount of time thereafter. You will first light up a joint with your brother and get stoned. You will cry. You will get back into your Nissan Altima and put on some music and smoke a cigarette before deciding you hate that shitty music. You won’t hate the cigarette, unfortunately. You will return from your lunch break and try not to cry as you, a vegetarian, slice shitty deli meat for the perfectly nice deli customers. Eventually, you will break down crying and ask one of your coworkers to cover for you while you take a break in the bathroom. Work will be harder from now on.
You might realize your mother is dying of cancer the first time her hair falls out. She will shave her head completely bald. She will start wearing wigs. You will grow your hair long, longer than you ever would have imagined your hair could grow, just to counterbalance your mother’s hair situation. Some girls will tell you they dig guys with long hair, and if you are sleeping with them or would like to sleep with them you will listen. All of your relationships with women will become relationships with your mother: you will become hopelessly dependent on these women whilst withholding unbridled affection for them because you know that someday they too will disappear. That won’t stop you from pursuing these dysfunctional relationships with a new found fervor. Once you find a good one you will feed off the energy of a new love prior to becoming uninspired and uninspiring. You will hang on for too long out of fear of being alone. Then you will lather, rinse, repeat like we’ve been talking about hair this whole time.
You might realize your mother is dying of cancer the first time you walk into the chemotherapy center at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and see your beautiful, fragile mother sitting in a hospital chair, reading People magazine. You might look around the room and take mental notes about which patients look better or worse than your mother, tallying them up as victories and losses in your head. The gravely thin ones will eat at your heart, but your hubris will be thankful that your mother doesn’t look like that, yet. She will be the same old woman — stoic, conversational, proud, and eager to get out of that fucking chair. You and your father will go downstairs to the cafeteria and eat some food while she finishes up. You’ll try not to wonder how your dad seems so unfazed by the whole ordeal. He’ll try to tell you that everything is okay and that your mother has a lot of time left and that you should carry on with your life. To move 3,000 miles away if that’s what you really want to do.
You might realize that your mother is dying of cancer when she finally graduates from the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, and you and your brother show up to watch her break down on the podium. Your brother called your phone three times as you lay in your dorm room bed trying to pretend it was not time to wake up. You probably haven’t been sleeping for long enough and you probably drank too much the night before. Your brother is admirably persistent, however, and gets you in the car and off to breakfast, and then drives the three and a half hours to Boston. He has been and will continue to be a great brother. You two will be the most under-dressed, haggard looking people in the room as she makes her acceptance speech, but she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care because she is just so happy to see you guys there. She has always been an emotional woman, but you recognize the palpable emphasis and finality of this achievement. There will be no more degrees.
You might realize that your mother is dying of cancer when you are sitting at a bar in Oakland and you get a call at 8:30 PM PST from your father, who asks if “you have a minute.” He tells you that your mother’s cancer has spread to her brain. This means she has hit a grand slam – her colon cancer has metastasized into her liver, lungs, and brain. You start to realize that if you continue to live on the west coast, someday this call is going to come and it’s going to be much worse news. More cancer. Hospice. Death. You will go back into the bar and sit down next to your friend Owen who is now tasked with the unenviable job of talking to his new-ish friend who just found out that his mother has brain cancer. You have half a beer left, which is a plus. It’s a Bud bottle. Bud bottles will symbolize something completely different from now on. Your girlfriend will come by and pick you up. Her mother is riding shotgun, so you will sit in the back seat and try not to cry or appear too drunk while failing miserably at both. You don’t have to explain much to them: when she was twelve, her father died of leukemia. After her mother gets out of the car, you climb into the front seat. There isn’t much to say, so you clutch her hand and cry.
You will fly home for the holidays. Your mother will have brain surgery on New Year’s Eve. The brain surgeon screws up the surgery the first time — they open up the wrong side of her head and are confused as to why there are no tumors visible prior to realizing their mistake — but get it right the second time. Other families would probably parlay this into a lawsuit, but your own family somehow finds the humor in it all; brain surgery jokes abound. You have to fly out the next day, so you say goodbye to your mother as she sits in the hospital, shaved head, scars, IVs: the whole nine yards. The tears come on the elevator ride down. Your father — god bless him — asks why you are crying, which is a borderline insane question. You and your brother spend New Year’s Eve at a hotel in Manchester, NH, as your mother and father spend the night in the hospital. A drunk woman spends the night pounding on the door directly across from you, screaming belligerent things until 4 am, or two hours before your flight takes off. This is exactly how you pictured bringing in 2013.
You might realize that your mother is dying of cancer when, a year later, you break up with your girlfriend and your mother immediately suggests that it is time to come home. You wonder if she’s just being emotional and impulsive, and if your general agreement with her analysis is equally emotional and impulsive, until you talk to your father the next day and he unflinchingly concurs. Everybody seems to concur. You’ve been waiting for somebody to tell you what to do. To tell you that it is time to come home. And now everybody is telling you that this is the right decision. So you come home. Your mother sleeps between 14 and 18 hours a day. For the first few weeks, you drink between six and 14 beers per night. This greatly helps your depression and anxiety until you wake up in the morning, when it does exactly the opposite.
One night you go out to the bar. People from your past are happy that you are home, and you are trying to be happy, too. They love to ask about why you are here, and what you’re going to do now that you are home? And, for how long? After all, you’re 26, and these questions are perfectly reasonable. But you hate these questions. You resent them. You finally get sick of always answering the same way — “well, my mother’s not doing great, and I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do.” While it is the truth, it leads to too many other questions. You find a better answer:
“I’m here until my mom dies.”
You immediately feel bad about being so crass, but now everyone realizes that your mother is dying of cancer. And you might, too.