You might realize your mother is dying of cancer when she 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 are 19, after all, and your mother is just 49. 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 boring music. You will not 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 again 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. Lots of things will be harder from now on.
You might realize your mother is dying of cancer when her hair begins to fall out. She will shave her head completely bald to preempt the inevitable. She will start wearing wigs. You will grow your hair long, longer than you ever would have imagined your hair could grow, just to offer some sort of counterbalance. 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 does not look like that, yet. She will be the same old woman — stoic, conversational, proud, and eager to get out of that chair she has been sitting in all day. You and your father will go downstairs to the cafeteria and eat some food while she finishes up. You will try not to wonder how your dad seems so unfazed by the whole ordeal. He will 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 will hear the parts that you want to hear, and you will move across the country.
You might realize that your mother is dying of cancer when she finally graduates from the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, and you show up with your brother to watch her give a speech. 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 had not slept for long enough and 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 two of you, three hours to Boston. He has been and will continue to be a great brother, as the cancer will create new challenges in your relationship that will have to be worked through in order to reach a fresh, stronger bond. You two will be the most under-dressed, haggard looking people in the room as she makes her graduation speech, but she either does not notice or does not 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 now 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 relatively new friend who just found out that his mother’s cancer has spread to her brain. You have half a beer left, which is a plus. You will drink a couple more than you were planning on, until your girlfriend eventually comes by to pick you up. Her mother is visiting from North Carolina and currently riding shotgun, so you will sit in the back seat and try not to cry or appear too drunk while failing miserably at both. Your girlfriend drops off her mother at a hotel, and you climb into the front seat. She lost her father to leukemia when she was twelve, meaning she’s lived half her live without him. That doesn’t mean she knows what to say — it means she knows there is nothing to say, so she clutches your hand and lets you 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. You hope to see her again soon, but it is up in the air as to when that will happen. 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 try to explain. He tries to comfort you. Now you will say goodbye to him, and your brother will drive you to Manchester, NH, where your parents have rented the two of you a hotel in order to ease the process of catching an early morning plane. 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. Everyone you talk to 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: time to pack up your life in California and move back to Vermont.
So you will move back to home to live with your parents. Your mother remains mostly functional, but it is clear she has six months or less. 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. So you find a better answer:
“I’m here until my mom dies.”
Perhaps you should feel bad about being so crass, but you do not. Besides, it is the best way to help people realize that your mother is dying of cancer.
Somewhere along the way, you might realize it, too.