It seems cliché – the phone call that changes everything; the turning moment where nothing afterwards is the same. Seems cliché, but it happens. I was sitting at my desk at work, drinking a latte from Starbucks, fuming about something that seemed important at the time but is now so inconsequential I can’t remember what it was. I was sitting at my desk at work like I am every Monday when my phone rang. On the other end was my mother. She was crying. It was 9:30 in the morning. My mother never called that early.
At that time it did not have a name yet, this thing that drove my mother to tears. “They found a mass on my pancreas” she told me. My ears and eyes burned. This was my mother – MY mother. This was the most sensitive and caring soul I’d ever encountered in my life. She bottle fed kittens and rescued homeless dogs. It wasn’t fair that this would happen to her, it wasn’t right.
I left work in a state of shock and hurry. I Googled pancreas tumors. I read words like cancer, and fatal, and life expectancy. Everything said 95% mortality. I saw Steve Jobs in my searches, I saw Patrick Swayze. The wealthiest men in the world couldn’t beat this.
The things that had seemed important to me days before faded from my mind. My upcoming graduation, the risk of being laid off at work, and the relationship dramas of my friends all faded in my field of vision. All I could see was my mother. All I could see was the four centimeter tumor that sat in the head of her pancreas and threatened every moment I had imagined spending with her as we both aged.
My mother would never know my children.
My nieces would get married without their grandmother to see their wedding day.
My mother would be denied seeing the full fruit of her labors, her grandchildren and great grandchildren and all the rewards of being an old woman, well worn and well loved, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch.
Like the cancer had infiltrated my mother, it infiltrated me…darkened my field of vision and spread cobwebs in the corners of my mind.
To maintain my sanity I tried to compartmentalize, tried to build rooms in my mind where the cancer couldn’t live. I needed to type bulletins at work. I needed to write essays for English. I needed to drive to the dentist for a crown. But even in these moments, even in these weak gestures towards normalcy I was vulnerable.
As I sat in the parking lot of Dairy Queen licking a hot-fudge Sunday I was assaulted by memories of my mother. We used to sit in the parking lot of Dairy Queen when I was little. We sat together with a sundae, or banana split, laughing at the shapes we made in the ice cream. We sat together everywhere, at the McDonalds wooden playground, on the bench while we waited at the donut shop, on the church pews while my sister sang in the choir. Memories of my mother came raining down, as though they’d scattered from an unseen piñata, fragments like a shattered ceiling, like jagged glass, raining down and threatening to bury me.
Mother flipping miniature pancakes on Saturday morning. Mother insisting I know my multiplication tables. Mother letting me sleep in her bed till I was far older than I should have been. Mother dressing like a red devil at Halloween. Mother singing hymns on mountain passes. Mother washing the “dirty piggies” out of my ears.
So much for compartmentalizing.
For every moment alone in a Dairy Queen parking lot, attempting to feel normal, but knowing things are anything but, there are fifteen other moments where I cannot even try to ignore or deny. Moments of stark reality. Moments of hospital corridors and smells of Lysol and looking in my brother’s eyes before being called into the hospital room to get more bad news. As much as I type on my cell phone or watch the election debates on the hospital television, I know why I’m there. My brother puts it onto words, “I think things are about to get real.”
Real exists in the spaces between resectable and not, between clear margins and not. Real is chemotherapy or surgery; aggressive soft tissue. Real is Leiomyosarcoma. A word I never heard before. Leiomyosarcoma. I had to learn how to pronounce it. Its color is purple, if I want to wear a ribbon. Apparently it’s rare. Not that it matters all that much. It’s inside my mother. As near as we can tell, she is only the 23rd reported case of Leiomyosarcoma in the pancreas. The doctors don’t know what to do with it. They want to talk and talk. They want to make us wait while they evaluate which chemicals to pump through my mother’s blood; which chemicals to evaluate and observe. They want to make us wait.
And in that waiting, we are in darkness. My mother, my father, my brother, and my sisters wait with me in the black. We wander the corridors of our minds. We search for answers in our dreams. Hallways and passageways leading to locked doors and basement stairs. I wake up some mornings and feel like I’m sixteen. Not in a good way. I feel vulnerable and confused, like I don’t know where my life is heading. I used to have nightmares of falling. Falling from mountains and falling from building tops. I haven’t fallen in decades, but now I dream of floorboards cracking, tiles crumbling – the floor beneath my feet giving way. I cling to the beams, hold myself up by the fingernails…but I know I’m slipping.
Every moment with my mother is tainted with the question of how many we will have left together. How completely will the sarcoma devastate our reality? How permanently will my mother’s smile be removed from the world? The answers lie behind the doors that nobody has the key to, behind the blind spots.
The only comfort as we stumble through the darkness is the way we occasionally reach out and find one another; the way we desperately grasp and cling and find warmth instead of air. I’m left wondering, where have these people been? This family, this core, this team of supporters; they’ve been here in my corner but I haven’t really seen them for years.
I share recollections with my sisters, linger when I hug my father, and seek solace from my brother in late night calls of desperation. For hours, in waiting rooms, we’ve joked inappropriately, debated global warming, and clenched our teeth in silent contemplation. We’ve all reached for mother’s hand in the hope she will feel something more than the cold, fluorescent lights of the hospital.
We huddle together in cafeteria booths after hospital visits – counting the days until surgery when this poison may be removed. Bitterness may be in our mouths, and darkness in our minds, but our hands are on each other’s shoulders.
Katherine Yoerg has been a writer since an early age, when her mother instilled a love of literature, words, and learning. Her style blends creative non-fiction and fiction to explore emotion and truth. She teaches English in Houston, TX and enjoys traveling with her husband, Jason, and hanging out with her chihuahuas in her free time.