The Next Bend In The Road

I taught the next morning for my college professor, a lesson I’d already taught in the classroom several times, using beans and cups to show how tens could be grouped together for addition and ungrouped for subtraction (we used to call this carrying and borrowing when I was a kid).  Kathy and I had agreed on this lesson when we realized the surgery was looming, because we figured I could do it in a fog if I had to.

I had to.  I don’t even remember the lesson with the students; thankfully, they were well behaved and the lesson proceeded without incident.  My professor noted on my evaluation my lackluster persona that day and what a stark contrast it was to my first lesson.  I didn’t even care.  I wondered if I should say anything to the man, but ended up not bothering.  What was the point?  It wouldn’t change the teaching I’d done.

Kathy shoved me out of the building as fast as she could after the lesson, encouraging me to take the rest of the week off.  I told her that I wasn’t sure that was a great idea; maybe I would need the distraction.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to find when I went to the hospital that day; if things were good, spending hours at the hospital would probably not be necessary.

My mother was awake and off the ventilator when entered her tiny ICU room.  My sister had left already, having asked her mother in law to babysit for her while she visited my mother.  One look at her face as she met my eyes and I knew that she had already heard, seen the doctor, knew what she was up against.

“How are you feeling?” I asked as I took a seat in the chair that barely fit alongside the bed behind all of the machines that were still hooked up to her.

“I’m sore,” she said, trying to shift slightly in the bed.  “And really, really tired.”

“I can only imagine,” I offered, trying to think of what to say next.  “I am so, so sorry.”

“I am too,” she answered.  “I can’t believe I spent all those hours craving a cigarette the last few months only to have had cancer all along.  I wish I hadn’t bothered.”  In a different tone of voice, this would have been a funny joke.  But my mother wasn’t joking.  I could see she was angry, depressed, upset.

“Well, hopefully those few months will make a difference in how this all goes,” I said, trying for optimism in the face of her flatness.

“I don’t know.  I just don’t know what to do.”

I looked at her, and took her hand in mine.  “I know, Mom.  This is going to be really, really hard.”  I had no idea what exactly it was I was referring to that would be hard, but I knew the road ahead, whatever form it took, was not going to be easy.

“Maybe,” she said quietly, “Maybe it would have been better for us all if I’d just died on the table.”

“Mom!”  I’d never heard her talk like that.  “Please don’t say that.  You don’t mean that.”

“No, I do.  What choices do I have?” Her voice was even more gravelly than usual due to the vent she’d been on yesterday.  “I have either months and months of agony with chemo, or I have many fewer months that will also end really, really uncomfortably.  I know exactly what I’m up against.  Remember my father died of this.”

I started to rub gently up and down her arm with my free hand, the other one still holding hers.  “Mom, I am pretty sure a few things have changed in the nearly 30 years since your father went through this.  The drugs are better, the equipment is better, I’m sure it will be very different.”

“I don’t know that it will,” she answered.  I could see the tears in the corners of her eyes.  Her heart rate was faster; I could hear the blips on the machine going more quickly than they had when I entered the room.  “Stage 3B is about as bad as it gets.”

“No, stage 4 is as bad as it gets, Mom.  There’s a reason they didn’t designate it that way.”

“Still.  I didn’t even feel sick when I came in this hospital yesterday.  No coughing, well, no more than usual, no other symptoms whatsoever.   And here today, nothing has changed because they didn’t take anything out, but suddenly I’m very sick.  I hurt, everywhere.  I just don’t know what I want to do.”

“Well, you don’t have to decide anything right this minute.”  I was trying for calm.  I needed to calm her down.  “We’ll see what the doctors have to say, and we’ll take it from there.  But please, please promise me you won’t rule out treatment Mom.  Please.”

She looked at me with tired eyes.

“Mom, I’m only 21 years old.  You’ll miss everything.   Zach is only 2.  Don’t you want him to remember his Grandma?”

She squeezed my hand in response, and offered a feeble smile.  But she said nothing.


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