As the fall turned from the warmth of October to the cold gray of November, things felt a little off in our house. My mother had been under the weather for several days now. Finally, on a Saturday afternoon when the doctors office wasn’t open (no such thing as Urgent Care in our town in 1991) she asked me to take her to the Emergency Room to figure out what exactly was wrong. I dropped Zach off at my sister’s and headed to our local community hospital.
We’d been here several times before; once, when Z had a high fever and was diagnosed with a severe ear infection. Once for my mother’s severe headaches, years ago. So I headed in again with her this time, ready to wait out the many hours that I anticipated that lay ahead for both of us.
My mother and I had an easy relationship at this point. She was the best kind of supportive but non intrusive parent, considering our strange roles. She allowed me to mother my son without any sort of unwanted advice or unwarranted concern. She stepped back and allowed me to parent him and pitched in to do whatever I asked, but only when I asked. She held her tongue on my sadness about Ray other than to ask if I wanted to go hang out with my friends after Zach went to sleep. She worked hard, and I worked hard, and we had worked out all of the nuances of who did what in our household. It was a much more adult relationship than it was anything else, and I was proud of how well it was all working out.
So when she asked for help that Saturday, it never occurred to me to be alarmed. She often asked for help with this or that when she got busy. I figured she’d just been working too hard these days. Often she would arrive home after 7 or even 8, even though she left the house like clockwork before 7am to beat the traffic going into the city.
When she finally saw a doctor, he took her history, and his eyebrows went up at the news that she smoked three packs a day. It wasn’t news to me; it was who she was. My mother was defined by her cigarette smoking; every photo of her shows a cigarette in her hand. She kept an ashtray on her bedside table because she smoked first thing in the morning, before ever getting up out of bed. It was the first thing she did in the morning and the last thing she did at night, and if she woke up for more than a few minutes in the middle of the night, I could hear her lamp click on and then the click of the cigarette lighter next. It was just who she was. So as part of the doctor’s routine screening for her, he ordered a chest x ray even though her symptoms did not seem to merit it.
It was therefore more of a shock than it should have been to hear that the radiologist wanted to speak to my mother about her x ray.
While my mother was suffering from a strange stomach bug, totally unrelated to her chest x ray, the doctor informed us that he saw some “abnormalities” on her chest x ray. He was recommending a follow up with her general practitioner next week, the sooner the better. He described it as a “shadow” on her lung.
She and I looked at each other. You don’t mention a shadow on the lung of a three pack a day smoker without sending up alarm bells.