Food and Whine: Confessions of a New Millennium Mom
By Jennifer Moses
One gorgeous bright fall day when the sky was so blue that it looked like an overhead lake and the leaves were falling in heaps of gold, red, and yellow, my father called to tell me that the kinds of medical tests that take all afternoon were leading to additional tests. These tests, in turn, led to additional tests, and so forth and so on, until, one afternoon in early November, my mother woke up from surgery at Georgetown University Hospital, to discover that she was no longer living in the land of the well. The bomb in her side wasn't-as one of her doctors had suggested-indigestion. It was a malignant tumor, and it was big.
Here's a short, descriptive episode that captures the side of my mother that I like best: One day when I was sitting in her hospital room, and through the tubes that were stuck every which way into her body, my mother said: "I have an idea for you. Why don't you write a book called 'The Chemotherapy Weight Loss Diet'?" The book, she said, should include recipes for foods that patients who are sick as dogs with nausea can stomach, like won ton soup, and flat ginger ale, and Triskets, and saline solution administered via IV. She said that if I wrote this book, I'd finally be a published writer, and then she wouldn't have to listen to me whine anymore about what a failure I am. And a few days later, in the middle of the night, she went into some kind of psychotic episode from all the painkillers she was on and ripped out all her tubes. The following morning, my father called me to tell me that my mother may have suffered, quote, "brain damage." "They're doing a brain scan now," he said.
I ran into the bathroom and vomited, and then I called my husband, in hysterics. My younger sister called from Los Angeles, sobbing because her children were never going to know their grandmother; then my brother called from the hospital, where he'd been sitting by Mom's side, to say that Dad had been on the phone all afternoon and, in his opinion, had gone over the edge. My older sister called from New York, crying because even though she was single and wasn't really in any great hurry to be anything else, she could no longer stand Mom's incessant worrying that she'd never get married, and was therefore tempted to marry the first loathsome joker to come along, just to put Mom's mind at ease. So we were all calm and cool about my mother's illness, which is an important trait to have when someone is sick.
A month later, Mom started chemotherapy. And even though her own father had died, of cancer, in 1958, it was as if cancer, and cancer treatments, simply didn't exist for our family, because, and this is the important point: In our family, we don't get sick. True, my father slept in my mother's hospital room for a week. And true, Mom lay in bed begging for painkillers. But in our family, sickness was for other people-inferior, complaining people with poor hand-and-eye coordination, or shallow suburbanites who watched soap operas, or Chinese stowaways. To wit: To get sick in our family simply wasn't done.
Yes, there was some denial going around, but only because, in our family, if you don't talk about it, it goes away. Which may be one reason that my father went on a business trip a couple of weeks after Mom finished her first round of chemotherapy, which she was sure was going to be-like childbirth itself-"a snap." I was with her when she started the chemo. She sat upright in her hospital bed, wearing a pretty nightgown, and reading a back issue of Vanity Fair, the one with the naked and pregnant Demi Moore on the cover. "Really, Jennifer," she said. "This is going to be a piece of cake. I'm glad your father has his work to keep him busy. Why should he sit around the house all day with nothing to do?" On the bed next to hers, an ancient black woman, her face nearly covered with the bed sheets, groaned.
Mom went home, became dehydrated, lay on the sofa, and waited for her hair to fall out. Gradually the misery of her first round of chemo began to subside. Which was when I invited my mother and my aunt over for dinner. I had this dopey idea that if only Mom ate something nutritious and spent some time with her grandchildren, everything would be-if not hunky-dory-then at least better. Plus my brother, who lived with his wife and daughters in the rival all-Volvo neighborhood to mine in upper Northwest Washington, had already taken the initiative and had had my mother over for dinner several days earlier. Well, I thought, when Mom told me about it, goody-goody for them. If they could do it, then I could too.
The truth is, Mom was so sick that not a one of us had any real grasp of what she was facing. Certainly not the two people Mom's illness affected most. After all, Dad had gone out of town on business, and what's more, Mom-like a woman in a bad country western song-had told him to. Which was why my aunt was in town. She had flown in from her home in Boston to help out. And the whole thing was, in a word, fucked. Because why was Mom giving Dad permission to pack his briefcase when she was so sick?