The Forgiveness Chronicles - Part XV: Change of Fortune
The Forgiveness Chronicles, Continued
Part XV: Change of Fortune
I was sitting at the kitchen counter watching Mom pinch off chunks of dough and roll them into balls. Mom’s favorite thing to do in the kitchen was to bake bread.
“Energy and intelligence are the same thing,” I argued. “Intelligence is consciousness, and consciousness is the spark. It is energy. It is one and the same. So we don’t need to decide what comes first. Everything stems from consciousness energy,” I said jubilantly.
I took the balls of dough and fit them into the greased pan. I looked up at Mom expectantly. She was still rolling dough, thinking. The crease between her eyes deepened.
“Einstein said that energy isn’t created or destroyed,” she thought out loud, continuing to pluck off pieces of dough, rolling them between her fingers. “Energy has to come first.”
I smiled. “But the energy doesn’t just exist! It has to be directed. Wouldn’t it be most efficient if the energy itself was self-directed? How does it know what to do, where to go, how to manifest?”
Mom stopped and took a sip of iced tea and looked at me pointedly. “That assumes it has a will.”
“That’s what I am saying! Energy is consciousness!”
“Can’t it just exist? What if consciousness, intelligence, or whatever, is its own thing?” Mom said, grabbing the tray of dough balls from me and covering them with a cloth to rise.
“What if it’s not?” I said. “What if it is both? What if it is unified? If Source – call if God, Great Spirit, whatever – is omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent, why can’t it be both? More importantly, if that’s true, why wouldn’t it be both? Wouldn’t it necessarily have to be both? If it can’t be created or destroyed, wouldn’t that mean it is creation itself?”
Mom smiled at me. “To be continued. I need to ponder this.”
As my daughter grew older, I would stare in wonder at her. How beautiful, sweet, intelligent, and witty she is. My heart was bursting with love in the most painful way. If only I could take a moment and freeze it in time, just to bask in its glow forever. I strained to focus on each little detail: the tiny freckle on the tip of her nose, the soft trill of her giggles, the cling of her hugs, the smell of the sun and playground in her hair. I knew they were temporary and all of it would disappear one day. These are things that no photograph could ever capture, and time would inevitably steal them from me just as it swallowed everything else. Someday, I knew I would look back and wonder where my little four-year-old went. We often reclaim bits of our forgotten past through children. As they experience life, we start to remember things in our own childhood that we might have long forgotten: a feeling, an impression, a moment, a sensation of experiencing something new and the joy that comes with it. Time – and trauma – erases so much. The regret of having been so preoccupied with growing older that so many good memories had been neglected, tossed to the wayside in some random bin in the depths of memory to collect cobwebs, only to be dusted off and looked at again in a momentary glimpse of recollection when triggered by living a moment with a child.
I continued to vacillate between desperately hanging on to each precious moment of motherhood, while at the same time feeling like the shittiest mother on the planet. Work had increased exponentially, which was great for my family’s financial future but terrible when it came to spending time with my daughter. By the time I picked her up from school, I had been up eleven hours and had worked nine of those eleven. I was exhausted. I still had to get in a workout, shove a dinner in the oven, feed her, bathe her, give her a reading lesson, and then a bedtime story. The last hour of the day I might soak in the tub before giving up on life completely, surrendering to a hard sleep until about two in the morning, when my mind would begin relentlessly gnawing on the most insignificant details. You need to remember to take your apple cider vinegar capsules today. Oh, by the way, maybe that Betsy Johnson dress is appropriate for client meetings, after all. You forgot to make a salad last night for lunch today, so you need to get up a little earlier to do that this morning. Did you plug your cell phone in? Arrrgggggh. Go. To. Sleep.
Once that locomotive began steaming down the tracks, it was impossible to stop. Soon the little trivial thoughts burgeoned into serious matters. You forgot to docket the Jones file. Discovery is due next week. Get up and go write this down so you don’t forget. You’re not going to remember; you already forgot once. Oh, and while we’re on that topic, have you thought about why your opponent hasn’t filed that motion to dismiss yet? Impossible. I would get up, grab a notepad, scrawl the notes, and lay back down. I need two more hours of sleep. Focus on your breathing. In. Pause. Out. Pause. In……I would usually go through four or five rounds of this before I fell asleep…usually less than an hour before my alarm sounded and I awoke with a rude jolt, fending off the resentment that bubbled up within.
I yearned to say goodbye to my daughter before I headed off to work, to hug her, and tell her to have a good day, but I never did. Doing so would mean she would wake up too early and harass my husband for breakfast and cartoons and deprive him of getting to sleep an hour longer – something I envied and didn’t have the heart to deny him. One of us should at least get the luxury of sleep. Her words from the night before when I put her to bed echoed in my head, “But I don’t want to be in extended care.” I could either get up an hour earlier – at four in the morning instead of five – and pick her up on time, or I could sleep until five and she would be in extended care for an hour. I already left the office at three in the afternoon. Leaving at two was out of the question. I felt ripped in two and copiously bleeding from self-inflicted wounds incurred in battling the obstacle course of “having it all.” In four years, I came to rue the phrase “you can have it all, just not at the same time.” It was now less mantra and more curse. What on earth had women wanted all this bullshit for anyway? I was starting to think that the feminist movement may have been a mistake. “Having it all” meant having only pieces, never the whole of anything, and being stretched in a million directions at once. Had our lives really gotten better, or had we simply heaped more crap onto our already full plates by trying to compete with men by being more like them, while at the same time, fighting to keep intact what made our gender special? I didn’t know, and I was too exhausted to think it through.
I had put so much effort into being as good as I could be at litigating. I worked hard at internships throughout law school. I took an associate-ship and then did the unthinkable: started my own practice after only eight months with a firm. I spent years struggling to build a reputation and a solid practice, one with value and niche, one that I could be proud of. A lot of people find just the sound of the word “litigator” impressive. To me, I just thought of a big, goofy alligator…clumsy, hungry, always wishing he could get somewhere a little faster. To give up that title, all the stuff I had built, seemed unthinkable. But, as with most all my meltdowns, I found myself in the bathtub, phone hanging in my palm from a limp wrist, sobbing uncontrollably. The year 2018 had been rocky from the get go. Nothing had gone right for the first two months of the year. The odd, fleeting thoughts about just disappearing to a small town and working at Home Depot in the garden center had become more prevalent but were always dismissed as ridiculous as quickly as they came.
The first week in March, I had one client tell me they refused to pay the $10 balance – yes, ten stinking dollars – on their invoice until their documents were finalized and ready to sign. The documents were prepared seven weeks ahead of deadline, and earlier in the case, a $500 fee for a couple motions wound up saving the client over $15,000. They had forgotten about that. The snarky, utterly ungrateful tone depleted my motivation to do much more on the case. If the ethical rules that hang over a lawyer’s head hadn’t existed, I would have walked away from the abuse and tossed the file out the window as I drove full speed down the highway. Yet, we are forced to swallow this abuse, day in and day out, with equanimity and poise, as though it is nothing. For even as little as ten dollars…sometimes less. The general populace hates lawyers so much that we became the scapegoats for any anxiety, nastiness, anger, and resentment they held onto. Instead of shitting on their close friends and family (which some admitted did anyway), they took it out on us. Because the rules force us to put up with it.
Another client had called me back, and when I relayed that there had been a development in the case and made my suggestion as to how to deal with it, I got screamed at for at least five straight minutes and then hung up on because my strategy wasn’t aggressive enough. Short of hiring a hit man, I wasn’t sure what else was really left.
A conference I went to where local judges presented on new legislative developments and how to expect the changes to be implemented by the courts devolved into three judges at the lecture table telling us that “it would be interesting” to “see how this all pans out” and that they weren’t “really sure” how many of these changes would manifest themselves in real cases. Over the course of two hours, all that translated in my mind to: You all are just gonna have to come up with the fixes, and lucky us, as judges, we have the luxury to allow you to show up, listen to your ideas, and the ones we don’t like will have to go back to the drawing board and the ones we do like we’ll probably adopt, but we won’t tell anyone and just let you all figure it out. I mean, after all, look how much this new law is going to clog our dockets? Yes, truly. Who has time to think these things though and brainstorm across disciplines to figure this out? And by the way, shouldn’t legislators be doing that before they pass a bill anyway? Apparently not. Lawyers are the ones who clean up the mess of the incompetent and corrupt assholes who draft bad laws to begin with, and the clients are expected to pay for it. And sometimes, clients don’t want to pay for it. And then, if you’re honest, can you really blame them?
Another client started crying hysterically on the phone. I slammed my office door shut, put her on speaker, and knocked out some emails. Yes, it really does get to that point sometimes.
An opposing counsel then began a pissing match with me via email. She pointed out my client had asserted facts in a verified petition we had both discovered were untrue. It meant my client had lied to me. She was pointing this out to go on the offensive, because it had also come out that her client and her client’s son were trying to negotiate side deals on real estate that didn’t belong to them and that if my opposing counsel had known about this, she had misled me. If she didn’t know about it, her client had also misled her. The web of lies from all angles became so thick, that I finally decided I didn’t need to try and untangle it. I decided instead that I needed to file a few amended documents and fire my client.
In short, the first week of March 2018 was a shit show of epic proportions where if it could go wrong, it did. And it perfectly encapsulated the first two months of the year so far.
That’s why, when March 9, 2018 rolled around, I reveled in a moment of calm. It was one of those rare days where everything was going smoothly. For the first time in months, court in Jackson County Probate went without a hitch. My case was called within ten minutes of the docket starting, my client had made it to court, and our request was granted without any objection. I went to lunch with a mentor and a mentee, ate a delicious sandwich, and amicably solved a sticky social problem. When I got back to the office, I signed up a new case. After my client meeting, I came back to my desk to sift through a stack of mail.
I picked up the envelope with a distinctive hand written scrawl from a client in Florida. Tapping the envelope on the desk, I ripped open the end and let a letter slip out. Tucked inside the letter was the biggest check I had ever received. Two years ago, they had come to the office with nothing more than a hunch that their mother’s money had been stolen by her lousy third husband and his family. The case had been risky, requiring a private investigator, novel legal arguments based on a statute the courts had yet to interpret, and a lot of lucky breaks. They went from being completely disinherited to receiving their mother’s entire estate. The check represented a gut instinct that had paid off for the right people. But even more cherished was the thank you note that came with the check. I read it twice and tacked it to my dry erase board. It was the second one I had received this year, both from exceptionally difficult cases that had panned out well for my clients. Thank you notes were rare, but when the bad days felt like paddling up shit creek with a broken paddle, the notes got me through. I tore a deposit slip from my check book and stuck the check in my purse. It was not quite three, but it was Friday, the weather was nice for the beginning of March, and it was time to celebrate. Finally, I had caught a break.
Saying that the last two months had been difficult would have been a severe understatement. January had started with a jolt, an all-out sprint, and had showed no signs of slowing. It was a good problem to have but it left me exhausted. On top of the immense case load, I was in the midst of trying to put together my first appeal with a new and brilliant co-counsel…a 300 page masterpiece with exhibits…that was denied on my daughter’s birthday, which also happened to be a Friday, less than 48 hours after it had been filed. I was devastated. Then came the immediate awkwardness of having to appear, twice a week, for the next six weeks in front of the judge I had appealed. Even the simplest motions and hearings turned into a tangle of unnecessary bureaucratic red tape. Litigation was not for the faint of heart; but that doesn’t mean it won’t wear a person down. I slogged into work each morning at 6:00 a.m. with less enthusiasm than I should have been able to muster. Just one day where everything had gone right felt like a major victory.
I called Mom. “So, do you mind if we don’t swim tonight? I had my first good day in a long time,” I began, recounting how smoothly the day had gone. “I want to stop and pick up some Prosecco on the way home and have a drink.”
Mom loved hearing about my work; she was the only person in my life who did. She seemed to feed on the complexity of the problems I solved. Two years prior, she had asked me to be her personal trainer, to get rid of her “bat wings” as she called them (the loose skin under her arms) and so three nights a week, I would pick her up and we would go to the pool together to work out.
“Absolutely, you should, Sweetie,” she replied. “It’s been a while since you’ve had a good day. I’m feeling really tired today anyway.”
“Thanks Mom.” I hesitated, the nagging inside of me persistent. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, just tired, you know how it’s been,” she said.
“Tomorrow morning, then,” I said.
“Yes, tomorrow,” Mom said. “I’m proud of you. Give the little one a kiss from Gigi.”
Minutes later, the check was deposited, a bottle of Prosecco and cartons of berries purchased, and I was sitting on the driveway sipping my tasty beverage watching the magic of chalk drawings on an uncharacteristically warm afternoon. I even made a point to post on Facebook that the day had been a ray of sunshine amidst a cascade of crap. I now wish I had said nothing. Facebook, in all its cruelty, often reminds me of that moment, the moment where I jinxed everything.
I was making dinner in the kitchen, humming along to the music, when Chet came in and began pulling the day’s artwork out of our daughter’s backpack. He frowned and held up a note that had been tucked in with her paintings.
“Now don’t let this ruin your day,” he said, handing over the letter.
I dropped my knife and snatched the note from his hand. I looked at my daughter.
“What’s this say?” I said, waving the note in the air.
My daughter’s smile immediately clouded over with worry and she squirmed in her seat. “I had a bad day,” she admitted.
“What kind of bad day?” I demanded.
“Uh, well…….” She stammered.
I sighed and looked at Chet. Great. Another f*$king problem to solve. Fantastic. I can’t get ONE DAY without a f*$king problem. Chet saw my crestfallen look and took over.
“It says you have been talking back to Ms. Traci all week, and we need to give her a call,” he started. “What have you been doing?”
“I didn’t listen at lunch. I interrupted at circle time. I talked back,” our little one admitted in a rushed voice, barely above a whisper.
I threw the towel down on the counter. “That’s it.”
My daughter’s eyes grew wide as I started down the hall and began gathering up all her toys. I started shoving toys into rubber tubs and hauling them out of her room. Then, I punched in Ms. Traci’s number on the phone. It was an uncomfortable conversation about how ill-behaved our daughter had been all week: bullying other kids, talking back, and during circle time, trying to recruit friends to join her in her mutiny against the teacher. I was mortified. I assured her we would deal with it.
A part of me wondered what Chet and I had done to cause this. We sent her to her room, as she wailed her incessant protests, so we could talk. Maybe Chet had been too curt with her and she was imitating the manner in which he spoke to her. Maybe I hadn’t been paying her enough attention. Both of us were tired. Too tired to parent, maybe?
Chet shrugged. “She’s rebellious. She has an independent streak. I wonder where she gets it,” he said, looking sideways at me.
I couldn’t wait to go to bed. Silence, warmth, and oblivion beckoned. I longed for the day to end, for there to be a finish line I could cross into a conflict-free zone, where the constant deluge of problems ceased to exist and the burden on me to solve them all was lifted. The next day was Saturday…my favorite morning of the week because it meant that I wasn’t jolted awake by an alarm at 4:45 a.m., where I could make eggs, bacon, toast, and tea and ease into my day. I crawled into bed and smiled at the thought. There was hope yet.
Except that I was jolted awake by my phone ringing at 5:00 a.m. Who the hell calls at five in the morning on a goddamn Saturday? My mind was a haze. Shit! No good phone calls happen at five in the morning on a Saturday. I groped my way in the dark out of bed and picked up my phone. It was Dad. My heart plummeted to my ankles. It was the call I had known would be coming for months. It was the secret I had held in my heart since December.
“Uh, hi, Aubrey…I’m really sorry to call you so early. I, um, well, we didn’t want to call you yesterday because you were having such a good day, and you know, we just didn’t want to ruin it. You deserved to have a nice evening,” Dad started.
Tears stung my eyes and I felt the back of my throat constrict. “It turned to shit, Dad, kiddo’s teacher sent a note home, and we had issues to deal with after all, so its fine,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Well, I’m just really sorry, Aubrey, but right after Mom got off the phone with you yesterday afternoon, the doctor called,” he started. I heard his voice crack. He paused. A hot tear rolled down my cheek. I grabbed Chet’s hand in the darkness.
“Mom’s blood work came back, and they told us to go to the hospital. They are saying that Mom has leukemia. They took her by ambulance from Lee’s Summit Hospital to Research around midnight. I went to bed at around one, and I am heading back up there now. They’re running tests, and we won’t know anything until later, so don’t come up here. I don’t want you to come up here.”
By now, tears were rolling down my face and I was trying to choke back the strain in my voice and gain some composure. “Okay, Dad. Oh. Okay. I’m so sorry. Is Mom doing alright?”
“She’s fine, just really tired. But you don’t need to come up here. We don’t know a whole lot yet. They aren’t sure,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“Dad – “
“I’ll call you later, when we have more information,” he said.
“Dad, what room is she in?”
“3042,” he replied.
I sighed. “I love you. Tell Mom I love her, too.”
“Okay, love you too,” he said, hanging up.
The line went silent and I collapsed into deep, seismic sobs. Chet clung to me, trying to offer comfort.
“I have to go up there,” I said. “I have to go.”
“I’m here. Whatever you need,” he said, squeezing me. “It will be okay.”
I wasn’t so sure.
I didn’t bother with makeup. I knew enough to know that there would be more tears before the day was over and makeup would be futile. Comfort was the only thing I could comprehend. I packed up whatever I could find in the kitchen: a Ziploc baggie of cookies, slices of homemade bread made the night before, two thermoses of earl gray tea. On the way to the hospital, I felt numb. I wondered if I was imagining this, if it was a bad dream, and I would wake up any moment and it would be 7:30 on a Saturday morning. The honking horn from the impatient driver behind me convinced me that I was stuck in a moment of pure reality from which there was no honest escape.
Up to this point, I had never experienced a serious hospital visit before in my life. No one in our family ever really got sick. We ate pretty clean; we weren’t perfect, but Mom had always grown a garden and we cooked nearly all our food from scratch. My parents were active. Mom and I swam three times a week, Mom and Dad golfed, and everyone did yoga to one extent or another. Mom did enjoy her alcohol and tobacco, but as she always reminded us to take everything in life in moderation. As I walked through the doors in a daze towards the elevators that would take me to the third floor, the shock abated, if only temporarily.
I had noticed a haze about my mother late in the summer. There was an air of dullness that had begun to wrap itself around her. Slowly, as summer gave way to fall, she became more fatigued than I could remember her ever being. Normally, she was a woman who enjoyed her down time and liked to nap. But the naps were longer and more frequent. By Christmas, I was convinced that my mother had cancer. I didn’t know what kind, but I could sense it. She fell asleep at the dinner table at Christmas, nodding off as soon as the food had hit her stomach.
“I just don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said. “The food just hits my stomach and I can’t keep my eyes open,” she had buckled. “I guess I need to go home and lay down.”
Then January had come. Instead of swimming fifteen hundred yards or more, she would swim a thousand. Then seven hundred. Then four hundred. Instead of going three nights a week, we would go twice and then once. Then, late into the month, she swam two hundred yards, stopping often, and was out of breath, her heart racing.
“We need to get you out of the water,” I had said.
In the locker room, she put her hand to her face. “Feel this,” she instructed.
I put my fingertips under her chin where she indicated. Her lymph nodes were swollen and hard. I pulled my hand away.
“That’s not good,” I told her. When I looked closer, her face was swollen.
She shook her head. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she began. “These cysts on my face won’t heal, and I have these bruises for no reason. I’m falling apart!”
“You need to go to the doctor,” I said sternly, holding open the locker room door for her.
“But the lumps don’t hurt, so it can’t be that bad,” she retorted, brushing off the concern.
I creased my brow. “I don’t think that the absence of pain matters.”
“Do you think I have cancer? Isn’t cancer painful?”
“Not always. Mom, you need to go,” I urged.
We rode silently in the car for a while.
“What do you see, Aubrey? Is it bad?” She knew I hadn’t shut down my intuition completely.
“Mom, I’ve grown cynical. And I am not a doctor,” was all I could manage to say. But when I looked at her, I think she knew. She could tell I was scared, worried, and felt that she was headed down a path for which there could be no return.
I had texted my dad that night. I urged him to make her get an appointment. I told him it was important; something was very wrong. I called my sister the following day and told her to urge Dad to make mom go to the doctor. My Dad was in denial and brushed it off for a while, but he relented and finally decided it was time and they got her in that next morning. After that visit, she called. I was examining yams at Trader Joe’s.
“Doctor Paula’s replacement, Doctor Michelle – I don’t know how to say this last name – she’s got a really long one like you,” she began. “It’s one of those hyphenated names. Anyway, she said my salivary glands are inflamed and blocked. I’m old and drying out. And it is probably due to sleep apnea. And I have an ear infection. She thinks it’s all related,” she said.
My gut sunk. The verdict was all wrong, I could feel it. “I don’t know, Mom. That’s pretty random. A lot of things would have to go wrong at once for that to be it.”
“Well, it makes sense that the weird stuff would happen to me,” she said.
“Did they draw blood?”
“No. They didn’t need to. She prescribed some horse-pill antibiotics. It will be fine.”
“I hope you have a follow up,” I said. I suddenly realized I didn’t really like yams, but that I was buying them because they were healthy. I selected a big one and dropped it in the cart with a metallic clank.
“Two weeks,” she said.
“You need to keep that appointment and you need to get blood work done,” I said. I could hear the conviction in my voice and it bothered me. What was I feeling?
“I will,” she assured me.
Those two weeks felt like years. After her follow up, in our afternoon call, she had told me Dr. Paula confirmed the salivary gland sleep apnea crap but had ordered a sleep study and a thyroid test. The thyroid test was included in a blood test, and that’s when the leukemia had been found. I had been feeling these doctors were missing the big C all along. Now, I was conflicted…I couldn’t decide whether to surrender to the relief that the terrible thing I had felt lurking had finally been caught or whether to feel validated at being right….or whether to be horrified at what would inevitably lie ahead, and to experience the tidal waves of grief that were already welling up from within.
I knew nothing about leukemia; the only thing I knew was that it was a blood cancer. In high school biology, I opted out of dissections, finding them too morbid to undertake. I had sat in the library instead, copying drawings from anatomy books. I had a vague memory of words like “cell”, “mitochondria”, and “photosynthesis”, but that was about it. I never took biology in college.
The doors of the hospital elevator clicked open and I stepped out onto the third floor and looked around. Hospitals were these horrible mazes of linoleum, fluorescent lighting, and long hallways that branched off at right angles with confusing signs and arrows with walls, trim, and furniture in industrial colors that no person in their right mind would consider living with in a house. I chose a hallway that was a washed-out shade of teal and began walking. The room number increased, and I found my mom’s room. I knocked on the door, heard my Dad’s voice, and stepped in.
Mom was pale and looked exhausted but was sitting up in bed. Dad stood up and reached around to hug me.
“Told you that you didn’t need to come up here,” he chided.
“Yeah, well, whatever,” I said. He should have known better. I sat down the cookies. “These are for you.”
He looked grateful. I handed over some tea. “I thought we might need this,” I said.
“We just ran out of hot water,” he said. “Thanks!”
I nodded and sat down next to my mom.
“Well, I’m sorry we didn’t call sooner,” she started. “We didn’t want to ruin your evening. You have so few good days lately.”
I rolled my eyes. “You wouldn’t have ruined it. Your granddaughter did a good enough job of that on her own,” I said. I told them about the behavior issues and needing to find a solution. “We took away all her toys, but she just shrugged and said she would find something else to do,” I finished. My shoulders sagged. “I’m not sure what we will do.”
My dad chuckled. “I wonder where she gets it?” he said with sarcasm, looking pointedly at me.
“No idea,” I replied dryly. I turned to my mom.
“You were right,” she said.
I shrugged. “I didn’t want to be.”
She closed her eyes. “It’s going to be alright.”
“The doctor is supposed to come in this morning and talk with us,” Dad said.
“What kind of doctor?” I asked.
“The blood doctor?” he said, looking quizzically at Mom. She shrugged.
A hematologist. My mind immediately went to a set of records on a case in my office. An elderly man with Alzheimer’s and leukemia. His power of attorney had been defective; it was outdated and had needed to be redone. The leukemia had been discovered when he fell in the memory care unit at the nursing home. He was young for a memory care patient, at only age 68. He had broken a hip, and while getting examined and tested at the hospital, had discovered his pelvis shattered because of the lack of bone marrow. His medical records had documented the treatment he needed, and his agent under the power of attorney was no longer alive. A guardian was needed so someone could consent to treatment. The treatment was inpatient and had lasted six weeks. It had not been successful. They had caught the disease too late. I wondered how late was too late and immediately felt guilty for having failed to press harder, sooner, for her to go to the doctor.
“Probably a hematologist oncologist, Dad,” I said. “I had a case…” my voice trailed off at the incredulous look he shot me. “Anyway, it’s how I guessed something was wrong. We order medical records in cases sometimes and I read a lot of them. I had a leukemic client. A lot of the symptoms in his chart were the same as Mom’s.” I shrugged. Lawyers aren’t doctors, but they sure have to read a lot of medical records. We are bound to learn something useful once in a while.
Mom nodded. “Ah.”
Dad just shook his head in disbelief. Whether he was disappointed in me for not pressing harder, whether he was still stunned at the news, or whether he was surprised by the things I encountered in my line of work couldn’t be discerned. It was probably a little bit of each.
My phone chimed twice in rapid succession, vibrating in my purse. I ignored it and stared at my Mom. “I bet you’re tired.”
She smiled wanly. “Yeah, well, I got poked and prodded and transported around a lot last night.” She proceeded to tell me about her ride in the ambulance and the firemen who had taken care of her. “Did you know that when they aren’t fighting fires, they work as EMTs?”
“Of course you knew,” she chuckled.
Dad’s phone rang and he glanced at it before deciding to snatch it up. “It’s your sister,” he announced.
I checked my phone. The texts had been from my sister, who was flying in that evening.
“Tell her I’ll come get her from the airport,” I whispered to my Dad.
Mom let out an exasperated sigh. “Aw, shit! I don’t want this to turn into a fiasco.”
I gave her a pointed stare. “She has every right to be here, too,” I reminded my Mom. “She’s your daughter, too.”
Mom suppressed an eye roll. “I know, it’s just –“
“But nothing. Why argue? Look, I came up here even though Dad said not to. What kind of crap is that? You’re in the goddamned hospital, Mom. Just let it happen.”
Dad hung up the phone. “Our house is a mess. We’re in the middle of a remodel project. There’s nowhere for her to stay.”
“Lame,” I said shaking my head. “She’s staying with me. I just texted Chet to get the spare room ready. Kiddo will love it.” I tossed the phone onto the bedside table by my purse. “It’s taken care of. I’ve got this piece.”
Dad started to protest something else. I plowed forward.
“What time is that doctor coming?” I asked. “Maybe we can go check with the nurses.”
“I’ll do it!” Dad jumped up and headed for the nurse’s station.
I smirked at Mom. “It’s too easy sometimes.”
Mom chuckled. “Really, Aubrey, it’s the weekend. I’m sure you have things to do. Spend the day with your family.”
I grabbed the lotion and began giving my Mom and foot rub. She had been through a lot and needed to calm down. After her feet had been rubbed and new soft socks put on, I poured her a final cup of tea and gave her a slice of homemade bread to nibble on. The nurses came in after Dad’s prompting to tell us the doctor would be by soon. I Googled him.
“He’s an oncologist, but looks like he deals mostly with internal organs, not just blood. Spleens, livers, pancreas…five-star rated.” I said, turning my phone’s screen and showing the page to my Dad.
“Hmmmmph,” Dad said, glancing over at the phone.
There was a soft knock on the door and a shorter Indian doctor in a tweed coat entered the room. He introduced himself, shook everyone’s hands, and pulled a stool over to Mom’s bedside.
“Tell me vhat you have been experiencing,” he said in a thick accent.
Mom went through the litany of her symptoms, and I could see that eventually telling this story over and over again was wearing on her. She hated socializing with people she didn’t know. She didn’t like attention. She was the most private person I had ever known and to spill all the details of her life was something extremely uncomfortable for her.
The doctor just kept nodding compassionately, his eyes never leaving hers. “And you,” he said to my Dad. “How has she been?”
Dad recounted the fatigue and the knots in the mouth and neck, but didn’t have much to add, other than discussing the urgent phone call from the family physician the night before.
I added my observations from swimming with Mom.
The doctor grabbed Mom’s hand and looked her in the eyes. “You have leukemia. Vee aren’t sure vhat type yet, and vill need a biopsy of your bone marrow to make that determination. Vee don’t do biopsies until Monday, so you vill be kept here to wait,” he began.
“And then I go home Monday after its done?” Mom implored.
He shook his head. “No. You vill be here three to six veeks,” he said. “You vill be transferred to the neutropenic unit this morning, right avay.”
Mom gasped and looked over at Dad, who was on the edge of his seat. I tried to grab his hand, but he was oblivious.
“No…” Mom’s voice trailed off.
“I am very sorry,” he said. “There are two doctors who vill take over. I am just a cancer doctor, you need a special doctor, a hematologist, and vee have two. They are not very friendly and they are matter-of-fact, so if there is a problem, you tell me, okay?”
My brow furrowed. Who cares if they are touchy feely sharing types as long as they know their shit? The comment struck me as odd.
“What are her options?” I asked pointedly.
“Chemotherapy,” he answered, smiling at me. “But ve von’t know vhat kind until the biopsy results come back,” he added.
“That’s it?” I asked.
He only nodded.
Immediately, I was taken aback. What if Mom didn’t want chemo? What are her OTHER options? What’s the fatality and survival rates? The lack of information and choices had me on edge. Nothing seemed quite right.
As he was leaving, Mom and Dad were shocked. After reading client medical records, I wasn’t. I knew the road Mom was in for.
“Three weeks?!” Mom groaned.
“I can’t believe this,” Dad said.
“What’s this neutropenic thing he mentioned?” Mom asked.
“It’s a sterile wing. It’s for people who don’t have an immune system, Mom.”
“What?” she asked. “Why does everyone else with cancer do outpatient treatment?”
I shook my head. “Mom, right now, you don’t have healthy white cells. You don’t have a functioning immune system. Its why you’re not healing. When you go through the chemo, its gonna kill what few white cells you do have and then you won’t have any immune system at all. You’re susceptible to infections. They’re not going to let you leave until you have an immune system again.”
“How do you know this?” Mom asked incredulously.
I shrugged. “I told you. I read the chart of a leukemic man recently for a case. He was in this same hospital, actually,” I said, remembering.
“What happened to him?” Mom asked.
I started to answer, but she cut me off. “Wait! I don’t want to know,” she said.
He died. After several rounds of chemo…I thought grimly.
Dad’s jaw dropped a little. “I just can’t believe this.”
“Before they take you upstairs, let me run back home and get you a bag packed. You don’t have enough for this kind of stay. What do you want?” I grabbed my phone and started taking notes.
Mom gathered her thoughts, still in shock. “Um, a real tea mug. A face cloth. That black bra in my top drawer…” Mom began rattling off a list. It was a good distraction.
Before long, I was back in my car headed towards home on the highway. I called Chet and gave him the bad news. It was the first of many calls I would make. I scrambled to collect items I would need without crying in front of my daughter. Then I went to my parent’s house and sifted through the piles of clothes and personal items stacked all over the spare bedroom, ticking items off the list. I put another bag in the car and called the Chinese restaurant. Mom had been craving wonton soup lately and I ordered a large container of soup and egg rolls. I knew that once she was in the neutropenic unit, they would forbid takeout food of any kind because of the high likelihood of pathogens and non-sterile food prep. In all the haste and activity of the morning, I had forgotten to feed myself. I ate two egg rolls on the way back to the hospital as I bawled my eyes out. I resigned myself to the fact I would look like dog shit the whole day.
When I returned to Mom’s room, there was a sign on the door to stay out. I sat the bags on a ledge by the door and waited, wondering where my Dad was. He strolled up behind me.
“Pretty surreal, huh?” he started. “I just can’t believe this is happening to your Mom. What did she do to deserve this?”
There wasn’t a way to answer that question. The oncologist had told her this morning that it wasn’t her fault; that leukemia was something that just happened. Mom’s grandma had lymphoma, and though related, they weren’t the same. I just hugged him and felt him stiffen, as though he was having a tough time holding his emotions in check.
The door opened and we went in. There was a nurse inserting a PICC line. It started just above her elbow and ran all the way up her arm and into her chest. Three different colored ports dangled like udders from the end of the line by her elbow.
“I’m getting equipped,” she informed us, shaking her arm at us. The plastic udders jangled a hollow plastic sound.
I nodded. It was one thing to read about this stuff in medical records and altogether different to see it play out before your eyes. That’s where they are going to pump the chemo in, I thought, poison pumped in and aimed straight towards the heart. I felt a coldness creep inside of me. I held up the bag.
“How about some wonton soup and an egg rolls before you head upstairs?”
Mom’s exhausted face lit up as she opened the container and grabbed a spoon. “This is so good,” she said, picking out the shrimp and handing them to me. “Here, help me eat this. You need to eat something.”
As soon as food hit her stomach, she began to nod off. “While you take a little nap, Dad and I are going upstairs to see what you’re in for,” I said.
She nodded sleepily and lowered the bed down. Dad and I went upstairs and discovered the unit was strict; they discouraged restaurant food (someone could’ve sneezed on it back in the kitchen), kids were frowned upon (they are walking petri dishes), no fresh flowers, and sometimes, no raw fruits or vegetables. Anyone with so much as a sniffle wasn’t allowed behind the big glass doors with STOP signs posted on them. There were containers of hand santizer mounted to the walls outside each room, along with boxes of paper gowns, gloves, and face masks attached to the wall by the entry. I smiled at the small victory in getting a good meal in her before she had been carted upstairs to her medical prison cell.
Dad and I went outside to give Mom and chance to rest. We sat in the sun near the entrance and felt the cool early spring breeze. Plants were just starting to emerge from the thawing ground and trees were showing their first buds. Dad had tears in his eyes. He was shaken to the core by the sudden turn of events. I could tell he wasn’t looking forward to returning home alone. I hugged his shoulders.
By the time we got back up to Mom’s room, they were starting to move her upstairs. I needed to leave for the airport; my sister had texted the flight was on track to arrive early. They put Mom in a wheelchair, and as the elevator doors were closing, I could see her staring at me. She looked scared, more vulnerable than I had ever seen her. Her eyes were wide despite the fatigue. The uncertainty of her features burned into my memory. The doors closed and I let the tears flow down my face. Just when I thought I didn’t have any left, there was a fresh round, pressure building behind my eyes, waiting to burst forth like a dam breaking. Yesterday's celebration had been premature.