When I was nineteen I broke my left foot. A few days after I got the cast on I went out to dinner with my parents and my sister Rachel. We pulled up in front of the restaurant, where my father’s uncanny parking karma once again provided him with a parking space directly in front of our destination, no mean feat in Washington DC.
There was a small section of sidewalk in between our car and the restaurant’s outside tables, all of which were filled. I was in the front seat because of my cast, and as I turned to lever myself out of my seat, one hand on each side of the door frame, my sister shut the back door. On my fingers. Through gritted teeth I said politely, “Rachel, open the door” and she said “Why?” “My HAND is in the DOOR. Rachel, OPEN the door.”
Rachel, my mother and my father all grabbed for the door handle. The door, naturally, was locked. Rachel reached past me to tug on the lock. My father said, “It’s not closed all the way. We need to close it the rest of the way in order to unlock it.” Rachel, my mother and I all said “NO!” Both Rachel and my father were trying to pull the lock up, my father inside the car and Rachel reaching in through the open front door. As far as I could tell through the swimming pinpoints of light in my vision, they were primarily getting in each other’s way.
My mother was outside the car saying “Oh my god! Oh my god!” and I remained in the front seat, cast on the sidewalk, hand in the door, alternately saying “Rachel, open the door” and “Mother, shut UP.” The diners were clearly thinking that they had no idea that the outside tables of Chez Gaulois came with entertainment, when my father thought to press the central unlock button.
The lock popped up, Rachel opened the door, my mother stopped saying “Oh my god,” and I completed my delayed exit from the car. Rachel handed me my crutches and we filed into the restaurant and to our table. I put the fingers of my right hand into my glass of ice water. Rachel said “I kept waiting for the sexy Nissan computer voice to say “Your hand is in the door. Please remove your hand from the door,” and we all laughed.
For years my mother and I would tell this story as an archetypal event in our family: a few moments of high drama difficult to differentiate from slapstick comedy, ending quickly with no lasting bad effects for anyone. Bad things that happened just weren’t that bad, and they were usually funny, at least in retrospect.
When my mother told me she had breast cancer two days before she went into the hospital for a mastectomy, it seemed like the beginning of one of those family stories. She had known for a while but she did not want to worry me. She told me that she had not told my sister Rachel, who was living in England. She did not mention whether or not she told my oldest sister Darcy, who lived nearby.
I called Rachel and she caught the first flight home, which caused my mother to be furious at me. My family is filled with unspoken rules about who can tell what to whom. In many cases people simply forget to share information, but we all assume that there was a reason so we continue to not talk about it once we find out from some other source. I knew perfectly well that when my mother told me she had not told Rachel, that was her way of telling me not to tell her either, but I chose to ignore this.
When I arrived at the hospital after the surgery, my mother would hardly speak to me. My father was already there with Rachel. My father, worried about my mother but not wanting to admit it, put his energy into treating Rachel as if she was visiting royalty that had never been to Washington before, apparently forgetting the first eighteen years of her life. The three of us stood at the foot of my mother’s bed bickering while she rolled her eyes at us.
By the end of the week we all retreated to our corners of England, Maryland and DC with relief. My mother was in the hospital for four days. She had three subsequent chemotherapy treatments, from which she did not get sick nor did she lose her hair, and then she was fine for years. In general, it seemed to be more fodder for the Pagones family way of having a crisis.
Seven years later when I called my mother to tell her that my chimney had been struck by lightening and chunks of it had fallen through my sunroom roof, my mother told me that “the cancer is back.” I questioned her as much as I could before she made some excuse to get off the phone. She did give me permission to speak to her doctor who told me that my mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her lymph nodes and to bone, in addition to the breast tissue itself. It began to dawn on me that this was not going to be funny even in retrospect.
Over the next two years my mother’s symptoms continued to increase along with the frequency and strength of her chemo and radiation treatments. She developed neuropathy in both feet and legs, making it difficult for her two walk. She got a walker – a sturdy teal tripod one with white wall tires – and dubbed it The Batmobile (“because I’m an old bat”). She developed a new method of doing laundry that involved putting the dirty laundry in a bag, throwing it down each flight of stairs (three in total), following it by scooting down the steps on her rear, and then making my father carry the clean laundry back upstairs.
She wound up back in the hospital briefly after she fell and couldn’t get back up her own, and my father with his own tricky knees wasn’t all that much help. When she got home I asked if they had thought of moving somewhere with fewer steps. My mother thought for a moment and then said “Perhaps the terrorists will get us first.”
After another fall, my mother is in the hospital again, for the last time. I walk into the hospital lobby past the gift shop, remembering the first time I visited her here, before that first mastectomy, and stopped to buy her the least tacky stuffed cat I could find in the shop. It was a light grey tabby with green eyes, with a lavender ribbon sewn to its neck and tied in a bow. There are no animals without accessories sold in this hospital, but at least this one was not wearing clothes. This time I walk straight to the elevator and ride up to the fifth floor.
“What the hell?” is the first thing I say, as I see her right arm on top of the covers, not just bruised but fully black and blue from wrist to elbow.
“Oh!” my mother says, with a half-laugh. “I got up to use the pot last night,” as she gestures to the toilet chair between her bed and the wall, “and I fell.”
“Did you land on your arm? Is it broken?”
“No, but it took two nurses and a strapping young man to pull me out and get me back into the bed.”
I don’t know whether to begin by hunting down the nurses and the strapping young man and beating them with a stick or by calling all of my mother’s various doctors until someone tells me the exact scientific reason why she has bruised like that and so quickly, so I sit down in the chair at the foot of her bed and look at her.
After a moment I move to the foot of her bed, picking her feet up and placing them in my lap as I sit down. Her feet have been tingling for over a year now and I hold them in my hands, thinking of a book I read years ago in which a southern grandmother rubbed an old woman’s sore back and then rubbed her hands on the wooden bed post, saying that the wood was from nature and could absorb the pain. I look around the hospital room but everything is made of metal or plastic.
“How is the tingling?”
“The knees are bad,” my mother replies.
This is new. I slide my hands up her calves to her knees, the way I would keep my hands steadily on a horse’s leg so as not to startle it. Her skin feels dry but soft, and fragile, like moth wings. There are no muscles under this skin. The wonder isn’t that she fell, but that she got up at all.