The power of Jesus — my mother believed in it. Not the kind of power that would make her tumors dissolve. No, she was a pragmatist. She prayed for me, that Jesus would seal her son’s leaking soul, a soul stripped by apathy, an apathy fueled by disappointment, disillusionment, and drugs.
I went to Paris to dry out, to rehabilitate myself into a loving husband, and whatever else comes with sober living. Ostensibly I was there on my honeymoon, but people knew: the newsroom co-workers, the bar buddies. They knew. Maybe my mother knew, too. I was sick, and it hurt me to hear her prayers, because I didn’t deserve them — not because my illness was self-made, but because she was the one who was dying. The prayers seemed misdirected.
Her letter was consoling, but the only words that registered were cancer, tumors, liposarcoma. Those and come home.
TUESDAY, MARCH 20
California looks like it always does in the spring: sunny and bleak. It smells of acne soap and fear, tastes like the crumbled crackers of old Communions. The same thing happens every time I come back: an epileptic seizure of old memories.
I’m sleeping in the back pew while my father sweats at the pulpit.
I’m watching my mother drive away, hoping she’ll come back.
I’m crying under my father’s belt for stealing pornography.
I’m feigning pain over my mother’s remarriage.
I’m hiding from my father’s screams, staring at my own ruined, stoned face in the mirror.
My mother’s main regret was that she never gave me the “loving family” she dreamed of, not with her second husband, nor with her third. It was a point of pride for my father, though. He felt he had raised me in a good environment. He even had us pose for a portrait one year, the two of us in matching Dacron shirts. I gave a copy to my mother. She cut out my father’s face.
Sitting curbside at the airport in California, that same face, wilted by time, waits behind the wheel of a white Lincoln Town Car. My father’s eyes, magnified by trifocal lenses, hold me. He licks his thin, colorless lips, a feminine gesture that matches the copper-colored permanent in his hair. He considers this hairstyle youthful, but it only highlights the liver spots on his cheeks.
“I always thought I’d be the one to die first,” he tells me.
I did, too. He’s eighty, overweight, balancing prostate cancer and a palpitating heart. My mother, twelve years his junior, should not be the first to die. But they both believe in predestination. The power of Jesus is not arbitrary. This is His will.
My father cries. It’s awkward. Not the tears. I understand the crying. But my father wants to see my mother, too. I am the passkey, the messenger, the forty-two-year-old go-between. Though they live less than twenty miles apart, only during my visits do they communicate, either through me or face to face in passing. While my father has spent his divorced life trying — and failing — to purge the past and assuage the pain of his biggest failure, my mother has moved from hatred to indifference. She still doesn’t like him, says he misrepresented true Christian love, both as preacher and as husband. But she’s gotten past that, lived several more lives of humiliation, death, divorce, breast cancer. Now she just doesn’t care. He is the father of her son and, according to mutual acquaintances, a good man.
Not far from my mother’s subdivision, we pass a cinder-block bar called the Rodeo. I imagine myself in a dark corner, getting up from a dirty table covered with empty bottles and shot glasses, asking the bartender for one more as I head to a bathroom with swinging doors. Inside the stall I unwrap the plastic bag, dip a key into the white powder, and inhale with all my might.
My mother shuffles out of the bathroom at her house.
“I’m sick, John,” she says with a self-deprecating smile. “My baby boy.”
We hug. She takes her time recognizing my father’s presence. There are other people in the living room: her sister from Detroit, her daughter-in-law from her third marriage. My father jingles the change in his pocket until my mother is forced to respond. She always hated his nervous tics, his whistling and throat-clearing before sermons. The irritation is evident in her hello. After telling everyone how busy he’s been, my father leaves.
I suddenly miss the diversion my father provided, because now I have to look at her: the distended stomach, the growing tumors that make her look nine months pregnant. It’s her face, though, that tells me she’s dying. Her almond-shaped eyes have changed: deepened, softened by the morphine. And her voice is fading. She’s resigned to death, but there’s an aura about her, something holy, beatific: the calm of Christ before His betrayal.
When I was a kid, my mother found cigarettes liberating, a preacher’s wife’s rebellion. She used to smoke in the backyard by the tomato plants. I’d catch her and threaten to tell my father, blackmail her for ice-cream money, refuse to clean my room.
“You know what?” she’d say. “I won’t live forever. I’ll be dead before you know it.”
“So what?” I’d say with a hard heart, the evil power of adolescence.
“You’ll be sorry, mister.”
And she was right. She packed the car and drove away, smoking. I cleaned my room that day. But it was too late. I could tell by my father’s low whistle and the echo of jingling change in the empty living room.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 21
I’m sleeping on the couch when the clock chimes five in the pitch black of morning. My mother walks by, casting a shadow on the hallway wall. She passes back and forth, as if looking for something, or getting ready to leave. This is a house of transition, and I feel like a squatter, trespassing on death’s property.
My mother’s been sick before: breast cancer ten years ago, two operations. Instead of coming home then, I asked her for a loan. I’d lost my job due to booze and gotten a DUI. I told her it was for rent.
“Whatever you need, sweetheart,” she said.
I had no excuse when her last husband died. I just didn’t go to the funeral. And I didn’t come home when the tumors started five years ago, the liposarcoma. I didn’t take time off from work for her first operation, or the second, the one that took her spleen, her bladder, and part of her liver.
“I’ll be fine,” she told me, and I believed her, because California was too far away from my drug dealers.
When I tried to make it up to her, I was really trying to make it up to myself. I took her on trips: Charleston, Savannah, Saint Simons Island. We stayed in nice hotels, took trolleys, rode in horse-drawn buggies. She sighed with love.
“You’re such a good son,” she told me from the hotel bed as I pretended to read, peeking over the pages until she was asleep. Then I escaped to the stool of a tourist-town tavern, as she lay sleeping with new tumors. She didn’t tell me until she got home. She didn’t want to spoil the trip, she said.
While I was in Paris a few months later, she told me that she wasn’t going to fight it this time. She asked me to come stay with her, but not to cut my trip short; death would wait until I’d had my good time.
“You’re living a fantasy,” she wrote me. “Enjoy each day.”
She says it again now as she rubs her belly in the morning sunlight: enjoy each day. “That’s as bluntly as I can put it,” she says from the couch, reclining to relieve the pressure on her lungs. She says there are two tumors: one where her bladder used to be, and one in the middle of her gut. The swelling could be fluid.
“The tumors survive on my fat,” she says.
With each mouthful of food she swallows, the tumors steal half to help them grow, and they’ll keep growing until they squeeze the breath out of her.
“That’s how it was with my uncle,” she says. “He went to sleep and didn’t wake up. And that’s how I hope it happens with me.”
She’s telling me this as if she were planning a vacation, giving me her disease itinerary. I listen without reaction. Her voice is a tinny echo of her real voice. I look at my hands but see her bloated stomach in my peripheral vision. She says she also has three spots on what’s left of her liver. “But who knows?” She throws up her hands. “I could live another year.”
She says she won’t live a day longer than God wants her to live. And she already looks forward to being in heaven, seeing dead relatives and her third husband, and zipping through space to check on me. I anticipate her disappointment, the dirty deeds I’ll no longer be able to hide.
“I’m at peace,” she says, and I believe her.
She just doesn’t want it to smell. “Have you ever smelled cancer?” she asks me. Her mother died of cancer when she was eighteen. “I don’t want that smell in this house.”
She gets up slowly to take another bath. An ice-cream truck drives by outside, its bells ringing a children’s song that sounds like “Jesus Loves Me,” but it’s not.
THURSDAY, MARCH 22
The hospice worker’s name is Nikki. She feels my mother’s stomach and feet, takes her blood pressure.
“One-twelve over eighty is good,” she says with a Jamaican accent. “But let’s keep her comfortable.”
Nikki takes me into the kitchen to explain the bottles of pills in the refrigerator.
“This is the relief kit,” she says, and my palms sweat like Judas’s at the end of the table.
The lorazepam and Nembutal suppositories are for anxiety. The BDR suppositories are for nausea and vomiting. Acetaminophen suppositories are for fever and mild pain. The scopolamine and atropine are for noisy, wet breathing. Furosemide is for swelling. Docusate sodium is a stool softener. Cimetidine and Tagamet are for stomach problems. Vicodin is for pain. The Duragesic patches are squares of time-released morphine, 150 milligrams each. My mother’s already wearing three of them but wants something more.
Nikki writes a prescription for Dilaudid and hands it to me.
“That’s for the breakthrough pain,” she says.
I close the door behind her and take two Vicodin.
“You’ve got such a good boy,” my aunt says to my mother.
I get in the car and drive without conscience to the hospital to fill the prescription. The Vicodin hits me in the parking lot. I stand in line, my forehead slowly melting, my arms too heavy to scratch the rash that’s not there. No one seems to notice. There’s too much talking, coughing, gasping. It’s like a fast-food counter with oxygen tanks. The hospital workers wear faded blue coats. They move in a river of paper, names, and drugs, pulling prescriptions from boxes in the tall walls of pharmaceuticals. I hand a Pakistani woman my mother’s insurance card. The woman looks at me. I feel like a fraud, even though I’m not. “It’s for my mom,” I say.
“I see that,” the woman says, holding the script.
She walks away, passing a calendar on the wall, a Norman Rockwell painting of a Huck Finn type pouring a spoonful of medicine for his sick dog. I had the same picture on my bedroom wall when I was a kid. It’s one of the things I stared at when my parents argued in the other room. When I got older, I threw away the picture but kept the frame.
“Sign here,” the woman says, handing me a brown paper bag full of plastic bottles.
I sign with a hand of rubber.
Back at my mother’s house, I tell her and my aunt the Dilaudid pills go for fifty bucks apiece on the street.
“How do you know that?” my aunt asks.
“I’ve done news stories about it,” I lie.
They nod like sisters. My mother takes the Dilaudid. Thirty minutes later, I swallow one, too.
While cleaning up in Paris, I became a cliché. I wrote. My wife assumed it was cathartic. It wasn’t. I just had better aim writing sober, remembered the bitterness more clearly.
The chronology of my story was simple. It started in church, with God: Accept Him as my personal savior and go to heaven. My father preached this message from the pulpit. My mother acquiesced. I held my sleeping head in the posture of prayer in the back pew.
The memories of home were different, clean: the crystalline days of summer and cutoff shorts, the smudge-pot smells of orange groves fighting a winter freeze, the sounds of fences falling to the Santa Ana winds. But each season brought another degree of hypocrisy. Jesus taught us to love one another, I was told. My father screamed. My mother screamed back. My mother had a nervous breakdown. My father had a heart attack.
“Do you want to be a preacher like your daddy?” the old women at church asked me.
I learned to lie and say yes.
There are things a child doesn’t understand. My father worked two jobs: selling God at church, and selling ads for a weekly newspaper. My father called it “bartering” when a new bunk-bed set arrived. My mother called it “embezzlement” when the moving men took it back.
My mother worked nights for the sheriff’s office as head of records: the “graveyard” shift, she said. She came home later and later, deeper and deeper into the morning, and I’d wonder if she was buried with the dead until I’d find her sleeping alone in bed.
My parents kissed, but it was just for show, like when they smiled in church, my father slapping backs and shaking hands, my mother laughing with the old women. But then they talked about the church members on the way home, about the gossiping, the cheating, the cheapness. The congregation was made up of transplanted country people trying to find jobs in the Golden State. Hicks, my father called them. Rumormongers and blackmailers.
“Did you hear old lady Watson’s prayer request?” my father asked from behind the wheel. “ ‘Let’s pray for Gladys Jones’s daughter, who’s pregnant with that black boy’s baby.’ ”
“Yes,” my mother said, staring at the dashboard.
Then my father would mention how much the offering had brought in — his day’s pay for preaching — and the talk would give way to the whisper of the country station on the radio and my father’s whistling.
I remembered going to other churches before that, churches where people dressed nice. I remembered changing churches because of something unsaid, something that had made my father speak in low tones on the phone about secret meetings of the board of deacons. My mother had cried when we heard the word fired.
This church, the hick church, was a depot of desperation, a last chance to serve, and the hicks knew it. They condescended to my father in attitude and in pay. And my mother couldn’t stand my father’s weak spine, his supplication and false pride. She stopped going to church when I was eleven.
“Why do we have to go, then?” I asked my father from bed.
“Because I said so!” he yelled, and he slammed the door.
She wasn’t there when we got home, just the faint smells of cigarette smoke and aerosol air freshener hinting at her defiance, her independence. The football game hummed in black and white, and my father snored in his chair of defeated colors. I missed my mother, her soft touch, the smell of coffee in her morning kisses. And I felt bad that I had misbehaved, defied and disrespected her, mimicking my father. I felt responsible. So I decided to make amends by petitioning God with my very soul.
I got saved.
It was a hot August night, and the fold-down pews were packed with sweating bodies. Sunday nights were normally for the die-hard handful, but this was the last night of a revival, with gospel quartets and a guest preacher, a fat man from Texas called Brother Sam who yelled a little louder than my father, painted hell in deeper hues.
“If you think it’s hot tonight, my friends,” he gasped into a colored handkerchief, “wait till old Beelzebub has you in his fiery hellhole.”
When he told us to bow our heads, I made my pitch to God: my soul for my mother’s happiness and peace between my parents.
“Every head bowed, every eye closed,” Brother Sam whispered into the microphone. “Listen to your hearts beating, friends. That’s God knocking.”
I peeked up to see a dozen hands raised. I raised my hand, too, and followed it to the front, where I knelt like the others and waited for the mystery light, the zap of salvation, something. Brother Sam put his arm around my thin shoulders and whispered words that smelled like whiskey and smoke. I puked on his boots.
“Praise God.” Brother Sam raised up with arms stretched out over me. “God spit the devil out of this boy!”
The devil looked like half-digested hot dogs.
When I told my mother about it, she blamed the excitement and the heat. She was glad I was saved, but it didn’t change anything. She rented an apartment on the other side of town, explaining to me on bended knee what divorce meant. My father stood by silently, moving his hands in empty pockets.
I was baptized a week later. My mother kept her promise to attend, cutting through the stares of the congregation with her stiletto heels and sitting in the front row by the piano. She smiled when I stepped into the tub behind the pulpit. And then my father pushed me under.
“In the name of the Father,” he said, and I went down.
I stood shivering as the water settled and my father prayed for other souls to follow. My mother answered with the click-clack of high heels and the slamming of the side door.
Afterward, in the dim light of the parking lot, when I heard my father tell one of the deacons that my mother was heading for hell, I realized my deal with God had backfired. She was happy, and there was peace between my parents, but it wasn’t the kind I had counted on. They were still getting divorced.
MONDAY, MARCH 26
I’m on double downers: Vicodin at breakfast, Dilaudid after dark. The symptoms are easy to hide in this house of sickness and lethargy. My mother sleeps or waits to sleep, while my aunt focuses on game shows. I float in between, washing clothes, nodding to the rhythm of my mother’s embattled breathing. I don’t rationalize my thievery. It’s about access. There are simply too many bottles to be accounted for. I take what I want to ease the boredom and the guilt, until the boredom and the guilt become even more unbearable.
I’m sitting in a folding chair on the driveway, staring at the outline of Mount Baldy in the smog, when a car door slams and a small Asian man hails me. His smile drops when he sees me try to rise.
“I am Dr. Leung,” he says, extending his hand.
He peeks in on my mother before ushering me to the kitchen table. I ask him how long.
“That’s a fair question,” he says. “You’d be wise not to put a fifty-cent bet on my answer. It is just my gut feeling.”
And he lays out the time frame: six to eight weeks.
“We’re all in the same boat,” he says. “Something gets every one of us.” He says this with genuine emotion, but his eyes narrow behind his glasses as he looks at me. He adjusts his charcoal suit coat, loosening the knot of his blood red tie.
I say nothing, keep my hands folded, my head up, my eyes open.
“We tried to drain fluid from your mother’s stomach,” he says, “to give her breathing room, but it is no good. I went in three inches with the needle, and nothing came out. The tumors are a solid mass.”
Dr. Leung says my mother tolerated two messy operations, and her health is declining. She is fairly stable, but a downturn could happen fast — even a heart attack or a stroke. He calls liposarcoma a “very strange cancer.” He pauses, takes off his glasses. “The Dilaudid isn’t addictive to the patient, because she needs it,” he says, staring straight into my eyes. “But the pills are dangerous to the recreational user.”
Pins of paranoia prick my skin.
“Once the euphoria is over,” he says, “it’s dangerous to keep using.”
“So you’re saying don’t sell them on the street corner.”
Dr. Leung freezes with his hand in his breast pocket while my attempt at sarcasm registers. “No,” he says, writing out another prescription, “that would be illegal.” Dr. Leung hands me the paper and stands up to leave. “Are you hot?” he asks at the door, but he doesn’t wait for an answer. I hadn’t realized I was sweating.
The mailman pulls up as Dr. Leung drives away. Among the bills is a solicitation from the American Cancer Society.
TUESDAY, MARCH 27
Having read Tuesdays with Morrie, I ask my mother if she has any dying philosophies.
She says she wrote everything down in her journals. “It’s all there,” she says. “I’m too tired to think about it.”
I feed her a last spoonful of soup.
“You’re the best son in the whole world,” she says softly.
I kiss her cheek and let her hold me.
“I love you, Mom.” I cry into her shoulder.
“You just keep giving, and I just keep taking,” she says.
“It’s your turn,” I say.
“Yes, I guess it is.”
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 28
Joe, my mother’s second husband and the love of her life, shows up. He looks like my mother said he would: a shriveled, white-haired Italian with congestive heart disease and prostate cancer. But his eyes are still mischievous, his nose still long and Roman, his humor still dismissive. He kisses me on the cheek as if it were twenty-five years ago, as if he never broke my mother’s heart. As they sit together on the couch, I see something different in my mother’s eyes, something that makes her look younger.
My father has told me that he runs into Joe and his wife, Lorena, all the time. They’re in real estate, Joe having retired from the sheriff’s office years ago. Lorena, the Mexican temptress who stole Joe from my mother, followed my father to his car one day and asked him if he believed in divine healing. Dad told her he did, but not in divine healers. “The Bible says to gather the church fathers around the sick and anoint them with oil. But it’s God who divinely heals,” my father told her.
“Good,” she said, “because Joe has cancer.”
She asked my father to pray for Joe, and he said he would.
“But I still didn’t get any business out of her,” he told me. He wasn’t joking.
Now Joe rubs my mother’s belly until she tells him to stop.
“Why don’t you fight this thing?” he asks her. “You could go to Mexico.” Joe has a friend who took coffee enemas south of the border.
“I’ve been fighting for five years,” my mother says. “I’m tired of fighting.”
“Aloe-vera juice helps,” he says. “Will you drink some aloe vera?”
“Yes,” my mother says. “I’ll try it.”
“It works,” Joe says.
“I’ll try it.”
“It shrinks the cancer right up.”
“I’ll try it.”
“You want me to get some? I’ll go to the store and be right back.”
“No,” my mother says.
“Because I’m not going to try it.”
My mother goes to her room, but Joe doesn’t leave. He shows me his list of cancer-fighting herbs and minerals: garlic, selenium with zinc, coenzyme Q10, saw palmetto — for the prostate, he says.
“This is my life,” he tells me. “Can you believe this shit?”
My mother says she dreamed of Joe the other night. They were in a bar, and Joe made her dance naked on a table.
“He wouldn’t let me come down,” she says.
Later, I help my mother with the morphine patches. She’s up to three. I see her scarred and bloated belly when she lifts her shirt, but I am not afraid, because I am wearing a patch, too.
THURSDAY, MARCH 29
My mother’s journals are stacked on a shelf, almost two decades’ worth of tight, barely decipherable scribble. The first page is dated April 5, 1983. Joe is leaving my mother for another woman, a secretary at the sheriff’s office. She grabs his service revolver, fires, misses, and blacks out from the beating.
I am beginning to feel the bruises from the beating. I guess Joe really beat the shit out of me. I didn’t realize how severe it was at the time. I knew he was beating me. I knew there was a lot of blood. I’m wondering if I have internal injuries. Am I in the process of dying? God, how could I have sunk so low?
I remember my father telling me about the incident while we were in the car. We both sat silently in the parking lot with our respective desires for justice, vengeance, and vindication. My mother hadn’t left us for Joe, but the timing wasn’t far off. Twelve years later, Joe had lived up to my father’s warning: he’d not only cheated on my mother, he’d nearly beaten her to death.
“He’s not saved,” my father said.
But that’s what my mother had wanted, a life away from dogma and damnation, a life full of lightness and love, godless or not. Married twice before, Joe gave her backyard beer kegs and Saturday-night bowling. She loved it. She loved Joe. But his infidelity ultimately made her crazy. She ran around the yard, cursing and naked, until the neighbors called the law. The deputies — her friends from work — strapped her down and took her away for “observation.”
As we sat in the parking lot, my father said we should pray for my mother. We bowed our heads, but all I could think was She got what she deserved.
“I have gone through the depths of hell,” she wrote on August 14, 1983. “Nothing could ever be so devastating as the loss of my true love. Joe is a weakness, like alcohol.”
And to alcohol she turned. And so did I, in a parallel mother-son race to oblivion. Neither of us knew about the other, because neither of us cared enough to look up from the wineglass, the bottle. I was starting my career in television news, hard booze, and a broken spirit. God had been out of the picture for years, my salvation, I assumed, dissolved by childhood disappointment and my father’s being fired from the church.
My mother and I talked infrequently on the phone. She said very little about her pain and promised to pray for mine. Why bother, I thought, since apparently no one’s listening?
I randomly pull a journal from the shelf. It’s May 3, 1998, and she’s written a note to me.
John, I don’t write to you, not because you don’t know the truth, but because you do know it. Knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing Him. Head knowledge is so hard to shatter. The peace and joy and contentment, I can’t get out. It’s so frustrating, because I want this for my precious son.
I stare at the tiny scribbled words and try to cry. When I can’t, I close the cover and wonder how a woman who was so mistreated has avoided bitterness, and why I can’t get the taste of it out of my mouth.
FRIDAY, MARCH 30
I sit with my mother and watch her fade in and out. She raises her hands and opens her eyes.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I’m looking at my baseball cards,” she says as she shuffles her imagination. “My name is Jessica Joan Mann. I’m supposed to give my Social Security number, but I don’t know what it is.”
She goes to sleep and wakes up later.
“I was dreaming that I was at the funeral of Dr. John’s wife,” she says clearly. “It was beautiful. Many people were there, and she was so loved.”
“Who’s Dr. John?” I ask.
“I have no idea,” she says with a smile. “I have a lot of dreams like that.”
SATURDAY, MARCH 31
From a junkie’s perspective, the Duragesic patches are ideal. I don’t know why they’re not sold on the street. My mother has boxes of them in the kitchen cupboard, and they’re easier on the stomach than the pills. The patches ease both of us into a smoother night, deadening the pain of my mother’s dying, the guilt of my day. In fact, I’m done with the pills. They’re too risky. The patches are easier to regulate.
My wife’s coming soon, and I’m sleeping too much. My mother cried out the other night, and I thought it was just a dream. I am selfish with her, and it makes me sick that she doesn’t know what I really am: a devil come home to roost.
While my mother dreams her own drug dreams, I am clearheaded enough to cry over more of her scribbled blue heartache. My mother packed two decades into twenty journals, stacks of words that burn with despair — the first ten years, anyway. The turning point came when she met Nick Mann, her third husband and savior. A small color picture of him in a cheap silver frame sits by the journals on the shelf. It was taken on their first date: February 1985. My mother has her arm around Nick. She’s wearing a white dress, her hair is auburn, and she looks small, relieved, almost ready to collapse. Nick looks like the happy cowboy he was: red-checkered shirt and jeans, a smile creasing his freckled, middle-aged face. It is a picture of promise — yet another promise that God broke in half.
Nick was supposed to be the final answer, the salve to the gaping wounds of Christian hypocrisy (my father) and sexual betrayal (Joe). Like my mother’s first two husbands, Nick was a public servant, a fireman. Together she and Nick rededicated their lives to God, promised Him their worship and devotion in exchange for peace and happiness. God was not impressed. He let them build a home, buy an RV and a boat, and realize four calm years together before slamming the door. It started with violent seizures. It ended with Nick’s dying at home.
“He’s breathing,” my mother writes in her journal, “but he’s not taking in any air. He turns his head, looks up at me, and squeezes his eyes tight. And he’s gone. The thing with his eyes was his way of telling me, ‘I love you so much.’ We cover him. I cry.”
God fooled them with four peaceful years before tossing in the brain tumor. He let my mother think about the unfairness of it all for another year before touching her breasts with cancer. And although she writes with anger, my mother doesn’t give God the satisfaction of letting go of her faith.
“My body belongs to Christ,” she writes on August 10, 1991. “He’s given me the gift of life for however long and one day, when He chooses, it will be of no further use to me, and I’ll become NOTHING. May I make use of what life I have left. I want to be an inspiration to others.”
And she writes that way from then on, with the pen of Job’s wife, forged by fucked-up tests of faith.
May 8, 1994: “How I wish I could go back and do things differently. I can share God’s words of encouragement with John, but it’s so late. He struggles, and I want to give him the joy I experience.”
I stare at the picture on the shelf. My mother mumbles something in her room. And I wonder if she’s talking to God, if He’s ratting me out prematurely.
SUNDAY, APRIL 1
I wake up but don’t get out of bed. My mother and my wife are talking. Allie arrived last night. I cried in her arms, happy and sad over this beginning and end. I hear them laughing the way women do at dawn, sharing warm secrets. I roll over with the sound of it, with the idea of it, holding it a little longer until my stomach lurches with a hint of withdrawal.
My mother talks a lot, but mostly she sleeps. She’s tapered off the hard stuff, the Dilaudid, because she wants to stay alert. Instead she slides halfway down. Allie says she’s working something out in her head, getting ready.
“That’s ten, eleven dollars,” my mother says in bed, eyes closed. “How much are the videos? OK. I don’t have my checkbook? That’s OK. We’ll work it out later.”
She gets up and goes to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator door, closes it, goes back to bed.
“Mom, I want you to take some more medicine.”
She stares at me.
“Oh,” she says. “You.”
“You need to sleep.”
“You and Stacy.”
“Allie,” I say.
“Yeah,” my mom says, pointing to an empty corner of the room. “Stacy’s right there.”
“No, Stacy’s not here, Mom.”
“She’s right there,” she says.
Allie’s listening from the hall, and I know her feelings are hurt. Stacy’s an old girlfriend of mine.
“Well, one of you help me to the bathroom,” my mother says.
I help her into the bathroom, hand her a suppository, and wait outside the door. She flushes and shuffles out bottomless. I yell for Allie.
“Who are you?” my mother asks her.
I leave them to get reacquainted.
Allie thinks the last stages are going to be too hard for me to handle alone. She asks about a full-time nurse, but I hesitate. I want to be with my mother until the end. I just don’t want the actual dying, the swollen, scarred nudity of death, the wiping mess of cancer. I don’t know what obligation I have to witness it. I don’t know if I can close my eyes. I don’t know if the ugliness might rob me of the sweeter memories. I don’t know if I’m just making excuses.
I sit on the toilet spewing junk sickness as Allie knocks on the bathroom door.
FRIDAY, APRIL 6
It’s getting harder to wake my mother. It’s been almost seventeen hours since her last medication, eleven since her last meal. She has trouble wiping herself, if she wipes herself. She’s clumsy with the suppositories. Sometimes they drop on the floor before she makes it back to bed.
“What a mess,” she says to herself.
I’ve been looking through her photo albums, and I tell her what a beautiful woman she was.
“Yeah?” She smiles slightly and asks how many more pictures are on the roll.
She holds up her nightshirt while Allie peels away four square patches of morphine, and I replace them with four more.
“They’re not doing something right with the medicine,” my mother says.
I tell her she’s just getting weaker.
“I suppose so,” she says uncertainly.
Allie asks about getting a catheter and says the Dilaudid is running low. I snap at her as if she were an intruder, as though my mother’s death belonged to me and me alone — my debt to repay, my crucifixion for all the awful things I’ve done: the drugs, the denial, the isolation.
I stand at the bathroom mirror and see a fugitive Christian, alienated from himself, from his own salvation. My alienation has become an organism with a life of its own, like a worm in my heart. I wash my hands, but they still feel like the fingers of a traitor. And nothing will change it, no matter how many catheters I shove into my mother’s side. Not unless I want it to change, and the mirror says I don’t. So I decide to share the grief, like Pontius Pilate, a hypocrite with wet hands.
“I’m sorry,” I tell Allie as she sits with my mother. “I’ll ask the hospice nurse about a catheter when she comes back.”
My mother’s head turns to me, and her eyes lock on mine. “Have you had a chance to look through my journals?” she asks.
“Some,” I say. I’ve told Allie about the journals, but I haven’t said anything about my mother’s prayers for me. Allie doesn’t believe in God, at least not a fire-and-brimstone God. She can’t believe that I do, that I still have nightmares about getting arrested at church.
“Well, look through them,” my mother says, “before or after.”
I turn off the light.
“Show me the journals,” Allie says, and I take her into the other room.
She pulls several of the black-bound books off the shelf and turns the pages.
“Have you read this?” she asks, and she reads: “ ‘I am more committed than ever to praying for John’s heart to be right with his salvation. The times are coming to an end. It is so evident by world chaos.’ Do you believe that?”
“That she prays for me, or that the world’s coming to an end?”
“That your heart needs to be right with salvation.”
“I don’t know.”
“Weren’t you saved when you were a kid?”
“Sort of,” I say to the window. “But I figured being saved was like a warranty: after a while it runs out.”
We listen to the rainfall in the street.
There was another controversy at the church after my mother left my father and me. It was the last controversy, something to do with one of the teenage girls. My father told me he was only “counseling” the girl, explaining the difference between free will and God’s will when it came to promiscuity. But it must have been more than that, since the church “let him go.”
When I told my mother what had happened, she said, “I thought your dad was a fag.”
I figured fifteen was a good age to start getting high.
MONDAY, APRIL 9
Allie and I are arguing. She keeps asking whether the catheter is in, and I keep saying I don’t know. I’m embarrassed to ask my mother, embarrassed for her.
“The worst that can happen,” I say sotto voce, “is she either pisses or shits in bed, and we clean it up.”
Allie’s added a few new medicines to the ones my mother’s already taking. I don’t want Allie to be in charge of the medicine. I’m afraid she might figure out that the numbers don’t add up: what’s been administered and what’s left. Because I swallowed the difference. So I tell her to leave the medicine alone. “That’s an order,” I say, and she buys it.
“I know this is hard,” she says.
And I play the part of grief-stricken son, a cover for the irritability of withdrawal.
“Should I do this?” she asks, holding a syringe.
The suppositories for pain are over. The promethazine injections are about to begin.
“Yes,” I tell her.
Allie sticks the needle into the ampul and pulls back the plunger until it’s full. Then she squirts it into the air before sticking it into my sleeping mother’s arm. She dabs the blood away and asks if there’s anything else she can do to make it easier on me.
Yeah, I think. Give me a shot of that.
THURSDAY, APRIL 12
Allie and I sit outside, where it’s clear and sunny for the first time in days. We can see Mount Baldy’s snowcapped dome. We say nothing. I want to tell Allie I’m afraid — not of dying, but of my mother’s disappearing forever. I haven’t had a talk with my mother, a last goodbye. There’s nothing to share, other than love. At least, that’s the disguise I wear: the loving son. But I know my mother’s waiting for me to say something more, something about my soul, something about forgiving myself and accepting God’s gift of life everlasting. But I can’t. I’m afraid to admit my laziness, my blasphemy. It’s easier to rage, to blame God, to swallow drugs and deny and harden my heart with a blue-black shell of anger and hate.
I want my mother to say something to change all that, to wash away the resistance and stubbornness and knock me to my knees. But I haven’t let her. I’ve danced away with kindness and smiles and polite conversation until she’s almost gone, leaving me with this hair shirt that I refuse to take off because it’s comfortable, because it’s all I have left to warm my soul. I want to tell Allie this, but I don’t, because my mother is screaming something indecipherable.
She’s shaking violently, shivering, muttering. We throw on more blankets and give her a shot. Her jaw’s clenched, so we can’t feed her a pill. Allie uses a rectal thermometer: 104.
We give her Tylenol, and she settles down, even throws off the extra blanket with a weak hand.
“I don’t think it’s going to be much longer,” Allie says.
My mother is pale, almost white. She’ll leave soon. And for some reason I remember the hall clock has stopped. I need to wind it again, to keep time running. My mother’s eyes open, and I see she’s soaked. She reaches out wordlessly, can’t draw water through the straw in my shaking fingers. She holds the side rail of the bed, exposing her belly and her diapers and her pink top with five long-stemmed flowers. She coughs and tries to pull her diapers off, but we stop her.
“I gotta get up,” she says urgently.
I hold her down, put a wet cloth to her forehead. Allie gives her two Ativan with a Tylenol chaser. We sit her up, and she’s able to suck some water through the straw, the water rising and falling, rising and falling.
“That’s good,” she says.
“If you have to go in the bed, Mom, go ahead,” I say.
“I love you.”
And through the night I listen to my mother’s breathing like the constant sighs of pine trees bearing snow.
FRIDAY, APRIL 13
The phone rings. It’s Skip McIntyre, my mother’s high-school sweetheart, Hellendale High class of 1950.
“Make sure God is on your schedule,” he tells me.
As soon as I hang up, I open the front door to Sarah, the third husband’s daughter, come to help with the last stand.
Sarah says my mother’s intestines are shutting down. She says the mess will be less from now on.
“It was the same when my dad died,” she says.
My mother is in a coma. We sleep in shifts. Sarah says someone should be up when my mother goes, just in case she calls out to say goodbye. I have the midnight-to-8 A.M. shift. Her breaths are deep and spaced. Her left hand is on her chin, as though she’s remembering a first kiss.
SUNDAY, APRIL 15, EASTER
Dawn takes Allie’s plane, swallows it. She’ll be back when it’s over. I’ll need her then more than ever.
There’s an unfamiliar sound in the house when I get back, something mechanical. Nikki the hospice nurse is in my mother’s room filling out a form.
“This should keep her comfortable,” she says without looking up.
There is a gray box next to my mother’s bed. It has two tethers. One runs from the box to my mother’s arm. The other one has a red button on the end of it with the word dose on the side.
“The morphine is administered every fifteen minutes,” Nikki says. “Push the red button if you think she needs more.”
I sign the form, close the door, and answer the ringing phone.
“Even if it only gives her three more months,” Joe says, “she’s got to fight this!” He’s calling from his cellphone, heading north on business. He sounds hysterical. “Call an ambulance and get the tumors cut out!”
He’s sobbing when the connection goes dead. I cry, too, standing over my mother’s bed, listening to the machine, staring at the red button, ashamed of my jealousy and weakness.
I pull the needle from my mother’s arm and thump for a vein in my own.
I’m dreaming. I know it’s a dream, but it’s fine, because my mother is young again. She sits on the porch, laughing in this Kodachrome world. I sit next to her, watching my father plant yellow flowers in the red cedar window boxes. He’s laughing, too, stopping to wipe the dirt on his work pants, removing his gloves one finger at a time.
“What do you think so far?” he asks my mother.
“Beautiful,” she says.
And beautiful is my mother, her short hair in soft brown curls, the pearls in her earlobes calling my hand to touch, and I do, pulling softly, bending her face to mine, the smell of her pink lipstick taking my breath away for a second. She laughs again, her hazel eyes growing bigger, her sleek nose scrunching in the shadow of the palm tree. And I run my hand along her knee, touching the fabric of her new capris that she made with her sewing machine, like magic. She wiggles the pink-painted toes of her bare feet, and I do the same.
“My sweet little boy,” she says, pulling my cheek to hers.
I’m swallowed by the moment, the bliss, the comfort, the familiarity of family, because I know of nothing else, only happiness and the friendly waves of neighbors and the manicured lawns the children play safely within, the sweetness of a good-night kiss and the resignation of sleep under soft covers until the smell of percolating coffee says it’s another day of animal clouds and ice-cream trucks and cartoons in the afternoon.
“What’s tomorrow’s sermon about?” my mother asks my father as he pulls more flowers from a plastic tray.
“Love,” he says, a flower in each hand.
“Perfect,” she says, pulling me even closer to her bosom.
I’m in bed, but I don’t know where. The lights are bright. Everything is white. There are monitors of some kind over my right shoulder, a staccato beeping, the sound of rolling metal wheels. I try to get up, but I can’t. I try to swallow, but something tubular and plastic constricts my throat. I raise my hands to my mouth and pull, keep pulling, feeling it leave my stomach, my chest, my throat, my gagging mouth. I cut the strings of saliva with my hand and hold the inhaling snake to my face.
“You shouldn’t be doing that,” a middle-aged woman admonishes me.
She comes at me fast, her white outfit matching the walls. My father walks in behind her, hanging his head.
“You can talk to him now,” the nurse says, taking the tubes away, disgusted.
We look at each other, the beeps measuring the silence like a metronome.
“I’m so ashamed, son,” my father says stoically. “But we can talk about that later.” He scrapes a chair across the floor and sits. “Your mother’s gone on to be with the Lord.”
I imagine this is his preacher’s bedside manner: simple, straightforward. But his chin’s quivering. He takes off his trifocals to wipe his eyes, sniffs genuinely. I stare at the brown liver spots on his face and try to think of something other than what he has just told me.
“When did she die?” I ask.
“This morning,” he says, emphasizing his words with his cataract-damaged eyes. “Easter morning.”
It was Sarah who found us. I was in bed with my mother, my right arm wrapped around her, my left arm dangling over the morphine machine. I don’t know how many times I’d punched the button before I lost consciousness. The needle was still in the vein, still pumping a dose every fifteen minutes. We were alone for an hour. Somewhere within those sixty minutes, as she left her body, my mother found out who I really was. Maybe she kissed me. Maybe she cried. And I was too afraid, too selfish to wait for her, to hold her hand and listen to her last breath, her last words.
“What a shame,” my father whispers to himself.
My ambulance pulled out as the hearse pulled in. It was mayhem. Natural causes for my mother, straight overdose for me. The police didn’t stay long. The forgiving assumption was suicide, that I couldn’t bear it, couldn’t live without my mother, and so tried to beat her to the Lord. This is what my father is telling everyone. He waits for me to confirm it, to follow his lead, to get our story straight.
“That sounds about right,” I say, smart enough to know that sympathy is the only door that’s open to a devil like me.
“Your mother was a good woman,” my father says, relieved at my lie.
We think about that together. And, like Judas Iscariot, I feel like climbing the nearest tree and hanging myself, dead with the snap of a rope.
“Do you still believe in predestination?” I ask my father.
“I believe in God’s plan, and the power of Jesus,” he says.
“Was this predestined, then?”
“Well, son,” he says, “I guess the power of Jesus is funny that way.”