One Year, Three Months, and Sixteen Days

Grayscale photo of waves on a beach.
Photo by Gerard Pijoan on Unsplash

One year, eight months, and twenty-eight days ago I unraveled.

Six weeks post-op from my final surgery, I found out that cancer wasn’t quite done with us yet. My mom had it too.

I lost a lot of things that spring—my words, my composure, my pride, my sanity, my optimism, quite a few friends—but thankfully not my mom. Unlike my own cancer, there were no silver linings. I lost a lot but found nothing. I learned nothing, either, least of all how to live in a world without my mom in it. That lesson, I suppose, is for another day, a day I’ll try not to think about much until it comes.

I guess I did discover something about myself, though I’m not sure if I’d call it learning. I found a part of myself that words don’t touch, that speaks no language. Even my own possible death didn’t strike this part of me. But hers did.

I keep thinking about how that first night after she told me, when I had finally made it safely into the driveway–

(she had called me right as I was walking down the stairs from the third floor where my office was and out into the fading late-winter sunlight–or was it sunlight? Maybe it was cloudy that day. No, I don’t think so–and to my car, and I answered because she wouldn’t have called at that time unless it was important, and when she asked me if I would want to know something like this even if it wasn’t totally confirmed yet, I should’ve said no, because I was driving, but I didn’t, because I don’t know what’s good for me at all. I remember I was calm during the conversation–so much so that later she would admit, trying to hide her disappointment, that she had expected somewhat more from me, as I had seemed so collected, so professional, still wearing my work badge and also my work self–the conversation that must have only lasted about as long as the drive did. From that moment on, every day, five o’clock, I left work, got in my car, and relived the overture to the worst time of my life, measuring by each stop sign, each traffic light, each pothole, each turn, the devastating music of that phone call. Here I pulled to the side of the road for a while. There I briefly considered swerving into the path of an oncoming semi. So it was for one year, one month, and eleven days, until the pandemic struck and I packed up the necessities from that office and left to work from home. Only then, I think, did I start to heal.)

–and hung up the phone. Almost immediately I started to sob, and then to howl, a low, animal sound coming from a part of me I had never encountered face-to-face before. It was a sound that shook my body down to the bones, that sent the birds flying from the branches of the trees of my mind.

I remember only two other things from that night. One: curled up on the floor of my room in the dark, knees into my chest, facing the wall. Two: pacing back and forth, lights on now, on the phone with my older brother in London. The part of my brain that makes words had taken over now, and it was processing, churning, digesting, what I knew and how trustworthy the information was, how could the doctor make that diagnosis without evidence, the doctor is a fraud, the whole thing is bullshit.

(The doctor was indeed a fraud and the whole thing was indeed bullshit, but all in the wrong direction. The full medical picture, once we had it, was so much worse than the doctor had falsely claimed.)

It’s right about this time that I stop writing almost entirely. My lifeblood, my first passion, my most reliable source of solace and healing—gone. From then up until now, I’ve barely written anything that wasn’t an extension of my job in some way.

I got through my own cancer treatment by writing—the same way I’d gotten through everything else. Until this morning, when I woke up from yet another nightmare about my mom, I didn’t understand what the difference was.

My own cancer was terrifying, sickening, depressing, nauseating, paralyzing, debilitating—all those things and more—but it was all of those things in ways that could be understood and expressed using language. I lived a thousand different realities during that time, all of which I could name. I wanted to die. I wanted desperately to survive. I thought the chemo would destroy me. I thought the surgery would destroy me. (It did. I’m a fundamentally different person now.) I was so full of gratitude for everyone who helped me. There were so many things I still wanted to do. There were so many things I wished I’d done. The science of it was all amazing to me. Et cetera.

My mom’s cancer was nothing like that. I thought I just couldn’t find the right words—

(“I just don’t want my mom to die,” I tell my therapist. “I just don’t want her to die. What else is there to say? What the fuck is there to even process about this?”)

—but in reality there were no words. That experience lodged itself into a completely primitive, nonverbal, preverbal part of my brain. I was undone by it. I was a cornered animal, a ranting lunatic. I hid it as best as I could, played the role of the dutiful daughter, employee, friend, partner. The mask slipped many times; I feared that others had glimpsed the beast beneath.

Mostly I just desperately wanted to be with her. It was only some instinct of self-preservation that kept me from quitting my job on the spot, moving back to my parents’ house an hour away, and staying there until…until. I was 28, a grown adult, recently engaged and moving steadily away from my family of origin and toward creating a life of my own. In the span of a 15-minute phone call all of that seemed to shatter. I just wanted my mom. I just wanted my mom. I just wanted—

(the day she suddenly passed out in the kitchen and my dad took her to the ER, where she was eventually admitted and someone finally started the process of figuring out what sort of cancer it even was, I was at work, despite the beginnings of a flu the night before, a flu that I absolutely refused to allow to happen and that seemed to recede that morning through sheer force of will. I left work two hours early with my supervisor’s permission and drove like a maniac straight to Dayton, speaking to the doctor on the phone in the car, terrorized the nurses at the hospital until someone told me when the cardiologist would be back, and didn’t rest until my mom was discharged with referrals to oncology, at which point my flu came raging back and I eventually ended up right back in the very same hospital my mom had just gotten out of, which led to two days hooked up to IV antibiotics because I somehow got myself sick with both the flu and cellulitis at the same time. It was as if my body couldn’t even function anymore.)

—I try to write about it. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words. There are no words—

In the dream my mom dies. And yeah, that’s just the beginning if you can believe it. I remember feeling really confused because she’d had no symptoms and her treatment had just started. Yeah, people die of cancer, but surely there are some warning signs first?

I have difficulty accepting it, but I assume I’m just in the denial stage. I check our Life360 app and try to see her location, then think, duh, her phone is probably still on. I don’t seem to have anyone to talk to. Who even is in my life besides my mom?

Then I wake up one morning and she’s there, and she’s okay. We talk for a while and she reassures me that she’s doing fine. And something clicks and I realize that both of these things cannot be true. She could not have died several days ago and also be sitting on my bed with me. I am having a psychotic break.

I remember having the thought that I’d told my friends (and I have in real life) that if my mom ever died I’d go straight to the hospital to commit myself. Yet I hadn’t done that and it has been days. I realize, too late, that I should’ve gone to the hospital, and not for the reason I’d thought.

And then I’m walking up to OSU’s psychiatric hospital to be evaluated for psychosis—

I wake up so disoriented that I go right back to sleep, which is the worst possible thing to do.

—the dream restarts and I’m back with my mom, visiting London with some of her friends. She is tired from chemo and not really feeling like doing a lot of walking, so we’re just chilling. I’m telling her about the weird experience I’d recently had where I totally hallucinated that she had died which was silly because here she is.

But as soon as I say the words, I start wondering which part was the hallucination exactly, and suddenly it seems weird that we’re…in London? During her chemo? No. Why are we in London if she’s on chemo. This must be the fake part. But if this is the fake part, then she’s dead, right? My chest clenches up and London dissolves—

I wake up again. It’s 8:30AM. Shaking, I start to get myself ready for work. I have my first client in half an hour.

All day, I have to remind myself that my mom is still alive.

The nightmares become a constant presence. In one I’m hanging out with a group of friends, a cuddle pile, when suddenly my dad calls. Come home, he says. My mom is leaving and I should say goodbye before she goes. I leave the gathering and start to drive, although I immediately know it’s already too late, I’ll never make it home in time—

—next thing I know I’ve wrecked the car, right on Olentangy River Road where the Target is. I’m not hurt, but the car isn’t drivable, I have to wait for the police, I need to get home to my mom, I need to get home to my mom, where is she going?

I call my dad and try to tell him what happened, that I wrecked the car, I can’t make it home, I need him to come get me, can he come get me, can he tell her to just wait, please just wait—

I wake up. It’s 8:45AM. I have to be at work in 15 minutes and it’s a 15 minute drive. In life as in dreams, I am never, will never be, on time.

Last night I had another one of those types of dreams. I woke up knowing that it was time to take my words back.

Curiously, I don’t really remember the dream this time. All I remember is the feeling—fear, grief, longing, all swirled together. It’s unspeakably sad, but not horrifying. The indelible images that all those other nightmares left aren’t there this time. This dream was etched into sand on a beach and morning came like a wave, smoothing over all of its edges and leaving just the faintest memory, now wreathed in seaweed.

It’s been one year, three months, and sixteen days since her scans came back clear and this whole nightmare, in some sense at least, ended. But the cancer was technically considered stage 4, metastatic. Is it ever really gone? Will the medication continue to work? Every month we wait for the blood test results to come back.

Fifteen times we have held our collective breaths; fifteen times our bodies have tensed like hunted animals. Fifteen times we sighed in relief and unwound ourselves until next month. Until the next rustle in the grass, which could be a tiger lying in wait, or just the wind, carving its way through the stillness.

Tonight we hold our breaths again. Tomorrow, the blood test. Friday, the results. The verdict. The reckoning.

My mom didn’t simply survive it; she continues to survive it. Present tense. Neither sick nor well, neither here nor there. She lives almost entirely in the moment, making no plans until she gets her test results, and even then only for the next three weeks. Until the next rustle in the grass.

I’m slightly more comfortable than she is when it comes to imagining a future that doesn’t horrify me–but only slightly. I try to grow, plant seeds, meet new people, move up in my career. But if we’re being honest, I would almost always rather be back home with her. The part of my mind that knows no words pulls me back there, always.

And so I too am trapped in suspended animation, a yo-yo at the exact midpoint of its whirling journey—no longer moving away, but not yet coming back, but somehow not quite standing still either—yearning, always yearning, to return home to its source, that which sent it spinning out into the world.

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One Year, Three Months, and Sixteen Days