Thursday, March 21, 2013
Alaskan in Asja Land
My last evening on Cape Cod. I'm sitting in the window of the coffee shop, watching the wind trouble the bare branches of oak trees and flap the awning and drive the low-flying cumulus. The sun is low, blaring through blue clouds. The rest of the sky is that pale blue, yes, of a robin's egg. It's cold, maybe in the low 40's, but walking across the parking lot, I heard my first robin songs. Winter's not letting go of the East, but I am, for another six months.
This afternoon, as I have every day I've been on the Cape, I visited my mother, who lives in a nursing home in Chatham. She's 85, and she can't walk. A brain aneurysm fourteen years ago ruined her leg, shattered her life, changed so much about her, but not some deeply essential poignant Asja-ness. I almost said sweetness, but my mother is not always sweet. Most of the time, she is. But she is also sometimes agitated, sometimes confused, sometimes angry, sometimes impatient, sometimes sad. My mother can't or won't do many things she used to do. She no longer reads, or knits, or writes letters, or answers the phone. And though she can't access all the emotions she once knew, she can't fake or hide the ones she has. She is 100% authentic, 100% real. When you are in the presence of such rawness, it's hard not to be real, too.
This afternoon, I breezed into her room, switched off the TV, filled the teapot, heated water, and plopped down in her wheelchair. She watched me intently from her recliner. After notating a birthday card from her to my nephew, and one to my stepson, I read to her from my book, telling her the story of a woman who disliked me intensely when I was young. She listened. She took it all in. Sometimes, when she's experiencing a complicated emotional reaction, she struggles for words. How could this be, she asked. That is one way this woman is still 100% my mother. A mother is someone who can't fathom how her child could be disliked. Often I read to my mother, as she has always loved stories. Sometimes we call friends and relatives. Always I update her on goings-on at my sister's house, or in my family's life. Often we look at photographs. But it's been a long time since I've talked to my mother like that, telling her the whole story of this woman who disliked me, puzzling it out with her, processing it. She listened, was 100% there. And then.
She looked up suddenly at the clock on the wall, and visibly startled: "It's 5 o'clock!" she exclaimed.
I startled too. I'd been looking at her bedside clock, which hadn't been advanced at daylight savings. I'd lost track of time, and all at once, it was time for me to head to the next town to pick up my niece from her cello lesson. Now my mother was agitated. "Are you okay Mom?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, though she clutched one hand with the other, kept turning to look at the clock, fidgeting.
"What time do you eat dinner?"
"Five o'clock," she said.
"Don't worry, the aide won't forget you. Has the aide ever forgotten you?"
"Do you want me to keep reading?"
"Yes." But as I started up, she kept fidgeting. "No," she said.
I put the book down. "Are you hungry Mom?"
"Yes," she said, her voice higher than normal. Something rushed up through my body, wrapped hard around my heart. I looked at my mother. She was anxious for supper, for this steady ritual in her day. She wanted to be on time. She didn't want to be left behind. I hesitated just a second before I responded to emotional flash-flood. I grabbed her hand.
"Mom. I love you so much." In that moment, I loved her with my entire body, a visceral, animal love.
She grabbed my hand, locked her eyes with mine.
"I love you too."
And then the aide arrived to take her to supper. "See you tomorrow, Mom," I said.
What does this have to do with Cancerland? Nothing. A brief conversation with my sister the other day, about "survival rates," about so-called "cure rates," about late recurrences of breast cancer, threw me back into that realm again. It's like a seizure in my life now. Rare, but serious. Cancerland: that place where I sit in the same room with the word "cancer," befuddled, uncomprehending. That place where cancer casts its shadow on me. When I fall into that place, I start browsing the web for cancer news. I reread the same statistics. Why? Sometimes I reread the pathology report from my surgery, nearly three years old. I wake up scared. I worry about the ache in my side. Am I living a cancer-inducing life? Stressing out too much?
The thing about being with my mother now, and the thing about being with her as I went through cancer treatment, is that she does not live in Cancerland or Aneurysmland. She lives in Asja-land, and it is immediate. It is supper time. Or it is time to drink tea and read a book. Or watch birds at the window feeder. In the presence of my mother, I have only one job, and that is to be fully present with her, to be fully alive in that small room. To not hesitate even a moment before responding to the over-riding impulse of my heart. To grab her hand. To grab that living hand and hold it tight while I can.