i was ten pounds and two weeks late for my birthday. my mother was 44 and a half that day. one year older than i am now. not that you need to know that. it isn’t at all relevant to the story i am trying to tell. unless at some point we need to talk about that sense of owing someone. that calculation of burden divided by consolation that that we know how to do instinctively. i didn’t ask to be born. but i am real grateful it happened.

it’s an odd thing to be grateful for. existing. because without it, we do not suffer.

has anyone ever taken a moment to grieve for the gazillions (a rough calculation) of people who never came into existence? what brilliance and surprise and nuance does not now exist? well, of course not. what do we care? and what do they care for that matter? besides, there is enough to grieve here. things we have smelled and tasted and loved. precious things we have held with our hands and somehow lost.
we are perpetually losing.

July 31st 2010
we are driving in to rapid city. thunder heads frothy and full of sun. we have been on the road for 2 days.
there is the earnest mumbling of an old woman who can’t hear herself coming from the backseat. I hear little snatches…he maketh me to lie down in green pastures…though art with me.
chocolate stains on her white pedal pushers. dingy white visor.
my father opens both windows in the front suddenly, scaring me and mom. she asks, what was that?
he didn’t think the window was sealed completely.
she says, oh.
the whole business freaks me out a little. we are not a stable people.

August 1 2010 1:52pm
my mother won’t let me in the back seat so I can’t get away from my father’s chatter: “cows.
people are from kansas.
here comes some more lads on cycles.
there’s a sign says home of  laura ingram wilder. was she an author?
me: yes, laura INGALLS wilder. she wrote little house on the prairie.”
mom: is that all corn? I can’t tell. I had to have tina tell me what was in the salad bar.

this is true. I watched her scatter bacon bits across the fruit salad and watermelon bowl.  she tried to retrieve a dropped zucchini spear, got ahold of an invisible one instead and deftly dropped it onto her plate. and we moved on.

mom woke me up in the middle of the night rummaging and knocking things over. when I got up and put my hand on her back she started singing good morning goodmoorning. I kept repeating real loud- we don’t have to get up yet! I showed her my phone ( because she didn’t have her hearing aids in) which read: 5:42. so she says yippeedoo- we’re burning daylight!

so then dad starts signing through his cpap mask, hops up, stubs his toe and screams so loud I think that the poor sleeping bikers next door are going to break in and stuff us in the ice machine. the night before my father had somehow spilled a gallon or so of ice on the floor.
anyhow, now we are barreling blearily down the road, minivan cruise control set to 78.  down to a fight about mcdonalds vs. anywhere else. and also how I won’t eat in smokey cafes.

August 1 9:30pm Rochester, MN
they seem to have taken to this new time zone with zeal. it is 930pm here and my father has been asleep for an hour. my mother, praying for the same. she is sitting at the corner wood-veneer table in her underwear, silently mouthing words. I imagine she will pray until she feels comforted. and at this point, if jesus doesn’t show, I will personally track him down in whatever dive bar he has holed up in and drag him outside by his fucking skirt, and tell him that unless he gets his fucking priorities straight soon, the only church he will be figurehead for is the church of my right boot. that’s right jesus! be a god or go home! at least buddha doesn’t lead on old ladies who pray their faces off every night!
anyhow, I gotta go to bed now because there is nothing else I can do. when the lights are out. bed is the only option.
tomorrow is doctor appointment. oy oy.

August 2
We arrive at 11:15 for a 12:30 appointment. The marble floors and walls of the temple, i mean clinic, are reassuringly bright and beautiful. ordained.  people are tiny. the foyer, huge.  downtown Rochester is mayo clinic. a complex of glass and marble edifices reaching skyward. The infirm and miracle seekers ride a thousand buses and vans from a thousand hotels and are channeled through the revolving doors into the inner sanctum.Mayo. Miracle Mayo. The Best. The doctors all wear suits. I assure her that they will probably run more tests and that we won’t have to suffer any verdicts until Wednesday or Thursday.
after discussions with nursing coordinators and pancreas researchers we get into a room finally with a tall paunchy indian doctor/intern who asks mom what her story is. in her words. he touches her leg lightly with his long clean fingers and turns his brown concerned eyes and attention to her.
turns out her mother and her grandmother both died of pancreatic cancer. oh.
i am still hopeful of some anomalous cyst. some tidbit. like the one on the bottom of her right foot. we all three sit on a floral couchette in the exam room. sitting for the news. dad has mom’s purse between his feet.
my mom introduces me by way of explaining that i have stage 4 lung cancer and am doing great! it’s like i’ve won the track meet in 8th grade all over again. but doctors see right through this accomplishment. they are always skeptical. patronizing of miracles. he says, great!
then he brings up the computer. apologizes for it being so slow.  shows us the CT scan slice by slice, noting a hernia, then topographical features such as liver hill and stomach ravine. the pancreas  has come into a new peninsula.  he assures us this is unusual although the whole thing seems like more of the same rorschach. the only thing i can clearly identify is the spine. reminds me of the cow bones down in hidden meadow hiding in the crab grass peaceful for years. the vertebrae. white and clean.
eventually doc says, we are 95% sure this is pancreatic cancer. and if you were a 30 year old guy we would operate right away. this would be a cure maybe. but because of your heart.. and because you have had pulmonary embolism…this is a rough surgery. 10 days in the hospital and 3 months recovery. But it is your choice. i’m sorry. this is rough news.

when he says “cancer” mom says “oh no”. a descending growl. a song of understanding and surrender. it is the same same song she has sung to every disappointment, every calamity. every bit of brokenness to ever befall any of us. it is the thing so intrinsic to her person that i doubt she even knows of its existence.
it was the same thing she said when i told her i was gay. at first she said “you’re getting what?”. her hearing lost even then. and then i yelled, no- i’m gay!
“oh no”. in the growly voice.  and i went on to explain how my roommate of three years was actually my lover. she worried that god might cause suffering in my life.
in the dr.’s office. i am sitting there dreading the next part.  the collapse of family order. I feel my body flush with fear and my throat choke and the magic exceptionalism that has become the family identity falls away.  we are the typlical page 52 article of mom’s family circle magazine. cancer and cancer.

I put my head on my father’s big shoulder and cry. he cries and mom reaches across and pats our hands. she is comforting us.
the brusk white doctor rushes in and interrupts our awkward moment . he sits down, leans back with his legs apart and begins to talk importantly.

in the elevator with us on our way back down to the lobby is a girl , maybe 11 years old, with a big moonpie face, standing too close and staring at me.  she asks me my name with the weirdest, highest voice i’ve ever heard.  I say hi. and look away. she sounds like a fairy. or a chipmunk. mom says hi and grabs her grubby little hand and shakes it. the girl holds mom’s crooked beautiful fingers and stares at them. then she turns her hand over and kisses the back. it is so tender. and so unsanitary. my mother placidly allows this fantastically intimate gesture. and the girl lets go after a moment.
i am filled with the sensation that my mother possess an immense intelligence that i do not have. will never.

aug. 3
mom is trying to make the hairdresser at fashion aire salon in rochester cry. when she tells people “i don’t want surgery. i don’t want chemo. I’ve had a good life.” i think they all want to cry a little.
and i wonder at this. by all accounts so much of her life has been hard.  the second oldest of six.  her father was an alcoholic sugar beet farmer. and when my mother was 9 her mother who woke up one morning and couldn’t walk. the random strike of polio.  she would have one more child but would never walk again.

but after my mother left home she found a beautiful man, a man that made her laugh and took her dancing, after she found beautiful don and had three of his children, this good life took him away. an electrical lineman. a foreman. he climbed up a pole on his day off. he was on his way to a fishing hole but there was an emergency. an outage. so he climbed up a pole. a line that should have been shut down. touched a wire and said “oh jesus”.

she went to the morgue and they showed her his body. a beautiful young man’s body. slim and roped with muscle. dancer and teller of jokes. father of her three children. she said to him, oh don, this can’t be. this can’t be.

and the story she tells us is  how her loving god took him away from her to teach her to love god. to bring her back to the fold.  she and don were unequally yoked in the eyes of god. he was not a christian. they would go to bars and dance.
so god slapped her awake and put her on the righteous path.
where she met my dad.

it is simple to understand.

i finally realize that the hotel here is way super Christian. the old and infirm stagger in and they are wheezing and crying and they are saying how they got bad news and the high decibel young desk clerk says “well, we’ll put you on the prayer board. and you know, just when things are there most difficult that’s just when God reigns down the biggest blessings, you know double for your trouble.”

1 month ago
i am driving up the bumpy tenth mile driveway. the same one. from mailbox to house. back at the ranch. the mortar of my psyche. where, if time ran all at once there would be thousands of me swarming over every hill. and the place where, whenever i am here, every other place feels like something i’ve made up.

i am walking in the door. coming home bald. again.
it hits me so forcefully. my sense of failure. letting the cancer back. my mother always offering to knit me a hat. or buy me a wig.  i look so much like mr. clean now. so gay and bald. even though she has prayed. she has prayed so much for me everyday. every night. and what have i to show? after all her hard work. the cancer is back. and i am bald again. and gay, still.

after the meatloaf and cauliflower and broccoli i walk out along the ridge. i want to inspect the remains of the cairns i have built over the past couple years. these rolling hills are rich in foreign rocks. hitchikers dropped by ancient glaciers. the cairns are always all knocked over by the cows. but i like the impermanence. never the same thing twice. i start at the nearest, clear off the big base rock and start rummaging in the ruins for a good starter to my new tower. something precarious, i think. minimalist.

i am thinking about an article i read recently by a woman who was diagnosed with  (a treatable) cancer of some sort and was angry about it. very very angry. she said that everyone she knew who had cancer was really fucking mad. and that she couldn’t tolerate all these media images of people who were noble and stoic because it was a fantasy. cancer makes you mad.

and i ask myself, on the hill, looking over hidden meadow, why have you never been angry?
because i deserve it.
i deserve it?

and i think back to all life i have lived. and how i never have felt quite entitled to all of it. never been sure that i am allowed to just go out and make up a life. i have tucked in with people in whose goodness i believe, people who feel entitled to their lives. and i have lived. but it has always felt that at any moment it could upend.that  i will be found out.
and maybe i don’t feel like i deserve to have cancer but i have never felt entitled to all this life either. i have been getting away with something here. all this joy. all this light and air.
i have loved who i have loved. and i understand risk.

a couple days later my mom and i are taking her daily constitutional out to the mailbox and back. she likes to hold my arm. i try to steer her away from the freshest of the cowpies.  she never wears a glove, even though it’s barely 40 degrees outside.
i tell her about the article and ask her if she’s angry.

“no. well, i’m 86 years old. and i guess i have to die of something. and the hospice people tell me that they won’t let me suffer. so i’m grateful for that.”

and she asks me what i am afraid of.

and i tell her that i’m afraid of dying. and that i’m afraid of being a source of pain for the people i love. i don’t want to be a wound in people’s lives.

and she says she worries about leaving all the people who depend on her.

and we walk a long ways without talking.

and she says “tina, it’s okay that you have cancer. it’s not your fault. you can’t help it.”

and i feel something break open in me. she has said it.  and now i am crying. which you would think would be easier to hide from a deaf and blind woman. i can’t speak so i pat her bare hand with my glove. and eventually i say-thank you mama.
because it is the strangest thing. to have her approval for.  approval for having cancer. but there it is. approval. god is not punishing me.

and i think of her sitting in her chair sometimes, how she’ll stare at me. and i know she can barely see. her world robbed of color and detail. but she inspects, nonetheless.

and i ask her “how do you know?”
she says, without hesitating, without asking me what i mean, she says “because you and i are the same.”

and i wipe my face and my nose with my gloved hand. and we walk on.

and then i tell her “it’s okay that you have cancer too mama. and if you need to die, you can. and we’ll be okay. we’ll be alright”.

and we walk the rest of the way home and then i make her tuna salad for lunch. carrots and grapes on the side.

  1. Thanks for this, Val. Your noticing of exquisite details and your seeing how absurdity brightens every ordinary thing. I can hear you telling these stories. Thanks for your humor and sadness. I’m glad you are born, too.

  2. This.
    it’s an odd thing to be grateful for. existing. because without it, we do not suffer.

    And this…
    i am driving up the bumpy tenth mile driveway. the same one. from mailbox to house. back at the ranch. the mortar of my psyche. where, if time ran all at once there would be thousands of me swarming over every hill. and the place where, whenever i am here, every other place feels like something i’ve made up.

    …I would like to buy and place on the wall – or maybe the MoMA.

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