I meet them in the city for dinner – my father and stepmother. Big night, fancy restaurant. Running late I park the car, hurry to the hotel restaurant. They’re in the lobby, looking grim. I tug at my wraparound sweater – it gaps, exposes me. I ask is something wrong? No, she says, I’m fine. I’ve been rebuffed. Disapproves of the sweater? Mad that I’m late? She picks at her salmon, doesn’t speak. My dad makes awkward conversation with only me. She’ll be dead in a matter of weeks. None of us knows this.
A week later at my sister’s graduation from acupuncture school. Scan the auditorium for my dad, my stepmother, nowhere to be seen. After the ceremony we find them in the back. The day is sweltering and she is cocooned in head-to-toe wool. Grim smile, pinched face, cold kiss. I say, you must be hot in this. No answer. Dinner to celebrate, Airin, the doctor. She can’t order, can’t find the words for the food on the menu. The waiter holds his breath. We stare. Airin tries to coax her, tries to cover up. She lashes out, angry, frustrated. Orders the duck. Then holds her head, turns pale, doesn’t speak all through the meal. Tomorrow she’ll fall to the floor, vomit, pass out, go to the emergency room. None of us knows this.
The next day is Mother’s Day and for the first time in 21 years I do not call. Afraid she will not speak on the phone, or worse she’ll make no sense. I let the day go by, a paralyzed dream. Monday morning my father rings to tell me she’s in the hospital, there are two growths on her brain. Sitting on the back deck, holding the phone, I can feel first my chest and then my whole body sinking, the weight of the words pushing me down, so heavy a feeling I think I might crash straight through the wooden planks and into the cold, earthwormy dirt below.
Instead I pack a bag, gather the kids, point my car north to Boston. This hospital has been good to me – my baby was born here, my mother’s heart was saved here, good things here. We go up to the room and she brightens up at the very sight of the kids. Says “hello.” It’s all she can say. My brother entertains the boys while I sit with her. She grows tired and we leave.
Tuesday is surgery – we gather with the other families and wait. Smooth and handsome Dr. Park, brain surgeon, meets us in a tiny room. We squeeze together to hear the news – it’s malignant. I watch as he describes the tumor as being like a starfish, a spider, extending its tendrils deep into her brain tissue, impossible to cleanly remove without removing precious brain. He splays his hand to demonstrate. It feels unkind, this gesture. I see in a flash how every new tumor is for him a chance to improve his skills, a chance to be a better doctor, a good thing. He talks about radiation, chemo, oncologists. Three to five years tops. This is what he tells us. We cry and eat our sandwiches and wander around the hospital, lost stars. Then she is in recovery and we come to see her, watch her fingers wander up to her scalp, touching the bare patches, feeling the bandages. It’s really only two more weeks to go. None of us knows this.
They send her home. She plays with the dogs, watches the trees, doesn’t speak. Days later and the news is worse – biopsy results show a level IV glioblastoma, or GBM, the worst kind of tumor. Oligodendroglioma, glioblastoma, astrocytoma, become part of my vocabulary, familiar as cat and dog. Six to 18 months, average. I spend my days and nights researching, grasping at straws, at trials. There’s Duke University and Staten Island Hospital and some sort of miracle powder from a guy in California. There are some who live, survive for years. I think maybe, maybe. Go up on Sunday for my caregiver shift, but she’s had another spell of vomiting, complains of a headache, and is on her way to the hospital. I arrive as she walks to the car, measuring every step. I make a bad joke and she smiles for me, a gift. Car crunching away on the gravel driveway and she turns to wave, craning her neck (so painful for her!), holding that hand up like the Pope delivering a blessing, fixing her gaze on me for the last time. I don’t know this.
But she does. My dad asks in the car are you hopeful? She shakes her head no. Seizes in the hospital, slips into a coma. She loses oxygen to her brain so they intubate her. The CAT scan shows that the tumor has grown dramatically in just two weeks. Dr. Park, such beautiful skin, comes again to say let’s try to get her breathing on her own, stabilize her, take it from there. Maybe then we can start radiation. It takes 24 hours for the rest of us to catch up to what my sister (the doctor!) understands immediately: the tube must come out. It’s what she would want us to do. I’m living in a made-for-cable movie, I think, dashing for the hospital, talking to her all the while, please Polly, don’t die yet, please wait for me, don’t die without me there. It’s Lifetime, television for women. I’m there before they even extract the tube. Neuro ICU is deathly quiet; so many comas. The nurses shoo us out, whisking the green curtain shut. They pull it, clean her up, arrange for a room. Dr. Park is there and warns us: it could be hours, it could be days. It will be three days, three nights, before she dies. No one knows this.
I move into the hospital. We are all living in the room, eating, sleeping. Joking. Crying. Waiting. She lies there, hearing it all, hearing none of it. Is this a movie? My stepmother, 57 years old, landscape architect, painter, gardener, singer, dancer, mother, bird spirit, is in the hospital with a brain tumor and has slipped into a coma? Could this be real life? Hours pass, nurses come and go. Turn her. We up the morphine. Wait. My cousin brings us food…every day, a different cuisine. We eat pot stickers, tabouleh, manicotti, and hold her hot hands. Waiting. We argue over how much morphine, how elevated the bed. After two days we start to wonder if she’ll ever die. Our hospital life becomes a comfortable routine and I think I could do this forever, sit here in this room, watch the day go by. Not so much like TV anymore. We take turns curling up at the bottom of her bed, at her feet. Her children, her lapdogs, her faithful friends.
The third day drags itself into the afternoon and we start to forget why we’re there, but then it begins. The breathing slows and thickens. We gather closer, each claiming a section. My hand holding her left foot, her left shin. My father leans in, tells her it’s OK, you can go. We wait. Silently I tell her you can go, please. Please go. I can’t bear another night. Please die now. All of us holding on for dear life and saying go away, go away now, you can go now. Please go. Hours pass. Westward facing window, the sun begins to sink and the sky is full of screaming pink and orange. We watch her, watch the sky, watch the sun. She times it perfectly. Sun disappears and the breathing stops. I grab her wrist, pushing skin for a pulse that isn’t there.
My sisters keen, falling upon the bed. When they sit up there are four perfect mascara crescents on the white hospital blanket. We sit in the darkening room with her for maybe an hour, unable to do the next thing.