27 May 2014

'A screwed-up game of Would You Rather'

8:40 am on 27 May 2014

When Mum called to tell me she had cancer I didn’t answer. I looked up from my eggs on toast, registered her name flashing on my phone, and decided that whatever Mum wanted could wait.

It waited until after I’d showered, watched an episode of Orange is the New Black, painted my nails a lurid green, and taken the polish off after discovering it looked foul. By the time I called her back I was late for work.

Mum told me that she had some odd test results and that the doctors might have “found something”. She told me she was frightened and that she didn’t want to die. I put aside my sense of dread and told her she was being silly. “People get odd test results all the time. And even if there is something they’ll just remove it. Easy.”

I went to work. I sat in a meeting. I realised with some detachment that the hatred I felt for the guy next to me clicking his pen was irrational.

Louise and mother illustration

Photo: Pinky Fang

My sister called. “They have the scan back. There’s something in her liver.”

I stared at the computer screen, trying to remember what the liver did. It sounded important. I have an intense aversion to crying in public, and emailed my boss to let her know I needed to leave. I explained that if she came over to talk to me about it or even glanced in my direction then I’d make the most horrible scene. The smiley face at the end of my email was intended somewhere between a “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine!” and “Sorry for the inconvenience”.

As Mum lives alone, my two younger sisters and I were to be her main support network over the coming months. All three of us are over the age of 20, but Mum invariably refers to us as “the kids”.

One sister moved up from Dunedin to live with her, and the other took responsibility for shuttling us to and from the hospital. All three of us became Mum’s medical spin doctors. We’d sit in the appointment room with her as men wearing suits and white coats explained that things didn’t look good, and think of ways in which to frame it in a positive light afterwards.

On some level, I’d always expected Mum to get cancer, but I thought it would happen when we were both older, when she’d have some pleasant gentleman-friend to help her through it, and I’d have more of my shit together

The toughest hospital visit fell on my birthday, and was with a doctor whom we all agreed was a lovely man despite being married. He told Mum that he would operate, but that her cancer did not appear to be curable or even treatable. The lovely doctor told Mum that he’d try to buy her some time.

My diary entry from that day is grim. “Today I realised for the first time that Mum is going to die”.

On some level, I’d always expected Mum to get cancer, but I thought it would happen when we were both older, when she’d have some pleasant gentleman-friend to help her through it, and I’d have more of my shit together.

As I listened to the bleak prognosis, I decided to become The World’s Best Daughter. My patience and grace, even in the face of the horrors of palliative care, would be saintly. I would learn to make meals more advanced than toast, and lovingly keep vigil by my mother’s sick bed.

We were arguing before we even reached the car park.

I wanted her to get counseling to help her cope with the bad news. She said she was a very private person, and that she’d be uncomfortable talking to a stranger about her situation. “Besides,” she added, “I have you three girls to talk to.” Our goodbyes when she dropped me home were frosty.

The weirdest thing about Mum’s cancer was that we’d still behave poorly towards one another. Throughout the days of tests and subsequent chemo treatments, I found myself capable of being surly and antagonistic towards her. I grumbled about the early appointments. I sighed theatrically when I had to check on Mum after work. I groaned with embarrassment as she told the nurses her age in a confidential stage whisper yet again. It’s odd to argue with your mum about what colour Christmas tree lights to get when she’s hooked up to some pretty scary chemo drugs.

Apparently I wasn’t alone in thinking that Mum’s cancer should have made me a better daughter, with distant relatives telling me and my sisters that we’d now need to “step up”. But in some ways it had a profoundly positive effect on our relationship. It allowed us to interact with one another more maturely; I broached topics with her that had seemed impossible to speak of weeks prior. At one point I told her that I was grateful she hadn’t instead been hit and killed by a bus.

“It would have been quicker if you had, but we wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye, you know?”

“Hmm, true. Not knowing would have been nice, but I do think cancer is better overall.”

It’s as if we were playing some screwed-up game of Would You Rather.

There was only one occasion that my emotion overcame my distaste for crying in public. Mum had been in surgery that morning and I asked at reception to be directed to her. Three hours later I still couldn’t find the woman.

Every person I encountered seemed bewildered by Mum’s existence and sent me down a hall, or up a floor. Eventually I returned to where I’d started and the kindly expressions on the receptionists’ faces broke me completely. They murmured soothingly and passed me tissues as I bawled and thickly repeated “I want my m-m-mum”. It was in that moment that I realised how much I need her.

With time, Mum’s prognosis improved. The surgeon was able to remove more of the tumor than expected, and the chemo was more effective than we could have hoped. The numbness I’d felt when I thought she was dying melted away to be replaced with a mixture of hope and anxiety. It’s almost more difficult to talk about Mum’s health now that she has the chance to outrun cancer and live to some stupidly old age.

I believe a lot of my antagonistic behaviour during Mum’s treatment as the result of fear. Now she and I are a lot kinder to one another. My sisters and I are still “the kids” to Mum but this doesn’t aggravate me as it once did. If I learnt anything from her cancer it’s that being perfect doesn’t matter, but being there does.