“I can’t die before July 28th,” my mother said as soon as her doctor strolled into her room at Long Island Jewish Hospital. “I have theatre tickets.” Then, exhausted from the effort of uttering those two short sentences, she lay back on the pillow and shut her eyes.
Dr. Nadroo put a calming hand on my mother’s arm and looked at me, her large liquidy eyes filled with concern. Had the cancer that had begun in my mother’s bladder and migrated to her liver and kidneys finally reached the outpost of her brain?
“It’s true.” I hastened to reassure the good doctor that my mother still had all her marbles. “It’s not just any play. It’s my play.”
“Oh, are you an actor?” Dr. Nadroo asked in the soft melodious voice my mother found so soothing.
“No, I’m a writer.”
“How wonderful.” Dr. Nadroo smiled, as a beam of pride flashed across my mother’s ashen face. Then she got down to business.
After Dr. Nadroo listened to my mother’s heart and checked her vitals, she told her to rest and left the room. I trailed her into the hallway.
“Will she make it?” I asked.
The doctor busied herself with my mother’s chart, then kindly offered me three words: “It’s not impossible.”
I tucked Dr. Nadroo’s sentence away like a gift as I returned to my mother’s bedside. Though even if she’d told me my mother couldn’t possibly live another three weeks, I would not have believed her. The play, based on my short story, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” had been in the works for seven years and my mother had assured me many times she would attend opening night even if she had to crawl. “What’s taking so long?” she asked periodically as the years dragged on. “Tell them you have a sick mother,” she joked. But now it wasn’t a joke. I had a sick mother. A very sick mother. And time was running out.
My mother—my smart, funny, generous, kind, beautiful mother—was battling not one, but two fatal diseases. In addition to the cancer that was eating her alive, she also suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. In the beginning, the COPD didn’t faze her. She simply threw a portable oxygen tank into a pouch, slung it over her shoulder, and trotted off to play bridge or mah jongg or have a little nosh at the diner. But ten years out, my mother could not cross a room without gasping for breath, even with the extra oxygen. She took frequent naps. And the cancer, not to be outdone, had progressed, too. My mother’s tumors were devouring her. She lost forty pounds. Though she was in constant pain, she refused to take painkillers, preferring to tough it out, and no one was tougher than my mother. When the pain got too great, which was often, her face clenched like a fist and she let out a moan that wrenched my heart (though time and again my mother assured me she wasn’t moaning, she was “kvetching”). I couldn’t imagine her ever leaving the hospital, let alone getting her hair and nails done, dressing up, and attending the theatre. But I couldn’t imagine seeing the play without her either.
I hadn’t always felt this way.
From day one, my mother and I were polar opposites. The very first word I ever said to her was “No.” From an early age, I knew I wanted a life that looked very different than the life my mother led. She was a “housewife” as we called stay-at-home moms back then. To my scornful teenage eyes, that meant she cleaned up after my father, two brothers, and me. Who would want a life like that? It was the early seventies and I was a hippie, dressing in green khaki pants and embroidered peasant blouses. When my mother pointed out that wearing army pants was no way for a “peacenik” to dress, I stormed up to my room and slammed the door. I became a vegetarian, which my mother took as a personal rejection of the pot roasts and beef stews she cooked and served. My mother disapproved of everything: my hair, my clothes, the African-American track star I snuck out to meet (and whose love letters she discovered). During one particularly heated argument, my mother yelled, “I hope someday you have a daughter just like you.” I screamed back, “I’m never going to be a mother” spitting out the word like a piece of maggot-infested meat. The day I was to depart for college couldn’t come soon enough for either of us.
When I was twenty-seven, I came out as a lesbian. This did not improve my relationship with my mother. To avoid a scene, I wrote her a letter. She sent one back, saying she was sure I was under somebody’s influence. “You’ve always been a follower,” she wrote. “If they were marching up Fifth Avenue stark naked with frying pans on their heads, you’d be the first in line.”
After that, communication between my mother and me dwindled down to a once-a-month icy phone call. Though I was in my late twenties, I sounded like a surly adolescent as I barked out one-word answers to her questions: “How are you?” “Fine.” “What’s new?” “Nothing.” The only topic we could discuss in a civilized manner was the weather.
And then my mother got sick. Very sick. She collapsed on a cruise ship in Mexico and was taken to a hospital in California. I flew across the country not knowing what to expect. When I tiptoed into her ICU cubicle, my mother, who had a breathing tube jammed down her throat, a feeding tube stuck up her nose, and an IV jabbed into her arm, lifted her weary head and blinked at me as though she couldn’t believe her eyes. My own eyes filled with tears and my mother raised her right index finger, pointed a red polished nail at me and shook her head. I knew what that meant: No Crying Allowed.
One morning a few days later, a nurse stopped me en route to my mother’s cubicle. “Your mother had a bad night,” she said. “We gave her extra morphine. She won’t wake up for at least six hours.”
As soon as I crept to her bedside, my mother opened her eyes.
I sat down and studied her. My mother appeared so weak, so exhausted, so depleted. Clearly this could be the last time I ever spoke to her. What parting gift could I give her so she could die in peace?
“Mom, I love you and I couldn’t have asked for a better mother. I know I haven’t been the easiest daughter. I’m sorry.”
My mother slept for the rest of the day, and that evening I returned to my hotel with a heavy heart. The next morning I arrived at the hospital fearing the worst. But to my surprise, my mother was sitting up, more alert than she’d been in days. “She took a turn yesterday,” the nurse told me. “We’re about to remove her breathing tube.”
For the next seven years, my mother told anybody who asked her, and many people who didn’t, that I had saved her life. We became the dynamic mother/daughter duo I’d always wanted us to be. We spoke on the phone daily about all sorts of things: what was happening in my life, what was happening in her life, current events, fashion, and yes, even the weather. Every evening she supplied me with answers to the New York Times crossword puzzle (my mother never met a puzzle she couldn’t finish). I visited her whenever possible. I could barely remember what we had ever argued about.
And then her diseases kicked in big time. My mother became unable to clean the house, cook for my father, or manage their home. An aide was hired. There were many trips to the hospital. And then came the news that “A Letter to Harvey Milk” was at long last going to enjoy a one-week run in Manhattan, as part of the New York Musical Festival.
My mother rose to the occasion. Fortified with a blood transfusion, she left the hospital. She did indeed get her hair and nails done. The theatre had a large café, and my mother held court from her wheelchair. Though it was my day, my mother was the center of attention, and I didn’t mind one bit. Many of my friends had never met her. When one of them told her, “I’ve heard so much about you,” my mother shot me a look, and then asked, “Anything good?” My friend replied, “Everything good!” And all of us laughed.
Soon it was time to take our seats. The play, based on a short story I had written twenty-five years earlier, focused on a fictitious seventy-seven year old widower named Harry Weinberg and his friendship with Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay elected politician. But somehow, I’d forgotten the other storyline, which centered on Harry’s creative writing teacher, a young Jewish lesbian who was estranged from her parents. Talk about a thinly disguised piece of autobiographical fiction! I wondered what my mother was thinking as the character based on me told Harry about her deep loneliness and how she longed for family connection.
The play ended, the audience applauded, the cast took their bows. And when the lights came up, I looked at my mother, she looked at me, and we fell weeping into each other’s arms.
Every time I spoke with my mother after that, she told me the day we saw the play was the best day of her life. She never mentioned what it cost her. Attending the theatre was her parting gift to me; three weeks later she was back in the hospital. One week later, she entered hospice. Five days later she died.
One of the first people I called was Dr. Nadroo. Upon hearing the news, she paused, then said in a solemn voice that washed over me like water, “It was an honor to be your mother’s doctor.”
“It was an honor to be my mother’s daughter,” I responded. And it was.
I Carry My Mother is a book-length series of formal poems that explores a Jewish daughter's journey through her mother's illness and death and her own healing. For each book ordered by January 25 (Lesléa's mom's birthday), she will donate $1 to the Cancer Connection.