My Mother, the disaster

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, of course I came out to help. But I didn't expect her to seduce the doctor.

Published August 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I dreaded seeing her when she arrived home from the hospital. I hated the
thought of caring for her -- the feedings, the baths, the making merry to
entertain her. She talks, she squawks, she even cries real tears: Baby Mommy.
But this grown-up baby doll would be no crib joy, I knew. She's a bad dollie
who can turn any sickroom into a mental ward with her demands, who will spit
up her radiation therapy and sneak estrogen pills even when her oncologist
waggles his finger: "No, No, No!"

She was at the door of her apartment when I arrived from the airport, with an "Aren't I being brave?" smile mounted on her face. "Hi, Baby! I've missed you. Don't bother hugging me because it hurts. Put your stuff down and let's go shopping," she commanded. "I don't want to miss the sales."
I was flustered by her apparent fine health -- on the phone, she had described her condition post-lumpectomy as pre-Phre Lachaise. I even considered the possibility that I had been duped into this visit just to accompany her to the mall. But, as we walked toward her car, I got a better look at her sateen nightie and fur-lined mules. Mardi Gras attire at best -- except Mardi Gras was still weeks away.

"When did you come down off your anesthesia?" I asked, giving her the once over. "Maybe the Home Shopping Network is more your speed today."

"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped, tottering back to the house to pop some painkillers and change clothes. "I'm just fine, now that you're here to take care of me."

The next few days sped by in a blur of shopping and errand-running. Along the way, we squeezed in a few visits to cancer specialists to bone up on the merits of chemo vs. radiation. Later that week, we would get the results of a biopsy that would tell us if her cancer had spread, so we had time for many tactical discussions about Mom's cancer treatment.

"Hmm. Two practicing lady oncologists. Now that's a magazine story, isn't it, Laurel?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're not looking out for me," she says with exasperation. "Don't you think you could tell them you were writing a magazine article about them? I'll bet I could save 20 percent on my bill, at least, if you did an article on them."

"Sure, Mom."

"And the voodoo priestess who promised she would pray for me, I'm sure she'd give a 25% discount if you said you were definitely going to write her up for Glamour magazine. Do they have any columns about voodoo in Glamour?" Mom asks, all worked up now at the idea of a discount. As she turns toward me to gauge my reaction, the car leaves its lane and heads toward the guardrail.

"No, just horoscopes. Maybe your astrologer will give you a bargain on your next chart. Watch where you're driving, will you?"

As soon as we get in to see Dr. Sinz, Lady Oncologist, Mom begins angling for a discount. She recites my resume: "This is Laurel. My daughter. She's in from New York City, where she's a journalist [pause for effect]. And she writes about women in business and [pause] female surgeons. Right, Laurel?"

My mother looks at the doctor meaningfully, arching a brow. Sinz just stares back at Mother sternly, unaware of her role as the designated nurturing caregiver. Sinz insists that mother put on a gown, please.

Thus admonished, Mom tears up and her mouth clamps into a crooked smile that is mockingly reminiscent of the "Aren't I being brave?" smile. She wrestles her way into a flimsy robe and heaves herself onto the examining table. As the doctor pages through her chart, mom starts reciting her own version of her patient history. "This is Charlene," she says, flinging her right arm up in the air like a pooped-out pom-pom girl and proffering the affected breast to Sinz's probing fingers. "She's highly emotional, has no history of cancer in her family, but she did smoke years ago. And she won't do anything bad ever again if you can just make this go away." The tears start to spill out onto her cheeks. Mom looks back and forth from Sinz to me for reassurance.

But I'm interested only in practicalities. How can we avoid future cancer? Subtext: avoid future maternal histrionics. I inquire whether Mom should maybe start eating more green, leafy vegetables and stop ingesting so many known carcinogens.

"Are you implying that she could have prevented her cancer?" Sinz asks.

"No, of course not, but aren't there certain risk factors that she could avoid? For years, she's been living off lard and Sweet-n-Low ..."

"There is absolutely no proof that your mother's diet caused this. Nobody really knows what causes cancer in an individual," Sinz retorts.

"I can't believe you're blaming me for my cancer," my mother shrieks. "My own daughter. How dare you!"

Now, everyone's angry at me. But I think I know some things about the patient's condition that the doctor doesn't. Given the power of the mind in relation to the body, I suspect that her physical illness may be triggered on some level by her emotional illness. She's an emotional invalid with a pathological need for love and attention. She intentionally puts herself into situations in which she must be rescued by others, thus proving that she is worthy, that someone cares about her. This disaster or something like it was bound to happen. It is simply the next stage -- the physical manifestation -- of the patient's chronic emotional malaise. As the daughter-caretaker, my prescription for her (and for myself) has been homeopathic doses of therapeutic inattention. In other words, a cheap placebo marked "sympathy" on the box cover. But such therapy doesn't seem to be going over well now that this cancer complication has presented itself. Given these developments, I realize Mom has good reason to expect some real sympathy. I had better measure out a dose of apology. "Don't be silly, Mom. Of course I'm not blaming you," I reprimand.

Mom and I were close once. Just like sisters. When I was 6 years old, she confided everything in me and asked my advice on most things. I understood considerably more than she revealed to me herself. I understood that even when she was happy, disappointment and Mom's attendant rage were never far off. I understood that my little brother and I were frequently in the way, were a lot of trouble and also that we were critical to her happiness. So was my father. But, according to her, he was mostly bad and was never doing what she wanted him to do. A man was there to take care of you. A man was not supposed to break his promises, but he usually did, and this made you have to scream at him and made him slam doors as he was leaving the house and not coming back for hours. And sometimes even days. And that was when a woman told a man once and for all that "it" wasn't working and when he came back he had to turn right around and get out, for good.

After the divorce, Mom told me she had to rely on her "big girl" now more than ever. I helped watch my little brother and ran to fix her instant iced tea when I thought she might be thirsty. I wanted to be very good and do exactly what she wanted me to do. She had not asked my advice when she divorced my dad. But she promised that everything was going to be happier because of it. And when Mom was happy she was so fun, the world around her one great big delicious Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory of a place. Mom and I grew even closer than before. Sometimes she would call me over to her bedside and hug me hard and kind of smile and cry at the same time. When I asked her what was wrong, she'd say, "Nothing. I'm just so happy you're mine. My little angel." Other times she would light an oily, Crayola-colored candle from the Santeria witch doctor and perch me in front of it to ask for "guidance." She thought that I had special powers of divination. Kneeling before the Green for Money, Red for Love or Yellow for Wisdom candles, I tried to cover all my bases. I prayed with all my heart that a very rich, very smart man would come to the house and take us all away to a better place.

My mother had quit college to marry my father, so now she took what work she could get -- as a cocktail waitress or selling swampland to out-of-towners by phone. And she took what help she could get, too. If my grandfather didn't give her enough money, she would set me down in front of some paper and have me write him a letter to ask for things I needed, like my soccer uniform. "He has to help. We have no one else," she'd say. But, I knew that she also got help from her boyfriend Murray, who was always just about to divorce his wife. Over the years, many such Murrays came to the door to take Mom out on dates, but none of them wanted to become our new father.

There was no sign of my real father. And when Mom heard he had moved to Canada, far from the reach of child-support laws, she announced that this proved he didn't really love any of us. And so we shouldn't love him either. Only she, who provided us with everything, who had sacrificed so much for us, deserved our love. Though my brother and I were silent on the matter, Mother sensed that we hadn't expelled the foreign matter from our hearts as she had. If only to protect us from further disappointment, she would extirpate him herself then. She mocked us and our idiot love, and we just cried.

My mother should have understood. Her own doting father "abandoned" her, she says, by passing away when she was just a young girl. His death by tuberculosis left her stricken and alone because her mother favored her brother and tormented her. She says her mother -- the very same stooped little woman whose hands are always knuckle-deep in rugelach dough -- mercilessly hammered home her culpability in her own father's death. Mom says she was constantly told that she was a big clumsy "ox" and a "bad girl," and that her father might have lived otherwise. When Mom relates this, tears rush to her eyes even today. I suspect that's what helped to create the vacuum in her that she was never able to fill, the basis of her black-hole love.

At a certain point in those early years, I found myself pulling away from my mother. I couldn't help it. I no longer wanted to be that close to her. I didn't know why. Of course, she took it personally. I was the fruit of her womb, her little doll baby. Wasn't I supposed to be there for her, after all? Now I was the one who had abandoned her. She tried to will things back to the way they were. She cried, she lashed out, she begged for a forgiveness I didn't know how to give.

When she asked me to do the simplest things for her, I refused. I couldn't stand her touch, her smell, even the sight of her. But Mom soon discovered indirect ways to get attention. She had almost daily "emergencies" which required my help and guidance -- bounced rent checks, dead-end lovers, an IRS audit, a RICO investigation or a botched get-rich-quick-selling-Voodoo-Love-Oil scheme. How could I say no? I couldn't, but I made her pay for these incidents. I became surly and disrespectful and even cruel to her in order to discourage further petitions of help. To my mind she was the incarnation of Pedro Almodovar's "Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," or Lucille Ball. In her mind, I had also become a caricature; she called me "Bad Seed" and "the viper I nursed at my breast."

When I was 16, I asked my grandfather to pay the tuition to send me away to boarding school, then to college in the Northeast, where I finally settled. Over the years, over the thousands of miles between our two cities, I thought I had finally escaped the vortex of my mother's need. Each time she telephoned, I could feel the insistent tugging of her specific gravity, but I resisted. The rare times when guilt or any such emotion threatened my reserve, I'd tell myself, "It's her fault. She got herself into this. Let her deal with it." Then I'd make a game of scraping out the cat litter as quietly as possible while she talked whatever it was out of her system. As soon as she finished, I'd hang up, scrub my hands and return to my life unmoved.

It's been a full week since I arrived in New Orleans and we are finally in the waiting room of the surgeon's office to get the results of her biopsy. No major mishaps today. That is, until Mom confesses, "I think I made a pass at the doctor as I was dozing off before my lumpectomy. What is the etiquette for such things? Should I apologize to him or just pretend it didn't happen?"

I pretend I don't hear her.

"Come over here and sit next to me. Give me a little hug for luck?" she cajoles.

"Will you just relax already?" I hiss. Mom's face blanches creamy as almond meat, lips forming that familiar clownish half-grin. I know I should go to her, blot the twin channels streaming down her cheeks. Instead, I turn my gaze to the magazine rack as a blaze of red-tipped fingers digs reflexively into her purse for the cigarettes she quit years ago. Out spill clumsy wads of tissue, her lipstick case, a mirror. Fixing her face is her nicotine now. My relief comes dressed in white, when the nurse enters and takes her away.

After a very long wait, the nurse returns to tell me the doctor wants to see me alone.

"Where's Mother?" I ask, once I've entered his office.

"She's a mess," the doctor announces, stating the obvious.

"What happened?" I wonder aloud, hoping she will learn once and for all not to pull her seduction routine on health professionals.

"Your mom is," he pauses, taking a breath, "very unrealistic." He is shaking his head. Of course -- he has a wife, I think, spotting the back of a tell-tale picture frame on his desk. "She thought she could just come in here today, shake my hand and leave. But unless we catch it in time, it could grow out of control and travel throughout her system."

"Just what are you saying, Doctor?" I ask, alert again.

At that moment, my mother pushes into the room and fixes her gaze on the doctor, talons puncturing the balls of Kleenex in her fists.

"Go ahead," she says, "be straight with me. You know I can handle whatever it is."

Before he can say anything, her face belies her, melting into the Kabuki mask of grief I know so well. "Oh, doctor," she wails. "I'm too young. Tell me I'm not going to die."

"Sit down, please, Mrs. Touby," the doctor says from as far behind his desk as he can roll his chair. Then, more gently, he adds, "You're not going to die, okay? I mean, eventually," he draws out the syllables, "but probably not from this."

"Oh, I love you. Thank you. Thank you, Doctor," she rushes to him, and hugs his head to her chest.

Loaded up on his assurances, we leave the doctor's office. But just for the night. Tomorrow will be another surgery to remove the lymph nodes. Depending on the results of that, she could have as little as a 20 percent chance of living five more years, according to all the booklets the doctor has given her, which she promptly handed to me to study for "guidance." Whatever the statistics are, though, she's not worried. She has complete confidence in this man who, she believes, will cut her open and fix it all.

"Let's hurry over to Victoria's Secret," she says eagerly, "I saw the perfect nightgown to wear to my next surgery. On sale."

Later that evening, Mom decides we must have a pre-surgery party, so we hit the French Quarter. "We'll go out on the town, just like girlfriends," Mom says. Going out on the town like girlfriends was Mom's dream when I was growing up, but at that time, even Pale Fire lipstick and "Too Long to be Yours" mascara weren't disguise enough to get my jailbait body past the bouncers. At 12 and 34, we just came off like some "Lolita and Mom" comedy routine.

Tonight is a special occasion, so I'll do just about any reasonable thing she asks. Besides, I know Mom is trying to forget her latest love interest, Bert the Jambalaya King, who ended up being too busy even to call and see how she was. He was filling a big catering order, she explained. "It's right before Mardi Gras. This is a very emotional time for him. He'll get in touch." But Bert never called. Maybe that little reconciliation with his not-yet-ex-wife Angie had something to do with it, too, I think.

Our first stop in the Quarter is a little doll shop on Dauphine Street. I consider the night a complete success when I manage to talk her out of buying a "$300" porcelain "Beth" doll marked down to $39.95. "But Beth's so beautiful," she complains, cradling its stiff form in the crook of her arm. "Beth makes me feel secure," she adds, taking one last wistful look toward the winking neon of the store.

Since Mom enjoys all kinds of rituals, I don't think it at all strange when she announces that we should visit the St. Louis Cathedral on our way to Bourbon Street. The mass had already begun, and the parishioners were only a little startled at the sight of Mom clomping down the aisle like the Anti-Bride in her snakeskin boots and too-tight black sweater-dress.

Mom thunks down on the knee-rest at a pew up toward the front. I settle in one pew in front of her. The priest murmurs in ancient tones and rhythms. Everything is melting away now -- the cancer, the nodding doctors, the fear -- into the beeswax and myrrh and hush of the Church. It occurs to me that I've never seen my mother pray, and I turn around just far enough to get a peek at her without her noticing. The choir is singing some Alleluia refrain that I actually know and I'm singing along. But when I look at my mother, the words hang in my throat. Head bent gracefully over clutched fingers, she looks so sweet and hopeful, and so alone.

I am struck by how real she is and how real all of this is that she is going through. And there before me is the mom I believed in so long ago, the beautiful, spontaneous mom I was always so proud of, the one who let me stay home from school to draw in coloring books with her even when I wasn't sick, the fragile mom I wanted to console when everything around her was falling apart, the woman I loved so fiercely. Yes, she took and took, but she was also generous in her way. She never let me doubt my intelligence or my potential; her mantra was always that I would conquer the world that had crushed her. I realize now how much that confidence helped me to become the person I am today. Even from her chaos, she was trying to reach out and give me something she had never had and perhaps couldn't even fully imagine.

Right now, as I'm remembering all this, I want to hug her hard and sob into her chest "Mom, please don't worry. Everything will be OK. It's not your fault." Something very strange is pulling me toward my mother, a feeling so familiar and yet scary as all hell because I can't seem to control it. It is no longer her pulling though, it is my own. "Not yet, not now. No, no, no, no," I tell myself. Instead of moving toward her, I turn away. And holding my head low in my hands, I give my eyes their release over the stained old wood. Then I pray harder than I had ever prayed over the colored candles when I was a child. I beseech the grain of the wet wood, the doctors, the saints and Moses that everything will work out. But I pray most for the strength to tell my mother again, to show her all the many ways I never stopped loving her.

By Laurel Touby

Laurel Touby is a writer living in New York.

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