Up at 7:30, breakfast at 8:30, morning pills by 9:20 and in the car by 9:30 to make it to treatment in Miami Beach by 10:15. “Okay, Mom,” I say, ”please get started on your protein smoothie. Okay, Mom, please check your chart. Okay, Mom, please let this dissolve on your tongue and then rinse your mouth.” She always puts on lipstick and wears something pretty to radiation; the techs and nurses treat her like a queen and regard me, by now, with something between professional respect and healthy fear. “I would appreciate it,” I murmur, my notebook open, my eyebrows ever so slightly raised, “if you would relay my message to the medical oncologist, as soon as possible. Thank you so much.”
Sometimes a blood draw, sometimes an extra doctor’s consultation. I hope there’s not too much tennis tournament traffic on the way home and ask if she’s got enough energy to eat lunch before she goes for a nap. I vacillate between furious housecleaning and slack-jawed internet procrastination, wondering what we should have for dinner, wondering if I can get the books to be donated to the library packed up today, wondering if I can get her some scarves to cover her hair. If the phone rings, I answer it. “She’s doing as well as can be expected,” I say. “Yes, I’ll tell her. Thanks so much for calling.” I put another load of laundry in the dryer and feed the cats. I write the check for the housekeeper. I send my sister a three-page document of questions to ask about long-term care.
One of Mom’s friends is coming over to hang out for a while so that I can do errands off the island. Target is over with sooner than I thought and plug in my ipod to take the long way home, driving slowly through some of the nicer Miami neighbourhoods, under a canopy of Spanish-mossed banyan and ficus trees, bouganvillea spilling over the plastered walls. Nothing like Wellington or any of the other cold rainy places I’ve lived, nothing like anywhere else. I pass my gifted elementary school, so expanded now I hardly recognize it. I pass my high school. The ipod plays, I brake for a red light, and feel nothing but tired.
Fuck you, you’re tired, says a sneering, brutal voice in my head. At least you don’t have cancer.
Well, you don’t right now, says another voice: calmer, more practical. More frighteningly matter-of-fact. This voice has a master’s in social work and has worked with people with disability and chronic illness. No MRI has been done on me, no tests have been administered—why would they have been? I think of my mother thirty years ago: single parent, two kids, starting a new career, getting her master’s, going on pointe for the first time. Not thinking about tumors, surely. I imagine myself in thirty years: I will have no partner, no children. No one to do this work for me. No weekly housecleaner or fresh flowers, when it’s my turn.
Flowers, right. I stop at a tiny expensive fresh market, right near where I was a day camp counselor when I was sixteen, and get two bunches of pink and white tulips. Shut up, I tell myself, navigating the aisles—I don’t know which voice this is, but it’s not in a good mood–shut up shut up shut up. Get your tulips and your goddamn organic soup and get home and get over yourself and get it done. Keep her happy, keep her safe, keep her appointments. Just get it done. I unfold the only reuseable grocery bag in South Florida from my purse and drive home along the bay, over the bridge, onto the island.
She and her friend are sitting on the couch chatting and laughing when I get back. I put the groceries away and sit down with them for a while, offer something to drink. Dinner is at 6:00. She tells me about their chat and ask if I had a nice time doing my errands. We talk about the neighbourhoods I drove through and about how much my schools have changed. Evening pills by 7:15. “Okay, Mom, please check this one off the chart. Okay, Mom, one more and we’re done.” She sweeps the kitchen floor while I fold the laundry, goes up to her room and waits for me to get her sorted out with her nightly DVD and ice cream. The other day I crumbled sea salt chocolate over vanilla and have not yet been able to out do myself in terms of flavor combinations; tonight I bring her plain strawberry. She accepts it from me with a smile.
“What are we doing tomorrow, honey?” she asks.
“Same thing, Mom. Radiation in the morning and then we’ll come back here and do some of our work. We need to give those books away to the library.”
“Another big day,” she says, settling in against her pillows. I got her some new sheets a couple of weeks ago and we remark on their beauty and softness a minimum of twice a day.
“Yeah, another big day.”
“Well,” she says, taking a spoonful of ice cream. “Thank you for a nice one today.” She hugs and kisses me good night. I go downstairs to turn off the lights and let the cats in, back upstairs to get ready for bed. Get it done, I think, listening over the sound of her TV to make sure she’s not calling me, that there isn’t anything she needs. Just get it done.