There was someone to pick me up at the airport. My fridge had been filled with soup and carrots and hummus and my favourite kind of breakfast toast and some Early Grey were on the kitchen bench. There was a loaner humidifier and a whole new floor lamp in the lounge. It was one of those beautiful sunny crispy autumn days that makes Wellingtonians peer up at the sky and go, “Well, we didn’t get a summer, but this is pretty good eh!” Friends came over that very night, just for a little while because I was tired. I slept most of the weekend.
I’ve topped up my Snapper card and gone to work and had meetings. I’ve unpacked all my clothes from storage and put on my warm socks and merinos and even my winter jacket, even though everyone keeps telling me it’s warm and that I shouldn’t jump the season. I’ve had dinner with friends and watched movies on my laptop and gone out for after-work drinks and had band practice and had hot chocolates at cafes and generally done all the things I normally do. “How is it being back?” everyone asks me, after they give me a spine-crushing hug. “It’s good to be home,” I say.
I call Miami every day, even for just ten minutes. Mom’s shaved her head completely, I learned during our ANZAC Day Skype chat—when I asked her what it felt like, she said “It feels…short!” and reported that she’s stopped wearing her headscarf completely. “I just don’t care!” she said with a big smile. They’re packing up the house and getting ready for the move; my sister, who clearly has some sort of superpowers that we mortals do not understand, has expertly negotiated selling the car, renting the house, and getting her brother-in-law to professionally pack up all the big art pieces, plus all the regular daily maintenance stuff at home plus caring for and nursing her eight month old. One of the radiation nurses has asked if he can stay in touch with our entire family after treatment ends next week. Mom moves to Tampa in six days, and that’s it, that will be the end of the island. The plan, right now, is for me to live here and to go back for at least a month a year. That’s my end of things. That’s all I have to do.
“You look much clearer and happier,” she said when I skyped to let her know I’d arrived safely, after the long long flights. “I’m so glad you’re there now.”
Mostly I have responded to the whooshy freedom from responsibility this week—I am not in charge of anyone’s chemotherapy!—with extreme tiredness, vagueness, and psychosomatosis as I trip around town in my multiple layers. It’s totally normal to be here and yet totally weird—never more so than when someone asks how Mom is and I have that tiny, horrid moment of “Whuh? Oh, right.” Several people at work asked me why they hadn’t seen me for a while, and I learned after a couple of well-meaning “Oooh, America! That’s a nice long holiday!” comments to lead off with “I’ve been away doing cancer care for my mum.” Everything to do with cancer seems so far away–is so far away–and it’s so tempting to just shut it out completely; to forget the oncology vocabulary; to think about those weeks in Miami as a one-time thing; to keep the daily conversations short and breezy; to just let it go with “Oh, well, my sister is handling that end of things.” It’s so tempting to leave it on the other side of the world and to be grateful that I that I did only seven weeks when so many other people do this kind of work, every single day, for years and years.
Do I even deserve to be here, going to birthday drinks and band practice? Have I deserted her when she still needs me? Will I be able to help and support and love her from all the way over here, while she’s entering a completely new stage of life that none of us really know how to handle? What good can Skypeing even do, in the face of what my sister has to handle now?
I broke down in the Miami airport, when they told me at the baggage counter that I was a minute over the time to check in for an international flight. I tried to stay calm and keep it to eyebrow-furrowing and asking to speak to the manager but instead I went straight to sobbing, right there at baggage check-in. The airline person went, within two minutes, from “It’s not my problem ma’am, it’s policy” to “Please calm down” to “Okay I think we can maybe make an exception” to “Ma’am, please calm down, you’re going to make your flight, please,” to “I don’t like to see people this upset, please stop crying,” to “Go see the TSA manager and tell them to expedite you through security, just PLEASE STOP SOBBING.” I ugly-cried through checking my bags and going through the Freedom Full-Body Irradiation, where even the airport security gave me a wide berth. “Are you…okay?” asked one of the security people. “I just…I just…I just have had a hard day and need to get on this plane” I bawled, taking my laptop out of its case and slipping my shoes off.
I’m not crying now. I’m sitting under a blanket on one of my 80-percent couches in my little flat, drinking tea and wondering if I should wear boots or heels out tonight. I don’t know what living in Wellington will be like for the next couple of weeks or months or whatever, knowing that Mom is going through so much that I can only marginally participate in and can only distancedly, time-lapsedly contribute to. There is a part of me that knows–knows–that she would be better off if I were putting all my stuff up for sale on TradeMe right now and quitting my job and getting ready to move to Tampa and to care for her full time. There is a part of me that despises the desire for any other choice I make, that furiously hates the need for the choice itself.