Why am I so fucking obsessively documenting all this.
I’m sure it’s fucking boring for you.
It’s not entirely helpful to me. Or maybe it is in ways I don’t understand.
I think maybe I just want to remember everything I can about my mother.
Every thing she did every day.
Everything she said to me.
I wake up terrified by the idea that my father might outlive her.
For twenty years twenty fucking years I’ve had a plan: when my father dies I will have a lavish party, will invite everyone I know we will have a huge bonfire we will burn effigies of everything we want out of our lives. I will cleanse myself of him I will be reborn after the fire. I’ve always planned to send out literal engraved invitations.
You are cordially invited
To a celebration of —‘s death
By his jubilant daughter
Lagusta Pauline Yearwood
Who rejoices at his demise and who wishes
To celebrate with you
A little less evil in this world as of this day.
Lavish and elegant catered meal prepared by me to follow ecstatic service
Bonfire all night
Bring what you hate
Watch it burn
I always imagined my mother and I toasting merrily at the party. To death! No l’chaim’s allowed. Afterward she would be more free as well. Knowing an abuser is dead—what better feeling could there be!
We’re less than a month from her 6-month diagnosis anniversary. 74% of pancreatic cancer patients aren’t alive a year from their diagnosis. Did you know Jews are slightly more likely to get PanCan? Also African-Americans and men. Did you know survival rates haven’t significantly risen in 40 years?
The internet is full of lies, always. Fuck it.
I do something sort of strange: checking my emails in bed I see that Jeffrey Lewis is playing in Brooklyn that night. I make a plan to go to his show. I’ll stay over at Than’s apartment on the Upper West Side and in the morning I’ll go to the Japanese confectionary I like and buy sweets made with preserved cherry blossoms flown in from Japan. I put a pair of underwear and a toothbrush in my bag and get Than’s keys. My plan is to watch the show, then go up to Jeff at the merch table, tell him about the two people we know in common, and ask if he wants to take a walk after the show.
My friends are all being such champs. But suddenly I want a new friend, who doesn’t look at me pityingly. I have my opening line all prepared: “Hey, listen, do you want to take a walk? I don’t want to sleep with you or anything, don’t worry.”
I just want to take a walk with someone new.
I never want to meet people, this impulse is so strange. I’m very into it.
About an hour later I realize that 24 hours, or even 12, without checking on my mom is insane, and feel stupid the rest of the day with a pair of underwear in my bag. Also it’s Sunday and we watch Mad Men together on Sundays and there are only five more Mad Mens to watch.
I go to my mom’s for a few hours in the afternoon and when I come back to the shop Brenna has put on the special Taylor Swift playlist she made for Sunday deep cleaning and everyone is singing along. Alexandra tells me what songs are about Joe Jonas and what songs are about other boyfriends of hers, and Adrienne says she’s “like super tall. Like, as tall as me.” And Alexandra says every Taylor Swift song has a reference to clothes and the way they’re all filling me in on the Swiftian goings on is so adorable I just listen to them sing and make tomato sauce and do inventory and feel warm.
At night I go back to her place for Mad Men. We eat spaghetti (“this is good!” she says, and she is so picky these days that I’m puffed with pride) and deconstruct the episode, and when she goes to get up she can’t. I heave her out off the couch as best as I can and eventually we get it done.
When I get home there are two pots of bloodroot on my doorstep. Molly. She’d borrowed Jacob’s truck for the day. How’d she know I’ve been craving seeing bloodroot all spring? Usually I see a little on some spring walk or another, but not this year. She tells me as a kid her parents would go on drives to find it and dig it up to replant at home. She loved it because when you pick the flowers the stems can be used like pencils because of the red dye. An artist from the start, that one. Selma named the Bloodroot collective bloodroot because the interconnected roots form distinct, individual flowers (and beautiful square leaves). A good metaphor for a collective.
Jacob flies home from Desaparecidos tour at noon and flies out for Modest Mouse tour at 5 PM. His flight in is delayed for half an hour, which means instead of seeing him for 3 hours in one month I see him for 2.5 hours in one month. He comes home to switch bags and we talk for 2.5 hours straight and he even manages to go by and give my mom a hug on his way out.
I go for a pap smear. My doctor says I don’t sound as peppy as usual and because I can’t ever keep anything in I tell her blah blah and she tells me her mother died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago. I ask her a couple of technical questions about it because I figure it’s always good to ask all doctors things because who knows, and the answers make me cry and then I’m crying and she’s crying in sympathy for me and it’s the only non-ouchy pap smear I’ve ever had. I haven’t met someone yet who knows someone with PanCan who lived more than a year after diagnosis.
H. arrives today for a little visit.
I’ve been grumpy about it. Having to take care of two elderly women seems like too much to ask. Everyone at the shop is cutely excited about it—they’ve overheard so many phone conversations with her and with my mom, and so many stories about her bossiness, pushiness, hilarious out-of-touchness, that they are hyped up to meet this character. I feel so fucking on edge, so nervous about freaking out on her.
But she’s great.
She’s so functional, I barely have to do any caretaking, just tour guiding. She’s used to a certain level of people catering to her, and is comfortable putting anyone nearby into that role, asking whoever’s nearby at the shop to find out where that draft is coming from, explain to her what they’re making, what this is, what that is. She’s a writer and editor and jazz expert and though she’s retired from all those things those are things you never retire from, and her curiosity and pushiness, in contrast to my mother’s milquetoast, achy sick-person blah, is fresh and comforting. She’s the closest thing I will ever have to an aunt, and I lean on her, confide in her, uncoil a little bit. By the end of the visit everyone at the shop is doing spot-on loving impressions of her.
We talk about my brother. “Gus—you need to make him a therapy appointment.” “Gus—have you thought about making him a list of things to do every day, and hounding him until he does them?” “H—. I can’t. Listen. I am working two full-time jobs right now. I can’t make him my third. I have to draw some lines.”
The rest of the day I hear her on the phone, telling her sister, telling my mother, “She’s doing so much right now. She needs help.”
Since my mother can’t walk, we go for drives.
I’m not so good at driving when people are in the car. Like my mother, I am only truly functional when alone. I’m a fair driver, but when people are talking—or, as is the case with Jewish women in their 70s, screaming at each other lovingly—in the car I have to be ultra-attentive in order not to take a wrong turn.
I am not at my sharpest. I make no less than six wrong turns throughout the driving day, and I’d already given H’s driver directions to get off at the wrong Thruway exit. I mean to go to Mohonk Preserve and I go to Mohonk Mountain House (where I talk my way in for free, bypassing the spendy parking fee because I am “recognized” by the woman at the door. H. is very impressed. Access impresses her a lot. So does the sky-castle, and that we sell our chocolates at the gift shop.). I have to do quick swerves three times to avoid an hour of wasted driving by going north on the Thruway when I meant to go south and vice versa. And then vice versa again. In the past six months I’ve basically driven to my mom’s apartment, to the pharmacy, and to the doctor. My car naturally noses in those directions. Going to a movie in Rhinebeck confuses everything. It becomes a running joke with my tiny little family of two. Being teased by older people who love you. I am warm with it.
H. has lived in Chicago her entire life, has spent 40 years in a fancy apartment on the gold coast (she’s one of those people who just buys the apartment next door when she runs out of space, à la Liz Lemon) and the immediate access to nature in the Hudson Valley impresses her. “Oh! Seeing that little brook does something to me. Oh, look at that river. These trees. Oy! Indeed. This is so good for me, this open air.” We never get out of the car, but it still counts as open air, I suppose.
At night Kate jumps in the car and we go to dinner and a movie.
On the drive we talk about their favorite topic, The News. H. and my mom equate a wide knowledge of the news with intellect and am subtly displeased when I don’t know the stories of the day. They’re both journalists. In their world the news is the Rolling Stone rape story, and they go over and over it. It’s too depressing for me, I’ve intentionally avoided it.
Kate and I are not up on the news. In my circle we specialize. We do our activist work and ignore the wider world horrors, choosing to focus on what we feel we can realistically ameliorate. We fill our brains with the precise things we’re obsessed with and let an expanding knowledge of those things crowd out everyday knowledge. When Kate tells my mom that she would be good at the trivia night she used to go to at McGillicuddys, I start thinking about how limiting my way of living and that of my friends can be. My mom’s generation were renaissance women. Today it’s slightly déclassé to have such a quotidian knowledge of the top stories—what can I do about the train derailment or the earthquake? I begin to see it as slightly sad, though it doesn’t come from a place of not caring but out of caring too much—the news hurts too bad. If it’s something I should take action on, an activist group I follow will tell me on Facebook to call my senator, otherwise I float along in a selfish, ultra-focused world of work and, now, careataking. Around H. and my mom this philosophy seems somewhat selfish, for the first time. I was always proud of my ability to empty my brain of all extraneous details about the wider world in order to obsessively and deeply focus.
The movie is Woman in Gold. H. makes the joke that of course my mother, a journalist for a Jewish newspaper, wants to see a Holocaust movie. “Always working, that one!” She and Kate reveal they secretly love thrillers and action movies, and my mother and I recoil. We both love a good long, quiet, costume-heavy historical drama more than anything. About halfway through the movie, during a chilling grayscale Holocaust scene, I start wondering if this will be the last movie I ever see with her. It’s the quietest, gentlest panic attack—I just stare at the ceiling and try to get my breath back and when I start feeling dizzy I gently press my shoulder into Kate’s until she notices and squeezes my hand and whispers to me to breathe slowly until it comes back. Afterward we don’t mention it. No one else noticed.
We’re hauling my mom around too much.
She’s getting so weary. I’m so scared of her falling when she gets out of the car, of me dropping her. When she has to go to the bathroom I stand outside and she calls me in when she needs me.
H. is talking at dinner about some good investments she made and how “that allows me to live the way I do.” She’s one of those people with money who are always talking to people who don’t have money about how if they only did things slightly differently they would have money.
I change the topic to the driveway renovation I want to do and how it will cost $20,000 because I want to have eco-friendly permeable pavers put in and a garden area and a major landscaping overhaul and no one is the least bit interested. My mom barely knows what the hell I’m talking about, H. finds the whole thing boring, and Kate is laughing at my obvious and obviously gauche attempt to switch the conversation around from H’s money to my lack of money.
“I’ll get some loan, or something. I always land on my feet, you know me.” What a martyr! My shamelessness is something to do, something to distract from the worry.
“Gus—are you investing? You know, you should be investing.”
“Investing? Let me get back to you in forty years when I’ve paid off my student loans and business loans and three mortgages.”
“Well—investing in real estate is certainly a good idea!”
We go to the doctor
everything is wrong
she tells her she should be in the hospital
she doesn’t want to go to the hospital so
She writes her seven prescriptions including for a wig (“cranial prosthesis”) and a portable toilet thingy and a walker and a million pills and tells me to call if tomorrow she’s not better and.
On the way back H. is telling me how she offered to give my brother $10,000 to start an insane business he wants to start making bike clothes if he can prove to her that it will fill a unique niche in the market but all he says is that it will be like every other bike clothing company and she’s trying to help him understand how he has to have an angle and
I’m feeling irritable at everything and I seriously consider telling her that I am the one with a business with a unique angle
I am the one who’s always been punished for being capable and
He is the one who’s always been rewarded for being incapable and
Why isn’t he driving us to the doctor right now and
where is his list of questions for them and
But you know
Fuck it. Blah blah.
The day you bring your mother to be admitted to the hospital it’s 50 degrees and weirdly snowing and you help your mother into her winter coat and you own a new lilac bush. The cultivar is Eisenhower. H. finds it hilarious that I wanted that one.
“Wait until I tell your mother. Eisenhower! Do you know who he was?”
“You’re asking me if I know who Eisenhower was?”
H. is buying me the lilac. The little b&b she’s staying at cultivates lilacs and there are fifty to choose from. Later I want to call the lilac people, tell them not to cash her check, I don’t want it. Every time I look at it I’ll think of today. In the end I don’t call because it seems stupid to leave her room to make the call.
When we were cleaning up and preparing to put her in the hospital
the doctor had said she might be there a bit so be prepared. “A few weeks, maybe.”
what H. and my mom mostly wanted to talk about was what books she would take. My mom had me go to the library and get a book she had on hold, The New Jim Crow. H. is telling me I have to get her All the Lights We Cannot See. “Gus—it just won a Pulitzer. The library has to have it.” My mom is yelling weakly, “My god, H.! If it just won the Pulitzer I’ll have to wait for it for weeks! You buy books, you do not understand the library system!” H. has Kate call both local bookstores but they’re sold out of it. My mother resents H. telling her what to read, H. wants to be the more intellectual of the two. Patterns patterns patterns.
In the emergency room
because they told us even though they know she’s coming it’s easier to go to the emergency room
they wheel us to a room that looks like a bathroom on a plane, just stretched out, but those rounded corners and queasy vibe.
Kate came with me because I couldn’t stop crying after the accident happened and all that and she said “Do you want me to go with you?” and I nodded so she does and it turns out to be ten hours until she’s sorted into her own room and I feel so bad for Kate, whose mom is sick too, always sick, and she’s missing being with her to be with my mom and it’s weird and awkward when she thinks about it but here she is, here for me, gently falling more in love with my mom every day. They have a lot in common, really.
My mom is worried about the hospital of course but she’s calm too. The accident cannot be described here and it was scary for us both and also the thing that came before it which was that I couldn’t get her out of the car.
So, H. is ludicrously allergic to cats, which means she can’t hang out at my mom’s place, or my place, and the stairs are too much to go to her b&b, so we mostly go to the shop where it’s easyish to get inside and there is no fur
but today I couldn’t lift her out of the car and she was falling and I screamed for H. to get Maresa and thank god she was at work early and together we got her before she hit the ground. then about an hour later the accident happened and i called the doctor and here we are at the emergency room in the airplane bathroom room for the next eight hours.
In the emergency room we are talking about our views on serial commas
She’s not for them “in all cases,” but Kate and I are. But she’s better at grammar in all cases than both of us so.
Then we are playing the grocery alphabet game and I am the worst at it. Two days later they can still recite it. Apples bar of cereal cherries dial soap eucalyptus farro grapes habanero peppers ice cream jello kale lemons mango noodles oranges pineapple quercetin ribs comma tofu soda tea Ugandan rice vinegar waffles xanax yellow corn zebra cakes.
My brain is blank blank blank.
When they’re checking her in they ask her marital status and she says “divorced” and I let out a loud woo that makes her laugh. They ask her religion and she says “Jewish, I guess” and then looks at me– “Only a Jew wouldn’t be sure how to answer that question!”
I am next door in an empty room while the nurses help my mother use a bed pan. She keeps telling them she’s never used a bed pan. She keeps telling them “The last time I was in a hospital was 33 years ago, when I had my second child.” She is telling the nurses that I usually help her to the bathroom. She is telling the nurses I am a good daughter, “so helpful—she’s brilliant too, absolutely brilliant.”
Her room, when we eventually get checked in, is weirdly beautiful, overlooking the Hudson and bigger than any hotel room I’ve ever been in. The hospital is restorative to her, which is I guess what hospitals should be but rarely are. There is an entire vegan menu, and she doesn’t mind the food. Amazing. I only begin to realize the kind of care she needed when I see the nurses giving it to her. She gets a little better every day.
I’m helping a customer and I answer the phone in the middle of putting a ribbon on a box. One thing of having a sick family member is that you always have your phone on, it’s never silenced, the ringer is always up high. “What’s after ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’?” “Um…I think that’s it? I think that’s the last book he published?” “No, I mean what’s the next line?” “Oh. ‘Seymour, an Introduction’?” “No no no, the next line of the poem!” “I didn’t even know it was a poem!” “What? It’s Sappho.” “Oh—I bet you could Google it?” I hang up and the customer, a regular but not one I’m particularly close to, says, “I bet that was your mother. Everyone talks to their mother in the same way.”
She remembered that it was a wedding poem, and wanted to write it in a card for Jonathan, her Chicago yoga teacher who met a man in Belgium last month he’s marrying today. When I get to the hospital later that day she’s so pleased: “It is a wedding poem! And for two men, what better a poet than Sappho!”
Raise high the roofbeams, carpenters!
Hymenaon, Sing the wedding song!
Up with them!
Hymenaon, Sing the wedding song!
A bridegroom taller than Ares!
Hymenaon, Sing the wedding song!
Taller than a tall man!
Hymenaon, Sing the wedding song!
Superior as the singer of Lesbos—
Hymenaon, Sing the wedding song!
—to poets of other lands.
Bloodroot is blooming and the trout lilies are out in my backyard. The little anemones, too, and the violets are just starting. The yellow daffodils and the white ones with the yellow centers. I collect some to bring to her, and I go to her place and play with her cats and I collect some grape hyacinth and what are those little blue flowers that dot the whole world in the springtime? Not cornflowers. Little darker blue ones.
She’s going for tests and scans today, and then Korn and Kara and Kate are coming to take me to lunch. Korn’s father died of pancreatic cancer almost two years ago. They’re going to talk to me about Logistics. Things to think about, things to plan for, things they wish they’d done differently.
The doctor comes in with the test results while they’re visiting. They go out into the hall and he sits down. The swelling (called edema) is all over her body, which we can see. But it’s also in her lungs and intestines, everywhere inside, she’s still so low in potassium that they’re worried about her heart, so weak, still has the small blood clot on her leg, and the oncologist will be in tomorrow to talk about what the scans showed about our BFF, the tumor.
He tells us we should talk with the oncologist to make sure her DNR request is in order.
As he’s walking out I go into the hallway and ask him how she seems, for someone in her condition. “Badly. She’s doing badly. When was she diagnosed? I’d give her another six months. I’m so sorry.”
After everyone leaves the sun is setting and the room is bathed in light and I’m arranging all the perfect handpicked flower bouquets everyone brings for her and she’s so exhausted. She looks up at me and says, “My god, you look so beautiful today.”
I never minded not having family.
I have my mother and that was enough for me. I’ve always been that person with a couple close friends who’s otherwise a loner. But now I need people like fuck every single day. I need help making phone calls, Googling things, navigating endless learning curves. My friends are endlessly endlessly endlessly helpful and Jacob on tour does what he can from afar but sometimes they all ask about my brother. Can he drive her to that appointment? Why not? He wanders around town, pops into the shop, asks for macarons and peppermint patties. I tell them that he’s just not functional, deeply deeply dysfunctional. He can’t handle this. Despite my vow not to take on his case, I begin calling therapists, seeing if there are support groups for adults with Aspergers he can attend. I’m the only one who’s diagnosed him with Aspergers. Me and my therapist, who hasn’t met him. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but it’s…it sounds so exactly like what he has.”
When I get to the hospital she is giving money to a women’s organization in Israel who are going to Nepal to help with earthquake aid, she’s telling me how bad the Jewish right wing is, she’s telling the nurse who comes in to take her blood pressure how pretty her eyes are, she’s telling me how much she wants Maresa’s homemade butter on a toasted everything bialy, she likes the Athena bookmark her alma mater, Bryn Mawr sent her. She likes the book I picked up for her. She is looking good. Feeling good. The albumin and the diuretics and the potassium and the blood transfusion (her third) are all helping the swelling go down and giving her strength.
What is good, for me, is singing along to Low while I drive. After a while I figure out it’s because singing along to Low makes you breathe really well, good strong deep breaths. It takes me about six repetitions of Laser Beam to get to and from the hospital and I arrive home feeling as calm as if I’ve done my meditation app.
I’ve noticed it’s a bad sign when doctors hug you instead of giving you real information. Today I saw the doctor on call at the nurse’s station and asked her opinion of her general health. “She’s frail.” She gives me sad eyes. I tell her I know she hasn’t been seeing her for long, but if she was her patient, would she recommend more chemo. She tells me it’s a big decision and she can’t say, but I should prepare myself. She gives me a hug.
Back in the room she’s reading the paper. My mother and I take great joy in making fun of the New Paltz Times every week. It’s an election season, so it’s extra great. Butch Dener wrote a letter to the paper saying that a candidate for Trustee instituted a “progrom” against a restaurant he didn’t want to see on his street. We discuss writing a letter to the editor about it. I’m pretty sure he’s a Jew, which makes it more disgusting. Our all-time favorite is this column written by an elderly woman who, as my mom put it, “clearly wasn’t a journalist in a former life.” It’s a collection of random paragraphs and we’re 99% sure it’s written by Onion staffers who have somehow managed to slip it into the NPT. This week’s column:
Paragraph 1: spring is nice.
Paragraph 2: baseball is nice when it’s not too sunny.
Paragraph 3: there are a lot of scams out there. Be careful when answering the phone.
Paragraph 4: I can’t figure out how to fold fitted sheets.
Paragraph 5: Check for ticks!
Paragraph 6: “Watching the grandkids working on their I-Pads, computers, and other electronic things, I wonder if learning cursive writing is necessary.”
Mother’s Day is heating up. Being away from work this much is starting to hurt. Paradoxically, I am spending so much time with my mother that I’m behind on launching our Mother’s Day chocolates.
Everything gets done in time.
& if it doesn’t, who cares.
In the end I make all peanut butter chocolates, for her, Pauline Benjamin, my PB who loves pb.
Jacob flies to South Africa for a quick tour before he flies to Thailand to start vacation and I bring my mom home from the hospital. Michael, our old pal who started a cheese business in the back room of the shop and now runs a vegan cheese empire in a pristine factory up the street, is there too. Weird. Michael takes Jacob to see all the best music (“clubs they’d never let you into without me” — oh, Michael.) and he and Juan go on some safari in a game preserve and see all the animals. Our lives are usually very different, but Jacob in a Jeep watching a baby elephant rescued from a circus cross a river in South Africa while I’m leading my mother to and from the bathroom is a pretty intense contrast.
She gets stronger every day.
And around the corner is May.
At midnight I watch for the clock to tick over, focusing on my breath like my meditation app calmly reminds me to do. On each intake I whisper “fuck you” and with each outtake I breathe out “April.” I push the month away from me, spit it out, shit it out, get as much distance as I can from it.
And it works.