This is Not a Story You’ll Tell at Parties: My Mom has Brain Cancer

I’ve realized recently that I don’t write about my mom very often, and when I do, it’s always sort of about her as a part of something else–my dad’s life, or my children’s. I’m not proud of this–mom is an integral part of my life, after all, and of our life as a family. Why don’t I discuss her? Why don’t I talk about her? I mean, we’ve gotten pretty tight, especially in these past ten years, and our relationship is–outside of a bumpy decade or so I’ll just call adolescence–for the most part, easy. So maybe that’s it: maybe the easy is why she hasn’t appeared on these pages so often.

See, Mom is my constant. She’s as much a part of the framework of my life that to write about her sometimes feels like writing about what it’s like to breathe, or eat yogurt for breakfast, or put in a load of laundry for Clean Sheets Day. Mom is my constant: she’s game for impromptu day trips, she’s a regular on the bleachers at CYO basketball games, and she’s the first person I call with good news or sad news or absolutely no news at all. She’s my happy given, and I guess sometimes happiness doesn’t make for good storytelling.

This, my friends, is not something I’ve taken for granted.

But now, unfortunately, I have a story to share. Gird yourselves, girls, ’cause it’s a doozy: think back three weeks, to an ordinary Wednesday evening. I’d finished up writing for the day. A glass of wine was poured and waiting for me on the kitchen counter. Veggies were prepped for dinner and I was just getting the pots and pans out of the cabinet when David rushed up to me from another room. The phone in his hand was thrust up to my ear, and I could hear my mother’s sobbing on the other end of the line before I even took hold of it. My lungs seized up and my mind went to every family member I held dearly–who was hurt? What had happened? How was I about to be destroyed? The name of every person I love ran through my mind, except for my mom’s. Because she’s my constant.

“I think I’m having a stroke,” she said. A stroke? She’d tried to call me twice, but my phone had been on mute because of the writing. She’d left a voice mail, called David, and got to me ten minutes after she needed me. My mom needed me.

I left the veggies on the counter.

Mom was speaking clearly, so I didn’t call 911. I made her talk to me the whole drive from my house to where she was, haphazardly parked in a spot outside a distribution warehouse miles from where she lives. She’d gotten confused, she said. There were lightning flashes in front of her eyes, and she had a headache. She’d wanted to get home, but couldn’t remember how. “It must be allergies,” she said. “It’s probably just a sinus headache, right?” I looked at her. She was squinting ahead, looking out the windshield, trying to figure out how she ended up parked outside a Schenker warehouse on the outskirts of Carlisle. I could safely bet this wasn’t a case of hay fever. But she was speaking clearly, so I didn’t call 911.

I got her into my car. She seemed dizzy, but Mom will joke that’s no different than usual (hey-oh!). I kept her talking, asking her to tell me where her glasses and contacts lens solution were located back at her house so we could retrieve them for her once she got to the hospital. She couldn’t tell me where she kept them, and that scared her. It was like there were just spaces in her memory that had disappeared. “Well,” she said. “I can see all those crosswords I’m doing to fight off dementia sure are a lot of help.” As we drove, she apologized for inconveniencing me. She stomped on the imaginary brake on her side of the car when I changed lanes, asked me to check my speed, then laughed as she apologized again. “Here you are driving me to the hospital, and I’m telling you how to do it!” But then she wondered about her headache, and said for the life of her she couldn’t remember where she kept her glasses. She was scaring me, but I didn’t call 911.

By the time we were a half-mile from our exit off the highway, Mom could barely talk. I pulled over to the side of Interstate 81 because she thought she was nauseous, but she didn’t seem to know what to do when I opened the door. Cars were whizzing by, shaking us every time they passed. I reached for my phone to call 911, but another car screamed by close enough for me to flinch. I didn’t have any plastic bags, nowhere for her to throw up if we kept going, so I grabbed an old blanket of David’s–one I wouldn’t have minded if I was forced to throw it out–from the trunk and gave it to her. In a most strangely timed example of mother/daughter synergy, Mom told me later that the last thing she remembers thinking that night was, “Oh, GOOD, I don’t have to mess up David’s car!…But this is one God-awful looking blanket. Where did he GET this?” And as I watched her in absolute fear, she remembers staring at the ugly blanket thinking, “I won’t feel so bad about throwing up on this!” She didn’t say it out loud, though. What I saw was the way she looked at me like somehow she’d gotten lost and didn’t know how she ended up there. We were so close to the hospital, I started the car again and merged. I was shaking, but I didn’t call 911.

By the time we were pulling off the exit, Mom had gone rigid and was staring off into space over her left shoulder. She wouldn’t answer me. She couldn’t answer me, even though I might have started begging for her to talk. In the time it took to cross the street and enter the hospital grounds, she was seizing. A grand mal, they told me later. I tried to hold her up. I remember crying “Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God” in one of the worst prayers I’ve ever said. I called her name. I drove to the wrong entrance of the hospital and ran in screaming while she seized in the car. No one was there–just me, hollering at the walls. I got back into the car, tried to keep her upright, and willed her to stay alive while I found the emergency entrance. It was then, as I again ran screaming–this time into the right place–that I called 911. I couldn’t figure out how to dial the numbers at first. Mom was still seizing in the car.

The medical team rushed out while I stood on the sidewalk, 911 dispatch talking in my ear, telling me to calm down. When the nurses thought they couldn’t find a pulse, I sank to the ground. I heard them say she was unresponsive, then I heard them finally confirm that her heart was beating. I watched them lift her to the cart, and I heard them say it looked like a stroke.

I think I hung up on 911.

But get this (are you sitting down?): It wasn’t a blood clot in my mom’s brain that caused the seizure after all. She’d been sedated and intubated and given anti-seizure meds. She’d had an x-ray and a CT scan, and lay beside me in the emergency room, unconscious and completely unaware of what had happened to her. I kept fighting this weird urge to scoop her up into my arms and protect her, whisk her away from all these tubes and monitors back to the safety of her living room. My aunt and uncle were there, my husband on his way thanks to an emergency call for childcare help to his own mom in Baltimore, my brother pacing in his house in Wisconsin with a flight booked for early the next morning. It wasn’t a stroke. Can you imagine how good it felt to hear those words? I could’ve hugged the doctor. I felt like my lungs took in air for the first time since since I’d gotten her phone call, now five hours ago.

But then the doctor finished his sentence.

It was a tumor in her brain instead.

Mom is home now, after three stays in two different hospitals, and it’s her second week without constant supervision, which she–my feisty, independent, introverted mom–enjoys. We meet with her neurosurgeon tomorrow to discuss what’s next, and up until now we’ve been suspended in some sort of limbo. I’ve been talking to and seeing my mom a lot (I’m sure she thoroughly enjoys my twice-daily “TELL ME YOU TOOK YOUR SEIZURE MEDS” texts). The children are at school, David is back in his office working. A friend texted me, asking me if I’d like to go to lunch, and I want to see her, but I don’t want to talk about it. Not yet. If I don’t think about it it’s not happening–but because it’s happening it’s all I can think about.

The children are happy enough if I pretend. They didn’t like that Grammy was in the hospital, and they definitely didn’t like that their mom was sleeping at the hospital because Grammy had to be there, too. She doesn’t look sick, they say, but they also see my swollen eyes. They have homework to go over, and friend problems to discuss. They want their life–and everyone in it–to be as it always is. David and I were going to wait until we got the definitive biopsy results back to talk to the children–they knew a little, but not it all. But Saoirse came right out with it the night I walked back in the door after getting Mom settled in back home. “Does Grammy have cancer?” she asked.

And I had to tell her yes.

Mom is my constant. I don’t want to write this story. Frameworks aren’t supposed to be busted out or broken, and yet, here we stand, watching, as the joists start to shake.

Mom is my constant. But now, as we head into this new territory, I realize that I am hers, too. And–along with a small army of other willing “constants”–we’re going to walk through this together.

Because we’re about to tackle one hell of a case of allergies.





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