My Mom had pancreatic cancer and when that played itself out (there’s no one way or the other here – it was terminal and she had a couple of weeks, at most), I was going to ask her oncologist out on a date. Yeah, shameless though, in my defense, I never did, for reasons to be explained later. I had gotten to know her, the doctor, quite well. Every day after work I would drive to the hospital to visit my mother. I would tell her that, whatever happened, she wasn’t alone, that I loved her, that she was, is, and will be the best mom, ever. But, to be honest, I also went because I wanted to ask her doctor the usual questions, get the usual answers, and watch the way her mouth moved when she spoke.
We didn’t talk about her dying, my mother and I. We talked about scandals on her side of the family, pious Norwegians, Lutherans, who weren’t, as it turns out, all that pious. She was very funny telling the stories, animated, her arms swinging the tubes plugged into her arms like a little trapeze there on her bed. I would close my eyes the better, I would say, to imagine what my mother had done to the woman who had married her brother, the Luverne, Minnesota brother, when this woman, my aunt, had fallen below the bounds of what my mother had felt was tolerable hypocrisy. What her other brother, the Fountain, Colorado one, had once done and to whom in college. And the way my father courted my mother (“He was charming and persistent, and not a little crazy.” Yup, that sounds about right.). The fact is, though her voice was still strong and resonant (I had just told her how I loved what I called her saying-good-night voice), she had lost 45 pounds and it grieved me to look at her. She had been a model in Minnesota. She told me cigarette company reps would get the models hooked on those damn cigarettes, claiming that it was an effective weight loss method and hooked she was, almost up to the very end. She would tell me that while the cancer was “a bit unpleasant” (in light of what I later found out, that was the understatement of the century), it was torture going cold turkey. It didn’t take much to see the effect: now, well, now she was skin and bones. She wasn’t a skeleton because the skin didn’t tighten up, it just sagged so that, when she was still at home but already dying and I had moved back from London to take care of her, the massages and neck rubs I would give her to ease her pain reminded me of a chicken that had been stewed.
Nothing sagged on the nurse. She had just finished her internship and was 32, the same age as me. She had what in those days was called a tennis body, but no one under the age of 30 remembers what that was like. She was witty and smart and I couldn’t figure out how she could be so adorable one moment and so clinical the next. More than once I thought about sharing with her donuts (flowers in a hospital would be vulgar) I would bring my mother (maple bars, sugar donuts). And more than once I imagined how perfect it would be to sit with her on the sofa, a lit fire, the dinner dishes still not cleared from the table, and have her read Gray’s Anatomy to me. Yeah, pathetic. But again, we never got that far.
Sometimes I would wonder if my feelings for this doctor were somehow related to my feelings for my mother. It was very emotional, these visits, especially before and after, knowing she wasn’t going to be around much longer. When I was there I was cheery and quiet. Perhaps, I thought, I was simply seeking another route onto which I could direct my affection. Perhaps it was just a fantasy, an analgesic fantasy. But I never examined this thought too much. For one thing, I was too numb for any kind of rational thought. And another, I had other things on my mind. So, numbly and irrationally, I was going to ask this kind and compassionate doctor out when it was time.
I remember that the room itself may have been monumental and calm but that I was always laughing. I had never known that my mother was so funny. Perhaps she always was when I was growing up but she simply got drowned out in the din and clamor of a raucous family. In fact, the last words I ever said to her were “Mom, I never realized you had such a sense of humor.” Burrowed deep in her drooping face, her brown eyes would glitter and it was her glittering brown eyes I was looking at when she responded, her last words on Earth, “Funny? I’m goddamn hilarious.” And then she left us.
At that moment I was holding her hand, thinking that she was finally in some radiant place with my father, who had died three months prior, and with people who didn’t mistreat animals and loved Christmas and were tolerant of each other’s follies, that she was no longer be in any pain which, I suspected, had to be intense even with the morphine and whatever else I imagined they were giving her. That’s when the doctor came in. I think she knew more from my posture than from anything empirical that my mother’s time had come. Before she got to the bed she walked over to the phone, dialed a three number extension, and said something I couldn’t understand. She walked over, a dim smile on her face. She checked the pulse, closed the eyes. She said she was sorry. “Thank you,” I said, in a state I later realized was shock.
She walked toward the door and then came back into the room. “Your mother was a very special woman,” she said.
“Yeah, she was. She really was.”
“I got to know her quite well and the doctors and nurses all loved her.”
“Yeah,” I said, she had the ability to make everyone feel special, even my Luverne, Minnesota aunt.”
“Ah yes, that one. We had quite a few chuckles about her.”
“What I mean is, she was really heroic the way she faced up to this. I never could have done what she did.”
“Faced up to what? What did she do?”
“You mean, I shouldn’t, um, you don’t know?”
“I’m breaking all the rules of doctor-patient confidentiality here but…” She pulled over a chair from the table, the table covered with flowers and cards and drawings of kites and dogs from her four-year-old grandson, and sat down. Our knees were almost touching.
I can still see her sitting there. What she said didn’t take more than a minute, which is just as well because the room quickly filled up with nurses and other hospital personnel doing whatever it is they do when someone dies in a hospital. But in that minute I heard a story that changed my life.
“I know about your grandfather, her father.”
Yes, my middle name is his first name. A farmer, a gentle, quiet man. My mother definitely took after her father. He taught me how to tie all sorts of knots and how to whittle. He had died 12 years before in a convalescent hospital. I still remember the night he died. I was watching the sitcom “Julia,” with Diahann Carroll as a nurse, while my father was reading the paper. My grandmother, my mother, and my sister had gone to the convalescent hospital where he was recuperating after having had a stroke a few months prior. A few minutes after they left the phone rang. My father answered it. “She’s not here at the moment,” he said, and then “Shit, okay, well, thanks for calling.” He came back into the den. “Your grandfather just passed away and they (my grandmother, my mother, and my sister). Shit, shit, shit.” I remember how my stomach felt like a horse had just kicked it. “Shit, shit, shit,” I said. No having a clue what to do or say, I went and picked up my room. I knew that always impressed my grandmother. My father went to wait outside.
I could hear the station wagon pull up in the driveway. Then I heard the crying. Three women, each in a different tone, a different register, a different volume. My sister, in her “I didn’t do it, Jamey did” wa-wa voice. My mother, in her panting voice, like she had just raked leaves in the backyard. And my grandmother, in what I later learned was an ululation, a wailing of grief.
“Did she tell you how he grew up on a farm in Minnesota, that his parents came from Norway, how he…”
“Not exactly. Let me ask you something. Do you know how he died?”
“Yeah, he had a stroke.”
“Well, he did have a stroke. But what ended up killing him was, was…”
“Wait, what are you saying?”
“Apparently your mother didn’t want you to know.”
“What actually killed him was, he, he was starved to death in the convalescent hospital.”
She was still talking but I couldn’t hear any of the words. I just sat there, looking at her. Here my mother had just died in front of me and then I hear that my beloved grandfather had been, had been starved to death.
“…and that’s why she wouldn’t take any pain medication.”
“What do you mean she wouldn’t take any pain medication? She died; she just died from pancreatic cancer. I’ve heard that it’s an incredibly painful.”
“It’s horribly painful, but she wouldn’t take anything. And there was nothing we could do. If she didn’t want to take it, we couldn’t force her. I had heard that religious people sometimes wouldn’t seek pain relief because they want to be fully aware – aware and in excruciating pain – for the moment they die and their soul goes wherever it goes. And that’s what we figured. The cancer was far too advanced when she got the diagnosis that chemo wouldn’t have done anything, so we just wanted to give her hospice care. When I think about it, she was unusually adamant about not being put into a convalescent hospital and now I see why. Jesus. Later, when I could see that her pain was unbearable, she asked me if I would sit and hold her hand. She told me she wanted to be presentable because you were going to arrive shortly. And that’s when she told me. I was stunned. She had said it was her penance for having chosen the convalescent hospital that killed her father. I can’t believe she thought it could have been her fault. Was she a religious person?”
“Growing up she was and then she met my father and became, as he described it, a jolly pagan.”
“Well, anyway, that’s it, that’s the story. As I said, she was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.”
She stood up and patted my shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, whispered something to the nurses and other people who had suddenly appeared in the room, and left.
I never ended up asking her out. In the 32 years since that day, I’ve never stopped thinking of the word the doctor had used. Penance. I had heard stories about crosses that people bear but that’s all they were to me, stories. This was something concrete, something real, something from out of the blue. The funeral and reception were huge, though I think all the fuss would have made her blush. Coming back from the gravesite in a limousine with various cousins who had flown in from the Midwest and were passing hip flasks back and forth, I just kept looking out the window. At the traffic, the billboards and, finally, the cloudless skies. I had missed getting drafted and going to Vietnam by the skin of my teeth and so I didn’t witness acts of anonymous heroism, as my father, a World War Two Marine in the Pacific, called it. And that’s what this was, an act of anonymous heroism, by a woman who had carried a tragic secret with her all those years, a secret that prompted in her an extraordinary act of private courage. A secret that, as I later found out, no one, not even her Colorado brother, ever discovered. I have to think she didn’t tell my father, though now there was no way of knowing. Had he known, I imagine that heads would have rolled. That’s the kind of guy he was.