Eventually, we will realize that Mom has been feeling unwell for a very long time.
We will remember the afternoon in May when my wife and I had my parents over for dinner and Mom drank just a single glass of wine, barely touched her food.
We will remember Father’s Day, and how she stayed behind at the lake cabin while my brother and his girlfriend and my wife and I took Dad to the Snake Alley Art Fair in Burlington. We will remember how she said she didn’t feel up to walking the steep and angled swath of limestone and blueclay bricks once dubbed by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not the crookedest road on earth.
We will remember phone calls the last couple weeks of June that went unanswered, unreturned.
I don’t think much of it when my calls keep going to voicemail. I am calling mostly to see if Mom is at the lake cabin because it’s summer, and I don’t have to work, and I want to go out there and write for the day if the place is unoccupied. I am finishing the latest round of revisions on my short story collection so that I can submit it to a few contests, and I like working at the lake. I am frustrated and a little annoyed when Mom doesn’t get back to me, but it doesn’t once occur to me that she is avoiding my calls, acting intentionally.
Then the doorbell rings early one evening, the last day of June.
Jane and I are upstairs in our bedroom watching a movie, and when I get up to see who it is, I can see Dad through the front door from where I stand at the top of the stairs.
My parents live less than a mile away from us, but we don’t show up at one another’s houses unannounced. I consider for a moment not answering, letting him think we are gone.
As soon as I open the door, Dad begins talking through lips gone rubbery from crying. He says that Mom is really sick. He says the cancer is everywhere: her liver, her adrenal glands, her lung. He counts out these places touching the tips of three fingers.
There is a liver biopsy scheduled the next day, July 1st. He wants to know if I will travel with them to Peoria. I say that I will.
The biopsy is needed to determine the cancer’s primary site. Mom endured a single mastectomy for breast cancer a year and a half earlier at the age of fifty-five, and things have seemed fine since then. Still, the cancer that is now everywhere might have originated in the liver, lung, adrenal glands, or breast.
While Mom is having her liver biopsied, Dad is understandably nervous and fidgety. He talks nonstop, which isn’t so unusual. At one point, he says, “Back when she had breast cancer, she just knew she was never going to get to read that book.”
The book in question, I know without having to ask, is the fourth book in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle.
Mom has the enthusiasms of a teenage boy. She likes science fiction movies and plays video games and reads the kinds of series books available at any big box store. She is a very easy person to buy presents for, and I’d bought her the first two Paolini books years earlier, knowing she’d love them. When she finished reading them, she immediately got online and pre-ordered the third book in what was supposed to be a trilogy. Later, when she realized the Inheritance Cycle was going to contain a fourth book, she pre-ordered it as well.
The book still hasn’t been released by the time her cancer has returned, but I tell Dad that I have friends who know people, that I might be able to get my hands on it.
He doesn’t seem to believe me. We live in Illinois, after all, about a million figurative miles from New York City and the heart of the book industry, which is just that, he thinks, an industry.
A few days later, we are all at the lake cabin for the Fourth of July. Mom isn’t breathing well. She lets Jane take care of much of the food. At one point, the Paolini book comes up, and I tell Mom that I have already emailed my friend Amy Greene to ask if she would be willing to talk to her editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, to let her know about our situation. I explain that Robin probably knows Paolini’s editor, that there’s a chance this could all work out.
Mom is Midwestern to the core, not much of an optimist. She refuses to even entertain the possibility. She waves a hand dismissively and then reaches for the binoculars on the patio table, trains them on a blue heron extending its wings out over the water, swooping low.
When I am eight and nine years old, Mom takes a job working in the library at one of the grade schools in town, not the one I attend, and she weekly brings home books for me to read. C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Ray Bradbury. I never open a single one of them. It isn’t until I am eighteen that I begin to take pleasure and solace in books. When I do, I start with Hemingway and Faulkner and move on from there.
Mom has always read indiscriminately, three or four books a week, often while sitting in front of a television tuned to the Disney or Sci-Fi Channel. Once, when I am an undergraduate English major who’s decided he wants to be a writer, I place a copy of Faulkner’s Collected Stories between her ashtray and her remote control. Three days later she returns the book to me, saying, “That father, he is not a very nice man.”
I also give her one of my own stories to read around this same time. It is about a boy living with his mom and sister in a trailer park in Indiana. The boy’s father, a truck driver, is long gone, and the boy often spends his nights with a CB radio, clicking through channels and talking to various truckers, hoping one of them might be his dad.
After she reads it, Mom suggests a rewrite. “First,” she says, sitting up in her seat, excited, “aliens should show up. They will seem mean at first, but then they will take the mom and the boy and his sister back to their planet. The aliens will rescue them.”
Mom and I will never really see eye-to-eye on literary matters, but I keep writing my sad little stories, and she keeps reading whatever she can get her hands on.
I eventually go to graduate school to study fiction writing. Not long after I publish my first story, Mom and Dad come to visit me at school. I have bought them a copy of the McSweeney’s Quarterly that contains my story, and I carry it with me when my wife and I meet my parents at Denny’s for breakfast. Mom begins reading the story right there at the table while the rest of us talk.
My expectations are low. Over the years, I’ve shared a number of stories with her, and Mom is typically more confused than moved by them. She often continues to suggest that I mix things up by writing dragons or vampires into the stories, that I maybe set them in an alternate universe, or at least on another planet.
When she finishes reading this one, there at Denny’s, while the rest of us are working on plates of food that have already been delivered, she closes the book and looks up at me. “You’re getting good,” she says.
This becomes her refrain for the next five or six years, as I publish thirty or forty stories in various print and online magazines. She reads them and lets me know, time and again, that I am getting good.
Not once during all of this time do I consider that should I ever have the good fortune to publish a book, she won’t be around to see it into print.
Grief compels us at times to give attention to the peculiar.
We find out on July 5th that Mom’s cancer is metastatic breast cancer, and we take her that day to the cancer center so they can begin mapping her for radiation treatments of the lung, which will hopefully help her to breathe a little more easily. Dad keeps focusing on the Paolini book. He can’t believe Mom might never get to read it.
I tell him that Amy has contacted Jason Gobble, a sales rep who is a good friend of hers, in search of an advanced reading copy. He doesn’t know anything about the Paolini book, but he has asked for my address so that he can send Mom galleys of two books he thinks she might like, Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, and The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.
I am touched by Jason’s gesture. When the books arrive a few days later, we are taking Mom to have an MRI done to see if the cancer has spread anywhere else. This is July 8th. She still hasn’t met with her oncologist, who’s been vacationing in Alaska since all of this started happening.
I tell Mom that afternoon that I’ve received the books, and that Amy’s editor Robin is planning to contact Michelle Frey, Paolini’s editor, to see what she can find out.
Mom is completely nonplussed. I am a little hurt, but then I realize I haven’t seen Mom once the past several weeks with her hands on a paperback or her Kindle.
I decide that if things come through with the Paolini book—and I spend a lot of time thinking about this, more time than I probably should, because it’s an easy and hopeful thing to think about—I will read it to her myself. Out loud, while she lies in bed too weak to hold the pages up in her hands. When my grandfather was dying of pancreatic cancer, my aunt rubbed lotion into the cracked skin on his feet. She guided a straw from a glass of ice water to his lips. I imagine my reading to Mom will be just like performing these tasks, only different.
Mom’s illness progresses impossibly quickly over the course of the six days following that final MRI.
On July 9th, a Saturday, Jane and I spend the day with Mom and Dad at the lake cabin. Mom is clearly ill, but we are all smiling, laughing, eating.
On July 10th, Dad calls while I’m mowing the yard to say he has taken Mom to the hospital because of stomach pains. While Mom is in the hospital, we learn there are tumors dotting her brain as well.
Her sodium levels are dangerously low. There is swelling in her brain.
On July 11th, lots of people visit the hospital.
On July 12th, Mom is discharged. We make a stop at the cancer center on the way home. The plan is for Mom to begin radiation treatments on her lungs and brain the following morning. The radiation, the doctors keep telling us, is only to help her breathe more easily, is only to reduce the swelling in her brain.
At the cancer center, Mom asks the doctor what she should do if she doesn’t feel well enough to make it to her appointment the following day.
He lets her know that missing it isn’t an option, that she should be there unless she is dead. He smiles to let us know it’s a bit of a joke, but no one, including him, laughs.
Jane visits Mom the next morning before going to work, then calls me at home to say Mom barely woke up while she was there.
I take my phone outside to talk to her, because my reception indoors is terrible. In a couple minutes, I am going to shower and then head over to my parents’ place. Dad has to work, though he wants to be at home. The plan is for me to take Mom to her radiation treatment.
“I can’t imagine her making it to her treatment,” Jane says. “There’s just no way.”
As I hang up with her, two workers from the company that treats our lawn show up and begin spraying their hoses. The workers are efficient. It is early morning, and small rainbows waver where sunlight meets the sprayed jets. If the workers, a man and a woman, notice me crying up there on my porch, they don’t let on. I watch them work until they are finished, until they stick their little flag in the yard to let us know where not to walk.
When I get to my parents’ house, Mom is still in the same recliner we helped her into the day before when we brought her home from the hospital. The appointment at the cancer center gets cancelled, and Mom stays in that chair all day while people come to visit. Around five, we move her to the bed in the office the people from hospice have come and set up. This is late Wednesday afternoon, the 13th.
She passes away the following day, the 14th, on the morning of her fifty-seventh birthday.
That night, I receive what would have otherwise been good news. Robin has been in touch with Michelle, who has told Christopher about Mom’s situation. Christopher is sympathetic. He’s still working on the book, but he wants to do what he can to help. He’s given permission to Michelle to overnight us the manuscript it its current state so that Mom can read it.
Reading that email, I realize that it wasn’t just Mom’s pessimism that prevented her from getting excited about the possibility of receiving the manuscript. She most likely knew all along she wasn’t going to live long enough for us to acquire it.
I send a sad message back to everyone, thanking them for their generosity, letting them know we won’t be needing the book after all.
Five months later, I will receive a phone call from the University of Iowa Press informing me that my short story collection—the one I was revising when Mom wasn’t taking my calls, the one I was revising when she was probably coming to terms with the fact she was going to die soon—has been chosen by Jim Shepard as one of two winners of the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award. The book will be published in October.
I won’t think right away of Mom. There will be living people I want to share the news with, like my wife and my dad.
In the weeks and months that follow, however, I will more than once hold my phone in my hand and think about how I might use the device to get in touch with her, not unlike that boy with his CB radio, clicking from one channel to the next, searching for his father.
I will want to call her every time I see that Paolini book on the shelf and tell how I can’t seem to escape the thing. I will want to call to tell her when my own book has a cover, and blurbs, and when it is available for pre-order online, and then again when galleys have been printed and are distributed to potential reviewers from one side of America to the other.
I will want again and again to call just to tell her that I miss her, and to let her know that she had been right all along: I was getting good.