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Things Done Changed

My mother’s condition carried weight, even in the world of drugs, violence and death that Biggie had chronicled.

When Marcel learns his beloved grandmother has no chance of recovery in the third volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the discovery pierces the carefully ordered world of routine he has constructed to get him through each day. “Each of us is indeed alone,” he observes.

Away from the hospital, I thought I might have a similar insight. I repeated to myself the phrase, “My mother has cancer.” But the words didn’t assume any greater meaning than any other four words: It is cold today; The coffee is ready; My mother has cancer. I repeated the four words numerous times over the next few days, like a mantra.

Then another phrase popped into my head. “My momma got cancer in her breast/don’t ask me why I’m motherfucking stressed.” The words belonged to the late Notorious B.I.G, from his debut album, Ready to Die. They were tucked between lamentations about the disappearance of “summer-time cookouts” and “all the dead bodies showing up.” Biggie Smalls had become one of those dead bodies years before, killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. My mother’s condition carried weight, even in the world of drugs, violence and death that Biggie had chronicled. “Shit was real,” as he might say.

I became aware of my mother’s cancer—what it meant for my mother to have cancer—in moments just like this one: when a phrase or fact slipped in unexpectedly. I went through a mental checklist scanning ovarian cancer stats sent over by a friend. My mother was younger than the average diagnosed patient. Most cases were diagnosed in a later stage. My mother’s odds looked good. But amidst the data, I came across a startling term. The terms of success, the number of women who “beat” ovarian cancer, were presented as a “five-year survival rate.” Five years. Five years was nothing. In five years, I’d be twenty-seven. I wouldn’t have paid off all of my college loans. Impatient to grow up, I’d always tried to make time move faster. Now, with my mother’s condition, time was different. Accustomed to looking forward, I’d have to start counting backwards.

Every third Thursday that fall I’d take the 6 train up during lunch to visit my mother during her chemo sessions. I’d pick up a sandwich on the way and sit with her in her room, observing as the chemicals pumped into her body drained all the life out of it. I’d come home every couple of weekends to keep up her spirits and help around the house.

My father, who managed a group of computer programmers at a financial company, had for years been averaging five hours of sleep a night. Now, overseeing an ever expanding team at work and an increasingly weary wife at home, he was showing signs of exhaustion. His oft joked about tendency to fall asleep midway through any movie was less funny and more worrisome.

I should have been noticing these things as they’d been developing over the past few years, but you tend not to question too deeply when everything is going OK. Even then, after the diagnosis, the changed conditions quickly became part of their own new routine. Time passed. My mother finished chemo. Her hair grew back and with it much, though not all, of her energy returned. My father celebrated his twentieth anniversary at work. I left my apartment, tried to leave New York, and ended up in Brooklyn. It was remarkable, really, how little had actually changed in a year.

Months later, I woke up in a panic, worried about the direction—any direction—that my life wasn’t headed in. By instinct, I reached for my phone, prepared to call home and ask for advice. I started to dial the number and then stopped.

I’d been home for a couple of months between apartments and my relationship with my parents had started to change. I began to understand just how much my parents had to worry about and tried not to burden them with anything new. “How was I?” I was fine. “What was new?” Oh, not much.

Back in Brooklyn, I took stock of my situation. I was nearly twenty-four. I didn’t feel like an adult yet, but I certainly wasn’t a child. I appreciated time with my parents more. For the first time, I began to accept that it might be finite. Perhaps I was or would, indeed, be alone. It was time for me to start getting used to it.


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