This is a text I received from my brother in mid December 2014 while I was sitting in the MRI waiting room at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. My mom was having yet another MRI done which would determine whether or not the tumor behind her eye had spread even further into her brain.
It was a fucking rough year, 2014. It was my mother's 8th year in North Carolina, about 7 hours away from Maryland where I grew up and where she had spent most of her life. This was a year that had hit my mother especially hard. She had never been an exceptionally healthy or cheery person, but over the past few years she began to seem even less healthy and less cheery than before. She was sleeping even more than she usually did, which had already been most of each weekend. She was even angrier and more irritable than usual. More and more often our phone calls ended in her hanging up on me.
In the summer of 2014 we found out she had non-Hodgkins intraocular lymphoma. Cancer had started as a growth behind her eye and had spread to her brain. She needed to start treatment immediately, and so she did.
My mother is a blazing, angry woman by nature. I have spent most of my life afraid of her fury. Nobody has ever been immune to it, not my brother or sister, my father, many of her acquaintances, coworkers over the years, my teachers. The list goes on. I was stupid enough to think an already-large fire couldn't get worse. Clearly I had no idea cancer would be the gasoline that would be doused on the already-raging bonfire that was my mother. I was unprepared for the coming months and what the weight of cancer would do to her mentally.
For some families, cancer brings them together. "Cherish this time with your mother," people told me. "Tell her you love her, don't take her for granted, hug her, hold her." Clearly these people had never met my mother. You don't try and hug a bonfire. You keep your distance and when it gets too hot, you step back so you don't get burned. Cancer could either put that fire out or cause it to explode. Explode it did.
My mom has every right to be angry. She had trouble with her sight for over a year and had been to multiple doctors before they finally figured out what the problem was. She was tired all the time and had been for years. The news of cancer was dropped on her like a ton of bricks in September. And in a matter of a few months my mom was being driven two and a half hours back and forth countless times from Leland to Durham every week. She went through intense inpatient chemotherapy. She had MRIs taken of her whole body in the middle of the night. She had needles inserted into her eyes every other week. She was forced to quit smoking. All of her medications changed drastically. She was taken away from her house, her cats, her bed, her routine. This is all enough to make anyone angry.
I guess I just never realized how much that anger would be thrown at me and my sister, and to a lesser degree, my brother. My mother was a hothead but she could at least appreciate my sister driving her back and forth for treatment, buying her groceries, making her food, cutting her grass, right? She was an angry woman but she would be grateful to me for driving down to take care of her every month when she came home from chemo, right? I never expected to be the enemy in all of this. But her fear and anger had to be thrown at someone, and my sister and I just happened to be the only ones brave enough to stand closest to the fire.
So when I received this text from my brother after over three months of my mother's battle with both cancer and with my sister and I, I was surprised. Did he know our mother? Had he even met her before? Was this not the same woman who had chased him down the driveway, faster than I ever imagined she could be, as he drove away after mouthing off to her as a teenager? Was this not the same woman who marched onto a softball field in the middle of my sister's game, got into the face of an umpire and screamed at him to stop the game because it was getting too dark? Was this not the same woman who looked down at our father while he laid in bed one night after a fight with her and said, "you're going to have to sleep sooner or later, Mike?"
Finally, after having finished the MRI she walked out into the waiting room toward my sister and I. Dressed in her unofficial uniform; sweatpants and a fancy blouse, her narrowed eyes ablaze with rage as she came toward us. Her white thinning hair sticking straight up. My mother, like an angry dandelion, walked toward us and I imagined trying to walk up to her and give her a hug and a kiss for my brother. I imagined my lips and arms catching fire first before the flames engulfed my entire body while my mom, without stopping, continued out the door, now raging stronger as I burned quickly, like kindling, to the floor of the waiting room.