Looking at the screen of the CAT scan I think, ‘Now this in authentic Reality TV.’ I am blinking fast and furious faucets of tears as if I think I can lift off and out of this cramped, over-heated office fueled solely by eyelash power. The young oncologist is calm. The scene, like his job, is a re-run, scripted with words like “cancer,” “Stage 4,” “8 months to a year,” “so sorry,” “do what we can.”
The star of this show is my Mother, staring dispassionately at the display of her ravaged insides, deserving an Emmy for her portrayal of the heroic patient.
“I will treat you as if you were my own Mother,” the doctor says as he puts his arm around her.
“I would rather have you treat me like I was your girlfriend… I think I’ll get better care that way,” she says as she turns her face upward, leans into his hug, bats her own eyelashes, and smiles.
Mother had played the role of beautiful wife for over 50 years. As a recent widow, now adrift, she committed that day to her metastases as she had her marriage, devoted, singular, brave, and with consistent humor.
“I cry alone,” she whispered to me as I drove on the interminable ride back to her recently downsized modular home stuffed with her over-sized furniture and personality.
I never heard her bemoan her fatal fate nor caught a glimpse of self-pity. She wore full force makeup and colorful clothes every day of the 8 months she had remaining, she planted perennials, and boasted to me, “You don’t understand the sense of freedom a death sentence brings, I can afford to buy two lipsticks at once if I want.”
One morning I awoke to a frantic call, “I am dying, come get me, take me to the emergency room.” I rushed over to find her waiting in her driveway wearing her full-length mink over pj’s and looking as pale as the paper on her lit cigarette.
“It’s a Lucky Strike,” she moaned as I helped her into the car. “A Lucky Strike! If that doesn’t make me an oxymoron… maybe just a moron.”
Her radiologist had failed to explain that the weekly treatments would constipate her. As stoic as she was glib, and armed with a daily morphine patch, she simply thought not going to the bathroom was a bonus. Like snoring louder than my Dad was a gift of menopause.
The emergency room physician sent her immediately into surgery for fecal impaction.
“You are not the first to tell me I am full of shit,” she told the surgeon before they put her under to remove eight pounds of waste.
Mother, without even trying, was an exemplar of the Kurt Vonnegut school of emotional riposte. “Laughter and tears,” he said, “ are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
Sitting with her in the hospital room hours later, she told me she had asked to see what was removed from her bowels.
“What?” I replied, aghast by the request, “Why in the world would you want to see… why for gawds sake would you want to look at, I mean…geezus, Mother!”
“It had a little face,” she continued, “It even had little hairs.”
Now past disgust, I was wincing.
“I named it Joey.”
At that jaw dropper, my head snapped toward her. Our eyes locked and in an instant all the absurdities of life, death, cancer, mothers and daughters, indignities, triumphs, legacies, and loss reached a crescendo as we broke into raucous, cleansing, and healing laughter.
From that day on we named anyone rude to us a “Joey.” We joked constantly that the whole damn cancer and everything that came with it was a ginormous pile of “Joey.”
A day could be a “Joey.” We even secretly renamed some family members.
Within 6 months, my Mother was dead. The cancer had spread throughout her body, into her spine and brain, bypassing only her funny bone.
None of us can know what will get us in the end. I can only hope when my time comes I can honor what Mother taught me; be flush with humor, give pain a waggish name and leave the legacy of a good laugh.
Ronda Beaman is the author of the memoir, Little Miss Merit Badge.