Your mother dies. Your family members kneel around her bed in the living room, the hospice nurses in the background. You envision this scene as an oil painting by Poussin, Botticelli. Woman at Rest. People say that when a person expires, their spirit can be sensed in the room. You feel nothing. Going to church was a chance to taste wine. The nurses give each of you a long hug before departing. You are grateful for their presence. You are grateful for witness. Your father calls the morgue while you return medications to a wrinkled paper bag labeled “Comfort Kit.” Morphine, haloperidol, lorazepam, holy trinity.
Everyone takes turns sleeping on the couch in case your mother needs to drink water or use the restroom. She is bed-ridden. At first, it is you, your father, and your sister rotating nights, but your father’s snoring immediately gets him voted off the island. The palliative care doctor says there isn’t much time left—days, maybe. The cancer is exploding in her body. She vomits black sludge. As the doctor drives off, you wave like Wiley Coyote frozen in midair over a cliff. You tell your lab boss that your mother is very ill, and she tells you to take as much time as you need. You leave her office before she can ask questions because you are afraid to catch her caring. After lunch break, your coworkers loop past you like sardines around a shark. When did everyone get so nice? you wonder.
You and your father have a routine. Your father carries your mother to the bathroom the way Kevin Costner carries Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. He holds her above the toilet while you work on her pajama pants. This time, you are too slow getting them down and she wets herself, which she doesn’t realize because she has no sensation in her lower body. You dash upstairs for a new pair of bottoms and pause in the walk-in closet, looking at your mother’s old pantsuits. You try to imagine her wearing them, but you can’t remember what she used to look like. By the time you get your mother cleaned up, changed, and back into bed, she is whimpering. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” she wails. You lay your head on your mother’s stomach. If you and your father plan to start a burlesque act, you are going to need more practice.
Your father is on the phone, explaining that he shouldn’t have to carry your mother to the bathroom in his arms. The insurance company refuses to pay for a bedside commode. In lab, you learn how to synthesize human proteins. By introducing the right DNA into bacteria, you can make something human. Bacteria are stupid because they can be tricked into doing pretty much anything. At home, your sister sits on the edge of your mother’s bed and reads from the Bible. Your mother is comforted by divine words. Meanwhile, you take long walks at night, fog collecting in your hair. You haven’t heard a peep from medical schools. You wonder if you should have included the fact that your mother was dying in your essays. Maybe that would move things along. You watch a TV movie where Adam Sandler can manipulate time with a remote control. With the push of a button, he speeds to the end. You hear footsteps and press “Power.”
Medical school interviews begin. Flights are booked to New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, places that sound exotic to you. You are happy to be somewhere else. At the airport, you treat yourself to frozen yogurt. “More strawberries,” you say. You board planes, always claiming the window. You strike up banter with your seatmates, throwing your head back and laughing loudly. It is fun to be another person. You fall asleep with your forehead against the window and dream of successfully pulling out all your teeth. They drop to the floor, increasing in pitch like notes on a xylophone. You wake up over Nebraska. In New York, you stay with a couple of friends from college who are now medical students. They both drive brand new Priuses loaded with sandbags. When you ask why, they point to the road and say, “Ice.” Even though it’s below freezing outside, the heating has broken in their apartment, rendering the temperature oppressively tropical. You lock yourself in the bathroom, take off your clothes, sit on the toilet seat. On the doorknob hangs a placard about detecting melanomas. You search for aberrant moles. You proofread your own body.
Your mother’s legs look like pipe cleaners. They can no longer support her weight. A rolling walker is delivered, and you skate around the house on it while she sleeps. You score your first medical school interview. Your boss turns thirty-five, and the lab buys her a spumoni cake. You eat too much and have to go home sick. Your father has begun cleaning the house incessantly. He washes dishes by hand, even though the dishwasher is perfectly functional. He trims the trees outside. He tears out your sister’s sunflower bulbs, mistaking them for weeds. Your sister cries. You stop by Home Depot on the way home from work. The seed packets rotate on a rack. Snapdragon, zinnia, baby’s breath, four o’ clock. You ask your father over the phone, “Are they perennials?” Your father’s voice is opaque, like spackle. “How the hell should I know?”
You have decided to grow a mustache. You like the way it conceals your upper lip, makes you harder to read. Your mother’s sister in Hong Kong tells you about a homeopathic remedy, a parasitic fungus that inhabits the bodies of worms. The fungus invades its host, consuming the insides until there is nothing left. Good for cancer, your aunt says, I mailed you two boxes. You wait for the worm corpses to arrive. Your mother’s facial features appear larger and larger as she loses weight. You spend more time in front of the mirror. You are fat. In lab, you learn about how cells mark molecules for destruction. It’s hard to believe that cells have preferences, as you barely know your own. You begin mixing purée de worm into your mother’s food. It tastes faintly of chanterelles. You shop for groceries frequently because the cancer teaches your mother’s tongue to hate. Black pepper, garlic, and red meat disappear from the menu. You hunt for milder flavors. One day, you are accosted in the refrigerated aisle of the supermarket by a family friend. From far away, she thought your mustache was fungus.
Summer. You stay up until sunrise watching marathons of Law & Order: SVU. You used to hate the episodes where the bad guy gets away with it, but now you are starting to prefer them. Your sister has taken up gardening and wants to plant something in the yard so your mother has a view from her bed. She is considering sunflowers. You begin working in a research lab, half days so you can look after your mother and work on medical school applications. The lab is studying a protein with a role in certain cancers. You join the cause. In the afternoons, you attend to your mother’s requests. This gets old fast. You are not the hospice nurse, who swoops in once a week to hold the hand of a complete stranger. You are impatient. You lose your temper. You say things you will regret saying. Still, your mother remains buoyant. “You’re going to be a great doctor,” she chirps when you deliver soup to her bedside. You feel patronized, repulsed. You are your mother’s slave.
Your mother has a hard time climbing the stairs, so your father orders a hospital bed for the living room. The drugs fail. You find it odd that the doctor has recommended hospice, which you think means care for the elderly. A nurse visits the house. She is a warm woman with a big, soft face, and you wonder what it would be like to pole vault into it. She explains the concept of hospice to your family while sitting in one of your dining room chairs. “But what if she gets sick?” you ask. “Can she go to the hospital?” The nurse’s mouth tightens. A rookie mistake. You were confused, but now you are enlightened. While you appreciate this newfound knowledge, your mother makes the final decision. Defeated, you retreat to your room, which quickly fills with chip bags and empty cups. You become a permanent resident of your bed. You eat chocolate for dinner. You watch stand-up online and discover your fondness for the humor of Sarah Silverman.
You are about to graduate from college, and your mother has cancer again. The last time this happened, you were in primary school. Your father calls you with updates. His ringtone starts to elicit a Pavlovian sting in your abdomen. An aggressive chemotherapy retaliation is launched. Your classes are finished, but you have new words to learn: thoracentesis, ascites, pleurisy. You move back home. You notice that your sister spends most of her time out of the house, at church. She comes home talking about Adam and Eve. You bring up the apple and she takes it personally. Meanwhile, your mother coughs, complains that she can’t breathe. She wears compression socks that make her look like a Christmas elf. A tuft of hair sits on her head. You hover beside her, mute, horrified. You can only think of what not to say.
It’s the summer before your senior year, and you are riding a train with your mother through the forests of northern Taiwan. You have a car all to yourselves. You stomp around, acting silly because you are alone on vacation with your mother. You want all of her attention. You want to consume her. You both jump in the air to see if you land in a different location. Your mother laughs when you do a suggestive dance around the car pole. Trapezoids of light yawn across the walls, chasing each other, intersecting. You settle down in a seat by the window. The hills are dotted with Buddhist shrines honoring the dead. As you attempt to count them, your mother produces her camera and takes pictures of you. Initially, you feel the flush in your face, but after several shots, your body relaxes. You even strike a few poses: Rosie the Riveter, Buddha, The Vitruvian Man. When you ask your mother to delete the bad ones, she shakes her head. You pout and return to your shrine-counting game. What you do not realize is that you have failed to understand deletion. A cell can self-destruct, grow, shrink, even multiply, but, in one or a thousand fragments, you remain. You have been captured. You have been saved.
- Retrograde - August 13, 2016