Mom was struggling to breathe, so I drove her to the ER. Pericardial effusion, they said, then emergency surgery, biopsy, and pathologist’s report: possible cancer. A week later, wanting only an understanding of what was happening to her and a proper bath and shampoo, she lay in her hospital bed.
Telling my mother to do anything was usually not an option for me. However, after that surgery and that week, I told her we were going to the University of Chicago Hospitals, and I told her to ask her primary care physician for a referral there. Uncharacteristically, she did not argue.
That’s how things stood that day when I was sitting in a chair at the foot of Mom’s bed, and he came in. He gave Mom a Chicago doctor’s name, a name he’d picked, he said, because he found it amusing. A cardiologist. Mom expressed her surprise, that she’d expected to be referred to an oncologist.
Stabbing his finger in the air at her, he raised his voice: “I NEVER SAID YOU HAD CANCER! NO ONE EVER SAID YOU HAD CANCER!”
Mom started to shake and reached for the oxygen, but she persisted, asking why, then, the pathologist had mentioned possible cancer cells.
“Because,” he snapped, “she’s a woman and she’s covering her ass!”
Less than two months later, Mom died. Cancer in her brain, lung, lymph nodes, pericardium and heart. We never knew where it started or where else it had metastasized.
Mom’s dying was tortured, brutal. I was there, and I can still see it. “I NEVER SAID YOU HAD CANCER” sounds in infinite loop around it.
My stomach hurts as I write this. Where do caregivers go with these memories? Where are the words for the anger and the helplessness?