Sunday, January 6, 2008

Chapter 14 ~ Repetitions

Photo by
Brendon Stuart

After the doctor called to tell me I had cancer, I continued driving the car home. Jean continued crying, but I felt no pity for her. Claire continued comforting Jean, but I felt no gratitude. When we pulled up in front of my house, I briskly went into the living room and sat down by the phone.

“I want to call Lawrence,” I curtly told my two sisters when they came in behind me, preempting any attempts they might have in mind of opening a conversation.

“Okay,” Jean said. “I’ll go into the back room.” Claire went with her.

I had to look up the number on a business card in my wallet before dialing the big black phone, the heavy antique that today’s children cannot figure out how to use (pressing their little fingers into the holes). Lawrence had a new job. After two decades with Le Sorelle, his identity as a restaurateur had been discarded, a different kind of heartbreak we’d encountered together in the past few years. Now he was keeping the books part-time at a small company in San Mateo, his third job since leaving the food industry. He wasn’t yet sure if he liked it. He’d only been there a few weeks.

I found the number on the business card and dialed. A sullen woman answered the phone. “Is Lawrence Thibedeaux there?” I asked the receptionist.


“Lawrence Thibedeaux. The bookkeeper?”

“Just a minute.” I tapped my finger on my knee while I was waiting.

“Hellooo,” he finally said, drawing out the first syllable playfully. When I heard his voice, I could tell that he was happy. He sounded relaxed and confident, comfortable in his position. I wasn’t glad to be delivering my news.

“Hi Lawrence. It’s Jo,” I started stupidly, as if he couldn’t recognize my voice on the phone. “Well, they got the results of my biopsy back.”

“Uh huh?”

“And I’ve got breast cancer.”

A moment passed before he answered, suddenly serious, “You’re kidding.”
“No. That’s what the doctor told me just now.” I heard my voice changing tone, becoming pathetic.


“He said I have to make an appointment with a surgeon.” It felt as though I was pleading, as if he had some power to control my fate.

Lawrence didn’t make an answer.

“I just wanted to tell you.” I was confused—agitated. I wanted to get off the phone. “Jean and Claire were in the car with me when he called. But I didn’t want to talk to them, Lawrence. I just wanted to talk to you.”

“Okay. I’ll come home right now.”

“Right now?”

“Yes. I’m coming.”

“Okay,” I felt the tears beginning to rise behind my cheekbones. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

After I hung up the phone, Jean and Claire came out of the back bedroom. “I guess I’ll head on down to Santa Cruz now,” Jean said with mock cheer.

“I think that’s a good idea, Jean. I called Lawrence. He’s coming home from work, so I won’t be alone here.”

“Okay, good. I feel better now. I looked up your diagnosis on the Internet. It’s called zero stage cancer. Some sites even called it pre-cancer. I don’t feel so worried about you now, Jo. I’m sure you’re going to be okay.” She gave me a big, beaming smile, as if the crisis was now over.

“Good.” I moved in closer and hugged her. “ I don’t want you to worry about me. I don’t mean to be cold, but I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to be alone with Lawrence.”

“Okay. We’re leaving. We’ll see you in Santa Cruz in a day or two.” Jean rounded up her daughter and got the two of them into her car. As she went out the front door, Mae, 18, gave me an obligatory hug and a vacant smile.
Another aunt of hers, a close one, had died recently of lung cancer, leaving her husband and two teenage daughters behind. I knew it was the memory of that good woman’s long illness that had caused Jean to burst so suddenly into tears in the car. I wondered what Mae was thinking now. After the two of them left, Claire said goodbye, too.

“I’ll be going to give you and Lawrence some time alone together. Call me whenever you’re ready,” Claire said in her warm, maternal voice. The eldest of five daughters, Claire had become our family’s surrogate mother when our real mother died 30 years before. “Let me know if you want me to go with you to meet with the surgeon. Sometimes it’s best to have a third party there to take notes because, I can pretty much guarantee you, you aren’t going to be able to remember a thing he said 10 minutes after you leave the office.”

“Okay. Thanks for the offer. I’ll ask Lawrence what he thinks.”

My comment sounded strange in my ears. I’ll ask Lawrence. Already, my personality seemed to be shifting. I was blithely turning over my power to my husband. I wouldn’t think for myself. I didn’t want to. I wanted someone else to think for me. After Claire left, I sat back down by the telephone. A moment later, I called Lawrence’s cell.

“Hello, Lawrence?”

“Yes.” I could hear street noise in the background.

“I just wanted to tell you that it was zero-stage cancer—so you wouldn’t worry. The doctor said if I had to have breast cancer, this was the best type to have.”

“I’m almost home. I’m just at Safeway,” he said breathlessly. He was riding his bicycle, a new practice for him. At current count, he had three Raleighs and three Rudges—big, old three-speed bikes from the 40s and 50s, and he rode them everywhere, talking his family into riding along with him, whenever he could, by reminding them it was good for the planet. He spent lots of time in the bike shed making adjustments and modifications—putting on headlights, tightening brakes, pumping up tires.

“Okay,” I answered. Safeway was only four blocks away. “I’ll see you in a minute.”

It wasn’t much longer before he walked in the back door. I went into the kitchen to meet him, and we hugged for a long time before moving together into the bedroom. No one else was home, for a change. Lawrence sat down on the bed, and I stood before him, pulling his head into my belly, putting one arm around his back. Before anyone said anything, he started to sob.

Lawrence cried loud and long, with his face in my stomach. I stood before him and felt strangely satisfied. I was glad he was crying. I was glad he loved me that much, and that after so many dry years of emotional reserve, I was getting this glut of confirmation. I was grateful to him for feeling afraid for me. As for myself, I was still mostly numb. When I tired of standing, I lay down on the bed beside him and continued cradling his head and back in my hands. It was sweet, sweeter than almost any moment in our marriage. But when his crying didn’t stop, I began to wonder what he was grieving about. Was he crying over the fact that I might lose one of my breasts, and he would no longer have an attractive sex partner? Or was he afraid I was dying?

“Don’t worry,” I murmured to him. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay right here. I’m going to stay with you for a very long time.”

He cried even louder then. So I knew.

I held onto him more tightly, reassured. I felt strong, almost invincible, and also proud, as if my diagnosis made me special—God had chosen me to undergo this ordeal. I was numb, but also touched by my husband’s tenderness for me. He seemed devastated by the news. “I’m sorry,” he finally mumbled as his sobs subsided. “I guess I can only handle one family crisis at a time.”

“It’s okay. I don’t mind it right now,” I said softly. “I’m not feeling much of anything right now. But later, when we go to the surgeon, I’m going to need you to be strong for me, okay? Later, when I get scared.”


As we lay together on the bed, I told him what little I knew. That the doctor said the cancer hadn’t traveled, but that it was extensive and I would probably need a mastectomy or at the very least, a large area excision. That Jean had looked up the diagnosis online and said it wasn’t life threatening. That some doctors didn’t even call it cancer—only precancer.

I calmed both Lawrence and myself with these details, and before long, he was breathing deeply beside me, having fallen asleep. But as his fear subsided, mine rose to fill the void. I remembered my mother, who was close to my age when she developed breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy when she was 53. (I was 18 and self absorbed. I barely noticed.) Two years later, the cancer came back and spread throughout her body. I was 20 years old when she died, just like my Rose was now.

I remembered the warm, summer afternoon that my mother told me she was dying. I had come back home to Stockton to live after my first semester away at college, having suffered a nervous breakdown after taking LSD. What was the meaning of these repetitions? Was I reliving my mother’s life? Was Eddy reliving mine? Or my father’s?

She was folding laundry at the foot of her bed. I sat at the head, cheerfully enumerating my ideas for amusement over Christmas vacation.

“I won’t be here for Christmas,” my mother told me. She held a shirt to her chest with her left hand, the sleeves extended to the side with her right, as if she was dancing. The laundry basket brimmed beside her on the mattress.

"What do you mean, you're not going to be here?" I laughed foolishly from my place on the pillows. "Where are you going to go?"

"The cancer has come back," she said bluntly. "I'm dying."

Her words fell onto the clean bedspread like greasy, black, metal car parts. Time stopped, but she continued to fold the sleeves over her belly, jacknife the shirt, lay it carefully beside her on the bed, reach into the basket for another. I stared at her, stunned.

"That’s not true!" I finally croaked out in anger, as if she was playing a cruel trick.

She nodded grimly, once, not looking at me. "Yes, it is," she said. She was looking down into her basket of laundry. She held onto the rims, as if it might float away. Her face was immobile.

"Who says so?" I whimpered.

"The doctors."

"Can't they do anything?"

She shook her head.

"But when is it...when do they...when do they think it’s going to happen?" I couldn't countenance the horror of what I was asking her. Bitter bile rose to my throat. The bedroom started receding down a dark tunnel.

"I'm going into the hospital next week," I heard her voice fading into the background. "There's no telling how long it will take. It could be a month, maybe two."

My head filled with gasoline. Hot oil splashed inside my chest. I tried to hold down, to hold on, to hold in, to hold off. I tried not to detonate. Tension filled the big bedroom to the bursting point. The walls bowed.

“I don’t believe you!” I shouted at her before I ran out of the room and stumbled to my car, sped toward the safety of Cliff and Gene’s party house through a thick film of tears. Three blocks before I got there, at the corner of Bristol and Marine, a small gray car suddenly appeared on my left—too close. There was one long, extended moment when I knew that it would hit me. Then my car was perched rakishly on its hood on someone’s lawn, my back against a broad tree, warm blood spilling down my nose.

I don't remember the ride in the ambulance. But I remember that my mother came to the hospital to retrieve me, held my plump pink hand in her bony one while they stitched up my forehead, staring past me with that same, blank, implacable face.

That afternoon was the beginning of my 10-year dance with degradation, which only ended after I married Lawrence and gave birth to Rose. It wasn’t my mother’s death that beckoned me to self destruction, though. It was my behavior through it. It was my behavior, specifically, on her last night. But for most of those years of hard drinking and fucking—for almost all of my 20s—I didn’t understand what was pulling me downward. The memory of the night my mother died was so toxic, so accusatory, so difficult to admit, that it was almost immediately lost to me, buried deep within my subconscious where it lay in secret and worked its dark magic until a decade later when it popped suddenly into my conscious mind like a beach ball bursting from the bottom of a pool.

As I lay beside Lawrence’s sleeping body and tried to understand what the cancer diagnosis meant to me, I felt the memory of the night my mother died approach me—the memory I’d spent so many years suppressing, and so many more scrutinizing in therapy until I could prise free of its grip. I entered with caution.

It is already dark the last night when I go to the hospital. I am wearing a new party dress, hurrying to pay a duty call before leaving with a group of friends for a big night in San Francisco. We are going to see a new play at the Geary Theater: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.” Our tickets were purchased weeks before. Jeff is waiting impatiently in my living room at home.

The hospital is quiet, almost empty. The click of my high heels echoes hollowly down the wide corridor—too fast. A fat Mexican man in a straw hat dozes in a waiting room. A nurse stands at her station with a clipboard, making notes, the harsh scratch of her pencil competing with the clatter of my high heels.

I control the familiar fear as I approach my mother's doorway. One, two, three, four, counting the sick people's rooms as I pass; hurrying away from a dangling arm, a protuberant foot, a siphoned nose; wondering what manifestation of my mother I will find this time. Pensive? Bravely cheerful? Obviously drugged? Asleep?

I draw up outside her room cautiously. When I poke my head around the doorway, I am stunned by what I see. She is staring straight at me—as if she knew I was coming! Her eyes, all black pupils, are emanating fear.

"Mama?" I use the old appellation, the one she'd directed me, as a baby, to discard for the more civilized "Mommy." Instant tears burn my eyelids, drown the back of my throat.

"Mama, what's the matter?" I ask hesitantly. But the question is meaningless, ludicrous, almost funny. No matter how long I stand acting stupid in the hallway, I can't escape the certain knowledge. It is imprinted on every cell.
My mother is dying.

Death is here, in her room.

Death swells behind her curtains, sifts under the door to the toilet, gathers in the corners of the closet, oozes in every drawer. His shape changes with every inhalation. Now a shadow, now the hairs rising on my forearm, now a yellow skeleton in long black robes—just like the movies—his bony mouth open wide in a hideous grin.

I enter my mother's room haltingly. It is dark. My mother is alone here. Where are the nurses? Death is crawling between her blankets! My mother is afraid.

During all the long weeks of her illness, my mother has never shown me this face. She sat regally in the hospital bed and asked of my progress at school, the activities of my friends, the state of the weather. We weren't to discuss it: her dying. She'd rather not. We were to look out the windows and remark the sky.

Sometimes, I wondered if it was really happening. Sometimes, I wondered at the absence of fear or rage. Sometimes, I thought that she was welcoming Him beneath her blankets: a long-awaited lover, a killer, an escaped convict—taking comfort in the silvery glint of his unconcealed blade.

She was tired, her five children almost grown, her manic depressive husband increasingly cruel. Her body was used up by pregnancies and age. Her legs, slightly bowed, were laced with thick blue veins. Her hips wide with menopause. Her mottled thighs.

Her breast, the breast that suckled me, was sliced off at the root, stored in the hospital basement in a sealed bin of foreskins, diseased organs, amputated limbs and other human garbage, leaving nothing on her chest wall but an angry red scrape.

But tonight, she doesn't divert my attention; she doesn’t remark the sky. She looks straight through me—to Him. Her face is filled with fear.


I move quickly to the bed and gather her body up in my arms. She weighs almost nothing. She has no responsive muscles, no resilient fat, no warmth. Already, she is bones.

I press my wet face against her blue and white hospital gown, against her shoulder, her neck, her chin. I don't look at her. I smell her. I breathe her up—into me. I smell the hot chicken noodle soup she brought me when I was in bed with the measles. I smell her bitter anger when Jeff brought me home late from a date. I smell the Chanel No. 5 she dabbed on the inside of her wrists before going out on a date with Daddy, the Jergen’s lotion on her hands when she stroked my chubby, tear-stained cheeks as a child, the day my best girlfriends wouldn't let me play two-square at recess. “You should feel sorry for them,” she tutored me. “Their hearts must be shriveled if they can be so mean.”

I want to say all the right things—all the things I've heard on television. How we'll always remember her. How she'll live forever in our hearts, in every action we take, in every word we speak, in every thought we think or dream. I want to tell her we all love her, and not to be afraid.

I imagine that this is why she was waiting for me. That she only needs to hear my words before she can let go. I am the chosen child. I am the favorite. I am the ferryman who can pole her wooden boat across the River Styx. She has shown me her face! But when I open my mouth to help her cross the chasm of fear, my throat closes tight and only my spit strings out. I can barely whisper, "Mama, please! Mama please don't die!"

Perhaps she knows.

Perhaps she knows everything I want to tell her. Perhaps she hears more than those six stingy words. Perhaps she reads my thoughts through her bony forehead, feels the tribute in my spit. Now she will be at peace. My love will help her make the crossing. But when I lower her body back down to the bed, her face is unchanged—a frozen mask of fear. I have said nothing. I have given no relief. And when I lift my head to look around the room I see the curtains shifting, a drawer sliding open, the bathroom door inexplicably swinging ajar. He is coming! He is coming for her! He is here and He might take me too! I feel a drop of warm pee trickling down my leg.

I run.

I put her broken body back down on the bed and run.

Her eyes follow me out the doorway, past the nurse with her clipboard, the sleeping Mexican, the indifferent sick. Her eyes follow me as I crash and clatter down the cavernous stairway, too scared to wait for the elevator. Her eyes follow me as I race across the gravel parking lot, kicking up tiny pebbles in my tumultuous wake.

Her eyes burn two black, smoking circles in my yellow, rancid back.

I don't look back for her, the woman who held my hand through every real or imagined crisis I had ever experienced. I don't comfort her. I don't help her. I don't stay with her.

I run!

I leave my mother to die alone. I go to San Francisco with my friends as we had planned. Everyone admires my new dress.

The play we saw that night was about inmates in a mental institution. I sat amidst my friends and watched it in my own psychotic state. No one seemed to notice that I wasn’t responding to the actors, that I wasn’t myself, that all my attention was focused on the big, black bowling ball of a moment that was steadily rolling toward me in slow motion all night: the moment I reentered my house in Stockton, starkly terrified, to find out what had happened to my mother in my absence.

“Maybe I was imagining it,” I tried to reassure myself beforehand. “Maybe Death wasn’t really present in that room.”

I recognized that I was lying to myself even before I turned the front doorknob and heard the locking mechanism click. I could feel the misery through the thick wood. The living room was washed in tears.

Jean sat on the couch, red-eyed and whimpering. She opened her wide, red mouth slowly and repeatedly, like a fish suffocating on a dock. Daddy sat blanch-faced and vacant-eyed on the blue-flecked easy chair. Jane held her head in her hands. Francine crushed a soggy paper towel tightly in her fist, snot streaming out her nose. Claire stepped toward me protectively, reached out her hand, opened her mouth to speak.

"Don't tell me!" I cried as I almost swooned in the doorway. "Don't tell me! Don’t tell me! I already know!"

I ran up to my teenage girl’s bedroom, where a wind-up ballerina balanced on a spring in a pink and white jewelry box, tiny trolls with orange hair huddled together on a cement block and board bookshelf, and a curly-haired little girl spread her arms wide across a blue-tinted poster with the suddenly ominous message: Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Nothing had changed. Everything was different.

Thirty years later, lying in bed next to my sleeping husband, I felt the same disconnection from the everyday objects in my bedroom, accouterments of the life I led before I had breast cancer.

I wondered what was ahead, how I would fare the tumult, whether this was some kind of retribution for my sin. I feared that I would once again prove weak and pathetic—a coward. I felt stronger, anyway, than I had at 20. I felt better prepared for a mortal fight. I saw an image of a small face, about the size of an umbrella handle, being carved out of hard white wood. It was hideous, scary, unnaturally white, like the incessantly screaming baby in Eraserhead. But at the same time it seemed sacred, powerful, touched by something holy. All the human hair was peeled off, all the soft flesh, all the distinct features—leaving nothing but an inviolable center, pure and constant as stone.

Read the next chapter HERE, or buy a paperback copy of the whole novel HERE.

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