Thursday, May 26, 2011

Chapter 12~~Repetitions

Photo by
Brendon Stuart

The night before Jo was scheduled to meet her surgeon (“Oh, you have a surgeon now!” her friend Karen exclaimed, as if Jo had purchased an expensive hat), she woke at 4 in the morning and wondered what the doctor would do with her breast. Would she want to “remove” it (take it somewhere else, perhaps)? Or could she make, merely, a “large area excision,” as suggested by estimable Dr. Brand?

As Larry snored softly beside her, Jo tried to reassure herself with the things she had heard: the doctor had said the cancer hadn’t traveled; the Internet said it wasn’t life threatening; some doctors didn’t even call it cancer, but only pre-cancer; ductile carcinoma in situ is the best kind of breast cancer to have. These details calmed her for a few moments. But then she remembered her mother, who had a mastectomy when she was 53. (Jo was 17 and self absorbed. She barely noticed.) Two years later, the cancer came back and spread through her mother’s whole body. Jo was 19 years old when her mother died⎯the age Rose was now.

In the black morning, before she met her surgeon, Jo lay thinking of the warm, summer afternoon when her mother told her she was dying.


“I had come back home to live after having a nervous breakdown during my first year away at college.”

“I remember you coming home and looking terribly ragged. That had something to do with you taking LSD, didn’t it?

“Yes. That’s what started it.”

“So ... was it something like what’s been happening to Eddy lately?”

“Yes. Something like. And that’s what I was thinking the night before I met the surgeon. What was the meaning of these repetitions? Was I reliving my mother’s life? Was Eddy reliving mine⎯or my bipolar father’s? Maybe it’s some kind of family curse, being passed down from generation to generation.

“That seems highly unlikely.”

“Maybe it’s a cryptic lesson that God is trying to teach me.”

“ ... You were going to tell me about your mom?”

Jo closed her eyes and tilted her head back to help her remember that summer afternoon. Her voice came out in a mellifluous croon.


“She was folding laundry at the foot of her bed. I sat at the head, cheerfully going over my ideas about what we should do 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, jackknife 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 spat out in anger, as if she were playing a cruel trick.
“She nodded grimly, once, without looking at me. ‘Yes it is,’ she said.

“She was looking down into her basket of laundry. She stopped folding and held onto the rim with both hands, as if the basket might float away⎯or she might. 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 comprehend the horror of what I was asking her. Bitter bile rose to my throat. The bedroom started to recede down a dark tunnel.

‘“I’m going into the hospital next week,’ her voice was 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 bedroom to the bursting point. The walls bowed.

‘“I don’t believe you!’ I screamed at her before I ran out of the room and stumbled outside to my car, sped off toward the safety of a friend’s house through a thick film of tears. Three blocks before I got there, 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 somebody’s front lawn, my back lodged against a broad tree. Warm blood spilling down my nose.

“I don’t remember the ride in the ambulance. I don’t remember them wheeling me into the hospital, but I remember that my mother was there to claim me, to hold my plump pink hand in her bony mottled one while they stitched up my forehead, staring past me with that same stony, implacable face.

“That afternoon was the beginning of my five-year bender, which ended only after I married Larry and got pregnant with Rose. But it wasn’t my mother’s death that moved me to be an alcoholic slut loser. It was my behavior through it. It was my behavior, specifically, on her last night.


“And you know what, Carl?” she opened her eyes to ask me.

“What, Jo?”

“You know what the funny thing is?

“That I didn’t know you when you were a floozy?”

“No.” She rolled her eyes. “The funny thing is, for most of that time, I didn’t even know what was happening to me⎯why I was so desperate get drunk all the time and to sleep with mean and disrespectful men⎯because I didn’t even remember that night.”

“The night she told you she was dying?”

“No. The night she died.”

I nodded. “So you suppressed the memory?”

“Yes. Exactly. I guess the memory of the night my mother died was so toxic, so ugly, so difficult to accept, that it burrowed deep into my subconscious where it lay and worked its dark magic until five years later when it popped suddenly into my conscious mind like a beach ball bursting from the bottom of a pool.”

“Nice image. I can picture it perfectly. You’d be surprised how many of my clients have suppressed memories that suddenly pop to the surface like that.”

“No. I don’t think I would.”


The night before Jo was scheduled to meet her surgeon, as she lay beside Larry’s warm, sleeping body and tried to understand what her illness -- and Eddy’s -- meant, Jo let the memory of her mother’s death overwhelm her, the memory she’d spent so many years suppressing, and many more carefully examining in therapy until she could prise free of its grip. She submitted with trepidation.

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. My boyfriend waits 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 competes 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 cultured “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 through 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 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 bipolar 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; tonight, 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 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, 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 my boyfriend brought me home late from a date. I smell the Chanel No. 5 she dabbed behind her ears before going out with Daddy, the Jergen’s lotion on her hands when she stroked my chubby, tear-stained cheeks as a child, the day my best friends wouldn’t let me play two-square with them at recess. “Don’t cry. Feel sorry for them,” she tutored. “Their hearts must be stunted 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 into the underworld. 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 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 me, I see the curtains shifting, a drawer sliding open, the bathroom door slowly swinging ajar. He is coming! He is coming for her! He is here in this room! And He might take me too! I feel a stream of 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 frightened to wait for the elevator. Her eyes follow me as I race across the asphalt 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, the woman who wiped away every tear. I don’t comfort her. I don’t help her. I don’t stay with her.

I run!

I run!

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.

They saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that night, a play about inmates in a mental institution. Jo sat amidst her friends and watched it in her own psychotic state. No one seemed to notice that she wasn’t responding to the story, that she wasn’t herself, that all her attention was focused on the big, black bowling ball of a moment that was steadily rolling toward her in slow motion all night: the moment she reentered her house, starkly terrified, to find out what had happened to her mother after she left.

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

But she recognized the lie even before she turned the front doorknob and heard the locking mechanism click. She 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 repeatedly, like a fish suffocating on a wharf. Her father sat blanch-faced and vacant-eyed on the blue-flecked easy chair. Claire held her head in her hands. Francie crushed soggy toilet paper tightly in her fist, snot streaming out her nose. Jane stepped toward Jo protectively, reached out her hand, opened her mouth to speak.

“Don’t tell me!” Jo shrieked in the doorway. “Don’t tell me! Don’t tell me! I already know!”

She ran up to her 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 the 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, the night before Jo was scheduled to meet her surgeon, Jo felt the same disconnection from the everyday objects in her bedroom, accoutrements of the life she had before she had cancer.

She wondered what was ahead, how she would fare the tumult, whether this was some kind of retribution for her sins. She feared that she would prove weak -- a coward. She was stronger, anyway, than she had been at 19, better prepared for a mortal fight. She 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 was sacred, powerful, touched by the divine. All the human hair was peeled off, all the soft flesh, all the distinct features -- leaving nothing but a numinous, inviolable center, pure and constant as stone.

Cut Off will be published in June.


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May 27, 2011 at 7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very interesting, thanks

July 4, 2011 at 1:43 PM  

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