"Hey ma, you think I could leave my hair down for an entire double shift without it driving me bananas?"
"What's wrong with those clips? They keep the hair out of your face. And they make you look like a little girl. I like them."
"That's probably the reason why everyone is so flabbergasted when they find out I'm 31 years old, not 21, mommy. Not that I mind."
"Nobody can guess my age, either."
"I hope that means I've inherited the genes that keep you in shape, being able to work those insane hours and still look great. Not a lot of people's moms are as healthy as my mother."
"Your mother has cancer."
I debated ending this post right there, but realized it'd probably hit like a suckerpunch. And while that's not how I found out that my mom has breast cancer***, this evening was the first time the big c tiptoed into an everyday conversation and took it down. Which sure felt like a fist to the gut.
My mom's a tough lady. She tried to keep this from us for as long as possible, but when her doctor called the house while we were chilling on the couch watching Bidaai (I call it the "light girl/dark girl" Hindi soap opera), it was hard to keep to herself anymore. As much as I wanted to smack her for suffering by herself back then, I would have straight-up wrung her neck if she had fake-smiled through a Stereotactic MRI, biopsy and next week's lumpectomy without telling us kids. You know, so we wouldn't worry.
I've been trying to keep from falling apart--mainly by cramming as many hours onto my timesheet as possible. And training on two very different jobs in various areas is a pretty good distraction. It's easy to pretend this cancer thing is just a nightmare I had last month, and that the glue that holds my papier-mache world together is still just as impervious to cracks as ever. Especially if I can walk past her office a dozen times a day and hear her talking on the phone or laughing, normal as ever.
She works in the hospital, too. She understands that they caught her cancer early, that it's likely they can cut it out and it's possible that they can keep it from coming back. We all realize how TREMENDOUSLY LUCKY we are to have early detection in our corner with the water bottle. Not every person gets that kind of fighting chance. We are so so so very grateful. But this thing is scary as hell.
My brother is having panic attacks. For his entire life he has always been the one in jeopardy, the one people toss and turn worrying about. He has absolutely no coping skills to deal with feeling so powerless, terrified and being too far away for a hug. All I can offer him in the way of comfort is a welcome sign to our side of the fence.
For all of her usual "no-big-deal" nonsense, this has been one situation where I saw a hole in my mom's toughguy veneer (hell, the lady watched my kid brother yank out every last tube from his body in the middle of an ICU night, need four grown adults to hold him down, then be clinically dead for several minutes before coming back to us. And she kept her cool until it was all over). Now she is afraid, and that scares me half to death.
My new shared office is next-door to the office of the hospital's Breast Care Coordinator. I'm running all over the place all day, so that means I pass her pink-ribbon nameplate fourteen kajillion times each shift (twice that if I'm working a double). And every time I see it, I want to knock on the door and crack that Breast Care Coordinator's ribs with gratitude. Because she's been with my mom every single step of the way so far, holding her hand and making smalltalk throughout painful surgical procedures, explaining the situation to her in excruciating detail and giving her books to read (but not allow us to see, too frightening). Most of all, she's given my tough, strong-willed mother the opportunity to put down the armor and let it all out, which is something I don't have the power to ever offer her.
Up until today, I haven't let myself really feel the enormity of this disease. It truly is a different sort of snaggletoothed beast when it's going after the woman you love most on this earth. I came very close to losing it the day I saw the NFL players with their pink towels, cleats and helmet stickers, but something about how casually my mother said she has cancer with a sad smile just laid me out flat tonight. I'm so thankful I'm the only one awake so I can work my way through this box of Kleenex unabashedly. Tomorrow I'll have to get it together. I'll have to be able to walk around past office doors all day with a smile on my face, normal as ever.
Tomorrow I'll put on some of my mom's armor. She's going to need backup for the fight.
***Oh and by the way, she doesn't want me to advertise this news, so if you know her in real life, please pretend that you don't know. I realize this is easier asked than done. Thanks.