It’s evening time after a monumental day of traveling the parkway to the cancer center, where I sat in a rocker by the fire with my mother and sewed a new button onto my bag, a mother of pearl button in the vague asymmetrical shape of a flower, selected from a basket of buttons brought in the car by my mother upon my request, after I’d decided to carry the old tapestry sack purse with the broken button closure and the images of medieval seeming animals – a hare, an antelope, a pheasant – frolicking on a red background amidst a vining fleur-de-lis in shades of country blue, green, and gold. “It will give me something to do while we wait for your appointment.”
I didn’t, of course, need anything to do, but the thought of sewing a button on my bag on the day of my mother’s prognosis was satisfying in the way of a small ritual.
I used pink thread and briefly remembered the winter I was in college and decided I loved the color pink, and my mother brought me a pink wool sweater. Today, I wore a pink cotton dress under a grey wool sweater, my hair in two long thin braids. I wondered, as I sat across from the vitals station where they weighed my mother, if wearing my hair in long braids to the cancer center was rude or insensitive.
Now, the next morning after waking up too early and going to run in the dark anyway. It is better to get out of bed too early than to lay in the bed and think about cancer, the giant masses in my mother’s abdomen.
The chemotherapy, we learned yesterday, did very little to reduce the ‘disease burden.’ This means that it did not work, the chemotherapy. “We have mixed results,” the physician’s assistant with a country-sounding name of Raeleen informed us, looking owl-like through her glasses behind the full facial shield she wore in addition to her mask. “The left ovarian mass has reduced from 8cm to 6, and so that is good. We also noted a slight reduction in the fluid near your lungs. The areas on the colon are the same, and the lymph nodes are the same,” Raeleen explained as my mother listened, eyes blankly stoic above her mask and below her hat.
I reached to put my hand on my mother’s back and felt the bones of her spine under the sweatshirt she wore. “They are giving the good news first,” I thought to myself, recognizing that the matter-of-fact Raeleen seemed to be mustering to deliver an update on the right ovarian mass. “The right side…well, the response to treatment is a little disappointing.”
We’ve all noticed that my mother’s belly stands out like kwashiorkor, like pregnancy. Her midsection is hard and round while her arms and legs have become spindly and thin.
Her body looks like a misshapen cell.
Nonetheless, my brother was hopeful, and my aunts were hopeful, expecting a miraculous proclamation of a cure, or at least a surprisingly good response to the treatment, significant shrinkage.
My father has been convinced of my mother’s imminent death and the incurability of the disease since they found it back in May.
In the early weeks, his death prognosis seemed to too much, and I was bothered by his crying in the living room, his bewildered statements about “the man is supposed to go first, the man is supposed to go first.” My father comes from a long line of tragedy, like most families. However, some families write their histories by the tragedies that befall them and some write their histories by how they overcame. My father had the hospice nurse come out to the house within the first month, when my mother was still puttering around in the garden and hadn’t yet decided on chemotherapy. “We just want to keep her comfortable,” he would say with grave resolution while my mother was standing at the sink doing dishes. Like any good connoisseur of family tragedy, my father told anyone he could tell that his wife was dying of stage IV cancer.
He spoke to the scheduler at his eye doctor on the phone in hushed tones, “Well, we’ve just found out my wife has terminal cancer…”
He returned bearing condolences from the veterinarian where he’d had a dense tumor-like mat shaved from the right flank of his golden retriever. My mother bristled, “I’m not dead yet. You send condolences when someone is dead,” she spit out the word dead, “and I’m not fucking dead yet.”
On Oct 1, 2020, at 6:54 AM,
Faith Rhyne <email@example.com> wrote:
This morning is the day that I take my mother to the doctor. I will be the first person to have ever been allowed to accompany her to an appointment due to the provider precautions in place because of the pandemic. It has seemed cruel to me, to make a person sit alone and hear that they are dying, to have to make notes about the size of their cancers, the names of the chemicals they will take, the months that they may live. They are allowing my mother one accompanying person for this appointment, which follows an imaging appointment that she attended alone two days ago. She had one additional round of chemotherapy early in the month. The purpose of this appointment is to learn whether there may be the option for surgery and – if so – what ‘debulking’ might entail, as far as the partial removal of organ systems and the recovery process from such a surgery, the likelihood of recovery. The other option that we anticipate may be put forth is the option that is offered when there is no other option. The acceptance and management of eventual imminent death.
My family chose me to accompany my mother to this appointment because they have the impression that I am able to absorb information reliably and be calm-headed and diplomatic in a crisis or an emotional situation.
This, to me, is ironic.
Nonetheless, I suppose if the choice between me and my father must be made, it is better to not put him through the experience of having to maintain social composure in a strange environment and to ask intelligent questions about medical prognoses when he is being informed that his wife of 47 years is going to be dying sooner than later.
So, my brother will be bringing my mother to the parking lot of the Ingles on Hwy 74-A, where I will meet them to drive my mother down the parkway to the Hope Center. My brother will drive alone back to my parents house to wait with my father for the phone call from the physician, which is how they – my father and my brother – will be attending the appointment. My mother and I are going to be recording the proceedings on our phone and there is something very grim to me about the prospect of having a recording of the news of my mother’s imminent death, the technical details of the cancer that seems to have gotten larger from the looks of her abdomen, though that may simply be the effect of the rest of her having shrunk significantly.
I am at the track walking in the dark and typing into my phone. I swerve slowly between lanes, not looking where I am going. I ran 5 miles, then stopped to walk so that I would have a chance to take notes before I go back to the house to shower and drive East for the morning to begin.
My right hip is slightly injured, a bursitis or inflammation of the piri formis, but if I tilt my pelvis back and run fast it doesn’t hurt.
Running on the flat track in the dark gives a person a good read on what is happening with their form and mechanics.
The moon was full yesterday, the harvest moon, and is still bright in the western sky. The air is clear and cold.
Yesterday, I submitted another poem for review and felt good about meeting the goal. I wrote the poem as a modified qasida – and felt okay about using the ancient Arabic form because my mother is half Lebanese and I studied Arabic for four years and know how to write qasida in Arabic.
More and more, I appreciate the importance of learning and understanding the proper forms of things before breaking form. I guess in some respects, it could be argued that all forms are inescapably the constructions of men and thus there is nothing much sacred or timeless about them. The forms are tests and games. Fuck forms and their expectations, their constraints. Write how you want.
I like games, though, and even enjoy tests at times. There is something satisfying about working within constraints.
This past couple weeks has been busy. I have been working and running and writing. I have spent a lot of time with my 16 year old daughter. She wants to go visit my mom everyday, wants to drive from the Ingles, stop and get coffee, listen to the radio, talk about her professors at the community college classes she is taking, the work she has due, the ways that her old friends have disappointed her. She is going through a lot this season, but is shrewd in her emotionality. She may be repressing a lot, or just happened upon the perspective that it is no use being sad or stressed about anything you have no power to change and that if you have a problem you can change, you should change it and not complain.
She is not a sympathetic person in general, but does have compassion for animals and for homeless people and for old people who are alone.
Everybody else, as far as she is concerned, are complaining about first world problems.
I found a big box of apples at the bus stop by the school, and made pies for the equinox to share with my parents, my aunt, and with the women who give my mother reiki and make her tinctures for nausea that don’t really work.
An Imperfect Qasida for a Sick Mother
The river has no way to remember
the sound of her voice speaking low
naming the sun in early September
rising to leave us far below
We trust that the day will last forever
forget the eventual night
she loved the clarion calling of dawn
the announcements made by the light
spartina alterniflora, juncus
sway and sigh in the saline breeze
nephila web crystalline with the dew
the cats’ lazy yawn, stretching ease
“Look here,” she would say, “here is the water,“
“…and there,” arm swept wide, “there is land.”
“Now,” she would whisper, reaching to break surface,
“look what I can do with my hand!”
brackish current clear in the cup of palms
fingers pressed close, hand curved to hold
offering the gift of a simple alms
made of water and salt so old
The sky was in the ripples, silent cloud
seeking out the deaf waiting shore
“You’re holding the ocean in your hands,” spoke loud
grinning while saying nothing more
How could you name the sound of wing-made winds,
air stirred by the heron and egret
the slap of a fin, the echo depends
noises made with no hint of regret
She taught the language of awe’s quiet gaze
upon the world born again new
each day unfurling in amazing ways
what can a person really do?
This was the question, the legacy left
the weight of seeing beauty true
some stolen long glances, some returned theft
impossible to unsee you
We rose and ran, delighting in the air
as it cooled with coming autumn
gobbling the sweet wonders of the fair
wheeling whirling, brilliantly dumb
Now at the end, unexpected and close
swooning sick as the ride clatters
burnt fruit, sizzle fat, varicose
wasted time that suddenly matters
We woke up one day to notice at last
the marsh pocked and balding in spots
the land itself disappearing quickly
washed away like our worried thoughts
The forest does not ring with echoed names
the house is gone, the road erased,
buried with the fields of our old games
and with all the maps home misplaced
She looks across the hopeful orchard trees
dying with a damp weather blight
watching birds before migration journeys
saying nothing of mortal plight
chemicals can keep it back, slow it down
see the cancer with big machines
measure, cut, induce a deep sleep and drown…
turn the body into ravines
They give fresh words for death, carcinoma
to be fed the juices of plants
they create ports and install the stoma,
build the body’s brutal entrance
She sits and gravity wins yet again
She walks with the slowness of time
She holds in hand the shaking pen
letters sprawling goodbye, no rhyme
The grace of somniferum slurs the clock
ferries toward the warm coming night
steers the creaking ship away from the dock
catching a certain lilting light
My mother will die this season, we know
report on this like the weather
she is graven, cold, grey, slow
we hover as birds, together
The substance of her laughter, her living
vengeance silent in the dead breast
All these forces explode, justice giving
May they never be laid to rest
The river cannot remember the skies
the way that you and I might
but, has knowing that never lives or dies
never names the wrong nor the right
I will travel with the name she gave me,
with my Faith, with my mother-name
casting ashes in the river-to-sea,
all is endless, final…the same.