There’s a fairy-tale playing in my head – it seems true. It starts with a ringing phone in my first home after leaving my parent’s roof, across town. Dad calls, I answer even though I don’t want to talk to him. I rarely do – he rarely talks to me, but at me, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, he’s to be heard.
“Mom’s in the hospital,” he says, “you should come.” It’s just a story, right, but it sits in the back of my mind, the hesitation – reason, and good parenting prevail. I say I’ll be there, call my brother – I pick him up and go to Sunrise Hospital, hopeful in the namesake.
The story is getting ahead of itself. Rewind.
Mom hated doctors, she didn’t trust them, even though she worked for them as long as I could remember – a medical biller, she maneuvered around insurance protocol deftly, a ballerina in a minefield – adroit, she made medical pay for procedures, a hero to both clients and more companies than she worked for: MRI technicians, physical therapists, purveyors of medical supplies – she gave them bread and butter. She spoke nine languages but couldn’t ask for help in any of them, suffering silently as the cruel, consuming disease that has all the cees tore through her intestines and metastasized everywhere: her lungs, her liver, her brain. They caught it late, when the pain became too great: for a woman that suffered through twelve years of Crohn’s Disease undiagnosed, that’s saying something, and started therapy, chemo and radiation.
At the funeral, my older half-brother says her dying is her way of strength, refusing to let herself be a strain. The day she dies she says she wants fried chicken: my brother and I drive for half-an-hour ploddingly, looking for the damn restaurant, fighting, frustrated, unable to even bring the peace of meat to her – when we finally get it to her she eats a bite and is done. The doctor brings us into a room marked “Recovery” and after waiting hours in the room with an expectant father calling his friends and family, there is a glimmer of hope in my heart – she waits until she can see all our eyes: husband, sons, and lets them know Clara didn’t make it – potassium did her in.
The radiation and the chemo kill the cancer dead, or begins to. In the process T-cells die, good soldiers gamma irradiated – there are no Hulks here, just Hiroshima in the bloodstream. An opportunistic infection culls itself in her throat, swelling it. Clara lies in bed, feeling herself dying – no strength to stand – she feels her sons’ eyes on her and hates it. Loves them, hates their stare – she doesn’t want to feel helpless. She sends them on an errand and groans in her bed alone – she hasn’t been been hungry in days – just anything to spare them seeing her like this. She thirsts but can’t even swallow saliva – blood thickens to banana and hemoglobin jelly jamming up her veins, tick tock tick tock tick….
A widower and two orphans get led down a maze of corridors, sterile white, endless angles that wind to her body – see her one last time, see her one, see her, just maybe she’s alive. The room has a label, the hospital demands it – they yearn for a land of quiet consolation, stifled sobs – the sign reads “Quiet Room.” She remains there, her remains stare at the ceiling as three lost boys lose themselves wailing, pleading, scream their “I love yous” so that maybe she’ll hear. Her eyelids stick open – it seems so easy in the movies, to close the eyes of the dead, but they stare relentlessly – maybe it’s because he’s too gentle. He doesn’t want to hurt her, even though he can’t anymore, but her eyes won’t close, close, close quarters, three men hold each other weeping.
This isn’t how I want to remember her. I want to remember Shabbat dinner, beaming at the joy we eat her love with; talks to four in the morning, no real point, just topics flowing – sitting at the kitchen table over cigarettes and soliloquoys; the gratitude of strangers in Spanish, Russian, German, Hebrew; how she always got complimented on her $50 ensembles. But that’s the fairy tale, because it ends back at that waiting room, the Quiet Room, the cemetery – Grimm made manifest on the story of a life.