Two years earlier she had first felt a tiny sore on the inside corner of one nostril. It would scab over - act as if it were going to heal - and then grow again, exactly as it had been before. Later she'd confide in me that she had known something was wrong but had been too afraid of the diagnosis to make an appointment with her internist. So she ignored it, save for rubbing antibiotic ointment into it when she felt worried enough to take some small action.
And she told no one.
By the time she was forced to see a doctor - the sore had grown angry and weeping, and it was visible to others - her cancer was classified as Stage II. Which was bad, yes, but not Stage III, nor Stage IV. She was scheduled for surgery, and, more than six months pregnant, I drove into Manhattan to be with her.
The surgeon, Dr. Shah, was the best. My brother had seen to that. But a surgeon is a surgeon, and when Dr. Shah came out of the OR to find my brother and me, he grinned broadly, announced, "I'm confident I got all of it," and turned to go before telling us what had become of our mother's face. "Wait!," we cried, and asked him what to his patient's mind had always been the only question. The doctor beamed. "I was able to spare the top third of her nose," he crowed.
That night I stayed with my mother, still sedated in a double room. The woman in the next bed, closed off from me by a flimsy curtain, was groaning, delirious, past care or comfort. In the middle of the night, there were insistent beeps and a rush of staff in, around, and back out of the room. My mother's roommate had died. Died! And no one with her. I would never share that piece of information with my mother. What would have been the point? I spent the remainder of that interminable night rubbing my swollen belly so obsessively and vigorously that the skin there ended up red and chafed.
The following morning my mother and I were tender with one another. She was an exceptional sick person - in that role, with people waiting on her, she was in her element.
Until she asked for a mirror, and the young nurse, not in the least understanding the essential psychological fragility of the patient to whom she'd been assigned, poor thing, obliged. I had gone out of the room in search of coffee and returned to find my mother staring into a hand-held mirror at her newly foreign face. At her mostly missing nose. There should have been a psychologist - hell, a team of them - with us. There should have been. Instead, the girl nurse patted my mother's shoulder and soothed, "They've come so far with prosthetics."
My mother, furious, jerked her head towards me. I tried to look unfazed, but by God, the woman lacked a nose. I'm not sure what expression I managed to feign. I cannot know what my mother saw or didn't see in my face as it regarded hers. But I can say that she threw the mirror so hard that it bounced off of the bed and clattered onto the linoleum floor. With stunning flatness, she intoned, "My life is over."
Although she lived for twelve more years, and it wasn't her cancer that killed her (but it was), her statement was prophetic. Or perhaps she made it her mission to live according to those four words. Based on all that came after, so much anguish and anger on all sides, it would have been better - certainly for her, maybe for everyone, even her much-anticipated grandson - had she died on that sticky August morning in 1997.