Sunday, February 17, 2013

The End of the World As We Know It

In 1997, the same year I gave birth to my first child, my mother was diagnosed with sinus cavity cancer. Not for her, special snowflake, the most common smoking-related cancer: lung cancer. No, she contracted the rare one, the one woodworkers and people who cure and shape leather tend to get.

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.

17 comments:

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

Oh Sarah, what a heart-wrenching moment. What a burden for all of you to bear.

My sister, who was NOT a smoker, was diagnosed with sinus cancer when she was only *29*. Her tumor was high in the sinuses. She went to Massachussetts General for the initial surgery--they took her eye, half of her palate and half of her upper teeth in order to get at the tumor. She showed so much resilience and strength, in part due to the support and attitude of her amazing husband.

When I put "sinus cancer" down on my family medical history, the doctors never fail to mention how rare it is. My reply is always the same "Not rare enough."

Maggie May said...

This was fascinating and heartbreaking and written wonderfully.

De said...

I can't imagine. This is agonizing just to read.

Anonymous said...

Sending love and light. Thank you for sharing this intimate moment.

cat

Christine said...

I love reading your beautifully crafted words, but like De they were hard to read. Such pain.

Christine said...

PS I currently have a sinus infection on my right side (where i always have sinus pain) and am now about to goole sinus cancer. i think i need to step away from the computer....

kelley @ magnetoboldtoo said...

I held my breath the entire time.

Oh my gorgeous Sarah... I am speechless.

Jester Queen said...

Wow. It's amazing how one moment, one change, can mark a moment of shattering change. Visiting from Yeah Write.

Flood G. said...

Hi Sarah,

You might see some new visitors to your blog today, because this post was selected as an an editor's pick for the yeah write invitational grid. Yeah write is a weekly blog challenge, and the primary goal is to highlight well-written anecdotes and personal essays.

I like how your post zips along without ever getting overwrought, given the subject. I'm sorry you lost your mom.

Erica M said...

So many follow-up questions I have no right to ask, so I shall stay silent. What a profound piece, thanks for sharing it. I'm here from yeah write.

Stacie @ Snaps and Bits said...

Oh I'm so sorry about your Mom. Such a beautifully written post about a hard subject. I'm here from yeah write too.

Erin O said...

Another yeah writer here. I am so sorry for your mom's suffering and your loss. Thanks for sharing this. I plan to share it with the many nurses I know. We cannot claim to know your pain, or hers. But you write so evocatively that we come close.

Samantha Brinn Merel said...

I'm so sorry that you lost your mom. Your writing here is so clear and matter-of-fact and beautiful. Congratulations on your Yeah Write win, so glad to have visited here today.

kristin said...

Stunning telling - somehow with both passion and detachment. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Michelle Longo said...

Visiting from yeah write. Your story gave me chills and truly shook me. I'm sorry about your mom. Such a well written piece.

Magpie said...

You write things that I can't. It's one of the things I love about you.

kelley @ magnetoboldtoo said...

Oh my love.

As always, you have me in awe.

x