I will function, operate
r | no warnings apply
I always knew when my mother had lost a big case, because I'd get some sort of unexpected present.
When I was a child, it was stuffed animals. Cats, for a while. Dogs with big floppy ears and huge, ridiculous smiles. Teddy bears, of course, and bunny rabbits around Easter. Sometimes more exotic animals like giraffes and zebras. As I grew up and grew out of my love for toys, she started giving me extra hours in front of the television or treats at the local ice cream parlor - hence the unsightly bulge around my midsection. When I was seventeen, she gave me a ten-year-old car. The trunk was half-covered in rust and the left blinker only worked half the time - you had to hit the dash pretty hard to get it going - but I was seventeen and it was a car, so it didn't matter.
And the first time I drove it, I peered at the people on the sidewalk, trying to see if I could figure out which one of them was the murderer or rapist or child abuser that my mother had failed to effectively prosecute.
By the time I was that age, I began to wonder how exactly my mother managed to remain employed. I know better now, of course. When I was a child, it seemed like she was losing cases every time I turned around. My perception was distorted. It was easier to remember the aberrant days, the nights when she came home with pale eyes and a barely-disguised frown, handing me a brown and white stuffed puppy. All the nights when she only brought home her briefcase and a satisfied smile, those fade away.
But I didn't realize all that until I was almost thirty. I spent most of my adult life thinking she was a rotten attorney.
She was in hospital, then. It was the second time that her doctor had declared that she only had six months left to live, and we were all foolish enough to think that he was wrong this time, too. She had this scrapbook underneath her bed - bright, garish yellow with these hideous pink and green flowers on it. It had to have come from Grandmamma; only she had such poor taste. I thought it would be pictures of me and Nick, or maybe a collection of those love letters that Dad allegedly wrote her, but no. From what I could tell, it held every article and snippet and little printed thing ever written about the cases she prosecuted. For every 'Accused Rapist is Exonerated', there are a dozen that say 'Murderer Imprisoned for Life' or 'Kingpin Gets 25 Years' or 'Six Found Guilty in Museum Robbery'.
My mother used to say that the closest things we had on this planet to superheroes were cops and DAs. (Doctors and teachers and artists probably would have had something to say about that.) It's really no surprise, then, that she ended up marrying a cop. She and Dad were saving the world from evil. When I was . . . five, I think, in kindergarten, one of the assignments was to draw a picture of our parents. I drew her long red hair and her bright green eyes, and I put her in a black jumpsuit-type outfit, with a long blue cape. Dad wore something similar, only his cape was orange. I told the other children that my parents were superheroes. And they laughed at me. It was kindergarten, after all.
But I believed it. For a while.
By the time I was old enough to understand what death meant, and old enough to understand that working in law enforcement was a horribly dangerous profession, I resigned myself to the fact that my parents would die in the line of duty. I wasn't looking forward to it or anything. Just expecting it.
So it was a little bit of a disappointment when Dad died of a heart attack. Not just for me, but Mom, too. If he had died on the job, she would have been able to tell fantastic stories about how he met his end chasing robbers or apprehending a serial killer or saving a poor child from a car that was on fire.
There aren't any heroic images associated with heart attacks. You hear that someone had a heart attack and think about a big, fat man, lying around in his own filth, eating tons of greasy bacon and mashed potatoes covered in butter and gravy, until his chest just explodes. At least, that was how I thought of heart attacks until my father had one.
Mother generally didn't volunteer the details of his death unless she absolutely had to. She just said that her husband was dead, and he had been a cop, and people usually filled in the blanks.
She was ashamed of him. He had a magnificent career and had been decorated many times, but she was ashamed of him, just because his heart wasn't strong enough to last past age 47.
That, more than anything, was why my relationship with her was strained. She blamed it on my husband and the Zoloft, but that wasn't it. Not really.
I could forgive Dad for having a weak heart. This was the man who taught me how to ride a bike, who gave me piggyback rides every Sunday on the walk back from church. He bandaged up my scraped knees and elbows and rushed me to the hospital when I was eight years old and thought I could fly. (Who didn't, when they were eight?) He fixed the blinker on that car so I didn't have to whack the dash every time I wanted to turn into the school parking lot, and when the brakes failed, he fixed that, too. He put his arm around me when my first boyfriend broke up with me and talked me out of throwing myself off the roof. (Again. But that time, I had no intention of flying.) I was disappointed, but I had been disappointed by him before, and I always got over it.
She was ashamed of him. Angry with him. And that made me angry with her.
She kept calling every Sunday, like usual, but our talks became more and more superficial. Sometimes we spent fifteen minutes talking about weather patterns. If mothers and daughters are going to have regular conversations, they ought not revolve around the best method for storm-proofing the upstairs windows.
I was 27 and things had been going on like that for almost five years when she was diagnosed. She slipped it in the conversation, almost casually, when we were talking about how Law & Order wasn't as good as it used to be. One moment, she was talking about Chris Noth, and then she mentioned the 'c' word. It took a good five minutes to get her to admit it was in her colon; I think she would have preferred a brain tumor or skin cancer or anything else, really. I remember sitting with her when she was getting her chemo and listening to her talk about how colon cancer was so undignified.
I'm sure it didn't help that people like Aunt Esther made jokes about her disease being due to her having such a big stick up her ass.
I shouldn't have visited her in hospital. Well, no, I should have, but I wish I hadn't. That sounds cruel, I know. But now, when I think about my mother, the only memories that come up easily are the ones of her in hospital and the ones from my childhood, of her bringing me toys and treats to somehow make up for her inadequacies in the courtroom. I can remember her reading to me or helping me pick out a homecoming dress, but they're farther back, buried behind chemo and teddy bears and radiation and ice cream.
Just being in a hospital now makes me feel like vomiting. They had to give me something for my nausea when I had my second child. That's how strong it was. It's not just the smell - although that smell is unmistakable. Sterile and static and scientific; you wouldn't think something could smell scientific, but the next time you're in a hospital, close your eyes and inhale. It's like tenth grade chemistry lab without the whiff of gas from the Bunsen burners.
I sat with her, sometimes, when the drugs were getting pumped into her. The nurse used to make a big production about it, saying that she would let me do it this one time, and if anyone found out, she'd be in so much trouble, but I think she was full of it.
I expected Mom to be quiet. Tired. Unconscious. Whatever. But she rattled on about anything and everything. She heard that Law & Order was actually getting better, although she was too exhausted to stay up that late and see for herself. She heard that some author I didn't know had committed suicide, and wasn't that sad? She heard there weren't going to be any strawberries this year because of some storm that had come through and destroyed all the crops; wasn't that a pity?
I would close my eyes and wish sometimes that she would just shut up. And, of course, when she flatlined or coded or whatever they call it and they couldn't resuscitate her, I cursed myself for wishing for silence.
When she was first diagnosed, the doctor gave her three months, maybe six, if the surgery went well. She survived for twenty-six months, instead, although towards the end, she wouldn't call it 'living'. The second time they went in, they took the last bits of her colon. When you're only 49 years old and people still mistake you for your daughter's sister, it's devastating to be told you have to crap in a bag now. I guess it's devastating at any age, really.
It had spread by then. Everywhere, they said. I thought they were exaggerating.
Our Sunday evening routine had been put on hiatus. She was usually too drained to call every week, and it seemed rather pointless, as I was up in the city three or four times a week anyway. But after it came out of remission, when she was given the six-month deadline for the second time, that was when she started calling again. Real phone calls this time. We talked about my son and how he wasn't doing well in school. Dyslexia, they thought. We talked about my husband and how I was tired of covering up the bruises. She referred me to a good lawyer and gave me horrible directions to his office. I got lost on the way and ended up meeting the man who would become my second husband. She talked about the pain and the side effects from the drugs. I found her scrapbook and told her how proud I was.
I think that was the first time in my adult life that I really wasn't judging her.
We were told she had some colon disease that ran in families. They said I had an increased risk and I should get tested right away, even though I was young. I thought they were exaggerating about that, too, until Nick got sick. He insisted that they take out everything, even though the doctor told him that the tumor was localized. It was bad enough seeing my mother in that condition; imagine going into a hospital room and seeing your younger brother with a bag full of shit on his stomach.
When I was cleaning up her room, I stopped by the window that I had crawled out of twice. There was this ledge and a metal . . . thing that came down from the gutter, and it had been years since I had tried, but I used to be able to use it to shimmy my way up to the roof. I was heavier then, with wider hips, but I thought about it.
She thought she might be well enough to come home, though, and I didn't like the idea of turning her house into a crime scene.
I was there when she died. Not in the same room; there were doctors and nurses and I got pushed into the hallway so they could work on her. I couldn't see anything. Too many people were in the way. I just leaned against the doorjamb and ran my fingers over the smooth, cold metal and waited for them to say she was okay. And even when they gave me the news, I just stood there.
My daughter was born in the same hospital, two floors down. She's named after her grandmother.
The phone doesn't ring on Sunday evenings anymore. But it's just as well, because my husband and I are usually at the playground with our kids.
I was diagnosed this May. My doctor's optimistic.