It was only about a week from the time I found out my mom had cancer until she died. The priest came to give her last rites on Easter Sunday. The next day, with my brother and I by her side, she took her last labored breath in room 128 at Clinica San Fernando.
When I found out she was sick I was in New Orleans, but I was able to get a plane to Panama the next day. She had checked into the hospital to find out why she was having headaches. The CT scan showed brain lesions, and the subsequent biopsy showed she had cancer in her lungs, her liver and around her kidneys. The doctor told us that she should receive chemotherapy, and that would help at least prolong her life. There was something about his face as he spoke, a strange kind of hopelessness, that’s what I noticed most. His words were just a distant echo.
No one is prepared for the death of a parent. It doesn’t matter if you are woken in the middle of the night by a phone call from a somber voice, or if you have a ringside hospital seat to make serious choices about what treatment should be given to the person who held your hand as you learned to walk.
There is supposed to be some magic number (there is always a magic number for everything). It’s the number of years that you grieve for a lost parent. I seem to remember it’s like three years, or maybe it’s five. That’s the ‘magic number’ for the death of a parent.
It was almost ten years ago that I stood in a hospital knowing my mom was going to die. I didn’t have time to say much to her before she went into the coma. My brother and I told her that she had cancer and the doctor wanted to give her chemotherapy. She smiled slowly and said ‘okay,’ but we both knew she didn’t really want the chemotherapy. She agreed to it because that was the ‘hopeful thing to do.’ My mother always tried to say the right thing, even if she didn’t really mean it.
I knew, like we all did, the chemo wasn’t going to work. She wasn’t going to put up a valiant struggle for life, that wasn’t her style. My mother regarded style as a fundamental guiding force. So Stuart and I both knew she’d be dead soon, which naturally made me quite sad. Not so much for me as for my kids.
Before I left for Panama I told the kids that “granny was sick” and asked them to draw something to cheer her up. Ernie, 9 years old, drew a ship with lots of hard angles. Bridget, age 7, drew a colorful hospital scene in which a little girl was offering flowers to a woman in bed. The caption read “Get well soon. To Granny, from Bridget.” Five year old Charlotte’s picture was hastily composed, depicting an ungainly cat underneath a rudimentary tree. She signed her name and also drew a heart next to the word “I.” Obviously, she meant to convey her love for her sick granny.
Bridget, seeing Charlotte’s drawing, scorned it and reprimanded her for failing to appreciate the subtle diplomacy that the commission called for. Charlotte, hearing this harshly delivered criticism, became hesitant and unsure of the value of her work. She tried to take it back. But I assured her it would be appreciated and carefully added it to the other two pictures. The last meaningful conversation I ever had with my mother was about the drawings the kids sent her. It was right after she agreed to the chemotherapy, while we were waiting for them to bring her down to the room where they would administer the drug that would immediately put her into a coma.
She studied all three pictures carefully, remarking on the unique features of each one. As she was doing this, I was stuck by the realization that she’d always treated every creative gesture from Stuart and I with the utmost reverence. When she finished her review I told her that Charlotte had been hesitant to send the picture that she was holding. I suggested that this was not because it wasn’t something she wanted to send, but because Bridget had made a harsh comment about it not being an appropriate ‘get well’ drawing. My mother re-examined it for a few more seconds. “I like this one best of all,” she smiled. “Be sure to tell her that.”
When I returned from the funeral I told Charlotte that granny liked her picture best of all and she beamed with pride. At the time, I couldn’t help noticing the strange power of that compliment. Now, of course, she would hardly remember it. Many years have passed and now she’s fourteen years old. Charlotte has changed in many ways, although she’s still very sensitive –like her grandmother. Last week Charlotte found out that she’d been accepted into the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts to study visual arts. I’m sure she’ll enjoy NOCCA tremendously, making new friends and learning how to refine her creative talents. But, I’ll always treasure most the picture that she drew in 1997, the one that for a week was prominently displayed in room 128 at Clinica San Fernando, next to the bed of my dying mother.
That one will always bring a stream of tears to my eyes.