It has been difficult to stay up to date in this space – it is not so much that there is a whirlwind of activity, it is more that my head is not quite sharp lately. Everything is a little out of focus. I lose track of time, so that instead of a regimented series of days, what I have is a blur with a few sharp moments that stand out. Going to Parasporos on Friday with Kathryn and Maria and eating the sweetest, homeliest oranges on the beach in the sun. Dinner on Monday with John Van Buren and the kids and eating whole fish for the first time, and realizing the loveliness of the animal as food, the delicate bones and feathery tails. Talking about music and art and movies. A late night in the studio drinking wine.
And every night or so, every other night, calling my mother and waiting for the machine to pick up so I can leave a voice message. I love you. I miss you. I am doing well. The sun is bright and the colors are amazing. I will call back. And calling back twenty to thirty minutes later hoping that she’ll pick up knowing that the unlisted number is probably me. Some nights I can’t get through at all, on Skype or with my phone card.
So it has been three weeks since I have talked to my mother, and Monday my aunt and I spent nearly 24hrs coordinating a phone call. We texted back and forth, I waited in the lab on Skype, finally calling and waking her up at 4.30 in the morning. I talked to her MD, she said, and we are stopping the chemo. Next week we are calling in hospice. She is going away for a few days to visit our grandmother, and then we will call them.
How is she? I ask. She has lost a lot of weight, and is jaundiced. The chemo makes her so sick. Is it alright if I take a few days to finish up my work for the school before I leave? Of course it is. Alright, I say, I will be home a week from Friday. The power goes out, and we lose our connection. I throw a tearful fit in the computer lab about the difficulty of making a single fucking phone call.
But a few hours later, I am picking wildflowers with Maria in the cypress grove next to Ekatontapyliani, and I receive a text that says “Your mother wants you to wait until after Easter” and I look down at the first edition of Death in the Afternoon I am holding in my hand with wax paper slipped between the pages to press these poppies and campion to take home to my mother, and I think that she wants me to have this experience, this Greek Easter, for her as much as me. To tell her about the eggs painted red and the children jumping through the bonfire and the lambs roasting on spits on the beach. To once again try to describe the light of this place with words, even though I’ve tried often enough to know it can’t be done. And my job is to shove aside my anxiety and my focus toward home and really live these moments here, live them for two, even though I feel divided in half.
Last week, last Monday, I had two dreams. The first dream was that I was in class, and my mother appeared, clutching her side. I was frantic and worried and insisted she go home to rest, and that I would follow her. She acquiesced and I spent the rest of the dream wandering through the labyrinthine white streets of Paros trying to reach her, while blue doors opened to my left and right, full of people I knew, delaying me with tasks while my anxiety grew. I woke up and wrote about it in scratchy pencil in the dark in my notebook. Then I fell back asleep and had another dream
where my mother and her brothers and sisters and mother and me are all on a dark train, at night. The seats are plush red velvet and there is a single tungsten light yellowing the interior. We are in Italy, and my mother has one wish – to go to Venice, and back to Rome, as many times as we can in a single night. Before seven-thirty, when the sun is up. Anything, I say, and I talk to the engineer, then leave for a second to get my notebooks. I come back to find the engineer haranguing her and her face wilting as she admits that it is an enormous request and I am vicious with anger, positively Greek in my fury, insisting that since we have paid, we will go to Venice, and we will turn around and come right back to Rome, and we will do it again as many times as we can before the sun rises, while all these stars outside the windows of the dark train spin and glow and he doesn’t even argue with me, just cowers into his seat and makes the train accelerate. I smile at my mother and I promise her that I will write it all down, every second of our nighttime journey in Italy, and I open my notebook and I begin to write “My mother and her brothers and sisters and mother and me are all on a dark train…”
Then I wake up.
These last few nights, since I talked to my aunt, I have not been sleeping. I try. I very carefully go to my apartment at midnight, brush my teeth and scrub my face and lay down under my wool blankets and stare at my blue ceiling. The first night, I stared until five am before I passed out. The second night, it was four am. Last night, I decided not to force the issue, and sat in the computer lounge working on various things until I heard every rooster on the island begin to crow, and from a distance, the eager braying of a donkey. I slipped outside and ran to my apartment in the dark and grabbed the Mamiya and found to my amazement that I had several rolls of film left, so I walked out to the waterfront as the sun rose and photographed the fishing boats as they made ready to leave the harbor for the day’s catch. One more document of this island, to bring to my mother, to carry with me.
This afternoon, I wandered outside after an exhausted nap and bought fresh sourdough from the bakery, yogurt and pears and nutella and sour cherry juice. As I walked past the cafe, Karen hollered at me. “Brianna! BRIANNA!” I doubled back and went inside and she smiled and said, “How are you? You fucker.” and I laughed and noticed she was making tea and asked for one too, since my stove isn’t working and I haven’t had a decent cup of tea in a week, and within minutes I was telling her that I was leaving the island, they are stopping treatment for my mother, calling hospice. “What exactly does that mean?” and I tell her. While I talk, she pours me tea, and I state facts and talk objectively about chemo and she looks at me and says “You sound fine. You are in shock.” and I nod my head and continue and she pulls a bit of trifle out of the fridge and grabs two spoons and chastises me for spending too much time researching these things on the internet, and looks at me and makes me hold her piercing blue-eyed gaze, the first eye contact I’ve made with anyone for three days, while she says “Nobody can accept all of this at once. It is too much for one person” and I nod again and then relax suddenly. It is okay to be overwhelmed.
And I know it is unnerving, for the people around me to see me fine, to be laughing and making lists of tasks and joking and just – fine. That I can discuss the exact details of what this means to my mother, our hope that it will make her more comfortable, some measure more happy. They wait for me to break down, I think, and I want to explain that it’s not for them, that I need them to be exactly as they are and that I will be exactly as I am except most nights I try not to be alone too long because I’m trying to face the things that I have been avoiding and that means that a lot of times when I am in my apartment, not sleeping, I am weeping for my young mama, in pain and frightened and far away. Finally. I have spent months weeping about nearly every other small, insignificant thing I could find to vent my emotions without actually dealing with the fact that this is just a fucking tragedy, no way to disguise it, and it hurts everyone it touches but mostly I am worried about my mother and what she is facing by herself that no one can face with her.