January 11, 2006

(from my paper journal)

I am sitting in the patient room with Mom while she receives Gemzar intravenously. She is in a recliner, leaned back on two pillows with a blue blanket draped across her knees, engrossed in a Nora Roberts novel. She is wearing a grey tracksuit and has others at home in a variety of pastel shades, like a woman twenty years her senior. She turns 45 next week, and I remember her face at twenty-one.

The other patients here are mostly senior citizens, I hear them asking questions of the nurses in halting, elderly voices. “Now, this one will target my cancer specifically?” It sounds almost affectionate, this possessive – my cancer. It is a product of the body, like blood or babies or my mother’s beautiful long brown hair.

The waiting room at the oncologist’s office is filled with pamphlets with aged people on the covers – Fighting Cancer, Treatment for Lymphoma. I pick them up and leaf through them, looking for nutritional tips or ways to ameliorate the side effects of the three chemo treatments Mom is undergoing simultaneously. I find nothing I haven’t seen before.

I can hear the sounds of the Gemzar dripping from Mom’s IV bag. When Margie inserted the wicked inch long needle into Mom’s portacath on her chest, it sounded like a fingernail puncturing ripe fruit. I make myself watch, unblinking – it’s almost a relief. I can’t bear her pain, I can’t take it from her, the closest I can come is to remind her to take her medication. So I force myself to be an active observer of that which hurts her, to be present.

I get up to get Mom more ice water, and I have to walk through a room of other patients receiving chemo near the nurse’s station. A new patient has arrived since I last filled the glass at the ice machine – a young man, younger than me perhaps. Handsome. Afraid, as the nurse wraps the tourniquet around his arm. I know this, because he looks me in the eye as I walk by and his eyes are wide and focused. It occurs to me that he is the first person I have made eye contact with all day. I force myself to look, unblinking, but the needle doesn’t hurt him any less.

The Tarceva Mom takes daily has caused a rash to break out across her face and torso, a painful, bubbling rash that keeps her awake at night and hidden from the sun. Jenn and I have been trying out different combinations of essential oils, and it is hugely gratifying when they seem to work better than the prescription creams. The best recipe:

9 drops Roman chamomile
3 drops ylang-ylang
3 drops lemongrass
2 drops lavendar
1 tbsp glycerin (pure coconut oil base)
4 oz. olive oil

I rub pure aloe vera on her back and neck first, then apply the oil. She applies the oil to her face two to three times per day. It smells wonderfully herbal and medicinal, and lingers on my skin and clothes while I move through the day. I smell it when we hug goodnight before bed.

After chemo, we go to Jack in the Box for a cheesburger with my aunt (I have to refuse several times to keep them from ordering for me – it’s been a very long time since I have had fast food, it wouldn’t agree with me) and Mom has huge sunglasses on, and a surgical mask. Her white blood cell count is fantastic, much higher than it was when I got to California, but why risk it? She lifts the mask to eat. We go to Lowe’s after that, to buy blinds for the house, and at the register she pays with a credit card. The assistant asks for ID and Mom thanks her for asking to see it – at which my aunt looks at my masked mother and says “Annette, she wouldn’t be able to recognize you anyway!”

This cracks me up when they tell me about in the car – I was collecting paint samples at the time, and missed it. Mom sounds wistful when she says that her rash must be terrible, because people were looking at her in Lowe’s. “Mama”, I say, “no one can see your rash. They were looking at your mask – it makes people suspicious. They think you know something they don’t”. Mom laughs, and I am glad. Later she will be sick, from the Gemzar, but right now she is smiling in the sun, well-fed, pain-free.

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