Strange Silences

November 23, 2005

The term is ending in a couple of weeks. There is an exhibition to prepare for, a poetry reading, a couple of concerts. I have been quiet here, because I have had work to put between myself and the days that I try to accurately (and admittedly, artfully) record here for you. I have had time for rumination, though, and there has been a lot to think about.

On my way home from Oslo, while I sat in the Athens airport at five am after being up all night writing in one of the airport cafes, I got a phone call that my mother was hospitalized with an inoperable tumour. I wasn’t supposed to know – Mom wanted to wait until the biopsy results were in before I was contacted. Josh found out by lucky accident, and made sure I knew – something for which I am incredibly grateful.

I did not intend to write about this here – my initial instinct was that it was invasive of my family’s privacy. However, I have had time to think about it, and I would much rather write about it here and let the good wishes and energy of my friends and family reach my mom from all over. To live it all out loud. This whole educational thing, it’s not about learning to paint. It’s not about cavorting on a Greek island in the role of “art student”. It is about learning to experience life at full capacity, to be 100% in it – even the really difficult, terrifying moments when you are alone in a far away country at five o’clock in the morning sitting amidst a group of sleeping Africans sobbing into a cellphone because you have just heard the words “inoperable tumour” and there isn’t anything else to do about it.

I spent a weekend with my mother in August, and she was in pain the entire time. I hovered ineffectually and made suggestions of compresses and pills and she was purchasing me school supplies and it was so many incongruous scenes folded in on itself – back to school shopping, at age 26. We slept next to each other on my grandmother’s sofa that night, in the same exact place where I had last seen my aunt sitting shortly before she died of AIDS. My grandmother left the front door wide open and I did not really sleep. I thought about the fact that I had not slept next to my mother in years, and how nice it was, how I couldn’t sleep with the front door wide open because someone might walk in uninvited and I had to be aware, and I tried very hard to not think about Cathy laying in the spot I was laying in, but I did anyway, and I thought about how much pain Mom was in, and was it really just her back like she thought? Could someone’s back hurt that much?

The next morning, I gave my mother a massage. I couldn’t remember the last time I had really touched her, and I very badly wanted the massage to help. I wanted to have magic hands that would completely melt the pain away, and of course I could do it when even the chiropractors couldn’t because I was her daughter and that’s what family does, it heals. I shook a little bit before I started, because I was afraid I might make it hurt worse. She smiled and said it helped, a little bit, and I thought about how young she looked, but not young as in youthful, young as in vulnerable and wide-eyed and even a little fragile. When she was my age, she had an eight year-old child. That was a familiar thought though, my mother has always looked fragile to me, it is what makes her steel-core inner strength so marvelous and unexpected when you encounter it.

Two days later I left the country to come to school, and that was what I thought of when Josh called me that morning, that it had been six years since I had spent a night in the same house as my mother, that it was the first time we had spent real time together in so long – for no good reason, just distance and miscommunication and time passing more quickly than you ever think it will. So I am writing it all out here today – I have wobbled a bit, of late. I have found it hard to be present here, when a few weeks ago it was so exhilarating and easy. When I flew in from Athens to Paros, Maria-Elena and Jane were waiting for me at the airport and it was so joyful to me to see their faces, I was so glad I had them to come home to with this hurting, until I could see my mother again. I had not slept in forty hours and I hadn’t eaten and yet once I left my bags at my apartment I couldn’t stay still. I walked all over Paroikia, I said hello to all the shopkeepers and the people I knew on the street. I took my camera with me and took pictures so that I could show Mom the light of this place, while she was in the hospital. Later on Maria and I recorded the conconne so that my aunt could burn her a CD of it and she could hear me sing. She had asked me to stay at school, and my being at school in the first place was a combined effort between the two of us, something we did together, so the slow simmering ambition to make her proud of me that I had carried from California boiled over into a drive to reach out across the islands and the oceans and the distance to that hospital room.

She’s at home now, and she is doing well. She starts chemotherapy treatments in a week – and in three weeks, I will be there with her. I have so many things to bring to her, some of them tangible little souvenirs, some of them experiences. I can’t wait to see her. It is going to be the first Christmas I have spent with my mother since I was a teenager. I am collecting things, working as hard as I can in the time before I get on the ferry to Piraeus, board a plane in Athens, and am carried home to my family and the future.

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