Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Flying Purple People Eater

I was flying from Boston to Virginia Beach to be with my mother for her first radiation treatment, the second line of defense against her advanced cancer. The front line troops had already fallen when she proved unable to tolerate chemotherapy and so we were particularly apprehensive about this new plan of attack.

I chose an insanely early morning flight so I would arrive in time to help her prepare. However, my 30-minute layover at BWI morphed into 10 hours in the three, lousy, soul-sucking minutes it took me to miss my connection. I remember staring at the fluorescent orange ring on the gate agent’s thumb as he held out my new boarding pass, absurdly suggesting I accept the unwanted seat on the traitorous flight that would deliver me to my mother eight hours after her treatment.

I never cry in public. I barely cry in private … unless I’m watching that hospital scene in Steel Magnolias where Mrs. Lincoln reads Cosmo to a comatose Julia Roberts … or that hospital scene in She’s Having a Baby where Kevin Bacon thinks his wife, the spirited Countess of Grantham, has died in childbirth.

Come to think of it, give me any hospital scene on Lifetime and I’m pretty much toast. But I never cry in public. So I can’t explain my reaction that day.

But I’ll try.

One minute I was wondering if thumb rings were a thing now, and the next, my body went rogue. My chin took on a life of its own. Like Jello on steroids, it wiggled and jiggled in what I can only imagine was a desperate attempt to detach itself from my face. At the same time, my eyes blew up like twin puffer fish poofed to capacity. Flakes of my “waterproof” Clinique mascara tumbled in the turbulent white water rapids crashing down my swelling cheeks, careened off my jawline, and came to rest in a rising pool inside the collar of my fleece pullover … which, by the way, I had slept in the night before in a futile effort to save valuable minutes getting dressed that morning so I wouldn’t  … miss. my. flight.

But I digress.

Apparently disgusted by the overblown dramatics of my face, my nose up and left like a deadbeat dad heading out for cigarettes and a carton of milk. In its place was my bathroom faucet, opened all the way and efficiently dumping torrents of hot salty liquid onto the slope of my upper lip where it hung for a brief, hopeful moment before dropping onto the rotating blades of my chin and shooting outward to land in slimy splats all over a group of unfortunate tourists (who learned a very valuable lesson that day about respecting a stranger’s personal space.)

I tried to speak but was limited to one mangled vowel sound per expulsion of jagged breath. My steamed eyeglasses provided me a hazy view of the horrified attendant now frozen in the awesome wake of my sudden transformation from traveler to travesty. Somehow I managed the words “mother” and “dying” … which now horrified ME, because “dying,” or any of its derivatives, was strictly prohibited from entering the room where my words were kept. How did it sneak in? How did it get out?  And Holy Hulking Toblerone, Batman, was I crying?

Please, Mrs. Kerman.”

I turned my leaking face towards the sound.

“We placed you on stand-by for an earlier flight. Please go to gate A13.”

The “please” was a true plea, beseeching me … please, oh please, oh snot-radiating lady, please go to Gate A13 where we will have MPs awaiting your arrival.

I grabbed the ticket and made a beeline, Mr. Magoo-style, for the nearest restroom. I stared in amazement at the creature in the mirror. My skin was a mottled, magenta mess covered in raised hives in various shades of white, brown and neon pink. My swollen eyes were indistinguishable from the rest of my face except for two barely discernible slashes of black, as if they were hastily drawn in with a fine-point Sharpie.

I was the Purple People Eater.

I took a deep breath and held it the way my mother taught me to do in times of stress. “I can do this,” I thought, and I slowly released it.

I determinedly trudged the concourse, ignoring the wide-eyed toddler hiding from me behind the neck pillows at Hudson News, and the gawking teenager blatantly recording my trail of tears with his You-Will-Soon-Be-On-YouTube phone. I stayed focused and pointed my oscillating chin towards Mecca, Gate A13.

The agent saw me coming and braced for impact. He was an airline supervisor and he had been forewarned. He was a slight, middle-aged fellow, with warm brown skin, black hair and earnest eyes. He came towards me with his arms outstretched and upon arrival grasped both my hands in his own.

“What is the matter,” he asked in an almost musical lilt. “Are you afraid of flying?”

No, I thought. I’m afraid of landing.

And there it was. I realized I was afraid to see my mother. I hadn’t seen her in almost a month. A month where powerful poisons had been pumped up her arm and almost killed her. A month where her hair fell out and her voice grew weak and she had been moved to a nursing home. A month where her beloved books were closed in drawers because she could no longer absorb the words.

A month where she asked the priest to hear her confession … and he gave her Last Rights, just in case.

The airline placed me on the next available flight and seated me in the front row so they could keep an eye on me. But I still missed my mother’s appointment.

I stood in the doorway to her room as she finished her lunch served in pink plastic-domed dishes. She sat on the edge of her bed, braced her slippered toes against the linoleum floor and slowly rolled the wood-veneered tray table away from her. She took a deep breath and held it.

So did I.

She turned her head and saw me.  

I whispered a wobbly, “Hi, Mom.”

She cried.

I walked over, bent down, and hugged her. I can still feel that embrace. The warmth of it, the shape of it, the softness of it.

It's that hospital scene that makes me cry the hardest.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Home Body

2013 was not a great year for me. It was the year my mother died. I thought I’d be so happy to finally count down the last seconds of that year. Instead, I was blindsided by panic.

2014 will be the first year of my life in which my mother won’t exist. Not physically, anyway. This New Year severed one of the few remaining connections I had to my mother, hurling me into a space and time where I found myself grasping for air and desperately searching for somewhere safe to land my feet. This will be the first full year without my mother. The realization was yet another Band-Aid ripped off, another punch in the gut. It’s a wonder I have any skin left and can keep down solid food.

I think on some level I knew this year would be a rocky road because I had already made some big changes to ease the way, the biggest of which was to leave my job. Although I had tossed about a handful of very valid reasons to support my abrupt decision, I won’t pretend it wasn’t a direct result of my mother’s death. I had spent the last few months of her life flying back and forth between Boston and Virginia; between job and Mom. By the end of it all, I found I could no longer justify spending more time away from my family than I spent with them. I was walking around with a strong awareness that everyone I loved could die; would die. In my grief I was afraid that each time I spoke to my father would be the last. I had already lost one parent. Losing the other was no longer unthinkable; it was inevitable. Even as the earth began to warm itself after a long New England hibernation, I could fathom only endings, no beginnings. Like that blindingly bright morning when it suddenly dawned on me I had only five summers and Christmases left with my boys before they expanded their wings and dreams and launched themselves into adulthood. Yes, I was in the thick of it alright. Grief was my go-to guy for all things future.

I admit my decisions were driven by regret and fear and loss, all of them very dark passengers. But at the end of that grim road trip I found myself at home, and it was exactly where I needed to be.

I’m at home now when my boys walk through the door after school, hungry and disheveled and oh so big. I go to their basketball games on Wednesday afternoons. I make dinner using pots and pans and cutting boards. I monitor homework and help manage their ridiculously hectic eighth grade days. My husband works from home and I work with him. We hold hands and go for morning walks through Coolidge Corner. We see matinees and have lunch dates.

I close myself off in the sunroom when I need alone time and drown in a book, or click on my laptop, or cry as I listen to Christmas carols without my mom. I curl up in the sun like a cat and conjure up the illusive scent of my mother's rose garden. I remember and grieve and heal. I’m a body in motion, a body at rest, a home body.