The Moment I Heard My Mother’s Diagnosis

All love stories are tales of beginnings. When we talk about falling in love, we go to the beginning, to pinpoint the moment of freefall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother.

There is this, though. It’s early May of 2006, and I have taken the Metro-North to Fairfield, Conn., to spend the day with my parents. They have moved to Connecticut from Brooklyn, N.Y., to start a school, which my mother is running. My mother is very good at this job, in part because children instinctively love her. She is an extremely calm, open person with a strong sense of justice.

The day is unseasonably warm. My mother and I go out into the yard and sit by the pool, rolling up our pants and dangling our feet in the cool blue water. Leaning back, she pushes her sunglasses up over her thick, dark hair, and turns her face up to the sun. She suddenly looks extremely girlish to me. I haven’t seen her in several months, because I’ve been finishing a book and she and my father have been busy cleaning out their old apartment. As we sit together, she tells me she has been under a lot of stress; the pressures at school are enormous, and selling the apartment where she and my dad lived for 20 years wasn’t easy. Mostly, though, she is quiet, and seems content just to sit in the sun with me as the early dragonflies skim the water. Her two golden retrievers nose through the grass around us. A spell of stillness radiates from her. I am content just to be near her; I have, I realize, been anxious about her for reasons I can’t identify.

The next Friday, I leave work early because I feel sick to my stomach. I’ve just lain down in my small, blue bedroom—like a little ship—when the phone rings. It’s my mother. “Meg?” she says, her voice rising. “You’re home?” I tell her I left work early. “Well, there’s something I want to tell you,” she says, with a deliberateness that alarms me. “And I wanted you to hear it from me.” I take a breath. “I haven’t been feeling well,” she says, “and I went to the doctor for some tests, and she found a tumor.” “Where?” I say, stupidly. “In my colon,” she continues. “They don’t know what it means. It could be benign. They’re running tests and we’ll know more about it on Tuesday.” The way she says “they don’t know what it means” makes me feel hopeful, as if the tumor is something that can be interpreted. Like a passage in Shakespeare, its meaning is up for debate. It’s not a disease; it’s a pound of flesh. I can hear that she, too, wants to think of it this way.

The next week she calls as I am walking back to my office on 57th Street after a business lunch. I pause beside some scaffolding, the end of the lunch crowd bustling around me, and she says, bluntly, “The doctor got the results. The tumor is cancerous.” My knees feel weak—a cliché, but true—and I lean over the scaffolding, the cold metal bar hard against my stomach. “I’m going to need to have surgery and then maybe radiation and chemotherapy, and we need to do it soon. But they think they can treat it,” she continues.

I can’t remember whether I got any work done that afternoon or what, exactly, came next. I remember crying in my office and calling a former colleague and friend who is an oncologist to ask him for advice. I remember fighting with my parents on the phone because they scheduled surgery right away but they had done no “research.” In my view, they didn’t know very much about the doctor they’d chosen or whether surgery was even the right approach. This bothered me. I live to collect information, and I am also a perfectionist. I couldn’t fathom this approach. It’s cancer, I thought. What if the surgeon is third-rate? We can wait a week to find out more. We need the best surgeon. We need a perfectionist of a surgeon. No; we need me to be a surgeon. I was being a nightmare.

This is the meta-narrative of the illness memoir. It begins with a phone call, a scan, a shock. Disbelief reigns. You distract yourself by watching movies, drinking coffee, doing the normal things. (The night we found out, I played Trivial Pursuit—which my mother had given me for Christmas—with my brother, my boyfriend, and an old friend from graduate school.) The first scan is followed by more scans. These new scans are crucial to the narrative. In my mother’s case, the next scan, in June, was very bad. Colon cancer is treatable if it’s caught in the early stages. But by Stage 3 the odds of surviving more than five years drop precipitously. By Stage 4—as I had already discovered from statistics online at sites like the National Cancer Institute—the survival rate past five years was a mere 6 percent. During those first weeks when we were waiting to find out what was happening inside her body, I would lie awake at night praying to an invisible God I didn’t believe in: Please, please, please let my mother not be Stage 4, I whispered. Anything but Stage 4. In June, the PET scan showed that she had cancerous nodes on her lungs and liver. She was Stage 4. She had metastases to multiple organs. This was bad. The outlook had suddenly become much grimmer.

For a while, we got lucky. After three months of what one doctor called “industrial-strength chemo,” my mother went into remission. Her doctors considered it almost miraculous. She went on “maintenance” drugs (Avastin), went to work and did her job, and even took a vacation. Then, six months later, the cancer returned, more aggressive than ever. She died 14 months later—a year she spent feeling nauseated from treatment, a year she spent in extreme pain from tumors that had moved into her right iliac bone in her pelvis and into vertebrae in her spine.

The first summer my mother was diagnosed, I was haunted by what she must be feeling. I spent a lot of time on the porch of a rental house in Long Island reading, slapping flies away from my sweating legs. But I was really thinking about how scared she must be. Today, I have a modest glimmer of what she felt while she was waiting for that first test to come back. One week after we found out that her cancer had returned, my OB/GYN told me he had found a large tumor on my right ovary. It looked, he felt, “highly suspicious.” There were characteristics that troubled him. My genetic history also troubled him. It was a Friday; he wanted to perform surgery on Monday.

I walked out of his office, on 59th Street, stumbling through traffic and into Central Park. I felt numb and sick to my stomach. The refrain in my head was banal. How can this be happening to me? I kept saying, over and over. And then: How on earth does my mother bear this? How can she not be angry every moment of the day?

In the end, my mother’s narrative and mine diverged. My tumor was not cancerous, and my surgery was minor. My mother’s tumor was cancerous, and her chemotherapy was not minor. To this day, this seems like an accident of narrative to me. If we went back, I still wonder, could we change the story somehow? Could we take a right turn instead of a left? When I smell the lilacs she so loved, will that not bring her back? No, apparently. Eighteen months later, I walk through New York and watch the trees bloom once more, and she does not. The beginning of her disease was the only chance we had for intervention. But the moment passed. I think about how differently things turned out for me and my mother, and I recognize that it might be different for me next time. I don’t know what story to tell myself about that.

This, too, is part of the narrative of illness. I used to feel some distress that my experience of illness was so indistinguishable from so many other experiences of illness. But in the wake of my mother’s death I have found that commonality to be comforting. While writing this series, I have heard from friends, family, and readers, many of whom have shared feelings that seem universal. I still care a great deal about individuality, but I now feel myself to be a tiny part of a sticky web of experience in which many others are entangled. I wonder what move the horrible spider of fate will make next. And I wonder, too, whether we can learn in the meantime to find purpose in grief. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson, who was stunned to learn that the newly widowed Robert Browning had written a poem, “till,” as she put it, “I remembered that I myself, in my smaller way, sang off charnel steps.” (A charnel-house was a slaughterhouse.)

Loss doesn’t feel redeemable. But for me one consoling aspect is the recognition that, in this at least, none of us is different from anyone else: We all lose loved ones; we all face our own death. And loss, strangely, can attune you to what is beautiful about existence even as it wounds you with what is awful. You live with a new sense of what the Victorian critic Walter Pater once called “the splendour of our experience and … its awful brevity,” too.

As Auden said: I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.