My precious mother died this past Wednesday May 30th, 2012 at 5:50 am at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, room 1237. She was 63 years old.
Born April 6, 1949 to survivors of the Armenian genocide, she was the youngest of three siblings. As the baby girl of the family, she received perhaps a relatively large share of her parents’ love and attention. My mother would spend her life refracting that love onto those around her, especially her baby boy. When her brother and sister flew the coop at relatively young ages, my mother stayed behind to look after her own mother. As a self-proclaimed nerd of the New York City public school system, she had ambitions to be a scientist who wanted to find a cure for cancer. Staying in NYC allowed her to work on that dream by going to college as she took care of her mother.
But her mother, a product of the Old Country, wanted her cloistered daughter to find a husband. She introduced her to a man who flipped pizza dough all day, a Sicilian immigrant who raped her after gaining her trust. These were back in the days when rape was still considered the woman’s fault. The shame that my mother felt as the victim of this most vile of acts caused her to marry the monster, hoping it would blunt the stigma of not protecting her virtue. She was subject to daily beatings, handcuffed to a radiator and thrown through a window while pregnant. Nine months into the marriage, the creature absconded with her first born son, Tommy, never to be seen again. While no woman wants to lose a child in any way, perhaps this was the price that had to be paid for her freedom.
The note said that her and her precious mother would wind up in a landfill if she tried to sick the law on him. Out of fear, panic or maybe a macabre indifference to fate, she went hitchhiking towards the south. Why did she choose that direction, I wonder? Or did the direction choose her? In any case, the 1970s was not the most ideal time to get into cars with strangers. Being on the open road was perhaps a welcome change of pace after spending so many days and nights tethered to a tenement radiator. These were years she should have been spending working on that cure for cancer, maybe even in partnership with a lab-coated husband who cherished her like she deserved. Instead, she worked to mend her soul under the radiation therapy of the beaming southern sun.
Who knows how much time she spent on the highway? Time then for her was measured in assaults, propositions and the occasional pleasant interstate driver trying to help a young woman find her way. Did she fall in love during one of the latter experiences? If so, perhaps it was out of gratitude for knowing that not everyone was a monster. She came back home to NYC pregnant and relieved to find her precious mother undisturbed. Never again would she leave her mother alone. After all of the people who came and went out of her life: the rapist, her first born child and America’s motorists, she resolved to cast down her bucket where she was. She was going to make a family with her mother and the boy she carried around in her womb. Not once throughout the rest of her life did she ever waver in this decision.
From her days as a nerd at Central Commercial High School (later named Norman Thomas High School, one of the first business-themed schools in NYC) typing and shorthand skills were hard-wired into her hands. She was going to hold her family together by making a living as one of the most sought after secretaries in New York City. When the economy slackened, she picked up extra jobs like waitressing and mopping the floors of her apartment building. When she gave birth to her second son, Jimmy, she was a woman risen from the ashes. Just nine months prior, she was on the road without a tether in the world, searching for something that spectators like us can only guess at. With the arrival of Jimmy, as well as the reunion with her mother, she had a renewed purpose nourished by loving bonds. Loving bonds to replace those ugly ones she had left behind on that tenement radiator.
She worked by day, then came home to Jimmy and mother in the evenings. For the first time, she was able to hold her son in her arms without fear that it was going to be taken from her. She was the nucleus and the hub of a household consisting of three generations. It was short lived. One day, my precious mother and her precious mother had an argument, over what remains unremembered and unimportant. She stormed out of the house saying that she needed to go to the store to buy a nipple for Jimmy’s bottle. Perhaps she took a little too long to cool down and think. Perhaps her mother resented the fact that she watched Jimmy all day while my mother worked. Whatever the dynamic was, her mother called the cops saying that Jimmy’s mother had abandoned him. Being from the Old Country, and perhaps seeing one too many television shows where distressed youngsters always end up in the police station eating an ice cream cone, my grandmother thought this would be a good way to teach my mother a lesson. She came home to find Jimmy gone. Her mother told her what she had done. Upon calling the police station my mother discovered that her son was not eating an ice cream but, instead, was waiting to be processed at the foundling hospital.
But Jimmy is not a foundling. He lives in a home with his mother and grandmother. My mother pleaded her case trying to prove to social workers and judges that she was a loving mother who would never abandon her child. Meanwhile, days went by and Jimmy was being sized up by sterile couples looking to adopt. The fair color of his skin, a rarity in NYC’s foundling hospitals at the time, made him a blue chip commodity for families with the same. It was not long before an older, pretty well-off couple put his name on the dotted line. Jimmy was now in foster care.
But Jimmy is not a foundling. He lives in a home with his mother and grandmother. My mother should have found the cure for cancer by now. I wish my mother had found the cure for cancer by now.
Haunted by the prospect of having yet another son taken from her, my mother threw everything she had into the court battle of her life. She found a family lawyer who was horrified by what was happening and agreed to take the case for a fraction of her regular fee. The longer the battle dragged on, the more the foster family could claim that Jimmy was “attached” to them. That was their strategy: delay, delay, delay. With each passing day, my mother felt her baby boy slipping from her loving hands. It was no use. The court awarded custody of Jimmy to the foster, now adopted, family. My mother won visitation rights, but only when Jimmy’s adopted parents deemed it convenient.
At some point during her court battle, my mother became pregnant with me, her final baby boy. I never saw myself as a replacement for Tommy and Jimmy. However, if that is what I was put on this earth to do, I would do it gladly a million times, especially if I could help her redeem her sense of self worth as a mother and a woman.
My first memories of my mother are set in our studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. I remember climbing out of my crib at night to sleep next to her in the bed. Maybe I was a particularly dextrous baby; maybe she wanted me in the crib for so long in order to protect me from harm; maybe she wanted me to remain a baby out of fear that I would walk away from her one day and never come back. I remember spending days in my grandmother’s house while my mother went to work. My grandmother, already in her late sixties by the time I was born, lived in an apartment complex for the elderly and disabled. She would bring me down to the lounge in the lobby where her neighbors took turns either doting over, or being disgusted by, my little presence. My mother would arrive in the late afternoon to pick me up and I would run to her and she kissed me everyday as if she had not seen me in years.
Yes, I was my mother’s last hope. It did not look like she was going to discover that cure for cancer. All she wanted now was a cure for all of the loss she had endured.
Painfully self-conscious about the fact that she never completed college, my mother was going to see to it that, no matter what else I did with my life, I would be a college man. When I entered school, she frequently spoke with my teachers and ensured that I was getting good grades. My mother was not big on providing me with GI Joes and Transformers. Instead, she provided me with any and every toy that might teach me something. There was the puzzle map of the United States that I completed a million times, tattooing the shape, location and capital of each state in my brain in the process. There was the 2XL robot that asked me questions about Abraham Lincoln and told me stories about Leonardo da Vinci with an interactive 8-track. Most importantly, there were books; mountains of books. There were whole sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a haul my mother brought in from the garbage. There was the book about all of the presidents, each chapter summarizing the life and accomplishments of each one from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.
No, there were not many toys around, but my mom would go to the ends of the earth to provide me with an education.
And there was the love. Lots of love.
All I knew was that my mother did a lot of typing and phone answering at work. She would pick me up from school everyday on time. Large workloads never once kept her away from me. We would take the crosstown bus together to visit grandma, her precious mother. Not once did she ever blame my grandmother for introducing her to the rapist or having the major hand in getting Jimmy taken away from her. Instead, she would beam in her angelic voice that “we’re going to see grandma”. She would sit on grandma’s bed playing a card game grandma called “peesha pesha”, which consisted of them taking turns to toss cards between them to make a pile only to pick the pile up and divide the cards between them to start the process all over again. As I remember them sitting there chatting away in loving tones as two friends, I realized the only rule to the game was to enjoy each others company.
After a day of working and taking care of her mother, we would come home and she would always fix me dinner. Sometimes we only had enough for one plate of food, at which times my mother would nibble around the edges while I ate most of the meal. She would even use her own fork to feed me at certain points. I wonder how many times she went to bed hungry, while I went to sleep fed and happy?
On one of our daily trips to grandma’s house, my mother knocked on the door and grandma did not answer. She was moaning in her apartment, apparently too weak to come to open the door as she usually did. I saw the panic on my mother’s face as she leaped into her pocket book for her spare keys. “Ma?!, I’m coming Ma!”. We called the ambulance and, for the first and only time in her entire life, my grandmother, the genocide survivor, was on her way to see a doctor. They put her in a hospital room, which became the new place to visit after my mother picked me up from school. The doctors ran a bunch of tests and could not figure out what was wrong. My mother would bring chicken McNuggets, my grandmother’s favorite food, to the hospital for grandma to eat. She would take a bite, spit it out and leave the rest on her bedside table.
And then she died.
At the funeral, my mother’s two older siblings flew in from the magical places in which they lived with their spouses, lawns and well-adjusted children. They cried at the wake as they stood over her casket. Her coffin was lowered into the ground. Everyone went out to eat and then they all flew back home to their houses and lawns and well-adjusted children.
And my mother was left here in NYC with my grandmother’s stuff, crying over the memories of peesha-pesha on the bed. Not once did my mother hold the rapist or Jimmy’s confiscation against her, not in life and not in death. She loved her mother freely, boundlessly, without condition and without regret. She cherished every moment she spent with her mother and now she was gone. One of her two reasons for living, one of her two engines,was gone.
And now it was just me. The sole survivor in my mother’s life. The one who was never taken from her. The only person in the world who would know what it was like to be raised by this woman, a woman whose love overflowed my small cup. It would be many years before I realized that I relied on her love like breathing. Without her, I would have never known what the word “love” ever meant.
She was going to cure cancer. But, instead, she spent the last 33 years of her life loving me.
When I made it into the Bronx High School of Science, she was happier than I had ever seen her before. For the first few days, she waited for me at the train station to accompany me home. I complained to her that it was embarrassing. There were older kids around, and lots of cute girls, and they were seeing me k =get on the train with my mommy. I was going to pay for this somewhere down the road in the schoolyard or cafeteria. When we got off the train on one of those days, I asked if she could buy me a hot dog. I was used to her saying “no” to all such requests for the unnecessary spending of scarce money. However, this time, her face lit up and said “it’s yours”. It was the best hot dog I ever ate.
Looking back now, rather than being overprotective of me, my mother showed up to the train station to bask in the pride she had for her son, the only person in the world she had left. My son goes to Bronx Science. Maybe one day he will find the cure for cancer.
Yet, like many other things in life, I screwed this one up. Once out of my mother’s orbit, I went off and did whatever it is I wanted to do. While my mother was at work telling her colleagues that her son was solving quadratic equations at one of the best high schools in the land, I was cutting my 5th class in a row. After what must have been my 10th fight at the school, I was kicked out of Bronx Science. I did not even make it through my freshmen year.
My mother must have been disappointed, yet she encouraged me to get back on the horse and take the test again. This time, I made it into Brooklyn Technical High School, which is where I finished out my school career.
I stayed home for college, attending Hunter the fall after I graduated high school. I got a minimum wage job as a way to learn responsibility and bring in some extra cash. Meanwhile, my mother was still working to support me. Without her, I would have not made it through college at all. For whatever reason, I decided to get serious about school during my college years. I made Dean’s List all but two semesters, enabling me to graduate college with honors. It was not my doing but the doing of my mother. She worked so I did not have to worry about things like rent, food, laundry and other real life stuff that sometimes gets in the way of college.
The day of my college graduation was hot and muggy outside in Central Park. There were hundreds of graduates that were going to come to the stage and I was going to be up there but for a few seconds. My mother, sitting in the crowd, sat through the entire insufferable ceremony. When that diploma was deposited into my hand, my mother was at the front of the crowd to snap a picture. Her baby boy had his college education.
It was immediately after that when I started my teaching career. While I had friends and classmates who went off to make six figures on Wall Street or do important work overseas, I was in the inner cities of New York getting my punk card pulled in my first year of teaching. Yet, when I was out with my mother, she would introduce me as her son, the teacher. “He’s a teacher” she would always say to anyone that would listen, and even those that did not listen. She would have the same look on her face as when she bought me the hot dog. My mother was proud of me.
And I was not even looking for a cure for cancer.
When my mother turned 55, she was able to get better health insurance and decided to go to the doctor. They found a bunch of things that are somewhat normal for women her age: thyroid problems, hypertension, heart issues and the beginnings of arthritis in her hands, her reward for working her entire life to support her family.
Then, one day, she caught a nose bleed. It would not stop and she decided to go to the emergency room while I was at work. For the first time in her life, they decided to keep her for more tests. She called me from the hospital and I met her there. Almost immediately after I arrived, the doctor came and told her she had Leukemia.
And there was no cure. My mother never got around to it. She was too busy fighting for Jimmy, playing peesha pesha and meeting me at Bronx Science to work on one. Maybe, just maybe, the husband she really deserved in the white lab coat was out there working on the cure. Maybe the fact he was not married gave him the time to get to work on this illness.
From a son’s perspective, the worst thing about my mother’s cancer was the fact that I saw it all unfold. I was there the moment she was diagnosed. I lived with her throughout the seven years she fought through it. I was at her bedside through those last days of suffering. The only moment I was not there was the moment she passed, although she was with me. At around 5:45 am on Wednesday morning May 30th, 2012, my girlfriend said I rolled over in my sleep, hugged her tightly and called her “mamma bear”, which is what I call my mother. I then went back to snoring. At 6:00 am on the dot, my cell phone rang. It was the hospital’s number. I starting crying before I answered, because I already knew. She passed at 5:50 am. I am not religious, but I believe my girlfriend when she says my mother came to me as she was passing. I do not care what happens in my life from here on out. May 30th, 2012 will always be the worst day of my entire life.
Cancer is not Lance Armstrong living strong, cycling the Tour de France. Cancer is a spectre that stalks one’s entire life. It is doctor’s visits, tests, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and waiting. A whole lot of waiting. It is not knowing if the doctor is going to drop a ton of bad news on your head as you sit in that little room. It is not knowing if that pain you feel in your abdomen is a tumor or just indigestion. It is not knowing if this Christmas is going to be the last Christmas or Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day. Cancer waits, and it can be very patient.
There is no such thing as someone who faces cancer without fear. Fear was the overwhelming emotion when my mother was diagnosed in 2005. There would be times when she would just cry. The worst thing for a man to see is his mother crying. If she was in physical pain, or if she just saw something to make her sad, then a son can give her some medicine or tell her it will be alright and the pain might go away for mamma. But when the tears of your mother flow from that phantom that hangs over her head, when it is a chronic state of affairs, a son feels helpless to take his mother’s pain away like she did for you when you were little. You can try to comfort her, hug her, speak tenderly to her, but the fear will still be there afterwards. There will be more tears in the future.
My mother, any mother, did not need more tears. She had tears when she was handcuffed to that radiator, when her Jimmy was taken from her, when her mother could not answer the door and when her remaining son was being kicked out of school.
Despite those tears, my mother was at her most beautiful when she was fighting her disease. At first, that fear looms over everything and colors what otherwise feels like a normal life. During her first round of chemotherapy, she was a nervous wreck. The needle went into her arm and she started crying. We think chemo and we think weakness, baldness and nausea. But my mother got through without side effects, and the cancer was whipped into shape for a time.
Then her spleen started growing. The disease was accumulating there pushing on her stomach and intestines. She had a constant stomach ache and could not eat anything. She was in pain until they took out her spleen.
But then tumors started forming in one thigh bone, causing her great discomfort while walking. They were eating away at her bone to the point where her femur was as thin as a pencil. She needed a hip replacement. Then the same thing happened to the other thigh, and she needed a rod inserted. Then she was wheelchair bound.
And this is where she was at her most beautiful. Around the second or third surgery, she stopped complaining altogether. She stopped crying. Her face took on a more stern look. The disease had literally thrown the kitchen sink at her and she was still here. She may not have been able to find the cure for cancer, but she found the cure for living with cancer. It was to live. She was going to use that fear that constantly hung over her head and, instead of crying, which she had every right to do, she used those tears as a reminder that living was the most important thing. When the doctors said she had to attend hours of physical therapy, she stayed right on the couch, or sat in her wheelchair, and did the things she wanted to do. When the doctors said she was too sick to have a cat, she went out a got one anyway. It was her disease and it liberated her from the dictates of so-called experts who thought they knew best how to live her life.
And people would compliment me about choosing to stick by my mother and “take care of her” throughout her illness. The truth is, she was taking care of me. I watched as she went through chemo, surgeries and infections and realized that my problems were petty in comparison. I could not run to mommy anymore with my problems, because mommy had problems of her own. If I had to get a blood test at the doctor, the nurse would ask me if I was scared of needles and I would laugh. My mother got stuck with more needles than a pin cushion, what right do I have to be squeamish?
Bearing witness to my mother’s illness made me grow up, fast. If she was going to leave this earth, she had to know that her son would be able to take care of himself. She had to know that she was bearing her suffering bravely so that her son could do the same. I would ask her how she felt and she would respond “I’m ok”, even though I knew she was not. How could I respond any differently when asked the same question?
But the truth is, I am not ok. Ever since my mother passed, the world has not been right. I thought there would be more pain involved, but I mostly feel a numb shock, as if my hand was suddenly chopped off. I call out for her and there is no answer, much like someone who loses a hand still tries to wiggle their fingers.
And what can I do? My mother gave of herself freely. She spent the prime years of her life taking care of her own mother, despite the fact that she had more than enough reason to harbor petty resentment. She was proud of me more than anything, despite the fact I had let her down so many times. She lived life with an open heart, despite a life that could have easily turned it cold and black.
I must accept her passing with an open heart as well. She fought one of the nastiest diseases a person can ever get for seven years. She bore that fight with dignity and courage. I must bear her passing in the same way. After chemo, surgeries and infections, she was too tired to go on. She hung on as long as she could. She stuck around long enough to teach me the most valuable lessons I will ever learn in my entire life. That was her final gift to me.
I love you mamma bear. Wherever you are, I hope at least your suffering is over. My suffering is just beginning, but I will bear it with the example you set for me over the past seven years.