Column: Where the laughter ends, a hug begins

Photos courtesy Delaney Aby Saalman
The last time I had seen my mom in person before the pandemic set in in the U.S. was at her 19th birthday party on Feb. 29. Yes, mom is only 19 — a leap year baby. Dozens of family members and friends gathered in a very cramped restaurant party room to celebrate. People hugged, shook hands, bumped bodies, and watched mom open presents and cards while wearing a princess crown. It’s a bit unsettling now, when you consider how a few days later, COVID-19 crashed the party for all of us. Suddenly the party resembled a masquerade ball in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” Luckily, nothing spread amongst us that night.

By SCOTT SAALMAN
Guest Columnist

“How do I look?” she told me she had asked him at the hospital, from where she had just returned.

The doctor had been treating mom for Stage 4 colon cancer for nearly four years.

He sized up my shrinking mother, whittled by gradual weight loss.

“Like someone who has cancer,” he answered.

That was Tuesday, July 7.

The daily weigh-in serves as a sort of scorekeeper. A pound less one day, two pounds the next. Sometimes, there might be a tie—no gain, no loss. This break-even effect can feel like a win for her, a possible miracle in the making to reverse the downward trend, perhaps send her into a positive direction.

The other day, when I put a popsicle in her hand, the mere weight of the wooden stick encased in tropical-flavored ice seemed to cause her and her lawn chair to tip leftward. Her face had a split-second “oh $&8%” look before the chair safely settled upright. We both got a good laugh out of the precariousness of the popsicle situation.

We do that, we laugh—even now in our worst of times. For us, to laugh is to love.

“How long do I have?” she told me she had then asked the doctor.

“Two months,” the doctor said, again with matter-of-fact medical certainty.

“But I have been feeling so good,” she replied.

Compared to the recent hell involving chemo pills, she really did feel good. She had reached a better physical and mental state without being dragged down by the treatment’s side-effects.

“But you won’t feel good,” the doctor said.

Two months.

I helped keep vigil at the hospital in Louisville following mom’s liver surgery, when 60-percent of her liver was removed. The cancer had spread from her colon to her liver. It is currently in her lungs.

I felt numb when she told me this, and though I knew it was terrible news, I didn’t fully process it until I returned to my house that evening and changed my HVAC’s air filter. Its packaging guaranteed the product would last three months. It was possible mom would not outlast my air filter.

The chemotherapies, the radiations, the major colon and liver surgeries, they were merely meant as measures to prolong her life, not cure her. The doctors had been upfront about this from day one, back in 2016 when she was told she might live five years. They told her to live it up while she could. She bought a fancy, new Genesis vehicle, committing to a five-year auto loan. Hindsight: she wasn’t really buying a car; she was buying time.

Two months.

It’s time, she told me he had then told her. It’s time to get your sons together. It’s time to talk.

We have talked a lot lately, when she isn’t napping. Serious things. Silly things. Agonizing childhood things. Recent things. You never know what she’ll say.

“I think I had an omen this morning,” she told me on my last visit. “I found a dead crow on my lawn chair. That can’t be good, can it?”

“Maybe _____ put it there,” I joked. “Like ‘Fatal Attraction’ or voodoo.”

Mom laughed. _____ is a woman in town mom suspects has taken a special interest in thoughts of dad’s possible widowhood. Once again, I had to promise to not allow _____ into the funeral home, should it come to that. If you are reading this _____, stay the hell home.

She recalled a day as a café hostess, a job that helped pay my college. How a frequent customer, an elderly man, didn’t order his daily dose of fried potatoes at lunch. She knew right then something was amiss. He seemed depressed. “To cheer him up, I told him to go look at the river,” she said. “He got a cab. He jumped in the river. He drowned himself. I felt so bad. Wrong advice.”

I laughed, making her laugh. We have always laughed about morbid things we know we shouldn’t laugh about.

She recalled how, years before cancer, she climbed into an empty coffin at the funeral home. She was curious what it would feel like. A friend acted as a lookout, ensuring mom wouldn’t get caught. Mind you, these were two middle-aged women, not mischievous children. “It looked comfortable until you got inside. It was like lying on brick,” she recalled. “I won’t go in one again unless it’s soft.” It caused her to consider cremation.  

Again, I laughed at the morbidity of it all, making her laugh. Here we are, mother and son, still whistling past the graveyard.  

I visit Tell City often now, making up for not doing so throughout March and April due to social distancing protocol and her susceptibility to COVID-19. Finally, I visited on Mother’s Day. We spoke through the sliding screen door. Sitting on a chair, staring out at me, there was a lifelessness about her, a living dead look from the chemo poisons raging within her. Still, she seemed hungry for a Mother’s Day hug from her first-born son. I felt guilty hiding behind a face mask, refusing to hug—even though it was for her own good.

Tuesday, July 7, I was at her house when she returned from the hospital. She came into the living room. I could tell it wasn’t good news.

“Two months,” she told me the doctor had told her. She said this in a teary, breathless way, so uncharacteristic of my otherwise unflappable mother.

I did not put on my face mask.

The coronavirus no longer mattered.

I hugged my dying mother.

That’s what mattered.

Contact Scott Saalman at scottsaalman@gmail.com




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