Keeping sight on her will to liveMay 4, 2021
By SCOTT SAALMAN
April was devastating.
That’s when her cancer spread from torso to top, attaching a tumor to the optic nerve of her right eye.
“Oh no, it’s headed north now,” I said despondently, when she told me the bad news. She had called while I was on my daily walkabout in the neighborhood. “What was the last thing you saw?”
She said she saw three black birds flying past the kitchen’s west window, just before the dreaded fade to black. But then she chuckled, for the birds might have only been in her imagination. “Maybe I’m not so sure what the last thing was I saw,” she said.
Regardless, she is now blind in her right eye.
She then told me what Dad told her: “I’ll love you even if you have only one eye.”
The relayed words stopped me dead in my tracks. Yet another demonstration of Dad’s undying love. Uncomfortable with the sentimentality sprung upon me, I replied, “My God, Mom, that has the potential to be the title to the saddest country song ever written.” To add emphasis, I loudly warbled in hillbilly twang an impromptu chorus of the imaginary song, “I’ll love you in the sweet by and by; hell, I’ll love you even if you have only one eye.” Unfortunately, a neighbor I passed had the misfortune of hearing this. “OK, so it’s no ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’” I said.
Mom laughed — of course. We always do this, she and I, delve into the healing depths of gallows humor, our jagged little jokes like the flickering of candles refusing to dim. It’s our way of holding hands without holding hands as we navigate through, and defy, the dark.
I often likened her stage four cancer to a category five hurricane; only instead of watching the latest tropical tempest eat its way through island chains via satellite images on The Weather Channel, we remained glued to CT scans and MRI reports that charted the cancer’s progression as it callously bounced pinball-like from organ to organ deep in the inner sea of her torso. Cancer was birthed in her colon in the fall of 2016, migrated to her liver, then to a lung, and finally plotted a path to her pancreas.
Each time another organ was added to the hit list, I caught myself counterbalancing my despair with the same standby silver lining: at least the cancer hadn’t spread north to her head.
With each new malignancy, Mom remained positive, refused to give the cancer the credit it craved, pushed onward, as if on a personal mission to psychically will away her grave illness.
For the past 4 1/2 years, Mom has outwardly demonstrated uncompromised grace, casting smiles at her family members, friends and medical team despite the storm raging inside her. She conveyed through her calmness a sense that she held a privileged, permanent place in a hurricane eye.
Nine months ago, she was given only two months to live, and yet, here she is, still among us.
But so too remains her cancer.
The eye of a hurricane is a deceptive thing — I know that — a sense of peace pocketed within a wall of windful fury, the calm before the storm.
After the eye tumor was detected in April, a further scan revealed that cancer had latched onto her brain. Two spots that we know of. The current plan of attack is radiation, an old friend of hers that has helped prolong her life in the past.
Only now has Mom become spooked about her cancer. She has no aversion to prayers from others. A go-fight-win cheer from any rah-rah section will do. It’s worked before, she said. She has been doing extremely well at the casino as of late, so that’s encouraging. Penny slot jackpots are her port of call. Prayer and luck — the bases are covered.
Yesterday, when I called, she said she was struggling to replace a glasses’ lens that had popped from its frame. The right lens. “I guess it really doesn’t matter if I have a right lens at this point,” she deadpanned. I laughed, relieved that her humor has remained.
I admit, the funny is getting harder to find. I catch myself taking uncharacteristic pause before throwing a zinger her way — if one even surfaces at all. I worry that a world without our shared laughter is a world that has surrendered to the dark.
“Out, out, brief candle!” penned Shakespeare.
“Glow, glow, dear candle!” I retort.
Mom admitted her eye was hurting, this from someone who bragged to have never experienced even the slightest headache throughout her life. She is taking over-the-counter pills for the pain, a rarity for her.
Changing the subject, she claimed to be five days behind on housework due to doctor visits and tests. She washed and ironed clothes before I called.
“When you called, I was dusting. I bounce around from surface to surface like a little fly.”
Mom continues clutching to life as she has always lived it. A can of Pledge in hand means more to her than thoughts of world travel that some people of the self-appointed bucket-list brigade try to impart on her.
Mom refuses to live as if she’s dying; she’s simply living.
“I guess it’s better to be the duster than to be the dust,” I said.
“I just keep on going,” she said and laughed.
Contact Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can order his column collections on Amazon.
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