The odds aren’t good but she answers Biloxi’s call

Photo provided by Scott Saalman
Scott Saalman's mother, Patty Saalman, with her granddaughter, Delaney.

Guest Columnist

“How’s your ankle?” she says, demonstrating her daily concern about my wicked ankle twist.

“She” being my Stage Four Colon Cancer Mom, the one who underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, had 60% of her liver removed, was given two months to live last summer, and is permanently right-eyed blind due to an oncological nemesis’ mission to erase her off the face of the Earth. Oh, and by the way, her nomadic cancer recently invaded her brain.

“I don’t want to talk about my ankle,” I say, which triggers an awkward dose of dead air, that familiar someone-just-got-her-feelings-hurt silence each time I try snipping the umbilical cord of maternal inquisitiveness.

My wobble, temporary; her woe, terminal.

She currently questions her doctor visits. “When I go, they don’t even take my blood pressure or my temperature or draw blood anymore,” she says, then adds with a laugh, “I mean, what does that tell you?”

Here’s what the doctor tells her: “The cancer is spreading, there’s nothing we can do.”

My parents are driving to Biloxi as she and I talk. Biloxi’s slot machines are calling her name, luring her there with Lady Luck’s siren song. PAT. PATTY. PATSY. PATRICIA.

Fifty weekends per year, they can be found at Tropicana Evansville, their casino sweet casino. On the remaining weekends, they go to Biloxi, their casino heaven, their casino away from casino. They go for the gambling, the seafood, the dolphin sightings, the outdoor breakfasts, the booze and the balconies with Gulf views. This could very well be their last Biloxi binge. There have been several “last trips” to Biloxi since her 2016 diagnosis. My progressively unhealthy mother is lucky in that sense.

She recovers from the silence that ensues after the ankle question and still fishes: “Since you’re not answering my question, your ankle does hurt.”

“I’m not saying that,” I say.

“So, what you mean is your ankle doesn’t hurt?”

“I’m not saying that either.”

“We’re almost to Montgomery.”

Going south, Dad drives, Mom navigates. Dad dislikes being told where to drive. Mom thinks Dad suffers from Chronic Geographic Disorientation Syndrome. Both apparently distrust GPS apps, as if the Google Man is actually the Devil in disguise delivering unwitting technological junkies down the highway to hell. She recalls their last trip, how Dad steered their Genesis onto the wrong interstate ramp, thus dumping them into northbound traffic instead of sending them southbound.

Her need for naps has grown more frequent, lasting longer. Still, she refuses to close her eyes while Dad drives, even during a 10-hour drive from the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico. “I have to keep both eyes on the road for him,” she says, then deadpans, “Well, one eye now.” She’s certain Dad can’t find Biloxi without her, and that, if she did nod off, she’d likely wake up in time to face a WELCOME TO ANCHORAGE sign.

When word of her cancer spread throughout town, people started telling her about their own aches and pains. I suspect they do this as a way to find out if Mom experienced similar ailments prior to her diagnosis. We all worry we have cancer.

“Here I’m the one with stage four cancer, yet I actually feel better than most. I’m glad I’m not them,” she told me on various occasions. When someone moans about pulling a back muscle, Mom bites her tongue to refrain from replying, “Exactly what stage is your back pain?” In other words, don’t be a wimp. You don’t have cancer.

Mom’s biggest fear is losing vision in her left eye and ultimately being robbed of an avid lifelong reader’s joy of seeing words on a printed page or a gambler’s addicting thrill of seeing colorful fruits spinning on slot machine reels.

Usually, when she asks about my ankle, I turn the table on her and ask about her right eye. She doesn’t deny that pain exists there, but she downplays its intensity. “It’s OK,” she says, then faintly echoes, “It’s OK,” as if the second “It’s OK” is an attempt to convince herself that it’s OK. I suspect it’s not OK.

Six Sundays ago, I rolled my right ankle at a local parkland. I hit the ground, grimaced in the grass. The ankle swelled softball-sized. I saw spots. I felt sick. Surely, I looked pathetic — old and lame — to Brynne, eight years my junior. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she removed her wedding ring right then and there and took me to the eHarmony Returns Department for a refund. Instead, she let me use her as a human crutch to return to the car.

“Don’t worry about my ankle,” I say to Mom as Biloxi beckons. “Worry about yourself.”

“I’m still your mom.”

“I’m not falling for your spring-loaded trap, Mom. I’m not going to tell you that my ankle still hurts and hinders how I walk only to hear you say, ‘Exactly what stage is your ankle injury?’”

She laughs at the trap reference and seems pleased that I’ve basically answered her nagging ankle question, despite me doing so in a stubborn, roundabout fashion.

This unanswered question finally answered brings Mom comfort, making me realize that she still needs her son to worry over as she continues heading south. It’s OK. It’s OK.

Contact Scott at

More on