Lung Cancer Noir
By Ariel Gore
Sometimes I still dream my mother alive. She startles me awake. Have I left a dish in the sink? Written some offensive story? In the dream, my mother steps out of a glass elevator in a crowded market. I’m not afraid of her, exactly. She’s already seen me. I hover still like a hummingbird. She points to her chest as she approaches me. Her skin is translucent like the thin skin of a water blister.
(Did you know that thin skin and hallucinations together are a symptom of pancreatic tumors? I know a lot of things I never thought I’d know).
In the dream can I see my mother’s heart and lungs through that glass-elevator skin. I can see everything.
She squints at me. “Touch it, Ariel.”
I don’t want to touch it. I know better than to touch it. If I touch it, the skin will break and it’ll all come gushing out. If I touch it, I’ll die soon too. “I can’t,” I tell her.
She kind of scoffs of that. She says, “You were always a coward, Ariel.”
But she’s lying about that part.
I was a lot of things—loyal and drunk and optimistic; full of demons and stories—but I was never a coward.
Book One: Hobo Birds
1. All About Eve
I was maybe ten years old when my mother took me to see Mommie Dearest and then bragged to her friends that I’d laughed through the wire hanger scene.
She riffed on the joke at home, too, applying that thick white facial mask and bursting into the dark of my bedroom with the wire hanger as I slept. I was always terrified when I woke, her slim figure a silhouette above me, the hanger in her fist poised to come down on me. But even in interrupted half-sleep I knew my cue: I laughed. Then she wouldn’t hit me.
Retelling it now it sounds twisted, but at the time it seemed as natural as anything—fried bananas for breakfast or a flasher on the corner, all the unjudged sequences of childhood.
Where to start?
In the beginning that comes to mind, I’m grown. Thirty nine years old. A homeowner, an unmarried wife to my girlfriend named Sol. One kid in college and another in the crib.
Start anywhere, Ariel. It was an ordinary day, after all.
My mother stood on my doorstep wearing a coral sweater and coral lipstick. Her hair was white now, but she was still striking in that Hollywood kind of a way. Tiny and dark, she looked like a cross between Joan Baez and Susan Lucci from All My Children. Beautiful. That’s the first thing people noticed about her. “Your mother is beautiful,” they’d say. Like I didn’t know.
I waved her inside. “That sweater looks good on you,” I said. I was sitting on the couch working on my laptop.
“Thanks.” She stepped over the threshold into the living room. “It was Gammie’s,” she said. “The sweater.” She sat down in the leopard-print armchair. “This chair looks good in here.”
The chair was Gammie’s, too. Our dead matriarch. Our small inheritances.
I clicked the keys on my computer. My important work. I wanted to appear distracted so my mother wouldn’t engage me in some conversation I didn’t have time for. I had to finish a blog I was writing for Psychology Today. I had to post a few story critiques in the online class I was teaching. I had to pick my son up from preschool in an hour. My mother was just stopping by to grab the youthful skin serum made from sake and lamb placenta that she’d ordered on the internet, wasn’t she? What did she need to talk about?
She cleared her throat. “I guess I should tell you I didn’t get what I wanted.”
I glanced up at her. I figured she was talking about the exposed-brick condo downtown. Shrug. “There’ll be another condo.” Portland was sprouting new condos like goatgrass.
My mother didn’t say anything.
I felt something like a chill in my hand. I hadn’t had a cigarette in three years, but now I wanted one. I stopped typing, looked at her.
Sitting there in my grandmother’s old chair, my mother seemed so small. She didn’t smile or frown. “It’s cancer.”
“What?” It was like I’d heard the syllables but didn’t know their meanings.
“It’s lung cancer.” My mother’s words floated into the air between us like dandelion seeds, but just hung there.
I’d seen the scans at the hospital two weeks earlier, the little Christmas lights that filled my mother’s rib cage. The pulmonologist wore red shoes. He pointed to those Christmas lights, said he was worried. But she’d never been a smoker. There were still so many different things it could be.
“I have lung cancer,” my mother said again.
I moved my computer from my lap, sat up straight. “Shit. All right. What do we do?”
“Nothing.” She fiddled with the gold band on her ring finger. “It’s too late for chemo.”
I remembered summer mornings when I was a kid, remembered sneaking away from the violence of our home to make daisy chains in the park down the street; I remembered that just then for no reason.
“What do you mean we do nothing?”
“Stage four,” she said. “I’ll be dead in a year.” She reached into her purse then, grabbed her coral lipstick, re-applied. She licked her teeth. “I’ll go home now,” she said. Home to the studio apartment I’d just rented for her next to the pawn shop on 82nd Avenue.
“Oh, stay for dinner,” I tried.
“No.” My mother pushed herself up out of my grandmother’s chair. “I don’t want to drive back in the dark.”
The dark. My mother had finally rented a car after all three cab companies in Portland banned her. I couldn’t even get a taxi to the airport these days when I called from my landline. They associated my number with her. “Eve,” the operators would insist. “We know it’s you.”
“They have ego problems” is all she’d say about the drivers and the cab company managers. “Unbelievable ego problems.”
“All right,” I said to my mother. “Listen, I have to go pick up Maxito. Sol should be home by six. We’ll bring dinner to your place?”
My mother nodded. “All right. But it’s got to be organic.”
She stood up, moved for the door, then turned back to me. “Don’t tell your sister,” she said. “She’s channeling Pele on the Big Island. We don’t want to ruin her retreat.”
“Okay,” I agreed.
And my mother was gone.
Pele? Maybe I should have been channeling Pele.
Instead my girlfriend, Sol, and I had been taking care of my mother for three years. She’d come to Portland for a hip replacement, second hip replacement, minor stroke and too-long recovery. It all started after my stepdad died. The Califoria newspapers called his death in Mexico a suicide: Local Excommunicated Catholic Priest Takes Own Life. It was almost as good as the headlines of my chilhood: Local Priest Defrocked by Temptress Named Eve. But his death wasn’t suicide. Not exactly. Either my mother killed him or they were in on it together. He wasn’t young. Eighty nine to my mother’s sixty-something. Maybe he was sick. No one says my stepdad died of natural causes. My mother had always talked about “mercy killing” when people had incurable diseases. But in his last email, my stepdad said “God bless Dr. Kevorkian.”
Precisely how it ended is one of the things we don’t get to know.
“You can’t ever know what happens between people,” my first journalism teacher used to say. Her words stunned me even though I knew she was right.
She was incredibly sexy, that professor, with her square-rimmed glasses. And I had a problem with transference. I hung on her sultry morning words and here she was dashing all hope for certainty.
Nevermind that the idea that truth was discoverable had been one of the things that drew me to journalism—over, say, poetry or women’s studies.
You can’t ever know what happens between people. That’s what she said.So, there I had it.
Either my mom killed my stepdad or they were in on it together and who cares anyway because here now my mother was sick and she was going to need someone to care for her, well. Here we were. Too late for chemo.
I’d never given much brain-space to the idea that my mother would die in her 60s or even her 70s. My Gammie had just died a month earlier at 91.
Does death always arrive first as an idea?
My first big death was a childhood friend. She’d had cancer for a few years, done it all: Amputation and remission, chemo and visualization, macrobiotics and metastasis. It hadn’t been too late for anything. Surely my friend would survive. She called me a few days before she died to warn me. “I’m trying to stay focused on a picture of me healthy at the beach in Hawaii, but sometimes I just get an image of myself cold and grey in my coffin.”
An image is an idea.
We were twelve years old.
That evening in Portland after I’d gotten the idea that my mother would die didn’t feel very different from any other evening in Portland. It was raining.
I picked Maxito up from preschool and he recounted his day to me in his toddler-Spanglish and “no me gusta take a tubby.”
When Sol came home and let the door slam behind her I jumped, just a little, not sure if she was angry about something at work or if I’d left the porch muddy.
My mother called and said nevermind dinner, she wanted to watch a Bette Davis movie alone instead.
Sol and Maxito and I ate rice and black beans at our little round kitchen table and Maxito flung the beans at the wall and said “too spicy” but he ate a few spoonfuls of rice before he left the table.
Sol rolled a joint. Sol. Picture someone strong and pretty with sparkling eyes that seem almost magic until she confesses that those golden flecks are actually citric acid burns because someone back in Ecuador when she was a kid had told her that lime juice would turn her brown eyes blue. I still thought her eyes had a magic, but now they reminded me of the meanness in people. Who would tell that to a child? She lit the jont, offered it to me like she always did and I refused it like I always did. The olive skin of her arm was half-covered in tattoos of spiders and saints.
I had a beer. A couple of beers.
As I nursed Maxito in the moonlit dark of our bedroom that night, I whispered to Sol, “What are we going to do?”
She sighed the way you sigh when bad things feel inevitable. “I was reading the Merck manual at work,” she said. She ran a community acupuncture clinic between our house and the bar. “Your mom isn’t going to live for a year, Ariel. She has maybe two months if she doesn’t treat it. Six months maximum. Stage four lung cancer is no joke.”
I stared at the giant painting on our bedroom wall. Three hobo birds gathered around a pot of stew over a campfire.
Maxito had fallen asleep nursing, released my nipple from his mouth-grip as his breath changed. I waited the moments to be sure he wouldn’t wake, then carried him to the crib in the little room that used to be my office.
“Ariel?” Sol whispered when I crawled back under the flowered quilt.
“I don’t think I have the mortgage money this month.”
Sol turned over, curled her back to me as she fell asleep.
My hobo birds in the moonlight.
When Sol started to snore, I tip-toed out into the kitchen, poured myself a little mason jar of whiskey, lit a seven-day candle on my altar. I settled onto the red couch in the living room, pretended the glow from my laptop screen had a warmth to it—like some little woodstove in some little cabin somewhere.
I knew I had to call my daughter, Maia, in Los Angeles. I knew I had to call my sister, Leslie, even if my mom didn’t want me to. They could both wait until morning. I clicked to Facebook, saw my old friend Teagan online. Maybe Teagan could find the pony in all this shit.
What am I going to do? Sol isn’t like a partner, she’s the roommate from hell who doesn’t even pay the rent. And now my mom is dying.
Are we allowed to joke about lesbian bed death?
No. And anyway don’t try to tell me it doesn’t happen to straight people. When they stop having sex they just call it “marriage.”
Haha! First you get Uhauled and now this. What’s up with your mom?
Stage-4 lung cancer. They told her she has a year to live.
I’m sorry to hear that. But, you know, if it’s any comfort, your mom won’t be dead in a year.
How do you figure?
I’ve met your mom. She’s a narcissist. Narcissists take a long time to die.
I’m serious. You have to remember how long my dad took to die.
What do I do?
Do you remember when we were in our early 20s and I got pregnant and you already had Maia? Do you remember your advice?
You told me not to think on it too hard. You said everything is freedom and everything is loneliness. But there’s no regret and there’s no sacrifice. You said make your choice and let the rest fall away.
That’s your advice to me now?
Yep. Everything is freedom and everything is loneliness. Make your choice and let the rest fall away.
Maybe I should get that tattooed on my wrist.
You should. You haven’t posted a new tattoo on Facebook in months. Anyway, look, I’m tired and overmedicated. Talk to you soon?
She flickered offline before I could answer. I poured myself another jar of whiskey, took a too-big sip and held it in my throat to savor the sting and heat of it. Even with my glasses on, the walls of my living room started to recede into that familiar blur. I must have fallen asleep, but I didn’t dream.
It was dawn when I crawled back into bed next to Sol, drifted in and out as I listened to her breath. Visions of my mother getting sicker floated across my dreamspace. Visions of my mother in a hospital bed in the little room that used to be my office. Visions of my mother getting thinner.
How am I going to take care of her?
For three years of doctors appointments and physical therapists and assisted care facilities, the light at the end of the tunnel had been that she was going to get better and go home to her house in Mexico and get old like a normal person.
Now maybe the only light was death.
My house was too small for all of us.
The sound of morning rain.
Anywhere else in the world I loved that sound—cleansing and life-giving—but in Portland that incessant noise was beyond irritating. Like needles hitting tin.
How am I going to take care of her?
Sol woke mumbling “Oh, Bipa…”
Bipa. The master mime from the circus that Sol had performed with when she was in her 20s. It still bothered me when Sol woke with that name on her lips. I’d found a half dozen love notes to that woman over the years. They’d flutter out from between Neruda pages: Dearest Bipa, Beautiful and Silent Bipa, My Soul Mate Bipa… You’d think I’d have gotten used to it by now, gotten used to Bipa, but Sol’s whispered longings still made me feel nauseous and jaded at the same time. Still inspired me to put my boots on and walk the two blocks to the Twilight Room, to slip into a vinyl booth and order a double shot of Big Bottom with a beer back. But it was too early for whiskey now.
I crept into Maxito’s room, watched him in his crib as he slept, watched the rise and fall of his chest.
I missed Maia living at home. Some mornings even when she was a teenager I’d poke my head into her basement room, listen for the sound of her breath to tell me she was still alive.
Watching Maxito now, I felt that sudden sadness when you know you can only promise your children suffering. I tried to shake it off. Maia was doing fine in college in Los Angeles. Maxito seemed happy-enough. Who was I to project some existential depression onto them? Every day we were still breathing somehow, even when breath seemed like such a fragile thing.
Pull yourself together, Ariel.
In the kitchen, I set the yellow kettle on the flame to boil. “Oh, Bipa.” I said it under my breath and all overdramatic like I could make it sound too stupid to matter. “I love you, Bipa.” I mean, seriously? A mime?
Maybe all I needed was some strong black coffee.