*Art by Shaina Manuel
“Barb. Yes or no.”
How did she do it? It sounded like a question, but really it was a demand. Her masterful tone, that if confronted, she would say she was only asking, stop reading into something that was not there. Combine that with guilt and shame and we have some psychological tactics that could benefit the CIA. Gather all the mothers together and stake an all out emotional war; inflict their special brand of mental water boarding on “the enemy.” Talk about a reason to live and a sense of purpose for the golden years.
The demand was not just from her, but from society. From my sisters and brother. From my father. From my friends. From mothers and daughters around the world. Certainly from anyone who watched Lifetime or the WE Channel.
What I wanted to say was, “No, Ma. It’s really not a good time.”
Because it wasn’t. I was a hopeful television writer in Los Angeles. Pilot season started in a month and my writing partner Addison and I were working on a couple of pitches and had a finished spec script. We had just locked in a “hip pocket” status with an agent which, in Hollywood literary parlance meant the agent would be happy to represent us if we got a meeting with someone who would give us a writing job for a TV show.
Addison was the twenty-something to my late thirty-something. Together we made one twenty-eight year-old writer. That’s Hollywood math. Still, I was late. Really, really, late. I’d only sprouted the courage to pursue this career in the last couple of years. Sobriety did that to me. Change the preposition; sobriety did that for me. The pain of not being a writer got a sliver bigger than my fear and I finally was ready to go after it. This was my time.
I couldn’t say any of this to my mother for a number of reasons. She was not supportive of my writing. That’s a big one. The first and only time I had called my mother to tell her a literary agent loved my work, she thought he was just being nice. She had no idea the bitter venom that courses through this town’s literary agencies. Especially sitcom, for a woman. She didn’t know it was a collective conscious effort to tear you down, a place where only the truly persistent survived. Compliments were like being struck by lightening. My stunned silence gave her an opening to pepper me with questions about my word processor job at a real estate law firm. “So, do you just type, or are you involved in research?” I told her I just typed. “Oh. I was hoping you did a little more…”
The second reason was, she was dying. Which I know should be the only reason.
A wheezy, nagging cough and tightness in the middle of her back started this whole thing. My mother thought she had pneumonia. The pulmonary doctor told her it was just a nodule on her lung, nothing to worry about. It turned out she had Small Cell Lung Cancer.
“Barb, can you come and take care of me?” my mother asked. Again. Like I didn’t hear her the first time.
It had taken a lot of time, sobriety (mine), and three thousand miles to make this mercurial relationship with my mother somewhat loving and tolerable. Well, navigable. I knew where most of the land mines were and when I stepped on one and took some shrapnel, I could always hang up the phone. I thought about hanging up and not giving her an answer. When she called back I would say, “What phone call? Exactly how much medication are you taking?”
The scrape of the blinds being drawn across the sliding glass door in my mother’s bedroom sliced my silence. The baby blue cloth blinds she got at J.C. Penney (they came out to the house!) to match the twin bedspreads with the brown and blue swirly seashell print. While some retirees wandered around aimlessly, thrown by their newfound free time, my mother stumbled like a toddler amongst the light and airy Floridian décor.
“I lived all my life in Connecticut!” she’d exclaimed to me not long after they moved to into their new home in Palm Coast, Florida. “What do I know about peach colored couches made out of bamboo sticks?”
I never thought I’d miss those conversations pretending to care about bamboo and wicker. I was going to have to say something soon. The “no” and the guilt-laden “yes” arm-wrestled in my chest.
I finally said, “Ma, I’m going to have to check with work.”
“I don’t have much time, Barb,” she said.
“Mom, I know…”
Another brick moved into place. The case I was building my “no” on could withstand some weight now. Until I realized there’s only one place for daughters who refused their mother’s such a request: Daughter Hell.
Not to be confused with regular Hell, which I think I could do, no problem and I’d know a lot of people. Daughter Hell is the vagina of regular Hell. Every day it’s the day before your period. There are no tampons in Daughter Hell, only Maxi pads. With belts and safety pins. All day and all night Mother Superior’s nagging, passive, aggressive voice blares from the ovary-shaped speakers. “You have such a beautiful smile, except your teeth are so crooked. I don’t know why we never got them fixed. You look like you put on weight. You’re not dating anybody? You’re not going to eat that? When you’re thin, I know you’re happy.” Full-length mirrors hang on every wall reflecting your bloated, crampy self. In Daughter Hell every day is a bad hair day, your clothes are a half-size too tight, and you have to wear high heels with a pebble in your shoe.
Her diagnosis was terminal.
I knew that. Just four days before I had been in Florida sitting in Dr. Dodd’s office with my parents. Dr. Dodd sat across from my mother and my father leaned against the wall, his shoulder inching towards the door. Hearing her diagnosis, I shifted from cheek to cheek on the familiar hard uncomfortable metal chair, thinking how the news would be easier if they had soft cushioned chairs, pastel colored walls, and recessed lighting with 40-watt bulbs.
Five weeks of radiation and chemo and this was the outcome. His quiet Southern lilt didn’t match what he was saying. There should have been magnolia petals falling out of his mouth or some exhaustive yarn about his mother’s peach cobbler, not a death sentence.
My father and I stared at the floor. I think about that now. Why did we stare at the floor? Embarrassment? Shame? Like she’d flunked some test or wasn’t a good patient? Fear, maybe. Powerlessness possibly. I wished I had looked her in the eye, instead of connecting with the linoleum floor and abandoning her in that moment. I don’t think it registered on her anywhere. But that was always hard to read. Until it wasn’t.
Two small beats after Dr. Dodd’s news, she asked how much time she had.
“Two to four months,” Dr. Dodd softly answered, looking her right in the eye.
Ballsy to state how long someone is going to live. And yet, I appreciated knowing the timeframe. Like I could plan around it, manage my grief, and know it was going to end. All of it. That was December 26th.
I didn’t want to think about my mother’s cancer, her dying, my role, where I was supposed to stand. I didn’t want to think about how shitty I felt in how I hesitated when she asked me. My ambivalence. Did it count that she wasn’t a very good mother? I am not a caretaker.
I watched a film crew across the street unload cables and metal boxes to shoot exterior scenes for some television series I’d never watched. Metal boxes screeched against metal making my silver fillings throb. Two men laughed as they pulled cable wires from the white truck and snaked them across the neighbor’s lawn in front of the multi-colored Victorian house. I envied their freedom. I’m sure their mothers would never have asked them to leave their cable wire pulling careers and take care of them on their deathbed. The squawk of walkie-talkies punctured the morning quiet, like a finger poking my chest. You’re. Not. A. Good. Daughter.
What makes her think I’m the one for the job? What about Liz or Cathleen? There were two other daughters that actually lived on the same coast as she did. Liz was a social worker. She got along with my mother and didn’t seem to elicit questions like, “So, how’s your weight?” Cathleen was the quintessential middle child and caretaker. She might be offended Mom asked me. Married with young step-kids, she knew how to take care of someone when they were sick. My brother Michael I disqualified because of gender, in my small town east coast sexist way. I’m not a nurse. I don’t have kids. Or a husband. Somewhere I knew that was exactly why I was the one. How a husband would have helped the situation doesn’t make sense now, but there you have it.
Which actress would play me in the movie? One of the Melissa’s – Gilbert, Hart, would do. Or Renee Zellweger, who played the reluctant caretaking daughter in One True Thing. She’d be perfect for this. You know the scenario I’m talking about – the daughter comes back to take care of her dying mother and ends up healing their mercurial relationship just before the mother dies. Or their difficult relationship never gets resolved, but after her mother’s passing the daughter finds a letter or tape her mother left behind conveying her abundant love and admiration for her daughter. Or, the best plot of all, the daughter resolves her relationship with her mother AND meets her future husband who just happens to be the oxygen tank technician.
I was on to something. Hiring actors to deal with difficult events in our lives.
The list of all I had shown up for ticked through my brain. I’m a counter. I count drinks, tiles, days, months, meetings, years, and slights. A blackboard and chalk have slid in front of my heart too many times for even me to count. I was the one who flew to Florida to take care of her after she ended up in the hospital following weeks of ravishing radiation and chemotherapy. I was the one who left my writing partner to be with my mother during Christmas, with the mangled fake two-foot tabletop tree with no ornaments that my brother and I dug out of some box in the garage. Christmas Day, Mom sitting on the lanai, her head wrapped in a mauve-colored turban with her winter coat on while we all tried not to talk about her oncologist’s appointment the next day. I was the one that stayed for that appointment.
It was enough I took that silent drive home with the them after Dr. Dodd’s terminal diagnosis. No tears. No discussion. The three of us, Dad, Mom and me, estranged but connected. Like three peninsulas connected yet separated by her diagnosis. I silently rehearsed what I thought I should say. And that’s where the words stayed. Sitting in the back seat of the car, for a few short minutes I believed if we didn’t talk about her dying, it wouldn’t happen. A familiar coping mechanism. Except I was not eight years old crocheting, elbowing my siblings for more room, or reading Highlights Magazine. My feet touched the floor. I can drive. I have a mortgage. I am an adult.
When we got back to my parents’ house, my mother went in her bedroom and closed the door. She didn’t want to talk. Flooded with not knowing what to do, I did not change my flight for that afternoon. I flew back to Connecticut to my sister Cathleen’s house. I had planned to go up to Vermont where my best friend Maureen was getting married. Maureen too, had cancer, but we couldn’t talk about that.
A brilliant playwright of the prestigious Playwrights Horizon, Naked Angels, New York EST, and EST West venues and dearest friend since we waitressed together in our twenties. Supportive, kind, enthusiastic, sarcastic, compassionate, forgiving, and funny, hers was one of the few friendships that survived my alcoholism. We always found our way back to each other, like some magnetic talisman. At least for me. Both of us in Connecticut, me in Los Angeles and she in Connecticut, then she in Wisconsin; distance was not a factor. I actually think it gave room for more contemplation, a wider breath of perspective for us to talk across our emotional parallel paths, the book of our lives, that sooner or later converged, and then we compared and gave notes. Her opinion mattered most. She was the one that encouraged me to write. She didn’t think I needed Addison. She didn’t think I needed anybody. After reading my spec script for Seinfeld she insisted I keep writing and find an agent.
Eighteen months before, when Maureen called me in the spring with the test results, questions were all I had. She had Stage Four breast cancer and it was in three of her lymph nodes. That diagnosis I refused to look up on the computer. I made a conscious decision to not know, fueled every week by Maureen’s slow retreat into fewer and fewer details, except to report she was doing fine and complained that the doctors didn’t know her body like she did. That was all I got. Like that part of her was secluded behind a door marked “private.” Then the door locked once my mother got sick.
Had I known I could call Maureen after the conversation with my mother, maybe I would have handled it better. That is probably a lie. She was my anchor, the smooth plate of shale that would right the colossal shift yanking me in another direction. Her lithe gangly arm pulling me off the disorienting alleyway I’d been shoved onto. But I couldn’t call Maureen. She made it clear when my mother was first diagnosed with lung cancer in September, she didn’t want to hear about it. She couldn’t.
I can’t remember if Maureen sent out wedding invitations. She must have. I do remember her announcing her married name. Maureen McDuffee Barvenick Black. She said from now on that was how she was going to address herself, put her name on her work. “That’s a life,” she said. Barvenick was from her first husband. At the time I thought, you can have all the names you want, you will always be Maureen McDuffee to me.
I knew she was going to wear a black full-length satin or maybe it was a velvet skirt, with a thin turtleneck. Etta James would play “At Last” as their song. Once I got to the bitter cold of Connecticut I collapsed on my sister Cathleen’s living room couch, staring at her seven-foot Christmas tree, branches weeping from the weight of all the ornaments.
I called Maureen and told her I couldn’t come. The chemo and radiation hadn’t worked and they gave my mother two to four months. She understood but asked no questions. Not about me and not about my mother. She didn’t say it, but I knew she didn’t want any of it to get on her, like a splash from some toxic puddle.
I ran back to Los Angeles, away from all of it.
For four days.
“Barb, can you come and take care of me?” Maureen would tell me not to go. Focus on the writing. And yet, my heart was three thousand miles away sitting on one of those seashell comfortered twin beds. My mother in the black rocking chair, her hair rolled up in faded pink curlers, ceremoniously covered by a threadbare hairnet she’d worn since the 1970’s. Pulled too tight in a Gloria Swanson “Sunset Boulevard” kind of way. Alone. Scared. A balloon of fear and familiarity broke in my chest every time I eyed a bag of curlers at the beauty supply shop.
How I longed for the emotional vacation I unwittingly was on just a few minutes before she called from Florida, drinking my cup of coffee staring out my kitchen window debating whether to go to the gym. Warped and crooked, this was the window I preferred to view downtown Los Angeles through. To view my life through. Like a Monet – from a distance everything looked beautiful, vibrant, defined. Within the lines. Until you got up close and saw the real picture was a cloudy mess.
“I. Am. Not. A. Caretaker!” I screamed at my warped kitchen window.