and I said, No, I can’t leave you, and she said, You have to go―I can’t be the reason you don’t get your big break. And I said, OK, I’ll go.
Who could blame me for wanting to believe everything was going to be OK? (It wasn’t.) This isn’t to excuse myself. (It is.) I know I did the right thing. (I don’t.) Was I supposed to defy the wishes of a dying woman? (My mother.)
My Hollywood friend, a twenty-something auteur, had written a part for me―a maniacally cheerful nurse―in his first feature film, which was getting made with Big Stars working for scale, and me, a few years out of my fancy MFA acting program. My Hollywood friend’s autobiographical script told the story, in part, of his mom’s death from cancer. I had been scheduled to film my scenes in New York in September. My Hollywood friend said, Come, it will take your mind off things. It will all be there to deal with when you get back.
It was a Tuesday morning in September when I flew away from her and the airline pilot said, Welcome to JFK. I ate a giant plate of spaghetti with Bolognese, alone, at a restaurant across from the apartment in Manhattan in which I was staying. It belonged to a production assistant, a friend of my Hollywood friend. It was the first real meal I’d had in the days since I’d answered the phone expecting, finally, an explanation for my mother’s excruciating back pain and the person on the phone said, malignant, Stage 4, hospice and I didn’t say anything, couldn’t speak when every word was like a bullet ripping my flesh apart.
I visited my mother’s doctor to ask him to sign some forms and he said, Yes, I will sign through January 15th. And I said, So, you think she might be better by then? He didn’t say anything but turned his screen to me to show me her films and said, Do you see this, here and here? And, I said, Where? And he said, Here and here. And I said, Oh, yes, there. I see. (I didn’t.)
I don’t understand, I said. In my “Science for Artists” class on cancer in college (more than a decade earlier) I learned that chemist Linus Pauling took 3,000 milligrams of Vitamin C a day to keep from aging, and I learned to beware of aluminum cookware, but nothing about this. I said, How can the primary source be unknown? And the doctor said, The horses are out of the barn. And I said, What barn?
That night a nurse called to set things up. I stretched the phone cord as long as it would go, into the hallway, behind the swinging door, so that my old-world grandmother, pacing up and down the length of her house―her brow wrinkled, her gaze foggy―wouldn’t hear. In response to my question, the nurse said, Yes, sometimes people go into home hospice care and then recover. (This doesn’t happen. She was trained to say this.) And I said, Your services are not needed here. And I hung up.
She called back.
I said: OK, you can come. Let them all come.
And the parade of people came: bed installers, IV installers, home bathing specialists, bathroom safety equipment people, social workers, care coordinators, nurses, nurse’s aides. And I snapped at all of them. I said, Why are you so late? I said, Don’t turn her over like that. I said, Get out of my old-world grandmother’s house! And my mom said, They are just doing their jobs. Try not to be so hard on people.
I met a friend and told her over chips and guacamole. My chip-eating friend said, Well, everyone’s got to die of something. I walked to the bookstore where another friend worked and I said, My mother’s really sick, I’m worried. And my bookstore friend said, I’m really worried about my mom too, she takes medicine for Angina. I told my friend at work and my work friend said, I lost my mom several years ago. Can you make six copies of this, collated and stapled?
We were in her room, talking about shopping for wigs when my mother said, Do you think I could make it another year? My heart has never been the same.
On morphine, she sat listlessly at dinner, not eating the dolma that old-world grandma had made just for her. Some people have hobbies, my mother said. I was never the type. Maybe I should have had hobbies.
One night I caught her watching the 2001 film adaptation of Margaret Edson’s play Wit on television in which a woman reassesses her life after a terminal cancer diagnosis. I looked at her, her face glowing sickly blue from the screen light, and I said, Why are you watching that? Don’t watch that. And then I went into another room and watched the 1990 psychological horror movie Jacob’s Ladder on one of the few channels I could find on old-world grandmother’s Magnavox.
I was on the set in rural New York, in my nurse’s uniform, and we were filming close ups of my hands pushing the lead character in a wheelchair. We were in an old abandoned hospital (of all places) and I went to an unused room, the wall-paneling busted, random ripped wires coming out, and I called my aunt. She and my uncle had said, Go, we will be here to provide “coverage.” But on the phone my aunt said, We couldn’t make it to radiation today. Your mother was in too much pain and we couldn’t get her into the van. And I said, What do you mean she couldn’t get in the van? And she said, I think you should come home.
It was a Thursday in September when I flew back to her and the airline pilot said, Welcome to Burbank. My uncle picked me up in his two-seater. We parked in old-world grandmother’s oil-soaked driveway. I jumped out and rushed to the door and he said, I have to warn you, she’s not the same as when you left.
She lay in her bed, her skin shiny and smooth, suctioned to her skull. Her jaw was slack, its full weight heavy and sunk into her. Her cheekbones jutted out, her mouth was open, eyes closed. I sat and held her hand and looked at her face, listened to her breaths and to the long pauses between them and I noticed that my bra strap, beige, kept slipping down my shoulder. I kept tucking it under the fabric of my orange, ribbed tank top where it was supposed to stay and I thought, She’s the kind of mother you forget about until you need her, the kind who’s always there and so you assume she always will be, and, I thought, I’m 32 years old and still a child, she didn’t prepare me for this, and I said, It’s OK, I said, You don’t have to stay for me. You can go, I said. Let go, I said. It’s OK to let go.
Lori Yeghiayan Friedman was born and raised in Southern California and has an MFA in Theatre from the University of California at San Diego. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Post Road Magazine, The Nasiona, and XRAY Literary Magazine. Her CNF piece ‘How to survive a genocide’ appeared in Exposition Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.