At work I got a phone call from Dr. Naito, my mother’s doctor. My mother admired him and was proud to be his patient. I had not met him or been involved in her care, so I was surprised that he knew that I existed or how to find me. He wanted my help. He said my mother and brother would not believe him when he tried to explain her blood cancer and what to expect. She was years along in a process that normally took five years and needed to get braced.
“Should I call my other brother?” I asked. Yes. it was time for him to come. He was in New Mexico. When he came, he took over. I had a file on the particular cancer that I’d gotten from the internet and gave it to him. He barely looked at it. “I know. I’ll manage from here.”
He’d mostly worked as a library assistant but his undergrad college work was pre-veterinary with a lot of biology and he had worked for a veterinarian. Since my mother had always considered him the head of the family, the oldest male, the inheritor, I just got out of the way. Because I was the only person with a job, my mother insisted that I neither miss work or offend my employers, which were the City of Portland Bureau of Buildings.
I stayed in my own apartment some blocks away. In those days, the Nineties, I was on RezNet which was a “bulletin board” for “Indians” only so I was trespassing but when they asked what tribe I was, I said I was from Browning and that was enough. I told them about my mother and a woman my age in South Carolina sent me a braid of sweetgrass tied with red yarn. I still have it. She prayed for me.
A few weeks earlier I had stopped by “the house” to see how things were going and discovered that my mother was missing. My younger brother sat in his recliner eating a peanut butter sandwich because it was after supper and no one had appeared to make a proper supper. He didn’t know where our mother was. She had gone to the doctor for an appointment and said he was sending her to a hospital for a transfusion, because the chemo they gave her at the appointment had been too strong. He didn’t know what hospital.
I lost it. I panicked. I called the doctor’s office which was closed but the answering service knew nothing and there was no record of which hospital she went to. I called all the NE hospitals. Now it was dark but I drove the streets she might have used, expecting to come upon a pile of smoking rubble with my bloodied and crumpled mother inside. Now and then in my search I would go back to “the house” to see if she had returned. My brother was unconcerned, a mix of not registering and the flat affect which can be typical of people with concussions.
At a little after eight PM, she pulled into the driveway as though nothing had happened. She’d been at St. Vincents near Beaverton for the transfusion which went smoothly, but when she came out her car wouldn’t start. AAA came when called but she didn’t call us to say she’d be late.
The hospital was on the other side of the West Hills with all traffic funneled through Burnside. It was now rush hour so traffic was heavy and there was a bad accident. All traffic slowed to a crawl with flashing lights and police everywhere. My mother simply pulled over and parked, waiting for the emergency to be over.
An officer came with a cell phone — no one in my family had a cell phone — and offered to loan it to her to make a call, but she refused. She said she had everything under control and there was nothing anyone could do. She had not had a reaction to the transfusion, which she didn’t tell the officer. She was 89 and stubborn.
But I had an unhinged enraged reaction to her failure to include her own family in her predicaments. I went from terror to anger. Maybe she’d just gotten into the habit of doing everything herself. Maybe she thought it would make her cancer too real. My brother wanted to know whether there would be a late supper.
For months she had kept asking me whether we could talk, but if I made time and sat down to talk, she had nothing to say. I was afraid it would be about her asking me to move into the house after she died so I could take care of my brother as she had. I was a woman and I had a job. It was my obligation.
When my brother came and she began to be seriously ill, she interpreted her intestinal discomfort as constipation and took a dose of Milk of Magnesia. The result was a flood of black fecal blood on the bathroom floor which was upstairs. When Mark asked the doc to authorize a bedside commode downstairs where she was in a hospital bed, the doc wanted to know why she didn’t use the downstairs bathroom. The reason was that none existed.
Now Mark called an ambulance. There was a rivalry between two responding companies. The neighborhood was now thought of as black, so the attendants were black, and they got into an argument. My mother thought they were bandits or pirates and she was being abducted.
In the hospital she talked the nurse into giving her Milk of Magnesia again with the same result — the floor by her bed was flooded. At 3AM I woke with the feeling that I should go to her. The hospital was closed up and locked, but I had spent a summer as the night chaplain in Rockford, IL, and knew to walk through the wet green mowed grass around the building and enter through the ambulance emergency doors.
When I found my way to my mother’s ward, the desk nurses told me what had happened but that she was sleeping now. I looked into the room and saw this was true, so I went to the family waiting room which was occupied only by a young woman sitting with a potted plant on her lap and some plastic bags. When I came in, she rose and explained that her husband had just died of cancer and she was gathering herself up before going home.
“Would you hold me?” she asked. Of course. “You smell so good!” she said in my arms. I had taken a shower before driving over. We talked for a bit. When my mother woke up, I told her about it. She approved.
Then she told me about the mess she had made and how an older heavy black woman had come to clean it up. “No human being should have to deal with such a thing,” she said, forgetting that my brother had cleaned up the same mess. Then, almost squealing, she asked, “Am I ever going to get out of here?”
The nurse had asked whether I thought the chaplain should visit her. She said, “Absolutely NOT!” But I told the nurse I thought it was a good idea since she was an old-fashioned Christian and I was not. Her own Presbyterian church, where she had been faithful, had forgotten all about her. I offered to call them, but she was embarrassed that they would see her sick in bed. The hospital chaplain turned out to be a competent woman and she said the right things. I never talked to her.
And so we stumbled through the institutions and the Great Fates that grip us all, each doing our best. None of us capable of preventing death. In a few days my mother came home to die.