I remember shaving my mother’s head.
It was in her bathroom, early in the morning. Like it does, the chemotherapy was causing her to lose all her hair, but she decided to beat it to the punch. I was terrified that I might slip and cut off her ear or something – it’s not like I’d ever held a razor before – and then instead of cancer, the cause of death might read “blood loss due to gross incompetence with a razor.” My mother laughed genuinely at the reflection of our efforts in the bathroom mirror. I pleaded with her to stop moving. She laughed harder, and I couldn’t help laughing too.
I remember our church. I remember going and singing and kneeling and praying – to nothing in particular, usually the crown molding or the big glass window behind the alter. My mother wanted to go, and I always went with her…for moral support, I suppose. And I remember thinking that she didn’t really buy all the hocus-pocus the priest was selling. Maybe she felt unnecessarily obligated, like she was repaying a debt she never actually owed. Or maybe she just wanted to cover all her bases, make a good faith effort. All I know for sure is that few people understood the immediacy of mortality like my mother did, and when the reading was about life or death or strength in the face of adversity (as so much of the Bible is) I’d look around at worshippers paying lip-service to their deities of choice – in the walls or the floor or the backs of their own eyelids – and my mom would be looking at me. She’d squeeze my hand.
I remember the funeral home and the maroon-sort-of-purple color scheme my mother had picked out. I can’t imagine the surreal detachment of planning your own funeral, like a strange combination of submission and defiance. I didn’t cry at first, but I felt like I was supposed to. I thought that if I didn’t cry, then people would look at me funny and say to themselves: “what kind of little boy doesn’t cry after his mother dies? He must not care.” So I forced myself to cry because that’s what was expected. I had to think of sad things – things that would make a little boy cry.
I remember becoming a hypochondriac when school started up every fall. I always felt feverish. I had strep throat, or the flu, or phlebitis. “I can’t go to school mom…I got kidney stones…no, I have impetigo…no? Well, then my ovaries fell out…What? I don’t have ovaries? Well no, not anymore!” She’d put her hand to my forehead.
“You’re fine” she’d say with a smile, and send me off to school.
And then I remember my mom writing notes in my lunch. Every one ended with that phrase: “you’re fine” – and she’d draw a smiley face. And just like that, everything was all better. My sore throat was soothed; my fever broke; my cancer went into remission.