Winner of Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Writing Competition (Memoir/Personal Essay Cetegory)
When my mother laid out her “death clothes,” I shouldn’t have been surprised — she was always one to pack in advance. A month before her surgery she plucked from her closet a long, black velvet jacket, a matching velvet skirt and knee-high black boots, instructing us that if she were to pass on during the operation, we were to bury her in this sleek, vaguely gothic ensemble she had just bought on sale in the contemporary department at Lord and Taylor.
“If I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go like Morticia Addams,” she said.
If everyone else in the room is wearing navy, my mother is the woman in the leopard print coat. And if my mother was going to be inflicted with a potentially fatal disease, it was damn sure going to be a rare one. After spending over a year experiencing symptoms she described as “post-menopause menopausal,” and visiting a gaggle of doctors who couldn’t quell the hot flashes, perpetual anxiety or other symptoms my father would later group under the category of “bitchiness and more bitchiness,” my mother finally landed a savvy endocrinologist who identified a small tumor on her right adrenal gland – a little guy that would come to be known by our family simply as “The Pheo.”
“The Pheo” was the way we addressed mom’s Pheochromacytoma, a condition so rare you have a better chance of dying from polio, typhoid or dismemberment by alligators than you do getting the disease. Also known as “the ten percent disease,” mom’s pheo was not cancerous (as ten percent are), and didn’t affect both adrenal medullas (as ten percent do), but the tumor itself it was swallowed completely in a fluid-filled sac, a variation that made her case extra rare.
“Mine is encased in a cyst,” mom beamed when she got home from the doctor. “I’m one in a million.”
Primarily affecting the endocrine system, which is responsible for controlling hormone dispersion, mood regulation and other main functions of the nervous system, mom’s nasty little growth was responsible for stimulating the rapid production of epinephrine and nor epinephrine at the most arbitrary of moments. Ask mom to sign a check or pick up a phone call during “American Idol” and the fight-or-flight would kick in.
“GODDAMMIT I AM GOING TO SEE WHICH ONE OF THESE SHOWBOAT SINGERS IS GOING TO USE THEIR ODE TO BARRY MANILOW TO MAKE IT TO THE FINALS WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS, MY FUCKING LIFE DEPENDS ON IT!”
Don’t even think about posing questions during “Dancing With the Stars.” And if you ask her what’s for dinner, prepare to be served a massive bitch sandwich with a side of impatience.
The issue with Phechromocytoma is that the symptoms can be so mild at first, and run so concurrent with a patient’s everyday neuroses, it can be hard to identify signs of the disease as out-of-the ordinary. In fact, the condition goes unidentified in thirty percent of cases until after death, prompting family members of the afflicted to wonder for years, “When did mom become so batshit crazy?” or “How could a request to pass the Dr. Pepper get that woman so riled up?”
Luckily mom’s profuse night sweats and canine-speed leg shaking prompted her to offer up her body for the probing and radioactive-isotope-ingesting required to confirm her tumor’s presence. Once diagnosed, she started to voraciously read up on her symptoms, culling from Wikipedia, Web MD, and a lengthy brochure from her doctor’s office. Before long she had compiled a thorough list of ailments to rattle off when questioned, proving potential for a promising career as a voiceover woman for pharmaceutical commercials.
“They say my symptoms can include hot flashes, high blood pressure, anxiety, debilitating headaches, nausea, tremors, sweating and feelings of impending death,” she would singsong, giving extra flourish to “feelings of impending death,” her symptomatic partridge in a pear tree.
Mom was diagnosed at age fifty-five, though the doctor said the tumor could have been hunkering down on her endocrine system for years, prompting the rest of the family to wonder which of her more recent major outbursts were the result of gloriously random bursts of hormonal disruption. We began to attribute all major and minor fights and familial disasters past and present to our favorite endocrine assault artist.
“It really sucks mom’s pheo didn’t let you go to senior prom Adam.”
“Too bad the pheo wasn’t in the mood for Chinese food with the rest of us last night.”
“I wonder if when we’re grown with kids of our own, the pheo will let us sit on the green couches in the piano room.”
With the acknowledgement of the adrenaline provocateur inside of her came the
intensification of my mother’s symptoms. Mom’s tumor would need to be removed, and fast. All of a sudden the beloved cyst became a liability instead of a source of pride, adding disaster potential to an already risky surgery. With anesthesia complications looming above her head, my mother cancelled our upcoming December family vacation, and did what anyone who thinks they’re facing imminent death is bound to do: she started packing.
With an instinct for preparation matched only by hibernating woodland mammals, by mother began to pack for The Ultimate One Way Journey. First she started with the China, wrapping everything but the everyday dishes and filing the pieces away in labeled boxes that correlated with a master packing list longer than the Columbia House catalog. Then she moved on to the cedar closet, the butler’s pantry, the garage and the shed. No item that hadn’t found use in my mother’s recent memory was safe from her bubble-wrap-happy claws and clear tape. Soon the entire house was inventoried, prompting comments from the kids on our visits home that she looked ready to move out.
“Well, I told your father if I die he should sell the house, it’s too big without me in it” mom said. “And he shouldn’t remarry.”
When I asked her why, she replied that she didn’t want another woman’s kids reaping the rewards of all her hard work. “His tubes are tied anyway,” she said as if she hadn’t already mentioned this ten times before, occasionally remembering to wait until I was sitting at the dinner table with friends.
As she left the house on the day of the surgery, mom was nervous and, of course, ridiculously over prepared. Taped to the kitchen cabinets were about a month’s worth of instructions for us to follow in the case of her untimely departure including a realtor’s phone number for my father, a reminder for my sister Rachel to pick up a necklace at the jeweler, and the dates of all of our next dental appointments. Stapled to the list were the three dry cleaning tickets.
“Her hand will reach out from the grave to give us clean clothes,” said Rachel.
Sitting in my office on 14th street, listening to my sister describing the contents of this survival packet by phone from our Long Island kitchen, I envisioned myself for a moment at the reading of my mother’s will, the lawyer saying, “…and that’s about it, though your mother also instructed me to give you these two-for-one coupons and said you should use them if you stop at Dunkin Donuts on the way home.”
Mom insisted my brother Adam and I, both recently employed at new jobs, stay in the city and work instead of accompanying her to the hospital for her procedure.
“The worst thing that happens is I die. But you’ve gotta make a living.”
There was no arguing with her. “What, do you want to cause me more stress on what could be my last day on earth? Just do what I tell you. I’ll be fine.”
But as I sat at my desk, thinking about my mother being wheeled into surgery, the day’s emails and promotional events seemed comically less repercussive than her life threatening procedure. Strangely, I was not as afraid she would die, as I was distraught at the thought that when she emerged she might be a new woman, neuroses-free. Anxiety is directly connected to how my mother cares for her children. She clips and sends you articles from the newspaper about women getting abducted in mall parking lots, not because she wants to plague you with nightmares for the entirety of your young adult life (a jarring side effect, nevertheless), but because she truly believes if you jump on the anxiety train, she can better ensure your safety. She buys you mace and instructs you to keep it in your bag at all times and “squirt ‘em right in the eye,” not because you necessarily need it (also, it’s illegal to carry it, not that she cares), but because the knowledge that you’re prepared for the worst is the only thing that soothes the beast.
The woman doesn’t even like to read a book to which she doesn’t know the ending. She read the last page of Harry Potter book seven as soon as she bought it, and after she had already pored over Entertainment Weekly’s fourteen-page spoiler spread. When I gifted her with the first season of Battlestar Galactica to keep her company through her recovery at the hospital she said, “Great! I already know who all the Cylons are.” Media and technology have finally caught up to my mother’s need for instant gratification. Dramatic tension holds no appeal for Debbie Brook. It makes her anxious. Just tell her what she needs to know so she can focus on content without having to worry about outcome. She just wants to know how it ends.
I wasn’t at the hospital to see mom wake from surgery, but my sister told me the first thing she said when she opened her eyes was “cheeseburger with fries,” and since eating is equivalent to breathing in my family, we took her request as a comforting sign of normal functionality. But I was still anxious to do my own analysis, face-to-face. About a week after the surgery, all work obligations taken care of at my mother’s insistence, I finally made it back to Long Island. Mom was in her bedroom, propped up on three pillows, one hand resting on the stitches where the laparoscopic tubes and instruments had left a quintet of raised, red scars.
“I’m allergic to the surgical tape,” she told me. “All the hydrocortisone in the dermatology wing of Beth Israel couldn’t ease this itch.”
I climbed into bed with her, leaving room for the dog, my mother’s natural sedative, to lie between us. When I flipped on the TV, Battlestar was already loaded. Mom had made it up to the second disc of Season 1, where the suspense was starting to build to a nerdy, robotic froth.
“So, when do they find Earth?” she demanded, as if she didn’t know my answering was both impossible, as that plot point hadn’t been revealed at the time, and improbable, as coughing up spoilers strongly conflicts with my TV watching philosophy of sequential discovery.
“I’m not telling you anything.” I said. “You’re taking all of the fun out of it!”
With a sigh, mom returned her eyes to the screen to ponder the eventual fate of the starship’s crew, and minutes later her lids drooped shut, gaining her entrance to a dreamland in which she already knew the outcome of all major dramas – both fictional and non-fictional – in her life to come.
Taking care not to wake the pooch, I climbed out of bed and wandered into my old bedroom, where a pyramid of laundered socks sat beside a familiar letter-sized envelope — my name on the front in black script, the familiar feel of a Debbie Brook tri-fold lining the inside. I pulled out the photocopied pages. “Electroshock Therapy: The Latest In Protective Tasers,” read the headline, with a message from mom scrawled on the top in red Sharpie. “I want one for my birthday!” I sat down on my bed and had just reached a description of a taser fit for use on a two-ton elephant when I heard the dog’s bell collar jingling as my mother stirred in her bedroom. I rose to return to her aid, feeling responsible, even a little anxious to protect her. And as I stuffed the Xeroxed pages in my purse, my fingers grazed my slender cylinder of pepper spray, gift from my mother, the worrier.