You’re going to die, Mother. It will kill you, eventually: these were the words that paced back and forth in Brett’s mind.
But then came sadness, a despair so overwhelming that it threatened to swallow up his interests and passions, just as the disease had swallowed up his mother’s breasts. When that happened, all Brett could do was think back to when his mother was healthy, when he viewed her as a goddess.
His mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer in June. A powerful woman in both mind and muscle, she did not cry (as most would have done, the doctors told her). Instead, she continued to work around the house as she always had, chopping radishes and onions into salad, helping her son with college preparations, listening to her husband recount work stories. Eventually, she told Brett of the diagnosis; he was the first to hear of it, of course.
“I know you won’t overreact,” she said, steadying his hands. “I’m going in for radiation in about a month.”
After his mother told the rest of the family—Brett was with her to calm her nerves as she answered their questions— Brett himself started a personal obsession with breast cancer, familiarizing himself with the terms of the trade: mammogram, biopsy, local recurrence, mastectomy.
As he learned, he grew relieved. The numbers looked good. The technology was modern. Life expectancy was almost certain, and talking of such things made Brett laugh. It was almost humorous and surreal to be discussing death by breast cancer, especially with regard to his mother. His mother, he told himself, was not like other mothers. He bragged of her to his friends, who would taunt and tease him with gems like, “Brett’s in his mom, it’s been confirmed.” But none of that mattered. He knew of the relationships most kids had with their mothers. It was an old plot device, a tire cliché that, as was the case with most clichés, had a grain of general truth about it. The mother sometimes did embarrass her children, and the kids would shy away from her when in a public setting. Brett had seen it happen countless times. He’d seen the over-protective mother, the under-protective mother, the theatre mom who just has to get her daughter the biggest role, the outgoing mom who is a part of everything, the not-so-bright mom who, God bless her, is nice and harmless but not much else.
But his mother was not like these mothers. She was strange and unique, not because she wanted to be, but because she simply was. She lived by her own rules. Brett’s mother never harmed anyone, but she never exactly went out of her way for others, either. She was a natural introvert, but could flip the switch and tell funny stories at a party, should she feel like it. She was neutral about most people, but would never show it, and many truly believed that she was the most empathetic human being on earth. She slept during the day and awoke at night to eat fried chicken and exercise and talk with Brett, her “soul mate,” her fellow night owl. And finally, she was a genius with a towering IQ and a diploma from Princeton University that said she could be anything she wanted to be, even a housewife. In the end, she gave it all up for that career path.
So when his mother was initially diagnosed, Brett was worried, sure, but he knew the numbers and was confident that radiation would do its job. But just to be positive, he assumed the role of personal caretaker and caregiver. He quit his summer job three days in, citing family emergencies, and drove his mother to the medical center every two days for therapy. It was not easy; the drive was always at least two hours roundtrip, excluding traffic. Still, whenever he grew irritated with the driving, the image of his mother, her breasts made black and blue by radiation, always crept back into his mind. He was not about to let her drive herself back home.
It went on like this for more than two months. Brett would drive Mom to the medical center, they would sing “Sultans of Swing” on the way to disguise fears, Brett would wait an additional hour in the adjacent visiting room, silently drive his mother back home, and do it all again in two days. Finally, just before it was time for Brett to start college, radiation was done and waiting for results had commenced.
“Do you think everything will be all right?” he asked his mother during that time.
“It will be,” she answered. “It’s a 98% survival rate for first-timers.”
“I know. I did the research. When will we hear back?”
“In about three months. I’ll shoot you an email and tell you the good news, okay? Have you ever seen a mother stronger than me?”
Brett confessed that he had never met anyone quite like her. He gave her a hug and said he loved her. He found himself doing that now after every conversation with his mother. That, too, was just to be positive.
He went to college in early September. Brett studied in the Ivy League, like his mother. And, like her, he displayed an incredible aptitude for economics. Calling her on the phone, she would go on about how talented he was, about how he was going to own the school in a few days flat. His early grades (and the professors’ comments) seemed to confirm this. Slowly, he forgot all about breast cancer, biopsy, local recurrence, and mastectomy. New words like deadweight loss and corrective taxation replaced the old cancerous ones.
Some months later, as he and his mother talked over Skype, she told him the good news.
“All gone!” she said, her face shoved right into the camera. “Want to see what the doctors did to your mother?”
“Boy, would I!” he laughed.
Quickly, she pulled up her shirt to reveal the left breast, the once-infected lump. For something that had only recently been punctured with needles every two days, beaten and bruised with radiation, stared at, talked about, it looked quite good. Yes, it was misshapen and blotched with black in places where black should never show, but it was his mother’s, alive and intact in the end. Like her, it had been through much, but survived.
“I love you so much,” she told him.
“I love you as much as it’s possible for a boy to love his mother,”
“All right, Goneril.”
The smile that was forming on Brett’s face was fast becoming a wide grin. Now both of their faces were near the camera, seemingly inches from each other.
“One big difference,” he said. “I won’t leave you out in a storm.”
After completing a stunning first semester of college, he drove home for winter break. He took his car through two states on his way back down to Maryland, immersed in Christmas music and keeping watch for the gaudiest home decorations. His mind was now totally fixed on economics and history. He wondered if it was possible to find a line of work that could combine the two disciplines. If they would just supply him with the opportunity, he would own the world. He had the talent. His mother told him so.
Turning into his neighborhood for the first time in months, it looked no different than when he had left it. Brett had thought time away from Maryland would make the place strange to him, but it was not so. Yet, he had missed home and the little manger that his neighbors set up in their yards every Christmas. The shadows of Mary and Joseph were on all the houses, except for theirs.
Brett opened the garage door and drove in. As he turned off the ignition, the door to the mudroom opened and his mother, clad in torn pink slippers and coffee-stained dentures, stood before him.
“Merry Christmas!” she said, and subsequently laughed through her nose.
Brett got out of the car and cracked his back and knuckles. Contorting himself into an old man with a walking stick, he said, “Bah, humbug.”
“How was the first night of Hanukkah?” she asked him.
“My religion turned me into a bit of a rule-breaker.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Princeton told me, ‘No candles allowed in the dorms!’ So you know what I said?”
She stepped aside as her son walked into the house. Closing the door behind him, she asked what.
He pulled a blue candle from his shirt pocket and his eyes popped out of his head just a little.
“Religious exemption! Can’t you do it for the one Jew in your school?”
“I’m sure they relented,” she said, laughing.
“They did, they did. But I’d prefer to spend the rest of Hanukkah with an actual Jew, and not just my interested roommate.”
Brett, his mother, and his father lit the candles that night and belted out “Ma’oz Tzur” in hideous, enthusiastic song. Then, at 7:30 sharp, Jeopardy! was on, and the television was appropriately tuned to Channel 18. As always, Brett got many of the answers, but he knew his mother was the undisputed master of the game. He never heard her answer questions out loud, but he was sure she knew them all.
Routine set in again for a while. Brett would sleep until two o’clock in the afternoon, get up, have ice cream, read, light the menorah, wait for Jeopardy!, watch Jeopardy!, and enjoy every minute of it. His mother, who had been admittedly bored without her boy at home, was excited to have Brett back, but something was obviously troubling her. Finally, a week into the break, he asked her what was the matter and found out that the cancer had come back.
“It’s extremely rare, what happened. I don’t have bad genes, I’m remarkably healthy, you know. It’s some bad luck.”
He sat in stunned silence as she finished. At some point in late November, she went to the medical center for a review of the post-radiation therapy, and noticed something “troubling.” Some problems with the cells, some issue with calcification, signs that were only to be summed up by one horrible word: troubling.
He understood very little of it, which was disappointing as he had spent so many hours alone researching the thing, just for the purpose of being in the know. He hated the feeling of being unsure, and this time around, everything was a mystery. The machine gun questioning came to nothing, because there was nothing to work with.
“Can you go in for radiation again?”
“No. Only once.”
“What stage is the cancer in?”
“They don’t know.”
“Can you undergo a biopsy?”
“They don’t know.”
“What are your chances?”
“They don’t know.”
In fact, the only thing they really seemed to know was that most recurrences ended one way: mastectomy. As Brett stewed over this, his mother sat down on her bed, looked at him for a while, and began to cry. Her son stopped pacing back and forth and for a moment just stared at her. Brett did not know if his mother cried alone, but he knew for a fact that he had only seen her cry once before, when her mother’s fur coat was lost. Strangely enough, she did not cry when her mother died; rather, she saved her tears for when robbers broke into the house and took (among other things) the last coat she still had of her mother’s. Brett had helped his mom then, hugging her on the floor and wiping her tears with his socks. But now he could not do that. He didn’t know why, but he couldn’t hug her and wipe her tears this time. Instead, as his mother cried, “Don’t leave me!” he left.
Instead, he broke away from her. She tried later to explain to him what a recurrence probably meant for her, but he refused to listen. Each time she brought it up for the remainder of the break, Brett would leave the room. He was not mean about it, he never told her to shut up, as other kids surely would have done. No, he simply removed himself from all traces of the discussion. The cancer books he had kept in his room, leftovers from the first occurrence, were all thrown away. He even stopped looking at porn on the internet, in fear of the two lumps.
His father, however, made advoiding the subject difficult. A loud man who hid his sensitivity behind bravado, he constantly expressed his fear for the endangered health of “Mother,” as he called her.
“Mother is pretty scared, you know,” he said one day when he and Brett were alone.
“I’d be, too,” Brett said.
“Honestly, I think she’s overblowing it.”
And when Brett didn’t answer, his father said, “She has a lot of time on her hands, you know. She spends a lot of it looking up her prognosis on the internet. I swear, spending too much time on the internet will make you nuts about things.”
“Definitely,” Brett said.
“And if she’s got to undergo a mastectomy, fine. Just take the damn thing off, right? More trouble than it’s worth.”
“It’ll hurt Mother, and she’ll have some pain in her shoulder muscle, but it’s better than being dead.”
“I’ve got to go, Dad,” Brett said.
“Just stay a little while,”
“No, I’ve got to go.”
“Brett, I’m scared about this. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. I just love Mother so much. We’ve got to help her through this. She’s really more sensitive than she lets on.”
He went back to college a few weeks later. Immediately, his performance began to weaken. He no longer asked questions formed from curiosity; now, everything was done to ensure an A, but not much else. There was no fun involved in his studies because Brett had suddenly lost all passion for the classes, even history. In economics, the professor he had had last semester was startled by his change, but asked no questions, even when he handed Brett a C on the first test. The professor gave Brett the test, watching the student’s face closely, and was again worried to see no expression there. No effect. His classmates and suitemates noticed a new lack of caring, too, although they themselves cared less than the professors. Caleb, his roommate, asked only once if Brett was okay. Brett told him not to worry about it, and Caleb most certainly did not.
But Brett worried. He worried now almost constantly. The words flowed through his mind again and again: You’re going to die, Mother. It will kill you, eventually. He knew it first when she told him of the recurrence, of how radiation wasn’t going to save her this time. He knew it first when he thought of his mother, his mother, drugged and staggering back and forth without a breast. He knew it first when he found out the horrible truth: that she was not everything he thought she was.
Only after the news did he begin to see her as a regular person, her true form. A regular person without all the power of an Übermensch or the wit of a Shakespearean fool. Now he saw her get questions wrong on Jeopardy!, easier questions that were once supposed to be obvious. Two months into the second semester, he was forced to talk to her on Skype. He’d been putting it off, and when he saw her, it hurt him. Her hair was in tangles, the eyes were set into deep, fleshy bags, and she spoke very slowly and simply.
“Why haven’t you been returning my emails, Brett?” She asked him, and then quickly said, “No, don’t tell me.”
“Fine. I won’t.”
“I’ve been going in for tests. They’re working on another biopsy. Then they can tell me what I should do.”
“Have you been crying?” he asked her.
“You’ve been crying?”
“Yes,” she said.
“You didn’t cry last time. Why are you crying now?”
“Because this is not good. The doctors are telling me that a mastectomy is almost certain.”
Brett’s heaved and held back tears of his own. “Well, that’s it.”
“Will you love your mother even if she doesn’t have a full set of breasts?”
Brett looked at the screen that held his mother’s face and very quickly said, with already fleeting firmness, “No!”
And cancelled the chat.
As he sat in class, now absorbing nothing from the lectures, Brett thought back to a documentary he had seen as a little boy. It was about saltwater crocodiles. They were interesting animals, dangerous animals, but they loved their children very much. Ordinarily, the babies could be picked off by birds as a light snack. But nature, as always, thinks ahead. The mothers carry their children across the water in their mouths, and what predator would dare try to snatch a baby from a cage of teeth? Sitting in class, Brett wondered what would happen to the child if its mother died. Would the baby also die, doomed to drown within a cage of teeth?
But above all, he felt regret.
Benjamin Sonnenberg lives in Severna Park, MD and is currently a Freshman at the University of Maryland