I'm talking to my mother on the phone, long distance. Very long distance. I'm in the kitchen of our small rented house, in Glasgow, Scotland, where we are living this year -- my husband's long-anticipated, and much longed-for, sabbatical year. Mom is at home, in McLean: in the house where my brother and sisters and I grew up, along with half a dozen dogs. But there are no kids or dogs now. There are just my mother and my father, along with their astoundingly large collection of framed photographs of their grandchildren -- babies in their mothers' arms, big grins, boys holding baseball bats and little girls dressed up in princess costumes.
"So?" Mom says, "How are things? Is it just wonderful?"
"Great," I say, gazing out the window at the springtime drizzle.
"The kids? Are they still all enjoying school?"
"They love it," I say, which is true. Our three children are enrolled in a 400-year-old private school, where they wear gray flannel uniforms complete with school tie and scarf, play rugby and, for field trips, visit castles. I tell Mom about Jonathan's mastery of a Glaswegian accent, about Rose's dance classes, about Sam's growing obsession with the rivalry between the two local football (soccer) clubs, Celtic and Rangers. Then I go on to tell her about our recent trip to the Isle of Arran, where we went pony-trekking, walked on the beach and hiked over moors to see Neolithic standing stone circles -- and where I, on a whim that is strikingly out of character, got myself a professional manicure.
"Bright red," I say.
What I don't tell my mother, though, is the big thing, the thing that has defined my life ever since Thanksgiving, when I went to the specialist's to make sure that the lump in my left breast was, as my doctor assured me, nothing, and found out instead that I had a malignancy. What I don't tell her is that I am halfway through a regimen of eight chemotherapy treatments, one every three weeks, to be followed by the standard six weeks of radiation and then five years of the drug Tamoxifen. I can't tell her that I got the manicure because I currently have no other way to indulge my vanity, my hair (and brows and lashes) having long since fallen out. I can't tell her that the wig that the National Health Service paid for at the beginning of my treatment makes me look like Mrs. Brady on "The Brady Bunch," and that I almost never wear it anyway, preferring the Yankees baseball caps that my sister Binky sent me from New York just after my surgery. I can't tell her that, though my prognosis is good, none of my doctors have been able to promise me long life, or even offer assurances that I will live to see my children fully grown.
I can't tell her any of these things because Mom has cancer, too, and no one in my family wants her to know what I'm going through.
My mother has ovarian cancer -- a cancer that is notoriously hard to diagnose and which, therefore, is typically caught in its late and more dangerous stages -- and has had it for more than eight years, a length of survival almost unheard of in cases such as hers. In fact, my mother has outlived her doctors' best predictions by seven years or so.
Chemotherapy bought her some four years of relatively good health, until, in 2000, her tumor began to grow again, and her life again became a series of trips to her oncologist, a series of increasingly bad choices, toxic drips, hair loss, nausea, cramping, respiratory trouble, swelling, blockages and emergency room visits.
By my fourth chemo, my mother is so sick that there are times when she can barely lift her head off the pillow.
Shortly after my own surgery -- a straightforward lumpectomy, which removed the tumor and 12 lymph nodes -- my father said that he'd rather not let Mom know about me, or at least not now, while she was so sick and I was so far away. Binky agreed, e-mailing, "Your news would shatter her." My sister Amalie said, "I don't think you realize how weak she is." My brother added, "She'd kill herself worrying."
So I agreed to keep it a secret.
"I'm so glad you've finally learned to spoil yourself a little," my mother now says, still, apparently, entranced with the notion of my red fingernails. "Scotland's been wonderful for you, hasn't it?"
IT'S THE SATURDAY after my second treatment, and I am lying in bed, wondering if I'm going make it to my son Sam's bar mitzvah in the fall, when the phone rings.
"You sound a bit vershmelt," Dad says, and then, when I don't reply, adds: "Listen. I'm in the kitchen, and I don't want your mother to hear this. But you ought to give her a call. Okay?"
"Is she worse?"
"Hard to say," Dad says. "She's on oxygen now, which helps a little. But hearing from you is bound to cheer her up."
I'm exhausted, nauseated, constipated, weak. In just a few weeks, my bedroom has become a sickroom. On the bedside table are a glass of ginger ale and my various medications. On the window ledge are my cancer books, along with booklets from the National Health Service and phone numbers for my oncologist, surgeon, breast cancer nurse and hospital roommates. On the dressing table are my hats and, above the table, pictures that my kids made and get-well cards. Little brittle pieces of my hair cling to the pillow.
"Okay," I say, and two minutes later, I'm calling McLean, where my father (surprise!) picks up the phone and says: "She's right here, Jen. She just woke up from her nap."
"I just woke up from my nap," Mom says, her voice diminished, as if she's talking through a quilt. There is a pause, while she labors to breathe. Then she says, "I'm on oxygen now."
"I know. Dad told me." Another long pause, which I fill by plucking a fistful of hair from my head.
"Is it helping?" I ask.
"A little." Another pause. "How are you? Tell me about what's going on in your life. What are you up to?"
And so I tell her -- about everything under the sun, except for how I collapsed onto the sidewalk from weakness while walking to school to pick up the twins, or how, afterwards, I crawled up the stairs and sobbed.
WHAT I TELL MYSELF, as I walk up the hill and past the stately Victorians on the way to Chemo No. 5, is: You are halfway through. Halfway through and still on schedule. Halfway through, and the flowers are beginning to bloom. Halfway through and not even close to dead. In fact, with my energy slowly returning, I've recently gone back to jogging, and I've even taken up break dancing.
On the corner, I meet my friend Debra. Early on, she signed on to accompany me to my treatments, and like me, she knows just about all the other breast cancer patients who are scheduled for chemo, as I am, every third Wednesday morning in the hospital's Ward 5-C.
"Ach, it's the two of you troublemakers again," one of the nurses says as we check in and find seats in the not-yet-crowded waiting room.
An hour later -- my blood work completed, my vitals taken, the doctors having signed off on my meds -- I'm in the chemo room proper, a pillow behind my back and another on my lap, Debra by my side, and Sharon, one of the nurses, sitting before me, holding my hand as she administers the drip.
You don't much feel the chemo as it goes in, except as a kind of coldness through your veins and, at times, a slight stinging at the point of entry. But I can see it drip into me: first the hydrating solution, a clear, cleansing elixir; then the anti-nauseant; and finally, the chemo itself.
"You're really doing great," Debra says. "If I ever get cancer, you're going to be my role model."
"I think I'm in denial," I say.
"You're not in denial," Debra says. "You're just coping."
And then it's over, and I'm sent to the front office to schedule my next chemo.
"See you next time, girls!" the receptionist says as we gather up our things and head out, Debra carrying my little bag of meds: the wee steroid I take once a day with food for three days; the other anti-nauseant I take three times a day for as long as I need it, with food; the laxative I take as much as three times a day; the anti-cramping pill I take once a day as needed; the sleeping pill I take when needed; the antidepressant once a day.
ON THE PHONE, my mother is talking about her dear friend Jean, who is dying of breast cancer:
"She had it years ago, you know, but you know those WASPy types, they never complain. I don't think her treatment was that tough on her, not that she'd let you know even if it were. But, of course, chemotherapy for breast cancer is nothing compared to chemo for ovarian cancer."
"Oh," I say, thinking that now would be a good time to tell her that I, in fact, know all about breast cancer treatments, which are not, in my limited experience, nothing. I want to tell her that my friend Jean -- one of my roommates from the hospital -- was recently hospitalized for 10 days with a raging infection; that Fiona, another of my roommates, developed an allergy to one of the agents in her "cocktail," stopped breathing and almost died; and that Jayne is so done in by her treatment that it's all she can do to get off the sofa. Of my little gang, only Liz -- who has been spared the rigors of chemotherapy and radiation -- and I haven't had any serious misery. I want to tell her that I am now undergoing daily radiotherapy, as well as chemo, but instead, I open a bottle of single malt and pour myself a shot.
"She says that she doesn't understand how I can keep going on with treatment," Mom continues. "But I tell her that I have a goal. I have to get to Sam's bar mitzvah in the fall. God willing."
I take a swig.
"So what's going on? How is everyone?" Mom asks. And so I tell her. Eventually Mom segues back to her friend Jean and ends up on the subject of the many loved ones whom she has lost -- Judy (lung cancer) cousin Terry (breast cancer) and her own father, who died in 1958 of leukemia when my mother was pregnant with me. All this talk of death is sending waves of anxiety up my spinal column, where it lodges, like little shards of metal, under my shoulders.
"You're very brave," I say.
"I'm very lucky," she answers.
AT FIRST, I had wanted to tell her, but now I'm glad Mom doesn't know about me, because if she did, she'd try to rise up out of her sickbed to take care of me, and I don't want her -- or anyone, for that matter -- to take care of me. I can imagine the tone of her voice, her crushing anxiety on my behalf, and I'm just not sure I could bear it.
For years, I felt that I was my mother's representative in the world, the one slated to carry on not just her values and her genes, but her very selfhood. If my life trajectory paralleled hers, it would somehow justify hers. It's enough that I look so much like her that occasionally I glimpse myself in a store window and wonder what my mother is doing in Glasgow. Every so often, one of my kids will turn to me and say: "My God, Mom! You're just like Grammy!"
In 1994, the year my mother learned she had cancer, she was a former dancer who had cashed in her dreams to marry my father, a lawyer, have children and live in a big house in McLean. I was a struggling writer married to a lawyer and had recently had twins. Dad was a partner. My young husband was an associate. My parents socialized with their lawyer friends. Ditto me and my husband. Mom would call me up and compare being-married-to-a-lawyer notes: "They're all workaholics, you know," she'd say, sympathetically. Or: "I've spent 30 years waiting for your father to get home from some meeting or another." Or if I were in an unusually ragged-out mood, simply: "Tell me about it." There were all these parallels between her life and my own, which I finally began to shake off when my husband and I moved to Baton Rouge, La., where we now live. When my husband's sabbatical year finally rolled around, we moved to Glasgow for the year -- an American family abroad, further separating my life's trajectory from hers. And then I learned I had cancer.
TWO DAYS AFTER my 44th birthday, I graduate from chemotherapy. Later that evening, it finally hits me: I'm finished! I'm finished! And I'm on my knees with my head bowed to the rug, praying so hard that I am crying, crying so hard that I'm sobbing.
Now I have to start thinking about normal life again: normal, healthy, ordinary life, without doctors' appointments and blood work and knowing that there will be six or seven bad days for every 12 good ones; without special attention; without Yankees baseball caps; without people praying for me, and telling me that I'm doing great, and congratulating me for simply getting through the day. We are going back home soon, which means packing up, saying goodbye to Debra and, finally, facing my mother.
For months now, the plan has been that I'll break the news to Mom in July, when I see her at my parents' summer house in Maine -- when I'm healthy again, when the worst is behind me and I have some semblance of hair again. I can't say that I'm exactly looking forward to this moment, but I am ready to unburden myself of my secret, both for practical reasons having to do with keeping a gag order once I'm back in the United States and for personal ones. The truth is that I want my mother to see me for who I am, to know me for who I am -- for I'm a different person from the one I was last summer. I've had cancer. I'm a survivor.
But two weeks before our return trip, while I'm sorting books into "keep" and "give away" piles, Dad calls to say that he thinks I shouldn't tell her at all. "Why does she need to know?" he asks. "Why worry her when there's nothing she can do about it?"
"But she'll know anyway," I answer. "She'll take one look at me and figure it out. I look like a Martian."
"She won't figure it out unless you tell her."
Finally, I agree to keep up the subterfuge, thinking that perhaps Dad is right and that it would be better to protect Mom, so that the unsaid part of his thinking -- that Mom might die in peace -- can be assured.
I am, nonetheless, sowing the seeds, preparing the ground for the big lie -- the whopper lie I will tell in July, in Maine, when we finally see her after a year's absence. To this end, I tell my mother that I've cut my hair very short, "punk rock style," to fit, I explain, with my newfound passion for break dancing. I've also instructed the children to go along with me. "It's kind of grayer than it was before," I say. But I don't think she'll buy it. How could she? I have the classic growing-out-from-chemo hairdo: salt-and-pepper spikes, nonexistent eyebrows, eyelashes that barely qualify.
WE ARRIVE IN MAINE a few days before my parents do, but finally the day of reckoning comes. From the deck, I can hear a car pull up the driveway, and then my father's voice saying, "Grammy and Sabi are here!" I haven't seen my mother for a year, but when at last she hauls herself out of the passenger seat, what I see is not the broken-down wreck that I had expected but the mother I remember from last year: heavy from drugs that have puffed her up, somewhat clumsy, but with a head full of gray hair and skin that's dark from the sun, wearing a bright red T-shirt and jeans.
"Wish me luck," I say to my husband as I pencil in my eyebrows.
The grass is damp under my feet, and my mother is squinting at me as I cross the yard and then come to stand beside her next to the car. "You look great," I say.
Mom squints again and cocks her head. "Your hair's too short," she says. Then she throws her arms around me and gives me a big, wet kiss.
Over the next few days, Mom updates me on her medical condition, recounts her recent struggles, explains the miracle that has allowed her to breathe again. She's actually feeling pretty good and spends the better part of her mornings puttering around the house and making breakfast. At night she eats big hearty dinners washed down with plenty of wine. Every now and then, she looks up at me and says: "Jennifer, you look wonderful, but you're awfully skinny, and that hair! Please tell me that you'll grow it a little longer."
A visit from my Uncle Frank and his wife prompts my mother to blurt out: How do you like my daughter's lesbian haircut? Mom, apparently, thinks it's hilarious. But I'm getting frustrated. I'm tired of hearing about my mother's medical battles; I'm tired of hearing about her friends who have died, and her friends who are dying, and, another favorite subject, what kind of funeral Mom wants. I'm tired of hearing about her doctors and her nurses, and most of all, I'm tired of my mother not recognizing me for the person I have become.
At the end of the week, I drive my mother to the local hospital in Bridgton to get some blood work and an injection or two to keep her white blood cell count up, but when we get there, there is a rather long wait. I've brought a book to read, but Mom wants to talk.
"Did I tell you that Jean died?" she says.
"Just yesterday," Mom says. "But you know, she lived a good, brave, long life. She died the way she wanted to die, at home and at peace. Let me tell you, that's the way I want to go."
I gnaw on this little tidbit for a while until, finally, my mother is called back to the consulting room. Mom settles in with the nurse, saying: "This is my daughter Jennifer. She and her family just got back from Scotland."
The nurse looks at me quizzically, as if she'd never heard of Scotland -- or, I'm thinking, as if she's momentarily confused about who the cancer patient is.
"Any new problems we should know about?" the nurse asks as she lays out her instruments on a sterile tray.
"My shortness of breath is much better," Mom says. "Of course, I still have a lot of neuropathy [referring to numbness in her hands and feet], but big deal." And so forth and so on, until the nurse leaves. As the two of us wait for the nurse to return, Mom begins to explain what is happening: "You know, in chemo, your white blood cells, and your red cells, too, can really take a nose dive, which is bad, because then you don't have any resistance to infection, so you've really got to watch it."
The hospital is over air-conditioned, and I wish I'd brought a sweater.
"The chemo can really do a number on the lining of your stomach. That's why you get so nauseous."
"They throw every weapon they can at you, but after a while, the weapons stop working."
Footsteps in the hallway, and from far away, the sound of an elevator dinging.
A FEW DAYS LATER, my father has to go to Boston on business, and I am left in charge of my mother's care, which shouldn't be a problem, as she's continuing to do well. Things are going so smoothly, in fact, that by late afternoon -- the time when Mom typically helps herself to a glass of bourbon (having long contended that "bourbon is keeping me alive") -- she is sitting outside on the deck and playing a rousing game of Clue with my kids. She's really getting into it, too. From the kitchen, where I'm making dinner, I hear her saying: "Take that, Jonathan!" and "Ha-ha! Got you again!" She's like a child that way -- fiercely competitive, mischievous, totally focused on the game. Apparently she's way ahead, thus eliciting groans from my children. I'm chopping tomatoes. The weather is just about perfect: blue sky, sun, birds singing in the pines. We're going to eat outside on the deck overlooking the sparkling blue lake, which at sunset is streaked with purple, pink and gold.
I look out at the four of them: my mother so bloated from medications that she's practically unrecognizable, but smiling and sun-tanned and obviously pleased with herself and with the world; my children grinning right back at her. And then, just like that, I decide I've had enough. I don't want to be angry with my mother anymore for what is, after all, a lie that I chose to perpetuate.
I push through the screen door, walk onto the deck, sit down next to my mother and say, "Mom, I have something to tell you."
Jonathan has the dumb smile on his face that he gets when he's caught doing something really bad; Rose is biting her lower lip; and Sam is saying, "No, Mom, no." As if on cue, the three of them are on their feet, ready to leave.
"It's okay, kids," I say. "All three of you. Stay. It's okay." Reluctantly, they return to their seats.
"What?" Mom asks.
"You're not going to like it."
"Not so bad."
Then I say that in December I underwent surgery for breast cancer, which was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. "I caught it early," I say. "I was one of the lucky ones."
My mother looks at me as if she's never seen me before, her expression a mixture of fear and love. "Oh my God," she says. Then: "I think I need another drink. And you better make it a double."
IT'S NOT UNTIL AFTER DINNER that I explain why we had kept this secret from her for so long. By this time, she's had a couple of hours to digest my news, and while she's hardly happy about it, she is, after all, a grown-up, and accepts my words for what they are: reality. We are sitting together in the small living room outside her bedroom, and she is in her nightgown. Outside, the loons are calling. "When you say you have news, you really have news," she says. "But you were right to keep it from me last spring. I was too sick. I just couldn't have handled it." She stops, fatigued from the shock, and from her own good spirits that have propelled her, these last few days, into high gear. "But you were also right to tell me now," she continues. "But I feel so stupid. Of all people, I should have known. No one looks like you look except for people whose hair is growing out from chemo."
She gets up heavily from the sofa, and I am by her side, helping to support her weight as she steps clumsily into her bedroom. She is leaning on me ever so slightly as she lowers herself onto the bed and gets under the covers. "Okay," she says as I bend over to kiss her goodnight. "Okay."
Jennifer Moses is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. Her mother, Carol Whitehill Moses, died at home in McLean in February.