I have the bucket ready. Like a newborn crumbled into a car seat, my mother in law Hilda sits next to me. Shoulders rolled over, head hung, hands in mine. The color has faded from her face, to the oncologist’s office we go. Her small smooth hands hold onto the ends of my fingers; she is rubbing them, circling the ends, smoothing out the ever rough edges. She is concentrating and breathing and trying with her entire being not to be sick. Instantly I think of Lamaze, of breathing and childbirth and working through it letting go. Hilda the soft-spoken introverted polite English girl, even racked with the pain of bone cancer, she is still quiet, still maintains decorum. The doctor has promised morphine on our arrival at the office we just need to get there. All the answers will be there, the pain medicines, and then we can plan. I need a plan. I don’t know what I am doing.
I hold the basin tissues at hand, busy trying not to look, not to feel, not to let her know how scared I am I don’t know if I can do this. What is this? Exactly? It’s simple things I find out, she drools after being sick, I wipe her mouth. I pull her hair away from her face, and tell her it is alright. I realize part of the job will be to help her maintain her dignity, I want to make sure she is not embarrassed, not shamed, this small bird like kind woman. This woman who asked permisson to make toast every time she came to my house every time she visited even after I had been married to her son for more than a quarter century. I just start talking…its what I do…
“That’s it “, I hear myself say, ” it’s better out than in,”
“Feel any better?”
“ I’ve got it, it’s ok,”
“ It’s hard work, I know.”
I hear a small whimper, like sighs of a sick child in the middle of a dark night when small noises spoken in fever wake mothers and fathers world around. She leans into me. And in this moment I know that this I can do. I need not be a supermodel size, have beautiful hands, gain law school entry for this. I can help, can ease, can comfort her, I can clean the bucket, wipe her face, brush her hair, and hold her hand.
We arrive at the oncologist office. The bucket needs to be emptied. Hilda still holds my hand, and gasping asks,
” Can I wait out here?” I can’t look right at her, I’m not brave enough, with head down I say, “whatever you want.”
I glance at my husband’s eyes in the rear view mirror. It’s this moment I take control, wasn’t planned,
but no one said anything,
no one moved,
so I said,
“ You guys go in, and we will wait out here until her name is called.”
They leave and we are alone.
I look at her, eyes closed, breath almost in a pant, and I know she doesn’t want to get out of the car.
“Hilda, what do you want to do?” She opened her eyes and says, ” I don’t want to have the test, and I don’t want chemo.” The test means the colonoscopy.
“ You’re the boss.”
She relaxes and then breathes a few deeper breaths. I dump the bucket in the grass, and leave the car door open, letting in some sunshine and fresh air. The landscapers are there blowing leaves, as they start to get close I give them a look that naughty children throughout the world know, that look coupled with a hand on the hip is mother code for trouble awaits, stay clear. We both have a chance to catch our breath, sitting in the sun. Maybe it was the moment I realized she needed help, not just physical help, but help with how she was going to depart the planet, I don’t know, it wasn’t really a switch of a moment it was more of a gradual climb, like a good strong leg working hike, and then suddenly you find yourself atop a mountain looking down on how far you had come. It was like that. It wasn’t very long after we went inside her name had been called.
The office was dingy and small. There was an alcove off the waiting room that you could see when they escorted you to the exam room, no real door, about the size it seemed, of a smallish bedroom, maybe 8×8. Each wall was lined with chairs, they looked like smallish dentist chairs, and in each chair was a person, and in each person there were tubes, great, group chemo in a dingy space, with loud obnoxious daytime TV blaring over head. Wonderful. I gather a smile, and say a prayer, please please please never for me or my beloved family or friends or anyone I know, or anyone period. All four of us cram into the tiny exam room. Hilda is sick again, I tend, empty bucket, rinse and return to the room. It’s a while before the doctor enters. The news is brief and clear. The cancer has spread, metastasized, didn’t start in the bone but it’s there now, there and everywhere; don’t know where it started…no chemo, hospice prescribed.
We gather ourselves for the trip home, get the prescriptions and it’s not until Hilda is sick in the car on the return trip that I realize she wasn’t given any pain meds, no promised morphine. Red faced angry, at everything and nothing, I make a promise, never again. Nothing is going to slip past me again. I look at my husband who is driving, our eyes lock again in the rear view mirror, and we don’t even have to say it. Griffith has Parkinson’s and Hilda has been his care giver. I traveled here to Florida to facilitate their move to Texas. We know that Hilda will not make this journey she has another scheduled. At the same time, phone calls checking in on them or their care was just not going to cut it. She deserves better. In an instant I know I am staying, to see this through, to help her on this final destination that we all will have some day. I will stay.