Matthew deposits me at the end of my endless and impassable driveway after West Side Story rehearsal. I’m stoned—we made a brief pit-stop on a half-plowed back road to smoke up a roach I discovered in the back pocket of my jeans—so the quarter-mile trudge to the cabin is not unpleasant, the stars icy and crystalline, the lopsided moon reflecting blue off the shin-deep snow. That my boots are full of snow and my fingers are numb in my mismatched handknit mittens are issues observed from a distance, like they are happening to someone else’s body.
My sister and brother are setting the table when I tromp in to drop my wet coat and boots in a pile by the door and hug up to the cookstove to thaw. Plates slung by a little sister full of righteous teenage irritation that rehearsal got me out of pre-dinner duties are straightened by Nik, a little brother who likes things just so. Wendy expresses further outrage by smacking a glass down in front of me as I settle into my chair, milk slopping over the rim. I am untroubled. In my head, I am five slim flips of the calendar from a life at the other end of the driveway where there are no cranky little sisters, just fellow creatives—actors and musicians and writers.
I’m hungry and food smells good.
Twenty minutes later my plate is full but out of reach, and my father is chasing my mother around the kitchen table with a dish of adzuki beans and brown rice, one bite balanced on a fork he wields like a weapon. “Diane,” he says, “just eat it. It’ll be okay. It’s not fucking forever, Diane. Just eat it.” He is breathless, but reasonable.
My father cooks in the evenings now, measuring rice and beans out of co-op paper bags into battered cast iron pots. This is not his normal behavior. Usually, he’s well on his way to incoherent by six, passed out by eight. Morning is Dad’s best time of day, the pale hours before he begins his strict daily vodka regimen, up with the sun to light the cookstove and warm the house for later risers. Breakfast foods comprise the bulk of his culinary repertoire—crepes, bacon, eggs, pancakes, French toast, doughnuts from scratch set next to our sleeping faces so our dreams right before awakening are rich and sweet.
My mother is sick. I have no idea how this happened. Vague recollections of an autumnal exhaustion that kept her in bed past her normal just-post-crack-of-dawn rising time, and shoved her back under the blankets as the sun went down coincided with the complex combination of relief and anxiety that accompanied a decline in “requests” to “help” with various home improvement projects, even her favorite activity of shifting the piano from one side of the house to the other. Her meticulous garden went feral, weedy and wild. Tomatoes fell unpicked and squash blossoms and bean plants fed the rabbits and deer. There may have been doctors’ appointments, and murmur-y phone calls made with the cord stretched up the stairs to her room.
I saw but didn’t want to see, I suppose, wrapped up in my own worries of play auditions and vocal competitions, and internal debates as to whether or not I would sleep with my boyfriend’s best friend since my boyfriend went off to art school and left me with no one to sleep with.
She was tired. People got tired.
In the beginning of January, when going to the outhouse meant suiting up for the Arctic and Mom going to bed as the sun went down translated to six in the evening, a doctor, Mom’s doctor, called to ask if his office had let her know that the tumor he biopsied back in November was indeed malignant, that cancer had set up housekeeping in her ovaries. He apologized when she said, no, no one called her—while preparing for his yearly tropical escape from winter the malfunctioning lump of cells in her body had just slipped his mind. A month had passed, and this cancer grew quickly. She might want to come in, he said, right away.
“Fuck you,” she said, instead. “You’re fired.”
Even as the fifth most common type of cancer in women, no professional medical association suggests regular screenings for ovarian cancer—only to be expected since there are no reliable ovarian cancer tests. Early symptoms are mild and vague, attributable to any number of minor female bodily dysfunctions: cramps, bloating, urinary urges, missed periods, heavy periods, constipation, fatigue. Things that inflict normal women under stress. This means the cancer often goes undetected until it has left its cozy homeland in the ovaries and begun little cancerous settlements elsewhere in the reproductive system (Stage III), or elsewhere in the body (Stage IV).
I tell myself the fact that I didn’t see anything wrong isn’t a failure on my part, though I am always watching for things to go wrong. The doctor had to poke around inside her body to find her sickness. I just saw what I always saw. My mother tired. My mother stressed. My mother anxious. I couldn’t poke around inside.
“Diane, eat it,” my father says again.
Dad went to Kushi because it’s what my mother wanted. Her request. Her demand. “Bob,” she said, “I am not going to be fucking sick and have to cook this shit for myself.” So he went. Drunk Daddy is good in a crisis. It’s his superpower: to stop being a drunken, philandering ass when the world comes apart. He loves her. Carries her up the stairs to their bed when she is too tired to walk. Wraps her surgery wound in cloth and plastic and duct tape and washes her hair and skin, gently, in buckets of warm water. Stays home at night, every night. I hear his voice through the bedroom wall, punctuating the muffled sounds of her crying. He learns to cook her magical food, stands over the stove stirring his pots of rice and beans. He loves her and we, my sister and brother and I, are shut out of this love and I am lost without something to do, without my job of protecting her from him.
Mom is adamant. She will not eat. “You’re trying to kill me! This isn’t fucking food. Just let me die.” She runs awkwardly, bumping the corners of the kitchen table under which my siblings and I find temporary shelter, diving for our table-y den when the first plate goes frisbee-ing through the air to shatter against the log wall. Each knock of her bony hip rattles the glasses and plates above our heads. She sweeps her hand across the surface, sending silverware clattering down and we cringe back from bouncing forks and knives. Something—a pot, a pan—caroms off the low ceiling and ricochets into the half-dark around the edges of the kitchen, outside the small ring of light spreading from the brown-shaded lamp hanging above the table. We get small. Our superpower: to become invisible when things spin out of control, when pots, pans, glasses, plates, knives fly from one side of the room to the other. Rice and beans scatter everywhere, under the stove and the table, slipping into the cracks between the floorboards. Some far-away part of my brain resents the hours I will spend on my hands and knees with the Shop-Vac cleaning it all up, but at the moment I have my brother curled in my lap and my sister under my arm and we are doing our best to be mice until the storm passes. A plate lands hard and my brother’s blonde hair is speckled with bits of brown and white.
I am no longer hungry.
The new doctors hoped to get all the cancer in one shot, one big hollowing out of my mother’s abdomen. She agreed to surgery, but that was all she wanted from them. No chemotherapy, no radiation. After they sliced her open, scooped her out and sewed her up, she made an appointment with Hal Wong-Ken, osteopath/holistic healer/mad shaman.
Hal emigrated to Maine (via England via Massachusetts via Illinois) from Jamaica, though he’s not Jamaican, but Indian-Chinese like someone out of a Tom Waits song. Immensely fat and constantly puffing on a big Cuban stogie, he blows vile-smelling smoke in Mom’s face and says “Do as I say, not as I do.” At every appointment he grasps her head in his big brown hands and peers into her eyes to see, he says, how far she is from death. The white-yellow space between the iris and the lower lid is the indicator—the wider the space, the closer to death. A dying person’s eyes are simply in-process, on the way to the permanent eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head of the dead.
When she tells me this, my eyes roll back, too—a momentary brush with death. But I roll my eyes at all the doctors and their “cures.” Rice and beans? Poison? Radiation? Every option is hocus-pocus. She chooses whatever magic makes sense to her.
He says she’ll live, even without the chemo, if she does as she’s told—does as he tells her. His wife, who we refer to as The Dragon Lady for her formidable Asian demeanor, gives my parents pamphlets and mimeographed sheets of colored paper: “The Kushi School,” “Cancer and Macrobiotics,” “Creating Balance the Macrobiotic Way,” “Healing the Whole Body,” and schedules bi-weekly appointments for Hal to blow cigar smoke at my mother while checking the color of her skin and the whites of her eyes. The Dragon Lady is stern: “Don’t miss appointments or we’ll drop you. We don’t have time to take care of people who won’t take care of themselves.”
Adzuki beans and brown rice and bancha, a tea brewed from dry brown sticks, form the foundation of my mother’s macrobiotic diet, cooked by my father using the very specific method he learned at The American Kushi School, founded by Dr. Hal Wong-Ken, a satellite of the Japanese Kushi School, founded by Dr. Michio Kushi. According to the teachings of Kushi, as outlined in our mimeographed sheets, my mother must change her body from an acid environment, where cancer loves to grow, to an alkaline environment, where cancer dies a hideous death. This is what macrobiotics does.
What I see is this: she is starving—4’10” and 80 pounds.
It occurs to me that my father is indeed trying to starve her to death, to hasten the inevitable ending that my mother won’t accept. I wonder if he believes that a steady diet of red beans and brown rice and brewed sticks is really going to save her, or if he is just going through the expected spousal motions in the face of my mother’s refusal to do what the regular doctors insist she must do to survive. “Your survival sucks,” she says to those doctors, when she goes in for her post-surgical check-ups. “I might as well be dead. I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” They insist Hal is killing her, they insist she is killing herself. They say she’ll be dead in six months. My father makes rice and beans, brews tea from sticks, and chases my mother around the table.
There are moments when what I believe my father might be thinking, what my mother is sure my father is thinking, makes sense to me. Sometimes when you love someone you have to make the hard choices, decisions you don’t like. Tell lies and make up stories. Make-believe. I wonder if my mother is making believe, too. My mother’s superpower: pretending. Pretending she doesn’t hear people talking about my dad, the town drunk, pretending she doesn’t know he’s constantly fucking around. Pretending she is going to get well. Pretending everything is just fine.
The battle over our heads continues, though my parents’ feet trace a perceptibly slowing circumference. Mom stops yelling; Dad, cajoling. This could be good, or it could be the eye of the hurricane—there is no way of knowing. My brother curls deeper into the curve of my body, trying to vanish into me. My sister leans her head against his, eyes tightly closed. I don’t know what they are thinking, but I know I am the only solid thing in their lives today. Most days.
The primary augur for ovarian cancer is family history. As well, if a woman is over the age of forty, or has been diagnosed with a previous cancer, or is of Eastern European Jewish descent, her risk is higher. If she was a young mother (before thirty), or is or has been on the Pill, her risk is lower. My mother is thirty-eight, was a long-term Pill-taker, birthed three kids before she turned thirty, isn’t Jewish, never had cancer before now. But her mother (still alive) had cancer, ovarian cancer, and the not-Hal doctors say that is enough reason, genetics is all it takes. Hal Wong-Ken insists that stress made my mother sick, stress caused her body to turn acidic, to become a tiny, super-efficient cancer factory, and that family history only determined the type that came up in her personal cancer lottery. He says she has to find the primary causes of her stress and eliminate them. I think about my mother and my father and wonder that my mother’s pee and spit and tears don’t burn holes in everything they touch.
Suppertime. Silent, but for the clink of a utensil on a plate. My mother’s feet are now under the table with us, and Wendy and Nik let go of me to hold on to her like little kids hiding from lipstick-y elderly aunts at Thanksgiving. I slide out on my butt, through the rice and beans, through the broken glass and scattered silverware. Stand, brush myself off. “Where’s Dad?” I say, righting a chair and sitting down next to her, like I just arrived home from play rehearsal a moment before, like I just walked in the door.
“He went out to the shed to get the Shop-Vac.” She spoons rice and beans into her mouth, scraping the plate clean.
I get up and go to the counter to see if there is any more that might still be fit for eating. There is. I bring the pots to the table and empty them onto her plate. “You should eat more.” The teapot of stick tea is still full and miraculously unbroken on the back of the stove, a steamy warm brown egg in my hands. It feels good. The floor is drafty and my hands are a little numb. Glass crunches under my feet as I dig two cups out of the kitchen sink, pour us both tea, set it on the table. “You should drink this, too. Hal says at least eight cups a day.”
“It tastes like shit.”
“You’ll get used to it.” I sip without grimacing. “It’s not so bad.”
My dad comes in with the vacuum and I lift it out of his hands. “I’ll do it.” I poke my head under the table. “Dad’s gonna take you guys to the diner. Mom ate all the beans and rice.” Nik and Wendy scramble for coats and boots in anticipation of “real food,” and head off with Dad, down the driveway to our old truck, dug out and parked in a neighbor’s yard on the main road. I put down the Vac and get the broom and dustpan to corral the big chunks.
Mom sits with her head lowered. “Drink the tea, Mom,” I say. “You have to get better.”
I haven’t eaten. There is nothing for me to eat. I’m hungry.
June is a long way away.
Suzanne Cody holds and MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa. Recent projects include serving as co-editor of the ‘Seneca Review’ anthology ‘We Might as Well Call it the Lyric Essay,’ and producing a performance of selections from her collection of performance essays, ‘Love, Sex, Shoes.’ Additionally, Suzanne blogs about plants at mossymoss.com, and refuses to apologize for her obsession with writing BBC Sherlock fanfiction. She lives and writes in Iowa City, IA.