My Mamy’s Left Hip
My sister Susan called with a tinge of anxiety in her voice, a few days before my mom’s August visit to my home in Berkeley. “Mom couldn’t get out of bed. Kaiser x-rayed her back, saw nothing; but concluded it was a pinched nerve. She got a cortisone shot. We have her in a wheelchair, as if things weren’t hard enough.”
Mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year ago and that situation, coupled with her depression since my father died five years earlier, meant every visit was full of uncertainty. I sighed deeply and tried to picture my feisty mom in a wheelchair.
“I bet she’s scared. If it’s a pinched nerve I can take her to Lori. A chiropractic adjustment is better than cortisone!” I had been going to see Lori for eleven years, having met her on my first soccer team when I moved to the Bay Area. I depended on her to realign me from the hazards of soccer games, car accidents, and child lifting.
Mom flew up from Los Angeles, feeling much better and refusing to use the wheelchair. Driving her in the morning to Lori’s office on San Pablo Avenue, we were quiet. My mind wanted to create a problem, and I kept repeating one of my father’s dichos: “There are no problems, only situations.” After we walked through the front door of the office building, my mom refused my arm for support when we reached the stairs. “Come on, Linda. ¡No soy niña!”
Lori ushered us both into the exam room and I helped Mom slowly lay down on the table. Lori had her move various parts of her body, watching for signs of pain, which my mother freely expressed with her usual “Ay, ay, ay.” Her voice was strong, throwing out chispas that sparked.
“It isn’t her back, it’s her left hip,” Lori said, “Did they take x-rays of her hips? They should have for a seventy–five year old woman. I won’t do anything without seeing an x-ray first. But here is some roll-on pain reliever she can use for topical soreness.”
I called Susan on my cell phone. She confirmed the x-rays were only of her back. Lori referred me to a local x-ray facility and we left Lori’s office. Walking to the stairs, I reached out and touched the dark, shiny leaves of the peace plants that lined the open-air hallway. When my father died, a friend had given me the same plant. A prolific grower, it had been divided many times in the ensuing five years.
I drove attentively to distract myself from the anxiety bubbling in my gut, and pulled into the parking lot of Alta Bates medical facility. My mother had already opened her door and slid her feet to the black asphalt. She was such a rascal. I calmly offered my hand, which she took reluctantly.
When they called her name, we left the claustrophobic blue waiting area and I helped her climb up on yet another table for the x-ray of her hip.
“What is thees for?”
“Your cadera. The pain.”
After the x-ray, we returned to my apartment and ate rice and carne, leftovers from the Peruvian restaurant where we ate the night before. My mom had told the waiter each time he came to our table how tough the meat was. I cringed in embarrassment. When I left a good tip, Mom had balked, trying to take some of the money back.
“Oh, Linda. That’s too much. The meat was tough.”
Regardless of her opinion of the meat quality, which I did not share, my mother was cheap when it came to tips. I usually surreptitiously added a few dollars when we went out and she paid. My dad had been the opposite, given his life as a waiter. He tipped very well. They did not change their distinct approach throughout their lives, nor did they influence each other in this area.
I eased her onto my bed. While Mom rested, I sat down at my computer to check email and wait. The phone rang just as my mom began to stir and I recognized Lori’s calm voice. The radiologist had called in a report.
“There is a dark area in her hipbone suggestive of a malignant tumor. He can fax the report to me and you can pick it up today. He advised a bone scan as soon as possible.” She switched her tone to friend and fellow soccer player. “I’m sorry, Linda.”
The tears streamed down my face and I licked one off the side of my mouth. I never wanted to pick up a phone again. Hanging up, I turned to watch Mom rustling around in my bed, trying to find a comfortable position. As I brewed a cup of manzanilla, I called Susan and our younger brother Eddy to explain the basic details – suggestive, tumor, bone scan. Que camello.
Susan and her husband Fred agreed to drive up to join us for my twins Gina and Teo’s 7th birthday party on Saturday, and drive back down to LA with Mom and me on Monday.
Saturday was sunny at Aquatic Park, and we hosted the usual big birthday pachanga as Mom sat in her wheelchair, a pout playing on her lips most of the day. We brought her youngest grandchild, Antonio, almost 2 years old, to her.
Throughout the day, the family anxiety was passed like a baton from Susan to Eddy to Fred to me by way of a look, a touch, an unspoken word. Kissing my kids good-bye at the end of the day, I promised to bring them an LA treat.
I woke up early and tense the Monday after the kids’ birthday party. Sitting on the floor in my living room, I leaned my head back on the sofa, closing my eyes and holding my coffee with both hands to soak in the warmth.
I jerked my head up and rose. Placing my mother’s coffee on the nightstand next to my father’s picture, I carefully pulled her up to a sitting position.
“Ay, ay, ay.” my Mom said.
Ay, ay, ay was right. It signaled the time for her medications had arrived and I made an effort to put one foot in front of the other as I headed towards my small bathroom. The floor iced my bare feet as I clasped the thin, nylon bag that held her pills. Zoloft for depression that had hounded her for five years, aricept for the Alzheimers she was diagnosed with just over one year ago and extra strength acetaminophen. The prescription said two every four hours for relief of back pain. I returned to find my mom, delicately perched, on the edge of the bed. Her eyes wandered around the room, taking in my small L-shaped bedroom.
“We have to get ready, Mom. They’ll be here soon to pick us up.”
Mom waved her hand as if to dismiss me.
“No te afanes. Why are you in such a rush? So what happened with your relationship?”
I paused and spun my CD to peruse possible answers, landing on an easy response.
“We didn’t get along.”
Her eyes crinkled in a sweet, conspiratorial way and her head tilted like the pajaritos on my bird feeder when they heard noise from inside the house.
“Oh come on, Linda. You can tell me.”
Handing her the four pills and water, I watched her hold them in hands that had been through thirty two more years of our mutually bad habits — pulling weeds with bare hands, washing dishes without gloves or enough soap, and rare manicures. I helped her pack last minute items in her well-traveled floral tapestry bag. Her brush went in, along with two pairs of knee-highs she had neatly folded into soft, square packets.
“¿Lo quieres?” I asked, holding out her black wool bufanda. She nodded and I placed it around her neck. She was shorter than before. Her frailness was accentuated by the weight loss of recent months. On my way to the bathroom, I gazed at a picture hanging on my wall of her holding my twins when they were babies.
Her face was full six short years ago, the prominent cheekbones we shared, more hidden. Her eyes were full of mirth behind those fashionably large glasses some older women preferred. Even her hair was stronger in tone, a vibrant brown that fell comfortably around her head. I did not look carefully at my mom before my father died, just felt her essence like one does those that are so much a part of our lives. Now I was hyper-aware of every halting movement, every chin hair that sprouted, every stained blouse I cut up for the rag pile when she wasn’t looking.
“¡Maldita sea!” Mom cried.
The doorbell rang and I ran to open it. Susan and Fred stepped in and I hurried back to Mamy. She was in the bedroom on her knees, her head at an angle down under the bed.
“Mis gafas. I can’t find them!”
I scooched down with her and spied her glasses. They must have fallen after she finished with the morning paper. I helped her up carefully until I felt her forearm against my side, the signal my help was not welcomed. Fred guided her gently into the back seat of the jeep, wedging a pillow under her hip. It was my responsibility to keep her calm as Fred veered around the semis, Winnebagos, family vans, and occasional tumbleweed. The I-5 was turning into a highway full of the wrong kind of anticipation.
Mom had a bone scan, and Susan and I met with the oncologist.
“Your mother’s original cancer from 11 years ago has returned and spread to her bones,” he said quietly.
My chest tightened and tears formed in my eyes. I didn’t dare look at Susan, instead pressing my lips together and looking at the scan.
“You can see the many bright spots on the image, including her ribs, spine, and hips”, he paused and then continued, “My suggestion, given her age, is to focus on pain management and quality of life. Radiation and chemotherapy have a minimal chance of success.”
Susan and I looked at each, no denial left in us, and sat back in our seats.
“I remember her first diagnosis”, I said, “it was so early she needed only six weeks of radiation, not even a lumpectomy.” The bullet we dodged in 1990 had ricocheted around the universe and lodged itself in her left hip.
“How long?” I asked.
“I’d say two years” the doctor said, “but you can’t really know.” He looked down at his notes as if there was nothing more to say.
Susan nodded I felt my own head doing the same thing. Two years would put us at August 2003. My kids would be turning eight. We thanked the doctor and walked quietly out to her car. Driving home in coping mode, we talked through who to tell and when. Arriving at my mom’s, we hugged quickly and she drove home while I wandered out to the backyard to find some semblance of balance before knocking on Mom’s bedroom door.
My parents were like their two aguacate trees, surviving heat and squirrels and bad pruning jobs, their large shiny leaves and two kinds of avocados finding their way to our salads year after year. My father exercised, shifting from soccer to racquetball to golf, and he retired as soon as he reached sixty-five. My mom ate her home grown orange a day, attended art classes at the Senior Center, and exercised in her nearby gym. I went with her once — she flitted from machine to machine like a Costa colibri who goes from flower to flower, barely doing five or six reps before moving on. It was just an excuse for moving, for zipping around town with her personalized license plate that read ‘CHAVA’, a nickname her Colombian friends called her.
My parents had not lived near toxic dumps or picked strawberries for hours in the unrelenting heat like many immigrants. Lard, which was common in many typical Mexican recipes my mother learned to cook for her Mexican husband, was not a kitchen item and desserts were few and far between. They traveled to their two homelands and to Europe, Asia, and Alaska. Their children had college degrees and supported themselves and their families. There were no midnight calls from a bar or jail. Although we may have frustrated them with our choices of spouses and jobs, we almost never missed holidays together.
Even though our family meals and conversations at the dinner table were not often playful or engaging, we did not eat in front of the TV, and heated up tortillas every night no matter what was on the menu. We had gone to Disneyland almost every year, and eaten perfectly ripe apricots, peaches, oranges, and plums off of our own trees, dark, juicy blackberries off our brambles way before the word organic appeared on labels. Our upset stomachs were treated with yerba buena picked by Mom from her garden and boiled in a small stainless steel cazuela. My dad had been dead five years now and his vieja would be joining him sooner than we had imagined.
I don’t remember telling Mom about the cancer, but I must have. That moment is stored in my mind’s invisible room that holds a number of unpleasant memories. I do remember that her seventy-sixth birthday occurred three days after the diagnosis. We had doggedly moved forward with party plans and invited her long-time Colombian family friends, telling them beforehand of the diagnosis. Mom remained holed up in her room, refusing to leave her bed.
“Leave me alone! There is noteen to celebrate. Tell everyone to go hon. I want to die.”
A few brave souls knocked on the door, whispered her name, and entered timidly. She received them like a Leo, una leona with a big thorn in her hip. No one in my family liked being humored. We preferred to take it right on the chin. Each of us had our own brand of denial but we hated it from others.
“I can’t believe it. First Rosendo and now Chava,” said Gloria, who had known my parents the longest. “Que barbaridad.”
She shook her head as she cut the cake into perfect squares and handed me a slice, even though I shook my head. “Coma, mi cielo. You’ll feel better.”
Susan kept busy brewing coffee and making sure everyone had a drink.
“Sientate, Susanita.” Enrique, Gloria’s husband, motioned my sister to a chair. She relented and slid into a chair next to Fred, and her husband’s strong fingertips rubbed her back. I sank into the circle of comfort and love my mom refused.
Looking out at their yard, I recall my dad only exposed his vulnerability once, when he gave me his signed health care directive. He was counting on me to let him go with dignity. I didn’t listen then, but now another letting go was before me and I was better prepared to undertake this journey.
Mom was a muddle of heartache now, and the man she had tied her wagon to was gone; abandoning their carefully crafted compromises and emotional debt repayment plan. Because I didn’t know the depth and details of their agreements, I viewed her as the one abandoning her life and us by default. We were never a big part of her inner buoy. It seemed she had a duty to fulfill and she was fixated on fulfilling her objective as best she could.
I heard my mom crying those ragged-edged sobs from when my dad died. Gloria hurried
into her room to offer solace. I pulled down my sleeves from doing dishes and followed her into