The fall of 1975 was a time of beginnings and endings. It was the first day of my last year in middle school. It was a time of trendier clothes and turning the corner on childhood. In preparation my mother took me to a local hair salon for an official grown-up haircut, another of the rare occasions when just the two of us were together. I got a fashionable Farah Fawcett-style cut with wings on either side of my face that didn’t look great. The wings were sprung too tightly on account of my thick curly hair, but I didn’t care. I felt like a movie star. At the salon my mother showed me how to deliver a cash tip into the stylist’s hand after paying up at the counter; my first glimpse of the mysterious social transactions of adulthood.Earlier my father had driven my brother Bill to college. Bill remembers that my mother was doing well at that time, despite the fact that her cancer treatment had reached a more serious phase. In the late summer she had started some type of radiation therapy—my father remembers it as “phosphorus 15, ” although I can only find a “phosphorus 32” on the internet, and my sister Ellen remembers it as cobalt therapy. Whichever version, my mother soon began experiencing unpleasant side effects. The treatments coincided with her job as the nurse for the local summer school program. Ellen remembers arriving at the school nurse’s office one afternoon and noticing that our mother had a spare pair of clean underwear in her purse. She asked what it was for. In a candid moment our mother explained that her back was being irradiated for a recently diagnosed pelvic tumor and that the radiation caused acute episodes of diarrhea; fortunately, the nurse’s office had a private bathroom.
Ellen doesn’t remember our mother going to treatments themselves, most likely because she continued to find ways to hide her illness from us. However, Bill was present for at least one treatment. One afternoon in August he was out running long-distance along a quiet road that gradually ascended past an apple orchard not far from our house. My mother must have been familiar with Bill’s running route, or perhaps she found him by chance. As Bill ran along the steadily sloping road she suddenly pulled up alongside him in the gray Dodge station wagon and told him he had to take her to the hospital. Bill immediately stopped and took over the driver’s seat in his running gear. As they drove on she told him that the appointment was for radiation treatment, but she didn’t tell him any details about the sudden request. He wasn’t about to ask, either. That’s all he remembers from the incident. We will never know the circumstances. Had her ride to the hospital backed out last-minute? Or had she planned to drive herself to the appointment but then felt incapacitated in some way? I hate to think of her going through the treatments on her own, and am glad my brother was there to help at least once.
From these incidents it is clear that Bill and Ellen knew about my mother’s cancer by late summer 1975. I was about to find out, too. One September evening after dinner Ellen asked me to go for a walk with her around our neighborhood, an unusual request from my glamorous 11th-grade sister who, like any teenager, rarely made time for a younger sister, particularly one with a failing Farah Fawcett hairstyle. I jumped at the chance. By the time we went out it was dark. None of our neighbors was out, not even the regular dog walkers. We had the entire solemn street to ourselves. As we rounded a cul-de-sac we had played kickball on as kids, Ellen told me that our mother had cancer.
“Okay, “ I said slowly, not really sure of the significance of the diagnosis.
“She could die,” said Ellen.
I wish I could say that this was one of those black-and-white moments where my perception of the world instantly changed. But that’s not what happened. At age thirteen I had no real sense of what a cancer diagnosis entailed, and even if I had, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. My mother was the Unsinkable Mollie Wraga, after all. I didn’t put any stock in Ellen’s words. I didn’t take them in. They lay suspended in the evening air, frozen in place at the cul-de-sac. I could move away from them just as naturally as I had left behind the childhood pleasures of kickball. Our lives would not be touched. And so Ellen and I walked on, and the discussion turned to the perennial topic of Boys.
As days passed the radiation treatment failed. Unthwarted, the cancer continued its relentless march through my mother’s body. She could no longer hide her discomfort from us. The pain would come on without warning. During a back-to-school shopping trip to the Paramus Park shopping mall with my younger sister Suzanne and me, she suddenly found it difficult to continue walking. Suzanne and I had to physically support her between us. The three of us hobbled back to the car amidst concerned looks from passersby, but somehow we made it home intact. During this time our mother continued to attend the sports events and other activities of the four of us still in school, even though at times she was in too much pain to leave the car. She would drive us to the event, park the car, and lie in the back seat until the event was over. When we returned, she would ask for an account how things had gone before slowly maneuvering herself back into the driver’s seat and taking us home. Writing this now, I am deeply moved by her determination to be present in our lives at the cost of her own growing discomfort. Being there meant a lot to her: it was only in the previous spring that she had received an award from Bill’s track team for perfect attendance at home and away meets. I can only imagine the frustration and concern she must have felt from her illness.
Within weeks the pain spells became so severe that, when driving, my mother sometimes had to pull the car over to the side of the road for fear of causing an accident. I remember one such incident on the same road with the apple orchard where my mother had stopped Bill’s run. We were coming from the opposite direction this time, heading home from one of my regular orthodontist checkups. She suddenly pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and slumped over the steering wheel for several minutes, gasping in pain. My other brother, Martin, or Suzanne was in the car with us, I forget which. We sat still in embarrassed silence until our mother gained enough composure to drive again. The increased occurrence of these spells underscored a growing terror in me that something was badly wrong, but I somehow failed to connect it to what Ellen had told me earlier. Perhaps I didn’t want to know. I was more focused on enjoying the benefits of being a teenager, such as tying up the phone for hours. My denial was reinforced by the fact that both parents continued to remain mum on the severity of my mother’s illness, and no medical professionals were invited in to explain to us what was going on. Within another month, however, she had ceased driving altogether. For a short time Suzanne and I got rides to and from middle school from friends and neighbors. We sometimes even walked the 1.3–mile distance home together. Eventually my parents signed us up for the bus. Standing at the end of an adjacent street with the other “Bus People” (as we had haughtily dubbed them from the comfort of our car when my mother still could drive) became our new normal.
Bill’s recollection of her worsening condition matches this timeline of events. He remembers returning home one week after leaving for college and seeing that my mother’s conditioned had begun to worsen. Some time in early October I brought a cold home from school. In her compromised state, my mother caught it. “The worst cold in the world” is how I remember someone described it to me; it was a particularly nasty strain. She remained in bed for at least one week, maybe more. Ellen, Martin, and I took turns staying home from school (Suzanne was deemed too young) a day at a time to take care of her — bringing her food, helping her to the bathroom, and providing a constant supply of ice chips for her swollen throat. I remember feeling intense guilt for bringing home a cold that contributed to her worsening condition.
On the day of my shift I was replenishing the supply of ice chips to her bedside table, when she suddenly leaned over.
“I love you,” she whispered hoarsely.
Being thirteen, I was too embarrassed to respond to such an overt emotional proclamation, especially from my mother. I blushed, pulled back a little from the bedside table, and looked away. Instead of being angry or hurt by my lukewarm reaction, she responded with a gentle laugh and knowing look and did not press the matter.
I have often wondered why my mother chose that moment to express her feelings. Perhaps she was beginning to realize the true scope of her illness. Fighting the acute bouts of pain in her lower back had been one thing; dealing with the side effects of radiation another. Perhaps the additional cold symptoms, which played havoc with her respiratory health, brought the realization that in the long run she might not be able to recover fully. Perhaps none of these things were true, and she was simply responding to a daughter’s simple act. In any case, it is one of the last memories I have of a private conversation with her.
She eventually won the battle with the cold. By Thanksgiving, her health was on an upswing—not exactly remission, but a temporary improvement. Bill returned from college again. The extended family, including my maternal grandmother, was invited to our house for the holiday. Ellen remembers one last deception designed to provide comfort to our guests, especially our maternal grandmother. To appear healthy, our mother “staged” a domestic tableau by propping herself on of the stools around our kitchen counter and peeling potatoes as guests entered the house. They were thus greeted with the illusion of the vibrant hostess hard at work preparing a festive meal. The trick worked at Thanksgiving, but it didn’t last. By Christmas our mother would not be able to get out of bed without help.