I sit across the hall from my mother-in-law, Virginia,
who is emitting 13.9 millirems of radiation. I have to
shout when I speak with her because of the metal barrier
that separates us. Garbage litters her hospital room
where she has remained in isolation for the past 14 days, as
nothing and no one can pass within 10 feet of her without
becoming contaminated. The high level of radiation
within her body could poison me. The very germs upon
my palms could poison her. We are a threat to each
other for the first time.
For over three years, Virginia has battled an aggressive
form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She has already
undergone chemotherapy, lost her hair and grown it back
countless times, endured spinal taps and bone marrow
transplants, and railed against the bureaucracy of everyone
from the FDA to Congress to receive her current treatment.
A note in her chart reads, “A 76-year-old female with the
constitution of a much younger woman.” This is an
understatement. My mother-in-law is a force of nature
who now is entirely at its whim. She is also my
friend—an incongruous role in a society where the
mother-in-law is usually cast as lead villain.
Behind the metal divide, tiny nuclear bombs of a new
experimental drug have detonated inside her, killing the
cancer cells; the massive round of chemotherapy she’s
received on this protocol has killed nearly everything else.
Days from now, she will have few white blood cells left.
At this weakest point, when her body has sacrificed all its
reinforcements, she will receive her stem cells and they
will grow new cells—or they won’t.
The family liaison tells me that the day patients receive
their stem cells is dubbed their “new birthday,” and one
often sees balloons or party hats amongst the pale skin and
bald heads. No flowers, of course. My
mother-in-law—this quintessential New Englander—will be
unable to touch dirt for one year. Her beloved garden
will have to wait for her until next summer.
I return home later that day to the Pete Gross House, or
the Cancer Casa, as we have irreverently dubbed it. A
residence apartment in downtown Seattle, it houses
transplant patients and their families and is near the Fred
Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, or the “Hutch.” The Hutch
is another word in the barrage of cancer lingo I am slowly
absorbing. I am a “caregiver,” a person who can drive
my mother-in-law to and from the “Hutch”: a person who can
change the dressing around her “Hickman,” an intravenous
catheter used for the administration of “chemo” and other
“meds,” and from where her daily “draw” of blood is taken, a
person who makes sure that everything this cancer “victim”
touches, from her bathroom vanity to a drinking glass,
remains as sterile as possible.
As a caregiver, I am also responsible to provide comfort
and companionship. For this, there is no lingo.
The Cancer Casa is sterile, yet homey. I walk down
the fourth floor corridor back to our room, feeling the
unevenness of new places. This could be any hotel room I’ve
visited—the non-descript carpeting, the beige walls.
Except almost every door I see bears a personal collage of
photographs. They hang there, smiles frozen, reminders
of healthier times—encouragement during the frequent comings
and goings of the patients and the visitors. I’m
uncomfortable looking at them.
At the end of the week, Virginia is allowed to return to
the Pete Gross House. Fiercely independent, she
bristles against my help, but her body demands it. She
cannot stand on her own; her legs are useless. I reach
around her, hoisting her up from her bed to the bathroom,
laughing with her that she makes a crummy dance partner.
She snorts and sings a tune. I remember years ago,
while waiting for a subway late one night, she jumped up and
began tap dancing. She swirled along the tiles,
chuckling at her improvised soft shoe. I joined her,
singing something from Cole Porter. We finally
collapsed on a bench in gales of laughter after receiving
rousing applause from several men disembarking a car.
The following days are spent in near catastrophes as we
drive back and forth from the Cancer Casa to the Hutch.
Looking like circus clowns, myself a mere 5’3”, I strain to
extricate this 5’9” grandmother from a Ford Focus. I
can feel the rebellion in Virginia’s flesh as I try to lift
her, try to hold on to her as she fights to hold on to her
vitality, her control. I need to help her, and I take
heart in the fact that I can help; but I swallow down fear
every time my arms fold about her. My love for this
woman is so strong; I cannot falter, I cannot slip. I
cannot let my mind envision a life without her. If I
stop fighting, if I stop laughing, I will give into
this—this dark pull that lurks in the corners of these
antiseptic corridors and on the lips of people on cell
phones wiping tears from their eyes.
Another day passes. I return from the hospital,
having left my mother-in-law behind for transfusions.
The fourth floor is empty. I reach our apartment and
glance behind me. The photo of a small girl with a
blue crocheted cap is taped to the door opposite ours.
I stare at her. Her large kindergarten head rests upon
an unknown shoulder; the owner has been cut away by the
popsicle frame. A photo of a Papillion with an
elaborate name is hung below what appears to be family
members sitting at a kitchen table. They smile for the
camera. It is an old photo. I feel both voyeur
and mourner at that moment. Is the young girl the
patient? Is one of these others the patient? I
cannot tell. I think of my son and daughter back in
San Francisco. I could not do this if they lived
behind that door.
I turn back into our room and bolt the lock tight behind me,
realizing for the first time that there are no photos on our
On the last day of my stay, my mother-in-law is
readmitted to the hospital to receive her six million stem
cells, cells housed in plastic, salmon-colored baggies
that look like frozen food and smell like rancid garlic.
Surrounded by balloons and cards, we sing and laugh as they
sloop their way through her Hickman. In a few hours,
they will find their way to her bone marrow and begin their
I will be leaving soon; my sister-in-law will replace me in
a few hours, another caregiver in our family’s round-robin
of cancer care. Our good-bye is difficult. Both
mothers, we are fighting to maintain a positive outlook.
Everything will be fine. We will be together in Maine
this summer and sit on her deck and eat Tony’s donuts with
our morning coffee and watch the kids run around the back
yard. Yet I pause in the doorway, gripped by fear.
Like a child, I want to run to her and kiss her; something I
know is verboten. I have been washing my hands like
some modern day Lady Macbeth since I got here. The thought
of the plethora of germs one kiss could impart is
staggering. I can move neither forward nor backward.
“I love you,” I say to her. “You know that?” Her answer is
soft; her voice struggles to hold on to itself. “Yes.”
I force myself forward to the elevator and headlong into
the rental car. A forgotten item at the Pete Gross
House causes me to detour off of the highway on my way to
the airport. I lock the door of our apartment one last
time. I will not be coming back. My
mother-in-law has been given one bite of the apple—no more.
Standing there in the empty hallway, keys in hand, the
feeling of abdicating control haunts me. Who will
manage her Sisyphean load of pills? Who will make sure
she doesn’t fall? I have become comfortable in an
uncomfortable world and suddenly find myself desperate to
The door of the apartment behind me opens. I
freeze. A singular sound stands there, waiting,
adjusting the photos on the door. Man, woman, child, I
know not. They disappear toward the elevator with the
sound of their footsteps. Finally, I lift my head,
guilty for it. I should have introduced myself.
I should have wished them success. I should have gazed
upon their face with hope.
But I can hold only one hope in my heart. To take
on more would require more than I have to give. I will
hope for my mother-in-law. I will tack that hope among
thousands of others—the scenes of our life together, the
countless snapshots of my love for this woman that lie
within my heart alone.
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