I wanted to post this on the fourteenth anniversary of my mother’s death, April 7. But I have hesitated. I wrote this as an exercise at a writing workshop I attended soon after Mom died; the scenes were still very fresh and visceral. It’s not an easy story to read, especially for anybody who knew and loved my mother, or for anybody who has watched a loved one succumb to cancer. I expressed a lot of frustration at the cancer in this story, and what it did to my gentle, generous, smart and conscientious mother. The story was originally published in the Spring 2004 Arabia Review, p. 74.
With that introduction I submit:
A Study in Cylinders
Mom tramps toward the lipstick display in the Bath and Beauty Shop, leaning on the counter for support. She selects a tiny fake silver canister, pops off the cover, scraping a clump of color against the lid. She twirls a maddening fuchsia open to the very end, the way I got scolded for doing when I was a little girl, when I could not understand the weakness of the stick. She pokes it in my direction. I duck my head backward to keep from being given a clown nose. I also fear the column of color will break off, its length incapable of defending its girth against gravity. I check to see if the salesgirl is watching. Luckily she’s talking on the phone.
Mom’s hand is shaking and I imagine the oily pink smear on the tile floor. Pink is supposed to be the color without an ugly side, but I don’t want to use up my last tissue wiping it off Mom’s tennis shoes. I take her arm, still surprised by how thin it has become. I speak low, so the salesgirl won’t hear me.
“I don’t want a lipstick here. You know we always get Estée Lauder.”
I was taught at a tender age to believe that Estée Lauder’s sheep fat is higher quality than any other sheep fat. Mom stops a minute and looks thoughtful, a look that in recent months I have come to dread.
“You’re right,” she says, and walks unsteadily around a table offering salt scrubs and sponges. “And why don’t we finish with a lipstick?”
I sigh. The candle, talcum powder, and room freshener spray are not enough.
“Fine. I’ll get a lipstick.” I stalk to the display and snatch the product on the farthest right end, a deep brown red that is meant for a complexion much darker than mine. I hold the tube up to her and shake it to show her I got a stupid lipstick.
She smiles and sets down the lipstick she was holding without swirling it closed. The lengthened raspberry cylinder rests on the salt scrub table, somehow not rolling off, and I rush to it. I pick up the tube, twist the cord of color back into its shell, snap on the lid, and push it back in place with its sisters in the “Rave Pink” line.
I gently steer Mom toward the register. The salesgirl begins to tally our purchases. I glance sideways at my mother. Her blue eyes maintain that disheartening Not-Mom look that returned several months after the radiation therapy brought her briefly back to us. I wish we were at home instead of here.
Mom begins to fidget. “Did I get a lipstick?”
I try a distraction ploy. “Where’s your checkbook? Why don’t you start writing the check?”
As she rummages through her purse, tattered tissues spill over to the counter. Three of her lipsticks land with a soft tortoiseshell crack on the floor. She seems oblivious to the mess of tissue shreds as well as my finger tapping on the counter. She has become increasingly slow but earlier in the day she uncharacteristically snapped at me when I suggested I pay. At the florist shop, I was horrified at the unreadable state of her check register. Chicken scratch had replaced her lovely cursive in the items space, amounts crossed out or written over previous entries, several numbers strung along a single line. I made a mental note to hide her checkbook at home.
“Did we get your sister anything?” She doesn’t look up from plundering her purse.
“You brought her in last week, remember? I think we’re in good shape.”
I have tried to use that last phrase to move Mom on today, but it can backfire. After retrieving her checkbook, she wanders back to the lipstick display and selects “Rave Pink” again.
The salesgirl adds it to the purchases and beams, “$61.55.”
Her checkbook splayed open, Mom labors over the date line. I lean toward her.
“It’s January 28.”
She nods and begins to scribble large curlicues to the side of the personal information at the top of the check. The salesgirl stares at my Mom’s scrawls, wrinkles her eyebrows, and looks at me. My eyes plead please please please just be patient and don’t ask any questions. My mother has been a good customer of this store, but the girl is new. I fish $65 out of my billfold and hold it to my side, away from Mom, so the salesgirl can see. She nods, curious. Mom finishes the check, tears it out, and hands it to the salesgirl. She looks straight at my mother, doesn’t examine the check at all. She places our purchases in a sack, and when Mom turns to leave, crumbles the check. I thrust the money on the counter and mouth, “Thanks.”
In the car, Mom wants me to try my lipstick. She swivels it up and hands it to me at the stop light. I make an O with my lips and tap it on. It’s ridiculously dark but now I’ve used it, scratched that diagonal surface of black-maroon, so it’s nonrefundable. I curl the receipt around her “Rave Pink” and drop the tube in my purse. She’ll never use it and maybe I can return it.
She wants to take me to shop for jeans next. I’m exhausted, and I can’t see how she can stand, five days after the second treatment of her final round of chemotherapy. I maneuver the car toward home, but after the last stop light, she remarks, “Oh, we need to find you some jeans.” So I turn the car around and head to the department store.
I don’t need jeans. I don’t want jeans. I have never liked to shop, am not good at it. I want to take care of my mother, but she wants to buy me things.
I try on a couple of pairs, too big in the waist, too tight in the thighs, as they have been since puberty hit me. When I walk out of the dressing room the second time, Mom is resting her head on her hand, leaned forward. Her blouse hangs gaunt on her frame, and her wig needs to be adjusted slightly. I seize the opportunity.
“I’m not finding anything and I’m really tired. How about we go home?”
She nods wearily, and I am free.
The registered nurse instructs us to watch the tube.
“The tube tells the truth,” she says. “When it goes from yellow to red, it’s bad. The kidneys are shutting down. When the tube has flecks of brown in it, that’s actual tissue.”
It is early April. We sit around Mom’s bed and occasionally snatch a look at the tube. She doesn’t know this; such instructions and observations are passed in the kitchen, out of earshot. We don’t really know how much she knows now anyway. She can no longer talk, and is certainly past the thought of lipstick.
While my sister stands on the left side of Mom’s bed and holds her attention by telling about the grandchildren, I sidle over to the right side of the bed, about two-thirds of the way toward the foot.
It snakes down discreetly from the edge of the white cotton top sheet, loops through the metal frame of the hospital bed, widens into the bag we also observe nervously. But our main concern is the plastic tube. Clear, perfectly clear so that there is no mistake about its contents. At first the pale yellow liquid leaves no trace along the sides of the tube, sliding down into the bag as it should. An unpleasant sight, that tube, not an object of conversation at a dinner party, but vastly necessary. I forget its primary job of removal. I only think about its importance as a signal, a long narrow messenger that will objectively explain the internal ravages I cannot see. While the few visitors courteously avoid looking at the tube, it is quite visible to us, the family members. A life line, a death line.
For days, the tube remains clear. This is the good time. But the less Mom eats, the darker the tube will become. We coax the straw for the liquid supplement into her mouth, the natural and pleasurable act of eating having become a laborious, unnatural process that leaves us all drained. The book hospice gave us warns that at some point she will refuse to eat, and we must accept that.
A wash of red sticks to the sides of the tube, like cherry Kool-Aid in a straw, sending us into a frenzy of consultation in the kitchen. While we know it’s a step in the process, it still frightens us. We wring our hands and smile and say, loudly because we cannot help ourselves, “Morning, Mom. Look out at the sun. Your dogwood’s growing. See how tall and straight it’s become.” And when Mom slowly raises her unseeing eyes, whether or not to try and look outside, or just to respond to our voices, we glance quickly at the tube to find its sentence.
Next come the flakes of yellow that stick to the sides of the tube. They look like tiny confetti inside the plastic, which still curves gracefully at a diagonal from the middle of the bed through the bars and into the bag. The bag does not have to be changed because it isn’t full; it hasn’t been full in several days. In the agony of watching the flakes grow slightly larger, I find myself wishing it would get worse, hurry up and get over, anticipating the darkening, thickening contents of the tube.
I struggle to find subjects to talk about. Books I’ve read or house renovations both seem inappropriate. They reek of a material world in which my mother no longer has a part. A well-meaning relative arrives and puts makeup on Mom’s face, blush to camouflage pale, puffy cheeks, lipstick on shrunken lips, and I think if it makes the relative feel better, why not.
The tube exhibits a remarkable spectrum of yellow. It darkens to that of a Black-Eyed-Susan petal, a hint of orange entering the picture. Instead of rice-paper-thin flakes, there is substance, not a clot yet, but slushy. The flecks remain stubbornly lodged in the dispassionate plastic tubing. We graduate to shavings, then chips, and only several hours’ worth of gravity, seemingly quite uncooperative at this point, pulls them down.
The orange tint becomes dingy at first, then downright dirty-colored. Nobody vocally acknowledges that when we’re looking at more brown than orange, the brown of dried blood, it is, as the nurse puts it, pretty bad.
Reddish clots actually fill the circumference of the tube now. It doesn’t matter, though; there’s nothing coming through that would be blocked. I realize that I’m actually looking at kidney tissue. I’m tired in so many ways; I know where we are in the process, but still my mind irrationally tries to come up with ways to return that tissue to my mother’s body.
Soon there will be nothing at all coming through the tube, except the truth.
It’s August now, and I sit Indian-style on the floor in what now serves as my father’s bathroom. He wanted the dresses out of her closet the week of the funeral. Next I waded through costume jewelry, undergarments, and pajamas. Now I face a vanity full of health and beauty products.
I toss flasks of stale perfume, hardened lip gloss samples, facial powder that smells like an old woman, which saddens me because my mother didn’t get to be an old woman. Eyebrow crayons, bent bob pins, a tube of insect bite cream, items less than a quarter full that I don’t care to cart home. I place in a basket—one of Mom’s I will take home—a candle, an unopened tin of talc powder, unused room freshener spray. I have to be careful. With the first item officially retained, I reverse my unconscious policy of absolute disposal, and become prisoner to a law that decrees everything must be saved. A commemorative Estée Lauder bicentennial compact holds no memories for me but represents value. Seven combs of assorted lengths go into the basket because in my family of five, someone can always use a comb. A jewel-toned mosaic soap dish which matches nothing in my bathroom gets tucked into the basket. Her toothbrush has been commandeered for fine-cleaning niches and corners. The lipstick Mom purchased for herself back in January, too light for me, remains, the receipt tightly coiled around it, in a pocket of my purse. It will stay there until it gets too hot, leaks, and permanently stains the lining.
Linked with the drudgery of my chore today runs a secret thought, that I might find some pearl of great price. Miniscule gilt boxes forgotten in the murky corners at the back of the drawers beckon with anticipation of ruby earrings, an overlooked sapphire, a Liberty silver Dollar. I lift the lid of a gold-plated round box to find a variety of lapel pins, all plastic, all related to cancer research: Race for the Cure, a smiley face, a pink ribbon. Another small white box holds Christmas jewelry: snowmen and angel pins, jingle bells, earrings that are sugar-cubed-sized purple wrapped presents. My hand hovers over the keep basket. I set the box down in between the basket and the waste can.
I proceed to the larger items under the sink, leaving the disinfectant spray and aspirin, taking the Vitamin C and iron pills. I recall how Dad and I combed the pharmacy for calcium with Vitamin C at Mom’s insistence, only to later learn that the doctor prescribed calcium with vitamin D. I chew a calcium tablet before dropping the bottle in the basket, but I have no faith that it will benefit my health.
In the back left corner, her side, a shoe box is stuck to the shelf paper. My breath quickens, and the silence grows loud in my ears. I lift it into my lap and raise the lid.
A faded crimson crepe hair net holds pink bristled curlers. I gulp when I realize that these curlers hold my Mom’s hair, her actual hair that fell out fifteen months ago and never really came back. I pick up one of the curlers and see the smooth gray rolled around it, not the fine chick down that covered Mom’s scalp after the radiation. This is the hair she had three Christmases ago when Dad griped at her for spending too much on presents for everyone, when she gave me another Estée Lauder gift set, when she slipped in my pocket the expensive watch that I didn’t feel like I needed because she had given me one ten years earlier, and it still ran perfectly well.
I roll the curler between my hands. Its wire structure is bent somewhat, most likely from being worn while Mom slept. The short white bristles must be made of incredible artificial fiber to survive, still spiny enough to hold hair tightly rolled. Each one of the cylinders in the bag has its share of Mom’s hair caught in the bristles, all that’s left.
My hand shakes as I touch one of the delicate filaments and pull it off the curler. I lay it against my leg and stroke it because it comforts me. I plunge my hand into the hair net, the curler bristles scratching me. I remember crying as a little girl when I had to sleep in abominable curlers such as these, the quills poking my head. Now I wish I could feel that pain, be a child again, have thirty more years with my mother.
More than the bath products, more than the countless jeans and shoes, more than the Estée Lauder, more than the jewelry that Mom gave me over the years, I want to keep these simple pink curlers. I press one up and down my thigh, feel the spines sting. I consider calling my sister to see what we should do with these curlers that could serve somebody for another twenty years. I sigh, and with tears rolling off my chin, I drop them in the waste can.