1. Call, Wendy


Six moments in a six-month journey of loss.


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I press the phone to my ear, as if compressing the miles between my mother and me. Our words pass back and forth, trembling and slipping around the unavoidable conclusion of the test results. Mid-June sun slices into the room as we trade I-love-yous. I cradle the phone on its hook.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Elizabeth Sayles.

A few moments later, I pick up the phone and buy a cross-country plane ticket.


Six weeks pass. I dial the "follow-up care" number long past midnight. The only sound is the air conditioner's hum, pro-tecting us from August's fury. I'm transferred four times as background noise, mumbled greetings, and strange acronyms tumble out of the receiver and into the quiet of my mother's kitchen. The fifth voice says something I don't quite catch.


"Are you a nurse?" I ask.


She says yes and I repeat my short speech. I think she tells me to hold and I wait a long time, tracing the loops and curves of my mother's handwriting on her desk calendar. Deliberate lines cross out sewing guild meetings she won't attend, a trip to Utah she won't make, a play in Raleigh she won't see.


A man comes on the line and identifies himself as a doctor, his voice sleepy and dazed. I give a longer version of my speech, tripping when I can't remember whether the word describing the stent's location in my mother's belly is pronounced doo-WAH-den-ahl or doo-oh-DEEN-uhl. I plow forward with my story. The words metastatic and pancreatic rouse him, and he asks whether there has been blood in her vomit.


As I say "no," I realize that I have no idea. My mother is still healthy enough to be private and neat; I hope that I'm telling the truth.


The specificity of his instructions comforts me: Wait three hours. If she's still vomiting, bring her to the emergency room. I wait. The clock chimes out each quarter hour. With each chime, another thread of relief weaves into the itchy blanket of panic wrapped around me. My mother finally falls asleep.


A few days later, the voice of a dear faraway friend comes warm and full through the phone line. I try to explain to him how alone I feel, even in my parents' house, in my mother's kitchen. I describe how doctors ask me to make decisions I feel unqualified to make, while my mother smiles at me confidently and my father cries, silent.


"It's ridiculous. I'm deciding the rest of my mother's life based on research I did on the Internet," I tell him.


"You're really good at that. Research, I mean," he says, hope in his voice.


I want to scream that I don't think an undergraduate degree in biology and a long relationship with Google qualify me as a medical professional. Instead I say, "Thanks." We trade goodbyes.


In the boredom of 15 minutes on hold, I notice the kitchen's jumble for the first time: tins of Christmas candy growing stale on the counter, half-eaten jars of pureed food in the sink, medicine vials scattered among the toaster crumbs. My mother rarely comes into her kitchen anymore; she would barely recognize it.


The night-shift nurse comes on the line. "Patient's name?"


"Marilyn Call." I preempt the rest of it. "February 7, 1943, ID number W-oh-five-six-two-oh."


"Oh," the night nurse says. "We have in our records that Marilyn Call died."


The vials and tins and jars leap up, crash together. I notice-as if noticing the expression on someone else's face-my rage. "No," I say. My voice sounds calm. "She's not dead yet."


One week later I again reach for the phone. I know it is Molly, Mom's hospice nurse. Dear Molly, who visits every other day, who knows the names of everyone in our family-including the long-dead pet cat-who never asks for ID numbers. The chilled dawn light has begun to pool on the kitchen floor. It's our fourth phone call this morning. Maybe the fifth. The kitchen was still charcoal black when they began.


On each call, she tells me about milliliters of morphine and drops of Haldol and I do as I am told, soothed by Molly's voice. Other things I don't need to be told: wiping away dark trickles of bile from my mother's cheeks, swiping pink swabs of clean water over her tongue, brushing silver curls back from her forehead.


I pick up the phone. "She's gone, Molly." My voice twists from my throat.


I feel Molly recoil; hear her exhale. Her sadness surprises me. She slides into families, manages ivs and inconsolable husbands, antinausea medications and anxious daughters, then she slides away. All of Molly's patients die while in her care and still each loss hurts her. Finally, I understand why so few of my mother's friends and relatives have visited in the six months since my mother called me with the test results. Why cards requesting that she "get well soon" arrived for months after everyone knew that was outside the realm of possibility. The only options are get well soon or in sympathy.


"I'll be right over," Molly says. I hang up the phone.