When cancer comes along...

My mom has always been a thorny one. Our relationship was strong and complicated, and the disputes/fights were a constant companion in our family life. She wanted me to be a better person (mind and looks) so she never stopped criticizing me. She firmly believed that criticism makes people think about all flaws in their characters and appearance, and thus she helped everyone polish their surface and deep beneath it.

She has always been the most ready-to-sacrifice person I have ever seen. She was never able to sleep when I was ill as a kid but she also did not want to see other people sleeping blissfully in such moments of crisis (aka. my father). She would nag and nag with the best intention to make him come to his senses, which most often caused the opposite results. She needed to make her own world a better place. And we, all family members, have always been a bit shorter than her high expectations of us.

As I have already said, she has always been a most caring person. I had always had a cooked meal for lunch, or a sandwich for my field trip. My clothes were clean and ironed and I had an impeccable look. My mom believed affection had to be demonstrated by hard work for the loved ones, not by plain kisses. She was not much of a love-giver or receiver, she kind of felt awkward when being hugged – she would tap you on the back to stop, as she felt uncomfortable. She considered hugs and kisses unnecessary part in one’s life - or maybe she did not but acted as if that was the case.  She has always been pretty affectionate with my kids, with whom she is very close, especially with my daughter, but with me she has always been more of the demanding not-so-happy-with-the-result mom.

We have spent most of our time together in constant fights for recognition for each party. She felt underestimated and I felt very much the same way. Whatever I did and however I looked, I have always been at least an inch away of what I supposed to deliver at a given point. Always a bit away from the truly expected and appreciated. And even in the nice moments of praise, I was always left with a shadow of the impression that I was not as good as I might be, that something would be always missing about me. Whichever aspect she commented on: friends, school,  jobs, marriage, children,…,  there has always been someone better, someone with really worthy accomplishments to compare me to as a person. I guess this is what most moms do in order to motivate us but that used to make me mad;  I fluctuated from going for my most competitive depths in order to prove my best to simply giving up as nothing was ever good enough and there was always the “that is fine but…” part to follow.

Her role in our relationship was to point out my (endless list of) low points, while my role, in turn, was to oppose passionately, trying to prove her wrong.  But moms are always right, a simple rule of thumb.

That was how we used to be until two years ago, when she was diagnosed with renal cancer at the age of 69. The very fact that she quickly lost interest in our game of fighting to one another and started talking to me as if I was the truly best person in the whole world was the first blow to come onto me after the diagnose. That was a kind of a real burying all tomahawks. Period.

That meant the beginning of the end for me. And although I tried to trick her into some really good circumstances for a great argument to follow, she had no more interest in arguing with me. She was good and mild and loving; she started telling me how much she loved me and when we were together she hugged me like she never ever did. No tapping on the back, just holding me closer. She started acting like an old dog that would not run to fetch the stick any longer – total lack of interest in doing do, and just endless love and respect demonstrated to my modest me. So sad a turn indeed.

I had to learn how to talk “normal” to her. Normal, as if I were talking to any of my friends. That was a new side in my talents I never knew I had to explore. After a kidney extraction and a torturing chemo, on the seventh month of her being diagnosed and operated, still very fragile and weak, she suddenly asked to come and stay in the States with us for several months.

George and I had a moment of shock, as the time could not be more wrong. But them we thought, “What if right time never comes along?” So, she traveled to the States for six months, stating that half a year was the happiest time in her elderly life ever. That statement made me proud and sad as nothing else.

She took care of the kids, she cooked almost every day, moving slowly around as she suffered from constant pain in her back. But she would not stop. She felt needed and important and she did look OK as far as she could be.
She wanted to ride in my car each time I drove kids to school – and this came from a person who was terrified when even sitting in a car, and who turned each driving trip when I was a kid into a nightmare with all her worries that the accident was lurking right after the next turn…  Now she sat in the back seat behind me and said she took real pleasure in it. I would drive around the city running errands and she would sit and look around. She called that “strolling around" and really looked happy doing it. She even complimented me on what a fine driver I was and that did make me feel good.

My mom and our daughter have always had a special relationship – they are “best friends” and they do special things when they are together. They would spend nights together, hugging and reading and talking, they would go for short walks (my daughter giving her granny the much needed support); they would cook and make cakes together… They have always had their own world together. The only portrait our son has ever painted (he likes drawing landscapes and animals, but mostly film or game characters instead) is the one of a grandmother and granddaughter. My mom has it hung over her own bed now and considers it her most precious belonging.

Fighting cancer in a post-communist country like Bulgaria is quite a challenge (not that it is any fun in a developed country, not at all), but the whole health care concept there has been organized in extremely clumsy, over-elaborate and inefficient way. Doctors are great, highly-educated and most of them really helpful, but the whole system does not function the way it should; not to mention the corruption side (doctors still receive private payments from patients’ relatives as a way to bonus their work and to motivate their taking good care of them). So, I would not to even go into this part of her sufferings. The physical and mental part is more than enough for each cancer patient…

After spending her American period (aka. “the happiest period in her elderly life”), my Mom got back home for medical checkups just to get the worst news about a month later – her cancer had metastasized in her bones. New treatments, radiation, chemo again, experimental drugs, the awful constipation as a side effect of the strong opioid drugs, the weakness, everything that goes with it came along. I have been calling her each morning (it is early evening with her) and she expects my call like a relief to look forward to.

I am hearing the same story again and again - no appetite, throwing up, feeling worn-out and no chance of fighting that stupid constipation; then the other story how she really doesn’t want to talk to anyone as she has nothing new to tell them but friends and relatives keep on bothering her every day while she would not like to even listen to their voices…  Needless to say, if any of them misses to call her for 2-3 days because she has deliberately asked them not to, then she feels neglected and left by everyone who ever cared for her, and she feels like telling them “I am still alive” (she says that while crying and that breaks my heart no matter how often we go through this part).  I do my best to sound optimistic and give her all the hope in the world. Somehow the old dream-talk about the exact time she is going to fly to Colorado again has gotten “crusted” and neither party ever mentions that “dream deferred” again...

Sometimes she is quietly aggressive towards my positive attitude, she wants to punish me for believing in bullshits and I patiently go through her punishment; sometimes she sinks into self-pity and I have to find the right portion of being empathic but also firm enough to deal with this ugly moment; but we continue playing our sad game every day. This is how my days have been starting for more than a year now. We usually try to finish on a kind-of-optimistic note. Sometimes she would just hang up on me.  Then, I have a whole new day ahead of me to smile around, work and give all my love to my loved ones.

My mom and I have always lived close to one another. She has always been like within reach, and yet we have never been any closer than we are now. Finally. I have long stopped to expect this to happen but it did. When cancer comes along people do change. The mortality concept is killing me now, introducing all the reminders of how fragile our life is. I have a whole busy day of work and worries, and headaches, and money issues, and kids issues, … to spend, bearing that in mind.

But tomorrow morning I have an important phone call to make, as usual.