Today I’m doing something a little different. I’m recommending a book and posting an excerpt from it. The book is my mother’s memoir of the last 18 months of her parents’ life. You may remember me writing about them, and how they died within 4 days of each other. The book is more than that, however. Although it chronicles those 18 months, it takes the reader through a journey of seasons, and of the author’s life with her family, including memories of her brother, who died from Hodgkins Lymphoma at the age of 20, just 10 days after I was born.
Though it is sad, it is also poignant, and it has sweet, funny moments, too.
Here are the first pages of the book and a link to the book. If you know anyone who’d be interested in it, or who’s going through something similar, please take a look at it. You’ll be glad you did.
The Waiting Room
There was something about mid-afternoon—the way the sun reflected off the Spanish Colonial architecture, the view of the Pacific on a smogless day, or the chapel bells ringing on the hour—that always lifted my spirits. Classes had ended for the day and I was free to read a novel in the shade of a live oak, meander across the elegant campus, or gaze at the forested canyons below. Each time I strolled through the arched colonnades on my way to the library, I celebrated my good fortune. There I was, the first in my family to attend college, and not just any college, but a magnificent cocoon high in the Santa Monica Mountains, far from the turmoil that touched so many college campuses in 1965. I was just eighteen, an idealistic and naïve young woman who still believed in dreams, miracles, and happily ever after. That anything could go wrong was beyond my imagination.
Then on Thursday, just before dinner, Mom called.
“Come home this weekend,” she said soberly. “We need to talk.”
“Not over the phone,” she said.
A stream of possibilities flowed through my mind—none of them good. I wondered if Dad had lost his job and I’d have to leave school. My scholarship only covered tuition, and without Dad’s income, we could never afford room and board.
“Can you at least give me a hint?” I said.
“It’s about Terry,” she replied. “Will you be able to find a ride?”
When I told her I could, she abruptly ended the call, leaving me to wonder what had happened in the weeks I’d been away—she hadn’t said anything about my younger brother in her weekly letters—but before I could think more about it, my friends breezed by on their way to the cafeteria and asked me to join them.
Fortunately, my roommate was planning her own trip home for the weekend and agreed to give me a lift, so after Friday morning classes I threw my books and overnight bag into the backseat of her Volkswagen Beetle, and we joined the rush hour traffic leaving Los Angeles for Orange County. I walked in the door around five-thirty, parked myself on the turquoise sofa in front of the television, and waited for Mom to come home from work. One hour later, she sat across from me, underneath the white balloon lamp that cast eerie shadows on her face, causing her to look much older than her thirty-nine years. She stared at the floor for a moment, and when she looked up there were tears in her eyes.
“Your brother’s sick,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
She put her head down again but didn’t speak.
“I’m sure he’ll be all right,” I said a little too hastily.
“No he won’t,” she replied. Then she took a breath and said, “He has cancer.”
Like a rogue wave catching me off guard, her words sent me reeling. I shook my head, certain I had misunderstood.
“What did you say?”
“Terry has cancer. There’s a lump on his neck, and the doctor did a biopsy. We got the results yesterday. He has cancer of the lymph system,” she said, speaking slowly and dabbing her eyes with the handkerchief she always kept tucked in the sleeve of her sweater.
“No, Mom,” I said, rushing in with the infinite wisdom of an eighteen year old. “He’s just sixteen. You need to talk to a different doctor.”
“The doctor is certain,” she said. “Terry has cancer. And there’s no cure.”
The wave was pulling me under, stealing air from my lungs and immersing me in darkness, but I struggled to the surface, desperate to get my bearings and stand on solid ground.
Terry had been tired lately, Mom said. He’d had some fevers and nose bleeds. Then he found the lump on his neck—the most ominous sign of all—and the diagnosis was now certain: my brother had Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph system. I didn’t even know what the lymph system was.
“There has to be some kind of treatment,” I said.
“We’re going to Long Beach next week to see a specialist. Maybe,” she said, “he can give us some time.”
“How much time?”
“If we’re lucky, we might have a few years.”
This couldn’t be happening. I closed my eyes, shook my head, and willed time to go backward, back to the ride home with my roommate when we talked about our boyfriends, back to this morning when my biggest concern was passing my weekly French quiz. Time wouldn’t cooperate.
My mother composed herself and stood up. Barely five foot two, she seemed suddenly smaller, struggling to manage the tragic burden that had just fallen on her. She didn’t hug me, or look to me for comfort, or acknowledge her pain, though I knew it was there, ripping her to pieces. Instead, she walked slowly into the kitchen to start dinner, keeping herself busy as she always did whenever painful emotions threatened to engulf her, then returned to add one more thing.
“Terry’s out with his friends,” she said. “He doesn’t know the results of the biopsy yet. He has no idea…” She stood silently for half a minute, choking back tears. “So I want you to control your feelings when he comes home.”