"Let's injure somebody," our mom declared in a rally-like voice from the La-Z-Boy as we watched our 49ers defense line up against the Ravens on the TV.
"Mom! You're a nurse," my brother Rory admonished.
"Yeah, and a Eucharistic minister," I piled on, solely to make her feel worse.
Our Irish-born mom, who warmly calls strangers "love," peered down into her favorite cow mug, half empty of tea. She wore a half-smile and proffered no comeback, which was uncharacteristic. Caught.
Last year, my siblings and I took to calling her 'John Madden Mom' because of her flamboyant, arms flailing football commentary. Madden cries "BOOM!" and our mom cries "WHACK!," but they are both indomitable, straight-shooting optimists, no matter how hard the slog.
Like Madden, my mom is a coach. Instead of coaching athletes, though, she has spent the last several years coaching me, as I've strived to get better. First from ovarian cancer at the age of 32, and then from the autonomic nerve damage the life-saving chemo caused.
As my coach through too-many-to-count doctors meetings, hospital stays and IHOP regroupings, she has:
Encouraged. As my mom and I walked past a "THRIVE" poster outside Dr. Grey's office, I stared coldly ahead, stunned by my lack of medical progress five years after cancer. My train of dark thoughts was punctured by mom's post-appointment synopsis: "I think that went well," she said, as she readjusted her suitcase-sized handbag on her shoulder. Tempted to blurt out, "What part? Exactly, what went well?!" I stayed silent instead. Clearly, we had not been at the same appointment. Reading my mind, though, she made her case. "We're on the right track here. The new referrals Dr. Grey will give you. Those tests she's going to run. This is all progress." I tried to look past her wedges of dark hair to see if she truly believed this. But just from the way she marched down the hallway, I knew she did. And this planted the smallest of doubt about my own assessment. "Now," she pronounced. "Will we not stop off and get some pancakes on our way home?"
Comforted. After a relentless string of bad weeks when I lacked the red blood cells necessary to sit up in bed, to lift my phone, to fully wince with the pain, I looked up at my mom in desperation. "I'm a disaster. And I can't, I can't," I tried to say between gobs of tears. "Oh, my little pet," she whispered near the top of my forehead. She fastened her arms around me. "You're doing grand. Just grand." She said this so convincingly, yet softly, that for more than a moment I believed her.
Uncovered the truth. Two days back from the hospital, I looked particularly weak and white in front of the mirror so I rubbed some 'Talk to the Tan' bronzer on my face. My watertight logic? Being browner might make me better, and then I'd be able to leave my mom's guest room. The next morning, she came into the room with a glass of fresh water. She sat on the side of the bed and squeezed my hand as her eyes skipped around my Honolulu-inspired cheeks and forehead, which contrasted nicely against the white pillowcase. I played dumb. "Aisling Carroll," she said with a laugh. "Do you think I came down in the last shower?"
Called a time out. Six months after my diagnosis, things got worse when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. As my sister spun around the streets of San Francisco collecting more chemo supplies, my mom and I holed up at the house. There was no talking between us, just the sounds of phones continuously ringing and the kitchen clock ticking. In the living room, mom burrowed into the couch and I took the floor. An hour or so later, she got up and put on the kettle. Recaffeinated and reinvigorated after our time out, we cracked open her hospital binder and dug in.
Befriended. "So, how's your mom?" Dr. Flannelly asked in the middle of my appointment. Like so many of my doctors won over by my mom, their affection boils down to what she frequently says to them: "You're very kind, thank you." And that affection has often translated into special treatment for me. I happily told Dr. Flannelly that mom was much better. "Her cancer's gone and it's like she never even had it. She's tearing around the place."
A few weeks ago, my mom and I talked on the phone about a flu she was struggling to get rid of.
"How are you feeling today?" I asked, concerned that we were into day nine of this flu.
"Well, it's still there," she said with a voice full of congestion and a smudge of annoyance.
"But, it's OK," she brightened; for my sake, I was certain. "Tomorrow will be better. Just like you always say to me."
"Is that what I say?"
"All the time." She said this slowly and loudly, like when she's talking to people who don't speak English.
"Huh." I found this surprising because she was right. I have probably said tomorrow will be better a thousand times, but I never recognized this before.
Maybe I have some Madden in me, too.