Empathy is a strange emotional trait. I had been successful in my avoidance of any deep empathetic feelings towards another person for nearly 30 years. Sure, there were moments of misty eyes when hearing of a tragic story, but nothing that gutted me to the core. That all changed last year. My mother -- a woman that had battled three bouts of cancer, mild heart attacks and a litany of abusive relationships -- phoned me from Los Angeles and announced that she had melanoma. Cancer, again? Inconceivable. I feel defeated when I contract a common cold. I'll mope around for a week, sniffling with agony, barking at our doorman for merely looking at me sideways after schlepping past him in the morning, decked out in mismatched sweats, dragging my dog to piss on the sidewalk.
My mother calls to tell me she has a fourth type of cancer. I'm pretty sure I would have given my regards to the world after the doctor told me there was even the slightest chance that I could have any type of cancer. My mother, always the fighter.
Yet, there was something in her voice, a distant sense of unease that caused a slight alarm to go off in my head as she detailed her latest plight. After all, how much misery can one person endure before finally feeling as though fighting the good fight might no longer be worth the effort? Fight a fourth round in the ring with The Big C, having already lost a few teeth from the uppercut two rounds ago and still sporting a bloodshot eye after an elbow to the head in the final minutes of the third round? Fight a fourth round with cancer. That's what, an 80:1 long shot that you'll escape the ring with your life. Cancer might as well be billed as a death cage battle. Even if you survive the brutal mauling, you'll likely be hobbling for the rest of your life.
There she was, living alone in Los Angeles, calling me in New York City. Nearly six hours away by plane, asking me to provide a shoulder to cry on. A distinctive ring rattled me out of a trance I had been put under by the random episode of Law & Order on the television.
Right as a judge's gavel pounded on the screen, my mother's ringtone blurted out of my phone. Thank god -- a reason to turn away from the blur of a court scene. Grabbing the phone, I paused for a brief moment, forcing a smile onto my face, breathing deeply three or four times, mustering up all of the energy required to put on my usual enthusiastic mask. It was a tone developed years ago, when I was in the military. When a mother calls her enlisted son during a time of war -- I never actually served in combat, but had the pleasure of wearing a uniform throughout the aftermath of 9-11 -- it is a requirement to force a smile, if only for her comfort. It was now a tone that I used whenever talking with my mother, never wanting to worry her about my living on the other side of the country, away from all signs of a family, save for my wife.
"Hey there. How are you?" I asked with my eye wandering back towards the television set. Even though I had surely seen this Law & Order episode, I didn't want to miss the look of defeat on the criminal's face when a Matlock moment occurred. Note to self, never pay with a credit card when buying supplies for a murder.
"Hey," she said, trailing off into some pointless small talk, utilizing that same masked tone I was attempting to employ on her.
Alas, a bull shitter can always spot a fellow bull shitter. It must have been the faint sound of a lump growing in her throat, causing the slightest tightness in her breath, that clued me in on there being another reason for this Saturday afternoon call. It didn't take long for her to start crying. Tears. Typically, that would have been my cue for feigning a sense of empathy.
"Stop, stop, stop," I rapidly said, attempting to manage the situation, which by that time, I realized was quickly going to become a gut punch of some sort.
The last time I remembered hearing my mother in a hysterical state over the phone was the day that her sister died. My aunt was never one that had gotten close to me. In fact, none of my mother's family had made much of an impact on my life, mostly because we grew up in different states. Pam had died of cancer only months earlier. And, less than a year before that, their mother died. Obviously, my mother couldn't ignore the cards stacked up against her.
"I'm pretty sick." She was able to confront this truth in a brief moment of strength, shutting off the tears just long enough for the reality of her situation to knock me over the head. It felt like I was in the ring with her, failing to move as a punch below the belt crashed into me. She was scared. Seriously scared. And I had no idea how to react.
Over the course of the next few months, we developed a routine of daily phone calls and plenty of sobering text messages.
"I love you. Was just thinking how hard my fight has been and how tired I am and that the body doesn't seem to want to cooperate these days. But then I thought about you and it gives me a shot of will power to keep going."
"I am just so tired of being sick and tired and hurting. Need a break somewhere."
"I am feeling a little better today so all good here."
"I hate life it sucks. No valentines and chemo for a present. I hate my life."
"Not up to talking very sick today but I am home dying and will call later love you."
Who knew a few characters of data transmitted over an iPhone could carry such weight? Her text messages became a roller coaster of emotions, sometimes rallying for a day or two with happiness, but often digressing to moments of darkness. I could track her health by monitoring the time of day a text message came in.
After a few weeks of struggling through chemotherapy, she texted me a photo of her bald head. She had lost her hair before, after going through this same treatment a few years earlier for breast cancer. I had foolishly hoped that her previous battles somehow prepared her for another round of poison being injected into her veins. Impossible.
Seeing that bald digital photograph, her eyes still puffy from an hour of crying after losing part of her feminine identity, simply put me over the edge. Years of pretending I could manage any empathetic feelings bubbling up inside of me, was all in vain. I immediately tried phoning her. She wasn't answering.
Tears started drowning my eyes. Were it not for my loving wife comforting this 30-year-old emotional newbie, I'm not sure how I would have managed to think rationally. And I needed that rational thinking to kick in, as I had to plan an emergency trip out to Los Angeles. I had spent far too much time exploring a mother-son relationship over a cellphone and via email. Face time was now crucial, and it seemed to give her that much-needed boost of energy for the remaining few rounds in the ring with The Big C.
"Just so you know your visit gave me new strength to get through today."
When I returned to New York, struggling to balance work and a newlywed lifestyle with my mother's ongoing struggles in Los Angeles, I resorted to text messages. Reading her unfiltered and sometimes typo-ridden messages helped me feel connected, despite the physical distance. I imagine she found this type of correspondence as a release. I would pass no judgment while reading her darkest thoughts. Distance made it possible for her to be candid -- therapy in the 21st century.
"I am so cold and hurt so much they will be stopping treatment and I will be going home today. We will continue tomorrow if I can."
"Hey there you won't believe it but this shit is now causing chest pain had to call doctor for that now. Damn it."
After failing to show any signs of response to radiation, my mother's doctor decided to put her back on aggressive chemotherapy. I would read through her text messages, sometimes sent while she is undergoing treatment, imagining a commentator like Howard Cosell narrating the action.
"Here's round four. Sims has taken this kind of punishment before. She's desperately trying to get to her feet. It's hard to see how Sims can last. The Big C is just pummeling her."
With her current round of treatment over, she has found the energy to visit her son in New York, not only for an emotional booster shot, but as a means to escape reality.
My mother is truly the ultimate fighter. There's no telling if Cosell might break in and holler: "Down goes Sims. Down goes Sims. Down goes Sims." But, even if she falls, I have to believe that she'll ultimately walk away from the battle. One last scar to prove her prowess. Hopefully, this will be her last round in the ring. Hopefully, she can finally hang up her gloves, not out of defeat, but through retirement. Retire from the treacherous battle that is cancer. She certainly deserves it. Until that time, I'll continue ending my nights by sending the same text message:
"I love you, mom."
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