The Caller

Maureen Moynihan

© Copyright 2020 by Maureen Moynihan

Photo credit Quino Al  @quinoal
                                 Photo credit Quino Al  @quinoal

     My mother calls. She speaks in 24pt Impact Bold font and punctuates each statement with a fantastic sense of urgency. 

     “Maureen!!! This is ya Mutha!!!!The lady who gave you birth!! Backwards!!” 

     She identifies herself just in case I don’t recognize the voice. I was a born breech during the pre-ultrasound era or the development of the epidural. My mother reminds me of this fact about every third phone call. I’m 48. 

    “Hey Mum. What’s up? Is everything OK?”  

     My voice is calm and patient despite the fact that I’m standing in a school cafeteria preparing to deliver a professional development workshop to middle school teachers. It is 7:15 am. 

     My mother knows to only call me at work in the case of an emergency. An emergency has been defined as a circumstance requiring immediate medical intervention. It is an emergency if she has fallen and cannot get up. Or if she is experiencing shortness of breath along with chest pain. Macy’s One Day Sale is not an emergency. Aunt Mary’s impending rubber band ligation to remove her internal hemorrhoid is not an emergency.  I don’t have time to contemplate the topic of today’s emergency before she announces:

   “We are getting a snowstorm!!.  On Friday!! Go to the grocery store!!  As soon as possible!! Get some milk before it is all gone!!!

     It is Tuesday. I tell the teachers to write their name, grade level and content area on an index card while I field an emergency phone call. Some participants follow my directions. Most check their Facebook feed or start shopping on Amazon. 

     “Good to know, Mum,” I say.  “Thanks for the weather update. I’ll hit the grocery store on the way home. Gotta go.”  Just before I hang up, she raises her voice one octave higher, as if that is possible.

   “For the love of God Maureen!! You sound exhausted!! Stop running around like a chicken with its head cut off!!  You’re going to get sick!!

     My mother is often psychic and always provides direct, explicit feedback for self- improvement.  Her advice is usually spot on but rarely applicable. Which verb do I delete to leave peace and harmony in my life? Paying the mortgage? Feeding my family? Doing the laundry?  And now I’ve been diagnosed with cancer.  I’m not sure how I’m going to squeeze time to fight a deadly disease into my jam-packed schedule.  I assume I can take some sick days, but then what?  18 rounds of chemo sounds like a long time.  

     “’K. Mom.” I tell her. “I’ll do that. Gotta go. I’ll call ya later.” I get off the phone before her intuition informs her just how sick I really am. 

      As directed, I stop at the grocery store on the way home. It is evident that mothers across New England have called their adult children and instructed them to pick up provisions before the impending snowstorm. The milk and bread aisles have apparently been pillaged by Vikings.  I grab a rotisserie chicken, arguably the greatest innovation for working mothers since the introduction of birth control. For $5.99, the damn thing will do more dead than it ever did alive.  I throw a bag of Steam & Mash Potatoes into my basket along with a can of green beans and a bottle of wine. Voila!!!....dinner. For a moment I ride a wave of rock star euphoria. But as I’m lining up my groceries at the 12 items less register, it hits me…

     “Do you sell underwear?” I ask Dave, the express lane cashier.  He turns a bright shade of red as if I had just asked him to take off my underwear.  

     “It’s not for me.” I clarify. “It’s for my daughters. They are six and eight.” I throw their ages to desexualize the context. He shakes his head and blurts out “No” while avoiding my gaze.  It is a reasonable question, I tell myself. The store sells everything from chicken livers to windshield wiper fluid. And I bet I’m not the only mother who would prefer to shell out 8 bucks on a 4 pack of panties to avoid a late night of folding laundry. Dave, I decide, is  underpaid, a bit uptight and does not have children.

     My final stop before home is the after school program. I have not seen my children since I tucked them into bed last night.  My husband is charged with the daunting task of getting my daughters off to school as I leave for work before they’re awake. I help the girls pick out their clothes the night before and pack their lunches, but implementation of our plans yields far different results. My youngest sometimes forgets to put her underwear on. With a dress.

When I arrive at school, my 9-year-old acts like she has never seen me before in her life.  As other children run to their mothers with open arms, she publicly protests her departure from the Uno tournament as if I was dragging her to a flu shot.   My 6-year-old appears to have stepped out of a Les Miserable casting call. She is wearing a “Fun-In-Sun '' tank top dress with winter boots and a battery operated Christmas bulb with flashing red and green bulbs. It is January.

We pack our collective exhaustion into the car and a fight breaks out before the doors are shut.  We are all so sick of being nice to other people. 

     "Stop looking at me like that!” Sienna screams at her sister.

    “Like what?” Julia replies, feigning ignorance.

    “You know!!” screams Sienna.

    “Know what?” says Julia.

   I wave to a mom driving a minivan packed with complacent children and let her pull out in front of me.  I want to flip her the bird. 

    Can we please not be the crazy family in the school parking lot.”  I tell my children.  They are silent for about 3 seconds.  A slap echoes from the backseat. “Mom, Sienna hit me,” Julia reports.

     “Mom, Julia was making fun of me,” Sienna retorts.

     “Was not,” said Julia.

     “Were too,” said Sienna.

    “Was not,” said Julia.

      I turn on the radio, as if an auditory distraction would be an effective remedy for squabbling siblings. The fight continues. Duh. 

     “I didn’t say anything,” said Julia.

     “You were making fun of me just in your head,” said Sienna.

     “Oh, so now you’re psychic,” said Julia.

     She could be, I think. Her Nana is. The thought of cancer is now in the car.

     I have cancer, I tell myself.  I have cancer.

     But I don’t feel like I have cancer.

     I run a quick body scan. My feet are throbbing with pain. My stomach is growling...I can’t remember if I ate lunch. Even my earrings feel too heavy to carry. I feel overwhelmed by the mountain of chores and responsibilities that I have waiting for me at home.'s a typical 5:00 feeling.

     “Mom, why are you not doing anything? Julia says.

     I do EVERYTHING, I think.

     “Use your words,” I say catching Sienna's eye through the rear view mirror.

     “That’s it?” says Julia with flagrant indignation. “That’s all you are going to do? Why doesn’t she get a consequence? If it was me then I would have a consequence.  It’s not fair.”

      No, it’s not fair, I think.  I don’t even have big boobs. How could I possibly have breast cancer?

     “MOM!!” Julia screams.

     I want to pull the car over and dump them both on the side of the road.  All I want is time alone to sit and think.  I need time to process my diagnosis. Today does not seem to be the day.  Tomorrow does not look good, either. 

   My mother calls a week later. She cannot speak; her voice is suffocated by the weight and pain of a shattered heart. The news of my cancer has spread before I was able to own it.

     “I’m OK. Mom.”  I tell her.  “I’m OK.”

     She says nothing. Her silence says everything.

     My rheumatologist calls 8 months later. He speaks 12pt Calibri font, single space. His words are chosen with precision and trepidation, like a young man picking out his first engagement ring.  

  Hello Maureen, this is Dr. Slavasky. Do you have a moment to talk?”

     “Yes,” I say. I have all the time in the world to sit and think. But the strength to do nothing.  

       Your testing results are inconclusive. We believe the lesion on your spine could be Aortitis.  Or it could possibly be a response to sepsis. Or it could be an infection triggered by your final round of Chemo. Or it may indicate that your cancer has spread.  Unfortunately, we cannot schedule you for an MRI because your breast tissue expanders are still in place. We recommend that you suspend cancer treatment and continue to rest at home. "

       Oh,” I say.  I want to ask a question but I lack the medical knowledge to construct a sentence.  

     “So what does this mean?” I ask, feeling stupid.

       It means the sophistication of imaging surpasses our understanding of how the immune system responds to an infection. We can observe a lesion near your spine without identifying its origin, constitutes, or implications on your immunity system. Therefore, we recommend that you rest, drink plenty of fluids and go directly to the emergency room if you develop a fever above 101.”

       OK.”  I say.

    “We’ll be in touch, Ms. Moynihan, take care.”

      I hang up, put my head back down on the pillow and listened to my sister putting food into my refrigerator.  How I miss the grocery store and its colorful aisles bursting with busy people with too many places to go and too many things to do. She will greet my children with open arms at the bus stop as we no longer need the school child care program. I do not go to work anymore.  When my daughters are home, they curl up next to me on the couch and lead a procession of school papers adorned with stars and positive reinforcement stickers. Sibling squabbles do not percolate around me anymore. Instead, they deliver a kiss on my bald forehead and ask if I would like a snack.  

   As I tick time away on the couch, I dream of shopping at Macy's One Day Sale or visiting my dear Aunt Mary in her hot, stuffed apartment that smells of sauteed garlic, olive oil, and cats.  Most days I wonder what my post cancer life will look like.   Or ponder the most horrifying thought…

 What the world of my children will look like without a mother.

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