Tonight my mother took her chemotherapy pills for the first time. Tonight was also the first time I’ve danced with her.
Maybe it was nerves, or just my mom being who she usually is, but she asked me to play my favorite song on. I put on The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” but she told me that it wasn’t the song she was thinking about. I was tempted to play John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” next, but I had a feeling she was referring to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” otherwise known as the Guardians of the Galaxy song. I played it from my iPad, and we danced on the hardwood floors of her living room, she did the Butterfly, I did the Arm Wave, and we held each other, swinging back and forth like crazy people.
Soon after she placed the first of two chemo pills in her hand, took a deep breath, and swallowed.
This morning, while my aunt and I visited with my mom, the resident oncologist at Little Company of Mary came in to speak with us.
“What’s an oncologist again?” my mom asked. We’re all still so new to this. This temporary oncologist went on to explain that we’d need to find a radiation oncologist, a hematologist, and a permanent oncologist, and my mom interrupted to ask if she knew for sure that we would need these doctors. The answer, of course, was yes, but my mom’s interruption led the oncologist to mention something the attending physician, neurosurgeon, and nurses, hadn’t yet.
“We don’t know the final [results] yet, but that’s what it usually is, it’s called GBM,” the oncologist said. “It’s the most common cancer in the brain, and we have a protocol to how we treat it.”
There have been words like “cancerous,“ “malignant,” and “seizure” that have been tossed around, but no one had mentioned the three letters “GBM” yet. The oncologist spoke these letters cool and casually. I wouldn’t have thought anything of them if it weren’t for the reaction of my aunt, Denise, who widened her eyes and sat up just a bit straighter when this was mentioned.
After the oncologist left, Denise and I walked out into the hallway, out of earshot of my mom. “From what I researched, GBM is the worst brain cancer you can have,” she told me. “It’s stage four.”
As I listened, I realized I had not been as thorough in my research as I thought, and made mental notes to find out what how many stages there were, and to look up the goofy-sounding word she told me GBM stood for — Glioblastoma. It sounds like a villain from a cartoon.
“Well, it’s the most common type of brain cancer,” I replied, repeating what the oncologist said, and mistakenly believing it implied that treatment for GBM would be more effective than other cancers because it was common.
I searched the letters on my laptop. I wanted them to slip from my memory, to mix them up with the other 23 letters of the alphabet and forget their combination.
There are 16 tabs open in my browser. As significant as the surgery was, it’s only the first step in a treatment plan that cannot cure a GBM patient—it can only attempt to slow the damage of the tumor, a tumor that is certain to grow. Median survival time for GBM patients after the diagnosis? Fourteen months.
The above picture is a photo that my mom took of my siblings and me when we visited her this morning. She’s doing great considering her brain was operated on only hours earlier. My brother held up his phone to my mom so she could talk to my almost-two-year-old niece, who’s in San Francisco. Mom was ecstatic. She also laughed and sounded like a drunk Steve Urkel the entire time, but hey, that’ll go away soon (right?).
While I was writing this entry in my journal, Morgan came in to see her. He’s tall, distinguished, and looks to be in his seventies. He’s thick around his torso, and I’d believe you if you said he was a bodybuilder in a past life. But he’s also very much a “no dicking around” kind of guy, which isn’t the best personality to mix with my mom, who, well, likes to dick around. Even now.
Morgan asked if she needed anything, and she rambled about a few things that she thought she needed but didn’t quite need, and he said he’d make sure she got some soft foods soon. As he turned to leave, I asked if we were going to talk about her diagnosis—the conversation I wasn’t looking forward to having, but felt needed to happen. “We can talk when she asks,” he said and continued walking.
“Doc?” my mom strained to say. I called out to Morgan, who walked back. “Do I have cancer in my head?”
“Yes, it’s cancerous,” he said. “We’ll have to talk about getting you on chemotherapy and radiation.”
“So, it’s treatable?” she asked.
“Well, everything is treatable to a certain extent.”
While she wasn’t able to pick up on the cues in his voice, he was already answering the questions I wasn’t yet prepared to ask.
Not being able to poop is a hell of a way to start a day where the main event is surgically removing part of your skull.
My mom’s constipation went on for hours, and in between her last poop and the poop she was praying on, we had visitors come and go, my mom open the backside of her gown to moon unsuspecting people (myself included), and some more tears shed.
The surgery was scheduled for 2:30 in the afternoon, but she didn’t get rolled out of her room until 3:30. Prep started about a half-hour later. The neurosurgeon, Dr. Morgan, came by with a coffee in hand to speak with her before going into the operating room. Across from us were a few other people who were either going in or out of surgery—one of the patients near us was a frail older woman who sat alone in bed. Her eyes were sunken and bloodshot, and I couldn’t keep from looking over at her.
I remembered a joke that I had read in Esquire a few weeks earlier, and I thought, hey, this is as good a time as any to tell it. So, two nurses are giving a bath to a woman who is in a coma. As they clean in between the woman’s legs, the woman suddenly stirs. The nurses get an idea and call the woman’s husband. “If you have oral sex with your wife, she may wake up,” they tell him. He’s unsure about their plan, but—
—and just as I was about to tell my mom the punchline, the nurses came to take her in. I hugged her, told her I appreciated her, and that I would tell her the rest of the joke when she was out.
The surgery lasted about three hours, and Morgan found us in the waiting room after it was completed. The good news? He removed “99 percent of the tumor,” and she was in stable condition. The bad? The tumor is cancerous, and we’re looking at a future with chemotherapy and radiation. Though I already knew what “malignant” meant, I read any definition of it that I could find on Google. I read as quickly as my tear-filled eyes would let me in that waiting room.
Not long after, we were able to go in two at a time to see mom in ICU. Her head was almost entirely wrapped in bandages, except for the breathing mask she had on. She was able to talk, but was loopy due to the drugs she was administered. We’ll meet with Morgan again at dawn, and at some point, we’re going to have to explain the news to mom. But not tonight.
Until then, here’s the rest of the joke: Two nurses are giving a bath to a woman who is in a coma. As they clean in between the woman’s legs, the woman suddenly stirs. The nurses get an idea and call the woman’s husband. “If you have oral sex with your wife, she may wake up,” they tell him. He’s unsure about their plan, but they pressure him on, and he agrees. He goes into his wife’s room and closes the door, and the nurses wait outside. A few minutes later, he emerges, and the nurses go in to check on the woman. “She’s dead!” they scream. “What happened?!”
The husband looks at them, “I don’t know!” he says. “I think she choked.”
I sense the dread, I know it’s down there, but it feels hazy and indistinct.
It’s close to midnight. There are about 10 hours left until my mom’s surgery to remove the tumor on the right side of her brain, and we’re about four days into this entire ordeal. This entire process is moving at a dizzying pace. The risks of operating on the brain are plenty—paralysis, seizures, strokes, and death. Mom’s had dozens of visitors since she was transferred from Vegas to Little Company of Mary here in Torrance. There’s an unspoken understanding that these “get wells” and “good lucks” could double as “goodbyes.”
Yet, my mom’s been her funny self, even in that hospital bed, cracking jokes. One joke that she loves telling unsuspecting nurses and friends is that if she dies during surgery, we should donate all of her organs, except (and she points downward) “my coochie-coochie.” You’ll either laugh or stand there with your mouth agape.
It’s fitting we’re at a Christian-affiliated hospital. Mom has been deeply into Christianity for over the last two decades. I’m not religious, but I am happy that her beliefs are providing her some type of emotional comfort right now. It’s a comfort I don’t know how to provide because I can’t say with any assurance that everything will be okay. My uneasiness is obvious.
I was at the hospital most of today, my body is ready to slump over onto the nearest horizontal surface. Jimmy, my brother, is going to land from San Francisco any moment now, and I need to be up early to spend as much time at the hospital as I can.
Tomorrow my mother’s having an operation to test and potentially remove the tumor located on the right side of her brain. The surgery is scheduled at 2:30 in the afternoon at Little Company of Mary Hospital here in Torrance, Calif.
She’s religious, so any prayers you can send her way, please send them. They’ll be appreciated. Or, if there’s some type of thread that connects us all, perhaps strum that string in your own way, in the chance she might feel those vibrations and ride it through the operation and into recovery.
Before Budweiser, machismo, gold chains, mariachi music, hard labor, and immigrant life became things I’d associate with my father (some of them being things that would shape my own identity) for a short time when I was a child, my memory of him was simply of how his stubble felt against my cheek when he held me.
Sold the ‘95 Camaro today. It might not look as pretty as it did a decade ago when I first got it but had some good (and rough) times with it along the way. Mom got this for me when I turned 18, with nothing but her own money, for $4,300.
I was brought on to Complex back in January 2013 as an intern—while in my last semester at Columbia J-School (still don’t know how I managed that). After graduation wrapped, I contributed as a freelancer, got hired as an editorial assistant, was promoted to news editor, and—after moving to the offices back in my hometown of Los Angeles—I became a staff writer. It’s been a fun ride, but I made the decision to go back to freelancing for a while.
Today is my last day here, my first paid writing gig. Had some good times, and it wasn’t easy deciding to leave. So, to take a look back on my two years there here is one of my favorite moments.
Interviewed a handful of bottle service girls from 1OAK here in LA, and got their perspective about the industry, and what it’s like to serve the famous and wealthy night after night. The article is currently sitting at the number one spot on Digg.