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.
When my grandmother passed away on a night in early September, it was only a matter of time before my family would ready to say farewell to something else important to us—her house, my childhood home.
The blueish-gray house, which sits on a busy corner of a block in the LA suburb Gardena, has been in the family for decades. My mother and her sister were raised there, as were their first children. In the case of my mother, her next two children, my younger sister and I, grew up in between those same walls, too.
Almost all of my childhood memories take place here. In fact, the earliest, clearest memory I have is the day I saw my sister for the first time, after she was brought home from the hospital. I still remember it vividly—there she was in a carrier seat, in the center of the brown-carpeted living room, being fawned over by my family. I wasn’t in a rush to see what the fuss was about, so, I sat at the kitchen table and played with a toy. Jealousy. My aunt, being the only person paying any sliver of thought to the other kid in the room, turned to me and waved, “come here and meet your sister.” I did, and became an older brother. What a title to have.
It’s in this house where I stayed awake long after I was supposed to on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus (I got close once), carve pumpkins that would stay out far past their expiration date into late November, and lose myself in reading comics and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. It’s here where I waited years for my sister to grow out of her crib and finally get a bed of her own in the bedroom we shared, where we’d talk about creeping out for the night to run across Rosecrans Park and reach the railroad tracks far on its opposite side to find the source of the loud, Godzilla-like screeching noises that echoed from that direction every night. (The noises came from factories, which were knocked down a few years ago—Jesus, everything has changed here.) We never did venture out across the dark expanse that was nighttime Rosecrans, but the fun came from dreaming up what went on over there in the hours before sunrise.
Back then, I loved being up early. I’d wake up hours before dawn just to stare out of the window in our kitchen at the empty streets bathed in the orange glow of the lamps overhead, and press my cheek to the glass to feel the chill from outside. I felt powerful—I was the only person awake in the entire world. RUN! Run through the middle of the streets! Scream! Shout! No one would know! The fools are still asleep! Yep, there was a raving lunatic waiting to come out in my head when I was alone, but I never did let him out. I would instead watch the sky fade from purple to blue on these mornings, and watch as a lonely car or bus sailing down Vermont Avenue was joined by many as the weekday rush hour picked up before school.
As the years passed, and we aged, the house aged with us. Paint peeled, wood crumbled, and things broke that were never replaced. My family wanted to fix things—but my grandmother wouldn’t let us. As loving as the stubborn lady was, she could be extraordinarily protective when it came to her possessions. In her later years, when she had the house to herself, she simply wanted more time alone than not. And why not? She raised a hoard of kids off and on for half a century. Aside from my mother’s daily stops there and my weekly visits when I was in town, she could only handle so much before she’d let you know she was tired and it was time to hit the hay. Fortunately, this often didn’t happen until we were both washed in the deep orange hues of the setting sun emanating through the same kitchen window I peered out of so many mornings as a child.
By the time she passed away, there was a lot of work to be done on the house—far exceeding the money and time my family could put into fixing it. The area wasn’t any better, either. Gang graffiti tagged all over the white garage door, or someone parked in front of our driveway and blocking the entrance was commonplace. As important as it is, my mother and aunt (the heirs to the house) couldn’t hold on to it just for nostalgia’s sake. If there was ever a time to let go, this was it.
I lived with my mother as an infant before she handed me to my grandmother, and, of course, I don’t remember any of it. The story of my life, in my eyes, begins at this corner house in Gardena. But my final years will be lived out elsewhere. We’re masters of uprooting our lives and traveling great distances to set up shop, and I’m willing to bet that many of us don’t end up living out our lives in our childhood homes—even if it might be poetic to do so. My grandmother moved to Gardena from a farm in Iowa when she was just a girl, and though she liked to talk about milking cows and raising chickens, I never got an impression that she wanted to be anywhere else than her home in Southern California.
Today the buyers officially become the owners, and last night—the final night the house was in our possession—I walked through every inch of the place, outside and in, soaking in the yellowing walls, the ripped carpets, the clacking of the metal gate, my handprint and signature imprinted in the backyard cement the year my sister was born, all for one last time. These smells—the trees in the front yard, the stale rain water collected in coffee cans outside, the thousands of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes that still hang in the air, which my grandmother burned through for so many years that the smoke alone might be the only thing holding the creaking house together—I appreciate today more than ever before.
While most of the house is empty, there were some leftover mattresses in my old room. I took one and dragged it to my grandmother’s bedroom, and slept there for the first time. This old house still had something new to give.
I don’t plan to ever visit or pass by here again. The house is bound to be painted, remodeled, and transformed into something unrecognizable. I can’t bare to see it change so drastically.
So, here’s a final picture of the house and I, in the state I plan to remember it in for the rest of my life. Regardless of what may happen to it after today, it will survive as it is in my mind and heart.
Sometimes the memory of a place or time in our lives is all we’ll have left to carry with us. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, it’ll be all we’ll need.