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My Mother’s Mutilation

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Pablo Picasso, La femme à la collerette bleue (Woman with Blue Collar), 1941 Photo: Juan Luis Sánchez © Succession Picasso / Bildupphovsrätt 2017

I suppose this is a safe place — in my mind, alone, yet not alone as you read the words that are flowing within it. I don’t feel in the spotlight; perhaps, one of my weaker points is speaking about anything with anyone other than myself. For the most part, I speak in direction and guidance; I already know words to be spoken or the matter at hand as it is. I don’t need an answer. And yet here I am, looking outside this shell, needing to speak something I don’t quite fully understand. And here is the only place I know — stripped of my ability to zone or ignore, where in my writing I am my most sincere for I have only my soul to speak; to break that would be akin to destroying a part of myself. There is no hiding here; it’s us now.

Where does one begin? A year ago, I was taking my mother to her chemo treatments; she opted for the cold caps which required someone to change them out in different periods before and after the chemo drip. She had breast cancer previously and inevitably, at this point, had two breasts removed. At this time, I wasn’t paying much mind; she would get her treatments and this would be another moment in life we moved past. During the treatment phase, she complained of neck pain and was pushing it; they said it appeared to be some form of bone fracturing and not to worry much. However, a few months after chemotherapy, she could barely move her neck and had random trips to the emergency room due to pain at night. Fast forward, we were traveling back and forth to Philadelphia for preparation of surgery; I didn’t realize at the time it was to remove a mass as my mother made it sound nonchalant — it was just fixing something or another and all was well.

I think this is the moment everything spiraled, and the memory is jumbled between my memories and the vague details my mother spoke. I heard terminal cancer loud and clear, as well as two to three years at most. I swallowed this deeply and affirmed my acceptance; at least, after this surgery, she will be able to move her head and live the rest of her days out peacefully. And who knows, maybe longer than expected. I cannot change what is, nor is it my place in life to deny it its own path forward. We have to have peace with that agreement least we find ourselves living against the flow, rather than with it.

In my vision forward, the dancers were graceful and the music orchestrated this glorious movement of pain and beauty — it was a powerful place I could mourn but respect; I could love it, even if I hated it. But the music faded, the dancers fell and the orchestra fell apart. No, I wasn’t going to have that ending; I have been staring at the stage since, unsure how to put everything back together.

Despite this surgery, my mother couldn’t move her head. It almost became fused in this manner — her neck wide in the back and almost alien like. As an artist, I think I just see it this way but for all the same reasons, I can’t unsee it. More trips, but this time for radiation where she had surgery as they didn’t get it all. She’s still terminal, but maybe this will help extend some time. It could be worse. The music is still playing for me; I had every intention of loving that symphony, I swear I did. I get a call that my mother is in the hospital, coming back from her final radiation treatment, she fell. The cancer, news to me, was at her bones as well and given all the treatments — her hip just broke and she dropped.

As a bonus, whatever occurred during surgery, she has little to no feeling in her right foot now. It is slowly coming back, but she has a good 90% loss of feeling and movement. From the hospital to rehab to home again, it was rocky but again — we can heal and move forward. That’s all we can do, yea? Within a week, she was back in the hospital — she fell and her other hip broke. You can see my symphony struggling to continue its rendition, but I believe it was still playing. I want to believe it was still playing. This time, the surgery went well and she could at least move and feel her leg and foot. There was more hospital time, then rehab, and finally home.

She hadn’t bathed in almost a month aside from being wiped down at the rehab, she has to get around with a wheelchair at this point, and can barely do anything for herself. She has her husband who is a great support and a blessing; I can’t imagine what we would have done without him. I have a background in working with adults with special needs; I knew I could bathe her, just as well as I could build her a ramp at her stairs as I have mechanical and carpentry experience. I did both, and while the ramp was simple engineering — the bath stopped the music and I haven’t been able to put it all back together again.

See, getting her in the shower was a matter of physical engineering and angles of movement; you just execute every step of the way you created it in your mind. My mind is deductions and implementation; it never fails me. I wasn’t expecting, though, or prepping for what I was about to experience, and it blindsided me.

As an empath, I need you to understand that I exist in two different worlds; mine and yours. Yours, as in everyone else around me. I have experienced many things since a young age; that is to say, I am experienced at staying in mine and out of yours unless I am caught off guard or something powerful enough to interrupt that static breaks through.

When I look at my mother, naked, I see her scars on her bare chest. I see these scars on her swollen legs. I see her neck, deformed and stuck in this face down position. I see the scars on her back from the surgery, her limited physical movements and before I knew it — I saw her shame. I saw her fear, her uncomfortableness, her regret and this deep secret she has kept. My mother is much like me; we just accept and move forward. She started getting rid of things, preparing for her death and the like much like most people prepare for their taxes. That’s just what we do — we keep doing and hold it all up because someone has to, and we’re built for it.

I didn’t speak of it. I kept her secret, and pretended everything was fine. I washed her up, dried her off, and took care of her needs and got her back in her chair. I keep a lot of people’s secrets; you learn to not address and just do to show you know. You give them what they need, rather than discuss anything. It all channels out, the same as it channels in. Smoothly, for the most part.

So, who is this inside of me? It is living amongst myself, always there since this moment. Her secret. My secret. I have no one to talk to, for every moment I speak to myself I am left with this same lostness. I don’t have an answer or a strategy; there is nothing I can do to make anything better. I have been going down every week to bathe her and every week, she has the same smile and love. I have to keep our secrets, you see, least she knew the truth; I see her truth.

If she knew that I knew, it would hurt that same smile — she would live with the undertone of knowing I embody her pain, as well as mine. I have to wonder if perhaps she knows my secret, and reflect on how alike we are in this sense. Yet this illusion is something I refuse to break, least she was unaware I wasn’t fooled by her ease. Maybe these secrets we keep are a test of endurance, something that doesn’t simply pass because you cannot ignore their weight nor is there any bridge to affix some of them. What would I say, anyway? “I’m sorry your body is deformed and you’re dying!”? Could I not simply show my mourning by giving her allowance to live out this ride feeling in control of it? Is that not justifiable? In my agreeance to that question, I simply wish it would reflect internally.

Lately, my own secret has been manifesting in strange ways; I come to realize Netflix loves Prince and Princess love stories and Vanessa Hudgens stars in a lot of them. Yes, I have been binging on sappy love stories and heartfelt movies — anyone who knows me, knows I never watch this genre. Recently, I’ve been thinking of my father’s egg sandwiches as they were a staple that comforted me. I mean to say, I am seeking out everything to comfort myself; I have numbed myself to the point I’m attempting to create emotions from external sources to inject in myself. I can’t do that here, though, and it is here we should come to a conclusion. If you’re still reading, I want you to know how grateful I am that you are with me. I have cried multiple times, something I find difficult to do but I was finally able to do because for a moment — we were all here in this confusion together.

The reason I write is to share something, and in that sharing we may both find healing. I think we all have our secrets we keep, some deeper than others. If I had a concise conclusion, it would be that the band and dancers are still there; fatigued, dazed from the fall, and a little scared to begin again. Maybe we expect the whole rendition to just pick up where it left off and that isn’t always realistic — we want too much from ourselves or have this image of what we want it to be so much that we don’t allow anything else to birth in it. And maybe, just maybe, our secrets are a facade to focus on everything but the looming truth; a penitence we subscribe to as an act of mourning rather than face an inevitable truth lurking before us.

The truth is, it’s a mix of both. I will never tell my mother my secret, nor shatter hers because I realize she has her own stage, her own orchestra and dancers; my music stopped and I found hers, I just didn’t want to hear it for a long time. What am I to fix? What is there to change or alter? What power do I really have against anything in this position? And is it my place anymore? It’s not about my show, it’s about hers. It is my moment to simply attend, to listen to the music and watch her dancers weave her story; I have to allow my mother to conduct her last showing, it’s her moment.

Maybe the biggest secrets we keep are the ones in which we keep to protect ourselves, despite it protecting another, because to face them means accepting more than we can swallow and that’s why they fester like it’s own kind of cancer. And you know, we can all hear that music again; we just may be focused on the wrong stage.

Originally posted 12/20 on Medium

May my mother rest is peace as I was blessed to not only keep her secret during this period but be by her side through the night when she passed in August of 2021.

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