Turkey by Christmas – A Love Poem
I watch my mother she walks with small cautious steps.
She has become tiny. Shoulders stooped chest collapsed.
I want to say ‘Mom, shoulders back.’
But I say nothing
She is so weak discouraged diminished.
My mom once chatty – is silent
My mom, once energetic – is lethargic
My mom – the woman known as Lotte – who was once so curious
now waves her hand dismissively, eyes downcast.
She sits stares dozes
Deep within herself
Expressionless except when she dissolves into tears
Because she is too weak to take off her sweater or pick up the pencil that slipped from her feeble grasp onto the floor.
The cancer and its treatment are brutal
Ravaging her essence far beyond the lesion in her mouth the burnt tender flesh of the neck.
We have hope. The doctors have told us
Mom will be eating turkey by Christmas.
Enduring the damaging cure Lotte stoic
Among others ill in large bright chemo areas huge windows comfortable reclining chairs
Sometimes chatting ‘Nice to meet you.’ ‘What kind of cancer do you have?’
From sun splashed chemo space down to the radiation dungeon
in the basement we wait in a low-ceiling corridor.
Lotte is summoned. She bravely disappears with her summoner into a locker of dread healing.
She lies absolutely still claustrophobic in her radiation mask with meticulously placed holes as the deadly rays of radiation burn out the snarling tumour
And in their wake wreak hell and hope.
US Open Tennis is on television and I watch the gloriously perfect-like-a-Swiss-watch Roger Federer on his way to yet another victory.
Fifteen minutes later Lotte emerges
Walking like she’s dragging a boulder, she motions her radiation-charred head.
I get up. We exit into crisp autumn air.
It’s been about four hours in all – the chemo the radiation the waiting.
The nurses are all pleasant, the cancer patients determined optimistic almost cheerful, matter-of-fact about surgeries treatments side effects tubes dressings feedings disfigurement.
No one speaks of death.
Now behind her the hours in the hospital the weeks of chemo and radiation.
My siblings and I take turns staying with our mom in her postage-stamp-sized bungalow
Feeding her through the tube that goes directly into her stomach
Applying balm and bandages to her neck burnt raw by radiation
Trying not to let her see the tears we shed to see her so wounded
Massaging her slumped shoulders to soothe encourage
Speaking loudly so she can hear because the radiation has deafened her – temporarily, they say.
Life is temporary.
Only suffering is forever. Right now it seems like that.
Sometimes we play our favourite family games at the kitchen table
Racko, King in the Corner, Tile Rummy.
Chicken Foot has become too raucous – dominoes clacking, us cackling.
Lotte gets headaches easily.
Scrabble is too difficult – the concentration too trying.
Even the easy games have lost their charm for her.
‘I’ve played too many games’ she writes.
(Her mouth cancer has robbed her speech.)
Lotte, once our celebrated games master – played out.
Instead she sits and stares.
‘Come on Mom,’ I coax, ‘at least it will pass the time.’
And she indulges me for a few minutes
Before she listlessly flicks her hand to dismiss me.
Lotte still quilts a bit. I like seeing her hands busy – as they were ever since I can remember
her head bent over colourful squares of fabric painstakingly measuring each to make the whole.
I wonder if it brings her the joy it once did.
A small pleasure
to brighten her desolate shrinking world silent shuffling sick-weary pain-drained.
When she disappears into another room and I don’t hear anything for a while
I find her sitting on the edge of her single bed
Slumped silent staring my heart breaks for the hundredth time
She is so weak so reduced.
I sit close beside her put my arm around her ‘Mommy, Mommy’ I say
‘These are the darkest days. Have faith.
You will get better. Little by little, day by day.
You are doing so well. You’re okay.’
I repeat the mantra: ‘Remember what they told us: Turkey by Christmas.’
She scribbles – barely legible words sprawling swimming across the lines of the page she’s so doped up
‘I know, but it can’t go fast enough. Everyone tells me how good I’m doing but I feel lousy.’
My heart aches harder. I am here. Patient. Solicitous. Loving Lotte, my mom.
I know she fears that they haven’t gotten it all that she will have to undergo this again
She just sits and breathes.
I ask her if she wants to go for a walk – part of the recovery program – or go to the back yard to enjoy the garden that we built for her and that she once took so much pleasure from.
She shakes her head without lifting it.
I rub her back and say ‘Oh Mom, I know. But it’s going to get better. Every day it will get a little bit better. Chins up Mom’ I say to my skeletal mother trying to make her smile – and me
It doesn’t work.
Lotte wearily shrugs her resigned and fragile shoulders.
She is in a world that only she inhabits listless discouraged frightened by the pain.
‘Remember what they told us’ Hopeful I whisper hollowly ‘Turkey by Christmas.’
Once an avid reader Lotte no longer reads she can’t concentrate.
I ask if she’d like me her to read her The Bible – once an endless source of interest and conversation
She shakes her head no and writes me a note saying she is too weak and can’t take anything in.
I ask her if she wants me to get her a video.
Lotte’s eyes grow wide with horror she shakes her head with more energy than I’ve seen in months. Her reaction is almost comical were it not so profoundly tragic.
I will do my yoga. I may go for a run. I will do some work. I will read. I will hover around her.
I will be here. I will love Lotte and do her bidding. I will feed her painkillers stool softeners anti-nausea pills tube food.
I will hope that she escapes from this hell.
My shift will end soon. My niece Eva will come tomorrow to relieve me.
I call her to ask if I should buy any groceries for her. Lotte doesn’t eat so the fridge is empty.
I cry when I tell her how Lotte is doing. ‘Depressed’ I say ‘Weak. Very internal. But her skin is healing nicely.’ Not to be too discouraging.
I tell her we are in the dark days. Mom will get better – little by little – day by day.
‘Remember?’ I practically plead ‘Turkey by Christmas.’
My troubled dream of struggle, too much stuff. My mom my daughter. Disturbed by what has been taken from me and what I am to do with all that I have – ends.
Rap on the door. Rattling. Door swings open overhead light snaps on.
I am yanked from my anxious dream
I pry open heavy lids orient myself I’m at Mom’s place she’s sick it’s 8 a.m.
My wordless mom has spoken
It’s time for her morning feeding.
I untangle myself from the dream web that has entrapped me deep in the guestroom bed.
It’s dinner. I sit across the table from Lotte.
I’m eating my roasted Co-op chicken and Co-op Greek salad.
She takes her Isosource nutrition through a tube that goes directly into her stomach.
She wasn’t pleased when I called her to eat
Like a reluctant child she begrudgingly came to the table.
We don’t speak because she can’t
And she’s dozing because of the painkiller I gave her with her anti-nausea medication.
I’m disgusted nauseated by my meal – greasy dull grey chicken
I reckon Lotte is disgusted by hers too, though the meds subdue her nausea.
In the old days people who had mouth cancer
Died of malnutrition it was literally too difficult to eat.
Now we do the tube thing that lets Lotte live.
As dinner conversation she crafts a note
She hopes Eva – her grandchild – will not be shocked when she sees her
‘Eva is tough as nails’ I say ‘And furthermore,
we expect that while she is here you will begin to recover.
Every day will be better – even like today is better than yesterday was.’
My mom scrawls timeless wisdom in a note
‘Today isn’t over yet’.
I put the rest of my chicken in the near-empty fridge better since I’ve stocked up:
my homemade soup, lasagna, Co-op chicken and Greek salad, half a chocolate bar, a few slices of bread, Black Forest ham, half a Kosher pickle, a couple of oranges and apples.
Should keep Eva for a day or two.
My mom and I sit in silence waiting for the rest of her meal to slowly descend through the gravity tube
Suspended from a hook on the ceiling that it shares with the light bulb covered by the macramé lamp shade Mom made during her macramé phase.
She dozes. I write.
The latte-coloured fluid monotonously wends its way through the transparent tube to Lotte’s stomach
Drip-drip-drip. Resigned we await in slow motion for the drip of the last drop – drip-drip…drip…pause. Drip.
Finally. The last drop has dripped. The meal is done.
I remove the tube from its holster on Lotte’s belly.
She shuffles back to sit on the couch and to the narcotic doze that I so brusquely interrupted.
The only sound is water as it is flushed from the tube and flows into the sink
And Lotte’s deep doped rhythmic breathing.
It turned out the doctors were wrong. Lotte would not eat turkey by Christmas.
Lotte was right. She was not getting better.
‘I can’t take it anymore! I want to kill myself!’
Lotte’s last words erupted in an agonized strangled cry.
Dutiful progeny we did her bidding.
More painkillers less water.
Soon our mom’s cries became whimpers, then faded into breath
heavy at first her breathing slowed then weakened then –
The last exhale. Silence and release.