Author’s note: As I mentioned in another column, I’m working on a novel that contains a character loosely based on my mother, partly just as an excuse to have her in my head. In the process, I ended up rereading this old essay. The illness described here was not the one that finally got her — she was around another 13 years.
“When My Mother Became The Freaking Buddha” is adapted from my 2005 collection, Above Us Only Sky.
One day in May of 1995, I got a call from my mother. “I was just picking up the phone to call you,” I assured her, knowing she was anxious to hear the latest on a book deal I was hoping to get. I was supposed to call the minute I knew anything, but I hadn’t. Well, only two days had gone by since I’d heard the news, which wasn’t too good, and anyway, one has to balance the pleasantness of one’s mother’s interest in the minutiae of one’s life with its faintly annoying aspect.
Making up for my tardiness, I launched into the tale, and it wasn’t until she broke in and said, “Well, I have to go soon and —”
“I’m almost done,” I said.
“Yes, but I have some bad news.”
“Well… It looks like I have a little cancer,” she said, and then, in the five minutes remaining until her boyfriend Ceddie picked her up to go eat Chinese, and interrupted by my shrieks of what and how and when, she told me that she’d been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, she had known for over a month, she was starting a course of chemotherapy and radiation on Friday, and she had a fifty percent chance of cure. Then Ceddie was there, and she had to run. “Oh, Mommy,” I said helplessly.
“No golf for me this summer, I guess,” she said wanly.
“Oh, Mommy,” I repeated.
“Well,” she replied, rallying. “I’m not going to fucking die.”
I wanted to believe her. She certainly has not fucking died before. Not from her two heart attacks, not from her bypass, from her major intestinal surgery, not when my father died or her best friend died or just about everyone she ever loved died, and not when she caught robbers in her house or when the IRS posthumously audited my father’s tax returns. As my nine-year-old, Vince, said hopefully later that day when told of her illness, “Nana’s a tough woman.”
He’s right. My mother has always been tough, never mushy or gushy, not exactly the maternal type, in fact. When I was his age, a klutzy, messy little girl, she was actually slightly terrifying. I would look at her and think, I came from that? That trimness and slimness and smoothness, those teeth that practically glowed in the dark?
Back then, she reigned over her country club as Ladies Champion of golf, not to mention her tennis and bridge, and if there had been a championship for the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, Mrs. Hyman Winik (Jane), as her name occasionally appeared in the sports section of that very paper, would have won it as well, her hand moving across the page like she was writing a letter. She had lots of energy, little patience and was never less than utterly frank in expressing her opinions, in whatever words they might require and regardless of audience.
Martini drinker, athlete, sports fan, stock market expert, chain-reader of library books, mostly guy-books, spy and mystery and international intrigue — she was the mom who came in from the cold. Her politics were Cold War Republican all the way, no sympathy for poor schleppers in this country or any other. Is the government in business to fix all the injustices of the world? Please. When we were little, my sister and I used to play a pretend game where we put on bright coral lipstick and a pair of penny loafers and stamped around the house exclaiming “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!” Guess who?
Though all the serious cooking and cleaning in our home was done by the maid, I did walk in on my mother ironing once, behind the closed door of her bedroom. On the television, the Mets were winning the ’69 World Series. “Can I try?” I asked.
“No, dear, definitely not. Never learn to iron, that’s my advice, and if by some fluke you do, never let anyone know you can. Shit!” she then exclaimed, having kept the iron in one place too long while transfixed by a play. She set the appliance down and reached for a cigarette. “Watch this game with me, honey! It’s historic.”
I curled up on her chaise lounge and pretended to watch. Sports meant nothing to me, but throughout my childhood I would listen to endless narratives of golf matches — we were behind coming off the front nine, but then I got out of the trap and birdied eleven, and went for the four wood to the green on twelve — these indecipherable phrases run through my head even today, perhaps like bits of the Latin Mass for those raised Catholic — watch games, take lessons, and attend clinics in various sports because, like sleep-away camp, they were something my mother had enjoyed and assumed vital to my development. I was terrible at all of it, and hated my mother for making me do it.
I had horrible, horrible fights with my mother in adolescence. I vividly remember one drive up Ocean Avenue in her Pontiac Le Mans convertible, coming home from the orthodontist, or the diet-pill doctor, or maybe my psychiatrist, screaming I hate you, Mommy, and I remember her pulling into the driveway and saying I hate you too. I wanted to be like my dashing hilarious libertine father, not like her, and even in my thirties, I made a little list of her character traits on a yellow Post-It note at work, just to prove to myself that I was the opposite in every way. She was cautious, negative, pessimistic, I was none of these things. She made pot roast with onion soup mix and ketchup but I was a great cook. Even my cole slaw was imaginative. Once when she was down to visit me in Texas, when my children were very small, she watched me chop dill and watercress and do something arcane with Umeboshi plums and asked if I really had to put so many ingredients in the coleslaw.
It was almost that day in the Le Mans all over again.
It has taken time, but we have both changed. I’ve started to sound like her, and think like her, and watch both the NFL and the NBA on television. I have a cleaning lady, send my kids to camp, and advise my friends against dating the impoverished. I hardly ever make that coleslaw anymore. She on the other hand, has gone soft on us. “Nana,” as she is now known, often bakes cookies. She voted for Clinton. She’s revealed some amazing stories of womanly passion. And nowadays she even pretends to need my help to do the crossword puzzle. Though she first reacted to the news of my pregnancy at 42 with, “Jesus Christ, Marion,” and shocked people with her negative response (“You must be so excited, both your daughters pregnant.” “They’re idiots.”) she came around fast. When we found out it was a girl, and decided to name it after her — as she named me after her mother — she started knitting a baby blanket.
I have called her almost every day since that Wednesday last May when she told me the news. I would tell her about my pregnancy, or about taking my car in for service, or about what I was going to wear to some wedding, suddenly not annoyed by her interest but acutely aware that absolutely no one else in the world would ever give a damn. She, in turn, would tell me about her wig, or the port in her chest, or her golf game.
For as it turned out, she was playing right through chemo. Maybe only eleven holes, maybe in a cart, maybe bald and wearing a baseball cap, but playing nonetheless. And dining out, and going to Atlantic City, and watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune with even fiercer dedication and pleasure than usual. In fact, my mother was getting unusual pleasure from many things. In one phone call, she launched into a detailed description of a lobster stuffed with crabmeat and vermouth she had eaten at a dinner party.
“It was the best lobster I ever had in my life,” she told me.
Well, I could believe that. But when she told me she had gotten up the next morning and had “the best bagel with egg and cheese I ever had in my life at” — you’re not going to believe this — “McDonald’s,” I knew my New York Jew of a mother was having a profound response to her situation.
I had heard of course, that some people respond to a diagnosis of terminal illness with renewed zest for life, patience, love, and spirit. I had, however, never seen it happen. For example, I had watched my first husband die slowly of AIDS, and I have to say terminal illness really didn’t do much for his personality, God bless him. But here was my mother, eating the best bagel of her life at McDonald’s.
And she was still talking about it. “Remember how Daddy and I used to love those Egg McMuffins? This was so much better than that.”
“I miss Daddy,” I said suddenly, because I did.
“Me, too,” she said emphatically.
I was taken aback. It’s not that I didn’t think she missed him, but I really don’t think I had ever heard her say it in the sixteen years since his death.
From then on, I looked forward to our phone calls with secret hilarity, to see what she would come up with next. One day she told me about Diane and Leon Katz’s 50th anniversary party, held at the golf club. She and a few other friends had worked hard to make it festive, constructing a special menu, bringing in flowers and a cake and Diane’s favorite candy, everything just right.
“They lost the candy,” she said. “And we had ordered the lobster steamed, but they stuffed it with some kind of Thermidor. When they took Ceddie’s order, he said ‘I’ll have the same’ meaning the lobster, and then they misunderstood and brought him the salmon. I mean, everything went wrong that possibly could have gone wrong.”
“Oh my god,” I said. I knew she must have been furious. Being furious at the management of the golf club dining room had been a major pastime of my parents since my earliest youth. I steeled myself for the firestorm.
“It was the funniest thing I ever saw,” she said.
“Oh, you just had to laugh,” she said.
I really could not believe my ears. My mother had become the freaking Buddha.
My mother continued doing incredibly well throughout her chemo. She wasn’t nauseous, she wasn’t tired, in fact, she was fine. When my little Jane was born in late June, she couldn’t wait for the day my aunt was supposed to drive her over to Pennsylvania to see her namesake and jumped in the car and came the three hours herself.
After nine weeks, chemo was over and she was to start radiation. She was to go every day for a month. It wasn’t easy: She really was having trouble fitting radiation into her schedule. Morning appointments blew her golf dates; afternoon cut into bridge. We had come a long way from that first phone call, where she wasn’t playing golf all summer (or, as I’m sure we both thought, ever.)
Before she started radiation, she had a scan to check the progress of her treatment. She was injected with a dye that turned the lymphoma cells bright orange, and when they went to look at them the next day, there weren’t any.
“Can you believe it?” she said.
“No,” I said, stunned, speechless, and really, really happy. “But yes.”
I am afraid to think of it as more than a temporary reprieve. But so far, it has been an amazing one. The very next day, my mother played in the finals of the Better Ball of Partners at her beloved golf club. It was an important tournament and there had been a large gallery, a brigade of senior citizens in golf carts following the match.
“I was the Jane Winik of twenty years ago,” she said, and gave me the hole by hole, just like that Jane Winik would have. She had parred three, four, ten, thirteen, fifteen, sixteen and seventeen. She had a forty-one on the back nine. Her putting had been sensational; her partner, who had carried them through the first rounds of the tournament, was thrilled. And then there was eighteen, a par five.
“It all came back to me,” she said. “All the times I’ve stood on that tee, all those championships, all those memories.” She hit a good first shot, a good second shot. At that point, all four players had the same lie, and there was a big nasty trap between them and the hole. One after the next, the other players went into it. “I hit a seven iron to the green and two-putted to make five for four and win,” she said.
I almost knew what she was talking about.
“People were crying,” she said.
I didn’t blame them. I was crying myself. “Are you celebrating?”
“Well, right now I’m just killing time until I go over for radiation,” she said. “I would be watching Jeopardy but your sister’s son messed up the programming on my VCR.”
“Ah,” she said. “So what. No big deal.”