In Ocean Grove down the Jersey shore with her husband, she sees a woman (elderly, like her) and a man (younger, her son?) sitting at a table outside a bakery. She nods to them as she and her husband grab a nearby table, the woman nods back, the man turns away. Screw you, she thinks, marveling at the rage that rises so frequently and unexpectedly these days, Screw you, you bastard, though why she expects the return of her greeting, she can't say. Give without expecting to receive, she reminds herself. She's been trying to practice kindness, which is why she's greeted these strangers in the first place. Let go, she tells herself, let it go.
It's midmorning, and she and her husband have stopped for a rest, a bottle of water, a cup of coffee, and a tiny treat. The woman sitting next to her doesn't look well, she notices, she doesn't look well at all, she sees these things now, and she wonders what's wrong with her, wants to ask her, for she suspects the woman belongs to her new community, that of the very ill, that of the who-knows-how-long-we-have-left, but, of course, she doesn't ask. Maybe that's why her son turns away. Maybe that's why her son hasn't returned her greeting. Being with his mother is too much for him; being with his mother shuts him down.
With the clarity of insight that's emerged since she's been sick, she realizes that if this man is the only person in this woman's life, the only one she can now rely on, she won't be well taken care of, she won't be taken care of at all, she'll be shipped off to a piss smelling nursing home sooner rather than later, and she'll live out the rest of her life there with occasional visits from him that will gradually taper down, and then, one day, cease altogether.
The woman leans over, places her hand on her son's forearm, asks him what he thinks she should do (about what? she wonders), but he sinks even deeper into his chair, doesn't answer, shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, Don't ask me what I think, don't ask me to help you, I can't help you, and I don't want to hear about whatever it is you want to tell me.
So, yes, he's unreliable and selfish as well as rude. But it seems that the son (and yes, he is her son, for she has heard him call the old woman Ma), can barely take care of himself. He's unshaven, he's slovenly, he's huge (yet there he is, eating a gigantic pecan sticky bun, one of her very favorite treats that she permits herself rarely, this one, big enough for four people, and there's another sitting atop the greasy crumpled brown paper bag in front of him that, after he's finished with this one, she suspects, still won't be enough to fill him up, won't be enough to satisfy his gigantic hunger), and, except for the sticky buns, he looks like he'd rather be anywhere but here on this far too warm for winter day, sitting next to his mother outside a bakery down the Jersey shore.
But what, she wonders, has caused this distance, this disaffection?
Something the mother has done?
Enough, she thinks. Enough eavesdropping. Enough worrying about someone she doesn't even know. Enough caring about what will happen to this old woman. She's got enough to worry about. And maybe she's gotten it all wrong, for she has learned, recently, by taking one of those foolish quizzes in a magazine (she has time for that kind of thing now) that she's a very poor judge of character. Maybe the mother and her son are just having a bad day, maybe he's devoted to her and that's why he's taken her for an outing. Goodness knows, she herself is having plenty of hard times these days.
Sitting here outside the bakery in the warmth of the sun, she should be enjoying herself instead of getting herself wrapped up in other people's supposed troubles, for she and her husband are on a brief holiday when she sees the woman and her son, an overnight, as it turns out, so really it's not a holiday at all, but only a brief respite from the drone of their daily life, which is what they'll call it when they get home later that day and speak to their son and daughter-in-law about why they've come back so soon. It was to have been two nights, maybe three, if everything worked out well, if she felt up to it, but she tires easily, and the packing and driving and the unpacking and settling into the bed and breakfast that wasn't nearly as nice as they thought it would be from the photographs on the internet exhausted her, and she gets dispirited when she's away from home and her routine of meditation and a wee bit of exercise, which she insists upon forcing herself to do even if she isn't up to it, to give herself her best chance for--what? not recovery, surely, for that is not possible now--a little more time. And they both hated the room in the B & B--So noisy! Can you believe it, no end tables? How can they expect anyone to climb into that bed? Way too high, and way, way too hard, and those pillows, who sleeps on pillows that soft?
And so the two or more nights of their holiday became one, they agreed on it, no fighting this time about needing to stick to their plan no matter what, he, hoping that she, by exerting sufficient will power, could overcome her fatigue and have enough energy, at least, for a stroll on the boardwalk so he could take some photos like he used to on their holidays in Europe, a place they feel sure they will never see again. He tires easily now too, he tells her when she begins to talk about wanting to go home, and the pain in his joints bothers him, he says, to make her feel better, to persuade her it's not her fault they're cutting their holiday short, it's not just her condition that's making them leave.
Her condition. They never call it an illness. They never call it cancer, she insists on their not calling it cancer, it makes what she's going through way too scary, and in calling it her condition, she knows she's deluding herself into believing that it will be an ongoing manageable inconvenience in their lives. No, she couldn't go on, couldn't enjoy the gift of the indeterminate amount of time she has left, unless she thought it so. And so she calls it my condition, and insists that everyone else uses that term, and so that's what it's become, and that's how they refer to it. Her condition.
But before they leave the shore for the long drive home, they decide not to waste this glorious morning, and since a stroll on the boardwalk is out of the question, they drive to Ocean Grove to that little bakery she's always wanted to try. And they've agreed to stop being abstemious and to treat themselves to a little snack, something sweet, she tells him she feels the need for it, and he doesn't stand in her way this time, doesn't remind her that a woman with her condition should lay off fattening food, should try to keep her weight stable. He figures she's been through so much so often and for so long--all the tests, scans, x-rays, biopsies, blood work, treatments, operations--that this little treat might lift her spirits, for she's told him she's very sad she's too tired for a walk, and she's very, very sad that they have to go home, for since they've been away she realizes how little she can do, and when she's home, she has an easier time with all this, and she's just told him it'll be better for her if they don't even try to get away from now on, and she's sorry this condition of hers prevents them from traveling, but it's too hard for her to go away and then have to return home abruptly, too hard for her to remember how they traveled to out of the way places few people had heard about. Yes, the sweet might cheer her up, he thinks, so it will be good for her to have it, and don't they say that a person with her condition does better if they have a positive attitude?
Whenever he asks her how she is today--for she has taught him to ask How are you today? not How are you? a question, she insists, you should never ask someone with her condition, for how could you possibly answer?--she tells him she's fine, she always says that, or else, a little tired, that's all, and so he never knows how she is unless it gets really bad, and she does seem fine most of the time, she's learning to live in the moment, to be grateful she's still here, to not contaminate today with what might happen in the future, and she begins each day singing Alive, alive-oh-o, Alive, alive-oh-o when she takes her morning shower and it makes him happy to hear her singing and it breaks his heart.
Yes, she's fine, really, except for when she's not. Those nights when she weeps in bed and tries not to let him hear her, but of course he does. Those days when she loses her glasses and bursts into tears because she can't find them, and she picks up something, and throws it across the room, something unbreakable, not like the early days when she threw cups, saucers, plates when she got angry. Those times when the pain is so bad she can't get into a comfortable position. Or when someone she cares about says something that hurts her, like when their son referred to her condition as a terminal illness, and it took her days to regain her equilibrium, and she told him never, ever, to use that term again. Or the days when she tires herself beyond reason, hoping, he supposes, by virtue of her activity, to prove to herself she's almost as good as she used to be, but she's not, and they both know it, and she will never be again, and on one of those nights when she's far from fine, she crawls up the stairs to bed, one stair at a time, and he takes her hand and pulls her up the last step, Just like you used to pull me up the ladder into your father's boat, she always says, and she smiles, remembering that first hot summer of their love, but he doesn't smile because it hurts too much to think of them so young, fit, at the beginning, instead of somewhere near the end of their love.
No, at those times, she's far from fine, but, thankfully, she isn't not fine every moment of every day. Not yet. At least there's that, he thinks, and he's grateful for it.
Right now, they're pretending that being in Ocean Grove sitting in front of this bakery is something like being on the coast of Liguria, sitting at the Primula, the local cafe in Camogli, the one where old women gather to play cards and drink aperitivos every afternoon after they do their shopping before heading home to cook the evening meal. Camogli, a place where they've been many times, but where they'll never go again, she couldn't risk it, getting sick in Italy, she's heard the most awful stories, how a friend's husband kidnapped her from a hospital in Sicily because her foot turned blue because the cast they'd put on her broken ankle was too tight and no one would do anything until the specialist who put on the cast came down from Rome, how someone knew someone whose husband's ward in Genoa was awash in inches of water and how it was days before a doctor looked at him and how his wife had to provide him with food. Still, even if she had the energy to endure the travel, which she doesn't, and getting sick more than a drive away from her doctor would send her off the deep end, she says, and so they stay close to home. And yes, they both know that sitting outside this cafe at a rusting table is nothing at all like being in Liguria, but that's out for the time being, he says, to keep her hopes up, though they both know that the time being means forever, which really means for the rest of her life, not his, she says, he could always go there after, and that's when he tells her he'll never go anywhere without her, it would be too hard, and she knows that what he says might not be true, but she's glad to hear it. So, they play this game, they pretend they're where they cannot be, and it gives them some small measure of joy to play this game together, when so much has been taken from her, from him, from them.
She's sent her husband into the bakery to get two coffees, a cappuccino for her, an espresso for him, and a sweet, something they'll both like, she says. And she's looking forward to it, as she looks forward to every small pleasure, for small pleasures are all she has now, and these, she must relish, and she does. When he's asked her what she wants to eat, for he knows how picky she is, and has always been, she's told him to choose something he knows she'll like, she can't decide, for deciding is impossible these days--she never knows what will appeal to her before she starts eating, and so she can't know what she'll want to eat. It's the pills, she reminds him, the ones that make her pickier than a toddler, make her different from the adventurous eater she always was, trying new recipes on weekends, eating anything put before her with gusto, she'll eat anything, she's always said, anything except innards.
Mission impossible, he says, as he gets up to go into the bakery to try to find something to satisfy her. They both laugh when he says she's sent him on a mission that will be impossible for him to accomplish for they know what she has asked him to do cannot be done, still he will try valiantly to do it, although he knows he'll fail. And it's because he tries to please her when she has no idea what she wants to eat or can eat that makes her love him so, yes, that, and so very much more. He knows she'd go herself if she weren't so tired, for she loves bakeries, loves food markets, loves little specialty shops, and the family has always laughed about how she's a sucker for condiments whose jars are adorned with little ribbons and how she comes out of a store carrying a jar of local honey, of cucumber vinegar, or of sun-dried tomatoes as happy as if she'd struck gold.
They both know that what she can eat changes from one meal to the next, from one day to the next, because of the medicine that is keeping her alive but that makes her tired, lose her balance when she's walking, interrupts her sleep, gives her pains in every part of her body, peels the skin off her hands and her feet so that sometimes she can't cook, can't walk, the medicine she takes dutifully, without complaining, at least not often, counting out the proper number of pills in the morning and in the evening, and ingesting them, as she's been told, no more than twenty minutes after they've had their breakfast and dinner.
She's a dream patient, he tells the doctor when they visit her rock star oncologist, a woman, who, when they first meet, asks what she should know about her besides the fact that she has cancer, and she is surprised, for not many doctors care about who you are, and she has trouble answering, but says, I teach, or at least I taught, I write, I knit, I have a terrific family, I love to cook and eat great food, we love--or rather, loved--to travel. Oh, yes, she does exactly as she's told, takes her pills, meditates, uses prescribed lotions on her body, tries to exercise, and he hopes all this will count for something, a longer life than the abruptly terminated one they'd at first thought she'd have, but secretly, he hopes she'll be one of those anomalous patients, a woman who is suddenly, surprisingly, unmistakably, completely normal, and he tells her this once, and she says, Don't get your hopes up; that's probably not going to happen, but hope is what he has to have, hope is what helps him get from today to tomorrow.
Still the truth is he's more afraid of what will happen than she is. It's harder, she tells him, for the other person, it always is, but he doesn't believe it as he watches what she goes through. He couldn't do it, he says. You'd have no choice, she replies, it's not courage, it's necessity. And besides, she says, let's not ruin today because of what might happen in the future. What will happen, he thinks, but doesn't say, for he knows better than she does the inevitability of what will happen to her, to them, knows because he is--or was--a doctor.
He comes out of the bakery with coffees and an oatmeal cookie for them to share, and when he pulls it out of the bag she looks disappointed, but he tells her he's figured it's the healthiest choice, and at least she'll get some oats along with all that fat and sugar. And he remembers how often they'd stop for a mid-morning coffee and sweet on their walks in Italy, France, and England, and how everything she tasted, everything they ate--a croissant, a sfogliatella, a cup of gelato--she declared to be the very best she'd ever eaten, and maybe he should have gotten her an indulgence today, but he didn't want to feed her anything rich, he didn't want to be like the man they both knew a long time ago, who fed his wife all manner of fattening foods, foie gras, ice cream, pastries, despite doctors' orders, and they both said he probably wanted her to die because what he was doing was going to kill her.
And it sometimes amused him, her declaration that whatever she was eating was the best thing she'd ever eaten, and it sometimes annoyed him, and the realist in him, the part of him that sometimes wouldn't join her in her flights of fancy, would ask her how was it possible that the last thing she ate was the best of its kind in the world, and she'd frown, and say, Don't rain on my parade, mister. And once, in Venice, as she was savoring a seafood risotto, and she was singing its praises and declaring it to be the best seafood risotto in the world, he said, How can you know that, you haven't eaten every risotto in the world? and she grabbed her purse and her map of Venice and stormed off back to their hotel and she was so angry at him that she hoped he'd get lost in Venice's warren of passageways and never find his way back.
An oatmeal cookie? she says, when he pulls it out of the bag. Really? And they both laugh. For he knows she means Isn't it a little too late for me to worry about being healthy? and though others might be horrified at her gallows humor, it helps them both; it lightens the load.
Still, to please him, she tries the cookie. Scoffs. Says it sucks. Finds the strength to duck into the bakery to buy something else, not the sticky bun, though she wants it, but an elephant ear (soggy), an almond croissant (soggy, too), from what has turned out to be this poor excuse for a bakery, to have with their coffees, which taste nothing like they should, and really, he thinks, she seems more upset about the poor food she's been given than about her condition, but then again, she's always been this way about food, a good meal lifts her spirits, a bad one ruins her day, and he has never gotten used to it, for to him a bad meal shouldn't make that much of a difference, though he knows how her mother couldn't feed her when she was an infant, and how her mother sometimes forgot to feed her when she was a toddler, and how her mother fed her "crap," as she put it, while she was growing up.
A few days before, they'd gone to a Neapolitan pizza place, the pizzaola straight from Naples, the waiters from Naples, too, and, for the first part of the meal, she was in heaven, eating the good chewy focaccia, and a pizza margarita that was just right. Then a family, a husband (light-haired, vacant eyes), a wife (long black hair, dark eyes), and two children, a boy, about four, a girl, about two, were seated next to them, and the mother ordered grilled fish, the father, stewed octopus, and there was a pizza (for the kids, they assumed, reminiscing about how they used to take their two boys out for pizza so long ago, and how much they all laughed at her as she instructed them to separate the pieces to cool them down so they wouldn't burn their mouths--Separate for coolness, the kids would say, and laugh, but not at her, they insisted, and then she would tell them they were full of it).
The little girl was hungry, she could tell, she could sense these things, but the mother sat there eating her food, offering the child nothing, not even a tidbit, while the father fed the son a piece of stewed octopus, a slice of pizza, a few shrimp from his wife's plate. The little girl took her fork, tried to spear something on her mother's plate, the mother took the fork away. The little girl reached for her brother's pizza, the mother batted her hand away. And this continued throughout the meal, the little girl wanting food, trying to get it, the mother denying her, until, near its end, the child began pretending to feed herself from the empty basket that had contained the focaccia her mother wouldn't let her eat.
Her meal was ruined. She couldn't get out of the restaurant fast enough, and he couldn't figure out what was wrong. She'd wanted to get up from her chair, take the child into her arms, feed her anything she wanted, but she didn't, she couldn't cause a scene, she knew she'd make it worse for the child if she intervened.
And when they were walking to their car, for this was a good day for her and he didn't have to pick her up in front of the restaurant and she was able to walk the two blocks to the car, she turned to him and said, She should be shot.
Who? he asked, for he never knew who had enraged her. Who do you want to shoot now?
That piece of shit mother, she replied. And then she told him that the mother sitting next to their table didn't feed her daughter anything even though she was hungry, didn't he notice, she didn't give her anything to eat, and when she described how the little girl pretended to feed herself, she began to cry, and for days after, she couldn't forget that little girl, and how she pretended to feed herself, and she'd imagine the little girl grabbing her fork and sticking it in her mother's eye.
As they sat and rested in Ocean Grove, the litter of their uneaten food on the table, she brightened when she noticed that the formerly derelict building opposite was being rehabilitated, its Victorian tracery now painted in accents of mauve, purple, and green.
Look, she told him, that place across the street that was such a wreck. Look at it now! They've completely renovated it, and there will be shops on the ground floor, and apartments up top, and look at how nicely they've painted it!
He couldn't understand her fascination with house renovations, with home improvements, couldn't understand how, at the end of the day, before they made dinner, she'd sit with her knitting and watch one rehab show after another on TV, the one with the cute couple from Texas who made her laugh, the one with the cute couple from California who were getting divorced but still working together, the one with the twin brothers from Canada who wore tight jeans. Before she got sick, she wasn't like this, wouldn't dream of wasting her time watching the stars of these shows gutting houses and putting them back together again far more beautiful than they had been before, and he had to admit that they worked wonders on these wrecks of house, and when he asked her what her obsession with these shows was all about, she only said, I love to see what they do to them; love to see how beautiful they turn out, and they couldn't begin cooking until she saw what he learned was "the reveal"--the moment when the owners were allowed to see their renovated house for the first time, as if, he said, they'd never seen it in progress, what bullshit, and she had to agree.
She'd learned some terms of the trade--demo day, full gut, complete rewire, cosmetic changes, structural issues, footings, load-bearing wall--and she'd make him laugh by shouting into the kitchen where he was prepping their vegetables to tell him that the particular house she was watching being renovated required a complete rewire, and they'd both groan, and say, in unison, What's that going to cost? the way the owners of the house or the stars of the show always asked the contractors.
What he doesn't know and what she doesn't tell him is that every decrepit house that's transformed lets her pretend that something like that could happen to her. She's had recurring dreams about people renovating her body, one in which the cute couple from Texas come into her home to perform a full gut on her, and, on demo day, they take out all the diseased parts of her body and throw them into the dumpster in her driveway, and they ask her what special features she would like in her new and improved body, and she tells them, nothing special, just something that functions well, that she'd like to walk without getting dizzy, and if they could do something about the sores on her feet, she'd be grateful, she'd like them to return to a healthy shade of pinko-gray, which is what her anthropology professor taught her was the real color of the so-called white race, and they tell her not to worry, to leave it all to them, and when she awakens, they have done more than what she's asked, and she has nothing at all wrong with her, she's as good as new, no, she's better than new, and, they tell her, this new improved body will last her a lifetime, she no longer has anything to worry about.
When she'd gone inside the bakery to choose a few treats more self-indulgent than the oatmeal cookie her husband had picked out, she'd had trouble picking up the bag filled with her goodies (too many, she knew, too fattening, she admitted, but, so what, she'd decided to indulge herself), and she'd asked the clerk for help.
Neuropathy, she says, sometimes my hands don't do what I want them to do, and when he asks her what that is, if she doesn't mind his asking, she explains that it's got to do with nerves. It's from the cancer, she says, then corrects herself. No, not the cancer, the side effects of chemotherapy, and she imagines a team of experts coming into her home to do a complete rewire of her nervous system, and how, after, she is as good as new, no, better than new, she can once again pick up things without dropping them, button her shirts, thread a needle, feel textures (rough, smooth), and the unbearable silkiness of the skin on her husband's back.
I'm so sorry, the clerk says, I didn't know the medicine for cancer could do that.
Cancer. It's the first time she's named it. And she can't figure out why she's said it to him, and why it feels all right, and why it doesn't bother her like she thought it would. Maybe it's because the clerk has been so nice to her, maybe it's because she sees he has something awful, too, something really serious, at least it appears that way to her, AIDS or lung disease or a serious drug addiction. He looks wasted. Sunken cheeks, all too prominent cheekbones, thin as a rail. But she doesn't ask what's wrong, doesn't want to pry, but she thinks he knows she knows they both inhabit the universe of the never going to be well again.
He disappears into the back room, comes back with a special pink and white striped bag with the name of the not so terrific bakery printed on the front, picks up her ordinary white baker's bag, deposits it in the special bag, and comes out from behind the counter to present it to her.
And then he tells her he has carpal tunnel syndrome and he's thinking about getting an operation. From doing art, he says, pointing to a blackboard decorated with chalk flowers surrounding a list of the day's special treats, and the tulips he's drawn are beautiful and she sees he has talent and she hopes he's using it, has used it, for more than just this. She knows, though doesn't say, carpal tunnel, that's the least of your problems, and she will think about him long after their encounter, just as she will think about the old woman sitting at the table with her son, and the little girl who pretended to feed herself, and she will wonder about them, wonder whether the old woman will get the care she needs, wonder if the little girl will learn to reach far across the table to pilfer something to eat from her mother's plate when she isn't looking, wonder whether the clerk in the bakery will still be alive and working there and drawing his flowers when she next returns, if she returns.
Here, the clerk says, handing her the bag with a little bow and a show of ceremony, the special bag containing what will turn out to be very unsatisfactory treats that she will throw into the garbage after just one bite.
Enjoy, he says. And do take care.
She takes the bag, thanks him, does a little curtsy, tells him that she will take care, and that he should take care, too, for, she thinks, that's about all they can do right now.
And yet, and yet. She already knows that the memory of that bow, that small show of ceremony, and the fact that he went all the way into the back of the bakery to get a special bag for her, will nourish her during some of the more difficult moments to come.
Louise DeSalvo began the MFA Memoir Program at Hunter College where she was the Jenny Hunter Endowed Scholar. She has published the memoirs Vertigo (winner of the Gay Talese Prize), Breathless, Adultery, Crazy in the Kitchen, On Moving, and, recently, The Art of Slow Writing and Chasing Ghosts: A Memoir of a Father, Gone to War. The House of Early Sorrows: A Memoir in Essays is forthcoming from Fordham University Press in Spring 2018. She is currently working on a memoir about cancer.