It seemed that Carla was always waiting for her mother, even as a Master’s of biochemistry and physics student in her second year of study. Rather than dangling her legs from a too high, uncomfortable bar stool at her mother’s specialty bakery or shifting from one foot to the other at the bus stop, she sat in a carpeted seat along the wall of the out-patient Oncology clinic. She had been sitting in this exact spot for almost a year. Every other Monday she’d go through the same routine: walk in through the sliding glass doors, greet the security guard with a nod (and he’d gesture at her with his coffee), ride in the stainless-steel elevator to the eleventh floor, and sit in her seat with one of her professor’s research articles. As a bribe to let her continue the class in spite of her absences, she had offered to help him do his dissertation research as a volunteer research assistant.
She took a sip of her soda. It was warm now-a marker of how long she had been waiting. It had been freezing when, after her mother had disappeared through the heavy oak door, Nurse Thalia secretly passed it to her on the way to call for the next patient. The soda had been so cold that it was starting to form ice chips at the top. She knew from Nurse Caroline that Nurse Amanda always had the icebox in the break room turned up high, and that’s why the sodas were more like slushies. She heard a lot while waiting; no one ever expected her to be listening when she hid behind one of her thick binders. It had always been like that. When she was a little kid and had to spend her after school hours at her mother’s bakery, Carla would sit in her favorite stool-the one with the rickety leg at the back-at the counter and scribble on a discarded napkin as all manner of people would exchange coins and bills for brown paper bags full of cinnamon-raisin, chocolate, and yeast smells. None of the customers who stood inches away from her with their heavy perfume and thick faux-leather satchels ever paid her much mind. They were too engrossed in her mother, who was always sporting a spotless apron and a permanent dusting of flower in her wavy blond hair that made it look like she had highlights.
People often mistook Carla’s ease with waiting for contentment. In actuality, she hated it. She hated the fact that when she was stuck at the bakery, her mother would only sacrifice her lunch a few times a week to sit with her and ask about her day or help her with multiplying fractions. She hated that when she started second grade, she had to walk five blocks in the ice-whipped wind or fend off yellow jackets in the stagnant air only to wait pitifully at the bus stop as the other kids threw dirty snow in each other’s faces or tossed frozen Capri Suns at each other. She would have given anything for a day with her mother; a chunk of time when they would abandon school and work and play eye spy around the city like they used to when Carla was too young for preschool and her babysitter called in sick. Waiting for those days was horrific because they never came, but she did it anyway. She relished the brief moments when her mother would sit down next to her at the bakery counter and let her sing “little Bunny Foo Foo” or play tic-tac-toe with her. It wasn’t much, but Carla took what she could get. Even now, her easy slump into waiting was like pulling out an old, dusty baby blanket.
What unnerved her was watching others wait. Most of the people in the Muzack-filled waiting room fiddled with newspaper articles and magazines as if they could tune the words on the page like an old radio. When a bald kid walked out of the door holding a stuffed animal and a cartooned barf bag, the waiting party would let the crumpled pages slip from their restless fingers and rush to catch their child’s tilting body with a relieved devastation in their perpetually red eyes. They would rub their backs soothingly as if relishing in the shaking of live nerves. If it wasn’t a kid, then it was old, hunched men creaking on their walkers or hairless women with vomit stains trailing down their already stained shirts hobbling to meet their equally-hobbled partners or middle-aged children yelling terse instructions or hissing parental threats into overworked cell phones as they scrambled to grasp trembling shoulders.
She couldn’t help thinking of them all as pathetic. Her mother would never leave like that; she’d never wear her cancer. She always came out with her bouncy blonde wig and fresh clothes. She’d look pale and weak, but her lips would be perfectly pink, and her lashes would touch her cheeks seductively. She’d give an encouraging smile as she passed a cancer patient on the way in for treatment, and she’d even say a “hello” to the crying kids who couldn’t stop picking at the bandages that covered their chemo ports. Her mother wore her beauty and kindness like a badge of honor, and taught Carla to do the same through example. Carla was good at staying composed. She never showed her impatience with waiting, and she had few outbursts. Unfortunately, she struggled with the kindness. She was terse, which hadn’t afforded her very many friends. Even her Dad, who had separated from her mother when Carla was five, avoided talking to her if he could help it. Carla didn’t waste her kindness on just anyone; it was something special that only belong to a select few people, her mother included in that small and dwindling list.
The door squealed open with the sound of someone exiting. Carla knew it wasn’t her mother; she didn’t even have to look at a watch to know it wasn’t time yet. Her waiting wasn’t over, and sometimes she wondered if it ever would be. Looking up from an article on the effects of Steroids on the metabolism of high school drug abusers, she saw blue eyes on a bald face. His head was perfectly smooth; he didn’t even have eyebrows. It was a startling contrast from the kids with tufts of hair flying away from their scalp. He was tall and thin; that sickly thin that her mother had started to take on, but it didn’t look horrible on him yet. He stood framed in the doorway until he slowly moved towards a seat on the other end of her row. She took another sip of soda and turned the page of the article, watching the boy carefully from the corner of her eye. He sat down, and it looked like it hurt. He put his feet up on the chair next to him and turned to face her fully. Carla was shocked by the movement. It was an unspoken rule that you avoid eye contact with the sick patience if you weren’t sick yourself, and the sick wouldn’t meet the healthies’ eyes in respect of that rule. Carla knew it was stupid, but she couldn’t help feeling that if she looked too closely, she’d get sick too, or have to deal with the thought that death was a bit closer to home than she wanted to admit. The fear had gotten so bad that sometimes, she couldn’t even look her mother in the eye when they were at the clinic.
“Your bra’s showing,” the boy said, before leaning backwards over the arm rest bar of the chair and letting his head hang loosely. Carla looked down at her black jersey, and could see a pink material peeking through. Self-consciously, she pulled at the shirt fabric until the pink disappeared. She hadn’t meant to be wearing a pink bra, but she had spent the last night and early morning studying for her Bio chem exam and had grabbed the first clothing items her hands had touched. She looked back to the boy, willing the red to fade from her face. Before she could come up with a response to him, the heavy wooden door swung open once more.
Out came her mother dressed in a mint green sweater and black jeans. These were not the clothes she had come in with, and Carla knew that meant she had a bad day. Quickly, she stood up and hurried toward her mother.
“I’m fine, Carla,” she said, the end of her sentence punctuated with a weak cough. Carla reached into her mother’s purse and pulled out the keys.
“I’ll drive, mom,” she said, steering her mother to the front desk.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said before lapsing into silence. Carla knew that her mother’s lack of refusal meant that she was not feeling well.
She watched as her mother weakly signed the checkout form and turned towards the exit. Just as her mother opened the door, Nurse Thalia came out.
“Carla, can you stay back for a second?”
Carla looked uncertainly at her mother, who was leaning meekly against the door frame.
“Just bring me the keys so I can get in the car,” she said. Carla was skeptical as she handed her mother back her keys. “Oh, don’t give me that look,” she snapped. “I can get myself to the car without a babysitter. Just talk to the nurse, Carl’s,” she said, softening her voice at her daughter’s nickname. Carla nodded and turned to Nurse Thalia.
“Why don’t we go somewhere a little more private,” the nurse suggested. Inwardly, Carla groaned. It wasn’t going to be good news. Resigned, she nodded and followed Nurse Thalia through that hated wooden door that she had watched open and close for the last year.
The first thing that hit her as soon as she crossed the threshold into the medical wing of the oncology clinic was the smell. She nearly gagged on the sharp cloying scent of antiseptic, chemicals, and the bitter undertone of vomit.
“It’s not the easiest place to be,” Nurse Thalia said, noticing her discomfort. They passed rooms with thin, white curtains hiding the occupants from view. Some of the rooms were quiet; some had cartoons playing in the background, but most of them were filled with the sounds of sobbing and retching. Carla tried hard to tune all of the stimuli out and focus on following Nurse Thalia, who was aiming for the back of the ward.
They finally reached a small office at the back of the wing. Here, the smell of misery was less pronounced. Instead of an examination room, there was a tiled lounge area with hard-looking couches and chairs, an old box television, and a small mini fridge. It was the Nurse’s lounge.
“Do you want another soda?” Nurse Thalia asked, pulling open the door to the fridge. Carla shook her head and sank onto a hard, faux leather chair. Nurse Thalia pulled out a coke and popped the tab as she let the fridge door close. Then she sat in a chair facing Carla’s.
“I won’t beat around the bush, Carla. I think I know better than to do that with you,” Nurse Thalia began. Carla nodded in recognition and appreciation.
“It’s about my mother’s health,” she stated.
“Yes, it is. Have you noticed how weak she’s been after these treatments?” Carla nodded.
“A few weeks ago, Dr. Torrets said that she would run more tests,” Carla said.
“Indeed, she did. We just got the results back today.”
“So, where’s the doctor? Normally she likes to sit down with my mother and I and go over the test results,” Carla explained.
“Your mother wanted me to talk to you directly. She’s already heard the prognosis,” Nurse Thalia said gently. Carla felt her stomach start to cramp up.
“It’s over, isn’t it?” she asked lowly. Nurse Thalia could only nod in response, working hard to blink back tears.
“She has a little over six months if she continues chemo, and that time will be reduced by half if she does not continue the treatments.”
Nurse Thalia didn’t have to say more, Carla knew, from the nurse’s look as well as her own inferences, that her mother would not continue the treatments, even if it meant extending her life. Carla took a breath to steady herself.
“What are our options?” she asked.
Carla exited the heavy wooden door twenty minutes later. She had declined Nurse Thalia’s offer to escort her out. In her hand, she held a piece of paper with names and phone numbers of counselors and hospice agencies. She knew she’d have to make every call; her mother would refuse to.
Numbly, she walked up to the front desk and stared blankly at the receptionist who was chattering away on the phone as she tapped out a message with her nails. Carla, needing to focus on something, honed in on the nails. They were pink and glittering. They looked like those nails you got from the dollar store when you were five and wanted to play dress up.
“Can I help you,” the receptionist asked as she set down the phone. Carla shook the thoughts of fake nails away and looked at the woman.
“I need a termination of services form.” Pity crawled over the woman’s smooth face like a rash.
“Of course, dear, just a second,” she said, reaching into a gray filing cabinet behind her. She returned to the desk with a stack of smooth, colored papers.
“You bring those back whenever you can; no rush,” she said. Carla nodded in acknowledgement, collected the papers, and strolled through the door.
The day of Carla’s mother’s funeral, she finally decided to turn in the termination of services form. She had driven to the hospital in her mom’s car, hoping to stave off its repossession for a few more hours. There were a million and one other things she should have been doing; she had already missed her appointment with her financial aid officer twice; the funeral home director kept calling her about the life insurance payment not going through, and the building renters for the bakery were missing two months of rent.
Two months, that’s all it had taken for Carla’s mother to disintegrate. It had started two weeks after the prognosis: the first missed chemotherapy appointment. Carla, who had pulled an all-nighter studying for her physics exam, had noticed her mother walk past the dining room and into the living room. There was nothing inherently troubling about that except for the fact that her mother wasn’t wearing her wig. Normally, she wouldn’t leave her room, even to use the bathroom, without having her wig placed carefully on top of her head. But that morning, her head glistened in the dim light peeking in through the pulled shades. From then on, her mother faded away right before Carla’s eyes. She stopped wearing her favorite Chanel Lipstick, and instead of calculating numbers for the bakery, she filled out crossword puzzles and flipped through the funnies. She left the house less, and she required more of Carla’s time.
The hospice nurses were no help, though Carla didn’t blame them. On her mother’s better days (because Carla would refuse to call them good) she would tolerate their hovering, and even engage them in conversation. On her horrible days, she would scream in between raspy coughs until she sent the nurses scampering back to their offices to write up reports on refusal of care. Those days, Carla would step in to calm her mother and take care of her, leaving her research paper half written and losing her notes in the shuffle of pain medicine paperwork. These days quickly became the norm and Carla found herself constantly sitting on the edge of her chair, waiting to hear a weak call from her mother who needed to go to the bathroom, or had fallen out of bed again, or needed to be bathed for the third time that day because of an accident. Carla was able to maintain her patience with her mother. She listened attentively as she complained about the useless nurses and her aching body. She didn’t bat an eye when she became the topic of her mother’s complaints; she just continued gently spooning food into her mother’s unwilling mouth or refolded the blankets the correct way. However, her abundance of patience did not extend to anyone else. She no longer spoke to the few friends she had, and she was kicked out of her intermediate bio chem class for “disrespectful engagement with a professor.” It was the first class she had been able to attend in a month, and her professor’s prattling had scratched her raw nerves so much that she had lost her temper and interrupted the lecture on GMO’s and other cancer-accelerant chemicals to tell Professor McGuitch he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
“Can I help you?” the receptionist asked as Carla timidly stepped to the desk. The woman wasn’t someone she recognized; she must have been a newbie. Carla shifted uncomfortably in her black velvet dress that squeezed her breasts and drowned her legs as the receptionist looked slightly disapproving; as if by wearing her funeral garb, Carla was bringing bad tidings to this place that was already full to bursting with them.
“I’ve come to return these forms,” she said, pulling the wrinkled, colored papers out of her muted cloth bag. She set them on the counter, trying hard not to meet the receptionist’s eyes.
“These were given to you two and a half months ago,” she said briskly. Carla shrugged, too tired to take offense.
“This was the only time I had to bring them,” she replied. It wasn’t a lie; her days had been occupied with her graduate work and her mother; she didn’t have time for bureaucracy, though it was beginning to creep up on her now. The bills had piled up on the dining room table and the bill collector calls had transformed from false pleasantries to abrupt orders to return the call by a specified date and time. Carla knew that soon, she would be faced with threats and ultimatums.
“Well, I’ll need to confer with the physician on your case.”
“It’s not for me, it’s for my mother, Alana Carterson,” Carla said. The pain wasn’t as sharp as she expected it to be upon saying her mother’s name out loud.
“Well, your mother needs to be here unless she’s…”
“Dead? Yeah, I’m aware. And she is. Dead, I mean.” The receptionist looked at her again, her gaze still faintly disapproving but with a bit of empathy mixed in. Carla took it for pity and wished the receptionist would go back to being brisk.
“Please have a seat and wait. I will get someone to speak with you.”
Carla knew she would regret the decision later when she had nightmares about her mother exiting the door wearing her purple, princess cut funeral dress, but for now she took the seat she had occupied for a year. This time, there was no routine to it; there were no sodas by attentive nurses, and there was no playing the game of wondering what her mother would look like after she stepped back into the carpeted world of life.
“Hey, you’re that one lady with the pink bra?”
Carla turned and met eyes with the bald boy. He was now sporting a blue wig, but Carla could see tufts of brown hair peeking out.
“Don’t you have someone else to bother?” she said. The boy shrugged.
“No, actually. Usually I bother Paul. He’s the kid who sat next to me every week in our shared room. My mom’s a bank teller and my Dad’s an artist so, you know, not much money for private rooms. So, any way’s, Paul is usually the one I pick on, but I stopped getting regular treatments, and apparently Paul did too.”
“Well good for you both,” Carla said, less irritated than she had been earlier.
“It’s alright for me, but for Paul… Well, I guess the dead don’t need chemotherapy, do they?”
Carla caught her breath, which hurt a bit given the tightness of her dress. She reminded herself to breathe normally before answering the boy.
“No, I guess they don’t.”
“So, why are you here?” he asked. “I don’t remember ever seeing you in the back, and you don’t look like cancer’s kicked your ass.”</P.>
“I’m here turning in my Mom’s paperwork,” Carla explained, her irritation flooding back. “And don’t you even say it,” she warned as the boy opened his mouth to probably make some glib remark.
“Zachariah Elthab.” Carla and the boy looked up. Carla hadn’t even heard the door squeak; had they finally doused it in WD40?
“I hate it when they call me Zachariah,” the boy-Zachariah- muttered as he stood. “Is it that damn hard to say Zach?”
“I thought you were done with treatment,” Carla asked. She wasn’t sure why she even cared. This was a boy who had teased her for her outfit, dismissed her mother’s and another random boy’s death, and just generally grinded her gears. Sure, he was just a teen, maybe 16 at the oldest, but he should still have learned something from his experience. He turned to her halfway to the door.
“Yes, I did. I come here every month for a pet scan. That’s the thing about cancer, you’re just waiting around for it to kill you. Even if they say it’s gone. Somedays I wish I was Paul because at least when you’re dead, you can stop looking over your shoulder.” He grinned at her suddenly, pointedly ignoring the impatient cough of the nurse.
“Your mom’s dead.” He said it as a statement and all Carla could do was nod.
“She’s not waiting around here anymore, so why are you?” He didn’t give her a chance to ponder the answer. He turned and walked the rest of the way to the door and disappeared with the soft snick of it closing. Carla felt the permanence of that motion. Maybe she knew that his scans would show a doubly-aggressive resurgence of the Leukemia that he had been working to fight off for three years, or maybe she knew that no matter what, she’d never have the chance to see him again.
Carla sat there absorbing his words, waiting for them to click. She felt like she was missing something; like when she was solving a chemical equation and was missing one important symbol, but it wasn’t making itself known to her.
“Carla,” Nurse Thalia called. She walked over to Carla and wrapped her in a hug.
“It’s been a while,” she said pulling back. Then, she got a good look at what Carla was wearing and her eyes filled with tears.
“It’s good to see you too,” Carla said, quickly standing up before Nurse Thalia could bombard her with questions about her mother’s death. Nurse Thalia sniffed a few times and then extended her hand.
“Why don’t we talk? I understand you came to turn in some paperwork, correct? I know we usually have patience discuss it with a physician, but because of this circumstance, I figured you want someone you were comfortable with.” Carla nodded as they headed to the Break lounge. She wished she didn’t have to go back their; she knew she’d see the imprint of her mother’s smile in the sterile walls, and smell the sweetness of her perfume in the stench of vomit and stale bodies.
“If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to call me personally. I gave you my number on this sheet of paper,” Nurse Thalia said as they reached the exit. She handed Carla a record of the submitted paperwork and at the bottom, in thin, angular writing, was a cell phone number. Carla took the paper and gently folded it into quarters before placing it into her bag. She knew she’d never use the number; this had to be the last time she set foot in this place.
“Thank you for all you’ve done for my mother,” she whispered, leaning forward to hug the woman. She smelled like cherry lip gloss and chemo fluids, but there was a comfort that Carla would force herself to remember when she sat in the corner of her room, listening for the echo of her mother’s steps that would never exist again.
Carla saw cancer everywhere. every time she flipped on the TV, she saw underfunded soap operas with perky blonde women with make-up bags under their eyes and wisps of blonde hair sticking out of the thing they used to make actors look bald so they wouldn’t have to sacrifice their hair. She saw cancer in the comments of her favorite you tube videos; “This song is cancer” “I hope your mother dies of ovarian cancer, jackass.” When She went to the grocery store to buy bread from the clearance bakery isle and the greasy tube of Walmart brand ground beef, the cashier would always smile at her and ask if she wanted to donate to some national cancer foundation or a local hospital’s oncology department. They’d ask her the same thing when she pulled into McDonalds for a happy meal and a McFlurry when she could spare the extra dollar. It was to the point where all Carla wanted to do was stay in bed with her eyes firmly shut. She was tired of seeing cancer-of seeing her mother everywhere she turned. She’d seen her mother more in these last two weeks after her death than she ever did when she was alive. It wasn’t fair. She knew it was childish to think like that, but it wasn’t fair.
Doing homework wasn’t safe either. Each time she opened her textbook, she feared that she’d encounter an article on metastasizing cells. She was of half a mind to drop out of her masters. It was making her sick to her stomach, she was failing anyway, and she’d probably save a few thousand dollars in the long run.
One morning, she woke with the desire to end her suffering with her masters. She threw on a sweater and baggy jeans over her frayed purple nightgown and put her hair into a messy bun. She walked through the dingy kitchen and reached for the keys on the hook next to the door handle. As she did, her mother’s voice echoed in her head.
“Always be the best you can be, Carl’s. Don’t let this life beat you down.”
Her mother had told her that the day she came to the bakery with a D on her math test. Math was always hard for her; she just couldn’t understand how numbers worked. She had been terrified that she would be punished for her bad grade, and that she was stupid. But her mother had merely glanced at the paper on her way to delivering a poppy-seed muffin to one of her regular customers. Later, when Carla, partially asleep in the back of her mom’s car, asked about the grade, her mother had given her that piece of advice. Carla couldn’t shake the feeling that her mother just didn’t want to deal with punishing her, or even recognize that she might have difficulties that her doctor would later dub as a “learning complication” called Dyscalculia during her physical the next year.
Carla wanted to scream, to ignore her mother’s useless advice. She hadn’t taken the time to be this annoying in life.
“You’re dead anyway,” Carla hissed, taking the keys and banging the front door shut behind her. She was tired of living in that dingy old house which lost electricity a week ago. She was tired of driving around her mom’s old car like a 24-hour wake service. If she was honest with herself, she was tired of waiting for her mother; tired of waiting for her to grace Carla with that special smile, and tired of waiting for her to show up like some George Washington image on a potato chip. Carla would quit school and move somewhere where she could escape from her mother’s memory. Maybe she’d start a daycare or clip people’s flower beds. She’d get a pit bull or a Boston Terrier and have a huge backyard for it to run around in. Maybe she’d teach herself to code or learn how to cook meals other than bitter salads and bland, rubbery chicken breast. Maybe she’d stop looking over her shoulder for something that maybe would never come or maybe was inevitable.