By Mary Ann C. Palmer
I was little, just five years old, alone in my bed, lying on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin; eyes wide open. The sharp scent of night seeped in through my bedroom window. I wanted my mother. But that was impossible. She had died a few months earlier and I was living with my Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe. My room filled with shadows. I couldn’t swallow; it was as if a hand was grabbing my neck. My heart raced, thumping hard against my back. My thoughts were shouting at me. Within minutes, I was swallowed whole by fear. I jumped out of bed and ran to Uncle Joe screaming.
“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said. But I knew I was awake. I knew it. This scene repeated itself. I would learn later that I was having panic attacks.
I practiced not crying over my mother. I practiced how to bury my feelings. The events, however, were stenciled in my memory, not fully formed, but etched there just the same.
I would sit on my mom’s lap; just the two of us on our living room sofa, she clapped my four-year old hands together and sang, “You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” I giggled and collapsed into her soft blue cotton robe. I nuzzled in as close as I could, inhaling the soft powdery scent of the skin on her neck. She must have just taken a bath because her hair was wrapped in a twisted towel. Then Nanny, my mommy’s mom, called me for lunch. I skipped into the kitchen.
I stood by the window in my brother’s room with my mom. She was dressed but wearing the twisted towel on her head that she always wore now. We watched from the fourth floor as my 8-year-old brother Gary, in his yellow slicker, walked out into the rain, down six steps–one, two, three, four, five, six we counted together–and then down the block on his way to school. We sang, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…” Just mommy and me.
Wandering into the bedroom I shared with my mom and dad, the crib I still slept in tucked behind the bedroom door, I looked for Poochy, my well-loved stuffed dog with floppy ears, but I couldn’t find him. I looked everywhere. I finally found him on my mother’s dressing table, right next to one of her bras. The bra looked funny to me, one side was filled with something. Why does mommy have wood in her bra, I wondered. Somehow I knew not to ask. So many things were secret now.
Aunt Anne, who’d been around a lot lately, had to leave before my grandma got here. “Will you be okay?” she asked my mom. Why wouldn’t she be okay, I thought. Aunt Anne left. My mom was sitting in my dad’s upholstered armchair in her blue robe and the twisty towel on her head. I sat on the arm of the chair to get closer to her. She was very quiet, and then I noticed tears rolling down her cheeks. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” But she didn’t answer; she just kept crying. Grownups aren’t supposed to cry. So I cried, too. I was scared, like when I was sure monsters were under my crib. But then my mom’s tears stopped. She put her hand under my chin and said, “Why don’t you go get your doll out of her carriage and show me how you can change her diaper.”
While my mom was sick, I spent more time with my grandma and her sisters. We went to Prospect Park and one day we even went to see the Statue of Liberty. After our outings, I remember opening the door to our apartment and looking straight through the living room to the bedroom to see the shape of my mother’s legs under the blankets through her partially opened door. I was always happy to come home to her. I loved my grandma and aunts, but I wanted to be with Mommy.
Dad lifted me, limp as a rag doll, out of my crib. My head rolled onto his shoulder. He carried me out to the living room. My brother Gary was already up, sitting in his pajamas on the floor, playing with his Legos. I was placed down next to him. My grandparents and a priest were sitting on the sofa. The priest went into the bedroom with my dad.
Gary and I played with his Legos. We made leprechaun houses out of the little white bricks. We made little cots for them out of folded pieces of paper. I didn’t see the leprechauns, but I believed they were there. Gary said they were. I wonder if he knew at 8 years old that if you catch a leprechaun he must grant you three wishes.
I would learn later we only needed one.
On my 5th birthday Gary and I were at Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe’s house. Even though my mom and dad weren’t there I was hoping I would have cake. Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe did a lot of whispering that day. Maybe there would be a surprise. And there was. That night all of my relatives came over—aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was late. “I’m five now,” I thought, “so I guess I get to stay up late.” I never had a birthday party at night, and never with so many relatives. Everyone was dressed up, wearing black. My Aunt’s high heels clicked on the gray and white linoleum floor. The basement party room was smoky from cigarettes and cigars. Ice clinked in highball glasses. I pretended my Mary Jane’s were tap shoes as I made my way around the room. One by one, the adults wished me a happy birthday, then whispered something to each other.
The next day Gary and I were brought to stay with one of my aunt’s sisters; I didn’t know her but she and her husband were nice to us. Their grown-up daughter was there. She sold costume jewelry and she let me choose a ring from a big blue velvet tray. It was a long day. When we finally went home, I was surprised to see our living room filled with relatives, but the first thing I looked for were my mom’s legs under the blankets in her bed. She was not there and the bed was neatly made.
My father called me to sit on his lap. I asked him where Mommy was. “She went to heaven,” he said. I didn’t know where heaven was.
“When is she coming back?” I asked.
“She can’t come back,” he answered.
“Why not? I want to show her my new ring,” I said.
“If she comes back, she’ll be sick again. You don’t want that, do you?”
I knew it would be selfish to want my mom to be sick again. This was a big decision to make. I sobbed. The adults tried to get me to stop. “Look,” they said. “Gary stopped crying.” I tried to see reason in that, but I couldn’t. I shut down. I stopped crying. And did not cry again. “Look how good she is,” everyone said.
I wished my family had told me the truth. When I was old enough to read I found one of my mother’s funeral cards with my birth date on it. I realized the late night birthday gathering was not for me; it was for my mom. I still didn’t cry. So what should have been loss and grief morphed into fear and worry. I continued to have panic attacks. I worried about getting cancer my whole life, even as a child. Every little lump or bump was cause for alarm. And then I did get cancer, ovarian cancer, when my youngest child, Michael, was four. I became my mother, and Michael became me. But I thought I could do it better. I could protect this four-year old. I see now I was naÃ¯ve. Caught up in my own fight, I didn’t fully see at the time what Michael saw.
At 37, I had surgery for what was supposed to be a benign tumor. It wasn’t. When I got home from the hospital I explained to Michael I had a tumor in my belly, and I had had an operation to remove it.
“What’s a tumor?” he asked.
“It’s like a little ball inside my belly that’s not supposed to be there.” I explained that I had to take strong medicine to make sure I got all the way better and the medicine would make me feel sick.
I couldn’t use the word cancer. I would fall apart. I knew it was very important not to cry in front of Michael. My mom tried not to cry in front of me, but she did, leaving me frightened and helpless, too little to understand.
I crept into the bathroom, holding the wall for balance, trying not to wake my husband Bob. The night was slanted, unfocused. I pulled myself up to the bathroom sink, balanced myself with one hand on the counter and adjusted my blue turban with the other. I looked in the mirror, half expecting to see my mother’s face gazing back at me. A wave of weakness passed through me; I needed to get back to bed before I passed out. I took small steps and deep breaths. I almost reached the foot of the bed when I collapsed. The fall at that point was almost a decision; I just didn’t have the strength to do this anymore. Bob rushed to me. I was still conscious, sprawled on the floor, and aware my turban had landed a few feet from me. Bob ran down the steps, returning with his mom and dad still in their pajamas, panic in their faces. Bob called ahead to the hospital, scooped me up and rushed with me to the car, his mother following with a blanket for me before she went back to the house. I was grateful she was there to take care of Michael. In the morning, she would tell him I went back to the hospital and get him ready for school. But I later learned Michael woke up first, padded up the stairs to my bedroom in his little blue feety pajamas to look for me, and I was gone. It wasn’t the first time.
I came home from the hospital that afternoon. I had been severely dehydrated, again, and was given IV fluids. Michael ran to me as soon as I got inside the house and hugged me with his whole body. His arms and body not quite enough, he wrapped one leg around me as well. He followed me upstairs, sat on the carpet in front of my bed and watched Ninja Turtles, his favorite show, while I slept.
A week later I had a fever. The chemo depleted my white blood cells, leaving me susceptible to serious infection. When my temperature reached 103; I called my doctor.
“Come to the hospital,” he said. “Enter through the emergency room and I will meet you there.”
It was early afternoon. Bob was coming to pick me up but I needed to make arrangements for Michael. Bob’s parents had gone back home to Clinton, NY, seven hours away. Michael would be home from nursery school soon. I called my friend Celeste.
“Can you take Michael?” I asked.
She always said yes. It was never even a question. Michael blended in easily with her five children. Five or six didn’t make a difference to her. But it mattered to Michael. “Mommy, I don’t want to be with Celeste. I want to be with you.”
I lay on the sofa watching Michael play as the late afternoon sun angled into the living room through our greenhouse, now empty. I no longer had the strength to tend the geraniums and spider plants. Hunched over on his feet and hands, Michael trotted around the living room. He occasionally scampered over and put his head on my tummy. I’d pat his head, and tell him he was a good little dog. He panted; I giggled. He was not just pretending to be a dog; he actually believed he was one. Michael embodied his fantasies; it was one of the things I loved most about him.
I waited for Eugénia and Ely to arrive, two of my best friends from when we lived in East Hampton. Older and nurturing, I looked forward to their company. When they arrived they were visibly alarmed by what they found: a too thin, exhausted woman laying on the sofa, a little boy playing at her feet. I was actually feeling pretty good that day, happy to be spending time with Michael. Eugénia immediately went to the kitchen to make me something to eat. Ely sat with me. As we talked Michael galloped in and out of the room, letting out the occasional bark. Our conversation faded as we focused on Michael playing, so obviously joyful, creating his own little world. Then Ely said, “Who knows how this is going to affect him.”
Eight months passed; it was time for my final surgery. I had prepared Michael over the past few days as best I could for the separation. The day I was due at the hospital I showered, dressed, adjusted my wig, and went downstairs to say goodbye. Michael was still sleeping. I woke him up. I didn’t want him to find me gone in the morning again.
“Michael, sweetie. I’m leaving for the hospital now.” He looked stunned. His eyes filled up as he clung to me.
“Why are you always in the hospital?” I held back my tears and told him I’d be home soon and in the meantime Grandma was going to take him to the Nature Center to see the owls. I knew from my four-year-old self that distraction only worked in the moment, but doesn’t touch the fear and anxiety. The talking we had done about mommy leaving hadn’t made any sense to him; only the visceral was real, the separation. Still, I thought, he can handle this.
The year ended. I survived. On a warm, sunny day in April, Michael turned five. His fifth birthday would be very different than mine had been. I gave him a black standard poodle puppy we named Harpo, who would become his constant companion for the next 15 years. We had birthday cake and he blew out the candles. Michael’s whole family attended the party—grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, not unlike all the relatives at my fifth birthday. But my birthday marked the end of my young life as I had known it. I would never see my mother again. Michael didn’t understand at the time, but he had what he wanted most for his birthday, the same thing I had wanted but didn’t get. Mommy.
Michael’s panic attacks started that summer. From our front porch, I saw my husband running up the long driveway carrying him. They had been out for a walk, holding hands and scouting for dogs, Michael’s favorite pastime even though he had his own dog now.
“Michael’s hyperventilating,” he said as he ran to meet me. I looked at Michael, gasping for air, his eyes frantic, pupils dilated. I recognized the panic. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a paper bag.
“Breathe into this, Michael,” I said as I held the bag around his nose and mouth. He began to relax, his breathing slowed.
This would be the first of many panic attacks, the trigger obvious. I thought I had protected him. I did all the things my mother was not able to do: I had explained I was sick. I made sure he saw a child psychologist once a week. And I lived. Michael did not lose his mother.
But had I really protected Michael? He saw me rushed out of the house for emergency treatments. He saw me throw up in the kitchen sink because I couldn’t make it to the bathroom. He saw me wearing a turban on my head, just like the one my mom wore. He saw me lying on the couch for the better part of a year, and he saw the shape of me in bed, my legs under the blankets when he ran up the stairs to my room.
“Leave mommy alone. Let her rest,” I had heard his grandma say again and again.
Michael saw what I saw when I was four. I couldn’t prepare him for separation during a time of such intimate mother-child bonding. I couldn’t prepare him for the loss of routine, for the comfort of his mother kissing a scraped knee or lying down next to him at night to protect him from the monsters under his bed. Four-year olds can’t merge reason and emotion. I’m not sure anyone can.
Author’s Note: A child is born and we pray he or she will be safe and healthy and that we will live to see that child grow. We imagine a charmed life for this little boy or girl. A life free from harm and the traumas and mistakes of our own childhood. Then life happens. That is how the child really grows.
Mary Ann is currently writing a memoir about coming through life’s adversities with love, hope and spirit intact. “Cancer Revisited,” taken from that memoir, marks her first published essay. Mary Ann has worked as a book editor and tutor and currently is the owner of Synchrony LLC, a boutique agency specializing in web development and online marketing.