PEGGY RAMBACH

 

My Mother’s Gift
by Joanne E. Bache

Once, when I was about eight years old, I was at my friend Sandy’s house on Cottage Street in Natick. We were playing a game. We called it “I Have Something You Don’t Have.” She went first, so I asked, “ Is it in this room?” “No,“ she said. Can I see it from here? “No,“ she said, - one more guess.” Finally, I gave up and said, “What is it?” She said, “A Mother!”

I’ve always wondered, why my mother didn’t leave me something. A dish. A pin. Maybe a note. Anything to show me that she was my mother, that she knew me and maybe even cradled me. I’ve really pondered this just about every day of my life…until now.

I was born on a farm in South Natick in 1937. The eldest of my two sisters was already eighteen years old. I called her Sis. She was angry at my mother when she learned I was coming into the family. She must have known Mother wasn’t well enough to care for me. She had a harsh personality and told me that she had resented taking me around with her; always having me on her hip. So, right from the beginning, I suppose, I was cared for by someone who wished I wasn’t there; and yet it was she, who I thought of as Mother.

There were grape vines growing up the side of the old house, and behind , there were fields of corn, beans and tomatoes. Sometimes while working in the fields, my brothers would throw tomatoes at each other and I remember eating them right from the vine. Among the corn stalks, I would play hide and seek with my dog Laddie. I would tell him to stay - then I’d hide far away and call him. He always found me. He was my pal.
There was hay to mow and to turn to dry. My father and three brothers worked in the fields, driving the teams of horses, pulling plows and wagons. I remember jumping on the scratchy hay to pack it down, and thinking I was doing something important. Once the hay was in the barn, I would run along the beams that were high above the lofts, and then jump!

Beyond the fields, there was a big hill and about half way up, there was one cherry tree. The trunk was big and the limbs were wide enough for me to sit on. I felt safe there, as though the tree was taking care of me. I’d pick cherries, chew them and spit the seeds as far as I could.

Past the top of the hill there were another twenty acres or so of apple orchards. I would climb some of the trees and watch everyone picking, putting the ladders up, taking them down, moving them from tree to tree. I remember seeing all the bushel baskets full, ready for the market in Boston.

In the winter, I roamed, past the orchards, through the woods with Laddie. Once I came upon a boulder. It was in the middle of a little stream. I called it my castle and one time my red mittens got soaked. I found an empty can, buried it half way in the snow, made a fire in it with some matches I’d taken from the kitchen and then leaned my mittens on the exposed half of the can to dry. Instead of drying, they turned brown

 

“Traffic”
By Laura Dluzynski Quinn

My empty stomach grumbled. I had no idea of what Malcolm was thinking. He had no sense of my thoughts. At that moment, each of us might as well have been alone. Mal sat behind the wheel of our motionless car, listening, as far as I could tell, to the morning news on NPR. The words were just background noise to me. I turned my head to the left and looked longingly across the median of the VFW Parkway at the south-bound cars. If everything were as it should be, we would be zipping along, too, just like them.

I sighed, leaned forward and strained my neck, hoping to spot the flashing lights of a police car or the orange bulbs of a DPW sign warning drivers of a lane drop ahead; I saw nothing but rows and rows of red brake lights. Having eaten nothing since last night’s customary bowl of chocolate Haagen Dazs made me more irritable than usual. I bit my upper lip, picked at a sliver of skin beside my right thumbnail, and quashed a desire to yell, to fling the car door open, jump out and just go. Why weren’t we moving? When would we start moving? At this rate, we’d arrive at my 10:00 appointment by noon! Then what? Rescheduling, more waiting.
I let out another huge sigh.
“Are you okay?” Mal asked.

What could I say to make him understand? So, as usual, instead of even trying, I began to cry. He turned off the radio and gave me his full attention.

Finally I said, “If we don’t make it in time for my scan, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t wait anymore. I need to know what’s going on. I just can’t stand it!”

A half a mile, and twenty minutes later, the logjam suddenly ended, just as mysteriously and unexpectedly as it had begun. We arrived at Dana Farber at 9:55. Back to the routine. I slipped my blue plastic I.D. card from the top slot in my wallet, handed it to the receptionist, stuck out my right arm to have a name band placed around my wrist, filled out paperwork, drank my three bottles of prep as I sat in the dark, windowless basement waiting room, changed into a johnny, lay down on the stretcher that slid me through the opening in the CT machine, gobbled a sandwich in the hospital cafeteria, then went home to wait. The next day I learned that some of the tumors in my liver were growing again. Time to start a new treatment plan.

Before my own diagnosis, I thought cancer meant a quick and painful death—like it had for my dad’s mom, who died when he was just 18, or for my mom’s grandmother, who died just before I was born, or for Mal’s father, who died within six months of being diagnosed, just a few years after Mal and I had married. Or, cancer could mean surgery, treatment, recovery—like it had for my uncle, who had lived cancer-free for at least twenty years after having one of his kidneys removed, or for my mom, who had lived cancer-free for about a decade after a foot of her colon was removed and she underwent chemo, or for my dad, who has remained cancer-free for about three years after having his prostate gland removed.

Then, when the E.R. doctor told me of the tumors in my body, and later, when the oncologists said the cancer was incurable, I felt a little like I had when I was once rear-ended driving on the Jamaica Way. That accident was relatively minor, but the impact took me by surprise and left me stunned. My hands shook as I put the car into park. On wobbly legs, I walked to the rear of the car, then stared at the shattered brake lights, the bumper drooping toward the road, the trunk lid sticking straight up since it had nothing to latch onto. It looked pretty bad, but still I wondered if I could drive it. I had things to do: first, a doctor’s appointment, then my writing workshop, yoga, my support group. I had plans.

Since beginning treatment, I sometimes see my body, itself, as a car: one with no dents or dings or missing parts, but whose dashboard’s “maintenance required” message or “check engine” icon is always illuminated. To most people, the car looks great. However, it simply cannot run without the diligent care of experts.

When those experts told me of the many tumors in my abdomen—the largest wrapped around my stomach, and grapefruit-sized lesions in my liver—I wanted them out! How could I possibly live with these things inside me? Unwanted growths made of innumerable cells: unnatural, out of control, constantly reproducing, and, in the process, mutating even further from the healthy cells they were meant to be, becoming resistant to the drugs that had been powerful enough to kill their progenitors. My body has become a battlefield hosting a silent and invisible war between mutant and normal. On any given day, I have no idea which side is winning.

Despite my intense desire to eradicate the cancer, my oncologist said, “At this stage, taking the tumors out will cause more harm than good. They will shrink with treatment, so we’ll reevaluate after a year.” She was right. They shrank—for the first nine months of that year.

Over the two and a half years since my diagnosis, I’ve struggled to come to terms with what it means to live with cancer. I’m that car, constantly getting tested and tinkered with by experts, and, oftentimes, I find myself sitting in traffic, yearning for an explanation, wondering how long I’ll be immobile, desperate to move, yet terrified of the destination, a spectator longing to be among those cars zooming along on the other side of the divide.

From NSMC-Union Hospital
What Is Mine

(excerpt)
By Lyn Walfish

I grew up the oldest of four children in a small three-bedroom ranch in East Concord, New Hampshire. I shared a bedroom with my sister Debbie. My brothers Steven and Michael shared another room and my parents occupied the third. There was only one bathroom. I was three and a half years older than my sister, while my sister and brothers were only three years apart. With that many toddlers around the house, my parents often put us all into the tiny pink triangular tub for our evening bath. I felt too old to share bath time with “the kids,” but saving time and water took precedence. Finally, after the night when my brothers decided to have a peeing contest, I was allowed to take my baths alone.

In such a small house, there was no place to hide either my things or myself and nothing was out of reach of the playful hands and eyes of my siblings. One year I received a large and intricate paint-by-numbers kit for my birthday. It waited for me on top of my bookshelf. But when they were supposed to be taking their nap in my room one afternoon, Debbie and Steven opened all the little metal containers of paint and gleefully decorated the bedclothes. My favorite winter blanket, yellow wool with wide satin binding, was permanently stained in a variety of reds and browns.

I would yell to my mother, “Call the baby,” so that she would keep Michael, the youngest, from interfering with my life, but he never stayed away for long. When my friends came over to listen to records he would lie on the floor outside my room with his ear against the doorjamb. I made a rule that when we came out, if he was still there, we could step on him and the last one out (me) got to step on his head. Even this did not discourage him. He was always there.

Perhaps because of all this I guarded the one thing that was truly mine, my body. I made my sister hide her head under the covers while I dressed and undressed. While my bunkmates giggled, I wore my leopard print bathrobe when I put on and took off my bathing suit at day camp. When I had a sleepover, I made a game out of changing under the covers. I was always the fastest because I was the most practiced. So when my friends gathered around me in the locker room after an eighth grade gym class, examined my white cotton stretch bra, and came to the conclusion that I would always be flat-chested, I was mortified. As it turned out, the very next year my breasts grew in a matter of months from a padded 32 AA to a size 34 C with an underwire. Perhaps all the palm squeezing and arm stretching exercises I had been doing had worked after all.

Even my mother could not believe it. She made me let her into the dressing room with me so she could check the bra size, poking at the new bras with her index finger to be sure they fit. Two-piece bathing suits came into style and I required a size 6 bottom and a size 12 top. Blouses gapped, jackets would not button and figure-skimming Poor Boy sweaters were out of the question. And if clothing issues were not bad enough, there were the boys. Dates often ended in wrestling matches in the front or the back seat of a car. I even had to be vigilant in the movies when an arm would sneak around my shoulder and then the fingers stretched farther.
“My body is mine,” I wanted to say, “and I decide who looks and who touches.” But at that time, no one taught a fifteen-year-old girl to say that. My mother was thrilled with her popular and shapely daughter, and my father was the first of the many men who wolf-whistled and declared, “When you got it, flaunt it.”

I had it. But I would not flaunt it. I looked in the mirror and saw breasts which were too big, too low, too matronly for a teenager. I wanted to wear the same clothes as the rest of my friends but on me, the darts were always too high, the tops too tight. I wanted to wear tank tops but could not hide my wide bra straps and in those days only the trampy girls let their straps show. Just over five feet tall and weighing under one hundred pounds, I felt fat and dowdy. In one prom picture, I was holding up my wrist corsage and the pose accentuated my cleavage. When I saw it, I cried. Although my bewildered parents told me that I looked beautiful, I managed to rip that picture up before my father could proudly show it to anyone else.

Author, Peggy Rambach, runs creative writing workshops in community education settings for the Healing Arts in health care, correctional facilities, ESL programs and immigrant support centers as well as offering assistance with lesson plans in professional development presentations for middle and high school teachers. She teaches memoir writing in medical schools as part of the curriculum in Narrative Medicine and Medical Humanities. Ms. Rambach is conveniently located for teachers, students and participants from throughout New England including the Vermont (VT) cities of Bennington, Burlington and Montpelier, the Maine (ME) cities of Portland, Gardener, Kennebunkport and York, the New Hampshire (NH) cities of Portsmouth, Concord, Manchester, Dover, Nashua and Rochester, the Massachusetts (MA) cities of Boston, Newburyport, Amherst, North Hampton, Salem, Beverly, Lawrence, Lowell, Haverhill, Gloucester, Plymouth, New Bedford, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Marblehead, Rockport, Hyannis, and Falmouth, the Rhode Island (RI) cities of Providence and Newport and the Connecticut (CT) cities of New Haven and Hartford.