In spring, 2003, there was a high speed chase heading north up the interstate out of Durham, North Carolina. My mother and I had been driving south all day and were about an hour outside of Durham when it passed. It was the longest line of police vehicles I’d ever seen, several minutes of them, following single file behind a beat-up, unassuming little car. It was still close enough to Sept. 11 that such incidents elicited not only curiosity and concern but an eerie sense of foreboding.
On the next several overpasses groups of onlookers were still lingering. They had gathered to watch the chase go by, like some kind of morbid, high-speed parade.
Over the next few hours we pieced together the story from gas station convenience store clerks, snippets of news stories on country radio stations, and the late-night MRI technician at Duke University Medical Center. A sense of suspense was hovering over everything that evening like a delicate drape. Mom was having a nighttime MRI so we could discuss the results the next day at The Brain Tumor Center. Our bimonthly drives south had become routine, as routine as a terminal illness can be. We even had a favorite local hotel, breakfast joint, and wooded trail where we liked to go walking.
As I sat there that night in the empty waiting room, the drone of the television footage was comforting in its repetitiveness. There was no one there but the technician and me. “They let the kid go, but he’s still got the woman” he had told us when we entered, assuming our knowledge of and interest in the story. As he and I watched the coverage, the usual knots were forming in my stomach. I was fearing the worst, but hoping for the best, hoping I would be able to read the MRI myself as soon as it was done and confirm mom’s new neurological deficits were due to “necrosis” (brain cells damaged by radiation) and not new tumor growth. I was 25.
The technician and I both stood up as the intensity of the news coverage picked up. The car had stumbled to a halt having driven over police spikes meant to pop its tires. The suspense, the sick feelings of anticipation blended together in my gut; a young woman kidnapped by her boyfriend, a middle-aged woman lying inside a metal machine, both waiting for an answer from death. For a moment I wished I was the one who had gotten to take a valium and was laying there drugged, lulled to sleep by the clinking, clanking MRI noises. Instead, I was awaiting the verdict of some scorned, abusive lover with a gun, who was leading his captor into the woods on the side of I-85.
I’ll never forget mom’s face as she emerged from that test. “Did he kill the girl?” She was desperate, hurried, as if her own fate lay in the balance. As if maybe survival might be contagious. I wanted to disappear. Anything not have to tell her that all those cops and all those onlookers and everyone within a 50 mile radius watching, waiting, and hoping, some praying, hadn’t been enough. Anything not to have to remind her that the bullet was already there, in her brain, but there would be no suspense, no high-speed drama, no spectators on overpasses, no late-night television coverage, no whispers among coworkers for updates as she spent the next months walking quietly into the woods to face her listless executioner.
I would still try, I would try harder than I’d tried at anything. I would read, advocate, research, network… I would still chase that beautiful, hopeful word… survival, with everything I had. I would do it for her, it was literally the last thing I could do. And she would fight, and hope and plan for “long-term survival.” She would do it for me. But she knew, we both knew, it wouldn’t be enough.
A few months later, on a dark October night, I stood over my mother’s hospital bed and she looked at me with those wide “you’re the mom now” eyes. “The tumor crossed the midline,” I said simply. Those five words should have been the cruelest in the English language. What Duke had missed, our home town doc and I could see clearly on the latest MRI, and when I pressed him, our doctor at Duke had no choice but to confirm it. It wouldn’t be long now. And yet, when I think back, “Yes mom, he killed her,” was the harder thing to say.
Maybe because human cruelty is so much more maddening when you see up close how cruel life is all on its own. When mom was diagnosed a few months after September 11, I remember thinking how different it was. Rather than immediate, blinding and world-changing, it was slow, heavy, like a ringing one can’t hear but only feel in ones bones. But quick or slow, after the carnage is over, the feeling is the same, wandering through your life like a familiar West Village neighborhood; disoriented, unable to find your way, unable to even be sure you are real without that twin tower, taken-for-granted reminder. The ringing gets louder and louder, until finally… it stops, and they’re gone, ripped from the landscape of your life like a giant tower… but there is no one at all to blame.
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