The Banana River is a 31-mile lagoon system running between Cape Canaveral and Merritt Island in Brevard County, Florida. The river is home to redfish, catfish, ladyfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, mangrove snapper, and supports one of largest populations of alligators on the Atlantic Coast. I drove over the Banana River about 12 times in three days this past April shuttling myself between the Orlando Airport, Cocoa Beach, and my stepmother's hospital bed. I never saw any alligators, but I remember the clouds were the most enormous clouds I have ever seen.
There is a stoplight on the way to the Banana River marking the Patrick Air Force Base 5.8 miles from my moms' home in Cocoa Beach. This is the stoplight where my stepmother, Allison, proposed to my mother the day after DOMA died and they could finally make their 20 years together official in the eyes on the state. Four months later, they were married. Their wedding was the day after Allison's sister married her partner Sue and exactly seven months from this current April morning, where I sat at the very same stoplight replaying the events from the last two weeks.
It started the morning of Sunday March 23, 2014,with a text from my mom:
"Hi Baby, r u home?"
"Hi Mom. Yes. What's up?"
"Honey, we have family news. Can u call me?"
"Is this an OK time?"
"Yes, what's going on?"
"The other day honey, well, the other day your other mother was gardening and her stomach was hurting."
"So we went to the emergency room."
"And they took her blood and well, she has cancer, honey."
"It's ovarian. Stage 3."
"I know, baby. What the fuck."
I spent the next six hours cleaning my apartment. I washed the windows (both sides), the moldings, floors, the closet, boxes in the closet, boxes inside the boxes of the closet, and did four loads of laundry. Cleaning was my natural reaction to the fear that came with the news. If everything was clean and orderly, then everything would be okay. If I rearranged the furniture 37 times and bleach-bombed the kitchen sink, then maybe this wouldn't be happening.
While I cleaned to cope, my mother planned. She's an Aries; they take control.
"Okay," my mother said, "we're doing a hysterectomy. The doctor is going to give her a hysterectomy and then insert chemo directly into the cancer and then we'll do chemo for a year and it will be gone. It will suck but this is what people do. This is what he said, the doctor. Allison trusts him. So we're going with him. I've researched the top hospitals for chemo after. There's a good one in Texas. We might move to Texas. I don't know. Texas could be nice. We'll be closer to you. If we have to move to Texas, we'll move to Texas. Oh, we're putting all this news on Facebook, don't get upset."
On April 17 at 5 p.m. EST, my stepmother went into surgery in Melbourne, Florida.
My mother texted me 30 minutes in.
"At vending machines. So nervous."
"I love you, Mom."
"Tell me she's going to be ok."
"She's going to be ok."
At 9 p.m. EST, my mother called me in Los Angeles.
"It's not good, honey."
"She has cancer everywhere. You need to get on a plane right now."
When the stoplight turned green, I drove over the Banana River to the hospital where my stepmother was recovering. I arrived at her room, to find Allison's sister Tracy and her wife, Sue, my moms, a strawberry lip balm, a buddha, a crystal, a half-eaten red Jello, two iPhone chargers, an Al-Anon book, a couple of cups of "the good coffee" and a dry erase emoji face depicting the current mood. Frustrated.
The doctor didn't expect to find what he found. It wasn't ovarian cancer but it certainly was everywhere. Her biopsy went to the cancer board -- you know, the one filled with the "experts" who would try to figure out what we were dealing with.
"God, please don't let it be pancreatic," my mother said.
"Don't even go there, honey," said Allison's sister, Tracy.
"Who has the Xanax?" my mother asked.
I wrapped my arms around Allison.
"Honey, I'm so happy you're here," she said.
"I love you," I said.
"Love you, too, honey. You were able to get off work ok?"
"Did you play the 'your mother has cancer' card?"
"That's my girl," she said.
"Do we know what kind of cancer it is?" I asked.
"The kind that sucks," she said.
Cancer is the worst. My grandfather died of cancer, my grandmother, and my aunt. My dad had cancer once in 2002. A tumor the size of a football grew in his stomach. Once they removed it, he was cancer-free. Poof. Gone. Miracle cancer. Or as Allison called it, "the weird cancer."
"Maybe it's Danny's weird cancer," my stepmother said, remembering my Dad. "I want Danny's weird cancer. If it's Danny's weird cancer, I'll be happy." She looked at me with a scrunched brow, "What's with your mother giving everyone the weird cancer?"
"You need to leave for the airport," my mother said.
I gave Allison a kiss and left to pick up her daughter, Sara, who was about to land from Rhode Island.
As I drove over the Banana River to the Orlando airport, the clouds had thinned and the sun was setting in a color palette only created by waters filled with alligators. A vapor trail in the sky flashed me back to when I first knew Sara.
It was 1992. My mother was part of a women's group in Newport, Rhode Island, that would meet in the park on Thames Street to celebrate the moon. She hadn't met Allison yet, but this group would eventually bring them together. At some point in the park ritual, the women would dance in a circle holding leaves to their heads -- my cue to escape to the nearest record store. In Newport it was The Music Box. This is where I first saw Sara. She worked at The Music Box sometimes and was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Seven years older, kind of punk, kind of not, stacking Portishead CDs, walking around like she did not give a shit. I always wanted to talk to her about music but she terrified me. Needless to say, we never spoke. Two years later she ended up in my living room when our mothers started dating. Twenty years later we were driving over the Banana River together, to get to the hospital that would deliver the verdict on our mother's cancer.
Pancreatic. Aggressive. Three months to a year.
Allison looked around the room: "Well, isn't this just a huge pain in the ass."