M Is for Mother

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It is on a bitterly cold morning, day of the New York City marathon, that my mother starts coughing up blood. She has stoically endured breathing problems ever since she got COPD, but this is different.

It is November 1st: months before President Obama announces his cancer moonshot ; before the CRISPR-CAS9 gene-editing breakthrough ; before immunotherapy and liquid biopsies become household names. Lung cancer has not yet claimed David Bowie.

It takes us two hours to cross from 100th&CPW to 100th&Fifth. Mount Sinai.

"God help you" says the cabbie. He adds some invocation in the language of the African country he left behind.

In our native Greek I beg my mother to hold on. Even at this moment, struggling to breathe, she responds in English, as I had tyranically insisted ever since I decided to become American.
While waiting for the ER nurse, my mother worries about me. She mistakes a man dumping medical waste, for a doctor. "Please help my daughter she is in shock" she says.

I am the only child of an only mother. I grew up in a country where, even in 1980, the law discriminated against single mothers and their children. I had no intimation of this dire situation; my mother gave me the happiest and most carefree childhood a person can have.

My life was always inextricably tied with hers, yet it took a chalk inscription ("Love is the answer") I saw on the sidewalk two years ago, to make me realize she has always been the one to connect me to life, to love, to live.

These images and memories float through my mind while my mother and I enter Mount Sinai. It will be the last time in a long while that I allow myself memories.

A few days later, in freezing radiology and biopsy basements where even the best phone reception loses hope, the verdict is in: lung cancer.

My mother receives the news with preternatural serenity, already poised to move on.

"You cannot leave me!" I rail at her. "It will kill me."

My mother returns to me, alarmed.

It turns out that the limits of what we can bear can be stretched according to what we need to bear, for the sake of those we love.

In the next few days, everyone vanishes.

I learn that people are afraid of despair, of grief and sickness. Most of all they are afraid of being asked for money.

She was a smoker wasn't she? they all state, insinuating some moral flaw. As if it's moral to allow tobacco products--that do only harm, even in modest amounts; that create 16 different types of cancer--to circulate freely.

My mother and I are alone, completely.

I pray. At night, I hold her tightly to me so she can hardly breathe. I think that maybe in some irrational, miraculous way, I can press the cancer cells out of her, propelling them to me, where I can destroy them.

But miracles don't happen, this way. Not in our case.

They come in the form of a man, a top oncological surgeon and researcher. Dr Raja Flores (also a HuffPost contributor), his mother's only child too. He takes those whom the rest have left for--imminently--dead. The "lost causes."

My mother and I both hang on to him. I tell him there is no me without her. He understands. The long line connecting me to our original Neatherdhal ancestor ignites blood-red as I weep, squeezing the doctor's hand in a mute plea: please don't let her die.

Afterwards I see I have stained his suit. I know he will not mind. For the first time since arriving in New York as an immigrant, I will not be judged by appearances. Or personality, potential, or spin. Words do not matter with this man. Neither do acquaintances, connections, money--or our lack of. For the first time in my life, I am free of everything. There is only him, who will take care of my mother better than me. The world becomes black and white, time is calculated only in tumor growth.

One morning, at 7am, our doctor comes for my mother.

"Major surgery" the half-Filippino, half-Native American night nurse muses. He touches my mother's forehead, like a blessing.

Doctors crowd over my mother bearing her away from me, on a stretcher. I see her hand emerging from the circle, flapping wildly, like a lost dove, searching to slip into my hand. "My love, they are separating us. We cannot stop them. I will never see you again. This is the only thing I can't bear."

"You won't have to" Dr Flores says, "I'll make sure you two are never separated."
I crumble onto the floor outside surgery. Mount Sinai, Annenberg building.
The floor opens up to receive me.

Suddenly my hand is in hers. We are in critical care. At the foot of the bed, our savior, Dr Flores hovers over us, a modest angel. The nurse admonishes me sternly, "Be careful daughter, don't upset her."

It is the first time I have been called that.

In the days, weeks, months to come, "The Daughter", will come to replace my unpronounceable name.

In Mount Sinai, strangers among strangers in a strange land, my mother and I will find a safe haven and make a new family. Lina Mendigorin, Robert, Marlene, Bradley, Danielle. Doctor Charles Powell, Dr David Yankelevitz. The list is longer than those we lost when cancer came to call.

The days surge into weeks and months covered by the grace of God--and our doctor. I think about getting his name tattooed on my wrist so I can easily touch my head, my heart with his name. Raja Flores, I say, like an incantation, every time the going gets bad.

On good days, the words start trickling back. M is for mother. R is for Raja.
After that there is silence.
Love is all.