Therese Borkenhagen is a freelance writer and translator from Oslo, Norway. She completed her BA and MA in English Literature at the University of North Dakota. She has been awarded the John Little Prize for fiction. This is her first publication. She currently lives in Oslo where she is juggling life as a freelance writer and an elementary school teacher.
There is a photograph of my mother as she stands in front of Evenes Airport. On the back she has scribbled, in round and swirly letters, April 26th 1979. She wears a black turtleneck sweater and a brightly colored skirt. Her hair is dark and thick, folding neatly on her shoulders. In other pictures from when she was young, her hair reaches all the way down to her lower back. I assume she’s just had it cut before moving to Oslo—some idea of big city life perhaps. She wears eye makeup as dark as her hair, and under her heavy lids, two eyes shine with anticipation. Her lips are pale and almost invisible against that translucent skin. She carries the large leather bag I’ll inherit one day. This is the last photo before the city changes her—makes her hard. Makes her my mother.
On April 26th, 1986, exactly seven years after she moves to Oslo, I am born with a bang. To my mother’s disappointment, my birth is overshadowed by the explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Ukrainian SSR. Two people die in the explosion, twenty-nine die in the hospital, and a suspected million will die later from cancer caused by radiation. Just like the Soviet Union, she waits until April 28th to inform the rest of the world of her big news, but when she calls her family to tell them about me, no one picks up the phone because they’re all too engrossed in the Chernobyl news coverage. Because my mother didn’t tell anyone she was expecting me in the first place, she keeps my existence a secret up until my fourth birthday when she decides to throw me a party.
She invites my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, but refuses to let them take my picture; she says they need to earn the right first. My grandparents, who have flown all the way from Northern Norway to meet me, snap a few shots anyway while my mother looks away or is in the kitchen, getting the cake.
As I grow up, my mother makes it clear that while the world owes us both, we still need to work for things, but we will never ask for charity. I’m OK with this. In fact, I rarely ask my mother or anyone else for anything. That’s probably why I’m so surprised the day she asks if I can take her to the doctor. I’m twenty-three. She says her head hurts.
We take the 12 tram to Majorstuen where we switch to the 20 bus, which stops right outside the hospital. The doctor talks to my mother in private for nearly an hour while I sift through every magazine his waiting room offers. I don’t know much about hospitals, but I’m fascinated by the quietness. I know things happen here, serious things, life and death things, but the only evidence suggesting urgency is the occasional rubber soles whimpering across linoleum and the swift tapping of a keyboard echoing against the undressed walls.
When my mother reemerges from the doctor’s office, the physician’s assistant escorts us both to a room where she takes my mother’s blood. She then escorts us to another room where she and a young woman in a white lab coat perform scans. For a full body scan, they inject my mother’s veins with a cold, tinted liquid and tell her to lie completely still for fifteen minutes. I have to wait outside. “Please try to lie still,” I hear lab coat woman repeat as the door shuts behind me.
On our way home, my mother swears the full body scan lasted longer than forty minutes. She lost track of her limbs, and worrying that her hand had somehow disappeared, she moved it. According to her, the women kept her locked in the machine because she challenged their authority. “That assistant kept giving me the eye,” she says, and demonstrates the eye.
Two days later, that same physician’s assistant calls my mother to let her know that the results are in. She asks if my mother is free to visit with the doctor the next day. My mother tells her that no, she is not free, and asks if the doctor is free to meet with her the next day, to which the physician’s assistant replies “yes,” and schedules the appointment. Her voice resonates through the phone, and it sounds as though she’s smiling. I bet that voice calms patients down, makes them feel welcomed and maybe even a little bit special, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she was hired on her voice alone, but my mother is skeptical. “Voice like an angel, horns like a devil,” she reminds me. I once asked her if my father had a nice voice, and she said that my father had both the voice and the horns of a devil, and that’s what she liked about him; “At least he was forthright about it.” I am pretty sure he was forthright about not wanting a child either; otherwise, I doubt my mother would have been so accepting of his absence, which is good, because it helps me accept it too. The only time my father’s absence actually upset me was in middle school when my friend Ane asked me why I wasn’t sad that my father didn’t want me. Never in my life had I ever thought of it that way, and the idea that he didn’t want me haunted me for a while, made me do some stupid things, until my mother finally explained that Ane didn’t know “a goddamn thing about parenting,” and that as long as I had a mother who loved me, there was no reason why I should need a father who didn’t want to be a father in the first place. Parenthood was not a right, she said. It was a privilege.
When we return to the doctor’s waiting room, my mother scowls quite visibly at the physician’s assistant, who smiles back, seemingly unfazed, and tells us to expect a small delay. We mosey over to a familiar pile of magazines, and my mother gives me one of those looks that signal: I told you so.
“You’re losing your mind,” I whisper, and laugh as I sink into a chair.
We wait only ten minutes, which my mother still finds suspiciously long, and when we enter the doctor’s office—my mother wants me in there with her—the doctor is apologetic about the wait. I attempt to wave away his apology, but my mother grabs my hand and leads me to the two chairs in front of the doctor’s desk. Once we’re seated, the doctor folds his hands in a manner so majestic and so poised, it must be the result of much practice. He then draws a deep breath and tells my mother she has grade three oligodendroglioma. Brain tumor. He explains the nature of such a diagnosis, but he might just as well be speaking a foreign language. Nothing makes sense. His lips are moving, but the sound they make is unintelligible, and when I finally realize that I’m probably missing essential information, I look to my mother to see if she’s following what’s being said, but she’s watching him as if trying to evaluate his proficiency as a medical specialist, whether or not it is wise to believe him. I can’t help her.
This time, on our way home, my mother doesn’t mention her appointment, and I don’t ask. Instead, she points at the young woman two seats in front of us preparing to disembark at the next stop. She has one of those little dogs, which she stuffs into her handbag before zipping the bag shut. My mother shakes her head and whispers “dog abuser” loud enough for the young woman to hear. She casts us one of those sideways looks. “Dog abuser.” My mother is louder. A beat passes before the young woman turns to us.
“Excuse me?” she says and attempts making eye contact. She is nervous, and I don’t blame her. Sometimes I forget what my mother looks like to others: she’s tall. She’s tall without heels and she’s tall sitting down. Much like an Amazon, my mother also has only one breast, and this is something she doesn’t like to talk about and something the young woman can’t possibly spot under my mother’s thick parka, but I know that my mother only has one breast and that it gives her a forceful sense of pride. Yes, my mother has already had cancer once before, and out of all of her accomplishments, beating cancer is the one she dismisses most often. After the successful removal of the tumor in her left breast, one of the nurses gave her a button that read: I’m a survivor, which my mother refused to wear, saying she wasn’t going to boast about having lain there, and in her words, “happened to survive.” I remember telling her that surely, most people didn’t interpret surviving cancer that way. She tossed me the button and congratulated me for making it out of the womb alive.
Now this young woman on the bus doesn’t know my mother like I do, and looking at her neat camel hair coat, Burberry scarf, and the sort of bag other girls get from those bantam boutiques at the bottom of Hegdehaugsveien, I bet she’s never even imagined that someone like my mother exists. Her inability to look my mother in the eye confirms my suspicion. And my mother, she says nothing; just sits there, stone-faced. She’s not a bully, nor has she ever been one, and she’s not cruel or domineering. My mother simply believes that people no longer respond to polite requests, particularly coming from strangers, and that some level of humiliation is necessary in order to change a person’s behavior. It does not matter whether this woman tries to incite some sort of argument with my mother or continues the taciturn standoff that’s developed between the two of them; my mother wholeheartedly believes that once this woman exits the bus, she’ll unzip her bag and let the dog breathe fresh air. She won’t do it on the bus. People are stubborn. But people also fear humiliation, and most are willing to go a long way to avoid confrontation. This is what my mother wants.
“Did you just call me a . . .” She stops. She can’t say the words. It’s like word magic. If she says the words out loud, then somehow, to her, and maybe to the other patrons of this bus, they become true. My mother isn’t surprised and I am proud. She might end up saving a life today. I wonder if there’s a button for that.
When the bus stops, the woman wastes no time scurrying off. The doors close, separating madness from method. The bus rolls onward, and the woman looks away as we pass her, but the handbag has already been opened and a little brown snout pokes out.
Over the following weeks, my mother is in and out of the hospital for miscellaneous tests. She doesn’t want me to come with her. Says I should focus on my studies. All she tells me about her appointments is whether or not the physician’s assistant was there, and if she was, how she sabotaged the entire appointment. I try to concentrate on my studies, but whenever I pick up a book or attend a lecture, the words grade three oligodendroglioma sit in my mind like old gum. After my mother’s third appointment without me, and after missing the fourth lecture in a row, I Google the words.
Oligodendroglioma is a rare form of brain cancer, typically found in men, and is generally diagnosed using a two-grade scale: II (low grade) and III (high grade). At a three, my mother qualifies for numerous new traits such as severe headaches, seizures, and changes in personality. A tight rope ties itself around my gut, which is already bursting from an agglomerate of pain, fear, and disappointment. I’d be lying if I said her decision to keep me in the dark surprises me, but I’m pretty sure that the less she tells me, the more serious things are. She never spoke much about her breast cancer, and while I’ve always just assumed that it was due to my age, I’m not twelve anymore. But that all worked out fine. Perhaps my mother just needs to keep the wheel. I really wouldn’t know how to talk to her about this anyway.
Before Christmas, the kitchen counter had only one item on it: a yellow KitchenAid Classic Mixer. This is my mother’s most valued possession. She never uses it for cooking; never has, never will. But she claims it helped her quit smoking. “I wouldn’t want to damage it,” she told me. “Smoke gets in through the cracks and destroys the machine from the inside out.” I’m pretty sure the mixer is a metaphor for me. Up North, people are very good at speaking “straight from the liver” as we say, but when it comes to affectionate communication, it’s as if no one ever taught them the words. No one in my family has ever told me they love me, although my mother has said she’s “very fond of me” and “God, how I love that mixer!” I am OK with this. I know my mother loves me.
The KitchenAid Classic Mixer used to be the only thing on the counter. Now, there is an added row of pill bottles, most of them orange, but one is blue and another yellow. The orange bottles are steroids and suppressants of sorts, the blue a special pain killer, and the yellow an over-the-counter iron supplement called Fe-bulous. Those are for the both of us, she said after pouring them into the yellow prescription bottle to make them seem more important, making sure we’ll take them. Within these walls, swallowing pills is a strenuous endeavor. We’ve both had pills stuck in our throats for hours, and so we won’t try swallowing a pill unless the other is there to oversee the situation and provide support. Pseudodysphagia: fear of choking. It’s a real condition. Because my mother has to take at least one pill every third hour, I’m home a lot, and I’m OK with that, too.
I keep my phone next to my notes during the lectures I still attend. If my mother needs me, I’ll leave right away. But she never does. At least she never calls. That’s why standing in the kitchen with her every third hour has become my favorite time of day.
One morning, after we’ve both swallowed our Fe-bulous, I ask my mother the one question I’ve dreaded asking for weeks: “Are the medicines working?”
She sips her water slowly.
The rope around my gut tightens.
“I have to pee,” I tell her and leave the kitchen.
“Remember to put the lid down before flushing,” she calls after me.
As I’m peeing, I try envisioning my mother’s tumor. I wonder if it’s ugly, and if it’s lumpy or if it’s smooth. Where is it? Can she feel it sitting there in her brain? Can she feel it while she sleeps? When she eats? Or when she pees? Does it hurt her? I bet it’s ugly.
I wash my hands and put the lid down before exiting the bathroom. My mother is waiting for me in the kitchen.
“Does this upset you?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Does it upset you?”
“Sometimes is something,” I say.
A part of me is relieved that my mother’s high-grade tumor upsets her sometimes; it means I’m not alone.
Weeks pass and we don’t talk much about cancer or hospitals. At one point, my mother informs me that she thinks the doctor may have misdiagnosed her, that this doesn’t feel like cancer. The very next day, she’s forgotten all about her suspicions, and makes a joke about removing one side of her brain the same way they removed her breast. I don’t laugh along with her, and I tell her I don’t like it when she makes jokes like that. I don’t tell her that it’s because when she does, I wonder if, for a moment, she actually believes what she’s saying.
One night, two months after starting her medications, I wake up to find her sitting in the bathtub. There is no water and she’s in her pajamas. She is filing her toenails with one of those coarse diamond files, and she doesn’t seem to notice me until I ask her why she’s filing her toenails at four in the morning.
“They won’t let me sleep,” she tells me. Her speech is slurred as if she’s not completely awake. But she is. She doesn’t look at me, and keeps filing. Her toes are white from keratin residue; I can’t imagine she has any nails left. My stomach curls just thinking of the bare pink skin underneath. “That’s OK, mom,” I tell her and reach for the file.
“Get off me!” she screams.
For a split second I’m paralyzed. She’s never screamed at me before.
“Will you stop?” My voice is shrill, and I have to restrain myself from grabbing the file. I want to get angry, to take the wheel, but this is the part Google told me to expect. I’m supposed to be prepared for this.
“These fuckers won’t let me sleep,” she cries.
“How are they doing that?” I ask, trying to sound sincere.
“Every time I close my eyes, they grow,” she says. “Luckily I got to them when I did—fuckers were about to take our heads off!”
“I see.” I reach for the file a second time and she slaps my hand away. We lock eyes and for a mere second, I see my mother staring back at me, helpless, begging me to get her out of this hell she’s suddenly found herself in. I instinctively turn the shower on and she squeals as the water hits her feet, washing off the white powder. She pulls her hands to her chest, but doesn’t attempt to climb out. The water heats up, and making sure it doesn’t get too hot, I let it fill up halfway. Her baby blue pajamas darken as the water rises. She watches the water as it runs from the faucet, and when I finally shut it off, her eyes follow each straggling drop that lazily leaks into the tub. I grab a washcloth from the shelf and dip it into the warm water. Then, carefully, I clean her face: the sweat on her forehead, the stains in the corners of her mouth. The dark circles under her eyes are like ink stains on her pallid skin. I wash behind her ears and on her neck. I unbutton her shirt just enough to reach her shoulders, one at a time. Then I run the cloth over the pink line where her left breast used to be, and lift both arms to clean them up and down and in between the fingertips. I’m worried about the state of her toes, and I’m unsure if she’ll let me touch them. Maybe she sees me looking at them, because she lifts up her right foot. She barely breaks the surface of the water and I place my hand underneath the ankle to hold it up for her. The wet pants cling to her leg and her toes are rosy, like raw beef. A sliver of nail is all that’s left on her big toe. The toes on the other foot look just as raw, and I try hard not to hurt her; I just dab. When I’m done, I cover her with a towel and help her out of the tub. She lets me. I undress her and fetch her robe. Then I lead her back into bed where I will sleep next to her that night and every night that follows.
The following morning, my mother tells me she’s going to have some minor surgery done that Thursday. I can come with her, but it’s during one of my midterms so she’ll be a lot more upset if I do than if I don’t. I know she’s planned it this way.
“I can get an extension,” I say.
“It’s better you’re around during recovery,” she says.
“I’ll come over straight after.”
Two and a half months after my mother is diagnosed with grade three oligodendroglioma, my mother has had most of her tumor surgically removed. When I first enter the recovery room, I am taken aback by how good she looks despite the bandages wrapped around her head. I’m probably imagining it, elated by the successful surgery, but she doesn’t seem as pale as before and the dark circles under her eyes have faded. She’s groggy, a bit disoriented, but comes to rather quickly. The physician’s assistant says this is a good thing. Then the doctor comes in to tell us that he, the neurosurgeon, the oncologist, and the radiation oncologist have decided that she needs chemotherapy to control what’s left of the tumor. When my mother returns home, the counter has three new additions. The bottles are named vincristine, lomustine, and procarbazine, and come in an orange, a green, and a yellow bottle. The first thing she does, is swap the Fe-bulous with the painkillers, so I don’t accidentally ingest an antineoplastic chemotherapy drug instead of an iron supplement. She laughs when she shows me this, and I purposely laugh along with her.
Chemotherapy makes my mother weak. She loses weight, and because of her height, she looms over me like an emaciated scarecrow. In the beginning, she tries to vomit only when I’m out of the apartment, sometimes sending me out to buy things we don’t need when she feels it coming on. But as weeks pass, the vomiting becomes so frequent that she brings the radio in with her, turning the volume on high, sometimes also leaving the shower and fan running. A few times, I return from her errands while she’s still in the bathroom; the thick coughs and guttural gasps for air echo throughout the hallway. When this happens, I seat myself outside our front door until I hear the toilet flush. After a while, this unspoken agreement becomes pointless. She can’t eat without throwing up, and I tell her that if she doesn’t stop pretending that everything is alright, I’m going to get her a button saying: I fight for life.
I stop going to lectures completely. I drop out, tentatively. I tell my professors that my mother is ill and they respond as sympathetically as they can. One professor asks when I plan on coming back and I tell him I’ll have to ask my mom when she plans on getting better. She’s proud of me for that one, she tells me, but she’ll be even prouder if I stop worrying about her and go back to school.
One afternoon, my grandfather calls. I recognize the Northern dialect immediately, even though my mother has lost most of hers. He asks me about school and I tell him that I’m taking a break. He sounds mildly disappointed, and I ask him if he’s talked to my mother lately. Not since Christmas, he admits. That’s a long time, I say. Only five months, he says. Then he asks if he can speak with her now, and I tell him that she’s at the store buying cucumbers for a cucumber salad. I’ve already decided not to tell him about the cancer. I can’t do that. I don’t know them well enough to do that. I don’t know who would know someone well enough to do that. My grandfather laughs and says it must be my grandmother’s recipe and I assure him that of course it is and he laughs again. Then he asks if my mother could call him when she gets the chance, and reminds me that their door is always open. I reply that I want nothing more than to visit them, and regret saying it as soon as we hang up.
There is green grass and flowers outside when the physician’s assistant calls to remind my mother to come in early the following morning for her second surgery. “What a cunt,” my mother shouts from the bedroom. Her voice is thin. With her still in bed, I begin packing the big brown leather bag.
“What do you want to bring?” I ask her.
“How about my yellow pantsuit?” she says, and I laugh. “I’m not joking.”
“I know you’re not,” I say and put this ochre-colored creation into the bag. “Anything else?”
“How about that KitchenAid?” she asks. “Sure would be nice to have something to remind me of home while I’m there.”
“I’ll be there, you know.”
“I know, but the KitchenAid can stay in the room. During.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I say and add underwear and socks, clean pajamas, toiletries, and a book.”
When I zip the bag shut, my mother is already asleep.
In the morning, a navy Mercedes pulls up onto the sidewalk outside our building. “The cab’s here,” I call to her, and she says she’s just going to throw up one last time before we go. It’s July and it’s hot. Cafés are crowded and people are strolling lazily along the sticky pavement dressed in shorts and skirts. Tanned arms and legs compared to our pale skin measure time and define life in a way words simply cannot. I recall my mother and me playing Yahtzee in the big park across the street. The folds of her tan stomach left white stripes whenever she stood back up and I would laugh at her. And she would laugh along with me. Seated next to me in the back of the cab, my mother rests her head on my shoulder. The leather seats whimper like rubbery soles on linoleum. I make sure we’re both buckled up and the cab takes us to the hospital via the 12 tram and 20 bus route.
“You have what you need?” she asks just as we arrive outside of the hospital main doors.
“Sure,” I answer automatically, but realize I’m not quite sure what I need. Was I supposed to bring something? What if I’ve forgotten what I’m supposed to bring? I don’t want to ask my mother; she doesn’t need the added stress. But what if I’ve forgotten something she needs?
“It’s OK,” she whispers. “It’s OK to cry. Just don’t cry yourself to death.”
I wipe my face, but the tears won’t stop. Even though no one is watching me, I want to hide the taut grimace that comes with the sudden swelling of sadness, but I fail and place the tip of my thumbnail between my teeth instead.
I learned that from her. Shortly after telling me that Ane had been wrong, calling her “the beard of a loveless marriage,” I caught her masking her own tears in the bathroom. Seeing me see her, she instantly put her thumb to her lips, mumbling something about dinner while fiercely biting her nail.
“I’m sorry we weren’t able to bring the KitchenAid,” I tell her as I close the cab door behind us.
“Next time,” she says.
The hospital greets us with its familiar quietness. The physician’s assistant leads us into a private room and places my mother in a bed with crisp white sheets. “How are we feeling?” she asks my mother. “We’re feeling peachy,” my mother replies and asks if we could trouble her for a glass of water to which the physician’s assistant replies “yes” with angelic resonance and disappears down the hall. I want to say something, but I’m not sure what and the assistant reappears in the blink of an eye holding one of those little plastic cups filled ⅔ with water. She hands it to my mother who takes one small sip and passes it along to me. “Here,” she says. “Could you hold this for me until I get back?” And before I know it, they’ve rolled her out of the room and through swinging doors where I can’t follow.
I’m escorted into a seating lounge for family members. I set the plastic cup down on a little table with a lamp next to a wooden chair with multicolored tweed upholstery. I reach for the bottle of water in my handbag, but instead pull out a blue bottle of iron supplements that I forgot to take while I was still in there with her. I glance towards the minimalist IKEA clock on the wall in front of me: six minutes in and an unknown amount to go. I’m the only person in the lounge. A large table stands in the middle of the room and on top of it are neatly stacked magazines that I could read if I wanted to. A book. That’s what I forgot. I brought a book for my mother, but didn’t think of bringing one for myself. Lucky me then, having a total of eight stacks of magazines to plow through. They want to keep us occupied, badly.
I find a magazine from the previous decade, forgotten in the stacks. I can tell by its outdated cell phone ads. I am temporarily amused by the lavish presentations of already replaced gadgets, but it doesn’t take long before my mother’s face floats before my eyes. Only, I can’t see it properly. It is distorted somehow. In fact, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to recall the details of her face. All I see is that sickly mask she’s worn for the past months, the papery skin and the misty eyes. Will I ever see my mother again? I rip out an ad for a dark blue flip-phone I used to own, fold it, and slip it into my bag.
“How much longer, do you think?” I ask a young nurse who pokes his head into the room. He shakes his head and says he doesn’t know because he is looking for someone else. And then he disappears back into the hallway. I carefully select another magazine.
My water bottle is empty and the stacks are no longer neat when a surgeon in scrubs I don’t recognize comes into the lounge and looks directly at me. “You’ve waited a long time,” the surgeon says, and then tells me that my mother is in recovery and that I can see her shortly. But she might be sleeping. She had to be conscious during surgery. I’m aware of that, I say. She didn’t feel any of it, the surgeon wants to ensure me. That’s good, I say. She is most likely a little disoriented, the surgeon continues. I might have noticed some changes in her personality in the past months, and there is a chance I might notice some changes in her personality in the months to come. These could be temporary and these could be permanent. Physical therapy will be beneficial to her recovery as well as follow-up exams. While they believe they were able to remove everything this time, continued chemotherapy may be necessary. “Also, she shouldn’t drive for some time.”
“She’s never had her license,” I say.
“Then forget that last part.”
The surgeon signals for me to follow and we leave the lounge so I can see her. I’ve my handbag in one hand and her cup of water in the other.
The door to her room is white and closed shut. The surgeon tells me I can go in, and I nod “thank you,” but don’t go in. Not right away. For the first time in a long while I know what to do. I wait for the surgeon to leave, then I close my eyes and recall a photograph of my mother taken years ago. She doesn’t know she’s being photographed as she watches me blow out the four candles. In more ways than one, she’s a giant next to me, but under those heavy lids, her eyes shine with anticipation. This is my mother.
“ Watching my mother care for her own mother who was dying of cancer four years ago challenged the way I view illness and adulthood. The mother had become the child, and the child the parent. My mother hated every minute of it. I’ve never appreciated her more. I think the story wrote itself after that. ”