“You ready, Sylvia?”
“Yes I am.”
I’ve never heard my mom being called Sylvia before, even though it’s her given name. She’s always gone by her middle name, Diane. My mom, dad, sister and I are in the waiting room at the oncologist’s office. I’ve just flown in from Paris. Mom has been through a battery of tests and scans. We’ve spent the last two months waiting, worrying and wondering. We are here for answers. We are nervous and scared but still hopeful. We know about the lesions on her spine, we know the cells are cancerous, we know the GI doctor believes the cancer originated in the stomach. Now we are waiting to hear the most important part: the prognosis. The nurse leads us into a small examination room and we wait again.
The seconds tick by and Dr. Keck finally arrives. She’s petite, probably in her 40s, with straight, sandy blonde hair and kind eyes. From her entrance alone I can tell she is very sweet. She hugs Mom and greets us all warmly. She reiterates what we’ve been told in the scans, tests and reports and discusses Mom’s pain management. I scribble down notes on the lined yellow piece of paper Dad has torn off his legal pad for me. We discuss safe topics: doses of medicine, side effects, basic info about radiation, chemo, clinical trials…. I write quickly in cursive using a magazine I picked up in the lobby as a clipboard. The magazine is called Coping With Cancer and if you were to look at the photos on the cover only, you might infer that coping with cancer involves attending a 50s sock hop or a luau or running a race. I read the text and see that this is an issue is celebrating cancer survivors. I think, “I would like my mom to be a cancer survivor.”
We ask a few more questions and my sister, dad and I continue writing. Mom listens, nods and maintains an upbeat attitude. Hilary mentions the word “prognosis” and Dr. Keck respectfully turns to my mom and asks if she would like to hear it. She says yes and the doctor finally lays it out: Stage IV stomach cancer that has metastasized to the bones. Not curable. She says it can be treated with radiation and chemo but clarifies with a tinge of sadness in her voice, “The cancer will always find a way to come back.” Mom sighs, lowers her shoulders and says, “Well, I had 70 good years.” The tears start welling up in my eyes and eventually spill down my cheeks. I am the only one crying. I hear the words of our family friend Lonny who said to Hilary and I that morning, “You be strong in there for your mom,” and I try to pull it together. Hilly puts her arm around me and then gets up to grab me a tissue. While she’s away briefly, my dad gives me an empathetic look and gently uses the back of his hand to rub my upper arm. I take some breaths, dry my eyes and then I’m back. I study the magazine in my lap and decide I’m going to put it back after our meeting – not because of the content but because I notice it has a coffee stain on it. One small, almost imperceptible ring from a coffee cup and now, in addition, the words I’ve written about Mom’s condition are imprinted on the cover. I want to leave it all behind.
Dad asks if the test results could be wrong. He’s heard that the pathologists in Sonoma County aren’t very good. Dr. Keck says there’s something like a 99.5% accuracy rate and several checks and balances in the lab so while an error is possible, it’s not probable. We talk about things like “comfort” and “quality of life” and although Dr. Keck is using all kinds of different words and facial expressions, the sole message she seems to be conveying is, “I’m so sorry.” What about the big fight? The declaration that we’re going to do our best to knock out what’s there or at least keep it at bay? I wait for the rallying cry, but it never comes. Instead she calmly suggests a certain type of chemo with more manageable side effects than most.
I ask if my mom will ever be able to travel again. I know she’s been wanting to come to Paris for the past year but the idea seems pretty far-fetched now. I realize as I’m asking the question that I want to know if she can go anywhere. Because of her pain and limited mobility, she’s been confined to the house for a long time now. I want to know if she’s going to have some relief and a period of feeling better or if it’s going to get worse from here. Dr. Keck says if the radiation treatments relieve the pain in her spine and she is feeling well enough after chemo she could possibly travel. Finally, a small glimmer of hope.
As we leave the doctor’s office, I place the tarnished Coping With Cancer magazine in the middle of the stack and take a fresh copy. Maybe I’ll learn something and share it with Mom. We get in the car and head back to Sonoma together. We are mostly quiet. This drive reminds me of when I was a teenager and the family had just gone to the vet to put our dog Freckles to sleep. When Freckles stopped breathing and Dr. Evans said, “She’s gone,” I saw my dad cry for the first time ever. We were all devastated. Dr. Evans (who happens to be the father of swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans) said some comforting words and then added, “Might I suggest you all do something together as a family now and reminisce about the good times with your dog? If you feel like eating, there’s a Chili’s down the road that’s quite good.” And you know what we did? We all got in the car and drove to Chili’s. Dr. Evans showed us in our grieving state what to do next; how to move forward. Today Dr. Keck delivered the saddest message in the most compassionate way possible, but I was left wanting more – more information, more choices, more guidance, more hope. Even though we haven’t lost Mom I think we are all grieving in the car at this moment. This time we are not going to Chili’s.
We careen through the week, going from appointment to appointment and trying to make important medical decisions together. The doctors, nurses and pharmacists keep calling my mother Sylvia. It’s just as well. I am not familiar with this new version of my mom; this frail woman who is twenty pounds lighter with shoulder bones jutting out, who groans in pain when she turns her neck the wrong way, who struggles to get in and out of the car and cries at the sight of a pancake breakfast prepared by her daughters. She is still the same person of course – warm, sweet, funny, faithful, loving and completely selfless. But now, in great pain, faced with the idea of possibly leaving this world soon and forced to accept help from others, she is understandably uncomfortable. My mom loves taking care of others and doesn’t like all the attention on her. If she had it her way, she wouldn’t receive any help from family and friends because she doesn’t want to burden anyone. Hilary and I discuss this with her and try to get her to understand that we enjoy helping and wouldn’t have it any other way. My wise little sister said it best: Mom spent her whole life loving and taking care of others and now it’s her turn to receive.
We sit at the dining room table and I say, “Mom, can you tell me the story again about how you got your name? Why did Grandma name you Sylvia?” She tells me that when my grandma was younger she had a friend named Sylvia who needed a roommate. They talked and discovered that Sylvia liked to cook but didn’t like cleaning. My grandma loved to clean and didn’t care for cooking. It was a perfect match. I asked why Grandma never called Mom by her first name and she replied, “Grandma used to say, ‘Sylvia was Sylvia and you were Diane.’” She added that my grandma picked the name Diane because many of the debutantes she read about in the newspaper were named Diane and she liked the sound of it. “Do you mind that all the doctors and nurses are calling you Sylvia?” I ask. She says no. “In fact, it’s better because when they come to the waiting room to call out names there are always a lot of Dianes. It’s less confusing.” I ponder that a bit. So now my mom is Sylvia. But she is still Diane. She is Sylvia Diane. I am Brook Diane. And I love her.