A few decades ago (and some change), I entered this world at 6:31 in the morning. I was born at a high-rise hospital a few minutes away from my parents’ house in Orange and I was delivered by Caesarean section. I wonder if my dad actually watched me emerge from the slit in my mom’s belly or if he stayed by her side, holding her hand through the procedure. I also wonder if he chose to cut the umbilical cord. I feel like fathers always get the offer at the hospital – “Would you like to cut the cord?” – and I can absolutely see how that kind of thing is not for everyone. The two times I gave birth and Jonas was asked, he replied, “No thanks!”
I’ve been thinking about the umbilical cord lately. Even though my own was cut sometime shortly after 6:31 on that June morning, an invisible cord still connects my mom and I. No matter how far apart we are physically, we are always connected. The purpose of the umbilical cord during pregnancy is to nourish the child. From the day I was born, I have been continually nourished with love and wisdom through this invisible cord. In so many ways this connection has made me feel safe and grounded all my life. But things are changing. What was once a serene and stable bond now feels threatened.
I spoke to my dad via FaceTime last Friday. “Do you have any news?” He relayed to me what he was told by Dr. Galligan at my mom’s last appointment. About six or seven words in, he stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I was trying to play it cool but my face was betraying me. I replied, “Yeah,” willing him to go on. He said they had been draining large amounts of fluid from Mom’s lung over the past few days. Dr. Galligan received the test results and confirmed that the cancer had spread to both lungs. Because the current chemo regimen is no longer effective, she said the best option would be to switch her to a drug called Neratinib which targets one of her genetic biomarkers. At first the insurance company denied the request to cover the drug as it’s only been studied in patients with breast cancer, not stomach cancer. Dr. Galligan put in an appeal and the insurance company finally agreed to pay for it. Although this was good news, she told my dad not to get our hopes up because the cancer is very aggressive at this point. She recommended that my mom get her affairs in order and to prepare for end of life care.
Suddenly the invisible umbilical cord became very taut. It was pulling me home. I called my brother and sister to get their take on the situation and we all agreed it was a good idea to gather and support my parents ASAP. (Tim and Hilary are clearly being pulled by their own cords.) I booked a plane ticket and 36 hours later, I was on my way to the motherland. Shortly after I touched down in San Francisco, I glanced at my phone, which was still on Paris time, and realized it was my birthday in France. It was 6:31 a.m.
Hilary picked me up at the airport and drove me to her place where she had a nice, comfy bed set up for me. Early this morning she dropped me off at the Caltrain station so I could begin my journey up north to see Mom and Dad. For these selfless, sisterly acts, she was rewarded with a footballer-shaped brioche dipped in chocolate.
Mom had a doctor’s appointment in Marin at 9:30 a.m. and I hoped to get there before it ended. I took Caltrain to Millbrae, switched to BART, traveled to San Francisco airport, hopped on the Shuttle bus to Larkspur and then grabbed an Uber to Marin Cancer Care.
My Uber driver looked like Clint Eastwood in his profile picture but in person he reminded me more of Sam Waterston, physically. He was a French film buff and said he dreamed of moving to Paris with his wife. We discussed the pros and cons of living there and I said if he was really considering it that he should read the book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, which provides an honest and witty anthropological view of France. I had a copy in my bag and as we pulled up to the Cancer Care Center, I took the book out and said, “Here. Keep it.” I knew I wouldn’t have time for a lot of leisure reading this week and figured this guy would probably enjoy the book even more than I would.
I got out of the car and spotted my dad pushing my mom in a wheelchair just outside the building. The first thing I noticed was Mom’s yellow button up blouse. She’d worn it to my brother- and sister-in-laws’ wedding rehearsal dinner in San Antonio many years ago. Today it hung loosely on her thin frame. She wore bright yellow socks to cover her swollen feet and they matched the top perfectly. As my dad continued to move her towards the car I saw my mom rolling a large oxygen tank alongside her. Clear tubes snaked up her torso, behind her ears and into her nostrils. Even though she was receiving air, she still looked like she was straining to breathe. I ran up and gave her a big hug. She said she was glad to see me and wished me a happy birthday. I replied, “This is the best birthday gift ever” and kissed her on the cheek. I hugged my dad, then helped him get Mom in the car and load everything up.
My mom had a catheter installed last week to remove the fluid from one lung but the other one was full so she needed to go to Marin General Hospital to get it drained. Dad stopped the car out front, got the wheelchair and oxygen tank set up and asked me to take Mom inside while he looked for parking. We checked in quickly, then sat down and chatted for a bit. I could tell it was really hard for her to talk. She was practically gasping for air. A few minutes later a nurse came out to get her. I asked if I was allowed to accompany her during the procedure and was told no, so instead I stepped outside to call the pharmacy and Marin Cancer Care to find out what was going on with the Neratinib medication which was supposed to be arriving soon. Thirty minutes later Mom returned to the waiting room feeling somewhat relieved. They had extracted over 900 ml of fluid. She also had fluid in the second lung but the doctors said it was not a good idea to drain them both on the same day so she’d have to wait until tomorrow to do that one at home.
When we got back to the house I prepared a small tub of warm water and Epsom salt with a couple drops of rosemary and lemon essential oils for Mom’s feet. I played some soft music in an attempt to create a spa-like atmosphere. We relaxed and talked about everything from life, death and religion to ridiculous TV commercials. She was doing much better after the lung drainage. She told me about the day I was born. She said she cried when she saw me because she had hoped for a girl. She told me all the names she had considered for me: Courtney, Holly, Polly…it’s hard to imagine myself with any of those names. She shared a story about when she was in Austria in her early 20s and her feet were hurting from walking around so much. She stopped at a small brook, took off her shoes and dipped her feet inside. She rubbed her feet on the stones below for a few minutes and when she took them out of the water, they felt smooth and refreshed. She said that peaceful image came to her in the hospital that day and I reminded her of a babbling brook with all the gurgling baby sounds I made. So it was settled. I would be Brook. The nurse suggested she give me the middle name “Lyn” but my Dad thought Diane would be more meaningful. He was right.
After Mom’s nap today, we had a light dinner and stayed up to watch an episode of House Hunters International. It was a Paris episode! The day has come to a close and I am thankful beyond belief. I got to spend the day with the wonderful people who brought me into this world (a birthday wish come true) and I get to do the same tomorrow. Thank you, God, for every single moment.