“Why aren’t you eating?” my mother told me, her Yonkers accent echoing in the otherwise quiet Chinese restaurant. A 77-year-old Italian-American hairdresser who believed that almost all problems could be solved with a bunch of spaghetti and meatballs, saw my lack of appetite as a warning sign.
“I’m fine,” I said. “My sesame chicken has a strange peppery taste.”
He beckoned to our waiter. “My son can’t have spices,” he said, “because of his leukemia.”
Although he had survived cancer as a child, he was now at risk of dying of embarrassment. By 40, I had gotten used to my mother’s overprotectiveness. From an early age, I understood that as her youngest of her four children and the only one with her life-threatening condition, she and I would always be bound by love and fear.
I accepted the way I slathered on sunscreen on the beach, even in my teens. And I didn’t object when she insisted on chaperoning my elementary school field trips or walking me to class on my first day of college.
However, I always hated the way I was constantly telling others about my illness, especially now when I gave the impression that I was still sick.
“Mom, I’ve been in remission for 30 years,” I told her. “Why can’t we move on?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize she was making you feel so uncomfortable.”
“I’ve told you a hundred times that I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” I told him.
“You should be proud to be a survivor. Why you act like it’s something to be ashamed of?
Maybe he was right, but I had never felt comfortable talking about what I went through. In many ways, fighting the disease was easier than dealing with its long-term side effects: nightmares about sharp needles sticking up my spine; the pain of teasing at school after my hair fell out; worry that a visit to the doctor will bring news that I am no longer in remission.
Although my mother’s antics made me blush, I was envious of the way she seemed to handle my illness better than I did.
The first time I was admitted to the hospital at age 5, my mother got between the doctors and nurses and would have put on a lab coat and drawn my blood if she’d been allowed. For the next few days, she hovered over the medical students, directing them which veins to use. “Not those at her right hand; They move,” she said.
He smuggled in pizza and bologna sandwiches when I refused to eat the hospital food. At night, she would twist into a human pretzel to sleep in a half-broken plastic chair next to my bed.
As I worried about the stiff sheets or the overpowering scent of isopropyl alcohol, she encouraged me to think of the hospital as a kind of summer camp. I didn’t buy it, beeping machines and blood transfusions were a far cry from archery and swimming, but she always did her best to keep the mood light.
When I spent my seventh birthday in the cancer ward, she filled my room with balloons and cupcakes. After I complained about not being able to go to Disney World like my friends, she took a dusty globe from the nursing station and spun it next to my bed, promising that one day she would take me wherever I wanted to go. As the nurses took me to treatments, she continued the travel theme and pretended we were getting on a plane.
“Be careful with my luggage,” he said. “He is irreplaceable.”
Looking back, I realized that it wasn’t easy for her, especially since my father worked long hours at construction jobs to pay my medical bills. He gave up his favorite activities, like the Thursday night bowling league., and she had little time to herself as she juggled my needs with my older sisters’ first dates and high school graduations.
However, she smiled through him. For five years, we faced my illness together as a two-person cancer squad.
However, now I felt distant from her. It seemed like this meal and our relationship was falling apart fast and I had no idea how to fix it. Our waiter returned with egg drop soup, easing the tension.
“To make you feel better,” he said.
It was cute and I appreciated the gesture, so I gave him a flirtatious smile and made sure not to slurp. My mother turned around. She denied being uncomfortable, but I knew I had made her as uneasy as she had made me.
A conservative Catholic, my mother favored a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to my sexuality. In the 20 years since I’ve come out, she’s only mentioned my sexuality a few times, usually to inform me that my kindergarten teacher from decades ago was a lesbian or to ask me to explain something she didn’t know. understand in “Will & Grace”.
I wish we’d been more open, but when she referred to the guys I dated as “special friends,” I knew I wasn’t ready.
“How about we make a deal?” I said. Stop talking about my leukemia and I won’t flirt with guys in front of you. In fact, I won’t even mention my love life.”
“Just eat your soup,” he said.
“I’ll bet you $100 you’ll be the first to break,” I said.
As a woman who enjoyed bus rides to Atlantic City to play quarter slots, she couldn’t resist taking the gamble. Our first test came two weeks later at my uncle’s 75th birthday party.
“I have prostate cancer,” he announced, his eyes on me. “Mark, tell me about your experience. I’ll be fine, right?
I expected my mother to answer for me, but instead she said, “Mark doesn’t like to talk about it.”
His reaction surprised me, but I was convinced that I would still win the bet. We went back to that Chinese restaurant, and when my food was too spicy again, I hoped it would relent. He sat quietly, besting me once more.
However, three months later, a routine trip to Costco led to an unexpected confession. First: a clarifier. I wish I could say I’m a middle-aged man who likes to help his elderly mother with Sunday shopping out of the goodness of his heart, but actually I’m a middle-aged man who can’t say no when his mother leaves. offers to buy you wholesale toilet paper rolls, paper towels, and allergy medications.
In the frozen food section, as I was dumping three pounds of waffles into our cart, we saw two men close by, my age, kissing. I was relieved that she didn’t gasp or say something offensive, but I couldn’t stop looking at her. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the man I’d like to kiss in these cold halls. The one I had been hiding from my mother.
“Mom, there’s someone I want you to meet,” I said nervously. “His name is Michael, he lives in Harlem, he’s a professor of public health and he has the cutest poodle. I really like it and I know you will too.
“You owe me $100,” he said. I was disappointed that she didn’t react more warmly. But after taking my money, she said, “I’ve never seen you smile like that. It’s about time I met one of your special friends.
“Boyfriend, mom,” I told her. “Maybe one day my husband will call him.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said.
As we walked to the checkout line, he bumped into a woman he knew from high school, who wasted no time bragging about her son’s six-figure salary and her two perfect sons.
“This is my son, Mark,” my mother said. “He Survived Cancer.”
At that moment, I realized that she was never trying to humiliate me. She was proud of me. Now I had to get by for her, just as she had for me. “Yeah, it was really horrible,” I said, playing along. Big needles and a lot of blood.
It felt weird to make fun of my experiences, and even weirder to see my mom get emotional when I did. Yet for both of them, the frail boy confined to a hospital bed had finally broken free.
I hugged her tightly, feeling the scars of my illness begin to fade as I prepared to let go and open up. I wanted to embrace our future together and be as close as the two-person cancer squad we once were.
“Here,” he said, handing me back the money with a tear in his eyes. “We are even.”