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  • Robyn L. Murphy (bio)

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[End Page 106]

Mom told me about the diagnosis when we were sitting on a beach in North Carolina. My wife, Helen, had just left to take the puppy for one last run, and I realized that her convenient departure had been prearranged by the way she glanced back at us, biting her lower lip that way she always does when she's worried. [End Page 107] It was the end of a good vacation—a week of intentionally forgetting about all the work piling up back at home and concentrating on the immediacy of mild sunburn. By then we'd figured out a favorite beach to go to and then a favorite spot to put our blanket to get just the right amount of wind to keep away the flies but not blow away the wax paper that our lunch sandwiches had been wrapped in. It was late, and most of the families had packed up their whining broods and gone home, leaving just a few people like us who were willing to endure the increasing nip to the wind in exchange for a good sunset view and an easing of the crowds.

While Mom was telling me about the diagnosis, I was still sulking over being told second. Realizing that Mom was just trying to protect me only made the sulking worse. What forty-year-old man wants to have his mom still trying to protect him? I wanted to be consulted, relied upon, asked complicated questions that I would then have to look up in my medical texts so I could return with even more complicated and nuanced answers.

"God never gives more burdens than a person can carry," Mom said. I think she stole the line from something like that "Footprints" prayer, and while she seemed to be drawing a great deal of comfort from it, it was failing to similarly impress me. Then I discovered that she'd already talked with her priest, her lawyer, her funeral director and even her realtor.

"You told the realtor before you told me?" I asked.

"It just seemed like a good idea to get an estimate on the house. And then of course I had to make an appointment with the assessor."

"The assessor?"

We weren't really quibbling about my annoyance over being roughly seventh on her list of People to Inform About My Tumor, though I won't deny that that rankled somewhat. Mostly we were conflicted about the question of dignity—her dignity. She had hoped to accept this latest blow in a long life of troubles and slip away quietly, with a minimum of intervention.

"Five more years, right?" I'd missed that point about dignity entirely and had mostly fixed on the question of intervention. Medical intervention sounded really nice to me. "The oncologist said that with treatment you could live five more years?"

"He didn't say that they would be five good years. He just said maybe five years."

I didn't think about how many of her friends Mom had seen go through this or what her preference might be. All I was thinking about was the word "go," and I couldn't take it. [End Page 108]

"We'll get you the best doctors, Mom. New treatments come out every month, and maybe in a year we'll have a better prognosis. Remember my friend Doug? He went into oncology, and I bet he could get you into some experimental studies. That's where all the really cutting-edge stuff happens."

This was only the beginning. I begged, I cajoled; I used guilt shamelessly. It didn't occur to me that perhaps sixty-eight years were enough for her. I even hit below the belt and implied that if she stuck around, there might be a grandchild. She didn't want to miss grandchildren, did she? Not that Helen and I had any intention of having kids.

Mom finally did agree, though I'm pretty certain that she knew the thing about grandchildren was complete bullshit, and we were both crying by then. She...


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