- Before Green
Before green was a color again, that place hummed with extinction. Her hospital bed adjusting automatically to keep the sores at bay. The thrum of the IV pole my mother pushed to the bathroom, its power cord like a companionable snake. Before green was a color again, there were weeks when chemo seemed not like a controlled burn but like the Hindenburg, or like the Challenger shuttle disintegrating just after takeoff, she was shedding pounds, shedding clothes, tears, was a thing on fire; we all stood back helpless because the fire wasn’t anywhere to be seen and was inextinguishable.
Six rounds of chemo, each four days long. A bag of chemicals hung from a metal stake, dripping continuously.
I was seven when the Challenger blew up midair. I was ten when Grandpa died. I was 11 when the Wall fell. Twelve when Desert Storm was on TV. I’d just turned 13 when Michael beat Magic to win the NBA Championship. I was 16 when I kissed Lauren in her parents’ basement, 17 when I got drunk at prom. I was 18 when I read The Great Gatsby on a train from Nebraska to Colorado and learned about archetypes, that the light on the dock across the bay from Gatsby’s longing was green because green signified hope. I was 19 when I heard the name Monica Lewinsky. I was 21 when my brother Gabe started having seizures. Twenty-three on 9/11. I was 25 and 28 and 31 when I flicked cigarettes off an apartment balcony and watched them detonate in the grass, and I was 34 and 35 and now 37 when I determined to stop buying what was poisoning me. But last year I was 36 when Mom left me a voicemail saying call me back, and instead I took the subway to Williamsburg and walked [End Page 49] up Bedford Ave., browsed in a bookstore, not knowing that that afternoon of roaming in NYC, alone and at ease, listening to a podcast, ordering eggs and sourdough bread, would precede the end of a certain color, the start of a certain dread, the moment she was on speakerphone saying, I didn’t want to tell you until we really knew.
Before green was a color again, there were stiff hospital sheets strewn with her light brown fallen-out hair. We hadn’t bought the wig yet. I picked tendrils of hair from her pink fleece jacket, not wanting her to see all she’d lost. There were gray beefsteaks from the cafeteria, doctors rubbing disinfectant on their hands. There was a medical resident who came by a few times; she had these knowing brown eyes and no wedding ring. I memorized her name and thought I might look her up when this was over, but then my mom was discharged and I forgot all about her. It was the worst part of winter in Kansas City, all beige and pewter and black and salt-white, the colors not of Gatsby’s longing but, I imagined, of Fitzgerald’s famous crisis essay “The Crack Up.” “Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” he’d written in his 39th year, “but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from the outside . . . don’t show their effect all at once.” There’s a latency period, Fitzgerald said, between the moment our courage is taken from us and the moment we realize it’s gone. Then the colors we’d taken for granted drain from our sight like marrow from a bone.
Months passed and green was a mockery. I kept thinking I’d visit one of those life-expectancy websites, the ones predicting when you’ll expire to the day, but then I’d think, don’t ruin the surprise. We get what we get, birth and breast and banality, luck and unluck and fickle time, radiant time, unspooling like toilet paper till you reach the end of the roll.
She outlasted the pale, ponderous winter, the sweet-smelling fresh-cut bulbs of spring, and still green...