The high holidays were coming and my mom had a lot on her mind. How would she prepare for a houseful of dinner guests when she barely had the strength to cross a room? Offers of help had been made but Mom had her ways of doing things. Invitees had said they’d understand if she didn’t host this year but if the doctors were right, this Rosh Hashanah would be her last.
On the morning of what we would fondly look back on as “the challah incident” I had a lot on my mind as well. On my shoulders rested the responsibility of getting Mom to two appointments in preparation for her first round of chemotherapy. She would need a wheelchair and a strong caretaker and I doubted that I was up to task. The night before, I’d printed a map of the hospital’s sprawling campus, looked up directions on how to operate the brake on a wheelchair and packed some challah to sustain us through several hours between appointments. I had my way of doing things too. The apple had not fallen far from the tree.
The day didn’t start out well. After descending three flights from her apartment, Mom didn’t have the strength to climb into the passenger seat of my SUV. We took her car instead. I wasn’t used to automatic transmission and every time I tapped lightly on the brakes it felt as if the car was coming to a sudden stop.
She threatened to take over the driving and then we traveled in silence, me feeling like I’d already failed miserably and Mom presumably thinking that her caretaker had neglected to take care of her. When we reached a red light not far from our destination, she put her hand over mine and said, “We’re going to be all right today.”
“I just want to do a good job,” I said.
“You will. We’re going to be okay. We’re going to handle this together.”
Maybe it was the use of the word together that gave me the strength to take charge. At the hospital, I found a wheelchair right away and settled her into it and, thanks to having done my homework, kicked off the brake and wheeled her smoothly along the corridors.
Her first appointment was for bloodwork. She hated blood tests. I distracted her with an alphabet game in which we came up with cake flavors from A to Z. Nine months later, for her sixty-seventh and final birthday, I baked her the xylophone cake that we’d invented right there in the hematology lab – a long strip of chocolate cake covered in alternating “keys” of chocolate and vanilla frosting.
With hours to kill between appointments, we rolled around for a while until we found an empty surgical waiting room with comfortable-looking seating. I settled her onto a sofa and pulled up a chair. We didn’t belong there but we didn’t care.
Mom got back to planning the menu for Rosh Hashanah. In the middle of describing the side dishes she intended to make, she pressed her hand to her chest.
“What can I do for you?” I said, leaning forward.
“It’s just heartburn from all the medications,” she said. “There’s really nothing you can do.”
But there was. I unpacked the challah. Mom pointed to a sign that read: No Eating or Drinking.
There was nothing ambiguous about this message. Then again, there’d been nothing ambiguous about the designation of this room as a Surgical Waiting Area and yet we’d claimed the space as our own, had even rearranged the furniture a bit.
I reached into the bag, tore off a bit of bread, looked around and passed it to my mother. We were both smiling as we continued our covert operation of vanquishing Mom’s heartburn. When she’d eaten an entire slice and the pain had subsided, I returned her to the wheelchair. We made our getaway, racing down the corridors and giggling and pretending the hospital police force was after us for breaking a hospital law.
The second appointment was for a bone scan. Since there was nothing radioactive in the room, I was permitted to stay by her side. I worked on a sudoku puzzle and occasionally looked over at her, lying perfectly still with her eyes closed. I memorized her face, beautiful to the day she died. On the drive back to her apartment, Mom told me she’d taken comfort in the scratching sound of my pencil eraser.
It turned out she was right. We were all right.
And by the way, if anyone has questions about a couple of women seen illegally eating challah in a surgical waiting room nearly fourteen years ago – I know nothing.