The Last Days of My Mother - excerpt
My life had not always been like this. Just a few months earlier I had been living with a woman who’d have sex with me with the lights on, found comfort in a double bed and a dishwasher, still confident that the future would roll out at least a slightly discolored red carpet. But Fortune turned her back on me. Love kicked me in the nuts. Over the course of a single disastrous week in January, a seven-year relationship went down the drain. I found myself lying stark naked in a hotel room in Dublin, blinded by toxic levels of alcohol and in total ignorance of who lay next to me. My intoxication was such that I had difficulty telling the gender of the person and didn’t realize until I was alone again that whoever it was had been sexually stimulated by beating me with a furry animal. The experience was unpleasant, but necessary for my personal growth. I was slowly coming to the understanding that the various doubts I’d harbored about my relationship had been based on misunderstanding. I had squandered my happiness. The lesson was terrible and all I could do was head back home.
The grey spring of 2008 hung over Iceland like rotten debris from the murky depths of history, threatening financial devastation, sleep deprivation. And then Mother was diagnosed with cancer.
I had accompanied her to the hospital, under a month before we embarked on our journey. She wore a red, fitted wool two-piece, as if she believed that the better she looked the harder it would be for the doctor to deliver bad news with any conviction. A woman who looked this dapper at her age could hardly be at death’s door.
The doctor, however, was grave. He held a pen up to his chin and gave the desk a small tap before he spoke. The test results were back and as we could see on the x-rays, the grey area on the shinbone was growing. “We’re convinced that what we have here is sarcoma of the connective tissue.” Mother gave the doctor a cold stare and waited for him to expand on the subject. “Fibrosarcosis is one type of osteocarcinoma, which is in fact rather rare in patients your age. We do see it in other mammals, cats and dogs in particular, but it’s extremely rare to diagnose this disease so late in life.”
“Really now. And is there a prize?” Mother asked.
“No. Spare me the circus act, Herr Doctor. You tell me I have a disease that is only found in children and pets, as if I’d won the lottery. It’s absurd!”
Mother’s impatience was palpable. She would grumble about the medical corps being comprised of sadists who flocked to medical school fascinated by stories of Mengele’s ghoulish experiments. To her the nurses were variations of Herta Oberhauser, a Nazi nurse who murdered her victims by injecting them with kerosene. Mother had played Herta in a controversial play in a small theatre in Montparnasse and so knew what she was talking about. I ignored these rants. After all, the sentiment was not a recent development. Mother had suffered from a phobia of hospitals for as long as I could remember, and made several efforts to cultivate in me a similar distrust of the medical profession. It was wiser, she thought, to follow the example of Great Aunt Edda when you were under the weather: Have a wee dram to ease the pain, and then another just for luck. I pointed out that strong spirits were hardly a cure for cancer and that she had to be a bit more understanding of the hospital staff. And I suppose she tried even though she failed fantastically.
“Maybe I should have gone to the vet, Herr Doctor?”
“No, no, not at all, Mrs. Briem,” the doctor stammered. “Cell division in people your age is not very rapid, which means that the disease spreads more slowly.”
“Right. And so you will, of course, fix this before that happens.”
“Well,” the doctor began, breaking into a long speech about matters being slightly more complicated. There certainly were cases where doctors had managed to surgically remove sarcoma in connective tissue, but a very large team of specialists was needed for such an operation. Unfortunately Icelandic hospitals had neither the equipment nor the manpower for such an undertaking. The operation would have to take place in the United States, but since the procedure was still experimental, it would not fall under the Icelandic Health Care System so Mother would have to pay for it herself.
“There is, however, quite a good chance of getting sponsors for semi-profiled operations of this magnitude. Surgeons may waive their fees, research institutes invest in the operations in exchange for exclusive rights to acquired information …”
“Ok, all right,” I said, my hopes already up. “And how do we do this?”
“I can look into it, make a few inquiries. The fact that this is quite a rare case should work in our favor.”
“I don’t understand where you’re going with this,” Mother said. “Do you think I’m some kind of guinea pig? We both know perfectly well that no one is going to pay for this operation. I’m not a celebrity. And what company will put up a fortune for an old hag from Iceland?”
I’d never heard Mother refer to herself as old, and certainly never as a hag, but this seemed to achieve the desired effect: the doctor was suddenly at a loss for words. He stared blankly at her and fiddled with his pen.
“See, I thought that a doctor’s job was to help patients,” Mother continued, “not to breed false hopes of some American Utopia.”