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Something of Her Very Own
By Annabelle Gurwitch

How I came to volunteer remains unclear to me. I remember offering to spend that first night with her in the hospital. It's the why that's a mystery.

She had spent a good deal of my childhood "resting." I spent my adolescence resenting her passivity and abdication of responsibility, and had mostly reduced our contact to brief phone exchanges.

So it's no wonder that when my father called to inform me that my mother, Shirley, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, I thought, good for her, she's finally got something to call her very own. I imagined the tumor a tight little ball of anger wadded up right on the edge of her consciousness.

The tumor had been discovered by chance on an x-ray of a stiff neck, following a minor car accident. There was no way of knowing if this thing, this growth, was a.) benign or malignant, and b.) stable or spreading like a fungus. No, the tumor had to go.

Overnight, my sister Lisa, the overachiever, became an expert on brain tumors. Within two weeks she and her children were marching in a National Brain Tumor Awareness fundraiser.

My mother was never more vital and energized than when facing her own mortality. She was instantly in communication with people with astrocytomas and subependymonas, asking them to leave information at her email address:

My father had his own method of coping. An entrepreneur of sorts, my dad has spent his life "putting business resources together." There was the art gallery, the travel agency, insurance sales, the door factory and the fast food restaurant featuring a foot-long french fry. Have you ever seen a foot-long french fry? Neither has anyone else. He purchased Grand Union Station in St. Louis, coal mines, silver mines, and had a foray into the film business. Have you ever seen Poor White Trash (Parts I and II), subtitled: Scum of the Earth? Neither has anyone else. In keeping with this tradition, he approached my mother's tumor basically like any other start-up: delegating responsibilities to others, seeing himself as the point man. He had mapped out a plan by which my sister and I would coordinate our flights down to Miami, where we would take care of our mother.

At the time, I had not set foot in my parents' home for several years. Utilizing insurance monies received for injuries incurred when a massage table had mysteriously collapsed beneath my dad, my parents had been renovating their house, and had blown the entire one-hundred-thousand-dollar settlement on improvements to the master bathroom, leaving the rest of the house fairly uninhabitable. It's really some bathroom, a monument to chrome and marble, and that's useful because you want to have a nice place to shower off the dust from the exposed beams in the unfinished bedrooms.

My sister and I arrived the night before the surgery and found my mother full of manic energy. Who was this mom, this frenetic mom? I sort of liked this mom. Mom toiled until dawn divvying up her worldly goods, because, "you never know." I listened to her with the realization that her very last words to me might be, "this gravy boat belonged to your grandmother."

A few hours later, my mother was whisked away to a pre-op room. She was amazing. When we saw her she was hooked up to IVs, and was calmly needlepointing an animal pattern pillow.

As my sister and father managed a semblance of normalcy, praising her handiwork, another patient was throwing up behind a curtain next to her, so a constant heaving sound punctuated their conversation. I started to faint and was removed from the room because my presence was disturbing to the other patients. Clearly my coming was a mistake.

On TV, people awaiting news of their loved ones sit in hallways, allowing for long dramatic tracking shots. In real life, my family and I were shuffled off to a cramped, airless, plasticky holding area and offered cheap pastries and instant coffee.

Every half an hour I went for a walk, first heading over to the cafe con leche stand where coffee after coffee failed to penetrate the fog that had descended over my person. Then I walked the hospital grounds.

If you're looking for glamour, you won't find it at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Located in the inner city, Jackson serves Miami's indigent population and it's no secret. Sitting outside on the curb were patients ravaged by AIDS and other afflictions. Most looked to be junkies, crime victims and/or perpetrators. An unspeakably peaked-looking shoeless fellow wrapped with bandages in a degraded state, approached me. I gave him a dollar and wished him a speedy recovery. It later occurred to me that he might not even have been a patient.

Local color aside, the doctors at Jackson, what with the prevalence of gunshot wounds to the head, have had plenty of opportunity to perfect cranial operating techniques, so it's really a great place to go should you need to get your head sawed open to remove a bullet and/or tumor.

Without fail, returning to the waiting area, it was as if time had stopped. My sister was engrossed in yet more brain tumor literature, and for the entire duration of my mother's surgery, my father sat with a cellular phone glued to his ear, negotiating business deals. 

Five hours into the wait, I sought refuge in the hospital chapel, conveniently located adjacent to the waiting room. It claimed to be nondenominational, but Jesuses in various states populated the walls. Jesus on the cross; Jesus carrying the cross; Jesus lying down; Jesus sitting up, Jesus pushing an IV pole -- well, maybe the coffee was having an effect after all.

Moral questions hadn't arisen; really more like logistical ones plagued me. Where does the soul reside? In the body or the brain? Is the soul part of the self? And doesn't the self consist of memory, wit, learned knowledge, existing as grooves worn into the brain matter? And if that is true, then what? Is the soul flash frozen and then reconstituted later, like… Tang? Or does the soul leave during brain surgery, go out for a cup of coffee say, and then return if, and hopefully when, summoned back? What? I imagine a sort of holding area for souls, not unlike the D.M.V. My mother, in her surgical gown, needlepointing, waiting for her number to be called.

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