Nancy Neufeld Callaway
helped her pound down mounds of shark cartilage, then touted as
a near-miracle cure for all cancers. And at one point she looked
at me with her sallow, tired, lifeless eyes as she was spooning
in a huge lump of the white powdery shark cartilage, and she asked
me, "So what do you think, if a shark gets cancer, you think
it eats spoonfuls of human cartilage?" Flashing me that old
witty grin, but without the laughter that usually went with it,
because she was just, as we both used to say, "Too pooped to
I get to her house as quickly as I can, and I gently sit down on
her bed, careful not to jiggle the mattress because the movement
could tear more skin away from her already open bedsores. I try
not to look like I'm talking to someone who's dying because I know
that she can tell when I'm giving her that unbearably sad look.
So I act casual, nonchalant, and slowly I work my way into a somewhat
perky, "What is it you wanted to tell me?"
And she looks at me with utmost concern, with those deep-set, knowing
eyes, with years of experience, and nods up and down. "Not
now, I'm tired. Maybe later."
" I begin.
she whispers. And she holds my hand, turns her head away from view,
and drifts off to sleep.
To death, I wonder? Or just a nap? I'm not sure. But I sit there
motionless -- for whatever it was going to be. And an hour or so
later, she wakes up, smiles, and asks me if I want to play Rummy
Q or Gin -- our games of choice. Apparently the previous conversation
we were about to have -- never was.
We'd been playing Gin for almost 20 years. When I was around seven,
she taught me Crazy 8's and Go Fish, and soon we moved on to War,
my personal favorite. And then came Gin. We were both good. Though
she was better. And we were both competitive. Though I was more.
And somehow, one day way back when, one of us -- probably me --
started cheating. Just a little. A tossed card here and there, a
peek at her cards. And I only felt a little guilty because very
soon after, I noticed that she was cheating as well, but not nearly
as well as I'd been cheating. And thus began our little ritual which
lasted for many, many years.
And during those last few months, we played a lot of cards.
I remember a good friend telling me how lucky my mom and I were
to have all that time together. To talk about what was important
to us, and bond, and make sure we'd said everything we needed before
she died. But that wasn't how it was. We never talked about anything
remotely heavy, for that would feel like giving up. We talked about
little things, the minutia of everyday life. My mom was not planning
on leaving, never accepted her death sentence. And she was the boss.
That's how she lived, and that's how she would -- not live.
night, about seven months after she'd first been diagnosed, she
and I were sitting on her bed playing Gin
only a few nights
after she'd screamed to me, "I want to die! And I want you
to find out how to do it. Get a gun and shoot me. It's what I want."
But unable to do that, my father and I turned the dilaudid on her
built-in painkiller pack up to 10, enough to relieve all her pain,
and possibly kill her -- and luckily, it did the former. And can
I tell you? When she woke up a day later, she was so happy to be
alive. My dad came back into the room, still shaken by our wrenching
night, and told her that he didn't want to live without her, that
he couldn't live without her, and that if she died, he was going
to kill himself. Then she looked at him and responded matter-of-factly,
"Okay." And we just sat with that for a while.
later on that day she and I play more cards. She usually deals,
but now even the smallest effort is too big, so I deal. I pick her
cards up backwards, so I can't see them, fan them out for her, and
stick them in her hand. She looks at her cards and smiles
at mine too. "Hel--lo ladies," I say, looking at the shittiest
hand I've seen in my entire life. But this was not unfamiliar territory
to me. And we begin playing, and after about five minutes, her drugged
eyes drift shut and she passes out for several minutes, which is
something she has been doing for a few weeks. And while she is "out,"
I quickly put my hand down, take her cards out of her hand, completely
rearrange them, give myself a few better cards, and sit
waiting for her to come to.
does. And she looks at me -- quizzically? Perhaps. Knowingly? Perhaps.
And I say I gotta pee. So I get up, leaving her alone with the cards,
and just enough time to do whatever it is she feels like doing,
and when I get back, she beats the pants off of me. And that is
the last game we ever play.
I cheated on my mom while playing Gin. While she was dying.
And she knew. And I knew. But neither one of us ever said a word.
It was all that we could share together. The only real thing we
had left between us. You want to know what's most sacred? The one
thing I've learned that I'll never forget? I'll tell ya
But not now. Later.
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