FRESH YARN presents:

Tell You Later
By Nancy Neufeld Callaway

My mother. The one woman I love more than any in the world, calls me in the middle of a crazy day at work and tells me with great urgency that I need to drive over to her house -- a solid thirty minutes of bumper-to-bumper L.A. freeway traffic -- because she has something extremely important to tell me. Normally I would have ignored this kind of call but seeing as how she was in the middle of dying, I felt like I needed to pay attention.

I'd recently become engaged and, of course, she was the first person I called, both giddy, and sobbing, after my fiancé whisked me away to Queens, New York, and proposed to me on my 30th birthday. He serenaded me with an original tune under the Unisphere, a giant architecturally-pleasing metal globe primarily known because it commemorates the site of the 1964 World's Fair -- or because you saw aliens crash into it in Men in Black -- depending on your demo. Regardless, only moments after I shared my excitement with her, she told me that she too had some very important words she needed to share with me. Marriage words. Life words. Words about my future, she said to me, as I called her from the taxi that night on my cell phone. "Just some things you need to know. But not now, not on the phone."

It sounded a little like that time I'd arrived home from school on my 12th birthday, and my mom told me she had "some important things to discuss with me." I cringed because I knew from the tone exactly where she was going with it. But before we could have our "discussion," I went upstairs to change out of my school clothes, and there, sitting on my bed, was a giant ominous box. Not a wrapped birthday box. I gently lifted up the teensiest corner of the lid as if some deadly creature lay inside, only to find what I already knew was there. It was stuffed to the gills with girlie things. You know, for that time of the month. Pink pads of all shapes and sizes, straps with hangie down snaps and loops, complete with instruction packets. I slammed it shut. I was 12. What did she think I was? Eleven? I quickly shouted downstairs, "I already know this stuff. Duuuuuhhhh." And she shouted back, "Good, I thought so," and suddenly, we were done.

So sitting in that New York taxi on my 30th birthday, I was suddenly 12 again. True, there was certainly a lot to talk about. I was, oh my god, 30. I was getting married. My future husband wasn't hugely successful, or independently wealthy, or more importantly, Jewish. All that definitely left a lot of room for discussion. So I tucked the moment away and waited for the appropriate time to hear those words my mom had been so carefully saving for me all these years.

When I returned home to Los Angeles, I reminded her of our unfinished phone conversation from the cab in Queens, and asked her if she wanted to talk now, or maybe find a time to talk later. She opted for the "later" and so --

Only a month after her urgent "come over right away" phone call, I find myself racing like a maniac across the city to my mother's house. I can't help but wonder…maybe she is finally going to tell me something important. That THING. And knowing that my window of wisdom is very small right now -- with only months for her to live after having been diagnosed with inoperable stage 4 lung cancer -- and with her only daughter's wedding to plan, and me having my own job to do, and an inconsolable father to take care of, and brothers to resolve long overdue mother issues with, I drive 90 miles an hour across town because now, more than ever, I need a guru. And tampons, but we'd already covered that.

So there I get. And there she lies. In bed. Skeletal. Transparent skin. Exhausted from the chemo and radiation. From the pain. From vomiting. From lack of decent sleep. And even though I tried, up until now, nothing I did seemed to help. I moved in with her. Fed her, washed her, took her to all her doctor appointments. Made her laugh, or tried to. Made her cry, by mistake. Grew Kombucha mushrooms. Found her a bona fide healer. An acupuncturist. Nutritionist. Herbalist. Found her every single season of M*A*S*H* because she loved the show -- only to have her start confusing me with Gary Berghoff and begin calling me Radar. (Hey, at least I wasn't Klinger.)

I 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 pop."

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."

"Okay, but…" I begin.

"No," 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.

One 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.

Until 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…"Not bad."

I look 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… innocently… waiting for her to come to.

She 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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