In Geneseo, the sun sets so brightly that the light reflects off of the buildings and sidewalks and windows, so, for a few minutes each day, everything is vivid pink and orange. The walls of my dorm room were white, but the lights were off, so when the light seeped in around the blinds, my room was pink, too. I was in bed, my mother in a chair at my feet. My glasses were on my desk, so it took me a moment to realize that she was crying.
I had gone to Student Health earlier that day, but they were rationing antibiotics, so even though I had an ear infection, they sent me away with some Tylenol and a heating pad. When I made it back to my room, I spent the next two hours either screaming or crying while holding a heating pad to my ear, until, to my relief, my eardrum burst open. A few days after this, the left side of my face was paralyzed. The infection had eaten through a bone and had inflamed a nerve and all that Student Health could do was wait until the inflammation died and I could use that half of my face again. For three weeks, I was winking.
But back in my pink dorm room, I asked my mother what was wrong. She wiped her eyes using her fingertips, each hand sliding across her nose past her cheeks, and said it was because her son was bleeding from his ear and there was nothing that she could do about it.
“So?” I asked, and she walked up to me and touched my face and told me that I would understand when I had children of my own. I was nineteen, then.
When I was eleven and we were on vacation to Niagara Falls, I caught my mother smoking. She cried and promised to quit and said that I mustn’t, under any circumstances, tell either of my brothers because they didn’t know. After that, I caught her at least twice a year, and each time received that exact same speech.
Once, when I was fourteen, I was sitting in the kitchen arguing with my mother about smoking. She said that the real reason she couldn’t quit was that she couldn’t bear living and was too much of a coward to kill herself conventionally. I never wondered then, why she would tell a fourteen year old something like that. But sometime after this, at the Chinese buffet, I started crying and my mother took me into the hall near the bathrooms and I told her that I was going to tell my brothers. She was furious. We returned to the table and, as I prepared to say something, my mother said, “Who here doesn’t know that I smoke?” After looking for anyone else to say something, my brothers and I realized that we each thought we were the only one who knew.
So I didn’t think it was strange when, at sixteen, she told me not to tell my brothers or absolutely anyone that she had cancer. After explaining my failures as a son and human being in general, she said that I would be lucky if she saw me graduate high school. I had experimented with marijuana and would stay up late and spend too much time on the computer and only had a little bit better than a 92 overall average in my classes and she needed to see me on the right track before she died.
We didn’t have health insurance. She hadn’t even seen a doctor to be diagnosed, but she had been bleeding from her colon for five years, she said, which is two years short of how long her father bled from his colon before he died. My mother was dying, soon, and she wouldn’t say another word about it.
My bedroom window led to my roof, which was a nice place to sit because we lived in the country so the view was pretty, and a willow tree hung over half of it. I sat out there often. The stars are bright in the country, and it was best to watch them in the spring when the skies were clear and the winds were calm, and I could hear the crickets and frogs because there was a pond near the woods.
When I was seventeen, I smoked my first cigarette. I was in the backseat of my friend’s car on the way to another friend’s trailer, where I was to sleep on the floor. It was a Camel Light. I declined it at first because it was the middle of the swim season, but my friend said that if there was ever a time for a cigarette, it was after your mother had thrown you out of the house. His argument made sense at the time.
I hadn’t felt like going to school that morning, and my mother said that if I didn’t go, I couldn’t go to my girlfriend’s winter formal. I said that I wouldn’t miss it and that I was going back to bed. She said that if I went to the dance I shouldn’t come back. I went anyway, and came back too, and was promptly shoved back out. I was gone for four days.
Years passed. When I was twenty I transferred out of SUNY Geneseo and into Yale, where my twin had been since freshman year. Two years later and after years of her not dying of cancer, I was convinced that she was just crazy, because she was. There were much likelier explanations for bleeding from the colon. She didn’t have cancer but thought that she did, and since she was never diagnosed by a doctor, she was obviously wrong. When I mentioned this theory to my brother, he said, “What the hell do you mean ‘cancer’?”
After mentioning that conversation to my mother, she eventually said that she had lied. When I asked why she would do something like that, she said, emotionlessly, “We’ve certainly gotten along better since, haven’t we?” After that, we didn’t talk for almost a year. We still don’t, really.
I do remember, though, the summer before all of this that I stayed home to spend time with her, we had gone into Ithaca for the day with my older brother. After eating a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant, we went to Cayuga Lake, where the three of us walked to the edge of the water. I took off my sandals and perched on a rock and started to skip stones. My mother was impressed by how well I could do it, and she inched to a rock next to mine, sat down, and dipped her ankles in the water. All of her stones sank immediately, so she began handing them to me, one by one, and I would skip them. We did this fora while, and the sun was shining and there were willow trees behind us and it was warm, and suddenly my mother laughed, which sounded like a child’s hiccough, two quick and sudden bursts, and I noticed how rare a sound that was.