brother cancer motherhood
Sarah Akkaboune/Daily.

*Writer’s Note: I feel as if this is definitively the last piece I will ever write about grappling with my brother’s illness as it’s time to make peace. I believe its final resting place is here at The Michigan Daily where it will be afforded the dignity of being heard by my editors. It will be read by my friends Siri and Duaa C. and my mother who dutifully give love to every single piece I write. And for that I am grateful. 

I am 16 years old when I decide that I will not be a mother. I am not entirely certain I will ever possess the qualities needed to be one and, more so, because I understand motherhood: what it means to be a mother and to unequivocally love a child so much so that the life they lead becomes your own. And I have thought often about this love, a mother’s love, a love so muddy and tangled, a love that knows no creed or consequence, a love so invariably tangible it renders itself immune to any sort of concentrated definability. It’s quite unlike high school sweetheart love or puppy dog love, man and car love or backyard garden love. Because it is a love that isn’t taught or learned, a love that asks of no qualification or merit, a love that isn’t newly discovered after 3 months of night classes at the local community college or mastery of Symphony No. 40 in A minor on the old piano from a pawn shop in West Lafayette, Ind., that was destined to never be played again. Rather, it is unquestioning, unflinching love, routine and expected, visceral, like the neighborhood cat named Max that visits every Thursday to smell the peonies without fail, or the man in the moon. And because of its enigmatic nature, I’d like to think that a mother’s love manifests in the most arbitrary yet meaningful of ways. It is wet bedsheets and burnt toast; bunny-eared shoelaces and I-Love-Yous whispered into concrete; handmade ceramic mugs from art class that leak coffee, tea, lemonade and perpetually slant to the right; cherry pits spat into grass; a pinky stuck to the ring finger with peanut butter; angry phone calls about overdue books from Julie Lancaster at the public library; and sometimes it’s “Childhood Brain & Spinal Cord Tumors: A Guide for Family, Friends & Caregivers” on the kitchen table and inky-blue questions on how to love a terminally ill child. And I know because I’ve seen it in my own mother. 

In a hospital, my mother is my brother’s first. She is Ryan’s mother. Ryan’s mother who knows his height and weight. Ryan’s mother who knows his exact time and date of birth. Ryan’s mother who knows he prefers rooms that don’t overlook Forest Hill Cemetery and rooms with the TV remote attached to an elastic cord and nurses that angle their elbows just right when injecting Morphine, Vicodin, Vincristine. She is Ryan’s mother who knows other things too, like how meltdowns on the first day of kindergarten, overturned chairs and crayons snapped half, slurred speech, crossed eyes, monogrammed notes from other mothers with suggestions for expulsion and words like bully and disruption-to-the-class, headaches so bad he flailed and thrashed on the kitchen floor in pain, were the doing of a brain tumor in his cerebral cortex. And more so, she is Ryan’s mother who knew before anyone else, before Dr. Green and Dr. Campbell, before Dr. Schafer-Shapiro and Dr. Reddy, before nurse practitioner Jackie, before my father, before me. And perhaps it’s because only mothers are well versed in these sorts of matters. 

My brother had brain cancer at 6 years old, though mind you, cancer is the special sort of illness that never leaves, it burrows under the skin and fingernails, in the tongues of shoes, behind doorknobs and in back pockets, in bubbles in the honey jar and corduroys left to dry, and it took my brother’s mind and my mother’s soul and my father’s heart with it and gave back love and loss and shattered glass and rust. And being a mother to a son like my brother redefines motherhood, strips it bare and raw, flays it open on bathroom tile and unpins, untucks, unties, reduces it to its most carnal form, so that motherhood becomes wiping vomit off the Chinese buffet floor, after the fourth, the fifth, the sixth round of chemotherapy and life becomes staggered. Staggered around dates like Sept. 16, and Oct. 12, and Nov. 6. Dates for blood transfusions and appointments where the doctor talks too fast and the mind is too slow. And mostly, motherhood becomes acquainted with a certain kind of grief. One far different from tears cried over spilled milk, or the death of the goldfish won at the state fair after a three-month stint in a plastic aquarium, or over fractured wedding china after the movers rough-handle the box labeled fragile. Rather, it’s the kind of grief that wraps under and around the lungs, presses hard down on the chest so that the ribs begin to strain and crack, and even one breath becomes the most arduous task, it’s the kind of grief that hollows into the pit of the stomach and chips away at the lining, leaving marred holes, so that breakfast and acid leak into the body and sometimes it flashes so red hot it burns the heart. It is heavy and felt, thick and viscous, and it covers the floor, and the walls, and the windows, and the loose spaces behind the baseboards, trapping flies and moths, wishes made on shooting stars and the balls of feet, Get-Well-Soon cards and plastic forks with the prongs broken off. And it’s the kind of grief that only Rajia in Room 26 –– whose baby I held until his heart gave out –– knows; and Dominic Jackson’s mother –– whose son lost so much blood it stained the bedsheets clean through, splattering shoes, pooling out into the hall so that the nurses’ station shut down for the afternoon –– knows; and the kind of grief that only my oldest friend Asha –– who lost her own mother to cancer –– knows; it’s the kind of grief that only my mother knows, the kind of grief that only I know. And above all, it’s the kind of grief that pushes people away, so that the phone calls and pity playdates stop coming, and aunts and uncles and family friends go on vacations to Northern Michigan or the beach instead. The hospital room begins to thin out and the neighborhood mothers don’t visit, and maybe it’s because they cannot and will never understand that in that room, motherhood becomes ashes and sweat and watching your son die. 

And in a hospital room, when you are all that you have left in this world, there comes a certain sort of reckoning, a grappling with mortality. I have seen my brother choke and gasp for air until he turned blue, watched him seize and scream and bleed. I have seen my mother and father cry, felt my spine take on weight, and more than anything else, looked death square in the eye and watched it tug and pull at my brother’s throat, bounce off the walls and ceiling, knock into the light fixture, leave irremovable dents in plaster and violent angry purple splatters that never seemed to fade. 

Should the tumor ever choose to grow again, my brother will surely die and he will take my mother with him, and this time it will not grant me the grace of God, mercy or tact, love or care, and by that virtue, perhaps my greatest fear is not my own death, but rather my brother’s. For what is a sister without a brother or a mother without a son.

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