“Why aren’t you eating?” my mother said to me, her Yonkers accent blaring into the otherwise hushed Chinese restaurant. A 77-year-old Italian-American hairdresser who believed that almost all problems could be solved with a pile of spaghetti and meatballs, she viewed my lack of appetite as a warning flare.
“I’m fine,” I said. “My sesame chicken just has an odd pepper flavor.”
She flagged down our waiter. “My son can’t have spices,” she said, “because of his leukemia.”
Though I had survived cancer as a young boy, I now risked dying of embarrassment. At 40, I had grown accustomed to my mother’s overprotectiveness. From an early age, I understood that as her youngest child of four, and the only one to endure a life-threatening condition, she and I would always be bound by love and fear.
I accepted the way she would smear sunscreen all over me at the beach, even well into my teenage years. And I didn’t put up a fight when she insisted on chaperoning my elementary school trips or walking me to class on my first day of college.
Yet I always hated the way she constantly told others about my illness, especially now, when it gave the impression that I was still sick.
“Mom, I’ve been in remission for 30 years,” I said. “Why can’t we just move on?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize I was making you so uncomfortable.”
“I’ve told you a hundred times I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” I said.
“You should be proud of being a survivor. Why do you act like it’s something to be ashamed of?”
Maybe she had a point, but I had never been comfortable discussing what I went through. In many ways, battling the disease was easier than dealing with its long-term side effects: the nightmares about sharp needles being jammed into my spine; the hurt from being teased at school after my hair fell out; the worry that a visit to the doctor will bring news that I’m no longer in remission.
Though my mother’s antics made me blush, I was envious of the way she seemed to handle my illness better than I did.
The first time I was admitted to the hospital at age 5, my mother wedged herself between doctors and nurses and would have put on a lab coat and drawn my blood if they let her. Over the next few days, she hovered over med students, coaching them on which veins to use. “Not the ones in his right hand; they wiggle,” she would say.
She smuggled in pizza and bologna sandwiches when I refused to eat the hospital food. At night, she twisted herself into a human pretzel to sleep in a half-broken plastic chair beside my bed.
As I fussed about stiff bedsheets or the overpowering scent of rubbing alcohol, she urged me to think of the hospital as a kind of summer camp. I didn’t buy it — beeping machines and blood transfusions were a far cry from archery and swimming — yet she always did her best to keep the mood light.
When I spent my 7th birthday in the cancer ward, she filled my room with balloons and cupcakes. After I complained about not being able to go to Disney World like my friends, she took a dusty globe from the nurse’s station and spun it bedside my bed, promising to one day take me anywhere I wanted to go. As nurses wheeled me to treatments, she continued with the travel theme and pretended we were boarding a plane.
“Be careful with my luggage,” she said. “He’s irreplaceable.”
In retrospect, I could tell it wasn’t easy for her, especially with my father working long days on construction jobs to pay my medical bills. She gave up her favorite activities, like her Thursday night bowling league, and had little time to herself as she juggled my needs with my older sisters’ first dates and high school graduations.
Yet she smiled through it. For five years, we braved my sickness together like a two-person cancer squad.
Yet now I felt distant from her. It seemed like this meal, and our relationship, was tanking fast and I had no idea how to fix it. Our waiter returned with egg-drop soup, easing the tension.
“To make you feel better,” he said.
He was cute and I appreciated the gesture, so I gave him a flirty smile and made sure not to slurp. My mother turned away. She denied feeling uncomfortable, but I knew I had made her as uneasy as she had made me.
A conservative Catholic, my mother favored the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach to my sexuality. In the 20 years since I had come out of the closet, she had only brought up my sexuality a handful of times, usually to inform me that my kindergarten teacher from decades ago was a lesbian or to ask me to explain something she didn’t understand on “Will & Grace.”
I would have liked us to be more open, yet when she referred to guys I dated as “special friends,” I knew she wasn’t ready.
“How about we make a deal?” I said. “You stop talking about my leukemia, and I won’t flirt with guys in front of you. In fact, I won’t even bring up my love life.”
“Just eat your soup,” she said.
“I bet you 100 bucks you’ll be the first to crack,” I said.
As a woman who enjoyed bus trips to Atlantic City to play quarter slots, she couldn’t resist taking the bet. Our first test came two weeks later at my uncle’s 75th birthday party.
“I have prostate cancer,” he announced, his eyes on me. “Mark, tell me about your experience. I’ll be OK, right?”
I expected my mother to answer for me, but instead she said, “Mark doesn’t like talking about that.”
Her reaction surprised me, but I was convinced I would still win the bet. We went back to that Chinese restaurant, and when my food was once again too spicy, I expected her to cave. She sat quietly, besting me once again.
Three months later, however, a routine trip to Costco led to an unexpected confession. First: a clarifier. I wish I could say I’m a middle-aged man who likes to help his senior mother with her Sunday shopping out of the goodness of his heart, but in reality I’m a middle-aged man who can’t say no when his mother offers to buy him rolls of toilet paper, paper towels and allergy medicine in bulk.
In the frozen food section, as she dumped three pounds of waffles in our cart, we saw two men nearby, around my age, sneak a kiss. I was relieved that she didn’t gawk or say something offensive, but I couldn’t stop staring. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the man I would like to kiss in these chilly aisles. The one I had been hiding from my mother.
“Mom, there’s someone I want you to meet,” I said nervously. “His name is Michael, he lives in Harlem, he’s a public health professor and has the cutest poodle. I like him very much, and I know you will, too.”
“You owe me 100 bucks,” she said. I was disappointed that she didn’t react more warmly. But after taking my cash, she said, “I’ve never seen you smile like this. It’s about time I met one of your special friends.”
“Boyfriend, Mom,” I said. “Maybe one day I’ll call him my husband.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” she said.
As we walked toward the checkout line, she bumped into a woman she knew from high school, who wasted little time bragging about her son’s six-figure salary and two perfect children.
“This is my son, Mark,” my mother said. “He survived cancer.”
At that moment, I realized that she was never trying to humiliate me. She was proud of me. Now I needed to come through for her, just as she had for me. “Yeah, it was really awful,” I said, playing along. “Big needles, and lots of blood.”
It felt strange to poke fun at my experiences, and even stranger to watch my mother get excited when I did. Yet for both of us, the frail little boy confined to a hospital bed had finally broken free.
I hugged her tight, feeling the scars of my illness begin to fade as I prepared to let go and open up. I wanted to embrace our future together and be as close as the two-person cancer squad we once were.
“Here,” she said, returning my cash with a tear in her eye. “We’re even.”