I pulled the curtains shut over the shades.Is that better?
Yes, honey. Youre a good girl.
I could smell lunch arriving down the hallcoffee, soup, and bread. Comforting smells in a world of beeping machines and gurneysthe clanking, squeaking sounds of the ICU.
Are you hungry? I asked.
Not that hungry these days, she said. You want something to eat? Youre too thin. Go ask them to make you a sandwich. Ill pay. Bring me my purse.
My mother was missing all but her four front teeth. I remember her writing me several years before to say that she had had them all removed because disability wouldnt pay for dental care. According to the Government, teeth and eyes are just accessories, she wrote. Like buying a belt or a brooch.
Where are your false teeth? I asked. Theyll be serving lunch soon.
Someone stole them, she whispered. They always steal my teeth.
We sat for a while, holding hands. She drifted in and out of sleep. I put my mothers palm up to my lips. For the first time in my life, I couldnt smell cigarettes on her skin. She smelled like baby lotion. She opened her eyes.
You should be proud of me. I quit smoking, she said.
When did you quit?
A week ago. When they brought me here.
Good for you, I said. You know, I always loved you, Mommy.
It was the first time I had used that word since I was a child. My sister and I always called her Mother, Norma, or Normie, or, on rare occasions, Mom. It was hard to call her anything maternal, even though she tried so hard to be just that. But in the hospital, as she lay dying, Mommy seemed the only right word to use.
I love you too, she said. But you ran away from me. Far away.
I know. Im sorry.
A lot happened, she said.
A lot happened to me too. But Im here now.
Yes, she said. Im glad you came. Now let me sleep. Im so very tired.
On Tuesday, my second day at the hospital, a nurse came in and asked me how old my mother was. She just turned eighty in November, I said.
My mother threw me a nasty look. Its a lie!
How old are you? I asked.
Not that old, she said.
I was just kidding, I said.Are you in your forties now? I winked at the nurse.
A little older but not much. A woman should never reveal her age.
Shes fifty-two, I said to the nurse but mouthed the word eighty when my mother turned away.
Later, the surgeon talked to me outside the room. He said that the pathology report had finally come in. What he originally thought was colon cancer was late-stage stomach cancer, which is more deadly and was moving fast. I bombarded him with questions: Where else has the cancer spread? Is she too far gone for chemo? How long does she have?
Well, the good news is that your mother is doing remarkably well! How can a dying person do remarkably well? I wondered. He added, Shes recovering great from the surgery but theres nothing we can really do for her anymore, just keep her comfortable.
Can you explain what you did? I asked.
The doctor borrowed my notepad and drew a picture. His pen flew over the paper; it was a map of what my mother looked like inside.Heres what I did, he said. I redirected whats left of her colon and moved this over here, so that her waste can exit through this stoma, see?
Excerpted from The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók. Copyright © 2011 by Mira Bartók. Excerpted by permission of Free Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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