my mother, with eight chemo sessions to go

by Dana Collins

there’s a green chair that sits in my living room.
i’m pretty sure that it stands taller and older than me;
for years it’s housed the bodies of my family and friends
and it still smells like the wet fur of our first dog.
i’ve never felt more ashamed than when sitting on the chair
as my mother, a woman who stands like a gnarled oak tree,
attacked the living room with a feather duster.
my mother, five weeks into chemotherapy, carried the vacuum cleaner,
scrubbed the floors, wiped away grime from the shelves.
my mother, five feet four inches tall, climbed the furniture to swipe at the ceiling.
“this is why you have to do it every week,” she told me
with laboured breath and sweat pooling on her forehead,
gesturing to the clumps of dust under the sofa that resembled her falling-out hair.
“because,” she said, “the dog will leave hair everywhere.”
and it was with a grimace that i realised my mother would soon be like the dog,
hair falling from her scalp like dandruff.
i made a joke about selling the dog, buying a hairless one,
“it would make less of a mess,” i said with an easy smile.
but it wasn’t easy.
or light.
or fine.
because i stayed sat in that green chair, while my mother cleaned.
my mother, who had spent the week before bed bound, ashamed of her own sickness.
my mother, who threw up quietly into the toilet bowl so she wouldn’t alarm her children.
she bumbled around the living room, vacuum following her like a dark cloud.
she hauled furniture around the room, picking up all of our mess.
i watched her toiling away and did nothing.
i saw her breaking her body more than it was already broken for her family and stayed silent.
i don’t know why i didn’t offer myself up for her.
all i knew was that admitting she needed my help was admitting she was sick.
the woman who taught me independence needed me, and i was too scared to give myself away.
but what can you do when you see her like that?
when your mother buys headscarves to hide the bald patches
and expensive hand cream for her cracked skin,
it is easier to do nothing. it is easier to pretend life is what it used to be.
to pretend you’re still living a life where nobody owns a year long parking pass to the hospital.
just because my mother jokes about the doctors stabbing her with needles,
it doesn’t mean i want to hear about it.
instead i sat in the green chair, a collection of lumps
destined to become an unwanted family heirloom,
and i pretended i couldn’t see the exhaustion framing her face like a fringe.
i was too scared to help her, and too ashamed to realise.
“even when i’m sick,” she told me, “the cleaning still needs to be done.”