The bus sighs and coughs to a halt. I awake startled from sleep on the overnight bus from Bangkok to Mae Sot, Thailand. We’re stopped on the side of the road. It’s a thickened midnight despite my watch reading 5 a.m. A Thai police officer walks the aisles, holding his flashlight like a baton. He’s checking this seat and that, waking sleepers, checking passports. He has a blue mask over his mouth for pollution, but it makes him look menacing. He’s checking for refugees. This is how I know we’re almost in Mae Sot, a border town chock full of NGOs, Burmese refugees, police arresting unlucky migrants, and Thai folk who (mostly) don’t give two hoots. I hurry to get my passport, but the officer shakes his head. My skin tips him off; I’m of the wrong ilk or maybe the right.
I panic for a moment before I regain my calm and realize where I am. I think of home then, all I’ve left, all that lies in wait, an unfed animal at the front door. I wasn’t sure about this, pulling myself out of my life, coming back here and working with the Burmese refugee women I’ve grown to love. I knew it was the right thing, but then. Mostly I would’ve stayed for her, and that’s the one reason she told me to go.
How can I quantify this year, this lonely miracle year my mother pushed through again? It came again this past fall, a second fiercer gale, come to sweep the harvest. We held tight, blue tarp black stake. We offered her breasts and held tight the ribcage. We kept her. How could it come back, a night dream I never wanted? I moved past the question quickly enough, past the crowds and into a quieter room. Cancer patient. She’s so much more than that bare, flop-shoddy word. I deliberate, how not to cloak her in the sickbay of cliques, how not to scrub-dry the humanity out of all the clinical jargon?
How do you name her the same woman, the same perfume lingering through the years on her wintered sweaters, the same second-wave feminist who dances to Motown with two fingers towards the sun, only with a diagnosis of quickly multiplying cells? How do you reconcile a nag-drawn woman with the desire to have her live forever? How do you merge a once tenuous relationship and make it unbreakable? For once, I don’t deliberate. This union was no mistake. For once, I do.
I can’t attribute this transformation to a melding of congruent personalities. We are not soft-waxed and flame-tipped. Maybe overcommitted, oversensitive, and generous.
Perhaps it’s not us but the space between us. In that reflected pool, I now see the smallest clock and it is ticking. We don’t have the time for personalities to align or taut edges to slacken. I need to dive in. I need to love her now. I have seen the rough road and it is motherless. I will always choose the guilt-worn path, potholed, fret-marked.
Sometimes I stare blankly at the doctors, the numbers, the people in the ‘movement’ rattling off breast cancer odds. You won’t hear me ticking off stats. I am not a metronome, and this is not my piano recital (Amen). You won’t hear me waving pink flags swirled in white cursive ‘Cancer Survivor’ lettering. None of that she-beat-the-odds banter. Call it a life subjected to Jewish superstition. Call it depressive. This isn’t a survival pep rally. I want her to do more than survive. I want her to re-question, how shall I live? We all have our own process. This one’s mine.