The Topic At Hand: This Is A Test

What the hell did I expect her to say?

It was late afternoon when the storm hit Galveston bay. I had made up my mind to talk to her. We were alone in her bedroom, our plastic lawn chairs pressed up close to the sliding glass doors. My mom and I had spent a lot of time like this that summer. We watched the water, the sky, the storms. The house on Tiki Island wasn’t ours; it was a rental my sister and I had picked up after my mom’s third round of chemo.

Outside, the wind howled across the water kicking up two-foot swells that rocked the docks and knocked boats around in their slips. My mom popped one of her minis—a .05 mg dose of morphine—and dry swallowed. She lit up a Capri menthol 100 and took a deep drag, coughed, wiped her mouth, and then took another.

Mom didn’t seem sick the last time I was down there. She was still toned Mom with muscles sculpted by Hans, her weight trainer at the Wichita Racket Club. She was stylish Mom with frosted hair and boutique clothes specially tailored to accentuate her petite body. She was newly natural Mom, into silks and cashmeres and not a lot of makeup. She was tennis playing Mom, in-love Mom, retired Mom, and trash-talking Mom taking care of her half-crazy parents, divorced, and living together again after fifty years and six marriages between the two of them. But sitting there in her bedroom, after seven rounds of chemo, she was now thin Mom, pale Mom, a line-sketch of her former self bundled up in a cashmere blanket and silk pajamas.

A solid wall of cumulus unfurled over the bay turning the sky gunmetal gray. Automatic lights clicked on around the outside of the house and along the dock. My mom tapped out her cigarette. She reached across the divide between our two chairs, put her hand on my arm and squeezed. The rain came down fast and heavy. White streaks of lightning mottled the sky.

When she went down to Houston for treatment, she brought two carry-on bags: one with six pairs of shoes, the other with three outfits. She planned to stay for a weekend, long enough, she thought, to get better. A panel of doctors reviewed her CT scans and X-rays and charts and files and everything else her oncologist sent from Wichita. A panel of doctors spent three days reviewing her case, and when they finally admitted her, her doctor sat her down and told her three things: 1) what she had was very serious; 2) if they treated her, she would spend the rest of your life on chemo; and 3) she should get her affairs in order. When her doctor asked her how she wanted to proceed, she said, “I want you to cure me.”

“You’re going to have to tear down that wall between the kitchen and living room,” she said. Sitting in her lap was a loose pile of pictures I had brought of the apartment my wife and I had just bought in Brooklyn. “When I’m better,” she said, “Joe and I will come see you in New York. We’ll draw up the plans for a new kitchen.”

During all the weekend visits in the months she had been down there, we had spent a lot of time talking. We talked about the future mostly: the traveling she would do with her boyfriend, Joe, when she was better; the upcoming season of Sex and the City; the second floor addition she was having built on her house back in Wichita. We talked about Camp Aiello, her version of summer camp for the tribe of grandchildren she planned to spoil in the coming years. We talked about everything except what was going on right before us. Her oncologist suggested we have more realistic conversations. The family therapist my brother and I went to suggested we stop spending so much time protecting each other and focus on the realty of our situation.

Stage four adenocarcinoma with an unknown primary source, that’s what she had. Even for the uninitiated, there was something devastatingly unambiguous about that particular arrangement of words. But my mom didn’t want to know about it. She didn’t want to know the when’s and how’s of what was happening to her. She didn’t want to hear it from her doctor; she didn’t want to hear it from her children; she didn’t want to hear it—period.

This was a difficult pill to swallow. Our family talked. Even though my mom lived in Wichita and I lived in New York, we talked two or three times a day. We IM’d. We emailed. We left each other messages. She sent me letters. She told me stories about her abusive and alcoholic stepfather the dentist; how he made a hobby out of photography; how she slapped him so hard he fell down the stairs; how he tested braces on her and ruined her teeth. She coached me on how to propose to my wife. She confided in me her anxiety about Joe and how he still wasn’t divorced. She walked me through my first two salary negotiations. She called me the night her mother unsuccessfully tried to overdose on a stockpile of Vicodin and scotch and then asked my mom to help finish the job; we talked about the implications, both moral and legal, of what her mother had asked; we talked about what my mom would do.

But did we ever talk about my mom’s own death, her own mortality, heaven, hell, or God? Forget it. My mom liked to say “You go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the people.” It’s a Mark Twain quote and sums up my family’s take on religion. We weren’t believers and if, at the end, we discovered there really was a god and a heaven and a hell, we knew where we were headed.

My mom took a certain pride in being a sinner. Not a fire and brimstone sinner. Not a Dante sinner. My mom was someone who found her freedom through sin. What some might have deemed minor problems with promiscuity and infidelity, my mom thought of as sexual liberation. She loved the physical world of clothes and makeup and bodies. She loved her men and she loved them young. Her sins were calculated, intentional, acted out with flair as if saying fuck you to her stepfather and her small-town Waspy upbringing. She lived her life according to her own rules with no regrets, no guilt, no compromises. She lived as if she was invincible.

And we all—my brother and sister, my mom’s friends and even her parents—believed that she was.

Fingers of lightning reached across the sky. I watched my mom and she watched the bay.

“You want to talk?” I finally said.
“We are talking.”
“You know what I mean.”

She was silent for a long time. Her hands messaged the tumors around her left knee.

“What do you want me to say?” she said
“I don’t know,” I said.

She was quiet again, and I figured the conversation was dead before it started.

Then she said, “I’m pissed off. How’s that for an answer?”

My heart hammered through my chest, my stomach knotted, and I instantly regretted starting the discussion.

“I want to marry Joe. I want to have my own fucking summerhouse on the water. I want to spoil my grand kids. I want a convertible BMW. I want to see you have children. I want…”

She stopped rubbing her knee. She took out another cigarette. Her hand trembled as she lit up. “And this storm just pisses me the fuck off.”

I reached over and took her hand in mine. She pulled it away. Her mouth curled down at the corner. Her eyes were glassy and I didn’t know anymore if it was because of the morphine or if she was crying.

I have written this scene a hundred times. Sometimes, when I’m pissed at my mom for dying, the things she says she wants are morally questionable and superficial: a red convertible BMW, a new mink coat, to live long enough to spend all of her dad’s money. When my wife and I were trying to get pregnant, the list was about all the ways she would spoil her grandchildren and future grandchildren with shopping sprees and mini motorcycles when they were old enough to ride bikes. Sometimes I had her give me advice—instructions, really—on how to carry on after she had died. Love your brother and sister, she would say, no matter what happens between you. Sometimes she apologized for being absent as a mother during her disco days, and for loving Carlos, the Venezuelan coke dealer she dated for almost ten years. Other times she just avoided the conversation all together, focusing instead on tearing down my kitchen wall. Writing the scene was my therapy, my way of channeling her, writing to her, writing through her.

I don’t know what I expected to her to say that night. Did I expect her to ponder out loud about the mysteries of the world? Did I want her to tell me what it felt like to have a grapefruit-sized tumor under her arm and legions of mutant cells colonizing her lymph system? Did I want her to admit that she did have—maybe—just a few regrets? As I rewrote the scene this last time, I found my answer. It wasn’t the jewel of wisdom I expected. I wanted her to say what she had said a million times before to me and my brother and sister and friends and family: Don’t worry about. We’ll figure this out. Everything is going to be okay.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the nights we spent together after our conversation. We’d stay up until dawn watching Sex and the City, or movies on HBO or Showtime, or the endless stream of news on CNN. We sat close together—close enough for me to breath in the aroma of no-scent Lubriderm she applied constantly to her hands and the Mentholatum that kept her lips from cracking. We didn’t talk. We just hung out together as if we were both suffering the flu and whiling away the days until we would both be better.

The one part of the scene that never changes is the end. Something happened between us, a tacit understanding of the reality before us. Instead of openly acknowledging her fate, we made a pact, sealed by a hand squeeze, to maintain the dignity of her immortality. I think that therapist was probably right. We were protecting each other a little too much. But was there anything wrong with that?

A crack of lightning lit up the oil refinery across the bay. My mom put her manicured hand on mine and squeezed. Our conversation was over. I gently squeezed back.

“When you’re better,” I said, “you and Joe will come up to New York and see our apartment. You can make sure we tear down that wall.”


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11 responses to “Tiki Island Grace”

  1. Karen says:

    You grabbed me right at the start, and pulled me through, deeper and deeper –even though I knew where this was going– until I had a tough time making out the words through my tears welling up.

  2. Sara says:

    That first line is so perfect: what did I expect her to say?

  3. rzeroth says:

    As good as that first line is I'd have to say the last one's even better. Great piece.

  4. Yimji Wills says:

    This piece is a gift. I wept in remembering my own experience with my own mom's illness. It also was immensely comforting in identifying the universal inadequacy of meeting death. Then it offers an extraordinary opportunity, “I have written this scene a hundred times”. We can fill in the wanting spaces with the all the shoulda-woulda-couldas as if they were possible, as if they occurred. In some way they can exist. In some ways they do exist in the spaces of intention.

  5. coletteknox says:

    You captured the moment in time perfectly… wish I hadn't been there. Beautifully crafted – sucked me in to relive it again and cried untill I had nothing left. I'm in awe bro. I love you, your sister:)

  6. rachelhile says:

    Oh, lovely. This reminds me of Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Both give me a sense of the countless number of ways that a person can live with illness and with death. Your therapist had a one-size-fits-all idea of a psychologically healthy approach to death, but there are as many ways to die as there are to live. The musician Mr. P in the Sacks essay lives with his illness by structuring his life with music; your mother, proud of being a sinner, maintained her sense of dignity precisely by avoiding the kind of soul-searching that others might have expected of her.

  7. Tara says:

    Thank you, this is provocative, and I was touched.

    I think there's something so painful (to the observer, at least) about unfulfilled hope. To the point where it seems like things would be better if the person would just give up (or to use modern terminology, 'accept.')

    Even if she told you everything was going to be okay, it wasn't true, was it? Was it that you would have believed her anyway, and that belief might have helped you later? Or that you wanted at least part of her to believe that there was a way that everything could be okay, that something could be okay, with her death?

  8. joematherly says:

    We still need to talk sometime. About the last conversation that I had with Karen Sue on the day she died. And, other things and conversations. About knowing she had left before I called to check on her. About, what seems to have been a lifetime of experiences in 35 months. About the things we wanted to do, see, experience, plan…………..

  9. Name says:

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and heartfelt piece of writing with the world.

  10. Lizad says:

    This is a wonderful piece. How can any of us really understand? You brought me a few steps closer. Your descriptions of your mom are vivid and bring her to life. Thank you.

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The Author

Antonio Aiello

Antonio Aiello is the online editor for PEN American Center where he co-authored and edited PEN’s Handbook for Writers in Prison. His most recent work can be read at or on his web site, He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife and two children. See all of Antonio Aiello's contributions to Revolving Floor here.

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