Rita Plush

Gertz & Gloves

My daughter and I have breast cancer. It wormed its way into her body a year before it came to host on mine. Cancer bloomed so lavishly in my daughter’s breasts, her girls had to go. For me, a lumpectomy did it, though what’s left of my breast is nothing about which to tweet. Please tell me why I, a woman in her 70s with most of my life a look-back, got away with so much less than my beautiful daughter.

She has faced bone cancer; a partial hysterectomy (they thought scooping out her ovaries might halt the spread), a heart attack (reaction from the chemo). Her liver went belly up.

Edema (blood vessels leaking fluid) had swollen her legs. She couldn’t bend them. Hadn’t urinated in five days. They’d given her diuretics that brought her potassium levels dangerously low. Potassium feeds the muscles and lets them function; it regulates blood pressure. Your heart needs it to beat right, lub-dub lub-dub lub-dub. News to me. All I knew was bananas have it.

In the hospital over a week, my daughter had a team. Oncologist, cardiologist, urologist, nephrologist, all trying to find out how to regulate her.

“Hi Sweetie,” I said, visiting when her legs were wrapped and propped on pillows. It killed me to see her like that.

She gave me her dimpled smile, her hair tied up in a bow from a candy box, “Hi Mom. How’s it going?” She was bright-eyed and lively.

“Pretty good,” I said. We made some inane conversation, neither of us wanting to talk about potassium.

I told her I was going down to the cafeteria for some lunch.

“Have the braised swan,” she said. “I hear it’s good.”

“Haven’t had swan in a while,” I said. “I’ll give it a try.”

I put a salad and coffee on a tray and tried not to think about how terribly wrong things were going for her. She was losing weight. She wasn’t eating. She was weak. She’d been going for tests and didn’t always tell me the results. That was her way of dealing with her illness. Or dealing with me. She was an adult, I had to let her absorb the information and when she was ready, she’d pass it along. Respect that. This was her struggle.

She was napping when I got back to her room. I sat and watched her. I did so want her to be at peace, pain free and healthy.

I pushed out of my chair and walked the halls.

Passing some medical supplies stacked up against a wall, I acted on impulse. Reaching into an open box of disposable surgical gloves, I pulled out two and slid them into my pants pocket.

I could tell you I use such gloves after I apply hand cream. I could tell you the hospital won’t miss them and look at the extraordinary fees they charge. But that wouldn’t explain why I took the gloves. Immediately, I felt bad about it. Embarrassed. Though no one saw me take them.

Back in my daughter’s room, gloves in my pocket, a vision of my younger self came rushing back at me.

I’m a teen in Gertz department store in Jamaica. I’ve been on a diet. Going through the racks, I find pants the same style and color I’m wearing but in a smaller size. I try them on in the dressing room. Perfect. I do a quick switch and walk out in the new pair of pants. Heart pounding, I leave the store. A block away, I’m certain someone will be running after me. Miss! Miss!

It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I sought a therapist and was able to talk about the problems I had as a teenager. She helped me understand how switching a pair of pants could quiet my nerves and bring me a moment’s worth of control.

There was fear and anger — rage — tied up in those surgical gloves. The lack of control I had over my daughter’s illness was terrifying.

Why was she so sick and not me? Why did her breast cancer metastasize instead of mine?

What will I do if all the therapy in the world won’t help me?

There, I said it. Maybe now I’ll keep my hands to myself.

© Rita Plush

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out, 2011, Feminine Products, 2013 and a short story collection, Alterations, 2013 by Penumbra Publishing. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches creative writing at Queensborough Community College, Queens, NY.

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