“Hello?”

My friend had called me that night, as I was finishing dinner with my family.

“Just give me a second,” I told her. I motioned to my mother that I was excusing myself.

My mother looked disappointed. Family dinner was always something she had found to be important. I didn’t get it. We were all still living under her roof, my two brothers and I, but I guess the real issue she had was my father. He worked late nights at the office and would often miss our family dinners. But his loss, my mother was a chef and always cooked 5-star meals, no matter what kind of day she had faced. But my mother counted on the three of us as her children to be there for the family dinners we had every night.

I stood up, crumpling up my napkin full of breadcrumbs and tossing it onto the plate covered in red sauce with my phone still connected in the other hand. I dropped the plate into the kitchen sink before heading upstairs. I flopped onto the bed and picked up where I had left off.

“Sorry about that, you know how my mom is.”

“No worries,” Victoria said. “I was just wondering about our English homework. Did you start the essay?”

Victoria was like my sister and we talked about anything and everything together. So as usual, the simple homework question she had initially called for quickly spiraled into an hour-long call about the important typical fourteen-year-old gossip.

“Did you see Carlie’s new haircut?”

“I have to show you this new dress I got.”

“Oh my god, Matt totally likes you.”

“Are you going to the homecoming game next weekend?”

Victoria paused long before softly speaking another question, “How’s your mom doing?”

A few weeks before, my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had gotten a mastectomy, but it wasn’t enough to help her; the cancer was still there and my mother knew she had to go into treatment. It was hard because we had thought we caught it early, but apparently not soon enough. She was in the early stages of treatment and soon it would be obvious that my mother had cancer when she lost all of her hair. I was so scared. But I didn’t want to admit that to her.

I explained it all to Victoria, but quickly pushed the conversation in another direction. It is always other people that battled cancer, it wasn’t supposed to happen to my own mother. I steered the conversation back to teenage gossip, a more lighthearted matter, when I heard my mom calling for my name. Great, she’s gonna ask me to do something, what does she want now? I didn’t respond and kept my conversation going. I should have been doing homework anyway, so I kept up the act of pretending to write my essay, any excuse to keep from doing chores. For the next twenty minutes I continued to ignore my mother. I was being a brat, but if she wanted to ask me to do something she could come and get me.

Suddenly, I started to get worried. She called my name one last time and I finally snapped into. I could hear an abrupt change in her tone, my name now filled with a sense of panic and desperation I have never heard from my own mother.

“Victoria, I got to go,” I spat out, cutting her off. I hung up on her right away.

I put down the phone and jumped out of my bed. I quietly dashed down the hallway and into my mom’s room and I could see the bathroom door was open. Rays of the bathroom lights beamed out, cutting through the darkness, steam tumbling through like gaseous waves through its path. It was odd. My mother had always made a fuss about turning on the fan during our showers so not to cloud the mirrors or set off the alarm. It was clear something was not right.

She was still calling my name, but as I got closer I heard it accompanied with muffled shrieks and sobbing.

I couldn’t call out to her that I was there yet; my body trembled, stuck in place. Her voice felt so distant, so intangible even though she was just in the next room. I slowly turned the corner to stand in the doorway, stepping into the clouds of steam that now wrapped every inch of my body.

“Madison,” my mother wailed out. I still stood there in utter disbelief.

I could hardly see my mother in the glass shower constructed in the corner. The walls of glass intersected with the white tiles, and were now completely covered in my mother’s light brown locks. But it was happening too early. She wasn’t supposed to be losing her hair yet.

I was frozen with shock. She sat hunched over, the water pounding her back, on the same chair my father sat on after recovering from his stroke. The same chair he needed to do the basics of just a shower, a sign he had been defeated. Her once lively warm body appeared still full but awfully drained. And for the first time it truly hit me that my mother was sick.

She continued to sob as she pushed through her shower routine. Being able to wash her hair that fell just above her breasts was a signifier of normalcy. While her hair was still attached to her head, she felt she still had a chance to kick cancer’s ass. But each time she ran her hands through her hair, it tangled through her pruning fingers. She would then hang the hair up on the tiled wall, gentle and reflective. My mother always told me to do this, as I grew older. As girls, she didn’t want our hair to gather and clog the drain.

 

My mother could feel my presence as I stood there just watching her through the glass, although I hadn’t uttered a single word. After moments of silence, staring at my mother’s naked and fragile body in the water, I finally found some courage to speak up.

“Mom,” I spoke timidly. I was so unsure of what I could say. “Are you ok?”

Usually the mother is the one to comfort the children, but what does a child do when their parents begin to crumble? My father was not even home; there was nowhere to turn to. She was relying on me when I had always been the one to lean onto her. My question was stupid and I felt ashamed. Look at her, she is not ok. This is not ok.

My mother just continued to cry into the wet palms of her hands. The walls had been taken down; she was no longer trying to prove she could be strong in front of me. We realized there was no control to have with this cancer.

My mother and I had once made plans to make this cancer thing as emotionally painless as possible. I could be strong when she was.

“Let’s dye my hair before it all falls out,” my mother would say.

Her style was very traditional and preppy; I couldn’t imagine my mother walking around sporting pink hair. But she was persistent, she thought it would be fun and would take her mind off the negative side. She was always one to stay positive.

“It’s all gonna fall off anyway so I might as well go as crazy as I can with it.”

Then she still seemed so optimistic. We had made an appointment to get her hair dyed, the doctors assured us that we had more time before the effects of treatment really kicked in. But we had missed our chance. Strands of hair danced around her on the shower walls, now mocking the sense of defiance she once had.

I walked across the cold tiles until I stood directly in front of the shower. I could feel the shower mat tickle my toes as I scrunched them up before looking at my mother directly. The steam began to condensate, dripping down the red walls across from the shower. I watched with what felt like such distance as she sat there, contained in the foggy glass. Her body slightly bounced up and down as she continued to cry. I cocked my head to the side. It was like watching a firefly struggle after catching it, her light dimming, hope fading and all I could do was look. All I wanted was to pick up the pieces, plant every single strand back to her beautiful head of hair.

Then, I nudged the door open, again the steam the first to encircle my body. It dampened my face with its warmth as my mother looked up. I did not recognize her. Her blue eyes had grown swollen and even the redness from her tears seemed dull and muted. She looked at me with so much pain. It was the first time her emotions beyond what she chose to express to her children showed. I saw her in an entirely different light; the woman that had always carried us on her back was now defeated before me.

*      *      *

A house that was once lively with noise bouncing off the walls now contained people tiptoeing around my mother and her illness. Cancer was a killer. We all knew that, and our now glass home was so shattered that we had to be careful where we stepped. I didn’t like to talk about it.

Every strand from her head had fallen out; the treatment killed more than just the disease. She lost all of her hair, down to eyebrows and eyelashes, her body completely bare and vulnerable. Her pink razor stood idly by for the months she battled, as her body became stripped like a child’s, no hair growing on her legs or under her arms. My mother’s body, once warm and welcoming became cold and unfamiliar. I observed how her plump body turned frail and weak as if one touch could break her.

The doctors told my younger brothers and I that we had to help my mother along. The tables were turning and as the oldest and her only daughter, I was held responsible. I tried to treat her like nothing was wrong; I know she didn’t want to be seen as weak. But the woman in front of me was almost unrecognizable. My brothers acted as if it was nothing, still curling up in her bed asking her all kinds of questions, their grimy little boy hands touching her delicate bald head. Things like this infuriated me. Did they not understand that she had cancer?

But they did remember one thing. Every night they would kiss that barren head of hers and tell her, “I love you.”

I was too removed. I’m not entirely sure I even let my own mother know that.

I dealt with it in different ways. I showed my mother I could be strong by being independent. I never let her see me cry. In fact, I never let her see that her cancer was even a bother to me. The daily routine continued: school, play rehearsals, dinner, homework, bed. And what made it so hard was that it seemed as if no one wanted me to be okay.

How is your mother? How are you doing?

Is your mother okay? Are you okay?

No one wanted me to be okay. People wanted me to be upset that my mother had cancer. I was terrified, but it wasn’t good enough if people couldn’t tell.

I began to view my life before my eyes as if it became wholly intangible. Reality blurred as fiction, only observed on the other side of the glass, no longer connected.

The saddest part of trying to piece these moments back together was realizing how separate my family had become. My father would still work late; he needed to provide while my mother was unable to work. We never saw much of him anyway, but this seemed like a time when we needed him. I think that’s where I learned it. No one had the courage to look my mother in the eye and say, “You are battling cancer.”

In the middle of her treatment, one of my brothers had gotten sick. The one thing the doctors had said was to not let my mother near anyone sick and to keep her in a healthy, sterile environment. But since my dad was working, and I couldn’t drive, my mother only had one choice. She took care of her babies. She drove him straight to the doctor’s office, her head shining with a muted yellow from the fluorescent lights, pushing through the coughs and sneezing in the waiting room. The receptionist shot up from her chair, recognizing her, and delicately held my mother’s frame to bring her away from the other sick children. They made her wait in the car until my 12-year-old brother’s appointment was over. They brought him out and told her they needed to be separated at home. When they returned back to the house, my brother started to make living arrangements: our basement.

Everyone was scared to take matters too lightly. No one wanted to be the cause of any more harm to my mother’s weak defenses, and if that meant having my brother live down in the basement then we would do it. The green sofa was down there, and he had the flat screen that he always dreamed of having in his room, so he didn’t mind. But days passed where I would feel confused. Where is my brother?

Family dinners did not continue as normal. My mother didn’t have the energy to cook her restaurant quality dishes, and my father never came home in time. Occasionally he would remember to leave money on the counter in the morning. I would order in Chinese food, or maybe a pizza. But soon others got involved, bringing us our dinners so my mother didn’t have to worry. The food was never good. It was always soggy, or over-dressed, sometimes bland, and definitely was no comfort.

My dad would call down to my brother, and we could hear him come to the top of the stairs. We weren’t allowed to go downstairs to keep him company. We couldn’t risk my other brother and I getting sick too. His hands, now so unfamiliar, reached out to grab his plate, the silverware clanking down; those hands weren’t seen again until his meal was finished. For the few days my brother fought his minor sickness, he did not seem to exist within the household. We couldn’t expose my mother to any more harm; everything was done very quietly and carefully.

Although my family was very private about it, my mother was open about her illness; she had no problem embracing her head uncovered. Not even the follicle could be traced on her head. Her freckled barren desert radiated with heat, insistent against any scarves or wigs to cover its presence.

For a while it had been something that had bothered me. Just before, I had grown my dark locks long enough to brush along my waist. It was thick with waves and I had decided to donate some of that to someone who wanted to wear head on their hair. I tied up a ponytail one last time before they chopped the whole thing off to use for a future patient’s wig. But I had given up my own hair too early. I didn’t know that the woman I should be helping would be my own mother. It made me miss my own hair, lying against my back. I missed its touch, running my fingers through it. Even my mother loved it, brushing it in front of the mirror, blow drying it into soft curls.

Now not even she would have that joy. I often would think about where my ponytail was sent. I would dream of it traveling around, waiting until it found the right person to stay with; someone would use it with other hair to create a comforting blanket atop their newly bare heads. Why didn’t I know my mother could have used it? It consumed me.

Why didn’t I know about this sooner?

But my mother was not as hung up. In and out of the house, my mother would untie the scarf that covered her head. She freed herself from any shame of her disease. She had to battle cancer, what others thought was something that did not stay on her mind. Cancer’s attempt to defeat her pride had failed; her small stature stood tall in determination.

Luckily, her head was very nicely shaped. My mystified stare began to shift more towards awe. She exuded strength rather than the weakness. Deeper within her, her strength radiated as her head captured the light with such smooth satisfaction, beautiful like a sculpture. Many stared; they didn’t understand her beauty.

But after months, Mom made it back to herself. She was no longer the woman I watched fight the thing that could kill her. Soon heir hairs began to sprout from the top of her head. Silver stems stood alone, beginning the slow process of growing back. In remission a soft gray fuzz grew in, her head veiled in silk.

Now that’s the mom I know.

She has now been cancer-free for six years.

Madison Horne’s memoir piece “Clogging the Drain” won first prize in the Fourth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Madison also won second prize for her critical essay “Black Enough.” She a senior majoring in Photography at SVA.