There are words and phrases that, when I hear them, they are like sneaker waves, knocking me temporarily out of whatever moment I’m in and transporting me back in time. Thankfully, Foley catheters, baclofen and Hoyer lifts don’t often come up in casual conversation.
I was watching a comedy special with Tig Notaro the other night which seemed like the perfect antidote to my melancholy mood. A comedy special should be safe, I thought. But it wasn’t. Someone approached Tig to share something along the lines of, “When you had cancer, that’s when I was diagnosed, too.” And there it was, hiding in my “safe” comedy special, the phrase that I just cannot hear without stomach clenching.
I was diagnosed.
After my mother got sick, she said that all the time. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I was diagnosed with MS. When I was diagnosed…
Night after night, phone call after phone call, she told people she was sick. She said it like she was announcing what was for dinner or what she’d watched on TV the night before.
I was diagnosed.
There are so many other ways to say what she obviously needed to say and yet she chose that one phrase every single time, saying it so casually that I wanted to scream at her, “Stop fucking telling everyone you know that you’re sick! Stop saying it like you scraped your knee.”
When you’re fourteen, the more you hear something, the more true it is.
For the next 20 years she said it to anyone and everyone, her voice only growing calmer, more relaxed as the disease stole her strength. As her illness progressed, it wasn’t like a minor injury anymore. She said it with the appropriate level of devastation, but by then the damage was done physically, mentally, emotionally, that her inflection wasn’t necessary to feel the weight of it.
Now I can’t hear it without a sea of ordinarily repressed memories flooding back to me. I was diagnosed can collapse my insides faster than anyone knows but I’ve had lots of practice pretending my skin is enough to hold me up; I can react like a normal person most of the time.
It’s five years today since she’s been gone and longer than that since I’ve heard her voice. I’ve almost forgotten what she sounded like but when I hear those words, no matter who is saying them, they sound like my mother. I don’t want to forget her but I don’t want to remember those parts anymore.
I don’t know if using the words will ever take away their power. As I type them now I feel like my organs are being scooped out; I’m systematically hollowed. I wonder if next time it won’t be so hard. I wonder if remembering will ever get easier.
I wonder if I’ll ever stop being tricked into thinking the ebb of grief won’t be followed by the flow of its return.