“Can you look at this for me?” Feng, my grandparents’ neighbor, handed me a doctor’s report written in Chinese along with a box of his mother’s new chemotherapy drug.
Everyone in my grandparents’ little town in China knew me as the hotshot granddaughter getting her Ph.D. in the U.S., but I had to confess that my medical knowledge was limited to English, and I wasn’t a professional. I handed the report to my father.
“Don’t tell your mother that her cancer might recur,” he advised. “She needs to have hope that she’ll get better.” While he isn’t a medical professional either, my father had supported my mother through most of her four-year battle with lung cancer and was familiar with much of the jargon.
Reading over my father’s shoulder, I understood enough to grasp that Feng’s mother was gravely ill. I promised Feng I would look up the drug for him and saw him out.
Outside my grandparents’ door, I touched his arm and said quietly, “My father’s wrong. You need to have hope, but don’t lie to her. When my mother died, none of us were prepared because we kept pretending, and that was cruel to all of us.”
I had watched my mother die in pain in a hospital because my father didn’t allow us to discuss the possibility of death, and she never filled out an advance directive. I tried to refuse further medical intervention, and my father told me I was killing her. I didn’t want Feng’s family to go through that.
My mother, like Feng’s, had lung cancer. She was diagnosed when I was 16 and starting college. Over the next three years, I watched her shrivel, so slowly I didn’t notice at first. When I went home freshman year, Mama’s hair was shorter, but she was otherwise the same. Then her voice grew thinner, she started feeling short of breath, she could no longer keep up with me on walks, she became confused and agitated. But we never acknowledged that she was getting worse.
My senior year, two days before flying out for a grad school interview, my father called. Mama was in the hospital with pneumonia.
After my interview, I went straight from the airport to the hospital. In the car, my father said we mustn’t let on that anything was wrong. When we arrived, he patted her hand and said we’d finally go to Paris when she got better, like she’d always wanted.
The next two weeks, I lived in the hospital, sleeping little and eating less. Soon after I arrived, Mama could no longer speak and had to write notes in barely legible Chinese. Then she couldn’t write at all. Not once did we acknowledge the possibility of death.
My father kept saying she was going to have a few more months, and I wanted to believe him. I kept asking the doctors and nurses about her prognosis, if they thought she had any shot at all. She didn’t, but no one could or would give me a straight answer.