- Shock Waves
The cancer reverberates through my mother’s family in shock waves. Her one remaining brother and four sisters have never been seriously ill; all are older than she but one. The only sibling who had died is a brother killed in the Second World War. Their father, my grandfather, had lived to 91. We all understand the seriousness of cancer, but think of it as an illness that usually attacks in old age, as it had my grandmother, who died in her late seventies. Sure, we know that cancer can appear at any age. But Nancy is never sick, she never complains, she is the one who unifies the brothers and sisters, mediating disputes, smoothing over hostilities—they call her “The Peacemaker.” None of us wants to believe that my mother, before all the others, might… She is young, she is energetic, “they” can treat it, somehow they can remove it, they will save her, everyone wants to believe. So the shock settles into a kind of icy chill that numbs our reactions at first.
Soon after we learn of the diagnosis, my mother’s youngest sister Mary and her husband Hank come up to Philadelphia from where they live in Florida. Because they only come every few years, whenever Mary and Hank fly in, it is an occasion for the clan to gather. Usually the brothers and sisters, their husbands and wives, and maybe some of their children meet at one of their homes or a local restaurant. This time it is only the sisters and brothers, no mates or offspring except for me, who gather at our apartment one evening.
Earlier, someone had picked up a bushel of steamed crabs and Aunt Santa had prepared her special sauce for them. I stand in the kitchen and survey the living room from behind the counter, while the crabs stew in their gravy on the stovetop. A dense quiet hangs over the living room where the five of them sit arrayed around the room. No one speaks or even looks at each other for some time. My mother is just below me, hunched over slightly, so that all I can see is the patchwork bandana that covers her hair, thinning from the first round of radiation. Uncle Joe, the oldest at 69, sits next to my mother. He slides his hand over to cover hers, palm up and half open, limp and despondent on the sofa cushion.
“Is it time to put the pot on?” I ask. This reminder that the spaghetti still needs to be cooked is a call to action. Aunt Santa, the next oldest sibling, rises to join me in the kitchen. At 67. she is petite and compactly built; her golden-colored hair, which was once dark brown, is always coiffured. As a child, I stayed with her after school when my mother first started working. When my mother was a toddler and Aunt Mary just a year old, it fell to Aunt Santa to care for them in the large family of seven. My grandmother had taken to her bed stricken with what today might be diagnosed as postpartum depression or the symptoms of menopause; back then they conjectured that she’d had a “nervous breakdown.” The sense of responsibility instilled in Aunt Santa during that family crisis is still with her now as she takes charge of the kitchen. I notice her tightly drawn lips as I hand her the large white pot.
“Where’s Rita?” I hear Aunt Ann say from the next room, a disapproving tone in her voice. Ann is the next sister in line. Rita is next, then comes my mother and Mary. Over the years, Ann has developed a stinging bite to her voice so that she always sounds angry, even when she isn’t. This has only just begun to dissipate since her hard-drinking, penny-pinching husband, Tony, died.
“She’s out on the patio, probably,” Aunt Mary responds. Her voice trails off. She doesn’t say, “…smoking a cigarette.”
If anyone can be thought of as the black sheep of the family, it is Rita. I’m sure she perceives herself that way. She works as a clerk for the Federal Government at an office not far from our house. She and my mother have lunch together at least once a week. For the past six months or so, my mother has told me, Rita has taken to sleeping on the sofa in her clothes with the television on. My aunt insists she cannot fall asleep in her bed because the bedroom in her duplex home, which had been converted from a fairly small two-story row house, is in the basement. She says she can’t sleep underground. It’s too quiet, too closed in. It makes her feel cold and clammy.
“She wants to move again,” my mother said over dinner one night. Aunt Rita’s divorce had come just a short while after my mother’s, but it had been brewing for years. It always takes longer for Aunt Rita to do anything. The family always tells her to arrive half an hour before the scheduled time for any special events.
“Her doctor prescribed valium for her, to calm her nerves,” said my mother. “I told her to just put on her nightgown and get into bed. She’ll fall asleep eventually. She’ll never make her money back on that place.”
I rummage around in the cabinet for the boxes of pasta. “How much do you think we’ll need, a quarter pound per person, right? How many are we?” I hear myself talking as if from a distance. I am worried, frightened by the deadening quiet, such a stark contrast to the typical boisterousness of family gatherings. My mother, especially, is so awfully quiet. But what could she say? Here we are all drawn around her because she’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Bent down and hidden in the darkness of the low cabinet under the counter, I feel tears welling up. What could she say, other than “I’m going to die?” I grip the box of spaghetti as if holding on for my own life. I want to stay down in the darkness with the cereal and crackers, with the soup and tomato cans, imperishables.
“The pot’s boiling,” Aunt Santa announces, my cue to add the spaghetti.
Ten minutes later, the pasta cooked to al dente, we sit around the dining room table. Aunt Rita has returned and mixes herself a vodka and orange juice. At the table, Ann, the second sister in command, takes her turn and doles out the spaghetti. Steam rises from the huge bowl at the center of the table. The pungent smell of the spicy sauce comforts us. Perhaps the whetting of appetites reminds us that we are still among the living. More slippery and thinner than traditional tomato sauce, crab gravy is always a special treat.
“Mmm, meaty,” says Uncle Joe as he sucks on a crab leg. “We’re lucky we got the last bushel of jumbos.” He is referring to the size of the crabs.
Aunt Mary giggles as she wipes away a spot of sauce from the corner of her mouth. “Wait a minute, I just remembered, you gotta see these,” she says, jumping up from the table. She returns from her suitcases in the bedroom with a plastic bag filled with what looks like tiny square pillows. She hands them out to each of us around the table, then stands behind my mother, unwrapping one for her. The pillow is actually a pocket stuffed with a shiny sliver of black lamé fabric. Mary unfurls it with a little flourish and fastens the velcro tab around my mother’s neck. “It’s a bib, for grown-ups,” she announces, “the perfect thing for crab gravy.” This brings the first smile I have seen in days to my mother’s face. “I got them from the Home Shopping Network,” Mary continues. We each don a bib and slurp down the spaghetti with abandon.
“And perfect for the Gentile sisters,” adds Uncle Joe, referring to the one thing all of his sisters have in common.
“That’s just it,” says Aunt Mary, “these boobs get in the way.” She pats her bosom as snickering gives way to outright laughter around the table. Aunt Rita almost chokes on her second screwdriver. Even Aunt Ann joins in. We have all shared the same experience at one time or another; it doesn’t take much for a splash of red gravy to land in an embarrassing spot on a crisp new blouse. I am the only female at the table with a “B” cup; my mother and her sisters are all at least a size 36C or larger. I almost cannot believe what I am hearing, but my aunts are actually exchanging stories about times when their large breasts have been an annoying inconvenience. Uncle Joe, at the head, savors his meal as he looks proudly around the table at his sisters. I laugh, too, even though I feel as if I’m in a Fellini movie. At 55, Aunt Mary is still the comical baby sister. With her bibs and breast jokes, she adds a surreal dimension to the situation, one that my family takes as entirely normal. I doubt whether any of my relatives have ever seen a Fellini film, but I think family episodes like this must have inspired him.
Linda Pizzi is Assistant Dean at Arcadia University where she oversees the learning center and disability support services, and teaches a First-Year Seminar. She has been preoccupied with writing across many genres all her life. Recently, her work has been published in Philadelphia Poets, Paterson Literary Review, and The RavensPerch. Born and raised in South Philadelphia, she now lives in Glenside, PA, with her cautious but curious little dog, Pepper, and their mischievous calico cat, Diego.