In Pieces

There are signs everywhere. Subtle, yet significant signs. Like buttons. All of my clothes are losing buttons. Coats, jean shorts, pants, button-up shirts. How do you have a button-up without buttons? My living space is speckled with buttons. I put them in pockets, cup holders, decorative ashtrays, and coin purses, trying to contain them. I try to keep things together—mostly my pants. I use safety pins, which prick my fingertips. A safety pin can be dangerous. Functioning buttons are safe.

Other necessities have also popped off. I had to take my car to the mechanic. The engine was on its way out. When I told my mother, she said I should use her car. The check-engine light has been on for years, but it’s still going. Just like her, I thought.

Soon after that, my computer was taken by virus. Internet porn doesn’t do it for me, but I’ve downloaded music in less-than-legal fashions. My camera shutter has also quit working, stuck between open and shut, frozen mid-blink. Now the back of my phone is breaking off and I can see its insides glowing where I shouldn’t be able to see at all.

These are just things, of course. Computer, car, camera. I can live without them.

But it isn’t just the technology.

The universe is doing all kinds of things on its own—with or without me or my mother or my buttons failing to hold shit together.

During the North American summer of 2009, new photographs of the Butterfly Nebula, a dying star 3,800 light-years away, were released from the Hubble Telescope. In the photo, bright lavender explodes and melts into brief edges of white and deep pink that drift into an orange gold. It’s a semi-symmetrical juxtaposition of colors, spreading out from a dark midpoint. Death at its finest—beautiful and very far away. I look through the images and think, This exists. This is real. It’s just the kind of thing that makes it difficult not to believe in God. And Photoshop.

My mother has been seeing signs too. Hers are from God. It was a sign that her lung scan was clear—just fluid in the lungs, nothing more. A sign from God. I wondered what the sign meant. An extension of suffering? Proof that she would drown? I tried to listen as she told me about the signs from God in Better Homes and Gardens. She handed me the pictures she’d cut out. One showed a patch of skin with a rash that looked a lot like the first stages of inflammatory breast cancer—splotchy reds and pinks with scabs. I correctly assumed this was a photo of shingles. So, her monster rash may not be spreading as fast as we think. Part of it could be shingles. All right, sign from God.

She tells me all of this because she wants to go to heaven. She wants to believe that I believe so I don’t go to hell and eternally separate us. I’ve told her not to worry.

My college roommate’s boyfriend told me you don’t have to wait until hell to be punished. After I explained why I went home on weekends, he explained that there must be a reason for my mother’s multiple illnesses. It may not even be that God is punishing her for her own sins, but those of others. She could be receiving punishment because of your sins, he said. Now I wonder if different parts of her illness were divvied out as punishment for different sins of kin. Ex-husband—sin: divorce. Punishment: muscular dystrophy. Weasely boyfriend—sin: selling insurance. Punishment: breast cancer. Was it my sister’s premarital sex or mine that caused the inflammatory breast cancer? What about the hypoglycemia? Whose sins caused the lymphedema? The shingles? Paget’s disease? Or maybe each sin was worth one cell deformity, one genetic malfunction, one open wound, one shingle. I still struggle to find the logic in this logic.

Others have also offered reasons for my mother’s health or lack thereof. The heating and cooling man came to fix our heater one winter. It didn’t take long for him to see the problem, come up with an estimate, and fix it. But he stayed longer. He had better news and a party trick—he could speak in tongues. He asked us to form a circle around my mother’s motorized recliner—he, my mother, the weasely boyfriend, and me.

Leaving the room felt too awkward and I didn’t want to be impolite. I joined the circle. We held hands and he prayed for healing and salvation both in English and in tongues. Afterward he explained that God had given him his own language so that he could pray about things he didn’t even know he wanted to pray about. He couldn’t understand what he was saying when he spoke in tongues, but the important thing was that God understood. God had given him a gift.

With this gift came brochures: The Healing Power of Jesus Christ!, The Art of Faith Healing. How to Fix Heating and Cooling Systems AND Cure Cancer and Illness on the Side! My mother seemed interested. The heating and cooling man said she was sick because she was possessed by demons. Oh, Jesus, I thought. He gave her a pamphlet. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, be gone from my body! She was to repeat this every morning, seven times, until the demons left. She was also to repeat it seven times before she went to bed. It was something she could keep on her nightstand, faith healing at its most convenient. After what seemed like hours of tongues, prayer, and brochure teachings, the heating and cooling man looked at my mother and said, I love you Nancy. God bless.

Because I, too, love my mother, I wasn’t about to tell her that I felt like Christianity had abandoned us, so I abandoned it. I had spent my childhood attending Sunday school each week and obsessively praying before meals and spelling tests. As my mother’s cancer progressed, those beliefs seemed less credible than even the heating and cooling guy. At least he could keep us from freezing. What could I do?

I don’t know why my mother is sick. I don’t know why she falls in the 1-5% of breast cancer patients who have inflammatory breast cancer, the most aggressive form. I know that without technology and modern medicine she would already be in the ground. She takes at least twenty-five pills a day—4 brown, 1 yellow stripe, 3 purple, 1 bright yellow, 1 peach in the morning and 4 brown, 3 purple, 2 white, 2 small white, 1 knock out white, 2 bright yellow, 1 light pink at night. If there’s an infection or persistent pain, add a few more. We dish them out in dessert bowls and call them cocktails and nightcaps. But technology and medicine have limits. Nothing shows up on her CAT scans. Nothing shows up, but we can see with our own eyes the cancer eating her alive.

If the Hubble had human eyes, its photos would be a lot darker. To the naked eye, the sky on a clear night is dark, sprinkled with illuminated points. But there are invisible things. Beautiful, invisible things that sometimes, you can see.

Of course, Hubble’s eyes won’t last forever. Eventually, they, too, will decay until the telescope stops working, and all that remains is its outer shell, orbiting Earth, until it slowly spirals downward, finally falling back into our atmosphere before plunging into the ocean.

At school I started having headaches and wondered if drowning would make them stop. Or smashing my head into the desk. Maybe stabbing myself with a knife would relieve some tension. During class, it was hard not to think about knives and drowning, and I often caught myself imagining what life would be like if everyone I knew died, as if there might be a way to prepare for loss.

Before going to therapy, there was one thing I had to do. Paperwork. On one of the many pages, there was a section that contained a checklist of “problems” or “concerns.” I was supposed to mark the ones that brought me in: anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, post traumatic stress, academic stress, binge drinking, drug abuse, anorexia, bulimia, homosexuality, gender identity, sexual abuse, rape, physical abuse, verbal abuse, abortion, death in the family, health issues, and so on.

I checked several boxes—at least eight. After the counselor called me into her office, I sat across from her and watched her eyes move over my checked boxes. I waited patiently. Finally she asked, All of these things? I nodded politely. I thought, Shit lady. If you’re overwhelmed, how do you think I feel?

These checkboxes are more than checkboxes. Checkboxes are real people who are safety pins, rusted—buttons, strewn about in unknown places. They are unplanned growths. They are planned losses. They are watching death steal your mother away piece by piece by piece. They are knives coming after her, after you.

They are nightmares. They are demons. The checkboxes are real.

Some days, one of them is enough to make you drink a bottle of wine and put a check in the alcoholism box. Sometimes they all come and possess you while you sit in the parking lot of Walmart for thirty minutes, trying to keep it together until you unbuckle your seatbelt and go buy dye for your mother because her hair is growing back again. She’s always been blonde.

You could hang checkboxes in space. Pull your checkmark out of the box and throw the frame into the stars. Death is all over the sky, anyway. It’s easy to make squares out of dots. Just throw them away in the blackness of space. Out into the sky, far away.

In the recent days of decay, my mother woke me up at 3:30 in the morning because she was having nightmares. She asked me to come sleep with her because the devil kept chasing her. I scrunched up in her remote-controlled bed and we dreamed together until the devil was gone.

Every second of every day, the world is falling apart. The ground is close and closer still to my mother. It shakes us, but we are tired. And yet, we wake up. We open our eyes, sometimes after 2 p.m. but we open our eyes and move out from under the covers and enter the day. We will go running, sometimes because we are being chased, but we won’t run away. We will learn to sew or become great button collectors. We will see the world beautiful and crumbling, until we don’t.

Kay Gram

Kay Gram is a nonfiction writer based in New York. Currently she is working on a memoir about family and illness. Her work is forthcoming in 580 Split.

Amy McCullough

Artwork by Amy McCullough.