The movie was, from the get go, funny, schmaltzy, overwrought and full of predictable plot twists, but as soon as a group of geriatric Brits get to India in the hopes of starting their lives over, I started crying and couldn't stop. It's the first movie my mom's been able to get to since November. She and I used to engage in "Manic Movie and Madmen Mondays" and I missed them. Even that day, her strength was waning and we weren't sure she could do it, but she was determined. Ma and Jim were a few rows behind my aunt and me at the theater, and for that I was grateful - I didn't want her to see me melting down this way. I am home this weekend for for my monthly trip and this last month along with the month before had felt lightening quick with a move to a house and a new job tutoring, yet I also felt like I hadn't seen her for an eternity. These last few visits, more than before, there are more and more changes which is an irritating reminder that she really is still dying. This week marks the official 3-year anniversary of her diagnosis, and a quick search of Wikipedia states only 5% of people with the disease can boast that kind of survival rate.
To wit, we've taken to calling my 65-year-old Ma "The Miracle Baby" for her ability to both still be here, and to bounce back from any slumps she's had along the way, slumps so bad that we are all often on the phone tree murmuring, "It's happening, it's happening, she's really going this time, I think we really need to prepare ourselves....." And then, well, she doesn't.
But she will. This I still forget sometimes, and crying in the theater was a two-day late reaction to what happened Thursday night. The day before, I'd flown in, and there was some vague talk that Ma was having trouble swallowing. We'd been told all along that this is what eventually happens along with more and more sleeping and then difficulty going to the bathroom, and then, I imagine, the end. Jim, as he's want to do, sort of thought the nurse was "leading the witness and therefore this isn't really happening" and I didn't have a change to register what any of it meant, to ask what to do if she was choking and couldn't get her breath, what we needed to be most careful about. Also, she seemed good. So I went out on Thursday, with a couple of my girlfriends and had a fabulous time until I get this text from Jim at 10:10: "Mom is choking and coughing and can't breathe and she wanted you to know."
It is vintage Jim not to pick up the phone and call me about this, mainly because he is the last to accept any changes that are happening - it's his primary coping mechanism - total denial - but I don't hold it against the man. It's the only way he can be present and take care of my Mom the way he has day in and day out for all these years. At any rate, he was fairly calm when I called, as she'd been able to breathe a bit with a fair amount of morphine, thanks to a call to the hospice advice nurse. I wasn't in a panic either for whatever reason, but of course I went home.
I don't think either of us realized in the moment that she could have simply stopped breathing in the middle of this episode and choked to death. I now know another term I never wanted to, along with commode and compression hose and palliative care: aspirating, which means you don't swallow correctly and fluid is pulled into your lungs, which is what happened to Ma. It can also cause pneumonia. Lovely. It is also one of the side-effects of brain cancer if you live long enough with it - because this cancer can't kill you by eating away your organs like other cancers, because if it starts in the brain, it never metastasizes anywhere else.
By the next day, although exhausted and a little freaked out, Ma was fine. And so was I, mostly, until The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Seeing all those retirees in India overwhelmed me with what it must have been for she and Jim to travel there together in 2008, just months before her diagnosis. I wept for the fact that she will not be able to go back to this place she feel in love with, and for the fact the two of them won't be living out the next 20 years together. I wept because I wanted to travel there with her, to feel the heat and the noise and the colors and the people. I wept because she could have died two days before and because she's going to, there's just no getting around it.
When we left the theater, I was trying to hold it together, but she saw that I wasn't. "Woah, Woah," she said, and took my hand. I squeezed it, unable to say much besides, "Yep. Yep. Yep." So we woah'd and yepped our way back out into the evening, and when I finally looked at her, I knew she understood exactly what I was feeling.
The movie was partially narrated by Judi Dench's character, a woman whose husband died of a heart attack after 40 years of marriage. Going to India was the first thing she'd ever done on her own. She's writing about her experiences and says at one point something like, "India is like a giant wave. If you fight it, you will drown. The only way to survive is dive right in."
As one of my loveable grad school teachers, Mark Richard would have said (in a sweet Southern accent), "That's a bit on the nose, isn't it?"
And it is, completely, but I love the line despite myself. It's the same way with her illness, and everything that's come with it. There's no way around the wave. All I can do is keep swimming through.