Los Angeles, My Mother
by Rebecca Katz 3 months ago

When I entered my mother’s room it was dark. 

I could only make out her shape. I could not see the sprawling view of the San Fernando Valley outside of her window or the posed family photos on her wall. 

A weak voice emerged from the darkness.

“Honey, would you get me the phone? We should head to the hospital.” 

I stood there like a lost traveller in the wrong area of town, unable to speak the language. 

I summoned myself to go through the motions, but when I stepped out of the darkness into the light of our comfy Los Angeles living room, I began to softly weep. 

For the past ten years of my life, my mother pretended her cancer did not exist. Because the chronic Leukemia had been largely controlled, we were able to shove it into our familiar family closet of Denial. 

Buried under secrets of financial complications and whispers of divorce, we didn’t dare add the C word to our daunting list of dysfunction. 

Growing up in Encino, the nucleus of “nice, Jewish neighborhoods”, sealing problems tightly into zip-lock baggies was a way of life — as if the problems were playbills from old school musicals, third grade basketball trophies, or miniature homemade menorahs. 

Like the ordinary and the humdrum, real world issues were crammed into cabinets and containers, jammed into dressers and drawers. 

Anything that dared to destroy our facade of flawlessness was forbidden territory. 

So when my mom’s disease took an unexpected hold last winter, my older sister and I were forced to venture outside of our narrowed Los Angeles bubble.

Our world of overprotective valley moms, Sunday gossip over Western Bagel, and socioeconomic status as the key to well-being disintegrated. 

Suddenly there was no one to shield us from the harsh and jarring outer edges of the universe. 

No dark closets, no escape routes, no places to hide. 

In a city that is infamous for superficiality and material wealth, it is heresy to turn on the lights. With denial as the main coping mechanism in our town, I thought I would be condemned for confronting something as weighty and real as Cancer. I imagined my world would completely crumble. 

But when I turned the lights on here’s what I found:

Having a sick parent was no doubt lonely. 

I searched for traces of maternal love in the faces of my grandmother, my therapist, the kind clerk at the Westwood supermarket. 

But I found love in the nooks and crannies I least expected — I bonded with the seventh floor UCLA lab secretary, the assistant oncologist, the nursing school students. 

People were understanding and kind. 

Having a sick parent meant being a parent to your own parent. 

As I fetched my mom food or carefully questioned her doctors, I felt the constant care, worry, and exhaustion of motherly love. 

But as I waited for her to fall asleep, I discovered a deep respect for the trials and tribulations of parenthood.

Above all, having a sick parent was scary.

My mom had been my source of light in all my bleakest moments. 

When my parents’ marriage was tearing at the seams, we ate Raisinettes and found comfort together. 

When my teenage heart was tossed around by Los Angeles’s number one private school playboy, we made a dart-board out of a picture of his face. 

When I went through an emergency stomach surgery, she snuck a puppy into Tarzana hospital. 

She had taught me that laughter can be the best medicine, smiling the grandest cure.

It was incredibly unsettling to see my source of strength so vulnerable. Without my mother igniting the light in me, I felt my entire electric grid shut down.

But when I faced the reality of the situation, I was able to not only accept my mother’s vulnerability but also emulate what I had seen her do — spread positivity, laughter, smiles. 

Between IV bag swaps and bone marrow biopsies, my mom, my sister, and I judged wild women on The Bachelor and rooted for USC in the Rose Bowl.

After about a month, my mother was able to return home due to modern medicine and a team of superb UCLA doctors.

When I entered my mother’s room that odd December morning it was dark. 

Everything in me told me to keep the lights off and bolt. 

All I knew was my role as overprotected child in my cloistered LA neighborhood. 

But stumbling around in the dark wasn’t going to cut it. Even in this city of constructed brands and artificial images, at some point we must turn on the lights to the unfiltered realities of life — death, divorce, disease. No matter how jarred we may feel at first, I think that we learn to navigate even the darkest of rooms.

With kind eyes and a radiating warmth, my mother has taught me that light-heartedness and compassion are some of the most powerful tools at our disposal. 

Even in the most fortunate of circumstances, in the nicest neighborhoods, life tosses some curveballs. But perhaps when we find ourselves in a room full of darkness we can not only brave the darker realities, but make it our business to provide some natural light.

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