verb tr.: to cloud over, obscure, or darken
A week after her mastectomy, my mom’s head throbs. She feels every couple of minutes like she is about to puke.
She thinks it’s the flu, which has been going around, even though she’s only left the house twice, for trips to the doctor.
I ask her what she’ll do if she has to throw up.
“I can’t hear you,” she says. “You’re breaking up.”
I have seen the incision, an eleven-inch gash that runs like a crooked smile from her sternum to some hidden place beneath her armpit. It’s pink near the stitches, tender-looking.
A couple days ago, when Mom asked me if I wanted to see it, it didn’t look like the kind of thing that could endure much retching.
I ask her again what she’ll do if she gets sick, and again she tells me I’m breaking up.
It’s not the connection. It’s the way I hold my phone—pointed toward my left shoulder instead of my mouth—while I pace around the downstairs of my house, from the kitchen to the dining room, to the foyer, then back to the kitchen. Over and over, I walk in this loop and talk into empty air.
I realize this is the problem, but still, I keep doing it. I let her think the connection is going bad until she can’t stand it anymore and tells me she’s hanging up, tells me she’ll try me again tomorrow.
My mom finds out when she sees her surgeon two days later that she doesn’t have the flu. The doctor says there’s a seroma, an infection-filled sack of pus, under her arm, and that this seroma is what is making her sick.
The doctor drains the pus with a syringe, but hours later, my mom’s incision is leaking again. The fluid is brownish and odorless, not very thick.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” my mom says to me, her voice part thrilled, part sickened. “There’s so much of it! It’s disgusting.”
It had seemed impossible that she would have ended up with the flu. She’d been mostly alone for days, ever since she was discharged.
At the hospital, there were signs stuck to the walls every few feet in every corridor, encouraging people to cover their coughs, to wash their hands.
“I’ve had to change my shirt twice already today,” my mom says.
At the bottom of the posters, there was a message: We Are All In This Together.
It seemed so ominous. I wondered, Who is this we? What is this this?
What my mom tells me reminds me of a dream I had once, in which I woke up and walked from my bed to the bathroom and stared at myself, shirtless, in the mirror over the sink. Right away, my mouth opened, and in the mirror I watched thick greenish mucus stream from my face into the basin. I was a dirty fountain, a broken vessel, and the dream was all the more vivid because in it I had woken up, and so was tricked into thinking everything was real.
I could feel the sludge passing through my neck, entering my mouth.
When I really did wake up, I was coughing, choking, disgusted.
It shows poor judgment, but I tell my mom about this dream, in every last detail I can recall.
“That’s horrible,” she says. “That sounds really awful.”
I can tell by the way she says it that she means it. That she actually cares. That she is reacting so strongly to this thing I have told her about that was only a goddamn dream.
My wife is sitting up next to me in bed, her laptop propped on a pillow set across her legs. There is a TV on in front of us, but I’m talking again to my mom.
She is still leaking infection from the incision on her chest where her breast used to be. “The antibiotics are working, though,” she says. “The pus is, like, less brown now.”
My wife is close enough she can hear what my mom is saying, and she swivels her laptop in my direction. I can see from the webpage’s layout that she’s done a Google image search, but the icons are small enough I can’t see what they are.
My wife loves Google image search. In the past, she has swiveled her laptop and revealed to me a page filled with micropenises, or baby hummingbirds.
My mom lets me know for the seventh or eighth time just how gross the stuff is that leaks from her body. I lean toward my wife’s computer to get a better look.
The images are tough to make out. The first might be a dog or a horse. The second is of some medical equipment. The third looks like a linoleum floor.
I make a face at my wife. I shrug. She whispers, “I did a search for seroma.” She points at the picture of the linoleum floor and says, “Look.”
My mom says that she wonders some mornings why she bothers even to get dressed. She’s soiling one shirt after another, all day long.
Where my wife’s finger hovers near the screen, I make out a brown puddle in the shape of some fresh scab, some old continent, on the linoleum, right in front of a refrigerator. Several of the images look like this one, like something that has been spilled.
You can only take a photograph of a seroma, it seems, after the infection has left the body. Until then, you can capture only skin. You could stare at that skin for hours in fact, really searching it, and never have a clue about what might be right there beneath it.
It took less than a minute for my mom to ask me if I wanted to see her incision after she was released from the hospital. I walked in the back door of her house, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Want to see it?”
I told her I did, though I wasn’t sure.
There were two drain tubes inserted in her chest then, slowing filling with wheat-colored fluid.
“Wow,” I said.
My mom was smiling, proud. She had unzipped her pink pullover and was holding its front open as if she were peeling back her skin and revealing to me her screaming and throbbing heart.
She is only fifty-five. A speed limit. She has loved video games since I was a kid, and when I was young, she would punish my brother and me by sending us to the TV room, because she wanted to play with the Nintendo in our bedroom.
Her favorite games for a long time were The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. She took her time with Zelda—she kept a notebook, made maps—but she went at Metroid a little more fiercely, wanting to finish it as soon as she began. She kept falling short, though, day after day. Mother Brain kept doing her in. Finally, one day, my brother and I returned home from school, and my mom was ecstatic. She repeated, “I beat Mother Brain! I beat Mother Brain!” over and over.
The look on her face then, it was almost the exact look on her face when she was showing me the new incision on her chest. Only her face was younger then, fuller in the cheeks, with fewer lines and freckles.
She had not yet beaten a thing, of course, sitting there in her pink pullover, holding open her shirt for me. The doctors were still saying chemotherapy. They were saying anti-hormone injections. They were saying the next six months are not going to be fun.
But my mom wasn’t thinking about those things right then. She was thinking only of that gash in her chest, how it curved toward her armpit like a terrible and dangerous road. She was proud of it. She was shining with pride.