In memory of my mother, Charlotte L. Boisseau
My mother, Charlotte, loves crossword puzzles, so we always seek out a couple of newspapers when we arrive at Dana Farber for her chemotherapy infusion every third Monday morning. I have never warmed to these puzzles, but find myself leaning toward her, and away from my own reading, to see if I can help her fill in some of the spaces. Yesterday's puzzle was unusually difficult - maybe because neither of us slept well the night before, afraid we might miss our morning alarms.
Most of the patients looked particularly sick during this visit, so to make it more bearable, I focused on the young, bald-headed young woman in her mid twenties sitting across from us, her ears plugged with earbuds, her eyes closed as she swayed slightly and mouthed the words to the music on her ipod. "Cancer is a big business," I said to my mother. "Years ago, people died with cancer cells in their bodies, and they never knew it, they never felt sick. Now people have to go through all of this." It's true that radiation and chemotherapy also save lives, but when such a high percentage of people end up with some form of cancer? You have to wonder what's going on. I thought about a book an author sent to Noam years ago called "The Celling of America," That title always stayed with me.
While my mother was having her chemo port inserted, I snatched the crossword puzzle from the seat of her wheelchair. One clue was "Something you do before going to bed." The answer was one of those long ones the length of the puzzle, and I knew it began with an "s" and had a "the" in the middle, ending with an "f". My mother was gone quite a while, and I was starting to worry - a normal reaction for me - so I concentrated on that one line, filling in what I could around it. Then I got it. "Shutthelightsoff."
This took me back in time to when my parents put my younger brother and sister and me to bed, and sometimes left the hall light on by mistake. Just as I was thinking this, my mother returned, and I threw down the newspaper like a thief caught in the act. "I found the phrase for you, here," I said, holding the paper up again, and pointing. She looked at the puzzle as I wheeled her to our next stop, where we would wait to meet with her oncologist. Sitting there, I asked her, "Do you remember when we were little, what we would do when you and Dad left the light on after putting us to bed?"
"Yes, you would all sing from your beds, 'Shut... the light off'' until we heard you and shut the light off."
"Why do you suppose we said it that way, singing it, with a pause after 'shut?' I asked, but she didn't know.
It was a silly thing to ask her, but I suppose I asked simply because she was next to me, and I could. A while later, as we waited for the preparation of the chemo cocktail, we worked again on the crossword puzzle. "Oh, 26 down is 'aria' I said, and she nodded and wrote it in. When we sat together with a puzzle, there was no edge, just mother and daughter working together. Just this, as my Sufi would say.
Sometimes over the years she has raised her voice for no apparent reason, and when one of us asked her why she was yelling, she would yell, "When I die, I want you kids to put this on my gravestone: 'I was never yelling. That was just my voice.'" This of course always made us laugh - all of us except my mother, who failed each time to get the joke.
Noam Chomsky, my boss, and the person I spend two full days with each week, is just the opposite of this. He speaks softly, and in almost twenty years, I've heard him yell only once, during the time when his wife Carol was ill, and he wasn't getting much sleep. He was on a phone interview, and I could hear his voice rising through his closed door.
"If you're going to ask me a question, then you need to let me answer!" Then he started to answer, and repeated, "I said, if you're going to ask....You asked me a question, and I would like to answer...ARE YOU GOING TO LET ME ANSWER? YOU ARE? THEN STOP TALKING AND LET ME..I'M GOING TO HANG UP THE PHONE IF YOU DON'T LET ME ANSWER YOUR...."
And for the first, and last time in my presence, he slammed down the receiver. I wasn't sure what to do, so I just sat there for a while in the ensuing quiet, then got up and made him some tea.
"Charlotte B," the nurse called out, and I wheeled her toward the doorway to begin her chemo - our last stop before we entered a twilight zone until the relief of watching the nurse remove her IV. Our routine was always the same, and our favorite part was taking the elevator to the first floor of Dana Farber where we paid for parking and waited for the valet service to retrieve my mother's car from the garage for our drive home. My mother would experience two wonderful, energetic days followed by almost a week of utter exhaustion, which left her with barely two weeks to enjoy a different kind of normalcy before our next round of chemotherapy and crossword puzzles.
This business of cancer is something to talk with Noam about when he returns from his latest trip, this time to Gaza and Cairo, where he is, as usual, offering up the truth and trying to bring some peace to the world, one word at a time.