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Mom's Cancer Diagnosis Challenges Bond with Son

Mom's Cancer Diagnosis Challenges Bond with Son

Georgea Kovanis / Detroit Free Press

November 09, 2008

Mary Graham, a nursing aide who travels from home to home bathing people too ill to care for themselves, knows how sickness works – the way it sneaks up on the unsuspecting and tries to steal their breath away.

She does her best to make her patients comfortable, but when that’s no longer possible, when they are ready to let go and slip past sickness into the solitude of death, many of them whisper her name. She sits with them, holds their hands, says a prayer and sheds a few tears. Then, she moves on to the next person who needs her. “I’m thinking I was put on this earth to take care of others,” she has said more than once.

Maybe because she has seen so much of it, maybe because she knows it is a sorry but inevitable part of life, Mary has never been afraid of sickness – until now.

Everything is different now.

For the first time in her life, she is sick.

It’s cancer.

Even though she doesn’t like to admit it and doesn’t like to ask, she’s the one who needs help this time.

Alone at the hospital

It is a soft, rainy morning in the middle of June and Mary, who is 52 and has a stocky build and is strong enough to lift her patients out of their beds, suddenly looks tiny, sitting on a chair in the corner of a pre-op room at Providence Hospital in Southfield.

She drove here alone from the Detroit home she shares with her 22-year-old son, Fareed Brandon Graham. It has been just the two of them all these years; Dad moved out when Fareed was a baby. Mary kept her son in school – his high school graduation pictures are on display in her china cabinet. And she kept him safe. And she got him his first job, at a Meijer store, because she called a manager and said her son was a good kid who needed work. Once, when he was a boy, she allowed him to accompany her on a movie date. He sat in the seat between her and her male friend – who never asked her out again.

Fareed is struggling to cope with his mother’s diagnosis. He has an idea what the disease might do to her because he’s seen its wrath before. It killed the lady who lived next door. It killed his aunt and his cousin. His friend’s mother just died from it – went from being healthy and happy to a memory. Fareed hopes. He prays. He tries to tell himself everything will be OK because Mary is stubborn and because, like most children no matter what their age, he doesn’t want to imagine life without his mother. But more nights than not, he dulls his worry and soothes his fear with tequila and vodka and by the time he returns home, his mother is asleep and he can go to his room without having to see her.

Mary knows Fareed is scared, though she doesn’t find out about the drinking until later. She’s scared, too, but she tries not to show it. Often quick to tears – sometimes she’ll cry watching a contestant lose the showcase showdown on “The Price is Right” – she has wept about the cancer only twice so far. Once after a support group meeting; she was overwhelmed by the concern the other women had for her. And once earlier in June when her surgery was postponed and she felt unimportant to her doctor. She hasn’t cried in front of Fareed. If he sees her upset, he’ll become even more afraid and that, she decided, won’t do anybody any good.

One of the hospital’s pre-op nurses tells Mary to get undressed and slip on a paper gown and climb onto the bed so they can hook her up to tubes and give her intravenous medicine to make her drowsy. A cousin, who has the day off, stops by and she and Mary say a prayer. Three nursing aides from Visiting Nurse Association, which is where Mary worked before she went on sick leave, drop in and bring her up to date on office gossip. They joke that she might become one of their patients once she’s out of the hospital. And they laugh. “You all made my day,” Mary tells the women when it’s time to leave.

The last thing she hears is the smooth jazz that’s piped into the operating room. Kenny G, she thinks. Mary loves Kenny G.

The doctor cuts away part of her right breast – lumpectomy surgery – and tries to remove the cancer that is growing inside.

Fareed, who has been at the funeral of his friend’s mother, is on his way to the hospital.


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