Excerpts from the Cancer Ward

1: The Cooking Channel

It’s beans day for a woman on the cooking channel. She loves beans. Her Louisiana accent and silver hair make her the grandmama everyone wants but never had. She must smell like almonds. This is her marketability. We trust her cooking because no one cooks like grandmama. We watch her because our grandmama never taught us to cook. We watch her because we’ve always wanted grandmama to cover us with a blanket after we fell asleep in front of the television. We wanted her to run wrinkled fingers with chipped pearl nail polish through our hair and hum a song with a story attached to it. A story about the skirts she wore during the war. A story about how the only thing to eat during the war was lard sandwiches with salt—sugar if it was a special occasion. A story about how she nursed grandfather back to health after the war. A story about her one true love that died in the war.

We watch this woman’s show because she is the grandmama we never had. The one that doesn’t worry about sodium or sugar or cholesterol or grease or fat. The one that feeds us chocolate cake and tells mom that she fed us salad without dressing. The one that lets us sip the cooking wine and pretends to not know about the boy across the street and how we let him feel the lace under our skirt.

If I worked for her show, I’d call her Grandmama. I’d be fired.

2: Grocery Shopping

One box of green tea—it has antioxidants. One box of Lucky Charms. One box of Froot Loops. Two quarts of soy milk. Pre-made peanut butter cookies. Pre-made chocolate cake. A quart of soy milk. Two bottles of non-dairy creamer. One box of Captain Crunch. Two bags of whole bean coffee—the imported kind—also has antioxidants. One more quart of soy milk. One 24-case of bottled water.

3: Balance

Mom’s voice sounds like a soiled diaper as it spatters into the bottom of an empty trash can. Smoke comes out of her mouth even when a cigarette isn’t lit. I tell her I was in the shower and couldn’t answer the phone. I tell her I’m sorry.

Sometimes you can be too naked to answer the phone—even if it’s your mother.

She said she called to make sure I didn’t die before her.

I tell her I’d let her know if I died, and that I was counting on her to return the favor.

We really do love each other. She laughed and hung up the phone in mid-cough. She is the one that taught me to watch the cooking channel. Said woman does not live on cereal alone. Thanks to the cooking channel and Grandmama, I can make a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches. Mom said that was good enough—a high fiber diet can counter the effects of too much cheese. Balance things out.

That was her motherly advice: always keep a balance.

Anything can kill you if it’s not balanced out. If it’s not in moderation. Even water can kill you if you drink too much.

4: The Love Story—Part 1

I once chipped a guy’s tooth. We were making out at the time. I told him I was sorry, but never told mom about it—she wouldn’t believe me.

5: Rum is like Candy

Being rum-drunk is like eating a box of Froot Loops—you’re drunk fast, but an hour later you’re tired, sober and have a headache.

The first time I drank with mom was the night of my high school graduation. Mom poured half a shot of rum in a glass of orange juice and handed it to me, thinking I didn’t see the third shot she poured into her Coke. We sat down at the dining room table and drank and laughed and she smoked.

Being rum-drunk is like eating a dozen peanut butter cookies—it makes you laugh, then it makes your stomach hurt.

I never knew my grandmama. Mom never showed me pictures. She said that my father took them when he left in that puff of smoke. He took everything except her, me, a pack of cigarettes and a note that said he wasn’t sorry. The note was framed so I didn’t have to be ashamed when my friends came over and there weren’t any toys. The note was hung on the wall in the dining room, in the space my father’s head used to fill with smoke.

Being rum-drunk is like drinking a pot of coffee—it makes you feel warm inside, and then you can’t feel.

When our glasses were empty, mom took the note off the wall. She placed it face-down on the table and opened the back of the frame. Her wrinkled hands with the chipped pink nail polish trembled when she lifted the paper off the glass. It was smaller than it looked in the frame and mom’s hands started to shake.

Being rum-drunk is like driving to grandmama’s house—it makes you dream of good times, and the dream is always better.

The charcoal fingerprints that were so clearly visible behind the glass were almost indiscernible. When we first found the note, mom told me not to touch it until the police came, but I never really listened to her then. My seven-year-old thumb is now forever connected with a father I can only remember as smoke.

Mom looked at the handwriting, and with an index finger, suddenly calm, she traced the words. Then she put the frame back together and hung it on the wall with the note reversed. No more words, no more excuses, no more shame—just space.

Being rum-drunk is like holding hands for the first time—your heart beats a little faster, but it’s always about the anticipation.

6: Grocery Shopping with Grandmama

One loaf of San Luis Sourdough bread.
One block of cheddar cheese.
One block of jack cheese.
One large tub of butter—none of that low-fat nonsense.
One cup crunchy Jiffy peanut butter.
One and one-third cups of processed sugar.
One egg.
One teaspoon of vanilla extract.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine ingredients and roll into walnut size.
Press a crisscross design in each cookie.
Bake for twelve minutes and sprinkle with processed sugar to make them “magical.”
One bag of red beans.
One bag of pinto beans.
One bag of black beans.
One raw chicken.
One bag of almonds.

7: My name is _

And I always wanted to be an addict. If you’re an addict, it’s okay not to have control. If you let people know, they pat you on the back and hold your hand and cry with you. It’s a disease and they want you to get better. A hug would be your chemo. A handshake your medication. A prayer your cure, even if someone has to buy it for you.

When people ask where my father went, I tell them that he was a sex addict and he killed himself. Only one of those is true.

8: Maternal Advice

The first time I had my period, mom told me about boys as she blew smoke rings at the window. It was snowing and I thought how perfect it was to be bleeding on a day the world was covered in white. As the smoke blended with the snow, she gave me five rules:

Never call a boy.
Never let a boy know you like him.
Never make the first move.
Wait as long as possible before you let him touch you.
Never kiss back unless it’s worth it.

Mom flicked the ash off her cigarette, went outside without a jacket or shoes, and stood on the apartment balcony. The snow stuck to her shoulders and hair, and a little to her eyelashes. She opened her arms and put her head back and let the snow fall on her chest and face. Smoke stopped rising from her right hand and I knew her cigarette had gone out, so I left the room. Mom was talking to my father, and it’s always rude to eavesdrop.

9: The Love Story—Part 2

Even after I chipped his tooth, I never told him about my father.

10: Mom is Always Right

There’s a woman on the cooking channel I refuse to watch. She’s like that one aunt that you always avoid because you know she’ll pinch your cheeks and coo at you, even though she’s only a few years older than you are. Mom tells me that I shouldn’t dislike people I don’t know. I tell mom that I don’t dislike her - I hate her. Mom says she has good recipes and deserves a chance, even if she is overexposed. I say I still can’t cook, but I did learn how to make a White Russian. She tells me to buy a bag of peanuts and be careful of who I drink with. I tell her I’m allergic to peanuts.

It turns out, mom is right. She does have good recipes.

11: Grocery Shopping with Mom

One case of Parliament cigarettes.
One quart of orange juice.
One bottle of white rum.
One twelve pack of Coke.
Two ounces of vodka.
One ounce of Kahlua.
Two teaspoons of soy milk.
Shake with ice.
Strain into chilled glass.
Garnish with chocolate syrup.
One bag of peanuts.

12: The Love Story—Part 3

I followed all of mom’s rules—except one—and I still chipped his tooth.

13: “Your Love is like Smoke”

I lied to mom. I do remember one thing about my father. I remember a sentence. I can hear his voice, but his face is covered with smoke. I remember his words, but not his actions. One sentence is all he left to me. It is his legacy. It is what I can pass on. The family heirloom.

14: Bird Flu

It’s fried chicken day for Grandmama. I’m sure she still smells like almonds, wrist deep in raw chicken. She is clean—always. She is my Grandmama—the one I always wanted. She is the one that taught mom to always keep a balance. She is the one that taught mom about boys. She is the one that hummed a song about the war and covered me with a blanket and ran her wrinkled fingers with chipped pearl nail polish through my hair.

She is the Grandmama my father took when he left in that puff of smoke. The Grandmama that hid her gambling addiction. That gave mom cold medicine to make her sleep. That refused to let mom and my father see each other, because she is always right. That gave us a history. That brought everyone around one table and made us laugh and cry. That taught me how to tell a story about the war. That taught me how to clean a chicken.

I haven’t told mom I’m a vegetarian. I watch this show for her.

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