The first time my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I was writing a novel about immortality. She had gone to the doctor after discovering a sizable lump on the side of her stomach. A biopsy revealed the worst possible news: colon cancer. They could remove the lump surgically, but given its size, the doctors suspected it might be too late.
I could not imagine the world without my mom. I told myself she would beat this. My mom had always defied the odds. Born Black and poor to illiterate parents in the South during Jim Crow, she was the only member of her immediate family who graduated from high school. She then earned a full scholarship to college and became a teacher, effectively pulling herself out of poverty and raising me in a safe, middle-class community. She was the toughest person I knew.
My mom’s surgery went well, and the pathology report was better than expected: with the tumor removed, there was no cancer in her body. It felt significant, somehow, that I was writing a novel about immortality and my mom had staved off death, as though the novel was a good luck charm or talisman. I poured everything I had into the book, thanking it for its role in saving my mom.
Two years later, the cancer returned. It had spread to my mom’s stomach. The doctors suggested palliative chemo; they could stop the cancer from spreading to buy her time, but they could not cure her.
But my mom decided not to undergo chemo. Instead of five years, she would have maybe two and a half. I couldn’t accept this, and for the next several months my mom and I fought constantly. I cried. I begged. I guilt-tripped. I made rational arguments and emotional appeals. Nothing would sway her.
With my mom’s diagnosis, finding a publisher for my novel felt more urgent. Her fate and the novel’s had become inextricably linked in my mind—if one made it, the other would, too. I began sending the novel out to a series of independent presses, desperate to find a home for it quickly.
It worked. Stillhouse, a small press out of George Mason University, loved the novel. Getting a book deal always feels like a miracle, but the timing of this felt especially auspicious.
In my novel, immortality comes about suddenly, abruptly changing the fates of people who had previously been diagnosed with terminal diseases. While I didn’t believe immortality was around the corner in real life, I saw articles about new experimental treatments that were extending lives or curing some forms of cancer.
I redoubled my efforts to convince my mom to get chemo, but she was unyielding. She was completely asymptomatic and knew that chemo could come with side effects that would lower her quality of life. Eventually, I realized I had to respect my mom’s wishes—lest I lose her long before she died.
She remained asymptomatic for a full two years after her diagnosis. She continued teaching, went for two-hour walks every Saturday, and cut the umbilical cord when my daughter was born.
My novel was published on November 7. I’d held out hope that my mom would live that long, that the publication of the novel would somehow save her. But it didn’t. On a flight to visit me, my mom passed out, and the crew could not revive her. The plane made an emergency landing. My mom survived for four days, long enough for my daughter and me to get to California and say goodbye.
Though the tie between my mom and my novel has been severed, I continue to link them in my mind. I cannot think of my book without thinking of my mom. I wish she were here to hold the finished product in her hands, and I miss her every day.
But lately, my daughter’s favorite book has been Corduroy, which was my mom’s favorite book to read to me as a child. My daughter makes a certain face when she’s concentrating that’s a dead ringer for my mom’s. She sometimes calls out for my mom as though she can see or hear her, even though I cannot.
This, I understand now, is the form immortality takes. My mom lives on through my novel and through my daughter and through me, and while this is not nearly enough, it’s better than nothing.
T.N. Eyer’s debut novel, Finding Meaning in the Age of Immortality, is out now.