“It looks like a slip.” That was Mommy’s reaction to my first real sophisticated dress. “That’s why they call it a slip dress,” I tried to explain to her outside of the dressing room at Knit Wit in Philadelphia. “I don’t know where you are going in that,” countered my mother. That was one of her classic lines. It has stuck in my head to this day. Even if I love something, I will ask myself where I think I am going in it. If I can’t come up with an answer, I can’t get it.
On this day, however, I was fully prepared for that remark and gave her one reason from the list in my head. I told her I had a million (meaning two) fraternity and sorority parties to go to. “All right, you can get it, but we’ll show it to Aunt Jo first just, to make sure.” Yes! I thought. Aunt Jo would love it. She was a bit more hip than my mother, and I wasn’t her daughter, so what did she care if I looked like a complete slut? We stopped at Aunt Jo’s house on the way home. “Fabulous,” she said in her typical excited voice. That was that. Whatever my mother’s sister said was gospel. The Knit Wit slip dress was a keeper.
On a typical summer day spent strolling around the town of Princeton, my mother took me to the new Banana Republic. She asked me if I needed anything special for my up-and-coming senior year in college. “No,” I shrugged, feeling sorry for myself after being dumped by my college boyfriend (which turned out to be the best thing for me). “Well let’s just look anyway,” she said. That was pure Becky Levy—always looking on the bright side of things.
We spent a long time in the Banana (as my friends and I called it). Mommy convinced me that I would need the black flowy pants and peasant top for dinners, parties, or just hanging out with friends. She insisted on the two wool miniskirts and ribbed turtlenecks, as well as the suede jacket. For once, I felt like asking her where she thought I was going in that. I almost broke out in tears sitting next to her on the little changing-room bench.
“This year is going to suck. All my friends have boyfriends, and I am going to be left at home with nothing to do.” My mother would not stand for talk like this. “Buck up, Rach,” as she often said. “You are a beautiful, intelligent, wonderful person with so much going for you, and if you don’t stop sulking, you will wake up one day to discover that you let the best years of your life pass you by.” That was Mommy. She wouldn’t let you or anyone around you feel sorry for yourself. She gave me confidence that afternoon as she did every day of my life. Right there in the Banana changing room, I started to feel a little better about myself. I had places to go and clothes to wear.
I tried to explain to my mother that I needed a real skirt suit to wear to job interviews. I was a senior in college, and many of the companies that I was interested in working for would be coming to campus. Mommy thought that it would be fine for me to “look nice in a lovely skirt and sweater.” That was not happening. After leaving the parents’ weekend football game early, the two of us went to the Banana Republic in downtown Philadelphia.
I wanted something classic—a black knee-length skirt and jacket—something that wouldn’t make me stand out. The interviewer should remember me for my accomplishments and experiences, not for my outfit. Mommy tried to explain to me that I would look like a frumpy old lady in such a conservative suit. She somehow convinced me to get a brown tweed jacket and matching short skirt with orange stripes. She insisted that I wear them with brown tights and brown high-heeled Mary Janes, which we bought later that day.
On one hand, I thought this was crazy, but at the same time, I always trusted my mother. She came from good stock and wasn’t wrong about many things. That day at the Philadelphia Banana, she also reminded me that it was okay for me not to look like or be like everyone else. This was a big rule of thumb in my family. I was Rachel Levy, and there was no one else like me. Who knows if I got that first job in publishing after college because of me or because of my suit. Either way, I was happy with the outcome.
Embolizations were what the doctors called my mother’s monthly treatments, and they were going well. She had very few side effects, and the tumors were shrinking. We could not have been more pleased. Mommy received a different present from Aunt Jo every month before each treatment. This required Aunt Jo to make extra special shopping trips all over town, and she outdid herself every time. Mommy was the best-dressed and accessorized patient on the fifth floor of Jefferson University Hospital.
I did some shopping of my own to keep Mommy smiling throughout her treatments. I sent cards every month from Ann Arbor. I found myself laughing out loud in the local Hallmark store. Over time, I got to know the woman that worked behind the cash register. She was happy to see me come back to the store each month for another card. Each card meant a new treatment, and a new month of hope. Mommy saved every one of those cards. They filled up her kitchen bulletin board in a colorful paper mosaic.
While away at school, I always knew that Mommy’s days were good. Aunt Jo kept her on the go. The two of them, now more than ever, headed to the little boutiques that they loved in Newtown and Princeton. To say they were regulars was an understatement. They no longer needed an excuse to go shopping. Mommy did not wait to be invited to a party to buy an outfit. She bought them simply to have—to know that she might have the chance to wear them in the future. An uncertain future that somehow became brighter with every trip to the store.
Aunt Jo took Mommy up to the gourmet food store in New Hope to select holiday gifts for her doctors. The dynamic duo picked out cheeses, fruits, pâtés, crackers, candies, dishes, and more. When Drs. Sato and Eschelman received the baskets, they were amazed, but in some ways, not surprised. They adored Mommy for all the smiles she gave them, for her upbeat attitude, for never complaining, and for allowing them to learn more in their research studies. Mommy was one of their star patients for all these reasons and more.
After taking care of the doctors, she headed over to her dear friend Roz’s house. Roz’s husband was in the watch business. On this day, Mommy shopped from one of the watch catalogs—something she rarely did, as she loved selecting the items in person. But this year, she was making things easy on herself. Mommy picked out fourteen watches—one for every nurse, secretary, and lab technician. I went down to the hospital on my Christmas break for Mommy’s embolization, along with my father and Aunt Jo, who both never missed a treatment. Mommy was just like Santa Claus—handing out gifts to everyone as they wheeled her along the hospital floor in the gurney. Mommy, the sick patient, lifted the spirits of the healthy hospital staff.
We had made it to the wedding and back. Everything went smoothly. Jonny and Jill were so happy together, and I was so happy for them. They deserved their day, and they finally got it. Everyone in attendance fought back their tears on the night of the wedding as they watched Mommy dance with Jonny—a bit slower than usual, and with her protruding stomach and somewhat jaundiced skin. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom that night splashing water on my face and telling myself to enjoy the evening as much as I could. We were getting fewer and fewer of them.
As spring approached, Dr. Sato felt that the treatments, even in the more aggressive format, were not effective. He suggested injecting chemotherapy directly into Mommy’s liver. This was not good news, but we knew that we would not be getting good news again. Mommy, however, managed to look on the bright side of things. As long as the doctors could do something, Mommy had hope. Her worst nightmare was for them to send her home with no options. Dr. Sato knew this, and we trusted him enough to know that he would never do that.
One of the side effects of the injected chemotherapy was hair loss. This is a reality that many cancer patients face, and we felt lucky that Mommy did not have to think about this, until now—almost six years into living with cancer. Knowing that Mommy would most likely lose her hair, Aunt Jo took her down to the wig store in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I could not go with them since I had gone back to work part-time after having the baby, something that my mother was so proud of. “You are not to be my nurse. You have a wonderful family and a career, and you go about your business,” she told me.
This was by far the hardest shopping trip Aunt Jo had to venture on with her sister. They spent a lot of time at the store selecting one wig made of real hair that looked identical to her own and a synthetic wig that Mommy thought she could wear under hats and with headbands. Mommy called me at work from the car on the way home. “We found the most beautiful wigs. I will use the real one when I have to, but the cutest one is the fake one. I’ll wear it with all my baseball hats and with the new Pucci scarves that I just bought. Will you come over with the baby tonight so I can show you?” “Great,” I replied. “I can’t wait to see everything. I’ll bring over some cute barrettes for them.” It was so hard to maintain a stiff upper lip through this conversation. I could hear the fear masked by a smile in her voice, and I did my best to follow along. I hung up the phone and wept out loud in my office. Finally, the tears could come no more, so I blew my nose and went back to work just as Mommy wanted.
The wigs were now a staple in my mother’s wardrobe. She told everyone about them, and they all said that they couldn’t tell. I honestly believe that they were telling the truth. As in the case of all her accessories, Mommy had good wigs. One warm spring day, I met Aunt Jo and Mommy at the Velvet Slipper in Newtown. I had just finished a baby music class with Joey in town, and they were shopping for spring shoes. When I arrived at the store, Mommy was sitting down on the bench, and she looked very weak. She flashed her big toothy smile to Joey and me as she showed off some fancy flip-flops that she thought I would like. At this point, I couldn’t even think about wearing new clothes or shoes. I wondered if she would ever see me in any of these new purchases. I ended up getting a pair of pink and green ones. Mommy could not even stand up to hand Carol, the store’s owner, her credit card.
I thanked Mommy as Aunt Jo got a glass of water for her. Aunt Jo did not think Mommy was well enough to drive home by herself, so she drove her home in Mommy’s car. I followed them and then drove Aunt Jo back into town to pick up her car. All the while, baby Joey slept in the backseat. He was always such a good baby, in large part due to the fact that he had to be. I was a calm mother because I had to be a nervous daughter.
Mommy thanked us for the ride home and attributed her weakness to the chemotherapy. At this point, it could have been from anything. I put the new shoes away in my closet thinking that I could never wear them, as they would always remind me of the sad day. Sure enough, Mommy called that night to give me some suggestions of upcoming events that I could wear them to.