Nice that Brenda finally gets her due!
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May 7, 2006
Seizing the day
*Mom's Cancer Brian Fies Abrams Image: 116 pp., $12.95
By Laurel Maury, Laurel Maury, an editorial assistant at the New Yorker, writes reviews for a variety of publications.
IN "Mom's Cancer," Eisner Award-winning artist Brian Fies does a simple reality face-off with his mother's illness. Fies' excellent graphic novel, which started as a weekly Web comic, describes his mother's cancer treatment with neither sentiment nor hysterics, and the effect is quietly devastating.
Fies' art is simple, with a big-jawed, 1950s look, like the friendly art found in old public service announcements. The characters have plain-Jane names: Mom, Nurse Sis, Kid Sis and the unnamed narrator. As the story opens, Mom has a stroke-like episode that turns out to be a symptom of a brain tumor. Like the educated, middle-class people they are, Nurse Sis, Kid Sis and the narrator make phone calls and try to pull strings to get their mother the best treatment. Soon, Mom is a patient at Impressive Hospital (all people and places have aliases), with a diagnosis of large-cell carcinoma: stage-four lung cancer.
The image Fies gives us of Mom in a recliner, her bald head in a bandanna, her body wrapped in blankets and a chemo pump in her arm is an icon we fear the way the medieval mind feared hell. Later, her radiation-burned skin starts to slough off. Her kids never tell her the odds of survival.
Meanwhile, the ex-husband, a doctor-turned-hippie, thinks Mom should simply accept death and die. Although the ex is Fies' punching bag for everything silly about boomers, he has a point. No one discusses the trade-off between the odds of survival and the amount of suffering. When the oncologist tells Mom she will be one of the 5% who make it, Mom breaks down sobbing: "Five percent?! If I'd known it was that bad, I never would have put myself through this!"
Fies mixes in surreal moments of lightness. He draws Mom as the patient in the 1970s game, "Operation," here called "Inoperable," referring to the state of her cancer. At one point, he and his siblings turn into superheroes in which they become hyper-emotional versions of themselves in capes and tights. But Mom, Nurse Sis, Kid Sis and the narrator are exactly like everyday middle-class people. This story is nerve-wracking because it hits close to any of our homes.
Each character grows up. Nurse Sis comes into her own as the family's real adult; Kid Sis, who once bounced around bit parts in Hollywood, finds she is stronger than she thought; the narrator finds his own sense of purpose in chronicling his mother's fight. And Mom gets a puppy (a "whirling, vibrating poof of fur"), names him Hero and learns to grab and savor the life she has. She moves to Southern California.
What may earn this book a spot in oncology offices, self-help groups and, probably, medical school curricula, is how carefully Fies tells the truth about what happens to people. "Mom's Cancer" doesn't soften any blows. It gives us a woman getting through the most horrible episode of her life. She could easily be one of us.