My Daughter's Brain Tumor

My Daughter's Brain Tumor

Updated: 3 months, 21 days, 16 hours, 43 minutes, 35 seconds ago

My mother, Madeleine, was a scientist, but she was also superstitious. Never open an umbrella in the house! Never put shoes on the table. She believed in luck—especially bad luck. She was sweet but tough. Politic, but scarily direct. Madeleine was a feminist and a dancer and such a good baker that people used to cry when they tasted her Sacher torte and mandelbrot. She was a virtuoso knitter; my sister and father still treasure the exquisite fisherman’s sweaters she made them. She was tall and elegant, and always wore high heels. She was also a fighter, the director of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, where her program was constantly on the block for budget cuts. My mother became the vice president of academic affairs before Vanderbilt hired her away as its first woman dean of arts and sciences. She did a lot before a brain tumor took her life at 51. I often wish I could be more like her. I cannot bake as well as she did, nor can I dance. I never learned to knit, although my mother tried to teach me. I am a novelist, no administrator. But I have a daughter named Miranda, and while Madeleine never had a chance to meet her, I see my mother in her.

My youngest, feistiest, most opinionated child, Miranda left her mark from the time she could hold a Sharpie. She scribbled on the walls. She drew on her bare legs. She chose her own clothes as soon as she could walk and wore striped tights, tie-dyed dresses, and a lavender satin cape that streamed behind her as she pedaled her tricycle. In kindergarten, she cut her own hair. “I’m sorry!” her teacher said. “She took the scissors from the art table.” Miranda taught herself finger knitting and cartwheeling. At seven, she was a dancer, and a tumbler. She was a baker skilled at lattice piecrusts, and an engineer who took apart toys and electronics. She was an organizer and a leader. The first day of school, she forged ahead, grabbing a shy boy by the hand when he was afraid to leave his mother. Miranda took after Madeleine in wonderful ways. How cruel that she got sick like her.

It was September. Second grade had just begun when Miranda said to me at breakfast, “Look, my hand is shaking.”

“Are you cold?” I was rushing and distracted, and it seemed like she was shivering.

At school, Miranda held out her right hand to show her teacher. The shaking was subtle, but her teacher called me. “Maybe you should take her to the doctor?”

I was nervous, making the appointment, but Miranda had no other symptoms. She seemed happy and healthy, full of energy. My husband was in California to speak at a memorial service, and Miranda’s older brothers were busy with homework and Ultimate practice when I took her to the pediatrician. I was hoping the doctor would look at  Miranda’s tremor and say, Oh, this is something we often see.

Instead, Dr. G. looked at Miranda’s shaking hand and said, “She needs to go to Children’s. I’m calling this in now. If you can’t get into neurology, take her to the ER.”

Miranda and I drove across the river from Cambridge to Boston. We threaded the congested streets of the Longwood Medical campus. I remember writing down the address and number of my parking space because I did not think I would remember it later.

My little girl was still cheerful and energetic as the neurologist tested her speech and vision. He had her walk in a straight line and hop and jump. Miranda could do everything he wished, but when she held out her hands, she could not control her right hand’s tremor.

“She needs an MRI,” the doctor said.

“When?” I asked.


“Okay,” I said. I could not bring myself to ask why. I made the appointment for that evening, and called my husband to tell him to fly home.

Before I left neurology, the nurse took me aside, advising softly. “Prepare to be admitted.”

But I could not bring myself to prepare. It seemed bad luck to pack clothes for the hospital. Miranda was healthy. She skipped through white halls out to the parking garage.

At home I told her brothers where we were going that evening. Her oldest brother, Ezra, was 17. I said, “You’re in charge of dinner.”

“But she’s fine, right?” he said.

I could not answer.

Ezra began baking. He baked a double batch of chocolate chip cookies, while I took Miranda to Porter Square to buy a toy for the hospital. She picked a small plush mermaid with a detachable tail. Then we swung by the house and Ezra ran out with a container of fresh-baked cookies—and that was all we brought to the hospital.

Once again in Longwood, I wrote down where I parked the car. Once again, Miranda skipped through the halls of Children’s. Cheerfully, she changed her clothes when we got to radiology.

“You’re going to lie on your back,” the nurse said as we approached the metal behemoth that was the MRI machine. “And then we can see inside you.”

“Can I take my mermaid?” Miranda asked.

“We’ll test her.” The nurse checked the mermaid for metal. “All good,” she said.

Then Miranda lay on her back with the mermaid on her chest. The nurse strapped her in and immobilized her head in a cage. “I don’t like this,” Miranda said, uneasy for the first time.

“I’m right here,” I said, as the nurse slid Miranda into the machine. Only her feet stuck out; she was such a small girl.

Miranda as a young girl

Photo: courtesy of the author