My Mother’s Cross: Cancer, Kink, Sex, and Death is a 90,000-word memoir about a daughter helping her mother face terminal cancer and navigate a healthcare system designed to treat diseases instead of people. Elizabeth is a feminist sociologist who relies on reason to keep disorder at bay. Judy, her mother, is a recovering alcoholic whose powers of denial assure chaos at every turn.
Despite teaming up against the cancer, conflict disrupts their relationship as Elizabeth takes the role of responsible adult, taking notes and tracking treatments while Judy assumes the role of recalcitrant child, using humor and petulance to avoid the gravity of her situation. Weakness and delusions brought on by cancer intensify Judy’s child-like personality and conflicts with Elizabeth.
Other family members increase the tension. Judy’s sister Sarah alternates hospital shifts with Elizabeth, sharing her perspective on Judy’s prospects. Elizabeth’s sister Angie, a thousand miles away, often disagrees, supporting her mother’s assertion that she can recover.
The cross refers to a large piece of bondage equipment in Judy’s cluttered apartment, but also to her regrets and Elizabeth’s burdens. Judy, long single and celibate, experienced a sexual awakening centered on dominating men just before her kidney cancer diagnosis a few years earlier. Surgery and dialysis didn’t stop her sexual adventures then, but this cancer is different. Elizabeth struggles with her mother’s loss of pleasure, power, and freedom, and with the medical establishment’s blindness to its importance.
The book ends on a tragicomic note at Judy’s memorial. Rain begins as Elizabeth makes a circle of ashes around the tree planted in Judy’s memory. As Elizabeth runs toward shelter cradling the biodegradable bag of her mother’s remains, it dissolves in her arms and Judy’s ashes scatter themselves in the grass between the tree and the river. Chaos reigns. Judy is in control.