Ten years ago today, I got the call. The call I’d been dreading. The call from my dad to tell me that my mom was dead. I was in my car, in line to drop my #1 son at school. He was still in the car, but I answered the phone because it was my dad calling. Trying to respond to him while cloaking my words in a way as to not upset my 6-year-old was hard. Living the last 10 years without my mom has been even harder.
I’ve written much about my sweet mama and how much I miss her. I’m not sure that there are new ways to say, I’m sad. I miss her. I feel lost sometimes. I worry that I don’t do enough to keep her memory alive. I can’t believe she’s gone. I don’t want to live the rest of my life without her. I’m afraid I don’t mother my kids as well as she mothered me. I’m totally pissed that she’s gone. I was robbed. She was robbed. It still hurts, a lot. It’s better, but it still hurts.
I miss her. So much.
I’ve been torn today, between wallowing in the sadness and doing the kinds of things she respected. Between feeling sorry for myself and being productive. Between having a shitty day and “walking on the sunny side of the street” (the latter was how she bid me farewell every day when I left for school when I was little). How can I walk on the sunny side of the street when the sunshine is gone?
I just read Angelina Jolie Pitt’s op-ed in The New York Times about her second preventative surgery: to remove her fallopian tubes and ovaries. Just as she did with her prophylactic bilateral mastectomy two years ago, Jolie Pitt writes articulately and openly about her laparoscopic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, using imagery and opinions that those of us who have walked in her shoes immediately understand.
She writes, “The beautiful thing about such moments in life is that there is so much clarity. You know what you live for and what matters. It is polarizing, and it is peaceful.”
So much clarity. Amidst untold chaos and unimaginable confusion, there is clarity.
She recounts her consultation with the GYN surgeon, who had also treated her mother: “I last saw her [the surgeon] the day my mother passed away, and she teared up when she saw me: ‘You look just like her.’ I broke down. But we smiled at each other and agreed we were there to deal with any problem, so ‘let’s get on with it.’”
I had a similar encounter with someone who cared for my own sweet mama during her cancer treatment. The woman who was my mom’s radiation tech is now a nurse in my orthopedist’s office. I knew as soon as I saw her face that she was the kind practitioner who blasted pointed radiation into my mom’s beleaguered body five days a week for weeks on end. When I encountered her in the orthopedist’s office, I was thrown for a moment because she was out of context. But before long we realized who each other was, and she said the same thing to me that Jolie Pitt’s mom’s surgeon said to her: “You look just like her.”
Stupid fucking cancer.
When Jolie Pitt wrote about her mastectomy in May 2013 she cast the spotlight on the issue of femininity being defined by body parts. After her mastectomy she wrote: “I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” With her latest surgery, Jolie Pitt casts the spotlight on another jarring and difficult result: forced menopause.
Becoming menopausal decades before its natural occurrence is unpleasant, to say the least. The physical and emotional ramifications of forced menopause suck. Really suck. There is no easing into the myriad effects, which can include hot flashes, night sweats, increased sweating, sleep disturbances, mood swings, urinary tract infections, sexual disfunction, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, back pain, joint stiffness, and fatigue. As if that’s not enough, throw in the accelerated aging: loss of elasticity in skin, lack of collagen, hair loss, brittle nails, diminished muscle tone, slower metabolism, and weight gain. Suck. At a time when many women are claiming the best version of themselves (“40 is the new 20!” “I’ve finally come into my own!” et al), early menopause creates instant grannies. Suck. If anyone can shed light on the ugly truths of forced menopause, my money is on Angelina. Yes, she has unlimited financial means and resources unavailable to the average cancerchick, but she also has a platform for educating the masses and she’s gonna use it. Hooray!
At the time of this publishing, there were 321 comments on her story; by the end of the day that number will have climbed. The handful of comments that I scanned were positive, but there are some who chastise her for her choices. I’m always amazed at how ugly people can be with the anonymity that our online world provides. How nice it would be if those cowardly, overly opinionated haters could really digest Jolie Pitt’s reasoning and respect her choice. How nice it would be if they would re-read the last sentence in this segment of her latest essay:
“I did not do this solely because I carry the BRCA1 gene mutation, and I want other women to hear this. A positive BRCA test does not mean a leap to surgery. I have spoken to many doctors, surgeons and naturopaths. There are other options. There is more than one way to deal with any health issue. The most important thing is to learn about the options and choose what is right for you personally.”
Choose what is right for you personally.
What works for you may not be the same thing that works for me, or for your neighbor or your cousin or the woman who works at your favorite Hallmark store. Cancer, like any disease, is an immensely personal issue, and any and all decisions resulting from a diagnosis should be personal.
October 13. The day my mom died. It’s here again, and 7 years later, it still sucks.
They say time heals all wounds, but I say “heals” is a bit of a stretch. It’s more like time puts a too-small and not-so-sticky band-aid over the gaping wound where your heart used to be. They also say that you never get over such a loss, you just get through it. Whoever “they” are, they got it right that time.
I still miss her every single day, in one way or another. Her big, genuine laugh. The way she fretted incessantly. Her habit of always taking my kids’ side, even when they were naughty and unruly. The daily phone call, even when she had nothing much to report. Her ability to worm her way into anyone’s heart. Watching her in the kitchen, and marveling at how she knew how to get everything just right.
The list goes on.
I’ve written a lot in this little blog about how much I miss my sweet mama. I’ve read a lot about losing one’s mother. I’d like to think it helps, that it’s somehow therapeutic to get it out, to empty my heart and head onto the screen. When I come across a particularly interesting or helpful tidbit on the subject of mothers and/or loss, I jot them down. I usually forget to include the attribution, as I did here:
Motherhood isn’t a test but a religion, a covenant entered into, a promise to be kept.
No idea who wrote that or where I came across it, but I like it, and my sweet mama definitely embodies those ideals.
This one was in O Magazine, and again, I neglected to give credit where credit is due. To the author of these wise words, I apologize, but please know that your words moved me enough to pull out my iPhone, tap on the Notes icon, and copy the passage for quiet reflection at a later date:
You never get over what you lost. You always carry it with you, stitched to you like Peter Pan’s shadow. And you never wanted to get over it, because who wanted to forget a time that had been so important? No, the truth was, you wanted to remember it always.
I guess I’d say that it’s impossible to forget something (someone) so important. I do carry her with me, and I will never get over the loss of her. If I’m half as important to my two kids, a fraction as beloved, I will consider my life a great success.
I read a book review a while back about Caroline Kennedy’s book Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F Kennedy. (Whew, long title.) In the review, Caroline talked about how at age 53, accomplished and well-educated, she still referred to Jackie O as “mummy.” We never get over losing our mothers.
She went on to talk about the qualities she most admired in her mom, which she wanted to highlight in the book: the sense of strength, her passion for reading, and her will to move forward despite the pain that had come her way.
I can relate to that. My mom was amazingly strong, but in a quiet and gentle way. She loved to read and was a middle school English teacher in her life before becoming a full-time mother. And she had seen her share of pain: losing her own mother at age 13, raising her younger sister, losing that sister to pancreatic cancer, then enduring her own protracted and awful cancer battle.
I can relate to everything Caroline Kennedy says. My mom wasn’t as glamorous as Jackie, and I didn’t grow up in Camelot. I do have a brother named John, though; however my mama wouldn’t let anyone call him John-John or Johnny. Our neighbor across the street tried to call him Johnny, but my determined mama nipped that in the bud. She named him John after my dad’s uncle who immigrated from Greece. His name was John and she insisted that he be called John.
When Caroline Kennedy listened to the 8 hours of interviews between Mrs Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, which Caroline used to make up the book, she had a strong reaction. She says, “I read them right after mum died and had the sense she was speaking to me again. I could hear her saying what I was reading (smiles).”
What a precious gift. To hear my sweet mama again would be such a treasure. I have to work hard to remember what her voice sounded like. The more time that passes, the harder it gets. The more years that roll by without her, the less I feel like I know her. She seems to be fading from me.
I still call upon her a lot, especially in the kitchen. Just the other day, I was helping my favorite girl in the kitchen. She’s doing an ongoing bake sale to raise money for her class trip to Washington, D.C. and was baking my mom’s pumpkin bread. The house smelled sweet and spicy, the cinnamon, allspice, cloves and nutmeg redolent of fall (even though it was 90 degrees outside). Watching my girl take on a task (raising money for her trip), executing her plan, and carrying on my mom’s fine tradition of expressing her love through food made me proud. And sad. Because I knew how much my mom would love to see my girl doing her thing. She would fret over my girl, telling her to scoop the flour lightly, without packing it down. She’d say, fold the dry ingredients gently into the pumpkin mixture so the bread will come out light and fluffy instead of dense. She’d tell my girl to clean up as she went along, so that there won’t be a giant mess at the end. And she’d scold my girl for wanting to taste the batter; my mom grew up on a farm with chickens and was always leery of eating raw eggs.
I needed my mama that day in the kitchen with my hard-working girl. After the pumpkin bread baked and we let the loaves rest in the pan for 10 minutes, we knew to turn them out onto a rack to cool. But the still-warm bread was so moist it was very soft on the bottom, and I didn’t want the rack to make marks, or even worse, for the bread to stick to the rack. If we turned the loaves upside down, to rest on their tops, would the racks still make marks? What to do? Mom’s recipe didn’t address this important question, and although I’d seen her make pumpkin bread countless times, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what she did with the cooling loaves. And I sure couldn’t just call her up and ask her.
My mom and my girl didn’t get to spend much time together, because cancer stole YaYa from my girl when she was just 3 years old. No fair.
They didn’t have a lot of time together, but they made the most of it.
Read more about my sweet mama:
Cancer steals so much. All the time. Every day. This I know for sure.
A couple of days ago I smacked my head upon this truth and watched helplessly as my dear friend experienced this for himself. His dad died from cancer a decade ago. Ten years, yet the grief was as raw as can be, the loss as crushing as it was a decade ago.
His dad was a handy guy who could fix anything. He made a good living — and supported four kids — with his hands. My friend learned from his dad and is handy too. Although his livelihood isn’t manual, he can fix anything, like his dad. He just doesn’t always believe it until it’s done.
My friend was fixing the spring on our gate (one of the many things he’s helped with around our house). The spring on the outside of the gate had lost some of its tension, and the screws holding it in place had wriggled loose after seven years of use. How many hundreds of times has that gate banged shut as my busy little family comes and goes? When we were building our pool, the gate and the fence came down, to be replaced by temporary, orange plastic fencing (seen behind the slabs of flagstone) that couldn’t contain my dogs. My then 7-year-old chased the escaped dogs across a very busy street, unaccompanied, but that’s a story for another day.
In the process of repairing the spring on the gate, my friend broke his screwdriver. The one that he inherited from his dad. No big deal, it’s part of a set and he has several others the same size. But he was upset–really upset–because along with the screwdriver, he felt like he lost a piece of his dad.
His rational brain knows that the screwdriver isn’t indicative of his dad’s presence or absence. His intellect knows that having the screwdriver doesn’t mean that he still has his dad, or that by not having the screwdriver he no longer has a hold on his dad’s memory. But his irrational side mourned the screwdriver. His emotional brain felt that he’d lost another part of his dad. As the wise poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest know nothing.”
I’m very familiar with the destroying of intellect in times of grief, and I know just how my friend feels. After my mom died, I hung on to all kinds of her stuff: cookbooks, costume jewelry, unfinished embroidery projects, even her ratty old college sweatshirt. My dad has the more personal items — her glasses, her wedding ring, her driver’s license. I desperately wanted a piece of her, any piece, to remain, so I clung to her things in hopes of finding pieces of her.
Guess what? It doesn’t work. The desperation, the clinging, the hoping against hope are all for naught. Once the person you loved with your whole heart is gone, snatched away too soon by illness, there is no holding on to them. I’ve learned this slowly and painfully in the almost seven years that my mom has been dead. Her stuff is just that — stuff. It’s not her. She’s gone and that’s the brutal finality of experiencing the death of a loved one.
I’ve written before about how grief sneaks up on us, and can buckle our knees out of nowhere, even after years have passed. I know that this is what happened to my friend the other day: he was going about his business, engaged in a simple task that took little effort and yet would yield great satisfaction when done. The sun was shining, the workday was done, and a cold beer accompanied him as he unscrewed the rusty, spent screws from my gate. But once the screwdriver broke, so did the dam that most days holds back the torrent of sadness that is life without his dad. How many times has he said he wished his dad were here to help him with a DIY project, or to admire his handiwork upon a project’s completion? Too many times to count. And in the midst of an ordinary task being done on an ordinary day, the torrent rushed through.
“It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.” ~Colette
I’ll probably get in trouble for this. Or at least be on the receiving end of a cacophony of “You shouldn’t have done that” and “Did you have to?” and “That really wasn’t necessary.” But that’s ok; I rather like living my life on the edge. I’ve been known to stir the pot, to not let sleeping dogs lie, and to eschew the leaving of well enough alone.
So here I go.
He’s going to hate it.
See, Ed is not one for calling a lot of attention to himself. Or any attention, really. But sometimes, like ripping off a Band-Aid, it’s gotta be done.
Ed’s been our best family friend for a long, long time. In fact, it’s been so long, he’s dropped the “friend” and moved right on into “family.” Sometimes family has nothing to do with blood and genes and trees, and everything to do with the contents of one’s hearts and the meshing of like-minded souls. Assuming souls have minds, that is. I don’t think they operate on auto-pilot, do they?
I met Ed while toiling away in the publishing biz many moons ago in Austin. He and Trevor were in grad school at UT (Hook ‘Em!) at the same time, but we didn’t know each other during school; he was reading thick, musty books in the history department while Trevor built up his brain and hung with the geek squad in the computer science world. I hate to think of the years we wasted not knowing each other during that time, but our livers certainly breathe a sigh of relief. There was a fair bit of drinking going on in those days (as opposed to now, when kids’ schedules, middle age, and the threat of recurring cancer tempers my tippling). We did make up for some lost time, though, once we met; happy hours at Trudy’s with multiple Mexican Martinis and extra olives, watermelon margaritas at Maneul’s on South Congress, beers on the roof deck at Waterloo Ice House; and the infamous wine tasting club run by our resident oenophile Anthony King. I hope I never forget the carefree youthful nights spent lifting a glass, enjoying our youth & freedom. None of us will ever forget Trevor puking in the rose bushes at one of the Hess brothers’ houses, then coming back for more. Good times.
But back to work…Ed wrote and I edited. His hair was long back then (mine was too), and he labored over every word, every sentence, every TEKS standard (see how far we go back — long before the TAKS and now the STAR state standardized tests for public schools). I learned real quick that he was smart. Really smart. And he really cared about his work. He had such a high standard for himself that sometimes, just once in a while and not really very often (!), he made me wait for his work. I really don’t like waiting.
See, there was a progression to creation of a textbook, and we were both cogs in the wheel. Schedules were made, which we had to follow. Deadlines were enforced, because if our book wasn’t ready to go to print–back in the day before e-books and widespread Internet use — another publisher would get our spot and the book would be delayed. And we would all be fired. So I learned pretty quick with Ed that some tough love was necessary. I schooled him in the “good enough is good enough” principle that editors must embrace in order to keep the line moving. Oh, how that boy labored over every word, every sentence, every standard. There were days when I was a hair’s breath away from snatching the copy right out of his hands so that I could get my red pen all over it and keep the line moving.
It’s probably no surprise that Ed left publishing and took a rather circuitous route to teaching. A heart-wrenching detour to care for an ailing parent, work for an educational non-profit that trained teachers, a foray into self-employment in the handyman biz, a little time off to determine the color of his parachute (tricky when you’re a little bit color-blind), and finally, he was home.
Ed has a job that not many people would take on: he teaches kids who’ve been sent to the alternative school. Reasons for being sent there vary from fighting to drug use to crimes both petty and serious. The classes are small in number but large in ramifications. Several years ago, when Ed was contemplating whether to enter the teaching profession, I told him that he would be the kind of teacher who made a difference in kids’ lives. It sounds hokey but it’s true: he’s the sort of teacher who kids will remember always, and they’ll look back and say, “Man, Mr C really cared.” It’s true, and he does. He guides kids that a lot of people would cast aside as lost causes. He listens and becomes the sole person who cares. It’s no surprise to me that kids who pass through his class come back to visit, bring him a homemade Christmas treat, and mail him an invitation to their graduation ceremonies.
Those kids are not the only people who benefit from Ed’s unique brand of caring. After enduring the rigors and heartache of watching his dad die of pancreatic cancer, he became my sherpa when my mom got sick. I’ll always remember him telling me that if I thought it was bad now, it was gonna get worse. A lot worse. He was right. It was awful.
My mom knew Ed well, and when she moved in with me after retiring and moving away from Houston, it was Ed — not me — who she wanted as her caregiver for the icky parts of her cancer battle. She wanted him to sit through the class at MD Anderson on how to care for a PICC line, not me. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was trying to shield me from the routine horrors that make up a cancer patient’s life. When she was too frail and weak to step into my deep bathtub, it was Ed she asked for help. She would rather have had him see her in that state, to spare me from the eternal impression of being able to count each rib in her battle-weary, wasted body. It was Ed who she requested, not me. He made many food runs in the maddening game of “What can we get her to eat?” only to see her take 2 bites and be done. So much for that. But he never got frustrated, he never pressured her to eat. It was Ed who bore the brunt of the fallout from her radiated bowels. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
It takes a special kind of person to volunteer for such service, but that’s just the kind of person he is. My mom knew it, and so do I. Ed’s the kind of guy who sets up the ladder and willingly allows grafitti in his garage. No project is too big, no mess too messy.
He’s the kind of guy who gives a little kid his watch to wear while patience runs short and naptime runs on by during sight-seeing in DC. He knows how to make a little kid feel like the most important person in the world.
He digs the deepest sand-pit every year at Salisbury Beach every year, even when he’d rather be reading his book, and waves off the old-man critics who pass by and warn of the pit’s collapse and threat of said pit swallowing little kids whole. He knows what he’s doing.
He knew Maddy, the best dog on Earth. Ever. In the history of dogs. He loved her with his whole heart, and finally gave in to my years-long pestering that he needed a dog of his own. Not once, but twice. And he let my kids name both dogs. Hence, a female chocolate lab named Snoopy, and a wily basenji-mix named Sugar.
We have Ed to thank for the Red Sox fever that exists in our lives. A native Mass-hole, Ed is a Sox fan for life, and he taught Payton the joys and heartbreak that is Red Sox nation. When Payton was four years old, at his first trip to Fenway, Ed showed his devious side when he made Pay think that Nomar Garciaparra hit a foul ball right into Payton’s lap. Eight years later, I think Pay still believes it really happened.
When Macy came along, a new bond was forged, and the strength of that bond sometimes startles and always amazes me. Mrs Dally, Macy’s first-grade teacher, told me in confidence one day that I might want to be careful because Macy told the class, during an exercise about friends, that her best friend is a 42-year-old man. In the case of anyone but Ed, this might raise a few eyebrows. But spend two minutes with him and you get it. In third grade, Macy filled out the “getting to know you” questionnaire from the teacher on the first day of school. For the question about her best friend’s favorite activity, Macy wrote: landscaping. Those two are tight.