Ten years ago today I lost my mother to cancer. While I haven't published anything for quite some time, I've been writing again. This one is for her.
Each night, after days filled with wiffle ball, sticker books, spying, and MTV, I regaled my mother with the countless ways she and my dad might die. Cancer. Heart attack. Car accident. Murder. Stroke. Quicksand. Drowning. Stairs. My mother, an ambassador of both anxiety and humor, perched herself on my bed. “Don’t forget electrocution,” she might add, followed by “good night” and “I love you more.”
Christmas season wasn’t complete without a viewing of Gremlins, my mother howling as Phoebe Cates’ character told the story of losing her dad on Christmas Eve, breaking his neck within the walls of their chimney dressed as Santa Claus. “Where’s dad? What’s that smell?” she and her mother wondered, discovering in a single moment that her father was dead and Santa wasn’t real. It was hard to imagine anything worse.
In the late evenings my mother set up shop at the kitchen table, curling her hair and smoking cigarettes. Her technique was a mashup of traditional pink rollers and a procedure possibly of her own invention - pulling a section of hair very tightly, spraying it with water first. then hair spray, finally twisting and matting it to her scalp in a tight coil, securing it with a handful of bobby pins. To complete this act of torture, she’d wake before dawn to painstakingly reveal the results, a blonde triumph of symmetry, a perfect middle part with two inverted volutes resting just above her shoulders.
Once a year, until I was old enough to physically resist, I also endured this ritual. Every picture day I transformed from the pitcher for The Bad News Bears into a miniature Barbara Walters, camera ready and looking for answers.
It wasn’t uncommon for her to surprise me at school with warm fried chicken that we devoured in her car while the rest of my class roamed the playground. If I sighed with just enough melancholy, she’d run inside to grab my things, informing my teacher I was done for the day. Saved from an afternoon of dodgeball and math, we took refuge in her bed, reading books and eating chocolate ice cream cones.
Decades later, when it was discovered that an increasingly painful area in her abdomen wasn’t the gallbladder infection I so hoped it would be, we returned to her bed, ice-cream cones in hand. Even my boyfriend of two years, Tyson, couldn’t resist. Like her, he grew up in Connecticut, just minutes from her hometown, and they spent hours discussing their shared yet different history as he pulled up map after map on his smartphone, an invention still new enough to impress. In great detail he shared his favorite ponds and rivers for canoeing, and she told of how some of those very bodies of water flooded her town as a teenager, a story I had heard with every visit to our grandmother’s house.
Those maps represented another uncertainty. Tyson, an avid outdoorsmen, had crafted a life that afforded him eight weeks every year to guide canoe trips for a summer camp, that year’s being the pinnacle journey after a decade of expeditions. My mother’s official diagnosis, stage four colon cancer, came in April with her final hospitalization surprising us all in May. As he agonized over his plans, his mother clarified the situation for him in a way that only a mother can. “If you stay it’s unlikely you will regret it. If you leave, you probably will.”
I shared his decision to stay with my mother. “Oh thank god! You are going to be ok,” she cried, one less box to check. She died just weeks later, on the day he was originally scheduled to leave for Canada.
Instead of navigating the rivers of Ontario, Tyson spent that summer trying to convert unsuspecting moviegoers and farmers market shoppers into wind energy consumers. On weekends I'd watch from a bench just a few feet away, too grief stricken to be alone, always mesmerized by his ability to win people over. Not just anyone convinces a stranger to hand over their social security number before the 8pm showing of Inception.
We were engaged that Christmas, and spring returned with another ticking time bomb. Five months before my wedding, my father’s heart stopped, bringing him within an inch of his life, a status he maintained until his actual death nine months later. He was unable to attend our wedding and I was unsure how to address their not quite equal absences. I turned to google.
“Some people put an empty chair with a rose on it right in front at the ceremony to symbolize ‘those we are missing’. We could have one chair with a rose, and then one with a half-dead rose for my dad,” I told Tyson, causing him to nearly choke on his food with laughter, a reaction that only made me love him more.
My father watched the ceremony via skype. When it was over we took a moment to speak with him directly, Tyson supporting me at the waist. Dinner, fried chicken, was being served at our sweetheart table, and as we said our goodbyes my father held up a sign he had made with the help of his nurses. “Love You More” it read, and with that, my husband and I began our first dance.