The Memorial

I was having a difficult time.

I was standing in my newly purchased navy blue suit, my hair coiffed and my feet in heels.  I could hardly see my own reflection staring back at me in the funeral home bathroom mirror.   My mind was turned inward, and spinning.  I wondered how long it would be alright for me to hide out in here before I had to go back out and face the guests as they arrived.

I had to get through this.  My sister was better at this sort of thing.  She was the one who had manned the phones throughout my mother’s illness.  She liked to be the ambassador, the news giver, the point of contact.  Me, I was better with the work behind the scenes, taking care of things, keeping things humming along.  I knew I was going to have a hard time today comforting others when I felt that my grief was so much greater than theirs.  My twenty two year old self was not ready for being everyone else’s rock right now.  But I knew I would have to today.  Today wasn’t about me.  I would be able to grieve my mother every day as I lived in our home, as I disposed of her clothes and belongings.  Today was for everyone else, and I needed to push my own grief down enough to allow everyone else theirs.

I walked out of the bathroom and back into our designated room.  I tried hard to not cry when I saw the single vase of regal calla lilies just in front of the podium,  just as my mother had asked for.  Over in the corner was the poster board we’d made of photos of my mother, placed carefully on an easel.  My sister had added her framed photograph of my mother from her wedding.   I could almost hear my mother singing “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus” in the back of my head; the thought of it made me smile and laugh for a moment.

The service went quickly, according to the protocol we’d decided upon with my mother just a few weeks before.  One by one, as each person spoke, as each item was fulfilled, it was as if I could feel my mother there with us, even though she was gone.  The social worker was right; it was a nice feeling to know that my mother’s wishes were being played out just exactly as she’d asked them to be.

On the one hand, I felt wonderful that so many had turned out for my mother.  She would have been stunned to hear the words that people used to describe her:  strong, hard working, courageous, inspirational, a woman of conviction; I knew that in her dark moments, those words would have been so helpful to have heard.  On the other hand, I wished more of the people here that day had been visitors and told my mother those things in person while she was still alive.  I couldn’t even count how many times early on in her illness that my mother had told me how alone she felt and how much better off the world would have been if she’d died on the table.

By the end of the service, when my sister got up and thanked everyone for coming, I could feel my emotions raw and too close to the surface.  I had held them so tightly in check during the entire service, offering a hug or a squeeze to everyone I saw struggling.  They needed to share their grief with me, and I took it off of their shoulders as I had done for my mother, because that was what they needed.  But as the crowd dispersed, and they headed over to the restaurant where we would toast my mother, just as she’d asked for, I could feel everything rise up and bubble just below the surface.

I sat down dumbly in the empty folding chair next to me and put my head in my hands.  I knew I shouldn’t break down now.  There were still people shaking my sister’s hands, my father and grandmother were quietly in the back of the room getting Zachary’s winter coat on before taking the short drive down the street to the restaurant.  I should wait until later, until I was at home alone.

I tried hard to breathe, coaching myself  in my head in the same, stern voice I’d used with my mother in her final hours:  “Focus, focus, focus.  You can do this.   Think of nothing but your breath, going in and out.  In…slowly…and out.”    But it wasn’t working.  The more I coached myself, the more it reminded me of my mother, and the more I could feel myself wilt.  She was really gone.

I felt a presence next to me, and an arm around my shoulders, gathering me in.   It was Dennis, my former high school teacher.  His arms were warm and safe, and suddenly the terrible abandonment I felt was momentarily pushed away.

“It’s OK,” he said.  “You can let it out now.  Nearly everyone is gone.”

I leaned in and let the storm come.


Not Prepared for This

The surgery was taking forever.  What did that mean?

We’d spent all late morning and afternoon in the surgical waiting room.  The gravity of the situation was clear by the crowd assembled this time.  My sister and I started the vigil, but people came and went to sit with us as the hours passed.  My brother joined us midday.My friend Karen came for a few hours, some of my mother’s girlfriends came and went, and my sister’s husband was there.  We watched the same scenario play out all day long:  family members would be sitting in small groups,whispering or talking or watching the endless supply of daytime television until a doctor would come to the room and speak a patient’s name out loud.  Then the doctor would stride over to the group that made themselves known and deliver the news that the surgery was over, that it went as expected, that the patient was in the recovery room now, and it would be minutes/hours before they could see their loved one.

Finally, in the early evening, my mother’s surgeon appeared at the door.  He didn’t speak her name to the room because there were only two families left; he recognized my sister and I.  We stood up and went to the doorway.  Instead of delivering the mantra we’d heard all day, he said,  “You should step in the hallway with me.”

Somewhere in the back of my head, alarm bells started ringing.

We formed a semi circle around the doctor as he started to speak, looking at my sister, brother and I.

“Your mother is very ill,” he began.  Or did he say “Your mother is very sick.”  I can’t remember which one.  My head started swimming at that point.  Either way, the message was clear.

“We opened up your mother’s chest and went into the area of concern on the x rays.  Unfortunately, what we found in her left lung was a very large tumor and a few smaller ones.   We took a sample and sent it down to pathology.”

I could see my sister’s face burn bright pink and tears were already streaming down her face.  No one moved, or said anything.  The doctor continued.

“Pathology confirmed that the tumor was malignant.  Your mother has stage 3B carcinoma of the lung.”

The air was punctuated by the sound of all of us sucking in air, gasping.

“I’m sorry,” said my mother’s friend, Ruth.  “But what does that mean for her prognosis?  How much of it did you remove?”

The doctor slowly shook his head.  “Unfortunately with a tumor this size, we cannot remove any of it without severely compromising her ability to breathe.  The tumor is inoperable.  We will have to shrink it with chemotherapy and radiation in order to remove it later.”

Again, silence.

“We also took samples of her lymph node tissue to see if the cancer had spread there.  We found that two of them had evidence of cancer cells, but the rest of them were clean.  That is good news; that means that the cancer likely has not spread yet beyond the lungs.”

Good news, indeed.

“I am so sorry I could not give you better news today.  An oncologist will be in to see your mother tomorrow to start discussing treatment options.”

“How long before we can see her?” I asked.

“Oh, she won’t really be up for seeing anyone tonight,” said the doctor.  She will likely sleep for hours still, and then need a great deal of rest over the coming days.”

“I’d like to see her, still, even if she isn’t awake,” I insisted, but I could hear the quiver in my voice.

“It’ll be a while.  They need to monitor her post op vitals for a while and then get her set up in her room.  She will look very different to you; you’ll want to prepare yourself.   But if you want to see her in a few hours, you can.”

The doctor shook our hands, again expressed his regret to us, and quietly left us, still in our semicircle in the artificially bright hallway.

I wasn’t crying.  My sister was bawling uncontrollably, her husband was holding her up.  My mother’s friend Ruth was red eyed too, though she wasn’t sobbing.  I looked at my brother and shook my head slowly.  He was bright red, his face angry with emotion that he was too afraid to express.  But me?  I couldn’t cry, or get angry, or do anything but stand there still, in disbelief.  This couldn’t be happening.  But I knew it was.  Every thing seemed surreal; my head was empty.  Suddenly, one lone thought crept in.

I remember thinking at that moment:  “My life has changed forever on March 25, 1992.”

First Birthday

The summer of 1990 passed quickly after that.  I spent my summer days going to classes at the university, fulfilling a full time schedule during those warm months that would enable me to start my first stint of student teaching in the winter term.  Wayne State asked its students to fulfill three semesters of student teaching experiences; one urban, one suburban (both half time) and then one full time teaching experience at a district of the student’s choosing.

On my off nights and weekends I would take Zachary to the park or swimming. I spent hours with my sister helping her choose maternity clothes for her first pregnancy.  She likely balked at relying on her six years younger sister for help, but it was something we could share together, and so we did.  She wasn’t working anymore, so she had lots of free time when I was available.  Sometimes I could go over a girlfriend’s house after Zachary was in bed and my mother was home from work.  It was a busy, but quiet time. I tried to accept that this was now reality, that my current situation was of my choosing and not going to change, and to make the best of it.

Zachary for his part, had grown into a wonderfully easy baby who would go out to dinner with us for hours (as long as we supplied him with saltine crackers), smile when read “The Very Hungry Catepillar”, laugh at the constant tickles we supplied him with, and amuse himself when I needed to study.  As much as I could be, I was content as we approached the end of his first year.

We had two parties for Zachary that year; the first was at our tiny townhouse, and consisted of just close family, on the actual day of Zach’s birthday.  I laughed to myself that I must be the only single mother anywhere that had so many people wanting to help celebrate her kid’s birthday that she had to hold two parties.

We held the second at Major Magic’s Pizza Palace, one of those awful Chuck E. Cheese style pizza places where kids played games with tokens and germs multiply like salmonella in the summer heat.  My father made a birthday cake with a huge “1” on it.  My brother was home from the Navy.  My sister’s friends with babies brought their kids.  Dawn came with an eight month belly under a maternity top.  My mother smiled as much as I’d ever seen her.  We were all very celebratory; this may not have been the path we’d all thought I would be on two years ago, but everything was going as well as it could be, considering.

Zach reached out to his piece of cake that day, tentatively, as if he wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I had to put a small bit of it on his hand to assure him that it was OK to reach in and make a mess.  Once he understood what was available to him, though, he dove right in and gleefully smiled at me.

Yes, little one.  New things are scary sometimes, and it’s good to be careful.  But after you’ve tested the waters and found them appealing, there’s nothing wrong with riding the waves without any hesitation.

Visiting Hours

He looks like him.

That was the first thing I thought of when I looked at my son.  He had Joe’s coloring, his hair color.  His eyes were dark, dark blue, which everyone told me meant his eyes would turn brown within the first year of life.  Everything about him, including his sex, was more Joe than me.  The only thing I felt I could definitively say was that he had my nose.  Joe’s nose was a long, pointed, ski slope of a nose; even before we’d broken up I’d joked with him that I hoped the baby got my nose.  The tiny, rounded snub on my son’s face was the only thing that I found of my own DNA in him.

One by one, all of my friends came to visit us in the hospital.  My friend Karen, who’d been there with me since the beginning.  My college dorm roommate Lori came.  Dean, who’d helped organize the baby shower for my friends, came.  My sister’s friend B, pregnant with a baby of her own and married now, came.  Ana, another of my sister’s friends, also married, came.  Randy, another of Joe’s good friends and part of our group in high school, came.  Mike, another friend of Joe’s who lived near me in our townhome development, came.  My friends Dawn and Lauri couldn’t make it; Dawn was away at school at Michigan State, and Lauri was in the Air Force in basic training.  My mother, my father, my sister, they all came and snapped photos.  My mother’s friend Marilyn, who we always spent holidays with, came.  My room was a constant hub of activity during visiting hours.

Everyone came, but one.

Joe never came.  I asked his friends if he knew that Zachary was here, that the birth had happened.  They told me that they’d told him, but that he wasn’t coming.  I thought, well, maybe it would be intimidating to be around all of my family and friends, most of whom were taking a very dark view of the fact that Joe hadn’t come around during the rest of my pregnancy. Maybe he’d call, I thought, and made sure all of Joe’s friends had the number to my hospital room.

But it didn’t matter.  He didn’t come, and he didn’t call. After all this time, all of how I thought it would go, all of the dreams I’d had where all of the anger, and fear, and cross words and stupid decisions would just melt away once the news of the baby came.  That after everything, our love would rise up in his head and remind him who we both really were, and what we’d meant to each other, and that the proof of that was right here, right now, in the perfectly healthy, robust baby boy that everyone oohed and ahhed over.

I held my baby boy close.  “We’re a team, you and I,” I told him.  “We’ll get through this, together.”

He nuzzled softly into my chest and breathed in and out.  If I said it, I’d believe it.

Scary Thoughts

I tried to run away that spring.

I was tired, and angry. It happened one cold Saturday afternoon when my mother was expecting her friend Janice and her baby Matthew for an afternoon of talking and eating and baby time. Dawn was still staying with us. My sister’s friend was still staying with us. My father hadn’t called in weeks and weeks.

I was negative self talking all of the time. I couldn’t appreciate any of the good going on for me and focused only on the bad. I’d lost a writing contest that spring. I was doing well in school but others were doing even better. I wasn’t sitting in the highest place in the flute section. I hadn’t any other boyfriends since I broke up with Jeff. The boy I’d had a crush on all spring was dating some girl who got to sit in the front seat of his car on the days he drove us all home. The teacher I had a crush on was barely noticing me. Rick Springfield never wrote back. I was never going to meet him. I wasn’t losing weight. I was fighting with my friend Dawn.

Looking back on it all now, I was aching for more time and attention from an adult in my life. Someone. Anyone to tell me that I was good enough, smart enough and pretty enough. In the absence of that, I felt that all of the opposites must be true. I waited for someone to notice my unhappiness, like they’d noticed with my brother. But no one did.

So one chilly afternoon, I put together a backpack and disappeared. I was fifteen. I had no idea where I was going to go, or what I was going to do. No one came after me. No one even noticed that I was gone.

After about three hours in the cold, I felt even worse. Stupid. Cold. Numb. Obviously I was going to go home and get in my twin bed that night with the rainbow comforter and sheets and get up again the next morning. But for the first time, and definitely not the last time, I thought about how much easier it would be to stop getting up the next morning.

Never Surrender

It was a strange spring. B had had her baby, and her parents now knew that she’d given her up for adoption. She decided to try and spend more time at home to repair the rift between her and her parents. My great uncle had died, leaving us all shocked and sad and wondering what would become of our tightly knit extended family three hours away. My aunt was talking of moving away, which would mean the virtual end of the clan to the northwest.

After much careful thought and consultation with our new family therapist, Paul, my mother decided to send me to Grand Rapids for a month in the summer to spend time with my newly widowed great aunt. My brother had been sent away for a chunk of time last summer and that had seemed to work well in keeping us apart and his anger directed at other avenues than myself. But this summer was my brother’s chance to take Driver’s Ed for free through the school system, and it consisted of weeks of classes. My mother didn’t want to have to pay for a private driver’s ed program. As it was, he was already nearly a year late in taking the training.

And my aunt needed me. She was all alone in the great house she’d shared with my uncle and she was horribly sad and depressed. I couldn’t imagine my sweet great aunt depressed; she was always the sunny light of any family gathering, bustling in the kitchen making food and making sure everything ran smoothly. But she was. My uncle had meant everything to her. She wasn’t even sleeping in their bedroom. Everyone was worried about her, so when my mother asked if I’d be willing to go spend a month with her, it didn’t take too much convincing. I loved the idea of spending time with her and trying to give back something to the woman who had given so much to my mother and our family.

I never saw how depressed my aunt was, at all. She was of the generation that kept up appearances. My presence in the house forced her to wake up every morning and put a smile on her face. Or least keep it tear free. She took me for walks, she took me to movies, she taught me how to make pie crust, she showed me the beautiful plants in her garden. I helped her clean the house and get it ready to be put on the market to sell. I heard as she made her plans; she would leave Michigan and spend part of the year with her daughter in Virginia and part of the year with her son in California.

It was a month that changed the way I looked at the world.

Baby A for B

I was in the lobby of the hospital waiting for clearance to go upstairs and visit B and the baby.

She’d had a baby girl early in the morning. I looked at her through the glass window for a few minutes before my mother decided we both had to go home, get a few hours of sleep and pretend we weren’t insanely aware of the decision that B was about to make. She would go to work, I’d go to school, and after I got home my sister was going to bring me back to visit B and the baby.

The father had been there the whole time, helping B through her labor. I wondered what that meant. Was she going to live with him and raise the baby? He was older than her, and lived on his own in an apartment.

My mother encouraged B to tell her parents, and apparently at some point that day, B called home and told them the news. That she at age 19 had just concealed a full term pregnancy from them. That the real reason she’d dropped out of school was the pregnancy and that she’d been living at our house in an attempt for them to never know. She’d been scared of their reaction and afraid and worried about the father and so she’d kept it all from them.

Apparently they reacted with love and compassion and were now fully aware of everything.

Which also begged the question, what would she do?

I finally was brought up to her room. She was alone. She looked the same, her belly still not very noticeable under the covers and loose hospital gown. She told me she’d named the baby girl, and how the girl looked like both her and the father. She’d ordered the baby pictures, even though she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She had a few days, until she left the hospital, before she was going to decide.

She looked peaceful. Happy, even. She loved the baby, and after we talked a while, the baby was brought to her to feed. I was surprised; I thought with a possible adoption they would not let her see the baby. She told me that things were more open now, and that it was all up to her on how much she thought she could handle. Apparently, she’d taken what my mother had said about her own experience, and clearly was relishing every minute she had with her little girl.

I looked at the sweet, tiny bundle in B’s arms and ached. I knew it was the wrong thing altogether, but the baby…she was amazing. I wanted her to bring that baby to our house, and I wanted her to let us all help her raise it.

Two days later, B left the hospital, alone. She decided that with the relationship between her and her own parents not being ideal, her and the baby’s father being ideal, and her own age and inexperience were just not the best things for the baby. Not when Catholic Chariities had a couple that had all of the things that qualified people to be great parents waiting in the wings.

I couldn’t imagine how she was ever going to fill the hole that that tiny little baby left.

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