Another long-distance phone call and the miles between my mother and me fall away. With the phone wedged between her shoulder and her ear, she is rescuing sheets from the clothes-line just before another downpour. Next will come a bit of ironing and then the folding, a precise ritual, my father her partner in a dance handed down from one generation to the next.
This transports me back to the kitchen of my childhood home. There’s ma, leaning over the ironing board, smoothing out with hot steam the wrinkles in my father’s shirts, pausing – for dramatic effect – to remind me to consider the lilies, to “mark her words” that there will be plenty of time for work and plenty of fish in the sea. Implicit in her explicit admonishment not to wish my life away, was the fact that she was not wishing my life away. Mostly, she struck an artful balance between shielding me from the world while empowering me to find the voice to explore its realities – but not all the time. Especially not when I was in the throes of adolescent boredom, my eyes rolling to the heavens in response to the kind of home-spun wisdom I long for these days.
“Daughter dear, the world is your oyster,” she would tell me, and perhaps to charm me out of my ennui, she’d add, “sure you have the heart of a lion.” Non-plussed, I dismissed her as someone who had no life before I came along, someone who could never have been a hopeful teenager or somebody’s BFF or the one with the great sense of style. But my mother was all of these . . .
She is far away, in the place that made her, South Derry, the distance between there and where I sit in the Arizona desert, stretched taut on milestone moments like her upcoming 78th birthday. A phone call or a visit on Facebook will help close the distance between us, me falling easily into the comforting colloquialisms of home, but it will not be the same as dancing with her.
My daughter learned that same dance not by the ironing board in my mother’s kitchen, but on the sandy edges of California before the fog rolled in on an August evening.
Facing each other, a blue blanket stretched between us, she stepped towards me, intent on matching her corners to mine, my edge to hers. In the middle we met to make the final fold, while unbeknownst to us, her father took our pictures and wrote our names in the sand, knowing the tide would wash them away. Forever.
“The cool that came off the sheets just off the line Made me think the damp must still be in them But when I took my corners of the linen And pulled against her, first straight down the hem And then diagonally, then flapped and shook The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind, They made a dried-out undulating thwack. So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand For a split second as if nothing had happened For nothing had that had not always happened Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go, Coming close again by holding back In moves where I was x and she was o Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.”
Laurie Anderson tells this story about the day she married her best friend, Lou Reed:
It was spring in 2008 when I was walking down a road in California feeling sorry for myself and talking on my cell with Lou. “There are so many things I’ve never done that I wanted to do,” I said.
“You know, I never learned German, I never studied physics, I never got married.”
“Why don’t we get married?” he asked. “I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll come to Colorado. How about tomorrow?”
“Um – don’t you think tomorrow is too soon?”
“No, I don’t.”
And so the next day, we met in Boulder, Colorado, and got married in a friend’s backyard on a Saturday, wearing our old Saturday clothes, and when I had to do a show right after the ceremony, it was OK with Lou.”
Like many couples, we each constructed ways to be – strategies, and sometimes compromises, that would enable us to be part of a pair. Sometimes we lost a bit more than we were able to give, or gave up way too much, or felt abandoned. Sometimes we got really angry. But even when I was mad, I was never bored. We learned to forgive each other. And somehow, for 21 years, we tangled our minds and hearts together.
The day Ken married me was like any other. We were not really watching TV when I suggested it. “OK,” he said, and he put on his boots and waited for me to put on a dress I knew he liked.
I dug out the yellow pages and found a wedding chapel in an old west Phoenix neighborhood. The preacher reminded me of the old man at the bar in Field of Dreams, the one with the pale blue eyes who tells the story of Moonlight Graham and all the blue hats he never got around to giving his wife, Alicia. Like me, Alicia liked to wear blue.
In our everyday clothes and without a ring, we asked a stranger to officially witness our wedding ceremony. Then we vowed to each other that we would stay together in sickness and health, ’til death us do part. A second time around for both of us, we were unwilling to settle for anything less than the kind of love that makes you leave one life with nothing but whatever you’re wearing that day. It was easy to say and to mean to say that only death would tear us apart. Madly in love, we had no reason to suspect that cancer (mine) or aneurysms (his) would move in and turn things upside down more than once and make us resent our bodies and ourselves. Oblivious to any possibility of dark days ahead, we filled up an ordinary November morning with a time-honored stream of extraordinary promises. We couldn’t stop smiling, and we didn’t tell a soul. Young and wild, we may as well have eloped to Gretna Green, and with our secret, we even went to work afterwards, delighting in the fact that no one else knew what we had done. Like so many of the rituals we performed every day, the act of marrying was as casual as it was important. Without fanfare or hoopla, it was ours – completely ours. Private.
For a long time, we were answerable only to each other and did as we wished without having to worry much about anyone else. There were random road trips north and to the ocean, the first of which on a hot Friday afternoon when I was desperate to smell the sea. He just told me to get in the car, and off we went to California. No map. No GPS. No bottles of water. No phone. No specific destination other than “ocean.” By nightfall, we were inhaling the salty air somewhere around Los Angeles and the next evening, we were strolling along a pier in Pismo Beach. As though putting America’s never-ending road to the test, I asked him to keep driving until we stopped by a lighthouse, the kind of place I had always thought would make a great home for us. There, we balanced a camera on the hood of his car, set the self-timer, and took a picture of ourselves, windswept, laughing, and clinging to each other, completely unaware that a decade later, we would stand again on that very same spot on the road to Monterey, smiling for a picture that would be taken by the only child we would have together – our daughter. Then, for another decade, San Luis Obispo County – Morro Bay – would be our family’s vacation spot.
Between us, for over two decades, we created hundreds of rituals and routines – lovely and easy labors of love that came naturally, in large part because – as my mother still reminds me – I could set my watch by Ken. I always knew where he was, what he was doing, how much he loved me, how much I exasperated him, how proud he was of accomplishments in my professional life and how much he despised the bullshit I brought into our home from that same profession. He told me he loved me every single day and at the end of every single phone call (even on days and at the end of phone calls when I was anything but lovable). Always in my corner, he was my number one fan, my lover, and the wise and best friend who told the young me whose feelings were too easily hurt and who cared too much about what other people thought, that she needed to grow some “hard bark,” because she would need it one day.
Well, Ken, I need it today. I know you didn’t want me to harden; you just wanted me to toughen up. But where do we find the toughness to fully absorb the blow of your death, the finality of it? What should I say to our daughter when the grief – boundless and unforgiving – renders her as vulnerable as a new-born? What do I tell myself when I look up and find myself surprised – still – that you are not there with another mug of coffee or a glass of wine asking me what I’m blogging about, and wondering aloud – with a wry and worried smile – if the woman I once was would be coming back any time soon, and when she did, would she remember the man you used to be? In hindsight, I know we both had an inkling that maybe she would not. So maybe I should just tell the truth – if only to myself.
Each of us wrestled with the ways in which illness changed us, forcing us at the most inconvenient of times to confront our mortality, and turning us into very good liars and strangers who fought dirty. We lied, I suppose, for self-preservation and out of fear, out of indignation or anger about our respective lots, out of denial and blame, and all the other words that belong in all the self-help books we would never read, all the “psycho-babble.” Our marriage had not been perfect, but it had until then been honest. Always. Honesty was one of those non-negotiables that somehow – unbelievably – was blown asunder by illness and our fucked up responses to it. We found ourselves diminished, transformed into weaker versions of ourselves that were unacceptable to us in light of the boldness that defined us at the beginning and for so many years. Ashamed of ourselves, we didn’t know what to do, and we turned our backs on the people we used to be.
And we used to be bold. We started out with courage and a chemistry that we were convinced would more than make up for the little we lacked in compatibility. We argued about little things but rarely about the big stuff, and – this is important – we never lied. We fell into a rhythm that included laughing every day and sometimes at the same old stories including the one about the first argument we ever had. It went something like this:
Are you sure?
So what are you thinking about?
Well, it must be something. I can tell. It’s something. Did I do something wrong? Is it about me? (I mean, isn’t it always about me?) Can you at least tell me what it begins with? Just the first letter? Does it begin with a “Y”?
No baby. Just private thoughts. Private thoughts, baby.
Ken knew this response would fall short of satisfying someone like me, someone hell-bent – hell-bent – on knowing the inner details, the finer points, the “but how are you really feeling?” liner notes, but he never told me, and growing up and older by his side, I figured out that we all have private thoughts, secrets never to be told, things that stay deep within us, desires, differences that will not be aired – private thoughts.
Maybe most people wouldn’t admit it aloud, but Ken did. I remember how he made that first argument in the same way he once told a cashier at Pep Boys – after paying in cash for new windshield wipers – that no, she could not have his address. Not that he was a conspiracy theorist, he just resented the notion of his name and address being placed on a list that would perhaps be sold to someone who would profit from it. When he detected her annoyance because he was not cooperating the way a good customer should, Ken looked at her, deadpan, and with a twinkle in his eye, he beckoned her closer so he could whisper to her: “I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you where I live, man. The cops are after me.” And, I had to put on my sunglasses and walk out of the store because I was laughing so hard.
That’s how it was, except when it wasn’t. There were times when he would insist I had lost my sense of humor, and I would argue that – au contraire – he had lost his ability to be funny. Like storms in the tiniest of teacups, these often passed, and as I sit here, three years after his death, I realize there were no boring days, no days that did not shimmer for at least a moment with what had connected us at the beginning. The wall we had built did its job for just as long as was required.
Having worked in schools for thirty years, it is not uncommon for me to encounter former students, all grown-up, some of them married with careers and children. Surreal to find myself standing shoulder to shoulder with these adults who, just a twinkling ago, were scribbling in composition books about who they might become. They are often incredulous to discover I am now the mother of a daughter who is older than they were when they sat in my classroom. Equally perturbed by this scenario and its implications is my daughter. It amuses me to watch my students confront the truth that I had a life outside the classroom, and my daughter face the fact that once upon a time I was not her mother and other people’s children took up most of my time and even considered me cool with great taste in clothes and music.
And, before that, there was another time when I was as young as she, bored and adolescent, rolling my eyes as my mother told me from behind the ironing board, “Daughter dear, the world is your oyster,” and maybe to charm me out of my ennui, she’d add, “you have the heart of a lion.” Non-plussed, I probably dismissed her as someone who had no life before I came along, someone who could never have been a hopeful teenager or somebody’s BFF or the one with the great sense of style. What a fool I was. My mother was all of these . . .
She is far away, in the place that made her, South Derry, the distance between there and where I sit in the Arizona desert, stretched taut on Mothering Sunday. A phone call or a visit on Skype will help minimize the miles between Castledawson and Phoenix, me falling easily into the comforting colloquialisms of home, but it will not be the same as handing her a bunch of fresh flowers that she will immediately arrange in a crystal vase on the hall table or spotting a suitably showy Mother’s Day card on the mantelpiece.
The Mother’s Day card presents an annual problem, the inconvenient truth being that Mother’s Day cards won’t appear in Phoenix stores for at least another month, because in America, Mother’s Day arrives on the second Sunday in May, after St. Patrick’s Day, Passover, Easter, Administrative Professional’s Day, Cinco De Mayo, and Nurse’s Day, if I want to buy a card for my mother, I must rely on my memory almost a year in advance. And, it isn’t until after the Irish Mother’s Day has passed that reminders of its American counterpart pop up in emails from Teleflora or Hallmark displays in the grocery store or even at the carwash.
I have developed a stratagem to cope with this annual conundrum, outsmarting the calendar with the clever purchase of two Mother’s Day cards in May – one as a sort of consolation prize for possibly having forgotten the Irish Mother’s Day, the other for the subsequent March. This is a brilliant plan, except it rarely works, because I will put the card in a safe place i.e. lose it amongst bills and all the other papers I need for the Tax Filing Deadline Day which, naturally, is sandwiched between the two Mother’s Days (but after my birthday, which occasionally coincides with Easter, my being born on Good Friday) along with all the aforementioned holidays that someone has kindly listed on the Greeting Card Universe website.
But because Mothering Sunday falls this weekend, I am again drawn to an enduring memory of my brother and me. It is perhaps 1975, and we are scrubbed clean and uncomfortable in our Sunday best. Along with all the other children, we are proceeding in a crooked line to the front of the aisle of Antrim’s All Saints Parish Church, where we collect from a beaming Reverend Thornton a single fresh flower to give to our mother.
Fresh flowers. My mother is wholly responsible for my appreciation – and expectation – of flowers as apology, get-well wish, gratitude, birthday greeting, or a just-because (like the asters and tulips da used to pull from our garden and hastily wrap in newspaper as a present for my primary school teachers). So I had planned again to send flowers this year along with gourmet brownies from a company in the Cotswolds. I knew the latter would remind her of a Christmas night in Phoenix, when I baked a pan of chocolate fudge brownies while she and da napped. More than that, the appeal of the chocolate brownie company is in its packaging. The product arrives in a brown paper package tied up with string, the kind of package that usually travels across the sea from my mother’s address to mine.
Since the late 1980s my mother has been sending such packages – boxes filled with Antrim Guardian newspaper clippings about people I used to know but might not immediately remember, chocolate for my daughter, the obligatory three or four packets of Tayto cheese and onion crisps, teabags, and something for me to wear. This last is typically something for which she paid too much, and something I don’t need, but she always dismisses it as “just-something-to-throw-on”). My husband was always intrigued by the brown wrapping paper and the string, unaware – as was I – that, by all accounts, consumer demand for my mother’s type of handiwork was becoming mainstream. At this very moment, I know I am but a few clicks away from artisanal gift-wrapping, jam-making and even the knitting of very complicated Aaran sweaters, all of which she has practiced and perfected since she was a girl – not because it was organic or trendy, but out of necessity.
My mother’s first job was in Crawford’s shop in Castledawson. Behind the counter, she learned, among other things, to wrap a tidy parcel in brown paper and string. In the way she had learned to bake and sew by watching her mother, she watched Jim Crawford skillfully wrap parcels for the customers. Soon she was expertly packaging sweets and biscuits – Rich Tea or Arrowroot – that would deliver a taste of home to neighbors further afield, like Mrs O’Connor’s daughter across the water in England. Always efficient, Mr. Crawford had even devised a method of tying newspapers with string so news could travel easily to his relatives in America or Australia. My mother still has the knack for it, quick to remind me that all this wrapping and knot-tying was long before there was any such thing as Scotch tape, requiring her to carefully pour hot sealing wax over the knotted string. There is heart and craft in such an activity, so much that I cannot bring myself to open these Mid-Ulster dispatches. They remain in a drawer in my Phoenix kitchen – preserved ordinariness, a tribute to the way things used to be.
Now I have no idea how the ”Mothering Sunday” tradition began; it may, like a lot of things, have its origins in mythology. It is certainly a red-letter day for the greeting card companies with people like me handing over a fistful of dollars for a folded piece of card-stock emblazoned with a generic message and a stock photograph. In truth, my mother’s day card purchases may have been less about making ma’s day and more about assuaging my guilt over having put down roots so far away from home.
Thus, it is a marked day, Mothering Sunday, and I wonder about its impact on a day that also belongs to adult children without mothers and to mothers with sick children, to women who ache to be biological mothers but are unable, to mothers whose children no longer speak to them and to children whose mothers have disowned them perhaps over a grudge or because the Alzheimer’s has rendered them strangers. What of them?
My mother was the first and best woman I will ever know. As those former students remind my daughter, I remind myself again that my mother has always been the woman who would be my best friend. I just didn’t always know it.
The truth is that greeting cards and cheery bouquets mean little to this woman who has tossed and turned too many nights since November 11th 2011, when the phone rang too late to bring good news. I imagine her telling my dad to turn down “The Late Late,” so she could hear me deliver the news that breaks her heart. “What’s this anyway?” she cries into the phone, “My wee girl has cancer! My wee girl has cancer!” And then too soon, another November night and in her Castledawson kitchen, undone again, unable to mend my broken heart when the man who loved me died so far away from me.
Just when she thought she didn’t need to watch over me anymore, she is right back to where she started in 1963, hoping for only the very best for her baby girl.
So thank you, ma. On Mother’s Day and every day. I love you.
A new mother at home in Dunsilly, County Antrim, 1963
friends laughing in the rain
A young wife, traveling with my dad through Ireland on a 7 days for 7 shillings trip, Wicklow town.
My breast cancer is not just about me as I discovered when my then fourteen year old daughter decided to break her silence about it. In her own way, on her Facebook wall, and on World Cancer Day 2012.
Thus, on this day designated for speaking up and out, from 2016 -2018 focusing on how everyone – as a collective or individually – can do their part to reduce the global burden of cancer – I share with you her words and mine from February 4, 2012 . . .
I didn’t know about a World Cancer Day. Until today, I’d known only about Breast Cancer Awareness October when the world turns pink for an entire month, so when I detected the lump on my breast on October 30, I should have been grateful for having made it until the end of the pinkest month, blithely unaware that cancer had come calling. Since then, I have encountered more metaphors of war in breast cancer’s literature than I ever found in my collection of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and I am uncomfortable. Within the context of breast cancer, I show up – albeit reluctantly – for every appointment, procedure, and surgery. As a cancer patient, I am doing what is expected. I am being treated. At best, I am obedient. Not battling. Not a warrior in pink.
I cannot say the same for my darling girl. Just a heart-beat ago, she was so tiny, asleep and swaddled, snug in the space between the crook of her daddy’s arm and the tips of his fingers. Safe and secure.
Then, too soon, fourteen and tall, impersonating “strong and stoic,” leaning on her beloved dad and he on her as they wait together for surgeons bearing good tidings. Neither feels safe nor secure. She fights to keep the tears from falling, squares up with false bravado to keep the fear at bay, to confront the wild fear that her mother might die. She balks at the notion of carrying the mantel of “kid with the sick mom.” She wants her teachers to know nothing about it in case they might feel sorry for her and give her a good grade out of sympathy. Mostly, she doesn’t want her friends to feel awkward around her, to tiptoe as if on egg-shells, afraid to say “cancer.” A quick study, she has grown keenly aware of the pink stuff of breast cancer, and she is confounded by it and by “I love boobie bracelets” casually wrapped around teenage wrists when her instinct is to defend me because I was unable, technically, to “keep a breast.“
Remember fourteen? It was that time reserved for rebelling a bit, for rolling your eyes at your mother’s taste in clothes or music because she was your mother and therefore “so embarrassing.” Fourteen was for pushing boundaries and buttons and for experimenting with make-up and myriad ways to sign your name (with hearts instead of dots above “i’s”) or style your hair.
For my girl, this rite of passage is forever marred by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, before which she didn’t have to feel quite so guilty about perfectly acceptable and anticipated acts of rebellion. It is unforgivably unfair. But that’s the nature of breast cancer, isn’t it? Unfair. Lest I forget how it has interrupted her life, I am considering again today the first time my daughter spoke of the cancer that came to our house like a thief in the night.
I didn’t know – and I’m sure I still don’t – the extent to which my cancer has shaken my beautiful daughter, stirred a fear that others dear to her may be at risk. So when I read the note she posted on her Facebook page on February 4, 2012, World Cancer Day, I realized she needed to tell – to share with anyone who would listen, in one fell swoop, that cancer had come calling and that her mom was sick, to tell them that being aware means you have to actually do something.
She is the only warrior here.
She’s my hero.
Here’s her note:
In honor of World Cancer Day and my mom, I’m telling the truth …
Each and every one of you reading this note, know this: you are important to me. And I don’t ever want to lose you. Please be aware. Do not think that just because you’re you, breast cancer won’t harm you. Infect you. Frighten your whole family. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. You can’t escape from it. And my mom, my dad, and I had to face up to that harsh reality. On November 11th of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She told me everything her doctor had told her. About how she had three tumors, and how they had been probably hiding there for five to seven years. Three tumors. Three of them, just sitting in there for all that time, never to be found by her mammograms because they were hidden so well in her tissue. Fortunately, two of the three were benign, meaning they would not hurt her. They were not cancerous. However, one of them was a cancer. Malignant. My mother’s right breast had a cancerous tumor. But my mom had cancer. My mom had cancer. Mymomhadcancer. I didn’t hear much more of what she said. After she said “tumor” and that only “two out of three” were benign, it was hard to hear anything else. All I could say was, “But you’re going to be okay…. right?” I asked that question maybe four times in a row. I remember later on she and my dad told me about the next doctor’s appointment, during which she would find out which surgery was best for her. A lumpectomy or a mastectomy. It sounded like she was hoping for a lumpectomy, which would only remove the tumor. It sounded simpler, but it also meant radiation. Radiation is nasty. A mastectomy means removal of a whole breast. Soon I found out my mom’s treatment required a mastectomy. I would be out of school for a week.
That week, I stayed with my mom’s best friend, Amanda. Amanda is like our own family; she has known me ever since I was little. I stayed at her house once before, when my dad had major heart surgery. Now again, I stayed with her while my mom was going through surgery. Seven and a half hours. An entire school day of waiting. Then my dad – who waited the whole seven and a half hours in the hospital – called to tell me the news.My mom was okay. The surgeons were very happy with the results of not only the removal of the tumor, but the reconstruction of her entire breast.
I remember seeing her in the ICU, when she woke up from the surgery. Her skin was so white, as pale as Boo Radley‘s. Her normally inky blue eyes now reminded me of a colorless sky. I cried at the sight of her. She looked like my mom, only dead. She had been given lots of morphine and so much other medicine, so she was way beyond groggy. Out of it. And then she was able to smile. She squeezed my hand, and she asked me what day it was . . . four times. Thursday, Thursday, Thursday, Thursday. I cried. My dad cried. He wiped his eyes on his shirt. We just stood there crying, rejoicing that my mom was going to be alright.
After removing her original breast and the cancer, her surgeons used skin and tissue and fat from her abdomen and molded it into the shape of a new breast. It was amazing! Today, her reconstructed breast looks almost identical to the other one. Made from her own skin, it looks fine. Just a bit bruised. But those bruises will fade, and this cancer will become just a bad memory. Unfortunately, we still have some healing to do. There’s a large scar across her abdomen, and it hurts her to stand up straight. If she lifts her right arm too high, it hurts. Then there are the tubes and the three surgical drains. Attached to my mom were three long tubes which then attached to what looked like little plastic grenades. Every day, I’d help drain the bloody fluid from them and record how much on a chart. Two have been removed, now there’s only one drain left, attached to a tube from a hole under her right arm. And then there’s always the fear that the cancer may return. Yes, her cancer was removed, but maybe there was some that the doctors couldn’t find and it could scare us again. It could invade my mother’s body once more. It could invade anybody. Which is why I’m begging: get yourself checked out. Find out your breast density. Do self-exams. Please. And it’s not just women. Men can get it too. SO if you’re a guy and you’re wondering why I tagged you in this, there’s your reason.So please. My mom discovered her cancer before it had spread into her lymph nodes. She got lucky, because she found the lump by accident and because her doctor made her get an ultrasound. She learned just in time that her negative mammograms had missed the cancer.
Many women, just like my mom, never even check their own breasts, even though they have been told over and over. It is so important to know what our breasts normally feel like, so we can notice when they change. So please take the steps to know your breasts. Know your body!