It's funny the things we keep.
Last year, when my mother died and her house sold, we had to clean it out. During our excavation (Mom was a bit of a hoarder) my son-in-law found her medical records. For no known reason, I wanted them. I couldn't bear to part with them.
Several weeks passed before I screwed up the nerve to look through them.
On paper, thin and delicate as old lace, her breast cancer odyssey unfolded. There it all was. From the lumps, first diagnosed as Fibrosis, to the radical mastectomy.
She was 32.
I read every word. I'm pretty sure I held my breath the whole time. Even now, I can't glance at the non-descript brown folder without a lump gathering at the back of my throat. Because reading through her medical journey, I couldn't help but see her as someone other than my mother - a real person.
A 32 year-old female caucasian housewife to be exact.
I thought of her, alone and frightened in a cold exam room. My dad wouldn't have been with her - he wasn't the type. In his defense, this was the early 60's and men stayed out of their wives doctor's offices in those days. I tried to imagine what she might've been feeling and thinking. My mother was not one to identify or talk about her feelings, but it didn't take a shrink to get inside her head. I know her first thought would've been of me. I was only four years old. She and my dad couldn't have children of their own, so after ten childless years, they adopted me. Cancer, often a death sentence back in the day, might keep her from being what she'd wanted more than anything - to be a mom. I knew she worried about my well being. Could I thrive in a world without a mother?
Knowing my mom, any questions she might've had remained unasked, to avoid inconveniencing the doctor. Of course it wouldn't have mattered much, pre-surgery they didn't have many answers to give. They kept the best for last - she simply woke up without her breast. That's what they did in those days, lopped it off if they found cancer while the patient still lay unconscious. They didn't get options, or time to think. Like thousands of women before her, when she came to, it was without a breast, and that's how she found out she had cancer.
I know she kept what must've been a terrifying heartbreak to herself. That was who she was.
As I scrolled through her records, one small sentence struck me: Physical examination reveals a young, nervous, female.
It was the nervous that got me. She'd have to have been dead to not feel nervous in that situation. But, of all the illnesses my mother survived, it was the nervous she never got over. Maybe this is when it began. Maybe it started out a kernel, in a child from an alcoholic home, where it burrowed and sprang to life in her early thirties, during her first bout with cancer. No one can know. All I know is her acute anxiety shrouded her life, and mine, until her death.
It was the inability to calm herself, to quiet her own mind, that drove her to the many risky behaviors that eventually took everything from her - her money, health and dignity. A cruel,relentless force that she couldn't control. To me, it was the saddest diagnosis of all.
It's been almost a year since she passed and I still try to reconcile who she really was with who she appeared to be. I grieve over our conflicted relationship and the wounds we could never heal. Mostly, I miss her.
Had she lived, tomorrow would've been my mother's 80th birthday.
So, wherever you are Mom, happy birthday. I know some lower level angel is lighting your cigarettes while you lay out your bingo cards.
You know what they say, "Talent borrows. Genius steals." And no one said it better than Macy Gray. Every time I hear this song I think of my mom:
On and on and on I've searched
What I'm lookin' for is not here on earth
I can't stand, I can't take no more
So I know that I gotta go
So long everybody, don't be sad for me
Life was a heartache and now I am finally free
Don't know where I'm headed, hope I see you someday soon
So long everybody, I have gone beyond the moon
All I ever wanted, love and the peace and the harmony
Just to be, to live and shine, when I get ready I up and fly
And I can't remember none of the things that I want to forget
It's the best satisfaction no less, ask if I'm free and I'll say, "Oh yes"
I know that now, my mom is finally at peace, and free.