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.
The thing about the roads we choose to go down in life...we can choose different ones at any time.
I think I'm taking a detour.
This year, I've been lucky enough to get re-acquainted with a few people from my far distant past. Almost 35 years past. The dreaded high school years. Ack.
No one was more surprised than me to find out how much its meant.
When I left my hometown, I barely glanced in my rearview mirror.
So long, suckers.
I never looked back. To say I haven't kept in touch would be a gross understatement. I didn't pine for home. Ever.
Don't get me wrong. Contrary to what some might think, I was not ashamed of my more humble beginnings. In fact, I felt a certain sort of pride (Girl, Interrupted) peppered with a generous dose of affection. But, it was a chapter I'd closed and as far as I was concerned, it didn't need to be opened. I held onto many painful memories from those days, I didn't want to dwell. Let's just say it was a dirt covered onion I didn't intend to peel.
Then, life happened. My mother died (The Mother Load). To my astonishment, several old friends were kind enough to come to her memorial (The Things We Keep) including my best friend from high school. I felt awash in gratitude and a little ashamed. They'd all taken time out of their Saturday to help me grieve, to wish me and mine the best. I hadn't held up my end all these years. It was then I steered toward a different road.
I reminded myself that more than one truth can exist at a time. Along with the painful, there's the sweet. I could pick what I wanted to think about, what I wanted to remember.
I picked the sweet.
When my book got published, I joined the social media fray, begrudgingly. I made a conscious decision to not include my high school in my personal info, or to try to Friend anyone from the good old days. Preferring to stay in the present.
After my mother's memorial, I changed my mind.
I've since been graced with a peek into many of my old cronies lives. I've seen their children, grandchildren, dogs, cats, spouses. I've peeked in on their vacations, celebrated their victories, felt sadness if they suffered. Some would argue that a virtual relationship via Facebook isn't a real relationship. I would agree. But, call it what you will, whatever it is, I've felt a part of it all. Even just a little feels like salve on a wound.
Because of my newfound fervor for old friends, hubby and I met up with one of my girlfriends from school, and her husband, during our recent trip to Florida. Just like in the movies, the years fell away. We laughed, gossiped, solved several of life's more serious problems, broke bread, shared wine. She opened her heart and her home to me, introduced me to her friends, hosted a shindig to celebrate my book.
William Faulkner wouldn't have gotten a warmer welcome. I felt like a literary star and the prodigal daughter all at once.
I had the time of my life and I am still reeling over her generosity. My heart feels full with all sorts of warm fuzzies and I'm not a warm fuzzie kind of gal.
Maybe I am now.
I realized then what I'd really missed.
My friends helped raise me. Let's face it, after the age of 12 our friends become our sounding boards, our parents shift into the background with their white noise and unwelcome advice. Our friends informed our opinions, values, helped discern what was important, what wasn't, they helped picked our clothes, our hairstyles and our peer group. They were there during the toughest part of life...adolescence. When your whole life could fall apart if a pimple showed up on your chin.
Lately, when I think about home, it's in grateful appreciation. I remember with a smile how my best friend and I used to ride our motorcycles to the dump, singing (badly) at the top of our lungs. We'd go there to smoke, to bitch about our parents, to talk about whoever wasn't there, and laugh. We weren't allowed to go during hunting season. Our parents worried we'd get shot. Those were different days, my friend.
We'd have sleepovers, which at my house involved working my parent's turkey farm, as my friend in Florida reminded me. We'd have to pick up and chuck the dead ones. That was some kind of fun for country kids.
I have a great life with a great man and all the joy filled trappings that go with it. Kids, grandkids, a home and career I love. My life would've gone on quite happily had I never reconnected with old friends. But, there's something important about mixing the old with the new. It's humbling to know there are people who knew you when and still love you. So, while I might not need them to make my life happier, I want them.
And isn't that the best kind of relationship? One you want only because it makes your already rich life, richer?
And, I am rich indeed.