It wasn't that I was unaware, not completely. But it had always been relegated to health classes and vague academic or hypothetical discussion. "What would you do if...?" "Did you know her mother's cousin's friend had it?" "Michelle's mother died of it." They're all so comfortably removed, distant.
That only lasts until it's you, your friend - or your mother. I was visiting my mother when I saw the book open on the table. It was about coping with breast cancer. It was hers. (Was she breast cancer's?) I was startled, and stared at it for quite awhile.
It had an attractive cover, that book. We must try to make the disease seem like less of a monster, pretty and feminine in pink, as if this will tame it into a sniffle or a cold. Even leaving it out was a pretty and feminine way for her to tell us without saying it. I didn't say it, either. Instead, I eyed the book and that cover - and tried to remember its title to look for it later.
Suddenly, instead of a vague awareness that breast cancer exists, it colored everything. The world seemed pink. Posters urging women to have their mammograms, awareness posters, even those little foil tops on my strawberry yoghurt (pink again) sometimes displaying promotions offering funding for breast cancer research. I started eating it for breakfast every day and saving those foil circles like kids save the box-tops from their sugar-cereals that turn your milk pink (of course).
My mother's prognosis was good, she told us. A nurse, she has always been careful of her health, and they had diagnosed her early after a regular mammogram. She was responding well to treatment (there are always treatments - outdated treatments, reliable treatments, effective treatments, experimental treatments) and had actually enjoyed going shopping for a wig. It looked good, I had to admit; when I first saw it, I thought I had been mistaken about when her therapy was starting, or that she had already grown her natural hair back out again afterward. (Or that she didn't have cancer after all - if only!)
I began reading everything I could find about it. Not just the sentimental "How to Cope" writings, but the medical articles as well. The textbooks. They listed causes. Which had caused hers? She didn't drink often, limited to perhaps a glass of wine with dinner. I couldn't recall many family members diagnosed with it. Her complexion was already too fair for tanning, and her weight seemed unlikely to be a factor, either. Why was it important to know? Time could not be reversed to undo it.
The books spouted a stream of facts and figures, but none of them had what I needed to know: how long? Norms, averages, means - statistics - were useless; I wanted to know when I'd have to say goodbye to her, to somehow prepare for it when I could never be ready for it. Frustrated, I finally admitted there was no way to tell, not for certain, and I closed the books and magazines.
It could be years - many years. We could hope. Mom did everything right: exercise, doctor's appointments, treatments. She wanted to be here for us as much as we wanted her with us. Our vocabulary expanded to include "radiation", "chemotherapy", and "experimental" whenever we spoke. I tried to keep in touch better; when I didn't, I felt guilty. Not burdensome guilt, but regret.
I looked down at my shoes in embarrassment after an abbreviated phone-call to my parents. The shoe salesman when I bought them had asked me whether I wanted traditional shoelaces or a pair of pink ribbons they also came with. I'd chosen the ribbons; they were cuter and more fun. Mom had often dressed me in pink when I was younger; it was a good color for me, claimed Color Me Beautiful, the latest fashion fad at the time. But now, "now you know there won't be forever," they seemed to say.
Cliché, to say this makes the time we do have sweeter, but it does. All of this opened all of our eyes. To tell the truth, mom and I had never gotten along the way I think we'd both like to. I've never doubted she loves me, and I hope she would say the same. But our personalities clash, shattering and splitting off into arguments and tears, usually due to misunderstandings. I've realized lately how very like her I am in my emotions, which always makes it difficult to make up.
Now, I was unwilling to let that rob me of my mother when the cancer was already trying to. Disagreements were no longer arguments. We watched T.V., went to the museum, saw the lights at the zoo. Hugs were more frequent. Gifts from her became more sentimental remembrances: a ring I'd always admired growing up, a patchwork cloth sewn from my babyhood clothes. Sometimes it seemed not as though the cancer did not exist, but as though it could be put aside; we were compelled to fight it, to do our best, but we were not compelled to let it cripple us. We'd all become a little stronger.
Mom continued to do well. Her hair was growing back, a distinguished frosted color that I secretly loved; I thought it was very striking. There were difficulties, but she bore them with an admirable good humor bordering on stoicism. If she was tired, she rested. If she was nauseous, she stayed home from work. If her fingers hurt - they had swelled up with arthritis the doctors were unwilling to predict the duration of - she avoided sewing. Her granddaughter, my niece, was born - a little baby girl all in pink. We were thrilled to watch Mom dote on the newcomer to the family.
As for me, I've decided to think about upcoming milestones, especially mom's five-year remission anniversary. The future. I'm going to plan my life on the hope that everything will turn out well, not the fear that it won't. Mom used to be famous among her friends for planning parties herself, always organized around a theme; we used to tease her about carrying them too far in her meticulous attention to every detail of each one. I think she'll appreciate Pink.
In a nation of 50% divorce rates, being the first kid on the playground to have a single mother was a bit like being the first one to take the training wheels off. "Your parents are divorced?" was a question asked in the same tone as you might expect, "You have a gay uncle?" But yes, my parents divorced when I was three years old. My father always stayed within a couple hundred miles but for what psychologists everywhere deem the 'formative years', my mother was my primary parent. And they wonder why there are so many mamas' boys in my generation.
Raised in a well-to-do mid-west family, my mother ditched the whole dog and pony show and high tailed it to the northwest. She's one of those ladies who chooses what she wants in life and takes no shit in the quest to get there, so when the time came for her to decide to take on the title of Single Mother, she did that too. She worked hard hours at unappreciative jobs and still kept things so positive around the house that I didn't even realize how dirt poor we had been until I was ready to move out on my own. She made a game about keeping warm at night in the winter; it involved standing over our single furnace heater just long enough for the hot air to fill our pajamas before diving under the covers. And most importantly of all, through all the hardships she had to put up with she made sure that I maintained a healthy relationship with my father through regular contact. This is what I think of when I think of women's issues: how does a single female raise a little boy to be a man.
Sit up straight. Clean your plate. Don't cut it with your fork. This is the dinner table and these are skills you must know when you are older. My mother would not let me keep toy guns in the house until I was at least eleven years old. They scared her and when a close friend of hers was shot to death, it was hard to argue the logic. I now go shooting on a regular basis because for all her concern, she never passed that fear to me. When I wanted to fight, she sent me to martial arts classes though she hated fighting. And in the most genius of moves, when I wanted to try drugs she offered to get them and do them with me, assuring me that she could get better and safer material than I'd ever find. I think if every parent took that approach our nation would be very nearly drug free.
After a two year stint in Colorado where my mother, in a bold decision to take hold of her future decided to go back to school, we came back to the northwest. I was ten years old and she gave me a bumper sticker that had been around when she was growing up: it said, "Question Authority."
At the time I thought it was a great slogan for raising one finger high to whoever was in charge but as I've gotten older I look at that slogan and I think of my mother and how she embodies the true ideals of the phrase. She came from a world that would have put her through private schools and into the top financial bracket of the nation but she didn't want it, so she left. When divorce was still being squinted at in the world, she made the hard call and did what was right for everybody involved. Even if I still don't like it sometimes, she made the right call. With a college degree and a future in psychology and social welfare she turned around and joined the then-tentative world of alternative healthcare, moving us halfway across the country and back to make sure she had the education needed to make it happen. Now she has a client list that won't quit. When she developed epilepsy she fought three hard years with antediluvian doctors and archaic techniques to make sure she got the proper care that would allow her to continue her life rather than take the crippling medication the 'leading authorities' were pushing. All the while she took a little boy and turned him into a man.
My mother is remarrying this summer and I will be flying in to give her away. My father will be there because to both their credit, even in divorce they mounted a sometimes rocky but fiercely unified partnership: A final fuck-you to the white-picket-fence ideals of Middle-America. I will hold her arm down the aisle, hand her to her boyfriend of ten years and take my seat so that I can watch the woman who raised a little boy into a man be exactly where she wants to be. She's earned it.
Rule of Thumb
"You mean that short old lady who sends me a card for my birthday?"
"Don't talk about your grandmother like that!"
Yeah, that's about how well I knew my maternal grandmother. We would sometimes go visit her, but never at her house. In fact, I couldn't tell you the color of her couch, the kind of dishes she uses, or what kind of art she hangs on her walls. I couldn't even tell you what kind of car she drives. But when we were in Auburn, CA, we'd drive down to the Moosehead Lodge to find her.
The Moosehead was just your typical bar, really. The air was filled with smoke, the walls were covered with dart boards and neon signs, and most of the small space was filled with the oak bar top and surrounding red-vinyl stools-the spinning kind. My grandmother would be seated at the end of the bar, smoking a cigarette, sipping a beer, and chatting up the bartender. She'd acknowledge our presence with a wave and maybe a half-hug. Then she and my mom would talk in this awkward way, with love an admiration shining in my mother's eyes. I never understood the way my mom looked up to my grandmother like that, but my grandma would crack a few jokes as we were leaving and wave us off before going back to her beer and cigarettes.
After a while, even the visits to the Moosehead stopped. When my grandmother got sick and had to be in the hospital for a while, it didn't phase me all that much. My mom would cry about it, and I would drape a supportive arm around her shoulders, but my own emotions just weren't invested in the tragedy. Callous? Cold? Maybe. But the older I got, the more I resented the fact that she basically had ignored her own grandchildren through our whole lives.
My mom once told me that my grandmother felt like she'd raised her own kids, and she was done with all of that kid stuff. God, that made it worse. By the time I started college, I'd written off my maternal grandma as insignificant, selfish, and uninteresting.
But there's power in history.
The words we speak, the rules we live by, the very people we are: all of it is formed and molded by our history. And maybe that's why I always felt so lost. My parents always acted like they were ashamed of their own pasts. Neither of them ever shared stories of their childhood, and my mom seemed particularly tight-lipped on the subject. All of the history I do know about her life before my birth I've learned from either eavesdropping on her conversations with other people, or from my Aunt Barb and Uncle Robert. But on a random day in August, my own history would come alive for the first time in my life-and at last from my mother's lips.
I'd just spent almost $800 on books for college, and had them sprawled across the dining room table. I looked up to see my mother's brow drawn in a look of concern and disgust.
"What's that book for?"
"Rule of Thumb?" I asked, picking up the soft-covered book and flipping through it. "It's just a grammar and usage book for English Comp. Why?"
"I hate that phrase."
"Rule of Thumb? It's just a cliché."
"No, it's not." The serious tone of her voice freaked me out a little. I mean, it was just a saying. "Do you even know what that means?"
I didn't. Of course I didn't. We don't talk about the fact that toddler songs like "London Bridges" and "Ring Around the Rosies" are based on violent, deadly human tragedies, and we don't question clichés. Right?
But whether through urban legend or misinformation, men came to believe that it was okay to beat their wives with a stick as long as the stick wasn't bigger around than the thickness of a thumb. The etymologists of our day insist that the whole thing is an urban legend and has nothing to do with legal principle.
But that's hardly the point.
Men believed it was legal. Women believed it was legal. And it makes me breathless to wonder how many women endured a beating with a stick because they thought they didn't have any recourse.
On that day in August, my mother told me what people believed-that back when my grandmother was a young wife in Ohio with two children and a drunkard for a husband, my grandfather came home wasted and aggressive, grabbed a stick from the backyard and came at her with it.
My eyes instantly burned with unshed tears. I could see the whole scene in my mind. My grandfather died when I was still three years old, and I never did know him all that well. But it was the liquor that killed him. And for some reason, in my mind, he always smelled like alcohol and cigarettes. I could smell him coming home, and see the glazed, angry look in his eyes as he stared down my grandmother, and snapped a branch off the nearest tree, measuring it against his thumb, and growling, "C'mere, woman."
"She didn't run," my mom said quietly, staring at the wood grain of the table.
I couldn't say a word, afraid, maybe, that I'd interrupt her sharing and she'd stop the story, leaving that horrific scene in my mind.
"She didn't run. She just looked up at him and said, 'You can beat me with that. You're bigger than me, and you can beat me with that stick. But if you do, you'd better never sleep again, or I'll kill you where you lie.'"
He dropped the weapon. And after that night, my grandmother moved her children to the west coast, to get away from the men who my grandfather drank with every night-the men who went home from the bar to beat their wives. He followed her, and they made a new life in California. I wish I could say that everything changed after that, but he kept drinking and he was still angry enough to take out his frustration on his children. But never so my grandmother would know about it.
Maybe it's a sad story. Maybe it's a triumphant story. But I know for sure it's a story of power. And in all of those times when I've felt small and helpless, just the thought of my grandmother on that night gives me a sense of power. It's a part of my history. It's a part of the strength of the women in my family. It's the reason admiration shines in my mother's eyes when she talks about her mom.
I still can't tell you the pattern of my grandmother's dishes, the color her house is painted, or what kind of car she drives. But despite her health troubles, she did manage to make it to my wedding. And on that day, I held her tightly in my arms and kissed her soft cheek. I even managed to whisper, "Thank you," in her ear.
"For what, hon?" she asked in her gravelly voice, a nervous laugh making her cough a bit.
"For being a part of my life," I said.
She was confused by the whole conversation, and I never did explain it. I'm not even sure I could have. But in the end, I suppose I was thanking her for refusing to bow to the oppression history forced on her gender-for refusing to let society dictate her role in this world. I was thanking her for becoming that part of women's history that makes us all proud of our own strength. I was thanking her for passing her strength onto me.
Because that is how history has power.
Why I Should Brush My Teeth More Often or Why I Think I am Alive Today
My grandmother marched across China for about 25 kilometers a day for years with the Mao's Red Army during the revolution age. She's over 80 years old now. When I went to visit her earlier this year in that far away land of people, cars, more people, buildings, and even more people, her 60 some years old friends all tell me that she has better knees than they do. She walks with an exuberance that they will never hope to achieve in all their glorious years. Her mind sometimes gets clouded and she imagines that she is still living in the past. She showed me her golden metal with a glowing smile, they gave it to her for her bravery in war and her wrinkled lips pulled up showing that she still has most of her real teeth. There's a piece of shrapnel embedded in her skull and it's made her mentally unstable sometimes. I'm not sure if it was the war or the shrapnel, or when the bomb went off next to her that made her paranoid. "The cow near me shielded me," she said. "Then I saw its heart beating upon the bloody wall next to me." That's what nurses do, I guess. They see bloody things all the time - especially if they're war nurses.
The rest of the females in my family have no great claim to such bloody glory. My aunt is a hospital nurse. My mother is a pharmacist. My world was surrounded by stories of death, disease, and plague growing up as we set up the family lunch table. Everyone came in for lunch and the daily topic was local and world health. Doesn't it sound wonderful? I wanted to be a doctor when I became an adult, because they can culture bacteria in their homes and travel the world curing the sick. What could be more wonderful than that? Maybe I will find my own cow? It wasn't so unimaginable, think of all the new antibiotics they found in the rain forest.
"Women can be doctors. They are very detailed and perceptive." At least, that's what my mother tells me. "Women," she said, "are oriented on outer appearance and presence. They care about such details and empathize well with the patients. That is what makes us more humane than men. We see and we care because we can imagine how it would feel to lose face much easier than men." I'm not so sure on that part, but I do wonder if a person's obsession with outer appearance may make them a more careful observer of others. Is there a benefit to being a little shallow? It seems like good mother's rationale. Which also include the "lazy people are smarter because they think of easier ways to do things and achieve the same end as those who work too much" line of thinking.
I grew up with all this around me and imagine my surprise when I was sitting at a local bar and grill Saturday night and talking about my college research into bacterial diseases to the waitress who's still in high school and she stops me to ask me what microbiology meant. It certainly gave me pause. She knew what a virus was, in the vague sense that one knows what a piano looks like but not necessarily how to play it or understand why it makes sounds the way it does. At that point I really had to sit back and re-evaluate how different my raising was compared to the rest of the world and how much I didn't know about this world.
Some population experts estimate there will be a female shortage in China within the coming years because not enough female children are being born or perhaps, raised. Chinese men will have to mail-order their brides from far away lands. The rumor, while I was catching up with my cousin, is that Korean wives are the best in treating their husbands. "They will do things like prepare their husband's bath and kneel down to wash his feet as part of their traditional marriage." Her face made a contained twist as she said it. It was a kind of awkward moment then followed by an outburst of "What, their husbands don't have hands to wash their own feet with?!" by yours truly. We laughed at the joke and I wondered how much of it was true. With the Chinese one child per family policy, most families who have the money to buy the connections to have a gender test done chose abortion for their female children. Those who find out they have a female child after the birthing have tried to send them away to be raised by relatives in rural areas or abandon their child so they may have a son. Throwing girls out of tall buildings happens, too. There was one case of it on the local news while I was visiting and the infant was less than a day old. My aunt says she sees people being unhappy about it all the time at her hospital, which specializes in women's health and thus, deliveries. The new female babies bringing pain to the family, instead of glory. It's the end of the family name line for them. How can anyone be proud of that?
My grandmother learned how to cook on a wood stove, then a coal stove, then electric stove, and she finally put her foot down about microwaves. "No stupid buttons to push," she said, "Dials only!" So I got the cooking lesson from grandmother. What I learned is that sometimes, in one's life, all the changes has to stop and one has to do what one thinks is right. That's what my family learned. A person has to take what everyone else does into consideration, but sometimes, it's good to have a girl around. Sometimes, just maybe, what everyone else believes isn't right. I never realized that until now. Sometimes, I'm glad I'm alive, I have a family, I'm loved, and I'm wanted. Someday, I will be a doctor, grow old, and tell my children about the people I saw and the diseases I fought. I'll show them my degrees with pride and tell stories like having people throw up on me while I was trying to help them to the triage (which, by the way, has already happened). They, too, will stare at my wrinkled lips and wonder if I really had my sanity to begin with. I just hope I will still have most of my teeth left.
Nobody on earth can take a mother’s place when Mother is dead, Lord
Nobody on earth takes mother’s place when mother’s dead Nobody on earth takes mother’s place.
-- Blind Willie Johnson, "Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time"
My mother died when I was ten. No event since that time has approached the impact of that pivotal event; no relationship has had greater importance in shaping the person I am today. There are few details I can reliably dredge up from my adolescence, the years that followed my immersion into a world of grief, but I have memories enough to fill endless pages with the events leading up to my mother’s illness, her death, her funeral, and burial. Until recently, I have steered clear of writing exquisitely painful time.
My sister and both of my grandmothers died after I became an adult, and I have written about each of them, in intimate, revelatory poetry and short stories. I have only barely touched on the subject of my dead mother. In the one fiction story that draws on the experience of losing her, I referred to a mother’s death in a single line–basically, she died off stage, and then the narrator grew up. I have not allowed myself to linger, in writing, over that part of my personal story; I believe this reluctance reflects the attitude I developed while still a child, the belief that the shattering experience of losing my mother is simply too tragic to address in depth–that it is, in fact inappropriate to burden others with my private grief.
I was influenced by the adults around me, whose awkwardness in comforting a stunned ten-year-old led them to encourage the appearance of stoicism. I don’t remember anyone taking me into their arms and saying, "This is terrible." Instead, I remember platitudes about God and a Divine Plan, a parade of strangers bringing casserole dinners to my family, my father going for days without speaking to me. Most particularly, I remember hearing "chin up" from several quarters. "Chin up" was new to me, but I understood it and found the advice useful. In the face of disaster, it gave me an activity and an attitude to assume, one which stopped my tears and earned praise for my demonstration of maturity.
Stoicism was the most righteous attitude to adopt; crying made other people uncomfortable. The mention of my mother was private and scarce. Nobody spoke the word "death" in my childhood home, for fear of upsetting our dad. When he remarried, two years later, photos of my mother were put away, the brocade drapes she made for the living room windows were replaced; her clothes, her piano, her book collection vanished.
During the years that took me into young adulthood, I continued to polish my image, determined to show the world nothing but the competent, composed, unsentimental face that was half of me. Self-help and pop psychology books became my guilty pleasure during their heyday in the mid-eighties. I lacked the ability to discuss my grief with real people, but found astonishing points of connection in books. I read furtively, sitting unobserved under park trees, or read at night after my young husband had fallen asleep.
After eleven years of marriage, I divorced my husband, never having talked with him about the loss of my beloved mother beyond giving the most basic information. It felt too personal to mention my broken heart.
During my late twenties, I attended nursing school, where I absorbed textbooks and clinical experience with a sense of wonder and privilege. When friends and family asked what could have drawn me into a career in health services, my honest response was, "I want to know what goes on behind the scenes." If I could not protect myself against loss, I might at least have a way of understanding death, from the physical perspective anyway. I’m certain I attended the course that dealt with death and dying, and I know it was at this time that I read, or at least owned, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ On Death and Dying. I don’t remember this part of my training in nursing. Characteristically, I blocked it. Recently, I borrowed On Death and Dyingfrom the library, then took the volume home and lost it in my extremely small house where nothing can really get lost. I revere books, and never, never lose them. My psyche is telling me something.
Inevitably, a book changed my view of grief, loss, and motherlessness. It took thirty years to land in my hands. Hope Edelman’s collection of personal stories, Motherless Daughters, was one of several books I took on a short trip in 1994, when I accompanied my then-boyfriend to an out-of-town business conference. I don’t remember where we were, or what I intended to do with my day while he worked. Whatever my plan was, I picked up Edelman’s book before getting dressed, then spent the entire morning in bed, reading accounts of other women whose mothers had died, or left, or were unavailable for one reason or another. It jolted me into a new reality, one in which I was not alone.
Women in the pages of a book supported me, gave me comfort and guidance. "Ultimately, the thing that makes you crazy isn’t that your mother died [. . .] but that you can’t talk about it," said one. "My fear is that if I were to let myself feel the immense pain I know is there, I would just fall apart," said another. The author herself described a phenomenon I had thought unique to me:
When you lose a mother, the intervals between grief responses lengthen over time, but the longing never disappears. It always hovers at the edge of your awareness, prepared to surface at any time, in any place, in the least expected ways. Despite popular belief to the contrary, this isn’t pathological. It’s normal. And that’s why you find yourself, at 24 or 35 or 43, unwrapping a present or walking down an aisle or crossing a busy street, doubled over and missing your mother because she died when you were 17. (24)
Of course, I had always known others shared my experience; I didn’t feel that knowing in my bones until I read the stories by various women who knew that feeling of otherness I hadn’t been able to verbalize. It was something to hold on to during those inevitable periods of longing for a sense of connection.
In 2002, my sister died in Ireland. Her daughter reached out tentatively to me for something I now recognize as that same point of connection. Leslie, who bears my mother’s name, became a motherless child at fourteen. Now nineteen, she has made four trips to the United States, and is presently journeying by train from Seattle to Phoenix, following a vaguely-remembered course her mother took forty years ago. My home in the States is her official address, and she stays in touch via email. Recently, regarding motherlessness, Leslie wrote:
I like the tragic hero it makes me. To lose your mother so young and to watch her go through the illness and chemo and then final deterioration, I like to make it out like a big dramatic story and I am the lost little girl who pulls through in the end and emerges a hero etc. I especially felt that way when she first died, reading over my diary from the time, I barely mentioned it at all, the few references were so fake it makes me cringe. I only wrote what I thought was appropriate, what would sound the most tragic, I didn’t even try to address what I really felt.
There is something familiar in my niece’s description of attempting to play down the death, to exaggerate her own heroism. The avoidance of pain is the most obvious coping technique in situations too emotionally charged to endure. For a child, denying the importance of the monumental loss of mother makes sense, on a certain level. In the days following my mother’s death, I cried and wrote sad songs in my bedroom closet where nobody could witness my grief. By the day of her funeral, I had determined that the chin-up attitude served me even better. I remember commenting to someone at church that I felt sorriest for my sister Jo, "because she was Mom’s favorite." Leslie’s description of her own attitude during the days that followed Jo’s death is familiar, her tone of self-deprecation an echo.
At fifty-three, I feel a persistent urge to learn a different way of being in the world. I want to find a source of mother-comfort within myself, which I might convey to my niece, my daughters, other women who entrust me with their fragile hearts during difficult times. I will confess to a private fantasy, barely formed, in which I stand in a forest clearing, throw my head back, and howl out the years of suppressed grief. It’s a scary image, balanced by my expectation that such an uninhibited, unedited expression might feel good, and might be followed by a simple head-shake, a general sense that speaking out loud isn’t actually a very big hurdle to jump.
Allen Spillane, Leslie. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 2006.
Eddelman, Hope. Motherless Daughters: the legacy of loss. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Johnson, Blind Willie. "Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time." The Complete Blind Willie Johnson. Columbia, 1993.