Sunday, June 23, 2013

One year later. Fuck Cancer, Embrace Life.

I wear my “Fuck Cancer” bracelet just about every day. I have done this since it arrived in the mail almost a year ago, right after my mother died from the lung cancer that ate up her liver as well as her lungs and started on her brain. I felt so empowered wearing it, or at least a bit stronger as I struggled through my grief. It was like my talisman.

It is my talisman. I was so mad for a long time, and I still get there sometimes but with less blasting anger and more focused and directed anger.

I have the edges of that anger softened by memories as well as the realization that I cannot reason other people’s choices and I must learn to accept, especially what I cannot change. It’s life, after all, and nothing makes ‘no sense’ like death to the living.

My mom and I are both head strong women and although she was the reason I was so head strong, it often made for a difficult and strained relationship. She always encouraged me to be educated, but I think I made her feel less-than because she was not as educated by school as I was, despite her many Life Wisdoms. And I never told her how often I used her words to get through some of my darkest times. 

My mom always kept a clean and very organized house. There were no dust bunnies, dishes in the sink and the shower curtain didn’t often look tarnished. My home must have driven her crazy with its piles and piles of papers and books and toys and general unorganization. When I was married the first time at 19, I tried to keep her schedule of big weekly cleanings on Saturdays, but I was working nights, going to school and raising babies. So I floundered. And as my first marriage deteriorated, housework took another lowering on the priority list, as I concentrated on making sure I spent time with my boys. She never knew her words, “If they are coming to see your house, then you really don’t want them there. They should be coming to visit you” and “The house will be here long after you are dead and gone; go live” made their marks on me. Although it did take me until I was in my mid-40s to really let go and allow people into my home with that kind of attitude. Thanks, mom.

Every night my mother made meals. Meat, potatoes, veggies. Sometimes gravy and biscuits, too. Every night there was dinner on the table at 5:30. Everyone sat and talked. No elbows on the table, no holding your head with your hand (thanks dad). Everyone sat in the same seat every night. We replugged into the center so we could each go back out into the world again, knowing we always had our spot at the table. I helped to clean up dishes and dry while mom washed. More time to talk over the day’s woes. I wonder if I appreciated that then, my angsty- teenage-self…probably not. It was a chore to me. But I made sure through teen years with my boys, divorce years and rebuilding lives and now with my husband and my girls that we have meal times together, even if it’s take-out. We sit and talk and tell the day’s stories. We replug into the center so we can each go back out into the world again, knowing we always have our spot at the table. (Even if that ‘spot’ gets moved each night as Kath rearranges our places at the table every night according to who she wants to sit next to and what chair--yep, different style chairs at our table-- she wants to sit in that night. :D) But we sit and talk and tell the day’s stories. I never told my mother she instilled that in my view of Family time and Life Wisdoms.

There were other words of Life Wisdom expressions and lessons like ‘never give up,’ which I have since tweaked into knowing that even if you ‘give up’ on someone or something, you really are just refocusing, and it’s okay. It’s okay. It took me a long time to learn that one, to learn that I wasn’t the Catcher in the Rye for adults who didn’t want to be caught. It took me a long time to really understand that it was okay to move on, but I did it. Thanks, mom. I get it now.

She also told me there were stories behind what people did and said. She said we didn’t always know what others were going through, sometimes what we saw wasn’t the real story. I confused this one with the above wise words for many years, until, I think, I got it straightened out. But what a gift to see that people behave the crazy way they do because there is something else at play, motivating their words and actions, and it doesn’t mean it’s a reflection on/of  you or your fault. Thanks again, mom.

I remember loving and feeling that comfort-feeling when my mom tied my winter hats on when I was a kid. There was a mixture of smells that were Her smells. I asked her to tie my hats for longer than I needed because I wanted her to touch me (we weren’t huggy people) and I wanted that comfort smell. It wasn’t until I was much older that I identified those smells as soap and tobacco.

It twists something inside of you when you realize a ‘comfort’ smell was from something that helped kill someone you love. Yes, she made choices to smoke. She made life choices. But maybe if she knew, really knew, how much her death by cancer would impact the rest of us…maybe she would have made that one more attempt to quit.

As a kid I left notes strategically placed throughout the house where she would find them, “Please stop smoking, I love you.” I came home from school, newly educated on the poisons inside of cigarettes, informing her of the dangers, and still she smoked. Looking back through pictures for her memorial at her wake, I was hard pressed to find candid pictures of her not holding a cigarette.

One thing mom wasn’t really good at was forgiving. And I got that from her too. I was angry at her for smoking, for being so hard on me (harder than on my brothers, I always felt), so 'demanding and unreasonable,’ for cursing so much, for holding me at arm’s length and not letting me lean into her, (I'm sure she thought I was all of these things too), for not being a doting hovering grandmother. But mostly I couldn’t forgive her for dying before we could hammer out all these issues.

How dare she get up from the table before we had finished talking about the day’s stories. How dare she give up. How dare she leave me to figure out the rest of my Life Wisdoms on my own.

A little more than a year ago we packed up her apartment and I couldn’t part with anything, except the things my family took and a few odd dishes that held no memories. My house, even a year later, looks even more cluttered and chaotic but I am surrounded by her towels, her bedroom furniture, her clothes, her lighthouses. The bowls she made chocolate chip cookies in. The colander she poured boiling hot potatoes in for our mashed potatoes every night.

And yesterday my daughter unplugged the winter humidifier in her room and plugged in the room freshener from my mom’s apartment and I was transferred back to a year ago. I smelled my mom’s apartment at the time of her death. And this time I wasn’t as angry. I smiled.

As my mom lay dying in the hospital bed, not looking at all like the mischievous, hard-working, wise mother, who drove me nuts my whole life, I could not stop touching her and telling her that we were alright, that she was alright if she wanted to go. I meant it. I meant that she could leave the pain, that I would be alright. I meant that I knew that she fought hard and she wasn’t really 'giving up,' she was refocusing (against her will) to the next part of her journey. And I knew, eventually, I would be alright, because she had given me so many Life Lessons and Wisdoms to be okay.

By being so hard and so demanding on me, she held me to a higher level, and as a mom, especially one so young, high standards were necessary. While cursing holds no scientific research indications, I believe words are a powerful thing, they help get feelings out. For my mom her cursing was a way to release all that bothered her. While I have writing to help me release all that bothers me…I still curse like a truck driver and have no real excuse, but it certainly does feel good! I don’t know why my parents weren’t huggy people and I am, but it’s okay. It’s not that they were withholding affection or that I was weak, it’s just the way we are.

And I accept that. Now, a year later. I accept that.

I know I cannot change people, try as I might, and this still frightens me as I watch one of my sons and a few friends try to fight their smoking addictions. I can’t catch those who don’t wish to be caught, though I do still put my arms out and try to warn about that cliff, I just can't help myself.

The inside of my “Fuck Cancer” bracelet says ‘Embrace Life’ and now I am working with less anger and more of the directed ‘embracing’ those moments. I think I am on a different phase of my grief.

I am trying to pay attention to those details, smells and memories while continuing to move forward. And I will continue this life path. Today I went to Home Depot to look for a tree or a bush, that will be a living memorial for my mom, to plant and remind me to live the Wisdoms; forgive the things I can and forgive myself for the things I can’t; to keep going and keep trying; to remember people’s stories are not worn on their skin (no matter how worn their skin is!); to play; to curse, if need be; to collect lighthouses and to make mealtime a good center to my family’s core.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for today. I couldn’t remember what my mom’s favorite flower or tree was, if she even had one. But then suddenly I started to tell my son (the one who needs to stop smoking and who accompanied me on this soul trip) about how I’d love to find a mimosa tree. We had one in my front yard for my most of growing up childhood until a gypsy month plague spread over Long Island and killed our tree and all the mimosa trees in the region (I think that was that plague that got that tree). I told him all this, but I also said that I hadn’t seen any of those trees in years and never upstate. And just then I walked into a tree and it was a mimosa! 

“Embrace Life” is the talisman I try to focus on these days, especially these days and weeks surrounding the anniversary of your death. Thanks, mom. I miss you. I love you. It's been a really hard, slow and painful year without you with us, but thanks for the Life Wisdoms and Lessons, for those feelings like little taps on the shoulder, and for mimosa trees to walk into showing me that I'm heading in the right direction. That I'm going to be alright.


Lois Peterson said...

What a wonderful heartfelt piece. Conveys so much about your mom, you and your relationship.

Monika said...

There should be a warning about having a box of tissues before reading... Beautiful piece... Loved it. Love the honesty in your writing. Your mom is watching over you...

PS, i have the same fond memories of mimosa trees too and get excited when I spot them.