I remember when my mom drove home from work in tears from the pain, vomiting in the car. I don’t remember exactly what happened next. She may have gone to the emergency room — maybe our neighbor watched me that evening — or she may have toughed it out and went to the doctor the next day. My mom was tough like that.
I wasn’t privy to all the conversations. I knew she was sick. I didn’t have a name for it at first. I don’t remember the treatments, only the hospital. My best friend and I went to visit her after her surgery. We had drawn pictures for her. I think mine had a rainbow, and some hearts. She must have been gone from our house for a few days — I remember missing her.
It didn’t seem like such a big deal. I never saw my parents cry. I wasn’t aware of how it must have affected them. Six year olds aren’t very keen to those kinds of things. They probably shielded me from their worry. My life remained mostly normal.
I didn’t know then that she had been sick before, twelve years earlier. I didn’t know that the survival rates were terrible, that I was so close to losing her. In that time before the internet, my parents might not have known the statistics either, though they surely understood the possibilities. But she had beaten this before, and she had an extra reason to fight this time: me.
We had a dog for a little while. Her name was Tasha. One of my mom’s coworkers had found Tasha and her siblings, puppies, on the side of the road. Our other dog had died about a year earlier at the age of seventeen. My mom thought it was time for a new dog and wanted to give Tasha a home. But Tasha wasn’t trained, and my dad didn’t have the time or energy to train her. She chewed things. She made messes. She was too much of a handful for our little family struggling its way through illness. So my dad gave her away.
My first grade teacher, Mr. Hoffman, made a house call on his moped. My parents liked him. They thought the moped was amusing. I assumed he visited all of his students’ homes. It didn’t occur to me that my parents couldn’t make it to parent-teacher conferences with everything that was going on. It didn’t occur to me that he may have been concerned about the impact my mom’s illness would have on me. Bless him.
Later, my dad told me that Mr. Hoffman knew that my mom had cancer. “Cancer?” I asked. “I thought she was just sick.” “It’s cancer,” he told me. But he reassured me that she would be fine. She didn’t lose her hair. The treatment was over fairly quickly, within the school year. I went on with my life as if nothing had happened.
One of my best friends growing up had lost her mother in a car accident when she was five. I didn’t get to know her until about two years after the accident, so I never met her mom. Though I should have been more empathetic even then, I didn’t understand how the loss of a parent affects a child, a family. One time, I was criticizing my friend to my mom, upset with her about something she had said. My mom told me I should go easy on her. “She doesn’t have a mom, Lex.” Naive and arrogant, I didn’t see why that should be an excuse for anything. My mom understood. I wonder if she felt a connection to my friend’s family that grew out of facing her own death. I wonder if she imagined what it would be like for me to grow up without a mom, for her own family to go on without her.
I met a little girl recently whose mom has breast cancer. She’s four. As I watched her interact with her mom, my heart grew full for both of them. I was that little girl. Her mom was my mom. I hope their luck is as good as ours was, that they never have to face the darkest possibility.
Author’s Note: Several of you told me in your survey responses that you want to see more personal posts. I do write some deeply personal essays and poems, but I generally don’t share them publicly. I’ve tried not to get too personal on this site for several reasons: a hesitation to turn Alexigraph into my personal diary; my doubt that people would want to read about my personal life; a desire to protect my professional reputation; and perhaps most importantly, respect for the privacy and sensitivities of other people in my life. I deeply value authenticity, though, and vulnerability can be a powerful thing. If sharing more of my personal stories can help someone else feel less alone, I’m all for it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood lately, about why certain memories have stayed with me, and about how early experiences have shaped me. You may have picked up on some of that thinking in other recent posts. This piece grew out of that line of thinking. I can’t promise I’ll share this kind of personal reflection regularly, and there are some things I’ll probably never discuss in this public forum, but I will try to post more stories from my life from time to time.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
PS: Check out this beautiful song by Ingrid Michaelson about the loss of her mother. It makes me cry every time I listen to it.