No, this isn’t some script to a creepy horror movie about an evil mother. As a matter of fact, it’s like… the exact opposite of that.
Let’s start with tragedy
“Geez Erik, way to pull us down.”
Well, we need to go here to appreciate what comes next.
My dad doesn’t remember a time when his mother wasn’t sick. She was diagnosed with cancer when he was young and his earliest memories are of her confined to her bed and him driving little toy cars over the mounds her legs made in the covers. He remembers her being weak and frail. The simplest of tasks would wipe out her energy for days.
This story (one I’ve shared in a previous post) is the most vivid memory he has of his mom.
His father (my grandpa) built a series of reflecting pools that fell into one another. These pools were filled with small, shiny pebbles and the water was pulled from a creek that ran through his back yard. There was a five foot drop from the second pool to the last pool.
One day, my dad was playing in the empty pools that had been drained for who knows what reason and he fell from the second pool to the last pool. He landed flat on his back, embedding dozens of these small pebbles into his soft flesh. The fall knocked the wind out of him, and once he could breathe again, he started screaming.
He remembers seeing his frail mother in her white pajamas shuffling toward him and, despite being a 5′ tall woman who had lost most of her muscle mass and body weight to the tortures of 1950’s cancer treatment with near-zero energy levels, scoop him up with unseen, superhuman strength, lift her injured boy and carry him back across the yard to the house. She laid him in bed and plucked each stone out of his back.
This physical exertion wiped out his mother’s strength and my dad doesn’t remember her ever recovering.
On November 18th, 1960, David’s mommy died.
He was 7 years old.
He was the youngest of 7 children and his older sister once told me,
“When mom died, you could see the light just disappear from his eyes.”
How does a parent explain this to a 7 year old?
I spoke to him this past Wednesday at lunch. It has been 60 years since she died and he still struggles to talk about his mom without getting emotional.
28 years to the day after she died, on November 18th, 1988, his youngest son (me) was born. My recent birthday is bittersweet for him.
For those who have met my mom, I don’t need to say much. For those who haven’t, let’s just say she marches to the beat of her own drum. No one, and I mean no one, tells her what to do or what to think. Her Dutch pride and stubbornness were most definitely passed on to my siblings but somehow must have skipped me…
She protects her family like a ferocious mama-bear, willing to fight an actual bear if her kids (and now grandkids) are threatened. She likes to tell the story of my oldest brother in elementary school getting picked on by a couple older boys. My brother came home crying and spilled the beans on what had happened. My mom tracked those two bullies down and, in what would probably get you and I arrested these days, not-so-gently showed these kids what happens when you pick on one of Barb’s kids.
She is one tough cookie who could probably still kick the crap out of me (if she could catch me).
Unfortunately, she and my dad had a rocky marriage. I love them both to death but they spent nearly two decades in an unhappy marriage… for me.
A Crazy Time
The spring of 1996 was a whirlwind. I was in 1st grade and love was in the air. I had just developed my first crush on a girl and, looking back on it, did not handle this crush well. I spent the next 5 years shying away from talking to her, saying a total of probably 10 words to her over that time. However, I did later name one of our dogs after her so you can’t say I’m not romantic (and a bit creepy).
Back to the story… in April 1996, my mom and dad got some heavy news and had to explain something that I wouldn’t fully understand until later.
“Punkin (what my mom still calls me), your mommy has cancer.”
If you’ve been paying attention to dates, you’ll now realize that my 7th birthday was 7 months away. Once I connected the dots, I started crying uncontrollably. She grabbed me, sat me on her lap, and held me while trying to console her bawling son. She asked what was wrong, because surely a 6 year old couldn’t know what that all entailed.
I forced out one word at a time between gasps of breath and sniffling my nose.
“I… don’t wanna… be… like… dad! Buwaaah!”
My mom, slightly confused, assured me that she didn’t want me to be like my dad either.
“Oh Erik, I don’t want you to be like him either! He’s a strange, lazy man with no real ambition and you don’t have to be like him.”
Now I’m confused…
(Still sniffling and struggling to breathe) “No mom… I don’t… want… my mommy… to die… when I’m 7… like his mom… died… when he was 7!”
Mom: Oh, yeah… that too…
My mom’s biggest fears were not seeing me grow up and not being able to know her grandkids. She was on the phone with her best friend at the time and expressed these fears to her friend with my older sister sitting next to her. When she hung up, my sister told my mom that she was pregnant with what would be my mom’s first grandchild.
The next year was packed with hospital visits.
In May, my mom started chemo. For that summer after chemo, my parents and I traveled the state because Utah had a little county passport you could get stamped by visiting each county. The county I remember the most was Kanab because my mom spent a few years as a kid living there. She showed me where her elementary school was. I didn’t realize it then, but my parents were trying to spend as much time together and with me in the event things didn’t turn out well.
The chemo caused her to lose her hair. Her hair would start growing back and I remember running my little hand over her head and thinking it was the coolest feeling in the world. But then her hair would fall out again with another treatment and she would have me pluck the little puffs of hair out of her head.
In September the stem-cell rescue (bone-marrow transplant) began. She had no immune system to fight anything and the slightest cold would have killed her so she had to be isolated in the hospital for a month. I could see her occasionally, but we had daily phone calls during the TV show Wishbone where she and I would sing the theme song together and talk about that day’s episode.
October: My mom’s first grandchild is born. She lived to see it.
November: Radiation and my 7th birthday.
December: On Christmas Eve in 1996, she graduated from radiation and went into remission.
In April, my mom wasn’t feeling well. She went to the hospital and it turned out that she had a gall stone that was causing serious damage. The stone split in two with one half lodging itself in her liver and the other half in her pancreas.
She was put into an induced coma as they operated on her. They cut her open from her sternum to her belly button and later she learned that they had lost her for a full minute before bringing her back to life. The doctor told her later that he had operated on the exact same situation 2 weeks before, but that girl didn’t make it. My mom was lucky to be alive.
Can we get back to normal?
In May of 1997, my mom went back to work. Let me remind you that this is a month after dying and coming back to life. My mom is amazing.
And life was getting back to “normal.”
In August, just 9 months into remission, the cancer came back, this time in her hip. To make matters more uncomfortable, because of her compromised immune system, she got chicken pox again.
After another round of radiation, she was back in remission.
My mom was put in a support group of 10 other women going through a similar thing at the time. My mom was the 2nd oldest of the group at 43. They were all given 5 years to live.
This group would meet occasionally to go to lunch and provide support. They discontinued these get-togethers because one by one, others in the group would deteriorate and pass away.
At the end of 5 years, only my mom and one other lady were left.
80% mortality rate.
It’s estimated that 253,450 women will die this year from cancer.
That is 253,450 baby girls whose parents have to watch their daughter wither away and die. That is made up of wives whose husbands are now left without the love of their life. That is made up of young mothers whose kids will be raised without a mom. That is made up of soon-to-be grandma’s who won’t get to see their first-born grandchild.
5 months from now marks the 25th year that my mom has survived cancer. Using that 253,450 number per year, 6,082,800 women have died from cancer since my mom was diagnosed. The number is likely more than that given our cancer treatments and survivability rates have improved over the last 25 years.
Why was I so lucky?
Grateful that I’m not like my dad
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told that I’m just like my dad. Some say I look like him, others that we share the same humor outlook on life. My mom, whenever I did something that ticked her off would yell, “Ew! You’re just like your dad!”
I love my dad. He is my hero, but I am grateful that I didn’t share the same fate as him in relation to my mom.
My mom lived, and is still alive. She got to see her first granddaughter come into the world, and 14 more grandkids since. She retired from work after a long career and now takes care of a bunch of dogs, goats, chickens, and bunnies doing whatever the hell she wants in retirement. Things turned out pretty good.
My mom – the teacher
In contrast to the millions who aren’t lucky enough to be raised by their mom, I was.
And she taught me how to love.
Not just how to love, but to express that love with words, and hugs, and gifts, and time. She taught me to defend those we love at the sacrifice of our own well-being.
She taught me about the power of self-belief.
She looks back on that time with cancer and tells me how she would not allow herself to die and leave me alone. She would visualize the chemo fighting the cancer in her body. She would visualize her body’s cells destroying the cancer and telling her body to do what it needed to do so she could raise her punkin’.
She taught me empathy.
I am a religious person and genuinely believe that the only reason she survived when others didn’t was her Dutch stubbornness…
I joke. I believe there was divine help. I feel fortunate that technology had progressed as far as it had between my grandmother and my mom in the treatment of cancer. I am grateful for the friends, family, and neighbors for the cards, meals, prayers, and countless acts of service for my family during that time and since.
When I think about God and miracles and the spiritual aspects of this story I struggle. In my mom’s case, there were 9 other women in her group whose families were praying and pleading with God to spare them with against-all-odds miracles. Blessings were given. Deathbed bargains were made with God in hopes of saving them, yet 8 out of the 10 didn’t get what they were hoping and praying and pleading for.
There is so much hate and negativity and sorrow and pain and tragedy in the world each and every day. The people that we meet and with whom we interact are going through unimaginable trials. Countless people are praying and hoping that they or their loved one will make it, only to learn that they didn’t. My mom taught me to be grateful for what we have, but be sensitive to the others who don’t.
I hope we can appreciate what we have, because in the blink of an eye, what we have and hold dear and cherish, could disappear.
I love you mom.