I’ve had a rough few years… decades. Whichever. I’ve profoundly missed my mother in the last five years. I have a hard time talking about her sometimes because the freshest memories are also the worst. 11 years ago today, she was taken out of this world.
My mother was born in Redford, Presidio County, Texas. She was part of the third birthing to my grandmother. Twins. Two older brothers, one still in diapers and two newborns. My mother’s twin died of leukemia when they were five. Mom was told that until she started school, her mother had to set an extra place at the table for the tyke who was no longer there. She was a lefty, as most twins are. She was forced to learn to write with her right hand by well-meaning family members. No one wanted her to be mistaken for a child with an infirmity after all. It was a task she mastered fairly well. (I’m a righty and her right-handed penmanship was better than mine.)
Forced ambidextrous, she attended schools that forbade Spanish spoken out of Spanish class. Truly bilingual, my mother had almost accent-less English but again, that’s Texas English. It’s recognizable most anywhere. She was the oldest daughter, third-born (like myself), with four siblings that followed. She was responsible for taking care of everyone else.
Mom learned to cook early and to cook out of cans and boxes. It was cheaper, somehow, to buy groceries and trade them for the state rations the neighbors got. Maybe they just stretched further. It’s what they did. Course, Pop had a milk cow. There were chickens and goats. Some things didn’t cost much at all. They made do with seven kids born between 1946 and 1964. Fostering out this kid, having this one take care of that one. It was a rowdy house with four boys and three girls.
Mom told me that at some point she tried to get her mother to stop smoking by buying papers and loose tobacco instead of cigarettes. It didn’t stop her mother. Eventually, she did stop (and this was a habit forbidden to occur in my mother’s house later). To have money for things that teenagers wanted, my mother picked cotton during the summer. Make-up, new clothes that weren’t sewn by hand. When my dad started coming around, he wasn’t allowed to come around. There was a rule that only men who were joining the family could come by. That was a tall order for a sophomore in high school and her junior (repeat) boyfriend who lived around the corner. Dad asked Mom to marry him three times.
The first time she said no it was because she was still in high school. The second time, it was because he didn’t have a job, he enlisted in the Marines. Then it was because he was overseas and she didn’t know if he was coming home from Vietnam. She used the time to get her high school diploma, to get her LVN, to save money for their wedding and newlywed furniture. Then she had to make plans to be a military wife. They married in 1972.
My memories are peppered with funerals. I learned early on that nothing in this world is permanent. Mom lost her twin in 1958, her oldest brother to lupus in ’83, her little sister to severe thrombocytopenia in ’85, her mother passed in ’91 of leukemia, a little brother to a drug overdose in ’92. After her mother died, my mother found a lump in her breast. It was cancerous. They operated immediately. The doctors told my father that she had five years to live. TOPS. Fat lot doctors know about a strong woman.
My mother fought cancer for 12 years before succumbing a week after Good Friday in 2002. It was long and hard and the ups and downs and curves were many and sharp through several rounds of chemo, remission in sight and gone again twice, changing drug regimens, lymphedema in first her left arm and then her right, the removal of her other breast, then the skin cancer on her face from the radiation treatment of her breast cancers. We found out years after her death that the cause was not the breast cancer or the skin cancer. She was cancer free. It was because she had developed crystallizations in her lungs similar to cystic fibrosis. She wasn’t a carrier or genetically inclined. Many things mutated through all the experimental therapies.
The side effects were always troublesome. Every treatment came with a long list of symptoms that 95% of patients experience. The usual sort of thing; nausea, hair loss, itchiness… it went on and on. Then there’s a shorter list that the other 5% experience. These things are usually odd and much more troublesome. My mother was always part of the 5%. The cancer drugs came with symptom drugs which came with symptom-symptom drugs. My formative driving years were spent chauffeuring my sister so Mom could rest or chauffeuring mom to her many appointments, laughing with doctors and their lame jokes. Getting close to the doctors was a blessing and a curse. It’s easy to be mad at a doctor you don’t like, harder when you know he’s a good person and the treatments are what they are.
I remember plainly the oxygen concentrator in the hallway, the tubes that ran the length of the house so she could be anywhere she wanted to be and not relegated to bed 24 hours a day. I remember massaging the fluid from her arms (techniques learned from the therapists she would see three times a week). I remember she had to go through menopause twice, five years apart. I remember giving her back rubs that just made her cry because they just didn’t help as much as they used to. I remember sitting on the back of the couch and giving up. I just held her while she cried because there was nothing else I could do but listen to her talk about what being a wife was like when you had cancer. She made my dad promise to leave before he cheated, not that he would have done either. I remember her sleepless nights when she would use the computer in my room to play solitaire just so she wasn’t sitting in the dark in her room by herself because my father was working a lot of out of town jobs to pay the medical bills.
The last conversation my mother and I had before she left that Easter was a fight about how “indecent” I looked in my Easter outfit. I decided to stay home rather than fight all weekend and be exposed to her in her foul moods. I knew, logically, that it wasn’t that she thought I was whore or that I was dressed like a whore but her medications, specifically the steroids, made her moody and irrational and the pain was constant. So, I stayed home with Bob the house ghost and celebrated Easter with pizza and a lot of writing.
Easter Monday afternoon when they pulled in, Dad gave me the baby, my niece, and called 911. Mom couldn’t breathe. She spent a week in the hospital hooked up to all sorts of machines. She was barely awake the one time I could bear to see her. I kissed her face and went home. I spent the time with my aunts and uncles and watching after my niece and little sister. She passed away that Friday evening (technically Saturday), after I had refused, again, to go see her in that awful place. My only comfort was that she was not in pain anymore. I remember crying so hard that I puked my guts out.
The following week was a bit of a blur of friends and family. Burying the family cat after a road accident and then finding out it wasn’t our cat, just one who looked a lot like our cat. Trying to make my instructors understand that I would be out for a week and no, I couldn’t gain access to the internet to mail in assignments. We drove to our hometown to have the funeral. I saw her at the wake and refused to see her again at the funeral. I spent hours photoshopping a photo of her to use for the funeral. The picture was old and damaged but we wanted a good photo of her and there hadn’t been one in a long time. It took a long time and it was hard not to just stare at the full picture for hours.
I love my mom. She was amazing in so many ways. She raised four dramatically different people and stayed sane somehow. My sister is now a teacher, married to a rocker and raising three children of her own. My brother is going back to school but is a welding tech, is married and has a son. My baby sister is cancer-free and struggling to get back to normal and get her bachelor’s. I’m fighting my nature and anxiety and depression but I’m working. I’m almost back on my feet after my surgery last year. My father is cancer-free and remarried and trying to make it work though they have dramatically different views of marriage and culture and family.
I try not to think about those last years. The panicked driving lessons because steroids made Mom paranoid. The disappointed way she looked at me when I dropped out of college.
I try to think of the way she helped me sell Dad on tech school. The way she made sure I got a night out with my friends every once in a while despite the fact I didn’t really get on with my friends or ask for money to go out or even ask for a night off from her and watching my niece. The way she must have handled me as a child because I’m realizing I must have been a trial for any parent, forget a parent of four who was also fighting cancer.
My mother was pretty devout. I know, either you’re devout or not, but she always wanted more for me spiritually than I ever felt I needed. My brain and spiritually are usually at odds and have been since I was a young child. I got kicked out of Baptist Sunday school (my father’s religion). I was severely misunderstood at Catholic Catechism (my mother’s religion). I don’t hug. I ask questions and expect answers to make logical sense. I didn’t behave the way other children behaved and my mother just rolled with it. She eventually taught me not to speak my mind so much (I measure my words much more than I did then). I learned manners, somehow. I wasn’t really as shy as every thought I was when I was a kid. Just very aware since very early on that I have a propensity to say the one thing I shouldn’t in certain company. My mother just rolled with it. Some how.
If we went shopping, it was with purpose because I couldn’t be in a dressing room for very long. The closeness and nakedness of other people freaked me out. If we went out to dinner, there was a flyby to the house afterward to drop me off. I don’t defecate or urinate in public restrooms. Can’t, won’t, don’t, there are levels that even I don’t understand fully yet. There were always books because I needed to be entertained lest I embarrass the family (this is a recognized need by all my family members, atrocious things come out of my mouth). The ability to go and sit in a corner, or on the floor, is always arranged for whatever the family function. Reminders to hug and greet were always made. Concessions made to wardrobe changes because this gal is allergic to everything. No flowers in the house, cotton clothing whenever possible, no toilet paper with dye (remember THAT from the 80s?), Tylenol on all car trips. Sunglasses in case of migraines. Pepto for the freak stomachaches, which I now recognize as anxiety.
The woman was amazing because that’s a lot to keep up with for even one child. Forget the joiner my older sister was (and still is! A teacher!) and the rambunctious brother (Evel Knievel impersonator) and my little sister who was born without a filter (not in the same way as me).
She was crafty. Handmade scrapbook covers, homecoming mums, quillows, heart-shaped jewelry boards, puff-painted shirts, book covers, book marks, doilies, afghans, potholders, dishtowels. All around her work schedule and children and household tasks.
I remember doing homework on my bed, listening to KROQ and my mother turning to me and asking what we were listening to. “KROQ, Mom. It’s a Bush concert.”
“But what is this song?”
“Well, I like it.”
My mother liked Bush. My parents listened to ’50s music and Tejano and country. They didn’t listen to rock. My father felt that all rock in the ’60s and ’70s was hippie music and it was forbidden in our house. So, Mom saying she liked Bush was pretty miraculous… even if it was just the one song. I remember her singing to commercials and commenting that Peggy Lee sang it better or her humming to some song from the Rocking to the Oldies fitness program (don’t judge me, this was my primary exposure).
I remember when I had to taking over cooking duties, my mom was hovering as I spiced. She told me that I was using too much of this or that. I informed her that I was just making sure it was the way it ended up on the table. She didn’t know what I meant. Usually, Dad came home in the middle of meal prep and spiced behind her back. I ratted him out, unintentionally. She was incensed but let me have at it. Dinner tasted as dinner always did. Refried beans, Spanish rice and green chili pork in gravy. That last dish is still one that I can’t make to save my life. I really miss it.
I do remember other things. Banana pudding. The trick to perfect Spanish rice. Chicken casserole. Salsa. I’m slowly building my crocheting skill but I’ll never be at my mother’s level. I remember to have fun once in a while. I try to remember to say thank you. I try to remember to ask for help when I need it.
Make up and fashion still puzzle me but mom always felt that if I wanted it, I would learn it. People still puzzle me but as I understand myself more, I understand people more. I learned how to give men ideas in a way that made it seem like they came to it all on their own. I learned that parents fight and great parents don’t do it in front of their children. A clean house is a comfortable house. Punishments come in all shapes and sizes; the most effective can be done with a tone or a look. Children come in all shapes, sizes and manners. One size treatments do not fit all. Saying “I’m proud of you” and “I love you” are vital to a child’s development.
Every day I do something that my mother taught me. Every day I learn something that I forgot my mother taught me.
Today isn’t Mother’s Day. It is the day I miss her the most.