As of last week, I found myself in a situation where I yet again ask myself, ‘I wonder what my mom would say about this.' I would call mom when I had difficulties, and she would talk things over with me and give me nuggets of wisdom and encouragement. What I have now are merely memories and projections of what I think she might say.
My mom survived two life-threatening illnesses in her lifetime; TB and Hepatitis C. When she was initially diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011 we were scared but yet hopeful that the surgeon would get it all, and she would have that resiliency that brought her through the other illnesses. It seemed as if she was resilient. The surgeon was successful at getting all of the cancer, she had a good recovery and even though chemo is never fun, she did quite well with it without too much nausea. Six months later her blood test was like that of a person who had never had cancer.
It was a joyous time for us. I remember Mother’s Day with all of my moms; my mother-in-law, my sister’s mother-in-law and of course the “hero of the year”, my real mother. As she walked into the crowded restaurant with hair long enough to show in public without a hat or scarf (but of course, quite short) my husband loudly exclaimed “Oh look! It’s Sinead ‘O mother’! Mom got a big kick out of it and loved seeing everyone. We were a loud bunch celebrating with several families.
My mom always stood out in a group. Yes, like me, she was loud and tall, but she could be rather blunt. Many might describe her as a “character”. She was born and raised in urban Chicago and still retained her accent. When she called, she always said “Hi Paula, It’s just mahm” My sisters, and I like to say that she ‘grew up in the streets’. Dad was raised on a farm in Nebraska. I think that my “street smart” mom was the perfect compliment to rather a naive farm boy dad! They balanced each other out and dad worked hard caring for her during her recovery.
She was always the creative mom in the crowd and so many times I wished that she could be more ‘normal.' She always came up with great themes for our parties. When she made rice crispy treats for the class, she added a chocolate or peanut butter flourish (before it was popular) and probably would say something crazy or funny the moment she entered the building. I always would be embarrassed and wanted less flare and flourish in my life. Why did I want to blend in so much?
July (after recovery) was Vacation Bible School time at church and mom and dad invited me to come on over. During one of the skits their vicar was wearing a kilt, and mom yelled out, ‘what’s under your kilt?’ right during the show. The vicar who just loved my mom wryly replied, ‘this is a church madam’! Oh, my mom really could be SOOO embarrassing but that time I was just grateful to have her around and see both mom and dad in their element. She had survived, and I loved every inch of my funny, creative, blunt, embarrassing, crazy and loving mom. So did everyone else who knew her.
When the cancer came back in August, my mom knew…she just knew. She started giving out early presents. When she handed me a beautiful silver necklace as an early birthday present, I thought she was being dramatic. “My birthday isn’t until November, and everyone knows that mom is a survivor”, I thought. The cancer spread quickly, and she just became more and weaker. We had frequent scares, trips to the emergency room and late night 911 calls. I had to be strong and make important decisions with the doctors. It was grueling, and mom was fading quickly. When the ambulance came for her last trip to the hospital, I was praying that she would not come home. I didn’t think dad could handle it. It was exhausting and overwhelming for all of us.
She went to her heavenly home on a Thursday morning. I was not there but held her hand the night before. She squeezed it a couple of times, so I know that she was with me. Dad called me the next day to tell me she had gone. Their faithful pastor was already there to help, and it felt surreal to gather around and say goodbye to her lifeless body. Then something totally bizarre happened. A volunteer came into the room with balloons and seeing four visitors and failing to accurately assess the situation exclaimed in the most enthusiastic of voices, “It looks like a party in here!!!”. We were just horrified. It was an incredibly awkward moment as we told him that she had just died. Ooooo… the poor poor guy…the apologies… the look on his face…the quick and polite exit. Sometimes I don’t think it happened. But it did! It really did. It happened at her deathbed and to this day, it still makes me laugh. Such a fitting exit for my colorful and funny mom! Sometimes my husband and I imagine that at all the future hospital volunteer training they say, “Take a lesson from Stan and don’t let this happen to you. Make sure there hasn’t been a death before you barge into a room”! I imagine my mom giggling with us and saying, “for Pete’s sake, what a goof!”.
We laid mom to rest in the Santa Ana section of Fairhaven cemetery. She and my dad picked out the spot. It is probably one of the most colorful sections of the cemetery in a mostly Hispanic area. There are usually toys, dolls, trinkets, brightly colored trees and flowers decorating graves all around and holidays are especially spectacular. On more than one occasion a mariachi band has serenaded me when I have come to visit, and I often see people having picnics nearby. It is tacky, over the top and PERFECT. It makes me smile and laugh.
So now, two and a half years later my dad went to be with the Lord as well. The family home has been sold and now not only do I live halfway across the country I am preparing to move to a new country. My life has taken several dramatic turns in just the last three years. I write this in some sadness and trepidation. I imagine my mom saying, "You know Paula; I never have to worry about you. You go through things like this and always land on your feet". She might add "Life is short, don't let other's perceptions of you guide your decisions". Sometimes I worry that I may be a little too creative, a little too loud and have a little too much flare. It's what I know...it's who I am and who I came from. I can't help it. I take after my mom!