Every Valentine's Day, people around me divide into two basic groups. There are people who are in relationships, and there people who are not. Both groups focus their attention on their relationship status. The ones in relationships go out on dates, stay in on dates, hang out with other people doing similar things. The ones that aren't gather to drink and rant about the lousy state of their love lives. I usually hang out with the second group - I haven't had a date on Valentine's Day since I stopped dating high school girls – but for me Valentine's Day is not about my ineptitude at relationships. For me Valentine's Day is about my mother.
My mother, Nancy, was born on February 14, 1943, to Jack, a WWII vet working in hotels, and Barbara, a telephone operator. She grew up moving around Tennessee and the east coast, mostly in Maine. She identified more with her new england background, although I always thought of her more as being from Tennessee since that's where my grandparents lived when I was a kid.
When she was growing up, mom's family moved slightly less than every year. Grandpa had letter dyslexia so badly that he had trouble holding jobs. They kept moving, hoping that things would be better somewhere else, but they never were.
Mom was smart and did well in school, although she wasn't academically oriented. Her side of the family is marked by three things. They're smart but not academic, they're incredibly stubborn, and they have a raging sweet tooth. Mom did well in school and got into Smith, where I think she studied political science. Other relatives thought Grammy was crazy sending her daughter to school when she had two younger sons to educate. Grammy, who hadn't been to college herself, said that Nancy always did so well that she had to encourage her, and she kept mom in school. After college mom went to Emory to study library science. She represented her department at the graduate student council, where she met my father, who was representing his department, political science. They were married 6 months later.
After grad school, they moved around a bit. They thought they were going to settle in Kentucky, until dad got fired from his teaching position for being a communist. They decided to come to Minneapolis, where dad would attend the U of M law school. A few years later, they decided to have kids, something mom hadn't wanted to do because she'd raised one of her brothers. Mom worked part time at various libraries while we were little, taking more hours as we got older.
When I was little, mom was really into child development. She read to me, signed me up for classes, played with me, and generally devoted a lot of time and energy to me. When my brother was born, her time was, of course, a lot less. Donald was a higher maintenance kid than I was, wouldn't hold still to be read to, always getting into things. I felt like she favored him, especially since she was a lot harder on me. Mom had wanted to take piano lessons as a child, so even though I have no musical inclinations, I had to have piano lessons. She'd wanted to dress fashionably, so she was always trying to get me to dress fashionably. This was a recurring argument in our house; mom wanted to have a child who was into clothes and fashion and looking right, and unfortunately for everyone, that child was my brother. Mom always felt it should be me, that girls should be into that kind of thing, and that I would never get where I wanted to go if I didn't conform to certain behaviors. We were fighting about this before I was out of elementary school, and it escalated every year thereafter.
When I was 12, mom went into the doctor to get a lump on her arm checked out. It turned out to be malignant, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy that summer, with chemotherapy and radiation therapy through the fall. No one told me what was going on, although everyone has claimed since then that they did. At the time, I figured it out from all the books about cancer that suddenly appeared in the house. Mom had six months to live, although no one told me that at all until six months had passed. I was starting junior high when this was happening, so I was in my own personal hell already. In the winter she decided we were going to go skiing, and I fought her over it. I found out she might have been dying during the fight. I have never skied since.
Living with mom after she started chemotherapy was less pleasant. With all the other stresses she was under, she had time for one child, and she chose my brother. She still got on my case about my appearance and whatever I was doing that she thought I shouldn't be, but for the most part she left me alone. This means that after I was twelve, I lived with my parents, but wasn't raised by them. I have very mixed feelings about this; I know that there are still a lot of things left over from this that affect my life today, but at the same time, I'm glad my mother didn't get more of an opportunity to drill her messed up ideas about gender and society into my head. My father during this time and through my entire childhood was a shadow figure, someone who cooked and yelled and fought, but who wasn't really present because he was drinking.
Mom decided early on that she was going to beat the odds against her, and started reading on her own. As a result of the research she did, my mother changed her diet. She cut out dairy and sugar, and cut down on fat, or at least that was the theory. Dad's always done the cooking at our house, so the practice was a little different. Dad thought that if mom didn't want to eat something, she should just not eat it. Mom thought that if she didn't want to eat something, dad shouldn't cook it so she wouldn't be tempted. The crowning fight came over chicken preparation. Mom wanted dad to skin the chicken before he cooked it, so that it would be healthier. Dad wanted to skin the chicken after he cooked it, so that it would taste better. They screamed about this every night for three weeks. They couldn't come to an agreement, couldn't agree to do it half and half. To this day if you bring this argument up to my dad, he'll get mad and rant about how unreasonable my mom was about this. Soon after this started, I became a vegetarian, which made both of them focus their aggressions on me.
Life went on. My parents yelled at me that vegetarianism was going to kill me. I went vegan. They yelled about my clothes. I dyed my hair green. They yelled about my grades. I started skipping class more. Dad stopped drinking. Mom started her own business, doing freelance research, essentially the same job she'd been doing but for a lot more money. I started college, Donald started high school. Things never really returned to normal, but they did go on. Mom's health was good for 7 years after the cancer, when she started getting lung ailments over and over, bronchitis, pneumonia, colds. She'd get them treated, but wouldn't have her lungs checked out, insisting she was fine. She and dad took a road trip down south to see various friends and relatives they hadn't seen in a long time. It was mom's goodbye trip, although no one figured that out at the time. When I came home from my first year of college, she was having trouble with her voice. She had a swollen lymph node pressing on one of her vocal chords, which meant she couldn't talk much above a whisper. She went in to have that checked out. At the physical required before voluntary surgery, the doctor told her he wanted her to check herself into the hospital right then because he was afraid she'd die in the next 24 hours if she didn't.
Mom told him that she had a presentation to give the next morning, and she'd check in in the afternoon. That night at 1am, dad pulled me off the computer. "Get your mom dressed," he told me, "we're going to the emergency room." I dressed my mother, awkwardly, unsure of how to dress someone else, unsure of how to do it without acknowledging that she was sick, something that absolutely could not happen. We got her to the emergency room. Dad and Donald took her in, leaving me to park dad's car, which he didn't let anyone drive at the time. We sat in emergency care with mom until she kicked us out, telling us to go the hell home and go to bed already. She was admitted to the hospital, where she stayed for several weeks. During that time she was examined and biopsied and x-rayed. She spent the whole time insisting that she was fine, she'd just overdosed on vitamin C, making me go to the U of M biomedical library to look up studies of vitamin C megadoses on rats. I knew that vitamin C is a water- soluble vitamin. I looked anyway.
The first several biopsies didn't show anything. They checked her liver, lungs, other organs. They finally found the cancer in her bone marrow. In summer of 1996, mom was diagnosed with cancer in the lungs, lining of the lungs, heart casing, and liver. If she started chemotherapy immediately, she'd probably make it six months. At the very outside, if everything went perfectly, she might live two years. If she didn't start chemotherapy, she'd die in 2 months. She opted to move to Abbott and start chemo, still insisting she was fine. I went back to college, telling dad and Donald to call me every week, to let me know what was going on. At the time I left, mom was on oxygen and couldn't walk across the room without pausing to catch her breath. She'd asked me to make her a painting in a style I'd been doing recently, but when I finished it made her too dizzy to look at.
At school, I was pretty far out of it. I had trouble sleeping, I was scattered in class, I wasn't talking to many people. I had no idea what was going on at home. Previously, mom had been the one to keep in touch with me at school since she was the only one of the three of them who had or was willing to use email. Dad and Donald were lousy about calling. After I'd been at school for about a month, I tried calling. I found out that mom had been out of the hospital for 3 weeks. They'd thought they'd called me.
Communication was on and off for the rest of the fall, mostly off. I had problems with my social circle at school, and my two best friends stopped talking to each other over a girl they both liked. I went home for winter break, relieved for the first time to be going back to my family.
The relief didn't last long. Donald picked me up at the airport, and we started fighting before we got to baggage claim, not stopping the entire time I was home. I spent that break writing a term paper, driving everyone in my family everywhere, one car and four people with very different schedules, and taking care of mom. Mom's chemotherapy stopped working while I was home, and for the first time since she'd started it, she came home worse after a session rather than better. She was bald, too thin, and her skin had an odd quality to it. She couldn't eat solid foods anymore, but was living on prepackaged shakes that were so gross none of the rest of us would touch them. Occasionally she'd have me make her tea, lukewarm and barely steeped. The disease progressed. When it hit her stomach, she made dad and me go out to dinner rather than have us watch her be sick.
Even during the worst of it, mom wouldn't admit that there was anything seriously wrong with her. She'd beaten cancer before, and she could do it again. She was going to recover. She admitted that she was dying exactly once to dad, and that was when she told him that he had to use the life insurance money to pay for my education. She never admitted anything to me or Donald. She told one of her nurses once that it would be okay with her if dad remarried, although she couldn't tell him that. I don't know what else she told anyone, especially since I wasn't there. Dad and I knew what was going on before we got the diagnosis back in the summer. Donald thought she was going to recover up until near the end, or maybe he just wanted to believe that.
I went back to school towards the end of January, starting classes in what became my major. I was even more scattered than previously, and having trouble eating as well as sleeping. Dad and Donald tried to stay in more regular contact, setting the designated call time as Sunday morning, but sometimes they forgot to call and wouldn't be there when I tried or I'd remember too late at night. They told me at the beginning of February that mom wanted birthday cards and could I please make her one. I sent one I'd made with markers and stickers, unhappy that I couldn't call her because her voice wasn't strong enough to carry over the phone. It was then that I realized I would probably never speak to her again. By the time her birthday came around, mom looked like she was just going to hang on in bad shape for a long time, until sometime in the spring. A few days after her birthday, dad arranged for mom to go into a nursing home. He couldn't take care of her anymore. Probably she insisted, too. It was a Wednesday, and I was trying to call, trying to get through, freaking out because I couldn't get a hold of anyone. Dad called me back later to explain what had happened. He'd been sleeping in my room, working full time and trying to take care of mom and Donald. He sounded tired.
That Saturday morning, February 22, 1997, before I was up, the phone rang. I leaned over the edge of my bed to answer it, already feeling the wrongness of the phone call, already knowing what I would hear. My brother was on the line, trying to tell me what had happened without crying. He failed. I wanted the conversation to be over, wanted him to come out and say that she had died, didn't want to listen to him break down because then I'd cry too. He put dad on the line, and dad told me that she'd died around midnight, that it had been painless with all the morphine she'd been on. We sat on the phone not talking for a while, said what we had to, and hung up. I spent the next week not going to class, not knowing if I needed to eat, wearing the same jeans, not knowing if I'd slept. Two weeks later I went home for the funeral, an event with all my aunts and uncles, my mother's mother, people I don't know hugging me, and too much Jesus propaganda.
Aftermath: Moving away from my mother is easily one of the best things that ever happened to me. I went from not talking, holing myself up somewhere to read to voluntarily interacting with other humans. I could do things on my own terms for the first time in my life. After she died, I found that I was more comfortable at home than when she'd been there. At the same time, this is my mother, who I lived with for 19 years, who was great when I was a small child, who I could make a list as long as my life of stuff she did for me. Her death was traumatic for me, partly because watching someone die of cancer is pretty horrible, and partly because I'm probably better off, at least emotionally, with her out of my life. In the last few months of her life, a friend of mine was trying to convince me that I should tell her how much I hated her, how much the things she'd done had hurt me. With my mother's conflict avoidance strategies - "Everything is fine!" - I couldn't do it. Rather than bringing any kind of closure, it would have become very ugly. Instead, I let her die thinking everything was okay between us. I feel better having given her a sense of reconciliation than I could have felt telling her off. Also, I was afraid she'd come back and haunt me.
One thing in particular stands out about my mother's death, and that is that even though her cancer came back, she didn't have a recurrence of breast cancer. Dad thinks that she was exposed to DDT when she was about 12 or 13, and that that's what gave her cancer. I'm hoping that this theory is correct, since it might lower my cancer risk a little. As a woman whose mother had premenopausal breast cancer, I'm in the second highest risk group, after women whose mothers had breast cancer before they were born, which in realistic terms means they're fucked. I'm in the group that's almost certainly fucked, and I've already had one scare over breast cancer. It turned out to be nothing, but it made me think more seriously about how likely it was to happen to me. I know that part of my mother's problem the second time around was that she wouldn't go to the doctor even though she knew something was wrong, and she somehow thought that if she didn't pay attention to it, it would go away. I've been concerned about my cancer risk for the last 15 years, and have made a number of the choices I've made about the way I live with reducing my risk in mind. Realistically, I'm probably fucked. One in 8 american women are now getting breast cancer, up from 1 in 11 in 1973 and still rising, and that's just breast cancer. This is what Valentine's Day is about for me. It's about death, and cancer, and invasive poisonous treatment. It's about trying to cope with the loss of someone I have strong but incomprehensible feelings about.
It's about remembering my mother on her birthday, six years after her death.