Save These Notes!

The following are notes, mostly written by my mom. She was articulate and funny. Sometimes she made up words, sometimes I do too. You have to read closely because even the most mundane sentences end with zingers that make me laugh out loud. I hope you enjoy them.
(I’m not sure the bolds and underlines will appear on the screen. If it looks bad, check back later. Andy, the computer god, will fix it.)

In 1995 or so, my sister was living with her cat, Eddie at my mom’s house. There was an ongoing power struggle about this animal and who would feed and care for him. Erin didn’t always remember to get food before she ran out, and so my mom would nag. Then Erin would get mad at the nagging. What happened in real life wasn’t always funny, but the notes they exchanged still make me laugh:
From Erin:
Do not feed Eddie. He jumped on the counter, got his treats from the cupboard- ate them, knocked over and ripped open his cat food bag. Do not feed him tomorrow either.
From Mom:
If you choose to punish Eddie, then you need to choose to stay home and follow through. I tried to ‘splain to Eddie why I wouldn’t feed him. He went for the paint stripper in the basement—Sos I had to feed him—but I only gave him a miniscule portion (I’m the gramma and I don’t want him to hate me)
From Mom:
Buy CAT FOOD!
From Erin:
Eddie ate—Engorged himself, rather. If he bitches kick him. No don’t do that. Give him a treat and don’t let him out. I bring him his food tomorrow morning before I work.
Mom:
Erin, The cat needs food. Please don’t lets get into a fight over this—just get the f’ing food. Love Mom
Erin:
Don’t nag and we won’t fight
Mom
Erin, Were you here when PaT sHowEd up? I’m just Curious if you tAlked wiTh him. They took some stuff. Not that I carE. ThEy can take all their stuff anD I’ll be ecStatic—I mean it. I’m not Fooling. Oh Oh, I’m not kiDding!
(For the secret message string all the underlined letters)
love mom

At a certain point in the 90s, there were 3 adult kids or kids-in-law living at my mom’s house. It didn’t last all that long, but it sparked some great notes:

Kids,
Suzers went into a fragmented state (formerly known as “vapor lock”), A fugue state, so to speak. She went to bed. Her only hope of recovery is that she will be Alone tomorrow. 1)do not sit on the newspapers. 2) do not leave dishes from a meal that she did not participate in. 3) do not leave recycling. 4) do not pass go.
If cleanliness is next to godliness, we are all going to perish in the flames of hell.
Love, Suzers

PS save this note because I’m so goddamned funny when I’m mad. Lisa’s writing a book about my notes!!
And

To Whom It May Concern::
My green brush is imperative to my good mental health (or at least the maintenance of my current ambiguous mental health) please return it forthwith to the area of the bathroom.

New Years 95 on small blue stationery, my mom asked everyone to write down their wishes for the new year. She kept all the wishes, too.

This is New Year and if your wish for the new Year was that Suzers wouldn’t be a goon—You lose. If your wish was more laudable, we’d like to hear it. If it isn’t laudable it’s probably a facsimile of what we all wish so go ahead and make us feel good (that in itself is laudable). The whole point here is to say what you hope not what you will actually do.
If we all did what we hoped we’d do, there would be no sadness outside of what nature and/ or God ordained.
So go for it and be brutal- we like tears (we also like to laugh, so Patrick you don’t have to be poignant, you either Andy).

I have no idea when this was written it was just stuck in a notebook somewhere:
Lisa is a gritty writer. Nothing lyrical or soft in her prose. Terse and to the point. Poignant without the need for pathos or bathos. Even when trying to be complacent the edge is there. Even when trying to be kind there is an (aura is too soft a word) a hard little nub. Sometimes supposedly all fuzzy of meaning but the (even essence is too soft) inner core is very cohesive.
The following note was probably directed to my brother while he was living at home:

28 down – Used a check improperly- this is a “past tense” it should end in a “D”- Forge isn’t right “kited” is the word
35 down Knight’s weapon- remember “sir Lancelot= not “sir swordalot”.
56 across – exchange tennis shots-“volley” is correct.
10 across “lapp” (easy); famed Australian Horse- correct.
So- out of the four you did (we don’t know how many you tried to do) you got two correct. You also created mayhem for me (which may have been your goal) I’d give you an “A”if mayhem was your goal, a “D” if reality was it.
I actually think you get an “A” because you know it Pisses me off that someone would touch my crossword.
~Your mom

This one was one of a series of naggy notes my mom addressed towards my sister and brother, both adults living at home:
I have a great biblical quote:
“As you find the kitchen, so shall ye leave the kitchen” Gen1:2
I figure this means if the kitchen is clean when I go to bed, it will be clean upon my arisal.
Chicken and BBQ sauce
Spud salad
Home grown raspberries
I’ve checked, there are no quotes about “As the mother cleanest, so shall she reap the rewards of heaven”.
None.

Love mom

This was an email in the early phase of my mom’s relationship with her computer:

April 2001
I cannot type fast enough to tell you how much I hate this fucking piece of shit
computer. It kicked off my whimsical prose and raped me of my lyrical thoughts. Goddamn bastard stupid diabolical thoughtless egotistical piranha. (“My mother was a lady” will not be a layer of the your lore when you speak about me after the Rapture). I asked after Jasper, I waxed philosophical about sickness and children. Potty and children. I segued into something else quite brilliantly. (I believe in transitional phrases and I think I do them with aplomb). I touched upon all manner of living and this stupid conveyer of messages fucked me.
I am now spent and must regroup. Love mom

My mom kept a log of every Christmas and new years get-together. They are notes to herself with a guest list and menu.
Christmas 2002 36 people

Ham from Kocian’s was plenty enough and easy. Slice ahead 2-3 days ahead and warm up in a roasting pan.
Shredded Beef Get a grip on this one—do not panic at last minute. 20 pounds of meat is way too much. 10 pounds is really quite enough—REALLY! There was too much left over. Made one week before Christmas and Froze. Perfect.
Rolls—Three 3 cup batch of white is plenty—don’t PANIC! 2 Three cup of rye and wheat- plenty!!!Please listen to yourself. We (Jenny Brace) made small buns and that was perfect. Make the Day of.
Cole Slaw Oh boy. One head is enough. Maybe 1 ½ heads. Don’t Panic! Too much left over! Make night or two before.
Veggie Platter Too much. Ramon did all the work on this—could make (at least peel and chop) two –three days before. Part of the problem is storage. With people in the basement using the extra fridge there was very limited storage. The van was OK for frozen stuff. It was even OK as a fridge the day of. Because it was so darn nice out. 30degrees or so. (Christmas Eve was beautiful—nice and cloudy with big fluffy flakes falling).
Punch 2 cans of each, 2 bottles of pop perfect. Try to make punch rings ahead of time (Try just to make them, period).
Pies 2 pecan good 1 chocolate 1 banana cream (forget that. It looked like pus for some reason) Made up leftover pie dough which everyone seemed to enjoy.
I have many more, but not enough. This is the woman I miss. The one who was reduced to a skeleton, unable to do anything but feel pain and breath. She was really, really alive, and funny and I miss her.

Sorry, It’s All About Me

I’m sorry. I’ll say so right now. Sorry for misjudging the amount of food it takes to feed my family. Sorry I can’t figure out how to make a pie crust despite the best intentions of people who give me recipes. I’ll keep trying. Sorry that I can’t keep my house orderly or even clean. Sorry for being too mean to my kids. I’m also sorry for being too permissive with them. I know they’re supposed to be the center of my existence and I’m sorry for the joy with which I greet a night alone.

Sorry for getting older, for not keeping my roots the same color as the rest of my hair and for not shaving my legs. For not lifting weights or even exercising at all on a regular basis. I’m sorry for my cellulite, sorry for the veins in my nose and the scars on my breasts. I’m sorry, I didn’t floss last night, but I did the night before. I’m sorry I can’t run a sprint or jump on a trampoline without wetting myself. I really am.

I picked the fat off the corned beef repeatedly, and ate it, knowing full well that it was sticking in my arteries and expanding my ass. I drank a pop, knowing it was dissolving my teeth as I drank it.

I’m not sorry my socks don’t match. Not sorry that I love to sleep in. I’m not sorry for my love of sequins or satin or velvet. I’m not sorry I cry when I read a sad book, even if it’s a kid book. I’m sorry I crossed myself today without believing in the Holy Trinity. But I’m not sorry we stopped to pray. I’m sorry I can’t save the people I love from misery, sorry I can’t fill their needs.

I’m sorry I bought instant oatmeal in individual packets. I make tea every day from individually wrapped packets and I feel bad every time I do it. I’m sorry I own a car, I don’t take the bus. I’m sorry I throw away batteries. I’m sorry for not inviting the fat girl to my birthday party in 6th grade. Sorry for putting a paper bag on the cat’s head. And for throwing him down the laundry chute.

I’m not what I could be.
Not what I want to be, not what I can be. Not what I wish I was. I wish I could go back to school, write a book, adopt some children, paint my living room and speak with eloquence and grace, without my voice shaking. I wish I could dance.

Except sometimes. Sometimes I’m proud. Proud my teeth are white, even if they’re not straight. Proud I can harmonize even if I can’t read music. Proud I sang to my grandmother even after she didn’t know who I was. Proud I massaged my mom’s feet for a nickel when I was a kid, washed them for free when she was dying and kissed them goodbye when she was still warm.

I’m proud I still read stories to my kids, and that I have since they were little. I’m proud we built a pirate ship on the front porch and had every little pirate in the neighborhood in our yard. Proud of my gown and costume collection and my library of children’s books. I’m proud that although I am afraid of bugs and flying, I can talk about any subject over lunch and not lose my appetite.

I’m proud I can speak Spanish in addition to English, and so can my kids. Proud to have shared my home and family with strangers who became our friends. Proud to have children who are kind and strong. Proud to have not given in to the urge to stop getting up in the morning.

I have one more pie crust recipe to try.
I’ll keep trying and failing. Forgive me and let me try again. Sometimes I get it right.

Stillwater

I only looked over my shoulder because of the strange series of sounds I kept hearing and the fact that Annie’s eyes kept wandering that way. The noises were a series of whinings and hissings and snipping threats followed by a loud Mmmmrrrrrmmf… and then a gasp for breath. More than once. More than twice. It sounded all wrong in a little restaurant overlooking the Mississippi, you know? Not at all a Stillwater kind of sound.

Diane and Annie are pretty good company. Diane is Señora sunshine and Annie is like a little tag-along cloud. They create a nice, partly cloudy day between the two of them. Annie was about 15 at the time. She is such a little treasure. Painfully shy, but so full of pent-up idealism that it sparks out her fingers and toes, paralyzing her or causing explosions of utopian rage that cause injury and mayhem. She’s incredible.

Diane is amazed by the world. Everything is fabulous, and if you go along with it, she’s a really fun ride. Go anywhere with her, talk about anything, talk about nothing. She is fascinated. Although if you choose to not talk, she may start asking bald-faced personal questions and leaning forward to hear the answers. She’s also an idealist, but she leans towards joy more than rage.

We had wandered around town looking at things, laughing too loud and not really paying our fair share as far as tourists were concerned. It’s a beautiful town, Stillwater. Old and quaint, but not in the country bumpkin way. It seems like kind of a wise old town, humoring the tourists, not disdainful of them, but not sucking up either. Checking you out. Stillwater was frowning at the family behind me. It was grumbling

It was baby, Mom and Gramma. Three generations at one table and it wasn’t a big enough table. The child wasn’t quite talking age, but she was old enough to be naughty, defiant and embarrassing. All three of them were puffy and crabby looking when I looked over my shoulder. Lunch was there, but no one was able to eat because they were all focused on this child.

She wanted something, maybe to dip her Jell-O in her ketchup, maybe to put salt in her mom’s coffee, maybe to dump grandma’s purse onto the floor. But whatever it was, it was out of the question. She needed a nap. They all needed a nap, and maybe it was my imagination, but at least two of them looked like they needed a little bit of the hair of the dog that had mauled them the night before. It wasn’t going good at table 13.

Annie’s eyes got huge, she leaned in. “She’s covering that baby’s mouth!” That explained the mmmmrrrf sound. So I slid my eyes over as I checked the window behind me. Here is the sequence of events that repeated itself at table 13. Mom and Gramma take a bite, hand baby a French fry. Baby whines, rubs her ketchuppy hands in her eyes and smears her snotty nose all over her greasy face.

She starts the wind-up to cry. You know the series of noisy intakes of breath working up to the pitch that will be the Wail that Rocks the Dock. Either mom or grandma would snap at her through their teeth, “You don’t start that. Not in here. Don’t even…” and she would start her holler. At which point one of them, usually mom, would clap their big, hammy, ring studded hands over the child’s mouth and nose. Completely closing it off. She couldn’t cry out, and couldn’t wind up for more. With their other hand, they’d continue to eat. It was about 7 seconds of struggle, her eyes getting big, and she would stop. They’d back off while she whined a little and gasped for breath. They they’d take another bite… and the whole thing started again.

I guess there is no good way to describe what I was seeing and hearing to make it seem as disturbing as it was. It ruined our lunch. Annie may be the idealist, and Diane may always think positive, but Stillwater needed a woman of action. When the mom left grandma and baby to make a bathroom trip, I saw my chance.

What was the worst that could happen, right? I went over to grandma, I told her I had left my own kids at home. That I knew it was hard to have them in a restaurant, and that I happened to be, at that moment completely refreshed. Would she like me to take the baby out for a little fresh air while they finished their lunch? My friends were just finishing their lunch, so I couldn’t go far… “She’s just such… You know, yeah. Take her.” She did the hand-off and I headed for the door before mom came back out of the bathroom.

Baby and I walked around a little. We looked at flowers, we bounced, we wiped snot off our noses and we puzzled about how we ended up alone together outside this restaurant. We looked at each other, me with my righteous indignation calming and her with her greasy fat little hand in her mouth, staring disbelieving into my face. She didn’t make a sound.

Eventually mom came out, with grandma- it was pretty quick. I imagine there were words about handing off this child to a perfect stranger. I think Annie and Diane paid for my lunch that day while I was out walking baby around. But Stillwater wants us to come back. It liked us.

Ramon

I was teaching at a little community center here in St. Paul. A sort of leftist, communist, subversive place where we were mostly volunteers. Sometimes we had lights, sometimes not. A place where the volunteer teachers were instructed that if ‘la migra’ (INS) ever showed up, we were to take all the class up to the second floor where Centro Legal was located. That was a law office and therefore the migra couldn’t touch any of our students who happened to be illegal.

I loved almost all of my students, but there were some I grew especially fond of. Ramon and his friend Samuel were two of those. Ramon was very quiet, very serious and very smart. He was in his forties. Samuel was an artist, he sketched while Ramon took notes. He was younger than Ramon and not quite so serious. He was tall and thin with light brown hair, light eyes, fair skin, bad teeth and freckles. Neither one of them spoke a lick of English. Ideal students.

Once or twice they disappeared for a couple of weeks. I missed them. But they came back. Once they disappeared for months. I didn’t know their legal status, but I assumed they went or were sent back to Mexico. When they showed up after almost a year, I threw my arms around them, I was so happy. I don’t know what my deal was. I just got attached to them. Especially Ramon.

His profile is just like pictures you’ve seen of Aztec gods. His nose is beautiful, hooked like the beak of an eagle. Even when he smiles, he still looks sad. He’s a small guy, around five feet, but barrel chested and substantial. His skin is dark. Black glossy hair with just a handful of silver strands is swept straight back from his forehead.

He walks with more than a limp. One of his legs is maybe 6 inches shorter than the other and is atrophied from a childhood bout with Polio. His gait is more of a halted rocking than a stride, a barely controlled teetering. He refused to apply for a handicapped permit until my mom got sick. Watching him walk is hard. It looks like so much work.

I have not once heard him complain about being left behind in my family of frantic-paced fast-walkers. Never heard him complain about something being a long way to walk. Never. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that it isn’t fair.

I can’t remember what made me give my phone number to Ramon. But I must have at some point, because he eventually called me when he started having trouble with his new American wife. A healthy-helga-behemoth of a woman who married Ramon after they had known each other only a couple months. This was her third foreign born husband. It was Ramon’s first American wife.

When she kicked him out of the house in January without a coat after scratching his face and neck, he slept in his car. They made up eventually. But not for long. She got mad again and after she clawed at his neck drawing blood, he headed for the door. When wanted his coat and he tried to get back in, She shut the door on his hand and blackened his thumb. The police were called, they convinced her to let him in to get a coat, his keys and some clothes.

He slept in his car again, but this time it was in front of my house. He called in the morning and asked if he could sleep on my front porch for a night or two while he figured out where to go. I told him no way could he sleep on my porch in February, but he could sleep on my couch for a couple nights. He looked terrible. He said he wasn’t going to go back with his wife, “I thought she was good woman, but she is bad business.”

He went a back a couple more times, we did research to see if he could find a shelter for abused husbands. There was not such a thing in the Twin Cites. After a few arguments about whether he was serious about leaving her, something finally tipped him over. He decided to leave for good. But he needed a place to stay. My couch with the kids, the dog and the cats, was just not a good long tern solution.

He stayed a couple days with my in-laws. They played chess and chatted. Everyone who meets Ramon is charmed. He’s a sweet, diffident, intelligent guy. They were charmed. But they lived on the other side of Minneapolis, and had their own livestock and family to attend to. Ramon needed a place where he could settle for a while.

It just so happened that my mom had an empty nest after a divorce and various kids had come and gone and come back and gone again. Her house had 5 bedrooms. My sister was still living at home off and on, but that left 3 empty bedrooms. Sure, Ramon could come and stay for a while. He even paid rent, he helped around the house.

My sister started saying things about maybe there was more going on than boarder, and landlord. She lived there, so we siblings listened with interest. She didn’t have details, because she worked a lot and my mom was always sneaky. You never knew with my mom if it was because she had a package of raspberry zingers in her closet, if she was drinking, if she had found a lump in her neck, if she had a boyfriend or if there really were onions in the stuffed cabbage.

One cool day in the fall of 1996, Ramon came over. One thing about Ramon. He can’t get to the point. Depending on who you ask, this is really a problem with me, because I’m happy to chat with you, but I want to do it after we establish why you’re really calling. And Ramon didn’t just come to visit. It might seem like it, but he always has an agenda. Sometimes he’ll leave and have not fessed up to whatever drove him to you, but the next day or week he’ll be there again, passing time amiably while he works up the nerve to talk about whatever is weighing down his mortal soul.

Such was the case when he passed by my house on that cool day. We sat on my front stoop, soaking up that kind of sun that is just enough to tempt you, almost enough to warm you, but not quite.

We chatted about the neighbors around my mom’s house. How they had been there forever and were always peaking around the shades and trying to figure out what was going on. My mom had a sort of cold war of the window shades going on with the Johanssen’s next door. Einar and Randi (while she was still alive) would always pull their shades, bust sometimes they’d mess with them for a suspiciously long time while they watched into my mom’s dining room, kitchen and back door.

They had shades AND curtains. They kept the doors to the bedrooms on our side of the house closed, so even when the shades were up, there was no way to see people walking around in the house. And they had built a privacy fence for their deck on the side facing our back door. This drove my mom crazy. Never mind that she kept binoculars stashed all over the house and was not a bird watcher.

They played it cool, but once, when the Mister Kitty had climbed up the mulberry tree and gotten himself stuck on the roof, (he usually waited to be let in through the upstairs window, but this was another battle of wills we can address later) and he was perched just on the gutter above the back door, the phone rang. “Sooosie, dis iss Randi. I tink yer keety’s gonna yump!”. So they were watching.

Ramon said he was a little worried about my mom’s reputation in the neighborhood as a “Good woman” since he was living there. Maybe he should find somewhere else to stay. I sat there and wondered if this guy’s machismo was for real. Nobody cared about what was going on there. My mom was twice divorced, anyone who wanted to pass judgment had done it long ago. As long as he was helping my mom out, I wasn’t concerned about her reputation. “You don’t care if people is thinking I am her boyfriend?” I didn’t at all.

We sat and watched the cars go by for a minute or so, side by side. He looked down at the steps between his feet. “Jenny and Patrick doesn’t care?” I told him no. “Ramon, my mom has been very lonely and unhappy. All we care about is that she’s happy.” He sat for a while longer, and I could tell he was really uncomfortable. “You don’t care if is true?” He looked down at his hands.

Ahhh there it was… Why he had stopped by twice that week, why we chatted about the neighbors, about him moving out, about Erin and Jenny and Patrick. They had become a pair! I assured him I wasn’t mad, and that none of the siblings would be mad. He heaved a sigh of relief, gave me a hug and left.

It is entered in my mom’s calendar like this:
October 6th in blue ink
Ramon very upset over rumors about us.
Ramon went to talk to Lisa. Shit.
(Then in black ink, added later)
She assured him he was not degrading my reputation!

And although he can play chess, draw a hell of a schematic, paint, wire (Mexican style) a light in your closet, change your brakes or your oil, he is completely unable to manage his life alone. In my mom’s calendar it says he used to cook dinner once or twice a week. Last time I visited him , he asked if I wanted all the pots and pans, because he doesn’t cook anymore since my mom died. No one does. He was washing dishes when I walked in. We talked a while about bills and budgets. He’s lost. My mom did all that. There was Spanish music on the stereo when I came in. We had been sitting in the dining room for about 20 minutes when I realized he had the disc on repeat. It was the same crooning sad song over and over and over.

He saw me realize we were listening to the same song repeated, and he went to turn it down. He started to explain the lyrics and how they talked about “if only I could just hold you once more. If I could see you once more. That’s all I dream about…” His eyes got red and welled up. He needed to tell me about my mom putting her arms around his neck, when she knew she was really, really sick and it was just the two of them. She’d put her face on his shoulder, hang on him a little and start to cry, “Ramon, what are we going to do?” We sat at the dining room table and cried and held hands. He’s very, very sad.

Bells and Smells

If you have it, you’ll know when I describe it. I have it, my husband does not. My son does, my mom did, the neighbor boy has it… You never know. Until you get into a discussion with them about what color Monday is (it’s yellow, trust me). In a real synesthete, these things do not change even over your lifetime. If you asked me as a kid what color Monday was, I would have told you yellow.

Synesthesia is the crossing of two or more different sensory perceptions in one’s mind. Or that’s the best description I’ve heard. Last time I checked, there was a theory that babies are sort of all-one as far as sensory perceptions go. As they get older, the senses divide off from each other and become discrete. In most people.

Quick, what color is Monday? (aside from the fact that it is distinctly yellow) If you have a strong feeling about the answer to this question, even if it doesn’t match mine, you are probably synesthetic. How about alphabet letters? Do they have an innate color? They don’t for me, but some people have H inextricably linked with orange and O is always black (for example), no matter what color it shows up in text.

The neighbor boy gave himself away in his kitchen while I was visiting. He tried one cookie, put it back and took a different one. “I was trying to find one of the colorful ones” You’d think he wouldn’t have to put his grubby mitts on so many of them to figure this out. They all the same shade of golden-cookie. But then he tried one more, and he was happy. “Oh! Those are the ones with the anise extract in the frosting.” Was his mom’s explanation. “Yeah, I don’t know. They just taste colorful, the other ones don’t”. I asked him,and he said food taste always has color.

For me, smells have texture, shape and sometimes sound. Benetton Colors, the perfume, smells like bells. Period. I don’t hear bells when I smell it, it just smells like the sound of bells. Margarine smells concave and bubbly to me. Coffee is a skinny smell, long and skinny. Unless it’s decaf, then it smells long and skinny, but with a horizontal line across it, right at the bridge of my nose.

Cinnamon (the good kind ) smells suedey and spongy, it’s a bouncy, scratchy smell. This is not metaphor, it’s fact. Good chocolate smells like satin, but it is skinny like coffee, concave, though (go figure). Milk chocolate has all those characteristics, but it’s not so skinny and it has a cobbled texture.

Neil Diamond’s voice, what does it look like? It’s about the diameter of a broom handle, maybe smaller, and it’s striped, gray and black. Sometimes the stripes are close together, sometimes they’re farther apart, but they’re always black and gray. If you ask my son, he’ll say, no Neil Diamond’s voice a is corrugated metal pipe. Silver in color. He agrees with me on the size, about the diameter of a broom handle, but it isn’t straight, it’s got bulges, like big steel beads. He’s wrong of course.

Songs have a certain character, texture and shape. And nothing is more a violation of that than those ridiculous programs that do a visual accompaniment on your screen to whatever song you play on your computer. They are an abomination before man and god. There are NO songs that sound like a laser light show in one dimension. None. The Kinks song Come Dancin’ and the song Come on Eilene by Dexy’s Midnight Runners both have cartwheeling pinwheely things in them, not starbursts or rays and absolutely no dotted lines arcing in time to the baseline. Don’t be an idiot.

For the record, Tuesday is pink; Wednesday is light blue and brown; Thursday is light blue; Friday is black; Saturday is a different shade of pink and Sunday is yellow. Have a happy (black) Friday.

The Big Picture

February 2005

I got the call as I was walking up the back stairs, the caller ID said HCMC (Hennepin County Medical Center). What the Hell? Mom said, “Well…yah, I think you’d better come down here.” Her voice had that no-nonsense, nonchalant tone to it. This was bad. I stopped mid-step. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the hospital, HCMC.” I knew that.
“What’s wrong? Mom, what happened?”
“Well… they don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just had this horrible pain, and my stomach is blown up like a balloon. I thought it was an appendicitis, but it’s not.” The blood drained out of my face. My face and hands went numb, my stomach lurched, I froze.
“Mom, when did you go into the hospital?”
Two days ago,maybe more. “I didn’t know what was wrong, and I didn’t want you to worry for nothing. I didn’t call because I didn’t have anything to tell you until now.” Until now.

I have no idea what I was doing, or how I was able to just drop everything and go there. I remember the sun was shining on my back stairs. Everything stopped. I dropped everything and I went, chastising myself the whole way to Minneapolis about the melodramatic things running through my head: “Cancer, cancer, cancer” I tend towards the melodrama, or I think I do. I leap to the worst conclusions. It’s a kind of magical thinking. If I suspect cancer, it won’t be cancer.

Ramon had been there with her for two days. He begged her to let him call us. When I finally came, he went home for a shower and came right back. He sat quiet, sometimes crying, sometimes smiling, holding my mom’s hand. He was falling apart.

While I was there, doctors came in and started to teach us new words: Ascites, adenocarcinoma, peritoneal wall, transdermal… The realization about what was happening came neither gradually nor suddenly. The nurse was incredibly nice and acted like my mom was the only person in the hospital. She was the same age as my mom, had daughters our age. She’d sit on the bed and chat. She’d sigh and shake her head. My mom made her sad. I think that’s a big deal for a nurse. She called down to the cancer center and made sure her friend, David was the person assigned to my mom’s case.

I called Jenny first. Out in the hall, on the 5th floor at HCMC. My lips weren’t working right. “Um, I’m at the hospital with Mom… I think you better come down here. She’s really sick. They don’t know exactly what’s wrong” “What?! The hospital? Since when? Why didn’t she tell us? You want me to come down now? Tonight?” I was mad that she hemmed and hawed. I did want her to come down right then. I wanted her to already be there. I needed her to come down.

She came. Erin came, too. And while everyone else cried, Erin paced. My mom was worried about her. She told Erin it would be OK to shed a tear. Erin put her chin up, looked at my mom and said, “Somebody’s got to keep it together, here. We can’t all be basketcases.” She resumed pacing.

Mom was in the hospital that time for maybe a week, they struggled to drain fluid off of her abdomen (“ascites, which is usually associated with ovarian cancer” they told us). Someday maybe I’ll tell the story of the interns my mom called ‘The Keystone Cops’ of fluid draining.

We cried, we waivered in and out of the here and now. “Is this how it starts? Is this it? Is this how it happens?” I couldn’t get a good grip on the idea that I was starting on this journey. I hadn’t prepared, none of us had. Ovarian cancer wasn’t even on my radar screen. My mom had too many other things she needed to get straightened out. This couldn’t be happening. But this was how it happened, how it started, and this was it.

They wanted to start chemo immediately and do surgery after 8 courses or so of the chemo. We took shifts and spent nights afterwards to help her. They said she might be weak, nauseated and need some help at home. They didn’t say she might start throwing up two days after chemo and not stop until she went back into the hospital. That happened twice. Everything they predicted went worse than they imagined.

Chemo was hell. The actual 8 hours at the hospital wasn’t too bad. We chatted, we snacked before mom got too sick (the day or two after). We watched the other people and felt sorry for them. Especially if they were alone. We knew their prognosis was bad, but our cancer story was going to be different. Jenny and I, Renee and Ramon were the team, always there, or taking turns. Patrick came by when he was up to it.

Jenny was a relief to have around, because she understood, and we made each other laugh. Renee was a delight because she made my mom smile when she walked in the room,almost always. With her smokey-sweet voice, “Hey girlfriend.” She’d grab mom’s hand or knee and give it a shake. She always brought good snacks. Ramon was a drain because he was heartbroken and bereft from the beginning. And he couldn’t fake it for our or her benefit.

Patrick was good to see because it meant he was up and about, which was a good sign. He is so funny, and when he wasn’t funny, we ruminated and worried about him after he left. It was such a normal way for us to be. Worried about Patrick.

And Erin couldn’t make herself come to chemotherapy. She never did, never could. She simply could not do it. This fact which seems so sad to me now, was at the time, a cause for righteous indignation and analysis. It was so much easier to focus on her and her troubles than on the real deal.

We did the chemo over and over, every three weeks, got through it, barely. Waited to do surgery until her blood numbers were back up. Just like they told us. So she had 8 weeks without chemo, her hair started to come back. Her body seemed relieved and ready to get back on track. She felt good.

She went through the hell of surgery and post surgical complications.

She would have done anything they told her had a good chance of helping her. And she did. They told her to walk, She walked. Walked like a woman possessed. She walked when she couldn’t eat. Walked when she was in pain, walked when she was hooked up to 3 different kinds of IV lines, and there was nowhere to go but up and down the hospital hall.

They told her to drink the high calorie sludge in the cans, she drank it. She hated it with a passion, she was already full of fluid, and nauseated, but she drank the Ensure and the Boost. “I never let it touch my tongue.” Was her mantra.

It wasn’t worth it. All the horrible moments we went through because we thought we had to do it to get to the other side of cancer, we didn’t have to do it. We never got to the other side.

My mom wasn’t ready to die. Not even close. She was scared from the moment she learned she had cancer until she died. She had moments of exhaustion, moments she was miserable and wished it would stop, even some moments of acceptance, but more than anything she was so, so scared. She tried her best. We all did.

By the middle of October she was gone. She was 56.

As We Forgive Those…

Lynn is My Dad’s wife. My stepmother. Witness to, and entangled in a very ugly divorce and custody battle in the eighties between my mom and my Dad. She disapproved almost entirely of the way my mom ran a household, but then, there was plenty to criticize.

There were four of us kids. Our house (with my mom)had one sock box. All socks went into that box and you found matches and wore those to school. Sometimes you wore those for mittens (no lie). There was kids’ artwork taped up all over the house, clutter and chaos reigned supreme. At my mom’s we all had our own clothes (except socks), they came from cousins and garage sales, except maybe at Christmas time. There was much swapping among the three girls.

When Lynn came into the picture we started to have a second set of clothes at my Dad’s house. We had jewelry for the first time in our lives and all our clothes were new. Lynn had a list of every item of clothing and jewelry and who they belonged to. When something got too small and was handed down, it was removed from one list and transferred to the other one.

We were not allowed to take these clothes home with us. We weren’t supposed to call my mom’s house “home”. Lynn said it hurt my dad’s feelings. His place was our home, too. She took good care of him. We were to say either “Mom’s” or the “house” (since my dad had an apartment at the time). When we got to my dad’s house, we changed out of our “mom” clothes and put them in a box in the closet. Sunday afternoons we put on the clothes we had taken off Friday night. My Dad and Lynn’s reference to it as the “out-house box” was maybe reinforcing the whole “house instead of home” idea, or maybe there was more to it.

The parenting styles were vastly different. When we bickered and sunk to the level of calling each other “stupid, idiot, stupid idiot, butt-head and stupid-idiot-butt-head” my mom would make us sit down with a dictionary each, and make us come up with ten better things to call each other. We called each other “dolt, stupid dolt, jerboa, and lummox” instead.

At my dad’s on the other hand, when we had violations of dinnertime etiquette, we got 3 strikes and were out. Talked about poop or snot at the table? Strike one. Called your brother a stupid jerboa? Strike two. Talked with your mouth full of Tyson’s chicken-quick breast patties or Rice-a-roni? You’re out. You had to leave the table and come back when you were ready to be civilized.

My mom read John LeCarre and paid us a nickel to massage her feet. Lynn and my dad played hide and seek and board games with us. My mom took us to the beach, walked us around the lakes, made home made bread, let us sleep out in a tent in the summer, but she almost never let us watch TV. We almost never made our beds either. My dad and Lynn let us watch Solid Gold, Benny Hill and Love Boat, cooked Stouffer’s stuffing and gave prizes if our bed was made the right way, cutting out magazine pictures to illustrate what the right way was.

There were years and years of bitter legal struggles which took place in letters the kids almost never saw, phone calls and driveway fights that we always heard and court battles we never saw. Child protection was involved, and I am willing to bet that every person in this story cried about it more than once. It was a mess. The kind of mess that builds comic book style arch enemies. The animosity was bitter and electric at the same time as it was petty and mundane.

Lynn would snipe that we didn’t have matching socks, but my mom seemed to have plenty of money for beer, and my mom asked us if Lynn ever wore anything that wasn’t beige or cheap or both beige and cheap.

That was in the eighties. Those four kids are all grown-ups now. Lynn had breast cancer in 1998. It went in my mom’s calendar. “Lynn has cancer, she doesn’t want to talk about it.” Then a couple days later, “Lynn had her surgery today.” Obviously Lynn was still an important persona in my mom’s life, even if they almost never saw each other. There was still bad blood, even if it wasn’t boiling bad blood anymore. When they had to be in the same building, or god forbid, the same room, I speak for 4 adult children when I say the tension was enough to make us all vomitose.

Then my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Stage 4. In the spring she was pretty damned sick. But still able to get out of bed and talk and be a human. She was still matching her head-scarves with her outfits and making phone calls. She still spent time home alone. But too sick to be able to have Bailey without back-up.

Bailey asked, “Gramma why can’t you play with me on the floor like before? Why can’t we play Jumping-kitty? I wish you never got that dumb cancer.” She was 7, my mom was 55. The fact that they couldn’t see each other was a huge deal.

I’m not sure how Lynn felt about their whole relationship. I think she disapproved a little of how close Bailey was to her gramma. How much my mom and Ramon parented Bailey. Mothers are supposed to raise daughters, and then the daughters raise their own kids. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

But Bailey was the number one most important thing in my mom’s life. What made her the most profoundly sad about dying (besides everything) was Bailey and how she would be. Would she know that my mom tried her hardest to get better, for her more than anyone else? Would she feel like she made my mom get sick by jumping all over her? Would anyone love her as much as my mom?

But they couldn’t really take care of her anymore. Ramon was working. My mom was getting sicker, not better. And Erin was on the downslide for whatever various and accumulated reasons. Bailey was spending lots of time over at Erin’s in-law’s house (Erin’s new in-laws, little sister Maddie’s grandparents) with Maddie. So much time that we were having trouble setting up a time for Bailey to visit. It went a couple of weeks trying to set it up. The in-laws stopped answering the phone, were evasive about when we might be able to get Bailey.

Somehow, Lynn started to figure out what was going on, too. Maybe she wanted a visit with Bailey and Maddie, I don’t know. But she heard through the grapevine that my mom really wanted to see Bailey. And somehow it got back to her (breast cancer survivor) that one of the in-laws had decided my mom was “too sick” to see Bailey. I’m glad they put it that way.

Because soon thereafter Lynn tried to call them. No answer. She drove over to their house and told them she was taking Bailey to see her Gramma. And she did. The original plan was to bring Bailey to Jenny’s and let Jenny bring her over to Mom’s. But for some reason she decided to just go straight to Mom’s house with her. I haven’t finished being grateful for that.

When Lynn showed up with Bailey in tow, they embraced and cried. My mom and Lynn, that is. They touched. Lynn said she wished she could do more, and stayed long enough for my mom to get tired of her (My mom was grateful. She got teary-eyed even telling the story, but she was still wicked enough to report it thusly).