One of the perks of my jobs is being able to travel around the country, often coming into contact with my extended family along the way. This happened this past week in Mason City, Iowa.
My Mother, Barbara, was the fourth of nine children born to a poor farmer and his wife in Southern Illinois in the 1940s. As one can imagine, attention from the parents would be hard to come by with so many mouths in the house to feed, and young bodies to clothe constantly. I never met my maternal grandfather as he died suddenly when my mother was still a teenager. Coping with the stresses of the day, I’ve learned, was not a forte of my maternal grandmother. But she did so in her way, and all the children grew into responsible, healthy adults.
Yet, my Mother always seemed to be searching for something. As a parent, she did what she was supposed to do by feeding us, clothing us, sending us to school, etc. But I don’t have memories of her being a comforting, cuddling, motherly presence. She handled her stresses with cigarettes, strict physical discipline, and chemicals. In fact, my memories of her being sober for the first time came when I was 19. For a while, she tried to live without her emotional and chemical crutches. But it was too much for her, and she eventually returned to her self-medicating ways.
As I grew older and became a parent myself, I found myself growing confused by my Mother and the role she did not play in my life. I remember sitting on a plane on a runway in Minneapolis one morning, reflecting upon the pregnancy I’d just learned was mine the day before. I felt so scared and ill equipped to handle the role of “mother”. The epiphany that followed was a realization that if I was going to be a good mom to my kids, I’d have to go get those tools on my own. Blaming my Mother for not giving them to me would do no good. It was now my responsibility. It’s not enough just to feed, clothe and educate your children. That’s what you’re supposed to do, at a bare minimum. The world is a big place, full of wonder and danger alike. I didn’t want my children to feel that loneliness I felt growing up. I wanted to hold their hands as they learned to maneuver life in front of them. I wanted to give them all the protection they needed, and follow up with that gentle nudge in the direction of their fears and dreams. I wanted to feel true selfish sadness when they no longer needed me, and then step back and watch them make their own ways on their own journeys. And in that moment on a plane, I owned that responsibility.
When my Mother was diagnosed with stage 3B lung cancer in May, 2008, my body was flooded with an anger that was overwhelming. She was a chain smoker who loved her cigarettes more than anything. I got the news when traveling in Pittsburgh with the Army Blues. I was driving alone in a rental car when my brother, John, called to tell me the news. I remember pulling over on the side of the interstate, suddenly unable to think clearly, taking in the information that was flowing into my right ear and settling on my brain. Hanging up, I put my head on the steering wheel, closed my eyes and yelled as loud as I could, as the rush hour traffic passed outside my window. As the tears followed, I sat there for half an hour, until I got it together enough to drive myself to the gig at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. I called my Father right away after I’d safely parked the car. Although they’d been divorced since 1989, my parents always maintained a deep caring for one another. As I struggled through my anger and tears my Father did the most fatherly thing he could’ve done in that moment. He said, “Now stop it right now! The clock starts now! The rest doesn’t matter anymore!” Immediately, his voice and words stopped my tears, and I accepted what was happening. The next call to my Mother, while difficult, was one of hope and life, as we both vowed to do whatever needed to be done to fight the evil disease that was eating her alive.
The next several months were difficult ones for my Mother and for all of us who tried to make her life joyful. With the help of my Aunt Jackie, I was able to get her an appointment at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for an evaluation. Her appointment was in November, the day before Thanksgiving. She finished the appointment with a treatment of chemotherapy. I waited next to her in the treatment room, with several others who were there with their loved ones having chemo treatment, too. I remember sending prayers to “Whoever had the power” that all of them would still be around for Thanksgiving the next year. As we got into the car in the parking garage, my Mother lit up a cigarette. I stopped the car, got out and threw up where she couldn’t see me. I couldn’t believe that after all she had been through, she could still light up and smoke!
Didn’t she love us, her 6 children? Didn’t she love her grandchildren? Why couldn’t she just stop and try to get better? Did she really love cigarettes more than her own life? And what about all those people who live clean, happy and healthy lives that are stricken with cancer? What about them? I felt so sick, unloved and confused…the chemo was fresh flowing through her veins…In hindsight, what a sanctimonious ass I was!
When the news came in February that she was in stage 4, and that the cancer had metastasized, it felt like a kick in the gut for all of us, especially her. I think this was the point at which she gave up on life. Days later, she got into a Hospice bed and never got out of it again. We knew it was really serious when she could no longer hold a cigarette to light it, and we all made our way to Kansas City to be with her. She passed away with myself, my brothers John and Andrew, my Aunt Rosemary and my cousin Kari at her side. I’ll never forget that look of clarity in her eyes just for that moment before she transitioned. I remember leaning over and kissing her forehead, stroking her hair, feeling relief that she was finally at peace.
In the years since her death, I’ve found myself trying to understand this woman who gave me life. I never knew her as anything but a disciplinarian. She was always so angry and sad, and she rarely laughed or smiled. My range of emotions have been all over the map as I’ve tried to define her, as I’ve tried to make rhyme or reason out of the way she raised her children-of how she raised me, her first daughter. I have felt intense frustration as I watch my own children grow, knowing that she is missing out on them. I have been angry more often than naught that she couldn’t have been more involved with me and my brothers and sister. I’ve felt guilt as I think back to how we tried to handle her illness as her support. After all, it’s easy to make decisions when you’re not the one dying, isn’t it? Sometimes the sadness overpowers me as I imagine my own death one day: praying that my children will not look upon my lifeless body with so many questions, as I did with her, and hoping that all they can say is, “Remember when Mom did this or that with us?” and, “Do you remember how Mom used to make us feel better by…”.
I think it’s human nature to want to be able to define things in a concrete way. As a race, we like to label things, situations, people, etc. We like things neatly organized and filed. I’m no different. Just when I’d come to the resolution that my Mom was heartless and cold, I had my resolution fractured into a million pieces. Years of questions to form a solid opinion were destroyed in moments. It happened last week in Mason City, Iowa. My Mom’s younger sister Jackie drove up from Kansas City, MO to see the Jazz Ambassadors play. We were sitting at breakfast the following morning in the hotel lobby. Aunt Jackie had just given me a 2006 Holiday Barbie doll to give to my daughter. The doll was a gift to Aunt Jackie from my Mother, and it was the background story that shattered my opinion I’d fought so hard to form of my Mother.
Aunt Jackie recounted a story of when she was very little with younger brother Jim in Illinois. Mom had come to visit one Christmas, not long after she’d married my Father. She’d brought Christmas gifts for her younger siblings, something that was a luxury in the family since money was not something they had a lot of. My Mom’s gift to Jackie was a Ken doll. She’d explained to little Jackie that Ken was all she could get as Barbie was nowhere to be had that Christmas. She followed with a promise that she’d get her a Barbie one day. Jackie replied that it was okay because my Mom (Barbara) was her Barbie, a sweet response for a sweet gesture.
Decades and life followed. My Mom finally gave Jackie her Barbie doll in Kansas City, not that long before she passed. She never forgot her family or her promise. As Aunt Jackie told me the story, I felt my pessimistic attitude towards my Mother begin to melt again. Fighting back tears, I tried not to let the confusion and emotion show on my face.
My Mother had always hoped that I would have a daughter. Ironically, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter just days before my Mom died. But as I stood next to her Hospice bed, holding her hand as she struggled in her last hours, I could not bring myself to tell her I was pregnant. I feared the news would destroy her as she left this world – as if dying isn’t hard enough…So she never knew.
When I get home from tour in a week’s time, I will carry with me a Barbie doll for my daughter. Aunt Jackie thought my daughter would appreciate the doll. I will also carry with me a new appreciation for my Mother. Gone is the need of having to define a person with one single definition in one single moment.
My Mother’s only sin was not being able to love the one person she needed to love the most: herself. I wish she could’ve seen what a beautiful heart she had. I wish she could have appreciated the love she was capable of giving. I wish she could’ve chased her demons away, and lived with the beautiful spirit inside of her instead.
This week, as my Mother’s oldest sister, Margie, joined her in that other realm, I envision them, sitting and laughing at our silly asses still left here, struggling through all we think we know. I hope they’re getting good and comfy up there, readying themselves for the next round of antics taking place down here. Because the truth that I do know is that I don’t know a damned thing, about anyone else, and rarely about myself. But I’m going to keep that door opened, put away my label machine, and just listen…to them, to those who knew them. And I’m gonna laugh when I hear them laughing at me because I sure can be a knucklehead!
I love you Mom, and Margie!!