The day my mom nabbed my six-foot-five dapper dad, happiness and joy filled her life. I know because her wedding pictures show me. Her ruffled dress, fancy up-do, small leather suitcase, toothy smile, and sparkling eyes reveal a woman eager to embark on a new life with a new name, right after a fairy-tale honeymoon in Niagara Falls.
But I never knew that woman, or at least I don’t remember her.
The mom I knew hunched over and the corners of her mouth drooped like an old Basset Hound. Much of the time she didn’t bother with make-up or styling her hair. She looked older than her age, with wrinkles spreading across her face from years of smacking bare-butt Old Gold cigarettes, the slender cylinder dangling between her fingers left brown liver spots covering the backs of her hands. Baggy, tattered sweatshirts were a staple in chilly weather. Sleeveless, cotton blouses in the California heat revealed saggy upper arms and yet more wrinkles.
My parents were practically ancient by the time I came along. The youngest of five kids, my three oldest siblings, Tom, Suz, and Peggy, were seventeen, fifteen, and thirteen, respectively, when I graced the family with my presence. My closest sister, Berta, was barely three years old. Both my parents worked full-time for as long. My dad owned his own auto mechanic’s shop and my mom worked on a chicken ranch eye-dropping, vaccinating, and debeaking chickens. It’s no wonder she looked exhausted. She was.
What I remember most is that she seldom smiled or laughed. When she did apply her Avon Coco Poco lipstick, the happy coral color only accentuated her frown. And I remember that I often doubted whether she loved me.
A Legacy of Death
I never met my mother’s father, Grandpa Floyd. Metastatic colon cancer stole his life at the age of forty-four when my mom was only eighteen. Aunt Barbara, Mom’s only sister, died of metastatic uterine cancer at the age of forty-five, the year I turned five. Then two years later my mother’s mother, Grandma Meta, died too, though not of cancer. Her funeral, the first I ever attended, was a solemn and dark affair, much in line with the stern demeanor I had always experienced from her.
I was nine, maybe ten, when Mom battled cancer. Twice. At the time, I don’t think I realized she could have died, but I’m sure the fear of death lurked in her mind. All I knew was she had to be in the hospital both times.
The first time she was hospitalized, they put her in the maternity ward because the cancer ward was full. Kids weren’t allowed in maternity, which meant I stayed alone in the waiting room while my dad visited her. The dingy upholstered chair provided no comfort as I drummed my fingers on the wooden armrest, hoping he’d return soon.
During the second cancer bout, the hospital allowed me to go into Mom’s room with my father and siblings. The private hospital provided an almost homey accommodation with wood trim and soft lighting—nothing like that first waiting room. When we arrived, she struggled to sit up in bed, propped up with pillows behind her. Her noon meal sat half-eaten on the portable tray. I climbed up on the bed next to her and eyed the remains of her meal.
“Can I have your Jell-O?” I asked.
A half-smile crossed her lips as she reckoned I could help her clean her plate.
“I have to eat it all before I can go home,” she confided.
I slurped up the Jell-O and nibbled a muffin, delighted to have found favor with her. She said it was our little secret and not to tell the nurse. When the nurse came in, she announced Mom would be discharged soon.
Back home, I expected her to be all better. Maybe the cancer had caused her unhappiness all along and not me. Maybe now she would have lots of time for me. To love me. But though the cancer hadn’t killed my mom, it wounded her already ragged spirit.
My Troubled Teen Years
During my teen years, I experienced my own trauma. A sexual assault I never told Mom about led to repeated attempts to drown my pain in drugs and alcohol. When I showed up late and drunk, I longed for her to punish me, anything to show me she cared. All I ever received was the silent treatment.
One day, I stopped mid-stride on my way into her room to ask a question. A gasp escaped my lips as I caught her sitting slumped on the edge of her bed without a shirt or bra. The crimson scar across her white chest looked like the jagged crevice of a dying lava flow. The surgeon had taken her diseased breast and sloppily gathered excess skin like Dr. Frankenstein creating his monster. The hideous mark seared into my memory. The other scars she bore were hidden behind her stony façade.
When she saw me in the doorway, she yanked on her bra with the pocket for her falsie. I didn’t understand then, but now I realize how agonizing it must have been for her to see the disfigured wound where her breast should have been. Day after day in the shower, whenever she dressed, it glared back at her. A palpable reminder of what all had been stripped away.
A Glimmer of Understanding
Mom finally succumbed to cancer at sixty-two; metastatic colon cancer—the thief returned to our family once again. Not quite twenty-four, the echo of every criticism she ever wielded against me haunted my thoughts as I hid behind my own stony façade, struggling to see myself as loved.
But life went on, even in the wake of loss and death. In 2012, I visited my dad’s sister in Denver, Colorado. As we reminisced, she told me about how my mom used to call her in tears because she didn’t know what to do about my excessive drinking. I had no idea. The care I had longed for expressed itself somewhere I hadn’t expected. Her silent treatment had only extended me.
The following year, my sister Peggy lost her battle with breast cancer three days before my son Benton’s eighteenth birthday. I sat in her sterile hospital room the night she breathed her last thinking of my mom and how she’d lost a sister to cancer, too. And she’d lost her sister as she cared for children, saying goodbye the year I welcomed the age of five.
As I made chili dogs and German chocolate cake for Benton’s birthday, it felt nearly impossible to hold both the grief of Peggy’s death and the joy of loving Benton in the same moment. Mourning death and celebrating life at the same moment seemed impossible. Only God’s grace made the dichotomy bearable. I began to grasp the pain my mom must have endured when her sister died. As I experienced my own grief, I saw her demeanor had little to do with me and everything to do with her own pain. Her own dichotomy likely felt unbearable.
Losing my sister helped me understand Mom’s sadness. It pierced the veil that had long hidden my mom’s love from me. God’s love became the lens through which I reviewed my relationship with her. I finally saw behind her stony façade a woman I wish I knew. A woman who felt lost and unloved, who didn’t have a faith to sustain her, and who endured pain that made joy difficult, if not impossible, to hold.
Looking back, I know now that Mom loved me. I know she cared after all.
Cover image by Elijah Macleod.