Postcards of Grief

Mourning is a process.

Comments on breast cancer by proxy, written by a woman coping with the loss of her mother.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Tile again

These are photographic evidence of the recent bathroom events. The testimony comes later when I can think about it without seething or whimpering.

Green bean casserole

The eldest of Brooke’s younger cousins, S, celebrated her high school graduation on Saturday. Brooke and I sat down with beer and food and chatted with one of her aunts. We did the usual graduation open house thing: caught up with the family, looked through old photos, gorged on chips. After a few hours, we got up to leave and ended up talking with the graduate’s mom. Turns out that she was diagnosed with breast cancer very, very recently. She already had her lumpectomy, and she’s starting radiation in another week or so. Two of the aunts were wearing pink ribbon bracelets, and I had wondered who the catalyst was. Aunt Lou.

Aunt Lou spent a lot of time going on about how it could be worse. It’s just radiation. It’s just a lumpectomy. They’re not pumping her full of chemotherapy drugs and making her puke and lose her hair. The margins were clear. Her lymph nodes were unaffected. It could be worse. She’s doing great. It could be worse. She’ll go on tamoxifen and have genetic testing if the insurance will cover it. Her mom died when she was ten. Her mom’s mom died young, too. Aunt Lou is only 44, but it could be worse.

Aunt Lou's sister then turned to me then and told me how sorry she was to hear about my mom. Mom: evidence that it could be worse. I’ve learned not to talk about Mom when addressing someone facing breast cancer, her own or another’s. No one who is in remission wants to hear that Mom was once in remission. No one who is waiting for MRI or CT scan results wants to hear that Mom had significant bone metastases upon diagnosis. They don’t want to hear about her chemo side effects or her radiation burns. The burns so awful that they didn’t outweigh the benefits.

And now, I avoid talking about her at all. I told Aunt Lou that I’ve heard that nipple cream works really well on sore skin. I didn’t tell her Mom used it. Part of me wants to help out in some way, but she seems to be doing just fine. It doesn’t seem like she’s even tired and needs a hand around the house, not to mention that her sister lives a short distance away, and her brother is around the corner.

I hope I never have anything to offer Aunt Lou’s family. I hope they’ll never need or want an extra set of hands or ears when Aunt Lou is really sick. I hope she stays healthy and gets old like her father and outlives everyone’s expectations. I hope S never needs to read this to know she’s not alone.

Monday, June 28, 2004

You'd never know she's not my kid.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Fuck grout

Reposted from somewhere else because I suck. Like a vacuum cleaner.

I'm just now back online after running home so that B's stepdad, Al, could hack a hole in our bathroom wall. All we asked was that he take off the wall sink so that he could replace it with the pretty pedestal sink we bought when the bathroom was done being retiled. He had to replace the water valves that come out of the wall and then affix to the taps because the standard valve size is not the same size as it was in 1942. Fine. He forgot or misunderstood or something about the bathtub, and he thought we were getting a new tub instead of just new handles and a faucet. When he opened the access panel to do that stuff, we discovered that the hot water pipe is really corroded. Really corroded = all white and blue. Fortunately, it's a 100% copper pipe. I mean, I guess. Copper is good, I think.

So Al didn't have the tools to do whatever it is that he needs to do that stuff, and he has to come back later. Instead, he decides that the sink drain pipe needs to be replaced and he'll do that just now instead of doing the bathtub faucet, et al., right now. He pulled off the tile from the wall (no problem, it has to come off before the new tile goes on) all the way from the water valves to the floor. He used a box cutter to cut through the feltboard or whatever it is ceiling in the basement so that he could see the drain pipe better since it wasn't cooperating. There's a joist in the way, apparently, and everything is fit in nice and tight.

We have no bathroom sink, no water to the bathtub, and we have to wear shoes to use the toilet because there are particles of all kinds all over the place. We knew that we couldn't use the shower while the tiling was in progress, but Al cut off all water to the bathtub. We knew that having the sink gone from just before to just after the tiling work would mean brushing our teeth and whatnot in the kitchen. However, we have to start showering at Natalie's (of ultrasound/baby skull fame) a day earlier than planned. That also means that we can't wash our hands in the bathroom at all and that all grooming must be done in the kitchen.

And when I arrived home today, I ran inside to drop off my stuff and pee (for the last time shoeless), and when I went back out to clean up some stuff before Karen and Al arrived, I found Quid sitting on the back step. Outside. And Muggle ran around the corner. Of the garage. The kitchen screen had broken, and they both got out of the house.

The kitchen, mind you, has three windows: the one over the sink that's a pain to use and has not yet had its screen replaced for the year, the one with the screen that got damaged last year and still has its storm up, and the one with the newly broken screen. With the door open and the top of the one window open, we might be able to get enough of a cross breeze for Brooke to avoid heatstroke while cooking all of the damn vegetables the farm is sending us this summer.

I've been taking window pictures and bathroom pictures, and I'll be sure to post them for the general gawking public.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Maternal Monday

I hadn't expected this to be so cool. Natalie's husband is working in France right now, so she asked me to accompany her to her 18 week ultrasound. It was the most incredible thing, and I really hadn't expected to be blown away by it. The baby was moving around, and I was just so sad for her husband to be away for this. Sad for Natalie, too. We learned the sex this morning, so now they have to sit down and focus on names.

That little thing is going to be one of my newest friends.

Friday, June 18, 2004

I love a little honesty now and again.

Still treading water

I was thinking that something profound would come to me, so I put off posting after the earache thing. My father having removed his wedding ring saddens me so much. It scares me that he’s going to start dating, that he’ll pretend he wasn’t married, that he’s going to forget Mom. I know he’s not going to forget her; he spent more than half of his life, more than sixty-percent of his life with her.

Brooke suggested that wearing it might make him sad. I wonder if continuing to wear it might embarrass him, might make him feel like he’s unable to accept that she is dead.

Brooke and I had an awkward moment last night. We were mulling over our recent lack of exercise and how to get back into it when I remarked that we had been doing so well over the winter. And then your mom had to go and ruin it all. And it could have been funny if she weren’t dead, which Brooke realized as she said it, that the lighthearted intent didn’t connect with the words. The dead mother jokes tend to fall flat right now. Maybe that will change at some point. Maybe in another life, I’ll be at the place where I can laugh about her death.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Morning manifesto

The following things are bothering me today (today, now, here, at 4:07am):

· Hideous earache in my left ear, the side I sleep on, keeping me awake most of the night and finally driving me out of bed half an hour ago to treat it with peroxide and antibiotic ointment. I seriously thought I had outgrown these. Damnit.
· The need to begin selling my old crap on eBay.com. My fear that no one will want my old crap.
· My nephew-to-be's gender and thus his name-to-be. However, there is to be no criticism of the name, as it is the name of my brother's best friend who died tragically and suddenly at the age of 25. How do you argue with that?
· My cat's apparent early morning fixation upon chewing on electrical plugs, the origin of which I know not.
· My inability to take a decent picture of myself. See top of right column for details.
· Dad's bare ring finger. I hadn't realized he had taken off his wedding ring, and I don't know why it guts me with sadness.
· Hannah's mullet approaching rural Midwestern proportions. Her refusal to wear pigtails.
· My boss buying a house priced three and a half times higher than mine. Sure, her husband is a surgeon, but I didn't think we were in such vastly different social classes.
· My misunderstanding that the antibiotic ointment contained some kind of a topical analgesic, and this preventing me from going back to bed just yet.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Not long enough

My parents’ anniversary is on Saturday. They would have celebrated thirty-four years of marriage. I’m going out to see Dad for the weekend because there’s nothing I can do to make it easier for him. I might as well help around the house.

August 1969: Mom (age 19), Aunt Friend (18), and Dad (21) all begin working for Bank of A Capital City on the same day. Mom and Aunt Friend become friends.

December: Mom and Aunt Friend have an apartment together and go on a double-date with Dad and some guy whose name I think is Steve. Dad is Aunt Friend’s date. Mom is Steve’s. After dinner and drinks, they return to Mom and Aunt Friend’s small apartment to listen to records and chat. Some time later, Dad gets up to leave and Steve gets up to change the record. Dad makes it to the door before he turns around, walks over to Mom, kisses her, and then walks out.

March 1970: Mom tells Dad she wants to get married. Dad says he’ll think about it. He realized that marrying at ages 19 and 21 would be risky and maybe even foolish.

“But the other outcome, not being with her, was worse than taking that risk. So I said yes.”

Easter weekend: They announce to Dad’s parents that they’ll be getting married. Gramma is flushed with pleasure. Grandpa asks if they can swing it financially, then shakes Dad’s hand in congratulations.

Two weeks later: Mom’s father and Dad are helping Mom move into a new apartment, and they’re transporting her childhood bed in the back of my grandfather’s truck. Dad tells my grandfather that he and Mom have decided to get married and that they want my grandfather’s blessing. He is silent for a few moments and then says, “You know, it’s been a bad year. My brother died. I was audited by the IRS. And now, this.” Neither of them spoke for the remainder of the trip.

May: Mom’s parents decide they won’t pay for any part of the wedding that’s now one month away. Mom and Dad make frantic changes and send out corrections on the wedding invitations. They scrape their last nickels together to pay the minister and the rental fee at the nearby Lion’s Club. Mom reveals to Dad’s family the secret of the baby she put up for adoption. The only person who expresses anything but sympathetic neutrality is Aunt Peggy, Dad’s sister-in-law. The mother of two adopted children, she thanks my mother for giving that child to someone who couldn’t have a child but wanted one more than anything, just like she had.

June: Mom is escorted down the aisle by her father as he tries to talk her out of marrying. The night before, her mother had refused to come to the rehearsal and threatened not to come to the wedding. She claimed she didn’t want to be seen marrying off her daughter. She told my mother, “Everyone in town knows what you are.” The “what,” of course, is a slut.

June 1986: Dad buys Mom the engagement ring she never had. He presented it to her at a restaurant as they waited for their table. The restaurant host came upon them, thrilled that she had just witnessed his proposal. It wasn’t, and they told her. She seemed disappointed but thought it was sweet.

March 2000: They take a sailing cruise through the West Indies to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Just before they leave, Mom has to go in for additional views on a mammogram and then requires a biopsy. When they asked if they should cancel their trip, the radiologist takes a second look at the films, verifies that it’s a ten day trip, and tells them to go. During the trip, Mom feels a sharp pain in her upper back and spends much of the day lying in bed on the boat.

April 6, 2000: Mom and Dad meet with the pathologist and learn that Mom’s tumor extends 6cm in one direction. Over the following weeks, they learn that it has metastasized to her bones and that the back pain was a stress fracture in her spine. They learn that this cancer might be kept at bay for a few years, but that it will kill her sooner rather than later.

April 21, 2000: Mom turns fifty.

February 2004: Dad and I are taking care of Mom together. Just as he begins to step outside for a cigarette, Mom starts to get up to go to the bathroom. Helping her is a two-person job, so he stays. Afterward, I tease him that her timing was impeccable and that they’ve been married too long.

“Not long enough.”

Monday, June 07, 2004

Drama of the week

I’m struggling with whether to tell my father about this blog. I think he would enjoy it. I think there’s a lot about my mom that he would really love to read. I just don’t know if I want my dad reading my blog. I mean, I talk about sex in here. So far, there’s nothing inhibiting my words, but I don’t know if I could write so freely, knowing that he could read it.

Friday, June 04, 2004


The first link I found of dire importance to post above is that of The Breast Cancer Site. Its purpose is to fund mammograms for women who otherwise couldn't get one, and they do it through the help of all of those freaking advertisers all around the page. This is a big deal. If you have a LAN connection, it shouldn't take more than 5 seconds. Really. Be a doll and just click it when you read POG.

The second is for the US National Cancer Institute, a really thorough and accurate resource for information about cancer. Of course, it's not complete, but it's pretty good and may be the most comprehensive site on the good ol' World Wide Web. Check them out if you have questions.

Thanks. Now back to your regularly scheduled blogging.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Making lunch got exciting

NPR is a nearly always on in our house. This morning, during the BBC World Service feed, I had this creepy aural déjà vu sensation. My old PI was talking to Judy Swallow in my kitchen, and I had flashbacks of endless conference calls as he directed me over 800 miles of telephone line and network cable. Fortunately, both for him and for Judy, he was far less spastic and far more dignified this morning.

My new goal is to get my current PI on the BBC. He's pleased yet anxious. Judy asks some tough questions.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Cake in the Dragon's Lair

Not to dramatize my life to any greater extent than necessary, but Saturday was something right out of this episode of This American Life. I genuinely felt as though we had parachuted into someone else’s family gathering, as though we were spies or reporters or flies on the wall.

Mom, as many of these tales show, was never one to mince words. If she had something to say to you, she said it. Upon realizing that an old family friend was ignoring and speaking badly about Brooke and me for being big dykes, Mom cornered her. I love my daughter. I love Brooke. They have a loving marriage, and I’m happy for them. I would never treat your children the way you’re treating mine. If you don’t respect them, you don’t respect me, and I’m not going to put up with it. That problem ended there. My father? He loves Brooke and calls her my partner, but he would never run interference like Mom.

Brooke’s mom is a lot like my dad, but she’s never introduced me as anything other than Emilin or “Brooke’s friend.” Among her closest family members, mostly limited to her husband’s family and her cousin’s wife and four kids, the children seem not to be allowed to know that I’m anything more than a good friend. In my mother-in-law’s defense, this is entirely directed by those children’s mothers rather than by duplicate family decrees. Nonetheless, I attend these family gatherings as an outsider, not as a participant.

My mother died early in the morning on a Friday. Brooke’s much beloved Great Aunt K died Sunday night. Mom’s funeral was Tuesday. Aunt K’s was Saturday. We attended and rode in the limousine with Aunt K’s closest family—her only son, daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren, along with my MIL (Karen), step-FIL (Al), Brooke, and me. My relationship was described to the family as the co-owner of Brooke’s house. I was miserable. I was unsympathetic to the mourning of an 83-year-old woman who died peacefully under Hospice care. I was at the mercy of my MIL deciding when it was appropriate to leave the huge gathering of mourners in the huge house owned by the woman who refused to acknowledge the marriage her own mother-in-law was so happy to see.

But that’s not quite related to Saturday. Saturday was Brooke’s stepfather’s 50th birthday, and his parents and two of his siblings threw him a party: lunch at a steakhouse and dessert at his sister’s (The Lavender Dragon*). TLD didn’t bring her kids, then 8 and 10, to our wedding because “it would confuse them.” However, she saw fit to bring them to our wedding shower and without telling them what it was or that there was any kind of wedding, even though she and her husband both attended. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I expect that she confused them more that way.

Dessert lasted four hours. I spent much of this time sitting quietly off to one side of the room, smiling just enough to look engaged in the conversation. I watched them all take multiple pieces of this tasty but horribly sugary cake—did I mention the family tendency toward diabetes?—while I could barely choke down my half slice. I sat out at the lake and tried to forget the distressing dream I had had about my mother the night before. I listened to Al make a little speech about how wonderful his life is at 50 and how Karen is a great lover [shudder] and he sure hopes that everyone gets a good relationship with God.

Best of all and most TAL of all, I observed them while they watched TLD’s wedding video from sixteen years ago. Everything about it was very 1988—the hair, the clothes, the people. From time to time, they would call the kids to see a certain part, like Cousin Amy at age eight or their brother Randy who only comes to town once a year. Al’s mother didn’t recognize anyone except herself. Every time someone walked down the aisle:
· Who’s that?
· That’s Joe.
· Joe? Are you sure?
· Yes.
· That doesn’t look anything like Joe.

Joe is her son-in-law and co-star of the video.

Twenty minutes of 1988-quality VHS footage of nothing but people being seated in the church. The commentary from the rest of the room was limited to the occasional snicker about the 1980’s style clothes and hair. TLD and Joe watch this video every year on their anniversary, so I have no idea why we had to be subjected to it that day.

Brooke dozed off in my lap in the adjacent room while I tried to amuse myself by singing the alphabet song backward. I practiced for a solid hour, and I’m actually quite good.

*Kudos to Kyle.

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