The stairs at Swallow Cliff
Last Sunday, I climbed all the steps of the Sears Tower. Maybe you’re sick of me talking about it on Facebook by now (touche!) but it really was something I am proud of doing. Collectively, my three teammates and I raised nearly $2,000 for the RIC and we trained relatively seriously for the event. Another wonderful side effect of our training was being on long car rides with Jaimi and Becca several times this fall, and getting to be outside with them in some gorgeous Illinois folliage. We did most of our training together at Swallow Cliff, a Cook County Forest Preserve. It’s home to a set of outdoor steps, 125 of them. We walked up and down them 8, 10, 12 times on our visits there: They are uneven and harsh on your muscles, particularly when going down them. We bonded over exhaustion and post-workout Starbucks and became closer as a result. After our last training session, I was driving us back into the city. Becca mentioned off-hand that her mom had been feeling down this past week, after a combination of major life events hit her simultaneously: She’d been told she would soon need to schedule heart surgery to repair a small valve leak, but also a close friend of hers died from cancer. Becca began to describe what had happened to the friend, and I felt a sick wave of familiarity hit me. She’d had a brain tumor, and it was a shockingly short illness. She was gone mere months after being diagnosed.
Mom holding me, then age two
“Did she have a glioblastoma tumor?” I asked Becca, cautiously meeting her eyes from where she sat in the back seat. She nodded slowly. Most people who know me know what happened to my mom. It’s something I used to write about a lot, particularly when I was grieving. I don’t really anymore. I talk about it even less, not because I don’t like to, but just because it really doesn’t come up a lot. I can now tell stories about my mom and share memories of her without making other people feel weird about the fact that she’s dead. I was cripplingly unable to do that for a couple years after she passed, but now I can, and I do. It’s a learned skill, knowing how to not make other people feel uncomfortable about something terrible that happened to you. I don’t mind. I make up for it by having those rare, but beautifully soul-lifting, honest, heart-to-hearts with people my age who have lost a parent. In those, we know where the other is coming from and we aren’t afraid to truly feel it around each other. For anyone who doesn’t know, or is fuzzy on the details, my mom died seven years ago. She passed away after an eight-month battle with a brain tumor that grew, was removed, grew, was removed. She was diagnosed in February 2007 and gone by November, on the 11th — Veterans Day. Remembrance Day. Less than a month before my college graduation. She was 54, and I miss her a lot. Obviously in the months after she died I missed her because her absence was felt really strongly at the time. Now I rationally accept that she’s gone. I know that all I have to operate on for the rest of my existence are the memories of those 21 years I had with her, at least what I can still grasp. There aren’t going to be new Facebook statuses of hers for me to pore over or Instagram photos of her to relish because the source is gone. Instagram wasn’t even a thing in 2007. Her Facebook account was memorialized years ago. These days I just wish I could call her and share my life with her, the way my friends get to call their moms.
Mom received radiation to treat leukemia when I was four.
Like Becca with her mother, whose friendship I have always enjoyed hearing about. That day in the car, passing through downtown in a blurry mental fog, I told Jaimi and Becca the short version of what happened to my mom. I asked Becca if she knew if her mom’s friend had had radiation at some point earlier in life, and she said she wasn’t sure. I thought about the conversation later and realized it had felt nice to talk about my mom, and that it had been a while since I thought about what had really happened to her. A week later, Jaimi and I were at Becca’s. It was the night before the Sears Tower climb and we’d planned a potluck dinner of carbs, protein, and veggies. After we ate, we watched a movie Becca had wanted me to see, called Truly, Madly, Deeply. It’s a British movie with Alan Rickman, who plays Juliet Stevensen’s dead husband. Becca had admitted it was a bit maudlin, but I was wholly unprepared for how I was going to react to that movie. It’s not sad the entire time, by any means, but it was upsetting enough to me at its start and end that I was choking back sobs on her couch hoping she and Jaimi didn’t notice. I liked it a lot and it’s a beautiful movie, but I was a little glad when it was over because I just felt so strange about it.
Jaimi and I ran a 5K to support the American Brain Tumor Association in April.
A little while later, Becca mentioned that she’d asked her mom, and learned that her friend did have radiation at some point. I nodded in what I hoped was a casual way, and walked out of the room. I just lost it and burst into tears in her bathroom. I did my best to recover convincingly and walked out a few minutes later, but no one was fooled. Becca gave me a huge hug. Then so did Jaimi. I held them tight while still feeling slightly stupid. But they would have none of that. Becca made us tea and we sat. I talked and talked and talked about my mom, her cancer, her death. I wanted to tie neat little bows on sad stories and found that, as it’s always been these seven years, no such bows exist. I spilled my guts and ugly cried, but they listened without fear. I am not sure why that movie struck me the way it did, but I know I’d been thinking about my mom a lot because of this upcoming anniversary, and also about Becca’s mom’s poor dear friend. It hurts a lot but it’s still so good to take the time to think about her. She really would be thrilled with my life right now, and I know that. She was a writer and reporter for our tiny town, and loved listening to audiobooks in her car on the way to work. She loved coffee and Cadbury cream eggs and NPR and the BBC and Paul Newman. We aren’t so different these days and I am proud to become more and more like her.
My mom had this quote taped to the bottom of her desk drawer as a reminder. I think about it a lot.
Losing her at 21 was just such a bite in the ass. She was a pretty private person and I was a bratty teenager. By the time she died I was only just starting to come out of that stage in life. We really got cheated, both of us. Just, all of us. My brother and sister-in-law missed out on showing off their two little daughters, and they in turn won’t get to know their bad ass grandma. I’m so thankful to my stepmom for being there for them, and for us. I’m glad I have my aunt to talk to and ask questions I’d be asking my mom right now about being a grown-up lady with concerns. It sucks, it sucks, it sucks. I can’t tell you it doesn’t. I can’t make you worry less about it happening to you. If it does though, I will be here for you. The club gets bigger all the time. I am spending the annivesary of my mother’s death doing things I want to do and/or need to do. These agenda items will range from getting a flu shot and some doctor facetime to writing while eating my mom’s favorite Pepperidge Farm cookies and toasting her with a fancy coffee beverage. I’ve never really found a set tradition in terms of how to honor her on this day, and so it’s changed every year. I think I just need to be fine with that and do whatever feels best year to year. She was a wonderful person and I hope she’d be proud of me and our family. I’m not sure what she’d have thought of my agreeing to climb the Sears Tower, but I know she’d love visiting me here in Chicago.
Update, 11/12/14: My dad had the following to say about this post yesterday:
I have one correction. The glioblastoma tumor is an insidious many-tendriled thing that cannot be totally removed. Parts of it remain in the recesses of the brain and then regenerate quickly. Despite its mellifluous sound, Glioblastoma is the worst word in the English language. The best word is Benign, but we didn’t get to hear that. You have been tragically denied an adult relationship with your mother, but you were not denied her love and approval. I know she would be as pleased with you now as she always was.
My coffee-loving mom. London cafe, 2005