Today is a sad day. Five years ago today, my mom died of cancer. She had just turned 63. If your mother is alive, even if she drives you bananas, you're lucky. I miss mine every single day of my life.
A month before she died, I did what I always do when I am trying to process something: I wrote. So I'm going to show you what I wrote, not because it is a literary work of genius, but because it shows you who she was. And if you chuckle, even once, then that's a very fitting tribute to her.
Laughter is the Best Medicine (February, 2006)
My mom is dying.
I’m not just being dramatic; she has fully metastasized, stage five-zillion cancer. She sprouts malignant tumors like a Chia Pet. And it’s breaking my heart, because I (an almost-36-year-old woman with a husband, dog and two kids) still love her with the fervor usually reserved for star-crossed toddlers.
My siblings, all four of them, and I are wild about my mom, and we’re each dealing with this situation differently. One of us won’t talk about it, one of us cries a lot, one of us pops Ativan daily, and one of us (a little strangely) bought a puppy. Me? I laugh.
It’s shocking and almost seems callous…until you meet my mom.
To look at her, you see the typical suburban socialite: Chanel suits and weekly pedicures, a wobbly golf game and a fondness for vodka tonics (the two most definitely not related), several philanthropic chairmanships, a deep love for her family and an unshakeable faith in God and the Catholic Church. No matter what.
Delve a little deeper and you might be surprised to find an outrageously sharp wit. For example, my sister once told my disapproving mother that she wanted to live with her fiancé because he could help pay the bills. “That,” my mother retorted, “is called prostitution!”
When I got married, my mother looked over the list I was giving to the calligrapher. She was annoyed that my father-in-law’s invitation would be addressed to “Larry.” “Who,” she asked incredulously, “names their kid Larry?”
“My grandmother,” patiently replied my sweet, southern husband.
“That’s ridiculous. We’re pretending his real name is Lawrence.” And so, I swear to you, the invitation went to Lawrence. My father-in-law still can’t figure it out.
As annoyed as I have often been by her antics, I’ve always appreciated the humor in them. My mom and I share a wicked sense of irreverence, and we’ve always been slightly scandalous in our jokes. And nothing has ever been greater fodder for our demented funny bones than my mom’s cancer. Among our jokes? Well, we have a running list of who she’ll have to haunt. We agree that she’d make a sprightly little ghost, popping up here and there to wreak some havoc: just willing little things on people, like lost car keys, that annoying “did I leave the stove on” preoccupation many of us have, almost fitting into size four pants, and maybe even a bounced check or two for some certain folks.
She’s decided to look on the bright side of her alarming weight loss by getting glamour shots taken for the funeral mass programs. I’ve requested that, post-celestial ascent, she blink the lights when my kids do something wrong. Her response: “Fine, but first I’m teaching your kids every trick you guys pulled on me when you were in high school. They, too, will bypass your alarm system (she knows we did it with chewing gum wrappers), and they’ll know how to silently roll your car down the driveway at 3:00 am.”
We were at my little brother’s wedding when she told me the cancer had spread and her goose was cooked. The groom walked up to us and my mom looked at him and said, “Take a hike. We’re talking about sex.”
My friends are shocked by our daily conversations. They probably are a little inappropriate. My mother told me she doesn’t want a timeline from her doctors. She said she’s too prompt, and she’d feel compelled to die on a Tuesday if that’s what they told her they expected. I suggested she just get the 30-day countdown from the oncologist and shop like crazy, then die before my dad gets the credit card bill.
And thankfully, her personality hasn’t changed a bit. “For the love of God,” she told me a few weeks ago, “bury me in sweatpants. Don’t you dare ruin one of my St. John suits. And be damn sure you get all my jewelry off!”
Everyone has urged me to grieve; to cry and mourn my mom. I was perplexed as to why I wasn’t, but I think I’ve figured it out. My mom and I have laughed through the past (again, almost) 36 years, and I am not about to spend the time we have left crying over what is to come. Without knowing it, my mother is already helping me grieve, because she’s cementing her legacy. She’s making it okay for both of us when she dies. For the rest of my life, I will hear her deep, infectious, hearty laugh ringing in my ears. I will remember her as a class act that wouldn’t let anything, even terminal cancer, take the joy out of her heart. And I will always be grateful to her for sharing that joy with me.
It will be hard not having my mother around. No one else will ever think I’m as funny, and no one else will ever think things like nuns, mental illness and bad marriages are quite so side-splitting. But, until then, I’ll laugh with her until the very end. And, for the rest of my life, when the lights blink, I’m hiding the car keys.