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ejourneys's picture

On Thursday, November 5, 2015, I was the same age to the day that my mother had been when she died.

Heart disease and diabetes had killed her.  My vitals there have been fine, thank goodness, but those were the diseases on my radar when cancer hit me out of the blue last year. 

My mother had almost died after her first heart attack, when she was 44 and I was 10. She continued to work as the family breadwinner for the next 11 years before retiring on disability. That left her with two more years of life, during which time she wrote more than a dozen short stories and over 100 poems. Several had been published in magazines and anthologies. She had lived life as fully as she could in the time she had left.

I thought of her frequently during my cancer treatment, especially chemo. She couldn't climb stairs without having to rest mid-flight. Her days had been filled with a litany of pills -- not all taken at once, but clumped together in my memory: Orinase, Reserpine, Aldomet, Atromid, Darvon, Nitroglycerine, Insulin, Valium.* I name the drugs off the top of my head because my brain is branded with them. Long before personal blood glucose monitors, her life had been filled with daily Tes-Tape and monthly blood work that left the tops of her hands black and blue for lack of cooperative veins.

(* Meds for blood glucose, blood pressure, blood pressure (again), cholesterol, pain, pain (specifically angina), blood glucose (again), and anxiety, respectively.)

All through my adolescence and teens and into early adulthood I witnessed my mother's perseverance. Her strength and endurance guided me through my own treatment. So, too, her quirky humor. I had worn Groucho glasses to "restore" my eyebrows, but my mother had set her wig on the stump where her leg had been amputated and had drawn a face on her bandages, "to surprise the doctor." When I was stoic through my lymphoscintigraphy, taking four shots of radioactive tracer to my breast without anesthetic (which would have interfered with the process), I remembered that my mother had been fully conscious as her leg was taken. She had received only a local because her heart had been too frail for general anesthesia.

That hadn't stopped her from joking. As the nurses held her arms akimbo and strapped them down, she quipped, "Hey! I'm here for an amputation, not a crucifixion!"

When the radiologist apologized to me for the pain he was about to inflict and explained that it couldn't be helped, I smiled and said, "I'll just make a face." (In addition to seeing what my mother had gone through, my years of severe dysmenorrhea had also made me stoic.)

As much as she had inspired me and despite the various traits that I have inherited from her, in some ways we were pointedly different.

My mother, a month before she turned 19.

I think of this photo when I think of her personality. I was the introvert to her extravert, except for those times when I have performed on stage or have taught (thus performing on a different kind of stage). Both my parents had been performers and teachers, so that runs in my blood. Otherwise, my introversion comes from my father.

I'm about 15 in the shot on the left. The shot on the right was taken three months before my diagnosis.

Years ago I had started running parallel film strips in my mind, marking major life events. My mother's life and mine ran on side-by-side projector screens, matched for chronological age. At the age my mother had been when she married my father, I had already been married and divorced. At the age she had been when she suffered her first heart attack, I had moved into the home where she had spent the last two years of her life. At the age my mother had been when she retired on disability, I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And so on.

On November 5, 2015, the film strip that had been my mother's life, her age paralleling mine, ended. I hear the whapwhapwhap of cellulose as its flopping end hits the still-turning reel. The projector screen that's mine shows me typing with tears in my eyes. The screen that's my mother's has gone white. Nothing left to do but ease the reel to a standstill and turn her projector off. I take my first chronological steps beyond the place where she is now frozen in time, thankful that she lived as long as she had and that I am still here -- now older than she.

Left to right are my maternal grandmother (my only living grandparent when I was born), my mother, and myself. Our ages at the times the photos were taken were within three years of each other. The image of my grandmother dates from 1950, my mother's dates from 1981, and mine dates from 2013.

My grandmother lived for another 29 years from the time of her photo. My mother died the year after her photo was taken. My photo predates my cancer diagnosis by ten months. Inside me was a tumor already growing and that had done so, very slowly, for years but had not yet been flagged.

One of my mother's poems, published posthumously. I had written a sestina answering hers; both poems appear on the rightmost page. Legible size here.

I arranged these mandala forms in the pattern of a Nautilus shell. Once I printed the outline, I realized that I might have trouble maneuvering even an ultra-fine Sharpie around the smallest mandalas, so I filled them in digitally. Details are best viewed in the original size.

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