I was sitting in the warm sun in my parent’s yard next to my mom, watching my dad grill a chicken with a beer can up its butt and my Aunt Carol working in the garden, when I realized that every conversation I had with her could be my last one. It was a Sunday afternoon, May 27, 2001, and she had been fighting lung cancer for about 4 years, but she was 72 and the fight was difficult and it had become clear to me that she would lose, and probably soon. I was right; mom would be dead just 13 days later.
Mom was always very skinny, our family inside joke made fun of her “chicken legs”, which sounds mean now that I type it out. But having her lungs fill up with tumor and not being increasingly unable to breathe had accentuated her thinness. But not frailty. She had a fierceness that showed in her sharp humor. She accepted our teasing and returned it and it felt like love sometimes.
I remember the moment I decided to set aside denial about her dying very clearly.
“What, if anything, do you wish you could have done?” I asked her.
Her face turned to me but I couldn’t see her eyes directly; she was wearing giant movie-star sunglasses and a floppy hat to shade her pale skin and white hair from the light. She didn’t smile, and she didn’t frown.
“I always wanted to be a torch singer.”
I did laugh. “But you can’t really sing.”
“Like in that movie, the one with the Bridges brothers, that actress, you know.”
She swatted at me. “Don’t do that.” I would often guess wrong on purpose whenever she asked me to remember a piece of trivia.
“Brian. You know who I mean.”
“Michelle Pfeiffer. The Fabulous Baker Boys.”
She settled back in her lawn chair. “Yes. So glamorous. On the stage, a piano, a spotlight.”
“You could have learned. Taken singing lessons.”
“No, I couldn’t.”
Mom was the second-oldest of 13 children, and her parents, straining to raise so many kids, had apparently married her off young, 16 or 17, to her first husband, Bud Bodvin. They had a daughter, Donna, my half-sister, but the marriage ended in the late ‘50s and she returned to her parent’s home, a divorced woman with a daughter, at a time when that was seen as a scandal. Single moms didn’t go out in sequined gowns to sing torch songs in nightclubs then, not even in progressive Portland.
“Things would have turned out different, for sure. What ever happened to Bud, anyway? You never talk about it.”
She gave me a sideways glance. Said nothing.
“I might not get another chance to ask you.”
She waved her hand, brushing away memories. “It was a long time ago. He was so much older than I was. I was 17. It didn’t work out.”
I kept watching her face. She didn’t turn to look at me, watching dad at the grill, who was talking to Aunt Carol, mom’s younger sister, who had moved in to the house after the first round of cancer, to help with cooking and chores.
“What was he like? Was he tall? Short? Blonde? Dark? What did he do?” She scoffed. “If it was so long ago, then the details don’t matter now. It’s a story. I like stories.” I pleaded.
“He was… rough. He had a temper. I couldn’t stay. My father didn’t approve.” Her jaw was set. I had pressed as much as I could. That was all she would say, I could tell.
“So you met dad. I’ve heard that story.”
Dad had been traveling across country selling magazines in 1959, and one night at a diner in Portland, OR, waiting for a buddy who was trying to get a job in the kitchen, dad had struck up a conversation with the waitress, my mom. In the late spring sun, I saw my dad, wearing shorts and a t-shirt and flip flops, wearing out, graying hair, hands rough from a lifetime of pulling wire as an electrician.
“What did you see in him?”
“He was so charming.” Mom’s voice held a tiny note of surprise, and a tiny note of regret. “He was funny, and persistent. And dad loved him.”
“He asked you out, and showed up at your house.”
“And I wasn’t there.”
“You weren’t? Where were you?”
“I was out on another date. You knew this.”
“I did not! On another date? With who?”
“A dentist! I can’t remember his name now. But when I got home, there your father was, sitting in the front room with Grampa. ‘You’re going out with Bob tomorrow night,’ he told me. I was so angry. I never saw the dentist again.”
I tried to imagine dad as a charming young man. Although I can easily picture it now, at the time, our relationship was much more strained and distant right then. One of the reasons for that, which mom and I both knew but did not normally speak aloud, could be inferred by the staging of this scene: me and mom at one end of the yard, dad and Carol at the other end.
Mom was dying. I was, and am, an atheist. I know that there is no life after this one, and as a consequence, I know that every moment with someone else could be the last time I see them, or speak to them. If there is something I want to tell someone, I need to tell them, I need to not hide or wait, because the moment could be gone.
Mom and I watched dad and Carol for a moment.
“You know, right?” I asked.
“She’s my sister. Of course I know.”
“It’s awful. It seems so… disrespectful.” My eyes were filling with angry tears.
“I don’t have any interest in it, not anymore. I’m not going to be around forever.”
I was silent, my face hot. I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t look at her.
“At least he’ll be with someone, and if it has to be someone, it’s better that it’s my sister.” She reached over and held my hand. Her voice was steel, not from meanness or teasing, but a simple statement of fact, aimed at her youngest son, hoping I could hear her.
“They won’t be lonely. They’ll have each other.”
It has taken me years to hear her.
I wrote this post on Mother’s Day, 8 May 2016. I didn’t post it right away because I wanted to run it past my family first, give them a head’s up, because I touch on some family issues. But my main point wasn’t to dredge up old secrets, it was to remember how clearly mom saw things (and to remind myself that I didn’t, and who does, one hundred percent of the time, really?)