This isn’t the story of how, at age 34 and two days into mourning the loss of my Mother, I found out I was half Jewish. Let’s stay on track, okay? This isn’t about that, not yet at least. It’s about the funeral.
So let’s pretend you’re there on that miserable January day, trudging through mud, freezing rain slapping your numb face. You pinpoint locals by the color of their skin, pallid as the sky above, and if you didn’t know me you’d log me as a long-distance relative, one who’d flown in to say goodbye to an aunt. But instead there I am standing next to the newly widowed, sharing this motherless space with my sister, one hand on the coffin and one in my pocket. There’s my Dad on my right, tall and thin, a man whose slouch is so notorious even the DMV lists him as 6’0” instead of the more realistic 6’4. He knows everyone watches him now, including you, waiting for the show to begin, almost hoping for the big reaction- the requisite scream, the clichéd leap on top of the coffin- but not this man, not tonight not ever. He lowers his head, swallows heavy, and waits.
My father, this deeply flawed yet fascinating man. Who knows the last time our eyes held contact for more than a few seconds, ours a relationship in which we’re either bantering politics- both liberal- and sports – both hopelessly pessimistic- or screaming about my poor spending habits, job-hopping habit, and choice of wardrobe- t-shirt, jeans, and a hat. Our goodbyes are as awkward as our hellos- a half-hearted sideways hug with a three or four tap back slap. Best of intentions, a man known for spinning, or trying to spin, all of life’s moments into his own quirky pun.
Let’s take a step back: I grew up in a comfortable, mostly-safe blue-collar neighborhood twenty miles east of Cleveland, an area known for blustery winds and lake effect snows. My Mom was of the stay-at-home variety, that breed of hero growing more infrequent with each passing year, and she stayed there until we were both in school. My sister was four years my senior, enough distance for me to admire her coolness and for her to disdain my nerdiness. My Dad worked hard- factory jobs, manufacturing plants- but never missed a supper- the Cleveland term- and if memory serves me right shared that track record of being there for band recitals, choir concerts, baseball and basketball games, track meets, theatre performances, and any other random event that litters parents’ calendars. My parents were the ideal, ours the picturesque family residing in the lower half of the poster for the American Dream.
But this is about my mom- soft-spoken, thin-boned. She had opinions, no doubt- some of which I’ll defend and others I will not- yet she never, not once in any of my memories (and I remember everything) spoke ill of another. Her Christmas card list was in the hundreds, one even for those whom she’d met but once, and though maybe I knew it all along, I learned in the week after her death that just about everyone in her life considered her a best friend- that one confidante whose shoulders can hold your life’s biggest fears and failures. This tiny woman, 5’2”, maybe 100 lbs, and despite carrying the weight of her entire world, stood strong for those around her.
A brief history: My mother had a miscarriage two years after my sister was born, an event I know little of other than that I’d cease to exist had this event not occurred. Despite difficulties and against doctor’s wisdom, she became pregnant again, with me, a few years later- the consequence, aside from having to deal with my snarkiness for 34 years, was a hysterectomy. Given our drug-pushing medical industry, even in the late 70’s, she was offered, and ultimately accepted, an ongoing prescription for Premarin, a very popular, overprescribed and not-controversial-enough menopausal drug meant to alleviate the discomfort, in this case, of early onset menopause. **NOTE-Aside from the abusive treatment of pregnant mares, who provide the “conjugated equine estrogens” obtained for the creation of the pill, the medication has strong linkage to endometrial cancer, strokes, blood clots, and most relevant to this story, breast cancer- often in women, like my mother, who had no genetic predisposition. It should also be noted that despite these concerns going public in the mid-70’s, within a year of my birth, Premarin continues to be actively marketed and remains Wyeth’s #1 best-selling drug. Since 2002, our friends at the pharmaceutical company have been sued over 13,000 times.
She was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2002 and underwent three lumpectomies and several stages of both Chemotherapy and radiation. The doctor did not think a full mastectomy was required. By mid-2003, she was officially in remission and given Tamoxifen and told to explicitly avoid any and all soy products and by-products, as they can interact with the synthetic estrogen used in treating breast cancer- a suggestion that prompted me to ask why he wouldn’t encourage her to avoid the onslaught of products containing rBGH and other hormone-heavy “foods” common to the American diet? Not so much as a nod. Again, perhaps a conversation for another day.
In 2007, the decision to avoid the mastectomy proved damaging, as the cancer returned to the same breast. Another round of chemo, more radiation, more medications, and, this time, a surgery to remove the entire breast. Six months later and she’s back in remission.
In October 2010, Mom’s annual tumor marker tests comes back abnormal and, after a full round of additional scans, it was determined that the cancer had metastasized to her bones. A few weeks later I flew in and listened to the prognosis: 3 – 5 years, could be as long as 20, but with a slow and ultimate deterioration. A clear skeptic and given how poor medical decisions led us here to begin with, I questioned the doctor’s take on Mom’s diet and treatment: shouldn’t she eat super foods such as kale, spinach, Swiss chard, berries, beans while avoiding animal fats, take extra steps in conjunction to whatever bullshit treatment was on the horizon? The doctor snickered, snorted, chortled, and said that her diet was fine, to keep eating what she eats, change nothing. This suggestion, of course, without him ever asking so much as one question about the diet he seemed so blindly comfortable accepting. Despite my instinct to strangle the fucker- and in retrospect I should’ve done just that- he instead encouraged a newer estrogen-heavy drug-based treatment, as chemo and radiation were even more worthless at this point than their previous worthlessness the first two times. I argued for us to sit on this for a bit, to, given my Mom’s propensity for side effects, research the drug before making a decision. I lost. Two days later I left for home and that was the final time I saw my mother alive.
On December 26th, a mere two months after being given a prognosis for many more years- and the day after the first Christmas I spent away from home- Mom started to experience shortness of breath. Within the week she couldn’t take two steps without needing to sit down. After New Year’s, she was admitted to the Cleveland Clinic for tests. I’ll spare you the comedy of errors that took place over her two weeks there, but doctors made it clear that this was not life-threatening and in turn the message was sent to me that there was no need for me to come home. On the morning of Sunday, January 17th, she was transported to the Clinic’s central campus and hopes were high that they’d get her blood pressure up and she’d be released in a few short days. Back at home, in Denver, I fell asleep on the couch to the AFC Divisional playoff game and was awoken by the phone, a ring that still echoes fifteen months later.
She died of a pulmonary embolism as a result of treatment for metastasized breast cancer. Later, when obsession was my drug of choice, I researched the side effects of that newest treatment and stared speechless at one of the results: pulmonary embolism.
And So We Say Goodbye: In Cleveland, as in most places, events brought out all sorts of special treats and unique customs, and there it’s a smorgasbord of what not to eat. The night of Mom’s Wake was no different: Shrink-wrapped Salamis, bologna, fluorescent cheeses and breads white as chalk, ground chuck clumped and thrown together with no salt and a sprinkle of pepper before being slapped on the grill for fifteen minutes too long, Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza with four kinds of ‘meat,’ lumpy mashed potatoes more butter than starch, burnt rolls, canned gelatinous cranberry “sauce,” and for our vegetable a Lime Jello mold with celery and carrots captured and embedded like mosquitoes in amber. We stood around in various clusters, drinking chilled pink wine, devouring every last scrap of food until the plastic prongs of our forks poked holes in our Styrofoam plates. We talked but didn’t converse, avoided any subject that could elicit passion. And despite the in-edibility of the substances passed off as food and the lack of compelling dialogue, I felt at ease in that kitchen, a makeshift memorial: pictures arranged on the refrigerator, duck-themed towels folded on the oven handle, wooden knick-knacks atop the cabinets, bags of chips and peanuts purchased and shelved for family gatherings, like this one, reserves of disposable plates and plastic cutlery, an extra table cloth for the table extension. Long after family and friends left, my father, sister, wife, and I remained in that kitchen, no words between us for moments at a time, each lost in our own memories, and if it were possible perhaps we’d have slept there. Despite all that was lost and forever gone, a simple glance in any direction and there she’d be as she’d always been.