About two years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t know if I’ve ever really talked about it here. She was healthy, she felt good, we’d been living in the city for less than six months and she loved it. She was writing, she was exploring the city, and suddenly none of that mattered any more. She had breast cancer, and she needed surgery and chemotherapy if she wasn’t going to die sooner rather than later. I remember the first thing she said right after she got the phone call. (And I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you which call that was.) She walked out into the kitchen and told me, “I don’t want this to interfere with you finishing school, you hear me?” Yes, ma’am. I heard you.
She had surgery later this month, two years ago. She scheduled it so that she would be in good enough shape to come to my college graduation. My mother has priorities, and damned if she’s going to let anything get in her way.
I had a crash course in adulthood that spring and summer. I figured out how to take care of a family and keep a three-bedroom apartment clean, and get dinner on the table nearly every night. It’s no mean feat. I don’t think most people who’ve grown up with a dedicated parent and household-wrangler appreciate just how much work goes into it, until they have to do it themselves. Being a housekeeper is a full-time job. I took care of someone recovering from major surgery, and then someone going through chemo. It wasn’t easy, and I needed a lot of help. But then I needed less help. I figured out what to do.
I’m telling you all this because as the weather gets warmer, I feel residual dread. Attacks of nausea for no reason. Headaches, which I normally never get. My body remembers stress, it remembers pain, it remembers fear. But right now I want it to remember the pride.
We did it, she and I. We got through it, and I think we did it well. I had just graduated. We watched lots of movies, lots of Jeopardy, I knit her this enormous blue shawl. We did puzzles, figured out meals, and went for walks. Every time I got her to the top of the hill in the park we cheered.
When you’re a kid, you think of adulthood as a switch being flicked. Suddenly you’re big, you’re aware, you’re sure of yourself, you know how to balance a checkbook and you know how to cook. You immediately know how to change the oil in a car and you know what all those mysterious settings on the washing machine are for. Doing taxes and buying houses come naturally. There’s nothing you can’t handle.
The reality is, and it’s a reality we don’t see often enough, really, is that only the last sentence of that paragraph is true. That’s how I feel about it, anyway. I know I can handle anything that happens, even if I have no idea how I’m going to do it.