This is the last photo I have with my mom. My son took the picture for me when he was just six years old, with an actual camera.
Normally, I don’t linger long on this photo when remembering my beautiful mother because cancer is all I’d see. It brings back memories of those dark days when I’d visit her on my lunch break and she couldn’t get out of bed anymore. I’d lie beside her propped up on her thirty two pillows and the comfiest blankets, my formerly squishy mom barely making a bump under the covers, and she’d wonder out loud if she should try and force herself to move to the living room for my visits. And I’d say “It’s okay, Mom. Stay where you’re comfortable.” She’d fall in and out of sleep as I stared at the giant box of syringes left in her room for pain medication. That many needles must mean she’d be around for a while. I was in denial. I had needle optimism. I secretly wanted to tell her to just get up. Surely you can get up. Get up, get up, get up!! My tough as nails, independent, bad ass mom always, always got up. So get up now please. I will make the toast and you will be okay.
But she never got up.
Cancer changed her physical appearance so dramatically that looking at this photo has always been nothing but sad to me. She spent most of her life after I was born somewhere between dieting and fully embracing self acceptance. And cheesecake. This photo reminds me that she died a not so peaceful death. But it also reminds me to eat the fucking cheesecake. I wish she never spent a moment depriving herself of any joy. We should all live every single day of our lives.
This photo was taken on her sofa – note the cool animal print pillow behind her. She was not a “typical” mom – she raised four children alone without one single child support payment, she worked as a bartender for most of my young life, she refused to wear a bra, her wardrobe was 90% black, her jewelry was big and bold, she dyed her hair at 3:00 am, she stayed up late and slept until noon, she was hip and funky, antisocial and introverted but she’d tell a stranger her whole life story, or mine, and she was so damn funny. This photo was taken during a short lived moment when she was home from the hospital in between being diagnosed with terminal cancer and never again leaving the hospital. At the time of this photo, she was self injecting morphine through a catheter in her leg and she could get out of bed for a few minutes. Or she forced herself to. I don’t know how hard this day was for her. I also have a photo from this day of her snuggling my daughter and one of my son hanging upside down off her sofa as she holds him by the feet. All of them laughing. She sent my daughter home with arms full from elbow to wrist of bracelets that she later wore to her Nanny’s funeral, and she sent my son home with a tiny wooden elephant she had on her desk, a memento he chose himself that he still keeps on his desk.
My daughter doesn’t have her own memories of her Nanny anymore but she knows how much my mom loved her. Stories of my mom are scattered throughout our lives every single day. And many of her things now decorate my home, like that pillow. My son does remember his Nanny and recalls details like the toy drawer she had in her little orange kitchen, which she filled with surprises picked especially for them, how she always made him fun snacks, and that she smelled like Ivory soap. And that one time she accidentally dressed him in his sister’s pants when she was babysitting.
I looked at this photo for much longer today and realized that I can now see past her jaundiced skin and her bones, and I can see right past the cancer and frailness, to a woman whose golden brown eyes I share with my own daughter, whose exact loud laugh I hear when I’m with my own kids who make me laugh harder than anyone, to the woman whose arm is wrapped tightly up around my own in this photo, holding me like she always did. Like she always will. I see my mom. A woman who was classy as Hell but could make the F bomb fit perfectly in every sentence, a woman who created a fake boyfriend so her neighbors would stop asking her to socialize, and then killed him off when that lie became a pain in the ass. Poor bastard didn’t even see it coming. A woman who wrote a pretty juicy novel of fiction (although we know the main character is actually you, Momma) with a passion that I had never seen in her before. A woman who whispered to me from her hospital bed as I lay beside her, “I really love that you have a nose piercing. You’re delicate, but a little bad ass. Just like your mother.” My favorite compliment is that I am just like my mother. She was certifiably crazy, but she was extraordinary.
Today, I look at this picture and I see past the cancer that took my mom, and I know that nothing, not even death, can take away her love. And oh how she loved me. How she loved all of us.
Today is her birthday. Happy 80th birthday my beautiful Momma. I wish you were here to celebrate, but I take comfort in knowing that wherever you are, you are eating the fuck out of that cheesecake.
So, thank you, Mom. For loving me completely. For being my biggest fan. For showing me the ropes. For fucking up and teaching me that you can learn and grow from mistakes and then move the fuck on. My own relationship with my children is made up of so much of us. I know you probably freaked out and flipped a table or some shit when I got divorced not long after you died, but I hope you somehow know that we are all okay here. We are much better than okay. We are really happy. And your love has helped shape all of me. It is at my very core. Thank you. Because of you, I am a little bit fearless, a little bit delicate, and I have two children who are a whole lot of extraordinary, just like their Nanny.
With high fives and cussing and a whole lot of love,
So, a neat thing happened when I began writing this post – – my daughter came to my room all hopped up about flag football season starting and she saw that I’d been crying. She crawls up into my bed and puts her little arms around me and I look down and see that my arm is wrapped up around hers exactly as my mom’s was in this photo. Exactly. We lie there a moment not saying anything. And then I tell her how lucky I am to be her mom. To be her brother’s mom. I tell her my mom used to wrap her arm around me the same way I do with her. I say, I’m sorry I am sad. And my wise little eleven year old tells me it’s okay to be sad. It means there was love. She asks what day is Nanny’s birthday because she wants to write a message on a balloon for her birthday this year. And I say “We did that a few years ago, don’t you remember how it was crazy windy and the balloons smacked the crap out of us, and then yours blew off before you were ready to release it. And we all ended up laughing hysterically as you yelled “Nannyyyyyyyyy” and chased after it?” “Nope. Can we do it again with a message written on the balloon so she can see it?” “Sure”, I say, “Nanny would love that.” The environment can handle just a few more balloons, right?
And then my future quarterback leaps out of my bed and says she has to go get ready for some football. Football started six hours later, people. Thank goodness one of my kids didn’t get their Nanny’s always late gene.