Our friend Jackie died last week at the age of 42 from breast cancer. I met Jackie the same night I met Kelly, the love of my life. After a Thai dinner, Kelly convinced me to join her and Jackie for ice cream, which I would soon learn was her favorite thing. Jackie’s warm friendly demeanor instantly put me at ease in a room full of strangers. Her close friendship with Kelly, born of countless racquetball games and movie nights and ice cream runs meant that Jackie would be a big part of my life as well and I couldn’t have been happier. She was a vibrant, upbeat woman who seemed to gather friends and admirers around her everywhere she went. Her memorial service was an uplifting testimony to her spirit and an emotionally wrenching time for her wide circle of family and friends to say goodbye.
While we waited for the service to begin, Kelly’s good friend Diane gave Kelly a gorgeous bracelet sold by the Friends of Mel Foundation to help raise money for cancer research. The multicolored beads and simple design make it the kind of jewelry you can wear with anything and I instantly coveted it. Our friend Michelle commented, “oh that’s the new breast cancer bracelet!” I learned that the Friends of Mel Foundation was started by friends of a woman who lost her cancer battle, and has since grown into a nationally known effort which has raised over $2 million for cancer research. Jackie’s own friends too have started a foundation in her memory, the Jackie Williamson Sisters of Hope, with the admirable goal of raising funds to help women, and in particular members of the lesbian community, who are facing the financial burden of dealing with critical or terminal illnesses. Yet another of Jackie’s closest friends has been training for her third 60-mile walk for the Susan G. Komen foundation to defeat breast cancer. Audrey started walking three years ago when Jackie was diagnosed, this year she sadly will be walking in her memory.
As we rode home from the cemetery I started thinking about all these lives cut short and all the ‘warriors’ left behind to fight the battle. My own losses to cancer are numerous and have been well chronicled on these pages before: my father to melanoma, my sister to multiple myeloma, my mother (and her mother) to breast cancer, my friend Dani to breast cancer, my friend Kim to a rare cancer of the bile duct, and now Jackie to breast cancer. In the early days of my time as a cancer warrior I too would cycle and walk, wear the ribbons, and the t-shirts. I too was like all those groups of friends running, riding or walking for someone whose face smiles bravely from their identical t-shirts. Sometimes they do it to “fight the fight” with them, and all too often to “keep their memory alive.” All these friends of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people living quietly remarkable lives all taken by variations on the same disease. These efforts provide a means to cope, to celebrate a life, to mourn a loss and to feel as though we have the power to make a difference, to be a warrior. When I started my own journey as one of these cancer warriors I had only my dad’s name to write on my “in memory of” ribbon…then I added Dani, my sister, my mom, Kim, and now Jackie. And while I haven’t tried to get my gargantuan body on a bike in a while I have thought of training to join Audrey or my friend Margaret in a marathon walk next year, because I know in my heart this battle can’t go on without me in the midst of it. And each year more and more warriors join this fight, walking, running, making bracelets, selling t-shirts, even skydiving like my fearless friend Audrey, all in an effort to try to stop the relentless march of this insidious disease. For every friend of Mel, of Jackie, of Dani, there are a thousand more each year who join the fight, wear the ribbons, sell the bracelets, plant “gardens of hope” and release balloons and sing songs in memory of their friends and raise sneakers and bike tires to honor the survivors. And you know what? I’m tired. We’re all tired. You can see it in the shell-shocked faces of those who have just experienced their first loss and in the hardened set faces of people like me who know this latest loss will be far from the last. This needs to stop. This battle should not have to be fought with dances and raffles and bake sales. This generation of warriors is ready to put down our weapons. We want to know our children won’t be fighting it a generation later. I want to know that Liza won’t be walking with her friends someday with my name on a ribbon or a t-shirt, making the same macabre jokes I make about coming from ‘the cancer family.” It’s time. It’s past time. Find the cures. End it now.
Joseph and Mary. When you see those names does your mind go to that famous biblical couple that gets so much play around this time of year? Of course. That’s only natural, they’re a pretty big power couple round the holidays. But when I see those names I think of another couple. I think of my Joseph and Mary. I think of my parents.
My father was born in 1916 in New Haven Connecticut to deaf parents — an Italian mother and an Irish father, both first generation Americans. His family life tended to be on the boisterous side with an Italian grandmother who more than once got in trouble during Prohibition for making wine in his family’s basement, Irish relatives who ran a speakeasy (where he tended bar well before his teens) and a mother fond of placing bets with the local bookies. He took a young woman named Marian Bergeron to his high school prom. Marian would later go on to become Miss America 1933. Swarthy and dark with a cigarette eternally on his lips he went on to college at the University of Miami and was stationed on the Panama Canal during World War II. As a child I was fascinated by his stories of his pet boa constrictor and his trip to Cuba with his father to tour the rum factories, of his endless parade of cousins with names like “Doll Doll” “Big Al,” and “Chop Chop,” of his stories of riding street cars to school and being taken to a brothel by his dad as a teen to “become a man.” Even though Connecticut was only a few hours away from our home in Maine, his life seemed worlds away from anything I could comprehend and I wondered what it would have been like to know this grandmother who dried pasta over the backs of her dining room chairs every Sunday and this grandfather who smoked a pipe and carried a pocket watch and had a smile that said “here kid, here’s a quarter go buy yourself a pack of gum.” For me they did and do exist only in the photo that now rests on my living room shelf.
By contrast my mother grew up in the squeakiest clean city in the country – Salt Lake City. Born in 1926, also to deaf parents, she lived a life of ice cream with her older brothers on the front porch of their big house, of Pioneer Days and taking care of her baby brother 16 years her junior. She remembered her childhood as being ‘very poor,’ even though her mother insisted there was “always room for another pair of feet under the kitchen table.’ Hers was a life where being Catholic in a Mormon city meant not being able to be in her best friend’s wedding. Her college studies kept her close to home at the University of Utah. The photos of her mother looked like what Norman Rockwell would have painted if you prompted him with the word “grandma,” large and gray haired with a permanent smile that said “come in so I can make you a tuna sandwich and a glass of milk.” As a child I used to stare at her photos wondering what it would have been like to sit on her lap and bury my head in that expansive bosom perennially covered by an apron in nearly every picture. I was fortunate enough to know my mother’s father however as he lived with us for most of my childhood. He was the son of a southern gentleman and former slave owner from Arkansas. An elegant man who dressed in a shirt and tie every day well into his 90s, someone who’d spring for a lobster dinner without thinking but giggle with glee if he managed to get through Sunday mass without putting a dollar in the collection basket.
From these two disparate backgrounds the Catholic good girl from Utah and the chain smoking charmer from Connecticut met in Washington DC where they were each doing graduate work in their studies in education of the deaf at Gallaudet College. My mother used to tell me when she saw my father in the dining hall she declared “that’s the man I’m going to marry.” Seven years later my father finally proposed at a DC gas station with the tremendously romantic proposition “Well….how about it?” On subsequent trips to DC with my family my father would always try to find that same gas station (now in a less than desirable neighborhood) to pay homage to this historic occasion.
My parents story is a love story, of a New Haven boy raised on Italian wine at dinner and bourbon afterwards and his Salt Lake City girl who never had a drink until they met; of two people bound together by the unique experience of growing up with deaf parents, by their tremendous faith and devotion to their church and their firm belief that family was everything; of a couple that moved from DC to California to Maine as my father’s career in deaf education progressed until their lives finally settled on an island with a son and two daughters, where lasagna and sauce cooked in the kitchen and scrabble games were played over bourbon manhattans. They wrote love notes to each other bought each other cards for their ‘half- anniversaries.” They hugged often and kissed under the mistletoe (and every where else much to the mortification of their teenaged youngest daughter). My mother, a great correspondent, would sit at night writing cards and letters and my father would watch Pavarotti sing ‘I Pagliacci” on PBS and cry. And every night from my room across the hall I would hear them say “Goodnight Joseph. Good night Mary.”
My father died twenty years ago today after a short battle with malignant melanoma. Once in the waning days of his illness as I felt his life and my tether to a family history I would never recapture slipping away I brought home a copy of “Moonstruck” to watch with him. After the movie I asked him if it reminded him of his Italian relatives. From his bed on the couch he smiled wanly and said “my family wasn’t that quiet.” When I lost my father I lost my biggest fan, who never missed a school, summer stock or community theater performance. I lost my walking partner who’d tramp for hours with me around our island or our subsequent neighborhoods telling me stories of his past and guiding me as I started uncertainly toward my future. I lost the man who’d lie on the floor with me in front of the Christmas tree playing game after game of “I spy.” I lost the man who taught me to love Broadway musicals and Pauline Kael’s movie reviews in the New Yorker. In many ways when I lost him I lost my childhood and while I no longer can hear his voice in my head to this day the smell of Old Spice instantly makes me think of his bear hugs.
My mom lived eighteen long years after my father’s death, finally giving in to the aggressive breast cancer that took her from us two years ago (almost exactly to the day that my father died). Where my father was everyone’s friend and was greeted with shouts of “hey Joe!” wherever he went, my mother, the eternal schoolteacher, was always “Mrs. Youngs” much to her chagrin. Lacking my father’s bon vivant embrace of life she was the navigator guiding our family’s ship through waters both calm and troubled. She drove carpool and made lunches of tomato soup and grilled cheese. She made sure we never missed mass, that we wrote our thank you letters before we played with our toys at Christmas, that we knew how to sign so we could communicate with our grandfather, and that we always respected our teachers. She oversaw our household chores but turned a blind eye when my brother and I would try to clear everything off the kitchen table in one trip or when my sister and I would have water fights while doing the dishes. She made cookies with me to send to my brother in college, weathered my sister’s tempestuous battles with my father and had a tendency to get weepy at any play, assembly or sporting event where one of her kids had a chance to shine. Her door was always open to students needing someone to talk to and her lap was always available for the sobs of emotional daughters struggling to understand life. Every once in a while she’d break her own rules and let me or my sister stay home from school for no reason saying that “sometimes you just need a day.” Of course it wasn’t always perfect. My mother often frustrated me – her worship of my older brother and her way of pursing her lips in disapproval at my choices grated on me and I often felt I couldn’t do anything right. But when I lost her I lost my confidante, my companion in watching the Kennedy Center honors, my political debate partner, my resource for everything from how long to cook a pork roast to how to weather my infant daughter’s colic. And of course I lost that lap to cry on.
At my father’s funeral, just before the casket was closed, I knelt with my mother to say goodbye. She whispered to me “every night I would say Goodnight Joseph ….” And then she touched my father’s hand and through her tears said it one last time. For years after my father died she would insist that the cracking of her ice in her nightly glass of bourbon and ginger was him saying good night to her. At my mother’s funeral I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘goodnight Mary” but I knew that somewhere somehow they were together to say it to each other. For me, time has healed that first intense rush of grief and now on this anniversary weekend of both of their passings, I will say it tonight and know they are with each other and that they are with me.
Good night Joseph. Good night Mary.
A year ago I wrote a piece “On Giving Thanks for a New Kind of Family” in which I reconciled my lack of ‘real’ family with the family I’ve created for my self – my friends who have embraced me literally and figuratively with a fierceness and a love that humbles and touches me. This year as I again faced a Thanksgiving day spent mostly alone – Kelly working and Liza with her dad and his family – I found myself slipping back into those patterns of self pity. Yet, anyone who knows me, knows the last thing I want to be is that person you see coming and think “great here she comes dragging her trail of dead family members behind her like some kind of badge.” Of course I’m not entirely lacking in family. I have a wonderful big brother, but his busy life as a criminal prosecutor and the comings and goings of his three active teenage boys make it hard for us to get together more than once a year if that. Kelly’s family has welcomed me into their midst with love and hospitality and I look forward to the day when they are all my in-laws. And yes, next year at this time Kelly and Liza and I will officially be a family of three, a prospect which excites me and fills those empty spaces in my heart. But that six-week stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years is full of reminders of my family holidays past and it is always a struggle for me to get through it in one piece .
A recent trend on Facebook has been to undertake a “thirty days of gratitude exercise” and today it seemed everyone’s post mentioned being grateful for FAMILY (all in caps naturally) and the cooking skills of uncles and moms and grandmothers, of baking pies with siblings and rousing games of flag football on frozen lawns. To read these posts one would think everyone lived in that “very special” Thanksgiving episode of General Hospital where the Quartermaines stop bickering and welcome the Webbers and the Spencers to their house for a lavish dinner and everyone wears turtleneck sweaters whilst sipping wine in front of crackling fires. Yet, here I sat in an empty house with the four cats for company watching a marathon of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race “on the LOGO network. (Frankly, I’m stunned I’m not inspiration for a Hallmark card with a holiday tradition like this. ) Yet, as I read post after post about large family gatherings and travels to distant places and family recipes handed down from generation to generation, I realized that my family has its own morbidly unique tradition: we all die at the holidays.
Now don’t blanche at that statement. It’s ok. Death is part of life after all, and really, what better time to pass away than when your family is already gathered together and the churches are bedecked with evergreens and twinkle lights? When you’ve driven to as many family funerals as I have in front of the backdrop of holiday decorations you develop a certain macabre sense of humor about it. It all started December 21, 1980 when my grandfather, who lived with us, had a massive heart attack in the back seat of my family station wagon and fell over and died on my 14-year old shoulder. “He died with someone he loved more than anything, “ my mom would often say to me. At the time I was traumatized but as the years went on, I realized I had the makings of one hell of a cocktail party story. Friends sent casseroles and deli trays to my family and for the next decade we made deli sandwiches on Christmas Eve as a nod to those days following his death, and our truncated celebration that year was the first time I’d spend the holidays wrapped in the cocoon of my family as we mourned the loss of someone close to us.
Ten years later my father would pass away on January 9th after an all-too quick battle with malignant melanoma and his funeral took place in the same family church with the same nativity scene in the corner and the same wreaths hung by red velvet ribbons along the walls. My father’s death is something I don’t speak of often. I was his baby girl and he was my hero. He taught me about Broadway musicals and crossword puzzles, how to read the New Yorker, the value of a good walking stick, and how to make the perfect bourbon and ginger for my mother. His dual Irish/Italian heritage meant he was prone to downing more than a few manhattans each night and then crying while listening to Pavarotti sing I Pagliacci. Losing him left a wound on my heart and a hole in my life that has never been filled and not a day goes by that I don’t wish he were here to see me and his granddaughter who looks and acts so much like I did at ten. For the next thirteen years we celebrated the holidays with out him, my mother alternating between Thanksgivings with my brother and Christmases with my sister, and always raising a toast to my dad on December 28th, their wedding anniversary.
Then in 2003 holiday death came calling for someone far, far too young. My 45- year old sister was diagnosed with multiple myeloma right after Labor Day and died two days before Thanksgiving. Shell-shocked at this unexpected loss, my brother, mother and I journeyed to Maryland on Thanksgiving Day for the sad occasion of her funeral. I’ll never forget that long drive from the Baltimore airport to her home in Salisbury, tired, sad and hungry, we stopped at a convenience store for a Thanksgiving dinner of cracker sandwiches and peanuts. When I returned to New Hampshire the following Monday I was stunned to see the world ablaze with Christmas lights and decorations. Three weeks later we held a memorial service for Marie at our family church in Maine — same nativity scene, same wreaths, same deli sandwiches. By now we had the holiday funeral down pat.
With my sister’s death still raw my brother and I never anticipated that ten months later we would be faced with my mother’s stage four breast cancer diagnosis. Coming as it did in July of that year I remember sitting with her at her oncologist appointment thinking idly, “well we’ll have her for another five months,” so sure was I that she too would follow our family pattern of a diagnosis and quick death just in time for the holidays. I didn’t count on my mother’s tenacity. She fought back for the next three years, recovering from major invasive surgery, working through physical therapy, enjoying a brief remission, and several more trips out for lunch and dinner with her best friends, “the ABC ladies” who dined alphabetically through all of Greater Portland’s hot restaurants. But sure enough in December, 2007 during a holiday visit from me and Liza, and my brother and his youngest son, my mom’s condition turned suddenly, horrifically grave and she was rushed to the hospital. There we were once again in the family waiting room under the soft glow of Christmas lights with holiday muzak in the background. On January 3rd they told us there was no hope. On January 7th she died and her funeral at that same family church was full of what was by now the comforting and familiar presence of pointsettias and wise men and murmured words of condolences over deli sandwiches from the local Shaws. During those long sad final days by her bedside my brother and I would often smile wryly at each other and say “here we are again huh, planning a Christmas funeral.” There’s more I want to say about my mother but that loss is too new still too fresh and who she was deserves more than a pithy sentence at the end of this paragraph.
I share this not to elicit pity or sympathy. My losses are no more or no less tragic than anyone else’s and if anything, they’ve given me, the queen of self -deprecation, some great material. I share this as explanation for my obsession with gathering my loved ones to me during the holidays, for my insistence that the Christmas lights and decorations (including my impressive and often-mocked Santa Mug collection) come out the day after Thanksgiving, for my reluctance to be alone, for my need to hug Liza tighter than ever, for my love of Christmas carols on the cd player and endless viewings of the musical Scrooge, and for my tendency to tear up when Kelly holds me. You see, this magical time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s for me is as much about loss as it is about light and giving, as much about pain and sorrow as it is about laughter and pecan pie. But it has given me a fierce appreciation for the people in my life who mean so much to me – for Kelly and Liza who are my world, for my brother Patrick, my sister-in-law Marti and my nephews, for my best friends Joe, Katie, Meghan, Dana, Margaret, Susie, Tara, June, Vicki and Lisa and Debbie, for “my boys” Chris, Nathan, Jeff and Matt, my new gal pals Deb and Jenn, and for my amazing cyber pals from Mothertalkers, Banshees and May 99 moms. During this time I may write you a little more, I may hug you a little harder or reach for your hand more often, I may call a little too much. Or I may get quiet and pull back when I fear my neediness is becoming intrusive. Bear with me. You mean the world to me and when you’ve already lost your world three times over you want to hold on to what is left. To say I am thankful for you would be inadequate. To say I appreciate you would be trite. To say I love you would be the truth — imperfect as it may be. Happy Holidays to you… my family.