(This is the third essay in a three-part series)
A commentary on this series:
I started writing these pieces as a way to document events, and analyze the effect of experiences on my personal life particularly concerning my relationship with my parents and my idea of home (which in doing so, I have learned are all interconnected.) When I had written these essays in the spring of last year, I was uncertain what I wanted to do with them. At the time, I hadn’t moved to London, and my dad hadn’t been planning to move to Portland, but since those two events have occurred, these essays seem even more poignant, especially due to the proximity of October 12th (the anniversary of my mom’s death).
I spoke to relatives on both sides of my family to gain knowledge and insight into times that I was not there to witness as well as memories that have become blurry with the passing of time. I have learned about the impact of personal storytelling and the principal purpose which these written accounts serve.
I have analyzed the difference in memories based on the state of one’s being (alive or dead), the differences between mother and father, and the how these factors impact me. The first and last piece of this portfolio (the ones about my father and my mother) have their own introductions which help provide background and insight into the thought process of writing them. However, as an aside, I will say that on writing about my parents, attempting to remember memories has been much difficult for my mother than that of my father. I think that this is in part because I have spent more time with my father over the years simply because he is here, but also because I have tried to forget a lot of memories because trying to unearth them is painful. Memories, whether happy or sad, have the ability to do that.
Although some memories, especially the ones concerning my mother, took some time to remember, others have occurred subconsciously. Many of them have been embellished by additions from family and friends. It’s like a long game a telephone where each time some details are added where other ones are forgotten. I have written these down many memories as not only the documentation of important parts of my loved one’s lives, but also as a starting place for further discussion. Looking forward, I hope that these essays foster new discussion and open conversation between my family and friends and serve as a written record of experiences with people and places I love.
* * *
I write this not as a description of her death, but of her life. Far too much emphasis is placed on how one dies, rather than on how one lives. Often, upon finding out about the death of an individual, we feel guilt. This thought only lingers for a second, because our attention is turned to another, seemingly more pressing question: “How did they die?”
When a family member falls ill, the caregiver of that family member will receive hundreds of calls: friends and long lost relatives calling for updates. They want to know what is going on, but they want to know what is going on from a safe distance. They don’t want to come to the burning house, but they will gladly watch from their cars down the road. I lived in a burning home for six years, not fully understanding why it was on fire and why this fire could not be put out. After the house had burnt down, I was left trying to pick up the pieces of what the disease had torched. I barely knew my mom. It has been seven years to the day since my mother has died, and six years before that which she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, (which I understand now is the most fatal and terminal of all brain cancers). At the time of diagnosis I was ten years old, meaning that at best I had a conscious life with my mother for about six years: six years of life with her, six years of life while she was sick, and now seven years of life after her death. These intervals outline and provide distinctions for my own life with makers signifying before, during and after her illness.
Once, my dad told me that he doesn’t necessarily think that the soul goes anywhere when someone dies but is rather remembered and carried on by the people that have been touched by that person. That being said, the majority of the time that I knew my mother she was fighting a disease which had the capability to change her personality and how she acted psychosocially. Do I have enough memories of her to remember? Did I have enough time with her when she wasn’t sick to hold on to her?
A professor of social work once explained to a class I was in, that when a child dies, a parent loses their future, and when a parent dies, the child loses their past. I have spent the past six years trying to piece together that past; trying to figure out who my mother was; trying to learn about her life before she had me and before she had cancer, in an attempt to better know myself. I have sifted through pictures and old letters, and I have listened to family members tell stories to create an idea of my mother, which, although it may not be entirely accurate (as their descriptions have been adorned with details that my mind has created) I nevertheless hold on to when I need a mother; one that is stronger than the memory of her illness. The slow progression of the loss of my mother is a story which deserves attention and analysis as well, but that is for another time. I’ve spent too much time looking at people’s faces after I tell them that she is dead; too many unanswerable questions about where she has gone have been asked. This will not be another person facing and questioning her death, but rather it will be about her life.
* * *
An excerpt from my eulogy for my mother at her funeral:
We were driving to summer school and listening to 92.9 (because it used to be the oldies station) and we were listening to the song that went ‘I don’t know much about history, I don’t know much trigonometry, don’t know much about science books, don’t know much about the French I took. But I do know that one and one is two and if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world this could be.” And you were singing to it, and you never sang, and you still don’t sing. That was when I last remember you happy. Maybe Stacy or Dad or someone else remembers a different time, but that is the one time that stands out in my mind when you were happy. And I look through all the photographs when you were holding me, and feeding me when I was little, and you were smiling so big and its like you are the happiest person in the world. And that is the mom that I will remember.
* * *
Although I am sure that these stories about my parent’s relationship were told to me at different times growing up, when I heard them in my dad’s eulogy at my mother’s funeral was when they really made an impact on me. He had written down notes on index cards, but he didn’t write out every detail, for the memories were salient enough that a script was unnecessary. When writing these stories down, I realized that certain dates, times and even certain situations might be slightly incorrect. I had to talk to my dad to get extra clarification for parts that I was uncertain about or remembered incorrectly. Even with the additional details he has given me, I will never know what the location of these scenes looked like, what they were each wearing and what their first and most visceral impressions of each other were. I have come to terms with the fact that I will not be able to fully understand everything that has happened before I knew my mother, but I have also learned that this is something that every child must accept (regardless if their mother is alive or not) because some experiences can not be recreated even in the most descriptive prose. Despite this fact, I will try to do so.
Joel still likes to joke that Shelly stalked him. In 1989, Joel had just taken a residency position at University of Pittsburgh as an anesthesiologist at Montefiore Hospital. On Thanksgiving day, Shelly was also at the hospital because her grandfather had fallen and broken a hip. This was the first day that Shelly and Joel met. This interaction amounted to nothing at the time, but would down the road. A year passed before the spring of 1990 when Shelly was driving home from the gym when she saw Joel pull into a liquor store. She parked her car, walked into the state liquor store and began casually perusing the aisles while waiting to look astonished that Joel was at the same store. Shelly had been at the gym before stopping at the store and didn’t have any money on her to buy anything, so she simply had to pretend to be buying something. After “running” into each other again, the two exchanged numbers and went on a date. In Joel’s opinion, the date had gone poorly, and he had no intention of calling her for a second one. What he didn’t realize was that he could not get rid of Shelly that easily. Since she also worked at the same hospital as a nurse, she looked up his number and called him when he was in the lounge at the hospital, demanding to know why he didn’t call her again. They soon started dating.
One night when they were out, the two ran into a family that Shelly knew. Shelly commented on how she had been his nurse when their now teenage son was delivered in his hospital. After the family left and said goodbye, Joel started doing math in his head.
“Wait a second,” he said. “If you were the nurse for that boy when he was born, how old are you?” It had never occurred to him that he could have been dating a much older woman.
Shelly just laughed and said: “Does it matter?”
As it turns out, she was six and a half years older than him.
Months continued to pass, and Joel began to realize that it was make or break time. If they didn’t break up soon, then they were on a trajectory towards something very serious (i.e. marriage). Joel was young and didn’t know exactly what he wanted yet. So one day while driving to a movie, Joel turned to Shelly and said: “Have you ever met someone that everything they do really annoys you?”
“Are you talking about me?” Shelly responded.
“Um well yeah…”
Without skipping a beat, Shelly responded: “You’re full of shit. Keep driving.”
This wasn’t the beginning of Shelly’s strong will helping her get her way. Members of her family jokingly warned him about this particular attribute. Women on her side of the family were known to be “pieces of work.” Her strong opinions and lack of a filter someone allowed her to voice her mind often and loudly.
When she would go to a restaurant and didn’t like the food, she wouldn’t hesitate to let the waiter know. Each time my father would beg her not to say anything. He tried to get her to compromise and told her that it wasn’t necessary to make a fuss, but without fail when the waiter would come over and ask how their food was, she would respond with: “You know what? It’s pretty crummy actually,” and she would send it back.
Frequently at family events or dinners, the phrase “Shelly would have something to say about this,” is muttered. She would have said what everyone was thinking, whether or not it was appropriate. If a certain part of the family wasn’t invited to a wedding, or if someone was in need of an intervention, everyone knew that if my mom had been there, she would have either changed something or at the very least shared her thoughts.
* * *
Mom was deeply invested in her family and relationships. When she was sixteen, her father died from colon cancer. It was a quick progression, and he died within six months. He was buried in the family cemetery in Pittsburgh, which is where she is buried as well. When it was still a topic of discussion where my mother would end up after she died, I was adamant about her ending up with her father and the rest of her family. Caring so much about her family, she undoubtedly would have wanted to rest there, and I felt very strongly about this as well. My mother was very fond of her father. His name was Hymen, for whom I am named after (they took the “H” in Hy and used it for Holly). I don’t know much about Hy besides that he was left-handed (like me), though they made him write with his right hand in school, that he changed his name to Mark when he had to fight in the Korean war, and that he was also really good at the butterfly stroke in swimming.
Each day after her father died, my mom would walk home from school and find my grandmother in an arm chair, crying. She would then leave and walk to the convenience store to buy lemon wafers, then walk around town in attempts to avoid her hysterical mother. Within a year of this, she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to move to Hawaii, where her dad’s twin brother lived and worked at the University of Honolulu. She completed her senior year at Kalani High School. I remember as a child looking at old pictures of her with friends on the beach from this time, wearing bracelets and necklaces made from sea shells. In her yearbook, she was the only white student — everyone else was Hawaiian or Asian. Her dark curly hair and freckled nose stood out even in the black and white photos of the yearbook.
In retrospect, having lost a parent at the same age as she did, I understand the need to pick up and move. I, however, didn’t do it until a year after her when I moved to Philadelphia, which, although wasn’t quite Pittsburgh, still put me closer to my family and my mother. We both felt an urge to leave our immediate family and move toward extended family, who were closer to our dearly departed. Some individuals who have lost a loved one feel the opposite – they want to hold on to their home as they remember it before. I felt this with my childhood home, but also felt the overpowering urge to go far away and get closer to people who knew my mother better. Even if it wasn’t in the same city, Philadelphia was closer to Pittsburgh.
Perhaps it was her lack of a father in the formative years of being a twenty-something young woman, but my mother felt the need to go back to Pittsburgh after a year in Hawaii. At that time she became particularly close with her mother’s father, Papa. During this period, she got her nursing degree and continued to be close with her older relatives and role models. She would visit relatives and call them frequently, while most of the younger cousins her age moved away to go to school or start a family. She remained firm in wanting to stay and take care of her loved ones. Hawaii had been what she had needed at the time of her father’s death, but as she matured she realized the necessity of being close to the ones she loved – especially the aging generation that she knew her time with was limited.
Very early on in their relationship, my mom asked if my dad would want to meet her grandpa. It seemed like kind of a strange request, so my dad’s response was: “Does he smell?” She laughed and told him that no, Papa didn’t smell. Of course, my dad ended up falling in love with Papa. He would visit him with my mother and help take care of him until they moved from Pittsburgh to Colorado Springs in 1992. Considering it was Papa’s broken hip which had brought them together in the first place, this was especially fitting.
Even when she lived far away, whether it was Hawaii in high school or Colorado after she got married, my mom’s cousins admired how she would make it a point to call them or write to them on a regular basis. Her dedication to remain connected to those she loved was unparalleled. I have vivid memories from my childhood of her sitting at her desk, doodling spirals on sticky notes as she chatted on the phone for hours. Sometimes while she was on the phone, she would skim through catalogs, dog-earing pages that she liked. They were rarely magazines about celebrities or news, but rather contained pages of children’s sweaters, bedding and women’s clothing.
This soon stemmed into an obsession with catalog shopping (the precursor to online shopping), which she became a pro at when she was on bed rest with me and then my sister two years later. During this time period, she would lay in bed ordering boxes upon boxes of different items, often sending the contents back (much like the food in restaurants).
* * *
If there was one thing that I have heard repetitively, it is that my mother wanted kids more than anything. I often like to joke that when she met my dad, she was determined to be with him because she knew that her biological clock was ticking and that she needed someone to have kids with. When she was pregnant with me, she asked her physician if she could go on a trip to see her uncle in Hawaii. Her doctor said that yes, she had plenty of time before her due date. Unfortunately, she went into labor on the plane there. Luckily, her water didn’t break, and she was rushed to the hospital. She was able to fly back to Colorado with no complications, but with strict orders to be on bed rest. Even on bed rest, she had me a month early, on December 7th, and had to stay in the hospital until Christmas (which is my dad’s birthday). Having been a nurse at the hospital herself, my mother insisted on me having the best care. When she would wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, she would call the hospital to make sure I was okay. Each time the nurse would assure her that I was okay and if anything was wrong they would call her. Additionally, my mother decided to bottle feed so that other people could feed me, especially while I was an infant in the hospital. This plan backfired when I refused to take a bottle from any hand that wasn’t hers. Even as an infant, I knew who my mother was and rejected everyone else.
My dad often jokes that mothers who have children when they are older become the overbearing helicopter mothers. My friend’s parents still remind me of times at soccer games when I was in grade school, and she would make sure that I was wearing three different jackets if it was under 60 degrees, or when she would run on the field during time-outs and aggressively lather sunscreen on my face as I complained about how ‘embarrassing’ it was. On each first day of school from Kindergarten through High school, she would buy me a corsage from the florist and pin it on my outfit before I went to school. Every morning she would meticulously braid my hair, put it in ponytails with decorative barrettes and match the hair ties to my outfit colors.
As I grew up, it became more and more apparent that I was a miniature version of her. My mom’s sister used to say that she was worried I would hit her because I was so much like my mother, perhaps bringing her back to their days of sibling rivalry and petty fights. Pictures of my mother and myself as children are almost identical, especially with our long brown hair. When my mom officially cut her hair short, she kept the ponytail (a relic that we still have in our basement today.) As long as I could remember (and even many years before I even considered the thought), she had short hair, but before that she was known for her long hair. Her cousin Phyllis remembers how my grandma used to shampoo my mom’s hair in a large wash basin in the basement in order to get all the shampoo out of her waist-length hair. Phyllis even remembers the smell of my mom’s hair “being a mixture of Dove soap and channel perfume.”
* * *
I will be the first to admit that things weren’t always perfect in our family, especially during her illness and after her death. There was one time after my mother died that my dad told me that the reason we couldn’t get along was because “I was a clone of my mother.” Whether this was intended as a compliment or as an insult, I took it as the biggest compliment I have ever received.
Despite problems throughout their marriage, I do not have a doubt that my parents loved one another. One of my mom’s closest friends was her first cousin, Janie, who was close with my parents while they were dating. (My dad even thought that him and Janie were close enough that he could come into the delivery room when she was giving birth to her first son. Janie did not share this sentiment, and he still claims that her head turned around 360 degrees, exorcist style, screaming at him to leave the room.) Janie remembers talking to my dad during a rough patch in my parent’s engagement when he had briefly called it off.
“She’s my best friend,” he told Janie.
When times have been rough with my dad, she has always reminded me of this time. She tells me that nothing is perfect, but that regardless, my parents loved each other. I also think that this is the reason as I have gotten older and become not only more of my own person but also more like my mom, I have been able to become better friends with my dad – reminiscent of when he met my mother 20 plus years ago.
When I was younger, I don’t think I emulated my mother as much as I do now. With time I have grown into my mother. In some ways, this is my attempt to memorialize her and keep her alive – to continue her legacy. Sure, some of my choices and preferences that are similar to hers are quite intentional. I went to nursing school as a way to explore the career that she was so passionate about. I will wear jewelry that was hers so I can look at my hands and think of her, and sometimes I sign her name on receipts to feel my hands outlining her name. Some things I simply love because she did, but some of it is unintentional and comes organically. Many of these things would have occurred independently of if she was still alive or not. I’ll comment on things I enjoy, and often my dad will respond, “You know who else loved that? Your mother.”
I have become engrained in my opinions, much like her. In her twenties, my mother too had a persistent, firm grip of what she liked and what she did not like, as anyone who knew her could tell you. Her decisions were her own – and own them she did. Many of my close, and some not so close, friends have started to say things like, “that is such a Holly thing to do.” This, I get from my mother. As I get older, family members accidentally call me “Shelly” due to our similar mannerisms and expressions. I never skip a beat when people do this. In fact, I love it when I hear her name.