You know those moments in your life when you can remember exactly what you were doing when momentous news came your way?
Like when the Twin Towers were bombed in New York. I was getting ready for a typical school day teaching English at a tiny private high school when my students began trickling in with news of a plane crashing into the first tower and soon, “I heard it was two planes,” another student said and I knew that it wasn’t an accident. Or when President Regan was shot, I was in 5th grade, and they broadcast the news over the brand-new school intercom. Or when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, I was in 10th grade and they wheeled televisions out into the locker area of my school and we stood with open mouths and I got in trouble for being late to social studies class – SOCIAL STUDIES! That teacher clearly had no perspective.
Just as those earth-shattering occasions are seared into my memory, so is the time, five years ago this week, when I first heard that my mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer.**
The phone rang and it was my sister, who clearly was upset. I’d had a phone call like this before from her – when Pan American Airlines went bankrupt and our dad, a pilot, suddenly had no job anymore. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong this time and then she told me about Mom and I sat down where I stood and my two oldest kids still remember, “that time when Mom was sitting on the stairs and crying.”
Yes, such things are seared into our memories because we don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know the who, what, where, when, or why of it, and our nice comfortable lives are suddenly twisted – possibly even beyond recognition – and we stand as if on the edge of a precipice, dizzy, confused, unsure.
After the vertigo passes it’s time for action – quite possibly fog-ridden action, but action nonetheless. We make decisions, we make more phone calls, we look at our loved ones and can’t look away. And we want, more than anything, for life to be normal again. We promise ourselves that we’ll never complain about the pick-up line at the elementary school again. We swear that we’ll be better people, that we’ll cherish every moment and take out the garbage and do the dishes faithfully just so that life can feel normal again.
We want, desperately, to reverse time, to re-claim that rote feeling of normalcy we didn’t even know we had five minutes ago.
And we pray. I pray often anyway, but suddenly that connection with God is vital, real, palpable. Though in those times I often don’t know how to pray or what to say. I remember weeping before God in the days following my mother’s diagnosis, just saying, “Please help”. I knew He’d know how to take it from there.
The irony of these moments – these times when we don’t think we can take anymore – is that, sometimes, the trauma is just beginning.
As September 11, 2001 went on, we learned that added to the Twin Towers was the Pentagon crash and the crash in a field in Pennsylvania as well. The tragedies just kept piling up. For my mother, the cancer and proceeding surgery turned into a stroke three weeks later. That phone call was, actually, even harder than the first one. The pain in my father’s voice, the uncertainties piled upon uncertainties, the knowledge that, though we’d traveled out to see Mom after her diagnosis in a whirlwind trip of 1.5 days driving out to Eugene, Oregon, 1.5 days with her and then 1.5 days driving back to Minnesota, we wouldn’t be able to join her again, to lend a hand, to comfort and support.
We were alone.
And, of course, when you’re alone and sad you desperately want your mama to be there with you.
There is so much more that could be said about those days and, perhaps, I’ll say them someday. Write them down.
But for now, a few images:
Biscuits with Sawmill gravy, the dish I was making for the first time ever on the day my sister called and which turned out greasy and separated and which stuck in my throat like paste. I never, never, see, hear of, or eat biscuits and gravy now without thinking of that day.
Or this picture: our three-month old wee girl, lying on the hospital bed beside Mom. It was the first time Mom had seen her, and we wondered if it would be the last.
Or this: me, sitting in the passenger seat as we drove home, unable to stop crying, desperately trying to capture in words my roiling emotions. The tear-pocked spiral notebook with my scribbled writing that held all the words I managed to get out.
And this: the Columbia River, rolling alongside the highway; the miles and miles of Oregon flying past my window in a benediction of beauty.
And, the image that is above all else, the image that came to me several years before this event, but which always returns in times of crisis:
Me, a wee brown-haired girl, walking along the dirt road by my house where I grew up, holding the hand of a man far larger than I, a man whose face I could not see, but whose love I did not doubt. A man who is far more than a man, who loves me far more than any man ever could.
A man who understands me when all I can say is, “Please help.”
And so, in light of Mother’s Day this Sunday, I say thanks to God for my Mama! I’m so thankful we have her with us still, with her laugher and her sense of humor and her theological discussions and her encouraging words.
I love you, Mom.
**Click on this link for important Colon Cancer information or on this link for colonoscopy information. Now that it’s been five years since mom’s diagnosis and my colonoscopy that followed, I’m due for another this year! Aren’t I lucky! (People without a family history of colon cancer do not have to have colonoscopies as often or as young as I am. Yes, I’m young, thank you very much!) Colonoscopies are the best way to keep yourself from suffering from colon cancer. Just go out and get one if you haven’t yet and you’re over the age of 50. DO IT. No, it’s not the most fun thing you’ll ever do. But it doesn’t compare to getting cancer.