Originally published January 19, 2015
As my mother approaches her 86th birthday this February, she is faced with her third diagnosis of cancer. This time the prognosis is not good and any surgery would bear a risk far greater than any advantage gained. She has chosen a less aggressive path to managing her current attack. My mother, as she has always been in such cases, is rather stoic about the whole thing.
I can recall from an early age that she and I usually fascinated the medical professionals with our lack of drama in the face of the unknown and the ugly known. We found humor in the small things to alleviate the stress of the general situation. It is one of the gifts she bestowed on me. This piece is about another gift she gave me, one that shaped my life and led me to my soulmate.
You must first understand that in many ways my mother and I were never really close. This was not a situation that either one of us chose or nurtured. It was a fact of life that sprang from our differing relationships with the man she married. Yes, he was my biological father, but he failed miserably by any other definition. My mother was not aware of the issues I faced until I was in my 30s. She was too busy trying to hold her marriage together. I never faulted her for that. In fact for some reason I always felt very protective of her.
To understand our family dynamics you must first realize that I grew up in the 50s and 60s. Back then, you didn’t talk about “private matters,” and all those unseemly things that went on in the world just didn’t happen in “good homes.” It, quite frankly, never occurred to my mother that there was anything going on in our home that she needed to recognize and do something about. In my own, non-child version of wisdom, I chose not to shatter that delusion. And so it was that I became the protector.
There is, however, one legacy that my mother gave me that reduces those years to background noise: an insatiable desire to read.
My mother acquired her degree from Akron University with the intent of becoming a teacher. Although she never made it into a classroom as the teacher, she spent a number of years working with church groups, Girl Scouts, and as a volunteer in the school district in Plains, Montana. She was a devoted teacher even then. For instance, in order to better help one student, she recorded the content of a text book hoping to provide some help in dealing with the English language. She even learned some Spanish to work more closely with that student. This is when she was in her 70s and 80s. In the early years of her marriage I made up her classroom of one.
By the time I was four I was reading fairly advanced material. The daily newspaper was one of my favorites (fresh meat!) and no book in my mother’s collection was off limits (or maybe she just wasn’t good at hiding things). It was the reason my parents knew I needed glasses – I stopped reading. I clearly remember coming home after I was fitted with my first pair and seeking out the newspaper. The wonder of again seeing those letters dance across the page seemed nearly miraculous. Going to the library with my own card was the best part of our weekends.
I remember that whenever I asked something, whether or not she knew the answer, my mother would send me to a book. She instilled in me the firm belief that what I didn’t know I could find in a book. If I wasn’t sure of what to believe, I could find enough information to help me decide. Reading was the door into the universe and it took me away from the place where I lived. No greater magic could be granted by any parent, knowingly or otherwise.
As I grew older I sometimes left the shelter of books, but I always returned. The more I read, the more I wanted. That hunger that led me to my soulmate, the man that became my husband.
I have been blessed with years of intelligent, thoughtful debate that has grown the person that is me. I have learned that I have little to fear if I first seek to understand. I now face this part of my life knowing that my days can be interrupted with moments of uncontrollable grief as I watch my husband decline. I ponder the circumstances that keep me from visiting this woman I have come to know who has been and always will be my mother. And through it all, I know that without the gift of knowledge, I would have no wisdom.
Without the magic she bestowed this would be a very lonely and frightening part of my life. Instead, I find humor. I find love. I find a way to touch the living universe and claim a piece as my own.