Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Remembering. Wondering. Thankful.

My mother, Lynne, arranging flowers from my garden four years ago.

Two years ago today, my mother died after a short battle with lung cancer.

Tomorrow, of course, is Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving two years ago, I was consumed by grief and by guilt, while also being buoyed by all of the love around me, from my children, family and friends.

Quintessential New Yorkers, my parents always came to our house for Thanksgiving; they loved the mood of the holiday in New England. My mother, with help from the kids, set the table, turning it into a work of art. Distrustful of Western Massachusetts florists, my mother brought a centerpiece from New York.

My mother loved getting dressed up to go out to dinner with my father, Alfred. She also loved wearing sweaters and slacks for Thanksgiving in the country, always with flair.

After that became cumbersome, we ordered the centerpiece from the local florist. When it arrived, my mother sighed, shook her head, took it apart and redid it with her usual flair. She cleaned the silver and ironed the tablecloth, despite my protestations that she needn’t bother. Cleaning up loose stems and leftover silver polish, I got a little annoyed, and then guilty about feeling annoyed. I was glad that she was there, and I had no idea how I'd do it without her.

I could be annoying too. I insisted on going for my traditional Thanksgiving Day run before putting the turkey in. We ate late, so when I got back from my run I felt that I had all the time in the world to stretch and lollygag. Inevitably, my mother would say, “We better put that bird in.”
Yes, Mom, if you say so.

The last-minute preparations were usually chaotic, but eventually we sat down to the feast. My father gave a short speech about being thankful to be in America, the best country in the world despite its problems.

My mother came alone for four years after my father died in 2002. But two years ago, she couldn’t get out of her bed. For most of that fall, Diane and I had taken turns going to New York to be with mom, first in the hospital and then at home under hospice care and with full-time aides. The once-lovely apartment building where we grew up was in shambles, having been caught in the wave of classy co-op developments in New York.

In top photo, Diane, left, and I stand in front of the apartment building where we grew up.
In bottom photo, me, Mom and Diane leave the building for some sort of ladies' outing in 1964.

Working around the mostly elderly rent-controlled and rent-stabilized tenants who could not be made to leave, the developers tore out walls and replaced old pipes, making a big mess and not cleaning up after themselves. Big fat rats scurried up and down the back staircase. There was debris everywhere. And did I say there was no heat? It was illegal, but they chose to pay the fine rather than to spend the time and money to work faster to get the heat going. They did give the tenants space heaters, certainly not enough to heat a whole apartment. My mother spent much of a month curled up under heavy quilts; the one time she did try to get up, it was so cold she just wanted to go back to bed.

I last saw my mother two days before Thanksgiving. I told her I would bring the kids down for the holiday, and we could eat on stack tables in her room. She begged me not to. She wanted to picture me in my own house, not hanging around her bed. I stayed home, planning to turn around and go back down on Monday. She died on Sunday. I cried my heart out, wishing I had gone. But my cousin Joanne and others told me I had given her the gift of letting her be the parent. She had asked me to stay home, and I did what she asked.

I was so attached to both of my parents that I often wondered if I could survive without them. I thought that somehow, when they died, the earth would open up and swallow me. They both lived into their 80s, lived good lives and were sick only for a short time. What more could you ask? No matter how old they are, you want more.

Before my father died, I remember asking a childhood friend how she coped with her father’s death. “You don’t get over it,” she said. “But you get used to it.”

I got used to it. My sister and I leaned on our mother, on each other, on our children and on a whole lot of loved ones. I ran a half marathon. I played good tennis. I did yoga. I drank a lot of water, took care of myself, got plenty of rest. I spent extra time with my mother.

I didn’t get swallowed up by the earth.

I did get cancer. After each parent’s death.

My initial leukemia diagnosis came just about a year after my father’s death.
I relapsed less than a year after my mother died.

With the relapse, was it something I had breathed in from the construction? I doubt you could make a direct connection.

Was it grief, which, both times, created a vulnerability causing cancer to pounce?

The straight scientific answer is that, no, loss of a parent cannot cause cancer.

Still. I am left wondering if there was a relationship. But what happened happened, and now I must focus on the present.

Tomorrow, Joe will put the extra board in the table and help put the tablecloth on evenly. Katie will set the table the way my mother taught her. We’ll take out the turkey that Katie made years ago out of a tiny upside down flowerpot for the body, construction-paper feathers and pipe-cleaner legs. I’ll clean the silver (sigh) and try my best to make a decent flower arrangement, hoping my mother’s hands will guide me. We’ll prepare a small feast. A few friends will come. Ben will deliver what his annual “Al Gordon speech,” in my father’s place.

We will be thankful. We will try to think of my parents’ presence, not of their absence.


Susan C said...

Your mother looks elegant and energetic.

Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

ml said...

I just love that picture of her leaning over the table with the flowers, smiling into the camera. It brought her completely back to me. I remember how she used to walk over to our house to give us some flowers from her garden. Rather than just wrap them in a paper towel or some silver foil, she would arrive with an array of fantastic blossoms in a brightly colored pail. That was the essence of her, she always went the extra distance to have things look elegant and wonderful, to make you feel alive and terrific.

PJ said...

It's a great day to remember wonderful mothers! Sounds like you will have a special Thanksgiving, buoyed by these happy memories. Enjoy.

Ann said...

Thank you for sharing your story.

susiegb said...

Your mother sounds so like mine (who is 88 years young!) You have wonderful memories, and now you should have a wonderful Thanksgiving so that you can have happy memories of that too in the years to come ... :)

Diane said...

Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute to our parents. I have that picture of mom right in front of my desk and look at it all day to remind me of how she really looked in life, not near death. And I have a picture of dad in front of the sphinx - on one of their adventures.

We had a wonderful life together, and have a lot to be thankful for.

Even though I am not with you on Thanksgiving, I hope you know that I am very thankful for you.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a piece of writing to read before going off to bed on this Thanksgiving Day Night. Thanks for sharing this with us all.
A reminder of gratitude.

Nelle said...

Your mother looks the sohisticated New Yorker in that picture. I have yet to lose either of my parents but this past year my Dad had a large cancerous tumor removed from his liver. He is is congestive heart failure and chose to do nothing else. He has COPD and was hospitalized six times this past year, each time he developed pneumonia. He is 86 and still hanging on but his grip gets weaker. My Mom is nine years younger but also failing and it is so very hard to watch. I live just two miles away and go there several times each week to help them in some way. Yesterday my sister came from Albany and we did the entire meal. Your centerpiece is beautiful. I'm sure it would make your mother proud.

Howard said...

Lovely post, Ronni. Touching, and rooted in real Thanksgiving. I hope you and your family have a good one.

Jim said...

Very good post, Ronni. You tell a great story, and this one was obviously about good people.

CLL Spouse said...

I came upon this post a few days after Thanksgiving, but no matter. I savored every word of it, enjoyed the pics and when I came to the end and saw the flowers....I just closed my eyes and didn't rush off. Perfect close, that photo. Lovely tribute. Beautiful.

p.s. I have added you to the list of blogs I 'follow' so I don't miss future postings!