My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November, 1999. For a while, chemotherapy was her powerful ally, and she won battle after battle against the invader cells. By May, 2002, she was proclaimed “cancer free,” and went traipsing off to Provence with my dad and his cousins for a 10-day adventure, where they enjoyed the flowering countryside, good food, and fine wine.
She returned happy and very, very tired. When the fatigue didn’t lift after a few weeks, she was back at her oncologist’s office, bravely facing the terrible news: The cancer was back. With a vengeance. So, she and her oncologist tried to hit back twice as hard, until she developed a life-threatening toxicity to the only drug that was kicking cancer’s ass. But, instead of giving up, she entered a hard-core clinical trial–one that left her skin blistered and peeling, her nights suffocated by excruciating dreams, and her unusually keen memory foggy and addled.
When the clinical trial didn’t work, she turned to alternate medicine. Acupuncture and acupressure. Vats of green tea, meditation, incence, and chanting. And while our house was transformed into an Ashram, the cancer kept growing and growing and growing. Finally, about five years after her initial diagnosis, her oncologist gently told her that there were no options left except to manage the pain as best they could. These are words you never want to hear.
But, my mom took it all in stride. She sat down at her desk–a huge library table from the 1920’s that she had coveted for months until she successfully talked the antique dealer down to a reasonable price. She sipped her cup of instant coffee and smoked a cigarette (hey, she was a goner, anyway,) and, firing up the computer, she began to plan her own funeral.
Along with making a playlist of her favorite music for the reception (Bob Dylan, Offenbach, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Byrds, Beethoven) and deciding who would speak on her behalf at the service, and carry her coffin to the grave site, my mom was determined to find an assortment of meaningful and flattering photographs to chronicle her too-short life. You see, my mom was one of those effortlessly stunning women with glowing skin, pitch-black hair, and flashing brown eyes. While she hardly wore makeup, looking naturally luminous was very important to her. And she hated how she looked after the barrage of cancer treatments left her striking cheekbones skeletal, and her once-radiant skin dry and crepe-paper thin.
Every time she’d pass a mirror, she’d duck her head. Every time someone pulled out a camera around her, she’d turn away, or make an excuse to leave the room. She wanted to be remembered as she was before the cancer–vibrant and beautiful. So, for the next several days, with some help from my dad and me, she poured over dozens and dozens of family photo albums culling together her favorite pictures to display on a bulletin board at the funeral.
My dad and I never took the pictures down.
And not wanting to deal with the pain of reorganizing her office, or filing away her old memories, we tucked the bulletin boards away behind her precious antique desk.
Until it was time to leave.
I couldn’t take the house with me–a place redolent with her memory.
I couldn’t take her garden–exquisitely blooming as she lived her life.
I couldn’t take her desk–cigarette-scarred and faintly etched with the memory of her creativity.
So I went for the pictures. The pictures she chose. A living memory of how she chose to be remembered.
And now, while I sit at my desk at work, 10,000 light years from my mother’s house, I have her with me.