When I was seven years old, my greatest fear was that my mother would die of lung cancer. It was 1971, the year the landmark Surgeon General’s report came out declaring the evils of cigarettes, and it was all over the news: smoking kills. I’d repeat as much to my mother, whining it a bit every time she lit up:
“But mo-om, smoking kills.”
“It’s my only vice, I’m keeping it,” she’d reply, and there was a defensive edge to this, a bit of wincing that said step off, this is my thing. She’d been smoking for close to thirty years at that point. Sanka and cigarettes. Little ashtrays all over the house, butts stained with a brick-red shade of Avon lipstick. She’d started smoking when she was in her twenties, when every movie star on every screen was lighting up, when smoking was nothing more and nothing less than glamour.
Once around that time my mother was folding the laundry and an ash fell from her cigarette onto my favorite nighty. It was a light blue baby-doll style that I got for my birthday from my godmother, Aunt Rose. Aunt Rose always gave me the best gifts, things that gave me glimpses into what I might be as a grownup-- a doctor’s kit, a little sewing machine that sewed with glue, the light-blue nylon nighty trimmed with a bit of white lace. The nighty looked like something my teenage sisters would have, not like the flannel nightgowns I wore. And at that age, I wanted nothing more than to be a teenager, like them. I watched the ash fall, land on the soft blue knit, flash glowing orange, then eat away at the nylon, cauterizing the edges forming a small, brown-rimmed crater. My mother was apologetic, but I was mad. It was ruined. See, mom? See what smoking does?
I couldn’t understand--if it’s bad for you, why not just stop? I didn’t know then about addiction. I didn’t understand yet about sadness.
I was happy. So happy that sometimes I’d just lie on my bed, thinking about it. My bedroom was a sunny golden yellow. My parents had just painted it that year and I got to choose the color. My mom made me a bedspread and curtains from a yellow floral Waverly print I’d chosen. I loved being seven. I was still a kid but no longer a baby--somehow I felt I’d arrived. And I’d lie on my yellow flowers and think about how lucky I must be to be so happy. I knew some people were sad, but I knew that I wasn’t, and that I shouldn’t take that for granted. I was aware of my happiness, and thankful for it.
I don’t know why I felt this so keenly I had to note it. Maybe I sensed something in my mother. Something she hid, but poured into those cigarettes. A disappointment in life I couldn’t yet understand. Its flip side was hope, and that, she poured into me. The women’s movement was the other big news story of the time, and the idea of it clearly lit my mom up. I think she felt it was too late for her, but something inspired her to tell me almost every day, her eyes glowing with possibilities when she did: “Sandy, you can be whatever you want.”
My mom and dad got married in their early thirties, a little late by 1952 standards, and started having kids right away. First my sister Cynt, a year and a half later my sister Sue, then three years later my brother Bill. Family folklore had it that they wanted lots of kids and kept trying for more after Bill, but nothing was happening. They chalked it up to their advanced age, gave away all the baby clothes and got a cat. Five years later, when my mother was 41, she found out she was pregnant. It was 1963. The doctor gave her the news by saying “So Mrs. Suminski, how’s it going to feel to have your own grandchild?”
She gave us all a lot of love. And though my father was a nice enough guy, she was without a doubt the emotional center of the family. But there was something missing in her eyes, something for herself. Once when I was in my early twenties I was visiting my family back home in the DC area. We were having a barbecue on the back porch. I was living in Chicago by that time, and had just begun my career in advertising. I told my mom that I hoped to have a family of my own someday. She stopped, looked at me softly and said “I don’t want you to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen.“ I didn’t take the time to question her then, but it struck me as odd. Like something she wouldn’t normally say. She was usually supportive and encouraging of whatever we wanted to do. At the time I was very insecure about whether men were attracted to me and had always had a hard time getting any romantic relationships going for more than a few weeks or months. I chalked it up to what I perceived as my own deficits. But later I wondered if the exchange wasn’t more about her. What had she been disappointed by? What were her dreams besides having a family? By the time I’d thought to ask her about it, she was long gone.
In early May 1992, a few weeks before I turned twenty-eight, I got the news I’d been dreading since I was seven. Mom had been to the doctor, checking out the source of an annoying cough. I’d heard it myself when she and Dad came to visit me in Chicago a few months earlier. I still had the pet odor remover under my sink, the stuff I’d used to try to eliminate the smell of smoke she left behind. I don’t remember the call now, so much of that time is a blur, but it was most likely from my sister Sue. She’s the one that handles that sort of thing. She must have been the one to call and tell me. There was a spot on mom’s lung.
A spot on mom’s lung.
I would have been at home when she called, in my small apartment near the el tracks. The same place I was a year earlier when someone, probably my mom that time, called to tell me my dad had been diagnosed with colon cancer. I wailed, panicked, my blood stream flooded with fear. But dad turned out fine. A quick surgery and the cancer never returned. I let myself imagine that the spot on my mom’s lung would be just as non-eventful. I didn’t panic, I didn’t wail. But the ash had been dropped, and deep inside I festered.
I was doing temp work at the time. My clerical skills were nil so I did things like work the reception desk. The week I found out about my mother’s cancer I was at the Wrigley Company, collating company directories by hand. Me and three or four other young women moved around a light-filled room on a high floor of the Wrigley Building filled with stacks of half-sheets of paper. All I remember are the stacks of paper covering every surface in the room, and the little rubber thimbles we’d put on our fingers to help us sort. You’d pick up one sheet, and then another and another, marrying them in a new order. You’d make mini-stacks that were then compiled into bigger stacks and eventually inserted into a little three-ring binder. The rubber thimbles helped ensure you’d pick up just one sheet at a time. But after awhile you’d get tired of not feeling what you were touching, and so you’d take it off, risking paper cuts, parching your skin. You could feel what you were doing but then eventually your fingers went numb from picking up sheet after sheet after sheet. I didn’t make it through the week.
A day or so after I got the news about my mom, I called in sick, though I’m sure I couldn’t afford it. Knowing myself at that time, I probably bought a six pack of beer and a bag of potato chips and went home and watched soap operas. That Sunday was Mother’s Day. I went to church at the time at a small, mostly African-American congregation on the south side of Chicago. Unlike the formal and highly ritualized Catholic church I grew up in, this tiny place was awash with emotion, music, spirit. The music, the worship, the Mother’s Day message all stirred me up until finally the fear and sorrow I couldn’t quite identify came pouring out of my eyes, starting a season’s worth of tears. What I didn’t know then was that she wouldn’t last the season; despite an initial prognosis of five to six years to live, she would be gone in less than four months.
I found my way home to the DC area by the end of that month. One of my cousins was driving out east to visit his parents who were living in Williamsburg. Did I want a ride? He had no idea my mother was sick. When I told him, he was shocked and heartsick. Everybody loved my mother.
It was Memorial Day weekend, and also my birthday. My mother looked the same as always, but seemed dazed. Any effort she’d made in the past to hide sadness was gone, and her timid fear lay on top of her like a glaze. Reaction times were slowed--she was beginning to forget to be a part of the world.
When I think of home, I think of the kitchen. The kitchen table, specifically. That was where we’d take shifts sitting across from each other; me reading the comics on one side, my brother reading the sports pages on the other while we both ate cereal; any of us sitting down in the early evening with my Dad to play a game of cribbage. Coming home in the afternoon from high school, my brother and my mother sitting there for hours talking. He was in college, living at home, wanting to drop out. My mom kept talking him back in
This is where I’d catch up with mom on my trips home from Chicago. She wanted to know about everything; my friends, my job, what is what like where I was living.
It was ironic that the kitchen would be this heart-center for her, because she hated to cook. An hour or so before dinner, I’d see her standing next to the stove, leaning against the counter, resigned, sipping light beer from the big ceramic soup mug my sister Cynt made, tan with the brown letters “soup” on one side. Standing, stirring, sipping and, always, smoking.
It was a day or two after I’d arrived and we were in the kitchen when the phone rang. My mom picked it up, somewhat robotically, and I heard bits of the voice on the other end leaking out of the phone. I recognized the fragments as belonging to my oldest sister, Cynt. Whatever she was saying, my mom didn’t respond. She just stared at me, pleading from behind her eyes, then wordlessly handed me the phone.
“Hi Cynt.“ I said.
When she realized she’d been handed off, her voice kicked into my ear: ”Well, I shouldn’t be talking to you about this! It’s for your birthday! Sue wants me to bring a cake for the party tomorrow and I don’t know what to bring.”
I was seeing the beginning of the behavior of a family in crisis; everyone becomes more concentrated versions of themselves. She asked again, “Well, what do you think I should bring?”
“Don’t worry about the cake, I’ll make one,” I said. It was easier than trying to talk her through whatever part of the task she was struggling with. Plus I saw an opportunity to absorb myself in a task.
Mom was sitting across the small kitchen table from me by this time. She wasn’t smoking, she’d finally quit. She just stared off, occasionally looking at the crossword puzzle in the paper.
“But it’s your birthday, you shouldn’t have to make the cake!!”
“No, it’s okay, I want to.”
We all went over to Sue’s the next day, a blandly sunny late-May day. It wasn’t deathly hot yet, the default summer for DC, a city built on a swamp. But the air was still, a preview of the suffocating months to come.
My family was flung all over the DC area, and as the youngest I’d flung furthest of all, all the way out to Chicago. Even though we all loved each other, enjoyed spending time together, I suppose this scattering was a family tradition; my parents had both moved to DC from Detroit; their parents, from Pennsylvania and Poland. Parties and family holidays were now the times we were all together, constituting the life of our family. While my mother’s diagnosis hung heavily in the air, my one-and-a-half-year old nephew and one-year-old niece provided pleasant chaos. Bill and his wife, Cynt and her son, all trickled in in various stages of lateness while everyone visited and I escaped into the recipe and ingredients of the chocolate cake. I put the cake in the oven and joined the rest of my family in the dining room. Dad was trying to get a cribbage game going and my mom sat quietly at the dining room table, watching my nephew toddle around, the absence of her cigarettes a constant reminder. Grandma was his buddy, and any ember that might occasionally glow in her eyes was fanned by him. Soon an acrid smell slithered in from the kitchen, accompanied by a thin sinister stream of black smoke. The cake. I ran into the kitchen and opened the oven. Chocolate was dripping and burning. I’d forgotten to add flour.
“I’ll go buy a cake,” Sue took off, seizing her own opportunity for distraction.
That evening back at my parents’ house, my mom, dad, cousin Jonathan and I all sat in the dining room. The back porch was open to the May evening air as we played cribbage. This was the family game, and practically like breathing for my dad. After a game we were all tired and the guys went to sleep. But my mom and I decided to stay up for awhile.
I remember the room vividly from that evening. Or at least from the lifetime of evenings before that. I grew up in that house and it would always be home, even after my Dad sold it a few years later. A modest ranch-style house, it was one of the three or four styles available in our baby boom suburb, one where the living and dining areas were a single room forming an “L” around the kitchen. We had two love seats in the living room, an inheritance from my grandmother. They were fancy and not often sat on, so mom eventually capitulated and put a more comfortable sofa--an extra someone had given us--between the living and dining areas. There was a round, glass-top coffee table in front of it, usually with a stack of newspapers on top. This was where my Dad did his daily crossword puzzles. In about a month, I would come visit and there he would be, doing the puzzle, avoiding the sickroom at the back of the house where Mom was dying, believing that if he ignored it, it wasn’t really happening. After my Mom died, the table then the rest of the house became overgrown with the old newspapers, as if they were trying to take over the empty spaces. The house started looking like my Grandpa Suminski’s after he’d been widowed, all newspapers and boxes, kielbasa and Vernor’s ginger-ale.
But that night things were still as they’d always been. Mom and I had a lite beer. I don’t remember what we talked about, but it didn’t matter. I think we just wanted the pleasure of talking and talking late into the night with no where to go but bed. Mom slouched back in the couch in her red-brown lipstick and small gold hoop earrings, short, soft brown curls threaded through with grey. She had just turned seventy but looked much younger. I often think now that I never got to see her as an old lady. Her stockinged feet rested on the table, back curving in her white man-tailored shirt and tan slacks, a beer can resting on her belly. Echoes of the pants-wearing glamour girl from the forties blended with the blue collar daughter of an auto worker from Detroit. I reflected her pose--instinctively, maybe genetically--and we talked and talked. Talking and sipping, a gentle rocking into the night.
This was the last evening I remember home feeling like home. She hadn’t started the chemo yet. She looked fine, she felt fine. We could pretend.
I worked the rest of that summer. Shortly after returning to Chicago, I looked at my temp paycheck and realized it would not be enough for me to buy plane tickets to DC. So I started looking for ad work. Advertising had been my career before I’d been laid off a year earlier and began searching for another path. That’s how I ended up temping in the first place—to make money to fly home to see my mom. Since that was my priority, I went back to what I knew to make the money I needed. My friend Ann was in advertising too, and she helped me get a freelance assignment working with her. We spent the summer making commercials for Montgomery Ward and going out for drinks after work. I’d go home and call my mom and she’d ask me about the details of my day and to describe how I was setting up the apartment I’d just moved into. I remember her soft voice on the phone, “hi sweetie!” Her voice had always been soft, but when I think back to these phone calls I imagine it fading away with every call, receding into another place. She seemed less depressed as June and chemo went by. She said she felt fine, just tired, and I fantasized about us traveling together in a few months with the money I was now making. My plan was to visit her at least every two months. I considered moving back to DC. I lined up some job interviews for the end of July, my next trip home.
When I showed up, she wasn’t the same woman I’d left at the end of May, the one I’d imagine on the other end of the line every time we spoke. The chemo left her quite sick. She was laid on that comfortable sofa in the living room when I arrived. She had a fever, and sores in her mouth. It had been going on for a few days and she said the doctor had said it was not unusual--for a few days. But the fever didn’t break and just a day after I arrived we took her to the hospital. Every day we waited for her blood counts to rise so she could be released. For the week I was there, I’d go to my job interviews, go to the hospital to see her, go home with my dad, then do it all again. Day after day, she did not come home from the hospital.
The ad agency in Chicago where I’d been freelancing had offered me a full-time job. While I was in DC that week, going to my interviews, visiting my mom, I thought about what I wanted to do. I saw my sisters and brother with their families and jobs, how much they had to juggle, how split their attentions were by necessity. Besides my job interviews, I was able to be there with my mom all week. Since I didn’t live there, there were no distractions of a day to day life to get in the way. I could focus my attention. Moving there would mean getting an apartment, establishing a life, starting a new job.
The last night of that week, my mom was still in the hospital. I decided to see my best friend from childhood, Debbie. I spent the night at her apartment, which was closer to the hospital than my parents’ house. It gave me a night away with my friend, and it gave me some perspective. When I woke up there the next morning, I longed for the marshmallow stucco walls of my Chicago apartment. I longed to feel the wide wood planks beneath my bare feet as I’d pad out to the back porch to get the Sunday newspaper. I wanted to be at home. Chicago. Home. The thought surprised me.
When I returned to Chicago I accepted the job with the ad agency, on the condition that I could have two weeks off every two months or so to go visit my mom. I’d take whatever paid vacation I had, then the rest as unpaid leave. The owner of the agency generously agreed, asking only that I give sufficient notice of my absences. A few hours after we shook hands on the deal, my brother’s wife called. They’d done a scan on mom. The cancer was everywhere. They were giving her two weeks to live.
How do you buy such a plane ticket? Departure? Immediately. Return? It felt like a cruel question. I chose an arbitrary return date, reminding myself it could be changed. They said she had two weeks, I bought a plane ticket for two weeks.
Those weeks went by, quickly and slowly. She returned home from the hospital for in-home hospice care the day I arrived. I remember her getting up from her wheelchair, trying to neaten up some clutter from the top of the small cabinet table where we kept the games. The hospice people and my dad told her she didn’t need to do that. She sat back in her chair, defeated. Close to the end of the two weeks, I began obsessing about the date, and the plane ticket; the kind of things you focus on when the real issue is too hard to face.
She’d just been moved to the hospice facility from home. At first I was concerned with the setting. There were multiple beds in a single large room, curtains available to cordon off each bed as necessary to create individual rooms. At first I saw it as a warehouse, death’s waiting room. But within just a day, experience changed my impression. There was actually a hominess. There were large windows that looked out onto trees, and the gentle nurses who worked there knew just what to say and what not, recognized and acted on what truly mattered. Once she moved there, I was determined not to leave her. I didn’t want her to be alone. Thinking of it now, it was as much about me not wanting to let her go. I was her baby.
There wasn’t really accommodation for family at the facility but they allowed me to stay in a cot in the library for a few nights. The second morning I was there, a Sunday, I was approached by one of the nurses on my way in to see Mom.
“I had a conversation with your mother this morning,” she said.
Every day, Mom’s communication became more muddled. The cancer had gone to her brain, jumbling words, stealing syntax, straining meaning. But sense was still there, fighting its way through in powerful bursts, decreasing in frequency as it traveled away along an ever-weakening bridge.
“She told me she’s been seeing her mother,” the nurse said. My grandmother. She’d been gone for twenty years.
“She asked me if I’ve ever had to make a decision.”
I tried to absorb what she was saying.
“I told her it must be difficult, having people here who love you, and now your own mother is calling you to come with her…”
She said my mother nodded and it was left at that.
“You’re her youngest right? I see you here every day.”
I had an image of Mom on a fence in a field, us on one side, Grandma on the other.
I thought of my own decision. It was Sunday, and my plane ticket had me going back to Chicago on Wednesday. I wanted to stay to the end, be with her as long as I could, but how long would that be? A few days? A few months? No one could really know. I shared this with the nurse anyway, hoping maybe she could help me decide. But she had a surprising suggestion.
“Why don’t you talk to your mother about it?”
I went in to see my mom. Her state had been deteriorating steadily. Every day she was awake less, she ate less, she made less sense as she spoke. But for the moments it mattered, to be with the people she loved, she gathered herself. You could see it, the effort. It was greater and greater as her days wound down.
“Hi sweetie!” she gathered her smile for me. My brother and sisters, niece and nephews would be visiting later that day. She needed her rest to enjoy the afternoon’s visit. I stayed with her a short while as she dozed off, then decided to go for a drive.
Northern Virginia outside of DC is all rolling hills of sprawl and various shades of green depending on the time of year. In searing, swampy August the green is tinged brown from sheer exhaustion and a layer of thick air hovers above the curves.
I glided along the landscape of my first twenty years in the air-conditioned bubble of my mom’s old Toyota. I thought about the last few months and the decision in front of me. I remembered a conversation I’d had a month before with a friend of mine about a frustration I was having with being paid. I’d started the ad job, money was coming, but I didn’t quite know when. The anxiety of it had crawled under my skin, completely out of proportion to its actual relevance.
“How sweet,” he’d said.
I didn’t get it.
“You’re trying to understand what your mother is going through. She knows the outcome too, but she doesn’t know when.”
Up and down along the exhausted August hills it occurred to me that the same thing might be happening right now. That my decision and my mother’s shared a shape and that maybe that’s why the nurse suggested I talk to her about it. That we might be able to help each other.
The next day, Monday, I talked to Mom. I didn’t know how to start, didn’t even know that I could, but she found a way.
On the TV by her bed my sister had taped pictures of the grandkids, bits of homemade art, crayon drawings of angels, construction paper ice cream cones. Mom looked at a picture of Erin, my beautiful red-haired niece in her curls who’d just turned one, “That’s a pretty picture.”
She was adamant. I agreed, but could see she wanted something more.
“Yep, THAT’s a pretty picture.” She repeated.
She looked at me, trapped behind her eyes, pleading. And I knew it was time to go off the main road, to glide down along the curves with her on this singed landscape. Tune in, loosen on to that wave, feel the moistness on my skin, let the meaning penetrate my pores and then maybe I could understand maybe I could cross the bridge. Reach across, even as it’s disappearing.
“Yes it is,” I said to her, and tried to reach behind her eyes, tried to let her know I wanted to bridge that distance, to step across the disintegrating stones even as they turned to dust beneath our feet. She found a stone to stand on, planted herself there, locked to the tether of my gaze, tore the picture from the TV and thrust it towards me with a shaking hand
“Take it home. Take it home and put it in a frame.”
She clamped on to the tether.
“Is that what you want me to do?” I asked.
Eyes locked, the stone turned to ash beneath me.
“Yep. THAT’s my decision,” she said.
I took the picture, looked down at it, wasn’t quite able to look at my mother at that moment.
“Have you come to say goodbye?”
Just in case I wasn’t getting it.
“But I don’t want to leave you.”
“You gotta face the facts.”
A moment passed, then a nurse peeked behind the curtain and asked if she could enter to do her tasks. I looked at my mother. She nodded.
As I stepped outside the curtain I heard my Mom say to the nurse, “You weren’t listening to me and my daughter, were you?”
“No, Mrs. Suminski--what’s between you and your daughter is between you and your daughter.”
“Good. Because we made a pact.”
If I’d had any doubts that she wanted me to go home, they were gone then.
When the curtain was opened again I sat down with her and proposed a plan. It was Monday. I’d spend that day and the next with her, then Wednesday morning I’d return with my Dad and my packed bags to say goodbye. Then I’d leave directly for the airport. If at any point she wanted me to stay, all she had to do was say so and I’d change my ticket. She listened carefully and agreed.
I hadn’t been able to choose a date before, now I was dutifully planning every step, all the while wondering if I would actually be able to do it.
She slept the whole next day.
Wednesday came. I packed. Dad and I drove to the Hospice and I laid out the plan for him; we’d arrive, I’d place my bags in the downstairs office and ask them to call me a cab for a half hour later. Then we’d go upstairs to Mom’s bed. I’d go in by myself to see her while Dad waited in the room next door. After that, I’d either stay, or leave immediately. He understood.
When we went upstairs Mom was just waking up. I stood outside the large communal room, and talked to the nurse while Dad helped Mom with her dentures. I asked the nurse how she was doing and if they had any idea how much time she had left. Again, they couldn’t know.
My Dad finished helping my Mom as I came into the curtained area, then left. She smiled at me. I’ll never forget her eyes, blue and grey and full of stormy light. Every last bit of her was there. Looking into them was like looking down long hallways.
“Hi Sandy,“ her soft voice.
I came up to the bed and leaned in close.
“Just say the word and I’ll stay,” I repeated.
“No, I don’t want you to stay--” here she comically affected a dramatic pose by pulling one shoulder up to her chin--”for me.”
I gave a small laugh, then the tears burst forth.
“I’m so sorry Mom, I didn’t want to cry.” Had I thought I could be strong for her?
I was laying on her chest, sobbing. She stroked my back, saying, “It’s okay, sweetie, it’s okay.”
“I love you so much.”
“I know. I love you, too.”
“And we’re going to see each other again, right? Just like you and Grandma.” My sobs kept coming.
“Yes, we will sweetie.”
She was so calm, comforting.
I looked at her, finished.
“I don’t really know what to say,” she said with, now that I think about it, remarkable clarity.
“I know,” I was laughing and sobbing. It had all already been said, with all of our lives.
“Well, I guess it’s time to go.”
“Yes, it is,” she said.
We kissed each other. For two days now I had no idea how I could ever possibly do this. How I would ever be able to leave.
But I finally did get up and approached the curtain door. The movement triggered a memory, our bedtime ritual when I was a little girl. After reading to me, Mom would tuck me in, get up and stand at my bedroom door. Then she’d turn around, blow me a kiss and say “Good night sweetie. God bless you. I love you,” as she’d turn out the light.
Nearing the curtain, I heard her voice from the bed, “Goodbye sweetie...”
I began sobbing all over again. I turned to blow her a kiss and said, “God bless you...say ‘hi’ to him for me...”
I saw her tilt her head back, heard her let out a laugh, and the curtain closed.
Two days later, back at home in Chicago on an early Friday morning in late August, I got the news: Mom passed away early that morning.