When I was 12, my father died of cancer. People didn’t talk openly about cancer then except for occasionally whispering the “C” word and certainly not in front of the children. While I knew my father was sick, no one ever told me what was wrong with him, or why he was in the hospital for prolonged periods of time. In fact, I never even visited him, nor did the issue ever come up. During the times he was home, I was rarely allowed in his room, and then for only short periods of time where I sat on the edge of the bed, and we made small talk, like strangers. The day he died, I was at my piano lesson. I remember my piano teacher gasping into the phone and saying, “Don’t worry. She can stay here as long as you need.” Of course I knew it was mother, calling to say my father had died. But once again, no one told me anything. Several hours later, as I sat in the back seat, mother and a neighbor drove me home as they spoke in quiet shorthand. After he was buried, and the friends and relatives had gone home, mother and I role reversed. She became the daughter and I became the mother.
Almost immediately she retreated to her room, shades pulled, rarely getting dressed or coming out of her room, a zombie zonked out on grief and Valium. I was the one who went to the grocery store, taking small amounts of money from her purse, riding my blue bicycle down the street, past the bowling alley to the store, buying only enough food to fit in my bike’s small wire basket. I rode to the hardware store, bought chain locks for the doors, used my father’s drill, just as I’d seen him do, and installed the locks because mother was afraid. I made sure the boy down the street mowed the lawn; I babysat for the couple on the corner to earn extra money and continued to get straight A’s. That is until periodically, mother would come out of her room and arbitrarily decided to parent me, knowing nothing about my life, how I was doing or that I was a great kid. By my senior year of high school I had gained 20 pounds and was failing some of my classes. Even so, I managed to get two college scholarships but accepted the one in town and lived at home because mother needed me. After the first semester of my freshman year, I gave up my scholarship, got a job and a tiny apartment—the only way I knew to get away from her.
Except for the six months I went through chemotherapy, our roles have remained the same. However during those months, she sent me books about prayer and clippings and tapes she listened to about God. She was uplifting and supportive, urging me to see myself surrounded by God’s light, whole, perfect and healed. She even stopped signing her cards with the word “Mother” in quotes and simply signed them Love, Mom, as though on some level she knew she was mothering me, not the other way around. As soon as I finished chemo, she resumed her all too familiar “Mother” signature, and if I mention having had breast cancer, she looks at me like I’m speaking Swahili. Mother is needy, in ways I’ve never been able to make right for her, and as the parent in our relationship, I sometimes feel like I’ve failed her. She ruins every family gathering, getting up from the table, going as far as to fly home because she is not the center of attention or has gotten her feelings hurt about one thing or another. She has never wanted to know about my life, interrupting me in mid-sentence with “I thought we’d go to the tea room for lunch,” as I’m trying to tell her something of major importance to me.
In recent years, I’ve been able to blame her dementia for her lack of interest in me. Last week I tried, again, to tell her about my website and my Blog and the women and families I am talking with from all over the world. She paused for a second and looked at me, then said, “the salad here is not as good as it used to be.” So, I will continue to be the mother, this week moving her closer to me as she retreats further into her world of dementia. I am grateful God gave us those six months and hope she enjoyed being the Mother as much as I loved having one. Perhaps one of the reasons my website ministers to breast cancer families is that as painful as it is, I don’t want other children to be in the dark about their parent’s cancer; I don’t want adults to stop talking when their children enter the room. Our children know more about what goes on in our house than we could ever imagine, but they are not mature enough to know how to put things in their proper perspectives. Regardless of the situations we find ourselves in, we must find ways to talk to our children. In some cases, children may not be comfortable discussing their feelings with us, or they may try the “tuff kid” route, but if we, or they, are having trouble coping, with anything, we need to find a minister or a counselor who will listen to every member of our family and help us work through it. Whatever we do, let’s not sit on the edge of the bed and just make small talk.