My mother turned seventy-three years old on Saturday. My kids and I drove up to New Hampshire, to the house she lives in with my step-father, who has been a great dad-like-guy for over twenty-five years. He’s watched us all grow from wobbly, extremely young adults into middle-aged people cluttering up his house. He’s fathere’d us without ever getting pissy or judgemental or critical. Who knows what he freaked-out about in private, I guess plenty.
When mom was diagnosed with leukemia, fourteen years ago, she was told she’d live two more years and decline into a hospice bed. None of us could reconcile the blow of illness so unexpected. The tumult of four kids blended into one family had just slowed, the last of us was nearly done with college. She was young, healthy and vibrant. But she wasn’t healthy, and that took some adjusting to. We knew she’d be taken care of by our step-dad. He was a calm, steady-relief, when the world suddenly spun off course. As she adjusted to cancer, one of mom’s activities was to dole out jewelry inheritances, prematurely. The rings felt hot and bad and early; they’d broken the sound barrier to arrive in our palms.
But my mom is one of thirteen children, she had a brother who was a perfect bone marrow match.
The bone marrow was harvested from my uncle and mom was admitted for transplant.
She had the transplant and miraculously lived. People around her died one after another. Two little girls stood outside their mother’s room, sheets of plastic separated them from her, on Mother’s Day. My kids were at home, I’d leave and drive back to them, but the hands of those little girls pressed against shifting plastic drapes, I think about them regularly and see the sillouhete of their mother turned toward them. Or the teenage boy next to mom, the one watching football the Sunday I visited, the following Tuesday, his bed was stripped and the door opened. Mom kept living. Her mouth filled with sores, her head bald, her face swollen, fevers spiking and falling, her eyes bright green.
Our step-dad sat beside her bed and read, listened to music, talked to her, sketched, waited for her. There was one window in the room, framing the concrete of another medical monolith, built up close and snug, blocking the weather. The knowledge that he was there, taking care of mom, allowed us to continue taking care of our young children. He never asked for our help, or shared how he was feeling. He required nothing. In retrospect, the man held things together for us all and we knew he would. He was safety. I had an aversion to going to visit the hospital, the ride, Sadie was nursing, I had a million excuses. My husband had to encourage, cajole and remind me that I needed to. I did. But I also had the luxury of knowing my step-dad was there, sitting watch.
A brief remission followed the bone marrow treatment and then oral chemotherapy was brought on board. An enegry sapping, intestine twisting, life saving drug. She was on the drug twice daily for twelve years. Nine months ago she was taken off the drug and so far she’s cancer-free. Her color has returned and she laughs differently and snaps at me (I’ve always driven her a little crazy) and she feels stronger. She’s got more energy to fix what’s wrong: She brought me a Spandex girdle and hot rollers because I needed to hold things in and fix my messy hair. She’s got her spunk back, like a dense fog lifted and she was sitting there just waiting for a decade-long front to pass, so she could take off her raincoat and get down to business.
Yesterday Gabe drove us to New Hampshire, only grazed one orange traffic cone, paid for the car behind us at the toll booth and assumed musical-choice supremecy as the driver, blasting us with underground rap. I looked forward to the hour in the car with both of my kids all week long. The highlight of my week, the thing I waited for, was an hour in the car with them, and the event was even better than I’d imagined.
We got out of the car; a stretching, squabbling, stumbling threesome. My mom stood at the door watching. My two kids, tall, lanky people, she’d held as infants. They call her Bubby and know that she loves them. They are extremely sweet to her. They even put away their phones (mostly). My step-dad, he’s a cool cat. Always, he waits while Bubby hugs and squeezes the kids. Then he steps in and asks questions I can’t wait to hear my kids answer. He finds out stuff. Gabe and cool-cat-step-dad talk music and art and movies. Sadie and cool-cat-step-dad talk dance and Spanish class and new bike…in their grandparent’s house, my kids unfurl. They gab and eat while basking in unconditional, over the top, abundant love.
We didn’t stay long, Gabe had to work, Sadie had a party to attend. As we said goodbye, I realized that parenting becomes anticipating sweet hours together. Once diapers disappear and twelve years of school swoosh past, we look forward to an hour here and there, wait for them, cherish them in ways our children can not imagine, time still an open endless field to them.