But Wait, There’s More
When my mother phoned with the news that my sister Cathy had delivered her second child, a boy we’d come to call Tommy, she said, “Sheila, I don’t know how she does it!”
At the time, I didn’t think to remind Mom that she’d given birth herself. If you’re doing the math, you’re thinking “Right! At least twice.”
The truth is stranger still. My mother had ten labors. Yes. Even back in the Sixties when many Catholics followed the Church’s ban on birth control, I remember friends’ parents reacting to the news I had so many siblings. They’d gasp, “But your mother doesn’t look like she’s had ten children!”
And she didn’t. She was, and is, a beauty. Tall, slender, Grace Kelly features, and a sense of fashion that was both classic and cosmopolitan, she presented an aura of calm tolerance, both to the world at large, and more importantly, at home with us.
How did she do it? Ten pregnancies in twenty years. Morning sickness night and day, month after month. I figure Mom spent nine years of her life seasick, simultaneously having to contain the crew, swab the decks and steer the ship.
Moreover, my father was an Air Force fighter pilot, which meant she never stopped worrying. Even after the war, when no one was trying to shoot him down, crashes were common. Friends of theirs died, including a member of Dad’s acrobatic flying team, at an air show our family was watching.
Like all military families, we got transferred every other year. They say the stress of moving is second only to losing a spouse. For Mom, I imagine the two were strangely linked. Would the ringing phone bring the worst news of all, or, if she was lucky, would it be my father telling her it was time to start packing? Again.
Narrating her story is like one of those late night infomercials. But wait! There’s more!
For starters, there’s the time before I was born, when my mom was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In those days, the disease was a death sentence, and highly contagious. One minute my mother was at the doctor with her newborn, the next she was whisked away to a hospital room, under a quarantine that lasted a full year. Picture this: Anchorage, Alaska, 1949, Christmas morning. Dad stands outside the hospital with my four eldest siblings, aged six weeks to six years. They’re bundled in snowsuits, all waving up at Mommy, who’s trying to smile convincingly from an impossible distance.
Decades later, when my younger brother Tom, then 28, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, it would be this story we repeated. Mom had a terminal illness but because of a new experimental drug, she survived. Not only that, three years later, she’d start what we call the ‘second half’ of the family, six more children, including Tom. There was hope. Miracles happened.
This was a story we all clung to, even when the doctors suspended Tom’s treatment. It was March of 1992, the same month, coincidentally, that my sister Cathy needed surgery during the aforementioned pregnancy, to remove a cyst that hadn’t ‘resolved.’
You get used to this medical terminology, to words like ‘resolved” and ‘encapsulated,’ when they’re used by doctors who are trying to help you understand the unimaginable.
That surgery saved my sister’s life. Her right ovary was removed, its germinal carcinoma contained by a sturdy wall of normal cells. Two months later, she’d deliver her healthy son, Tommy, into the arms of my dying brother, who would live two months and two days past that miraculous event.
Miraculous Event. His words, not mine. Tom wasn’t prone to sentimental language. If he described the birth that way, who was I – who’d never witnessed the process – to disagree?
Our family doctor gave my brother’s eulogy. He said that though he’d never believed in an afterlife, he found it impossible to accept that someone of such magnificent energy wouldn’t carry on, in some form. The laws of nature wouldn’t allow it.
You had to know Tom to understand: he was funny, dangerously handsome and so vital, even in his final days, it was impossible to believe he could disappear without a trace.
Until that time of sadness, I’d always claimed I didn’t have a ‘spiritual bone in my body.’ Strangely, at the worst moment in my life, when Tom stopped breathing, I saw something – or felt it – that changed me forever. Some presence visited me during that moment that I can only describe as overwhelming goodness. I wonder if it’s the same sensation people describe when they see a child come into the world.
Scientists might say that after going through so much pain, my brain was rescued by endorphins. Maybe that’s how my parents have managed to live on after losing their son. Maybe that’s how my mother continues to call with such exuberance, as she did today when my niece got into the college of her choice.
Or maybe it’s as simple as this. Having lived through the worst, Mom understands that life is not connected to her remote control. She might as well enjoy it when she can, for the clouds will come back, and so will rain.
As of this writing, six of her children have been diagnosed with cancer. All of us but Tom have survived. We all expect to live a long and happy life, buoyed by the example of my parents, who have shown such valiance and grace, even into their nineties.
My mom is a pretty hard act to follow. Still, why not throw up my hands and give it a try? Why not go out and exult, as my sister Dede did the evening Tom died. “Hey, you’ve got to come outside and see this rainbow!”
I know. Hallmark is going to sue, and the literary gods are wailing “She didn’t.” But even if the truth doesn’t comport with Tommy’s irreverent streak, I can’t say it didn’t happen, even if it is the stuff of My Little Pony and the Keebler elves.
Dede took my parents by the hand. The rest of us followed. There in the distance, over the mountains, was the most astonishing Technicolor rainbow this side of those postcards depicting God wearing a nightgown.
Later that night, when my friend from Chicago called, I told her about the rainbow. “That’s really weird,” she murmured. “I saw one too, about seven o’clock.”
But wait. There’s more.
My brother John saw one in Florida, on his way to the airport, as did two Atlanta relatives, and a friend in Maine, all at roughly the same time on the same day.
Is such a thing even possible? Were these people just trying to make us feel better? Or maybe rainbows are like that, stretching farther than you thought.
And that infomercial hook? “But wait! There’s more!” Maybe it is a con. Maybe, though, as my mother must know better than I, every package you get will come with a little surprise. Some will be pleasant, others will knock you flat, but the odd thing is, the story’s never really over, even when you’re quite certain you’ve come to the end.
Published in THANKS MOM, CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL, Simon and Schuster, March 26, 2010