My mother left me a lot of things -- children's books, family photos, reams of music, her heavily annotated copy of The Messiah, art, 19 years' worth of teaching supplies, linens, more linens, my great-aunt's Spode china, a love of Brubeck, a sense of rhythm and most importantly, the ability and desire to spontaneously burst into song. Trust me... it is scary.
In 1998, my mother was running for a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives. A retired teacher, church music director and organist, a CASA volunteer, a member of the Northeast Community Council and a grandmother who'd just finished her Doctorate of Education, she was, to put it gently, the Lutheran love-child of Gloria Steinem and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She was a force.
When her opponent won, I was sort of relieved.
A few weeks before, I'd gotten the call -- the cancer was back.
Ten years earlier, when she was the age that I am now, she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. In her usual efficient manner, she took care of business, took her treatments, refused my offers to come home and help, and in no time was back to saving the world. She barely skipped a beat.
This time it was different.
The cancer was discovered by accident, during an unrelated exam.
"Who's your oncologist?" her ophthalmologist asked.
The cancer was pressing on the optic nerve. It had metastasized to her spine, and over the next five years, would march on undeterred through her bones, lungs, liver and finally brain, yet she kept singing, and organizing, and talking and keeping people on their toes. That she lived that long is a testament to prayer, healthy living and pure Iowa stubbornness.
One particularly empathetic doctor told me, "I don't know how to explain it, Anne, if we were to chop her up into little, itty bits and biopsy every one of those little, itty bits, we'd find cancer in every one of them. I don't know how she keeps on going."
My mother was supremely annoyed.
"I don't know why everyone is acting like I'm dying," she complained, "I'm not going anywhere."
True to her word, she lived every single moment, right up until the one in which she died.
There are many days I miss my mother -- today was one of them. I thought of her when I was walking my dog and looking at the cherry blossoms blooming all around me. I heard her saying wistfully, "Aren't you lucky to have all these beautiful bulbs and blossoms..." She loved Spring and even gone 10 years, I can feel her. In these moments, I feel robbed -- I want to ask her for the recipe for her curried fruit salad, or why this one bowl (the one I broke) was so special to her, or what she thinks of my new haircut. I miss having a mother to be my sounding board, my mirror and my butt-kicker. I miss that my younger kids have little to no memory of her. I miss that she isn't around to see what amazing grandkids she has. She would be so proud of them all. And even as I miss her, I know that I have so much to be thankful for -- so many memories.
Every day in the U.S. -- in Iowa, Georgia, Texas, California -- two or three women die as they bring new life into the world (or moments, or days or weeks after) from an unexpected hemorrhage, a relentless postpartum depression or a seizure.
When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, the first thought is, "Am I going to die?"
When a woman finds out she's pregnant, she doesn't think, "Am I going to die?" It is the furthest thing from her mind.
It was such a gift, this spring day, to have the memory of my mother's voice, her curfews, her singing and wicked wit.
Every child deserves to have such a gift -- the memory of a mother.
If you are someone who has lost a mother, daughter, sister, wife/partner, friend to complications of pregnancy, or if you are a survivor of a near-miss or traumatic birth experience, you are not alone. Please know this. Join us at the first of its kind Unexpected Project Survivors Forum, April 30th, in San Jose, CA.