My mom, Anne Anderson, would have turned 80 years old today, except that she died 27 years ago at the tender age of 53. So it's up to me, and my six siblings, to remember her, always.
Anne loved kids, obviously, and yes, we were raised Catholic. My parents clearly never quite figured out the Church's birth control withdrawal method since my Mom was popping us out into the world consistently every other year throughout the '60s and early '70s.
Anne was an emergency room nurse. What that meant to us Andersons, growing up, was that unless our limbs were broken, or we needed more than one stitch, mom did her own form of triage on her six boys and one girl, at home, when we fell out of trees, off bicycles, down stairs or rooftops.
Her medical skills were really put to the test when she and my dad came up with the bright idea of giving us extremely cheap Chinese knock-off bicycles of Schwinn's Banana and Apple crate models for Christmas. But where my parents really screwed up was that my dad, an engineer for DuPont, added a speedometer to my brother Steve's bike, which went up to 60 mph.
So guess what we needed to find out? That's right. We needed to know if our knock-off bikes could break the 60 mph sound barrier!
We were blessed with wonderfully high hills where we grew up in West Virginia. So one day, my brothers Steve, Mike and I (13, 11, and 10 years of age at the time) decided we needed to know just how fast we could really go. After we passed the 20 mph mark, we had to lift up our feet off the pedals to go faster.
As we accelerated down the hill, Steve yelled out our land speeds -- 40, 45, 50, and then 55 miles per hour! When the needle started to creep towards the magical 60 mph mark, there suddenly appeared a very serious problem which none of us had considered before; namely, that the bikes were never designed to go that fast. Well Steve's wasn't anyway.
As his handlebars began to shake out of his hands, Steve desperately applied his front brakes, which had the opposite effect of what he wanted to achieve: safety. The brakes locked, and Steve flew straight over the handlebars and into the air, like Superman. Mike and I watched from our bikes, helpless to do anything, as Steve smartly lifted his head (of course he didn't have a helmet) as he mercilessly skidded along the pavement. The friction from the pavement completely burned his shirt off his body, while his chest picked up every stone and cinder in his path for almost a block long.
Bleeding profusely, crying and screaming like a wild banshee, Steve ran up the hill to mom. She held him tight, sat him down, calmed him down, and then quietly removed every pebble and burned-in piece of shirt out of Steve's chest with just a pair of tweezers and alcohol. When she was done, mom didn't see a reason for Steve to go to the ER. He was good to go back and get his totaled bike, nursing his pain with a popsicle from the deep freeze downstairs.
When mom turned 43, in 1978, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It showed up as a red rash. The doctors gave her just six months to live, but with seven kids (her youngest just three years old), she told her doctors there was no way that she was going anywhere. So she pushed on, against all odds, and fought the disease valiantly through three recurrences.
My mom had a wicked sense of humor. She had the sharpest wit I have ever encountered. However bad she felt after a chemo session, she was never sick enough to not have a laugh about something. One day, when mom was feeling extra bad after a major toxic blast (anti-nausea drugs were non-existent back then), she was in bed when I brought her a get-well card from my then girlfriend.
The girlfriend was an aspiring writer in New York City, so she wrote a poem to my mom, and accompanied it with a charcoal drawing of a tree of some sort.
The drawing was well done, actually, but the charcoal made the card black and smudgy on the front, which my mom was pretty confused about--given that it was, after all, a get well card. But mom appreciated the gesture and put on her reading glasses to read the poem out loud to me.
I can't recall how the actual poem began, but the theme was about the tremendous difficulties that life threw at my mom for having cancer, and how this healthy twenty-four-year-old single woman understood everything that a fiftyish, three-time cancer survivor with a houseful of kids was going through. And then came the line: ''Life is like twisted roots and gnarled stems.'' This line stopped my mom dead in her tracks. She looked up at me, peering over her glasses with those razor-focused eyes of hers: ''So which one am I?'' she asked. ''The twisted roots or the gnarled stems?''
That was the beginning of the end of my relationship with my aspiring writer girlfriend. But it was marked the beginning of the end of my mom's life. I was by my mom's side, every chance that I got. I was with her the night she died, holding her hand, while she chocked, gasped and vomited all night until 4 am on March 14, 1988, when she stopped breathing. I touched her face, feeling the warmth of her body leaving her. There was one final rush of air that came from the deepest recesses of her lungs, and then total silence. Her eyes were open, but her pain was gone, forever. She was finally at peace.
When I turned away from her hospital bed that day, I never looked back. I didn't want to see my mom when she was placed in the casket. I wanted my final memory of her to be as she was, in life, and not death.
During mom's funeral, we kept the casket closed. Ten priests convocated her funeral, which happened on St. Patrick's Day. You would think a bishop had died. The church was overflowing with people, hundreds strong, to honor my mom. The priest who gave the sermon said that my mom led an exemplary life of dignity, grace, and strength--as a breast cancer survivor who fought the good fight, for her children.
Thanks again mom, for being such an inspiration to us all, and being the best mom ever. Happy, happy birthday today. I hope you are partying up there like it's "1999"(a song written by Prince, mom, which you weren't around to hear, but would totally love). God truly broke the mold when He made you. We will never forget you. Ever.