Postmarked to Heaven

Postmarked to Heaven

Today is my mom’s birthday. She would be turning 56. I know that some people die much younger than she did and in the most unjust of ways, but when it’s your mother, it’s hard to console yourself with that information. Birthdays have a funny way of making you reflect on where you are in your life and what is to come, all the possibilities that are out there. So what do you do when a person is no longer here to celebrate their birthday? You find yourself thinking about what could have been.

It’s a dangerous road to go down and I try not to go there often. It’s a path that can leave you bitter and heartbroken. But like all humans, part of me will always wonder “what if.” What kind of dessert would we make her, what present would I get her, what would this next year of life have in store for her? Which then leads to the painful reminder that I never really got the chance to buy her a proper birthday present. You know, when it’s actually something other than a handmade craft, breakfast in bed, or some cheap trinket that you buy with your allowance…which would technically have been her money. I want to be able to surprise her with something thoughful just as my friends do for their parents. Maybe some good quality yarn, a gardening tool, or a good book. Bake her a chocolate cake. I try not to fall into a “it’s not fair” kind of mentality because even if it isn’t, it is the way it is. But aren’t you hoping to celebrate your 56th birthday? Or your 80th? Why shouldn’t I have assumed that I’d be celebrating hers one day as well?

As I travel around Europe, I regularly send postcards home to my family and close friends. I know that if she were still just an ocean away, she would be receiving one from me today. While writing home yesterday, I became lost in thought, my pen poised against the postcard I was working on. Thinking of her, missing her, dreaming of what it would be like to see her again. Suddenly, I had the urge to write her postcard, just as I would have done had things worked out differently. I stared at the blank space in front of me, gripping my pen. “Dear Mom,” I started, carefully shaping each letter. I paused and stared at this standard introduction for a long time and tried to remember what it felt like to know she would read those words. I wanted to believe that she would read this postcard. If only we could unknow something for just a moment, just long enough to escape the confines of whatever reality we’re stuck in and go back in time.

I wish I could say that it worked. Unfortunately, I have yet to locate Heaven’s address. But even if it is just one of those sentimental things that I do to ease the pain of her absence, there is comfort in believing that somehow, some way, she will read my note.

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Happy birthday, Mom. I’ll always be sorry that this has to be your birthday present.

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Scars

Her scar was like a lightening bolt. Or at least that’s how I thought of it as a kid. “Like Harry Potter,” I thought to myself. In reality, it was more like a slightly crooked gash that filled the space where her left breast used to be.

She showed it to me not too long after the surgery, once it had it healed up. I don’t remember if I actually expressed curiosity to see it or if she simply made the decision herself. But when I broached the subject as a teenager, she told me this: when I was very young, we would often share a shower together. Partly as a way of saving time as a busy working mother and partly a product of her anything-but-prudish French upbringing. Honestly, I was so young that I only have vague memories of this pastime and the routine was broken as I got older. In any case, my mom wanted to show me so that I wouldn’t be afraid or surprised later. Besides, how else do you make your seven year-old daughter understand what a mastectomy is?

I sat on my parents’ bed as she prepared herself. There before my eyes was just one breast. “You see,” she said gently, “I only have one now. The doctors had to take the other one because the tumor was inside it.”

My young eyes widened as I took in the harsh ugliness that had taken over the seat of a mother’s femininity. My eyes moved from her chest to her face, searching for reassurance. There were no tears. Those were probably shed before as she examined her transformed reflection in the mirror. But in the mirror of my eyes, she was still my beautiful mom.

Six years later I am standing in front of my own mirror, scrutinizing the changes that have forced me to realize that I’m getting too old to play with dolls. My mom finds me in the bathroom, sobbing uncontrollably.

“Mom, I think I have cancer,” I sputter.

She calmly asks me why I think that.

“I can feel a lump, I have a tumor!” I wail back.

She doesn’t laugh and she doesn’t cry. She carefully examines me to ease my panic and as suspected, finds that the flesh that has begun to accumulate around my nipples are simply breasts. She gathers me in her arms and soothes me, and explains to me that I don’t have cancer, I just have breasts. I cry for a very long time. I don’t want breasts because I don’t want cancer. Later in my adolescence, she and I laugh about this incident. But there is always a hint of remorse in her voice, as if she is to blame for these scars of my own. Something greater is at stake. And it isn’t the last time that she will be reminded of it.

For the next twelve years, I was to see her scar many times. In dressing rooms, in our shared bathroom in the mornings, in times of sickness as well as in remission, it was always there. A blunt reminder of the cost of survival. Its color changed and it faded overtime, blending in with the softness of age. Slowly, it became a part of her, something that I didn’t think about on a daily basis but whose shock quickly dissipated. A one-breasted mother became as normal as the next.

When I got older and had lots of questions, she answered all of them. What had it been like right after the surgery? Had losing her breast changed how she felt as a woman? Had she considered reconstructive surgery? In response to the latter, she told me that she had thought about it but ended up deciding against it after coming to the conclusion that covering up her scar would never erase what cancer had done to her. And although I would never have understood this at the time, I suspect that this decision was an important part of learning to love and accept her body again. In hindsight, I wonder if her less-than-promising prognosis also influenced her decision: what good would it do to spend thousands of dollars to mask something that would never really go away? After all, my mom was always a very pragmatic person.

It’s been a while now since that scar, where the root of all This once started, has crossed my mind. But as I’ve learned how to live with my own, my admiration for her inner strength has only grown. Everyone has scars to bear. In my experience, it’s a delicate balance of assimilating them into who I am but not completely defining myself by them, either. I will never be able to leave them behind but how I choose to live with them is under my control. But it will always be a work in progress. I think of my mom, revealing the most vulnerable part of herself to her daughter on that day so many years ago. The courage that it took and the love that it strengthened between us because she dared to show me her deepest wound. She may not have realized it then, but that moment of vulnerability provided  me with the strongest remedies for all the possible scars her children ever acquired as a result of her illness.