Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Ode to My Mom: New Year 2013


I have been here in Los Angeles for six months now, far from the halcyon dreams of Spain and flamenco where Todd is still doing occasional surgery.   Despite the anguish and fear of a terrifying illness pressing down on our family, these past months have also been a time of beauty and wonderment.  This is how my sister Suzanne put it:

"I have these flashes of extreme gratefulness and feel profoundly lucky in this cancer experience.  I don't really understand it--how can one feel grateful or lucky about something this awful and serious??--but when it comes, it is like an incredible healing light that shines right through to my core."

With Suzanne this past June, just after diagnosis for a third cancer

The center is my mother, Gabriele. We’ve had hours and hours and hours together—hours in the car, driving from Cupertino to L.A., hours in the hospital where the best I could do was to help her up and down out of bed, hours walking through the neighborhoods, my grip strong on her delicate hand to keep her safe, hours spent sitting in bed talking, remembering, sharing, revealing, laughing, crying, sitting silent.  I am who I am in great part because of my mother’s strength.  “I am so grateful for all this support!” she encompasses us all with a sweep of her arm at a recent doctor’s appointment.  “Ah, but it’s not luck,” Dr. Wolcott nods, “you helped create this.” 

Christmas, 2012

And this is my mom.  She has modeled for us a way of living, a joyousness in the world that always finds the glass half full.  Despite a shattered and bewildering childhood in war-torn Germany, despite having been bombed out of three houses and losing her mother at age 7, despite a wrenching move to a foreign land, despite a difficult marriage and eventual divorce, my mom has always reached out, not only loving and kind but willing to share her vulnerabilities, her weaknesses, her wisdom for which she often paid a high price. 

Circa 1978, while battling colon cancer

She shared herself with us, her daughters, a gift that continues through these past months.  It was she who saw my own early teenage vulnerability and helped me struggle through, often using poetry, as she did with this piece of a poem by Peter Meinke to speak to my insecurities:

I thought you knew
you were beautiful and fair
your bright eyes and hair
but now I see that no one knows that
about himself, but must be told
and retold until it takes hold

Her message to me, that she would tell me and tell me until I could realize it myself, not so much about outward beauty but about self-worth, resonated. Much later I realized how much we shared, my mom and I, because for all her beauty and ebullience and style, she also did not know this about herself.

With my beautiful mom, circa 1972

Teenage me and my mom at 40, 1977

Through two previous bouts with cancer—colon cancer at the age of 39 which left her with 8 centimeters of large intestine and breast cancer 15 years later—my mom continues to be in love with the world, with the beauty of the view from the deck of our childhood home, with ideas about time consciousness and brain research, with the secret garden of fruit trees and tomatoes and real-live chickens in a coop that fascinate her grandkids. 

Always a new project: a chicken coop in the Secret Garden in Cupertino

She does not tell us how to live, she shows us.  At 60, she took up windsurfing and photography.  She has written her memoirs of childhood, she reads about time and quantum physics.  When I tell her of the miracle of watching a sea urchin embryo flip-flop through gastrulation, she blinks in wonder and amazement at the beauty of the digestive tract. 

My mom, 62 years old, Maui
Mom traveling in Turkey, 2010

And now, in the face of this third cancer, my mom is not afraid to look at death.   No, no, it is not that her death is imminent, although we all must die—as one of her baseball caps says, “I’m terminal---so are you.”  But rather than shy away from talking about it, my mom somehow takes the awfulness and turns it into something mysterious and full of wonder.  It’s not that she is spared the fear and the despair of rounds of necessary poison, or that she doesn’t weep late at night when she thinks we can’t hear.  She does.  She tells us of it, too, and we hold her when we can.  But the truly amazing is the details she notices, the squirrels chasing outside her guest house; the radiance of the southern California sun on a December day, the delight in her grandchildren’s reading to her or reciting a Spanish poem. 

Fun with wigs: Simone, Tia, Nana, and Ado (no wig!)

So my mom is giving us yet another gift of herself, the sharing of her passage into the end of life, the facing of death whether it come soon or late, and the ways in which to live fully.  As we enter the New Year, she and my stepfather Rich have sent out their letter to friends and family, by whom we’ve been swamped with love and caring.   It is the story of my past 6 months, condensed into a poem, poems being the currency of her world, fragments and often whole poems arising as needed.   

From my mom and Rich's New Year's letter 2013

I am grateful and awed and feel profoundly lucky, as my sister put it, to be at my mom’s side.  For she has, in these past six months, continued to make my world bigger, just by being who she is.   She writes of her illness as “an adventure, though an unchosen one.”  And she continues, “Each day brings us epiphanies about life, and gratitude, and the riches inherent in love.”  And she ends with this poem that captures a little of her essence, and make me even more proud that I am her daughter.  Mom, I love you.  2013 promises to be an amazing year.

When Death Comes

When death come
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes 
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say:  all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

                            --Mary Oliver

1 comment:

  1. "My mom somehow takes the awfulness and turns it into something mysterious and full of wonder."

    So powerful. I love all you've said here, and the photos are beautiful.

    I've learned so much, too, about life's journey through knowing your mom.


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