Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Mother's Story

My mother's story is my father's story. And it is my story too. I hope it is not my brother's story as well. It is a curious story, very short and very long. It has a beginning and an ending, and a hidden middle. It is a detective story and a murder mystery. It is factual fiction, a story within a story, a science drama, a no-ending ending. This story is about the art of living. And dying. And living on. It still gives me goosebumps in the retelling.

The story began in 1944, but earlier, if you include high school, which is where my parents met. They married in 1944, and in that year, my father went with my mother to a physician specializing in tuberculosis, Dr. McCutcheon. My mother's story begins here with the doctor's prognosis he shared with her after examining my father. He told her that her husband was a young man who would die an older man--of cancer. The doctor was right; my father died in 1999 of an aggressive form of prostate cancer. End of short story, beginning of the hidden middle. This is the part that becomes a detective story that ends in (figuratively speaking) a murder mystery.

My mother never forgot the doctor's words; likely my father never did either. But he never spoke of it and my mother did, especially as I grew older. That was the time when I learned about my matrilineal and patrilineal medical histories. I suspected that I could narrow my older age possible afflictions. Being young, however, I believed I would beat the familial odds (I did). However, I always watched my father for signs of a debilitating illness, helicopter hovering, trying to understand what the doctor knew, saw, thought, and what schema he accessed to predict the future with deadly accuracy.

My father's life was a hidden series of secrets. He was first-generation American, bi-lingual, and definitely a Slovak nee Austro-Hungarian Empire cultural imprint. Secrets were a part of daily life. You told "no one nothing." My openness, I am sure, is a reaction to his hidings. Because I lived in a funeral home with a historic cemetery a block away, my parents raised me in a fantasy world of books, stories and a love of nature, all of which define the essential me. Defining my essential father is another story indeed.

He was definitely alpha, definitely a moody worrier; definitely not a drinker, and only an occasional cigar smoker. He was a workaholic, a tool-and-dye maker at Bethlehem Steel, someone who had to sign a waiver agreeing never to litigate against his employer. Hidden were his job conditions; he would never speak of them. Hidden were his anxieties that his children would survive childhood since four of his siblings did not. Hidden was a way of his life, making living a detective story.

As I reflect on my father's life, interwoven with mine, I ask myself what it was that caused his cancer, and if there were any similarities between us beyond blood that would account for my cancer. Having a parent die of cancer increases the risk for children by 50%. The kind of cancer is not relevant; just the dying from it is. So I live a daily detective story, pulling from collective family memory through my mother's story an answer to my story of cancer.

I do not linger over why, when, or how long, but I am ferocious in finding life and therefore cancer parallels. We are alpha, worriers, workaholics, and I a former aggressive smoker of cigarettes (bingo). Yet if asked for the link that binds, I would bet on stress as the culprit. We both have lived stressful lives, by profession and preference. The latter is a form of choice, since we can choose to control, limit, or amp up our stressors, and we all know stress kills.

The murder mystery begins. It is a factual fiction, because while my father's story is true, he created a fiction that enabled him to cope with his disease. As it progressed to his fourth and fifth years, he never complained. Instead, he called his cancer bugs that are killing me. His way of living and dying were synonymous: he never complained. He lived and died with dignity and courage, hiding the murdering ravages of cancer until the end. His last words in death were his first words in life: Ima and Abba. The story's end. Almost.

There's my brother. Will my mother's story, which is my father's story, and my story be his story, in a different version somewhere in the future. I hope not. I pray that he will be spared, and live to an old age without the need to cope with murdering bugs of any species of disease. I pray he will live on, carrying our lives and love with him. My mother's story ends. My father's story ends. My journey is just beginning. My brother's story is unwritten.

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