46 years. It seemed SO old. Maybe it was the just how much older she seemed. At 46 she had been dying since I could remember. We had all learned the script. “Our Mom has Cancer. “Oh..” people would say grimacing. “You poor children.” Honestly I didn’t know why they said that. I knew that Cancer was a very bad disease and that virtually everyone died from it, but it had always been part of my life and I knew no other.
There were four of us and Mom. It had been this way since we moved from Carmel. That had been a big adjustment. We had left the life we knew in a very large house with family all around to a life with just the 5 of us. That first Christmas had been a shock. Mom laying sick in bed and the four of us sitting up by the barren tree. Pat, the oldest summed it up. “This sucks!” We felt as empty as the lack of presents under the spindly conifer. Disappointed, pretending to be joyful we tried to keep up a happy face for Mom. Even then we felt the burden of her sadness. Her depression was a leaden thing, dark and heavy, her desolation consumed us all.
The four of us got together and put on a play for her. The Wizard of Oz. Poor Brendan getting the lead role as Dorothy because he was the smallest and couldn’t protest. Little did anyone realize I would have loved that role even though he did have the eyelashes for it! I was the Scarecrow, Kelly the Tin Man and Pat the Cowardly Lion. Our own little Broadway karaoke musical done to a record at 78rpm. In Carmel we had performed for friends and family. It was a tradition from our parents upbringing during the Depression in North Dakota. There had been a much larger audience in Carmel more family and a much more festive atmosphere. Santa had always visited in the guise of my father wearing the white beard and red suit. We had also had our three older siblings to help us. They had loved to fool us into believing reindeer were on the roof by stomping around over our heads after we had fallen asleep. They would point to the sky towards a red star and say, “see there’s Rudolph right there!” They were somewhere else now, all of us scattered to the wind buy our parents’ combative and destructive divorce. Tonight our dying Mom was the only person viewing our small production. She feigned joy although I’m sure there must have been some watching four small boys lip sync the Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes. I can’t begin to imagine the depth of her pain and loss nor how she managed to smile at all.
To have been left by her beloved superstar Plastic Surgeon husband for a younger attractive nurse, turned out of her lavish home and expensive lifestyle was bad enough. To then have her breasts, hair and beauty cut away from her by doctors literally experimenting on her body all while she attempted to care for her four small boys must have tested the limits of her sanity. Meanwhile that same beloved father and husband dodged her attorneys for alimony and child support by moving to Canada and having a new family. We were far too young to grasp all of this. She was our elegant but tragic mother. She made clear our Dad was an SOB but to us Moms and Dads were still people far different from ourselves. They were like Gods living out Olympian lives that were far too complicated and vast completely beyond the scope of our petty reality. Like mortals playing to Persephone pulled from the heavens we knew our tiny offerings would pale in comparison to what our Noble Mother had formerly witnessed in her fabulous jet-set life. We went through the motions of a the holiday anyway but in our hearts we knew there was nothing to celebrate for anyone. We did it all understanding this very well might be the last Christmas we would share with her.
The holiday meal was meager compared to our former elaborate celebrations featuring two 25 pound turkeys, gold rimmed serving dishes and settings all presented on a 15 foot long black glass topped table. Our world-reknown surgeon Father had always made a big show of sewing 2 extra legs on each Turkey so there would be enough for all. We weren’t poor or suffering in the classic sense. This wasn’t any Dickens novel, it was just dramatically different from what we had known until then. Complaining to Mom was forbidden. That rule was strictly enforced usually by Kelly who had somehow taken up the role of the vigilant protector of the realm.
To be sure, we did have our fun. So fortunate to have built in play mates with us at all times. We began to explore our new environment. San Diego was much more urban then Carmel had been. People here were more athletic and spent more time outdoors doing sports. Carmel had seemed more introspective, creative and less superficial somehow. We used to wander through trees and rocky shores of Carmel exploring like a pack of feral pups. In this new world it seemed things were barren and wild like the desert. The only trees grew in rows and had no branches. People played Tennis and surfed, used profanity wore shorts and tennis shoes during the work week. They drank Margaritas and ate strange things called avocados and quesadillas. Boys had long hair, girls wore jeans and some people didn’t go to church on Sundays or believe in God at all.
Mom decided we would be swimmers. She had been with us walking along Stewart’s beach in Carmel when a couple had been swept out into the ocean and drown in the stormy frigid waters right in front of us. It was then she decided we had better know how to swim if we were going to live near the ocean. One day after we had taken a certain number of swimming lessons at the YMCA, Mom informed us that we would be riding our single speed Schwinn bicycles 5 miles to the YMCA for swim team practice. This came as a surprise because it was nearly 5 o’clock and dinner time was approaching. Normally we would be coming inside soon since it would be dark in a little while. This was the day that everything changed for us. That simple pastoral childhood that we had known in Carmel had just ended. We were to be athletes now. We would be Southern Californians. There was no discussion, she just said “get going!”
Off we went out the door. With our suits rolled into our towels we mounted our bikes. We lived on a very very steep hill. We had to walk our bikes up that first day but later learned how to “paper-boy” back and forth across the road in order to make the ride up without getting off our bikes. It wasn’t long before we began competing to beat each other up, but not that first time. The 5 mile ride seemed like a marathon at first. Then the awkwardness of that first day on the swim team. All four of us were thrown in the slow lane together knowing absolutely nothing about the strokes, distances or timing. No speedo suits for us like the other kids but regular trunks clearly marking us as rookies. The coach seemed to be speaking a foreign language, that we were expected to know. We followed along as best we could in a workout that seemed endless. We really had no idea how long it would last or really how much time had elapsed. Our eyes burned because we didn’t have any goggles and the chlorine was very strong. When the workout was suddenly and mercifully over, we went to the locker room and showered like everyone else. We attempted to blend in but we were clearly and painfully new. We looked at each other in bewilderment at what we had just been subjected to. It seemed like the worst night of our lives. Hopefully we wouldn’t have to do this again. We felt sure if we explained how bad this was to Mom she would understand and not make us return. We were confident she would never have sent us at all if she had any idea of how we suffered. When done in the showers we walked back with wet hair to our 4 little bicycles rolled our towels so that we could carry them and road off into the dark, not a light between us while the other kids waited for their parents to pick them up.
So began 6 years of intense physical training. We were triathletes before there was such a term. It wasn’t long before we were beating everyone in the pool.
Mom attended every swim meet she could always keeping up appearances by wearing her idea of a fashionable wig to hide her hair loss and stylish outfit. We pushed her in her wheelchair to the front row of the bleachers where the other parents would welcome her happily. The four of us became her source of pride. We would bring back our ribbons and medals which she would proudly display by pinning them to her jacket or coat. She would write down our times and what place we got. Other parents would help when they could. Other families drove us to swim meets when Mom was too sick and even brought us along on their family trips. The people of the swim team literally became our family. But even so no one was allowed all the way in. No one could ever be where we were. We appreciated their help, but somehow knew that it would be up to us to survive when Mom died.
She lasted another 6 years after that first day on the swim team. There were many false trips to the ER and ambulance calls to our house during that time. I couldn’t count how many times we’d found her unconscious and called for help. We became inured to the routine of it. When she finally died it came as no surprise but our swim team days were over. Most of us had quit and begun surfing by that time anyway. Mom had not argued. By the time she passed we were all teenagers and had adjusted to our new home and lifestyle. Mom had juggled the finances as best she could, her attorneys chasing my father around the globe getting money here and there. Her life in and out of the hospital had been extremely difficult and expensive. At the end there was nothing left. Her sister, my Aunt Winnie had helped during the times my mom was hospitalized along with older siblings and family friends. Responsibility for myself and my 3 brothers fell to my sister, Kerry all of 26 years old. At 14 my childhood was over. My sister informed us that we would have to work, that there was not enough money to feed everyone. Swim team and other luxuries were something other people could afford. There was no complaining. We all understood.