I started writing last week about things and people from my life that I’m thankful for and who have molded me into the man I am today. Well before I knew it, the piece had become an ode to my Mom. I even shared with you a story that I had previously never told anyone, and truth be told, I got a bit choked up writing that one and had to walk away from my desk a few times. I was going to move on to someone else, but throughout the course of the past week, all of these great stories about her came flooding back to me. I miss her every day of my life, but never more than around the holidays. So, like it or not, you’re going to have to read some more stories about my hero. If you are new to the column, I’ll quickly bring you up to speed. My 2 favorite subjects to write about and speak about are my children and my Mom. She was the strongest and most amazing person I’ve ever known. She beat cancer 5 times before it finally got her on bout number 6. If you were fortunate enough to have known her, you are a better person because of it.
It was December 2001 and I was making holiday preparations and planning my visit to my parents house for Christmas. This normally happy time had a bit of a somber undertone to it because the demon had returned for one more go. By that of course I mean that after years of remission, Mom’s cancer had returned. She was only 62, but a seasoned veteran at dealing with this nightmare. They were taking a pretty aggressive approach to this batch, and she was going through chemo and radiation. As expected unfortunately she had lost her hair again.
In the 13 years that she fought cancer off and on, she never once had a single moment of self pity. She never once asked; “why me?” She never once asked; “how could this happen to me?” She never questioned her faith or her strength and fortitude. She never had a single moment of negativity and never accepted defeat as a viable option. She always had the “I beat you before, I’ll beat you again” attitude towards it. She was the consummate “everything happens for a reason” kind of lady. Any challenge she ever took on she faced it, embraced it, and did what she had to do to vanquish it. I know it sounds a bit childish, but even in my early thirties at the time I didn’t believe that she was human. I was pretty sure she was super human and could conquer all. To this point she had given me no reason to believe otherwise.
Despite her refusal to ever complain or feel sorry for herself, there was one thing about the cancer and subsequent treatment that really bothered her. Her reasons for being bothered by it are as admirable as her attitude towards it. She hated, and I do mean HATED when she lost her hair. Not because she felt this was a sign that the beast was winning, and most certainly not because of her own vanity. She hated it simply because now other people knew she was sick. When people knew she was sick, they would feel sorry for her and treat her differently. She didn’t want to burden anyone with that or make them feel awkward. She definitely did not want anyone’s pity. That’s how completely selfless and badass this woman was. She felt guilty for making other people uncomfortable around her as she battled the disease.
I arrived home from work at about 2:30 a.m. on or about December 22. I was living with my girlfriend at the time and a roommate. They were both still awake so I cracked a beer and sat down to chat with them. I could tell that my girlfriend noticed I was being very distant and introspective for lack of better words. The holidays are a very anxiety laden time for me, especially when Mom is sick. At the time, I had pretty long hair that fell just below my shoulders. Back then, the pepper still outnumbered the salt so I let it grow out in the winter. I also had a full, thick beard and mustache at the time. Not quite Duck Dynasty thick, but enough that a few carefully aimed Velcro tipped darts would definitely stick. I could probably smuggle a sleeping hummingbird if I had call to.
I was sitting on my couch deep in thought, almost completely oblivious to the conversation the two girls were trying to include me in. Suddenly I had an epiphany; I set down my half full beer, stood up and left the room with a devious grin on my face and without a word to anyone. By the time I had locked the bathroom door behind me, I was smiling from ear to ear.
The project started with scissors, and I began removing massive clumps of hair from my head and face. I then grabbed my electric clippers and went over the same real estate with a guard on. Next step was to take the guard off and straight clipper blade my mug and dome. The final stage of my transformation involved shaving cream and a razor. Once I was completely hairless from the neck up with the exception of my eyebrows, I carefully cleaned up all evidence of my hair. Then, not unlike now I was the only male in the house and I feared for my safety if I didn’t properly dispose of my skull foliage. I took a long hot shower, checked for any missed spots, applied a generous coating of lotion, and I was ready to face my girlfriend and roommate.
Their reaction to me as I reentered the living room couldn’t have been any more of complete shock had I been a half shark, half unicorn riding a tricycle into the room. They both stared at me speechless and jaws agape. I simply smiled, shrugged my shoulders and said; “if Mom’s gonna be bald for Christmas then so am I”. If I recall, the three of us shed a few tears, but overall I just felt really good about what I had just done. At this dark point in my life I didn’t feel good about too many things I was doing.
This was the first and probably the last time ever that I was the first to arrive at a family gathering. The family rule for many years was that anyone who asked what time I was arriving got fined. I walked into my parents’ house wearing a Santa hat pulled down low. I had bags of gifts in both hands and my son and girlfriend were close on my heels. As I walked through the hallway and into the kitchen, I saw the ever familiar sight that was, is, and always will be my happy place. It was the sight of my beautiful Mom wearing an apron standing in her kitchen diligently preparing an amazing holiday meal for all of us. I crept up behind her, kissed her on the cheek, and gave her a long warm hug that I can actually feel right now as I write this through tear filled eyes.
Mom, for reasons I’ve already discussed, always had a wig, a bandana, or a scarf of some sort covering her head during these times. The last thing in the world she wanted was for one of her 6 (at the time) grandchildren to see her without hair. On this Christmas Eve she was wearing a holiday themed scarf to hide her battle scars. When she turned around to look at her baby boy (that’s me), I removed the Santa hat and exposed my freshly shorn cranium. I then reiterated the phrase I had said to my housemates about Mom and I both being bald for Christmas. She stared at me in stunned disbelief shaking her head. It was as if she were sifting through a myriad of emotions in her head and trying to find the proper reaction. Finally she said; “come here you goof” and gave me another long hug.
Approximately five minutes later, the front door opened and we heard footsteps coming towards the kitchen as my brother and his family arrived. As they entered the kitchen perhaps the most awkward, prolific, memorable, and beautiful moment in my family’s history took place. There, just a few feet apart in Mom’s kitchen stood my brother and I staring silently at each other both completely shaven from the neck up.
To put this anomaly in perspective, my brother and I are separated by eleven years. We chose two very different paths in life. We live in different states. We are, were, and always will be very close, but if we speak on the phone more than twice a month it’s a lot. Neither of us had ever shaved our heads before and we did not discuss this prior to this very moment. I’ll never forget how great it felt as we stood there like a pair of snowman heads looking at each other in disbelief and silence. We both had such an inordinate love for our Mom that without consultation, we both did the exact same thing to show her our support. It took some convincing on our part to get the family to believe that this was not premeditated.
Moments later, our sister and her family walked in the front door. She came into the kitchen, looked at her 2 brothers, then at our Mom and said; “sorry Mom, I love you too, but no.” Thankfully she still had a full head of hair. My Dad looked at us and said; “I would do it too, but mine won’t come back”. We all shared a laugh and moved forth with the festivities.
Mom and her two sons, all passionate about cooking, worked together in the kitchen for the next hour or so. My Dad came in with the camera and asked the 3 of us turn around and pose for a picture. We all turned around and stood side by side. Mom looked at us each flanking her and said; “oh why not”. She removed the scarf from her head revealing her side effect to us for the very first time. I have no idea what became of it, but somewhere there is one and only one picture of my Mom, my brother, and I all completely bald and smiling.
We didn’t know at the time that this would be Mom’s last Christmas. What we did know, and what we still know is that it was the best Christmas ever. Merry Christmas Mom. I love you. Syd