The following are excerpts from the memoir "Call Me When You Get There."
In the spring of 1970, on what I’ve always imagined as a sunny, crisp, tulip-filled day, I was born. I had a very happy childhood, I was spoiled in fact. But around the age I was able to socialize with other kids my age, I started to notice things about my mom.
One of the first times I realized my mom was different, I was about seven years old. I was playing with a neighbor kid and her mom basically told me she laughed every time she saw my mom pull the car out of the driveway.
My mom had, for lack of a better term, agoraphobia. Basically a fear of leaving the house. Okay, obviously she did leave the house. Quite a bit in fact. But the neighbor laughed because she only went one place when she backed that big station wagon out of the driveway…my grandparent’s house.
Five houses away.
Yes. Five houses. Door to door. And she drove that short distance: Every. Single. Time. Whether it was to spend a couple hours or sixty seconds, she drove the short distance. For my mom, it was the only driving she did for the first 25 years of my life.
My mom was a very social person as long as every hair was in place, with makeup on and pants perfectly pleated. Walking the five doors gave the other neighbors an opportunity to judge her, I guess. And if she happened to run into one of the neighbors, she made sure they knew only good things were happening in our household.
We were always instructed to give the impression, even to extended family, that life was grand. Grades were perfect, jobs were perfect, and never would we say anything negative was going on in our lives. We were expected as kids and even young adults to always look our best. “Put on a little lipstick.” “Put your hair half up, half down.” “Don’t smile fake.” It was like we were on “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, I’m pretty sure my mom was channeling Doris Day. She’d never tell anyone if I had gotten a C on test or if my dad lost his job, those topics were taboo.
So imagine how hard it was for her to tell people she had cancer. That was a huge step. But there are many steps I have to take in her story before we get to that.
The first time we went to Lake Geneva as a family, I was 9 and my sister, Michelle was 2. The furthest we got that trip, however, was our very own driveway.
My dad had brought home a large conversion van. The one with the plush seats, the tv in the back, lots of room for suitcases. He worked for a car dealer in St. Charles and they let him take it for the week. My mom took one look at it and said there was no way she’d be riding in that death trap. Death trap? My dad walked around the whole van, pointing out how big it was, how safe. She sat in the passenger seat and pointed at the hood. This was one of those vans with the very short front ends.
My mom had a lot of irrational fears. Flying, driving on the expressway, and apparently riding in a van that didn’t have a considerable amount of hood. So we didn’t go to Lake Geneva that time.
The second time we went to Lake Geneva, we made it to Route 83. For non-Elmhurst/Chicago folks, this was a stretch of very busy highway that was deemed suitable by my mother for driving, as opposed to the death defying expressways, which would have cut our time on the road in half. Being an avid reader, I was sitting in the back seat of our brown family station wagon, ever the suburban cliche’, with my nose buried in one of the books I had packed for the trip. No sooner had we hit the road, that I started feeling queasy. Next thing I knew we were pulled over on the side of the road and I was puking on the shoulder. My mom, insisting I was too sick for this vacation of ours to continue, ordered my dad to turn the wagon around and take us home. So we didn’t go to Lake Geneva that time either.
Lake Geneva, take 3.
Once we finally got my mom up there, she never wanted to leave. Now, it’s not that she’d never been there before, when she was young, her parents used to take her there. They stayed at the Lake Como Inn off of Interlaken.
Okay, I need to pause this for a moment…I just read online that while the Lake Como Inn was a family resort, it was a favorite getaway for well-known gangsters such as George “Bugs” Moran and Baby Face Nelson, and members of John Dillinger’s gang. Criminals at the Lake Como Inn? Maybe that was the draw for my grandparents back then. All I know is one year my grandparent’s came up with us and my grandmother stole a framed picture off the fireplace mantle in the lobby. The women in our family had a tendency to have things “fall in their purse” on occasion.
Back to my mom and her obsession for Lake Geneva, once we finally got her there. Over the twenty years we continued to go up to Lake Geneva, my dad always found a place for us to stay, we eventually had our own boat, and my mom seemed genuinely happy to be there. Despite her hangups, she loved going there. She seemed to let go of the absurd need for everything to be perfect and let loose a little.
In fact, it became a tradition that when my dad had a boat going top speed on Lake Geneva, my mom would proceed to drop the top of her terrycloth romper and flash everyone, screaming “F— it!” as we sliced through the water, leaving huge waves behind us. And probably some pretty confused boaters.
When We Lost Her...
In April of 1970, my mom gave birth to me and spent a few nights in the hospital. Thirty years to the day later, I sat with her in the same hospital as she told me the story of that birth. The twenty plus hours of labor, my dad being so happy to see us both after it was all over since husbands weren’t allowed in the room back then.
“Thirty years ago, I had you right in this very place.” She reached over weakly and grabbed my hand. “And here we are again.”
They admitted her the day before my thirtieth birthday because she had broken her hip and needed a hip replacement. My dad and I were sharing over night duties since she didn’t like being in the hospital alone at night. We’d watch television until she nodded off and I finally would too, waking up stiff and sore from sleeping sitting up in an uncomfortable recliner. On the morning of her hip replacement, which was scheduled two days after my birthday, my sis and I went to the hospital. The doctor performing the surgery was her boss, so she was pretty happy about that. All I could think to say was “Mom, he’s gonna see your naked butt.” She laughed. So unlike my mom, who had always been rather prim and proper.
My sister and I were allowed to watch TV in her room while she was in surgery. It took a few hours and when it was over, my dad got to hang out in the waiting area near recovery. It was taking a very long time in recovery. A nurse stopped by and told us that Mom was taking a long time to come out of the anesthesia. They wanted to keep an eye on her.
By mid-afternoon, she was better so they brought her back to her room. We talked with her for a while and my Dad told us to go home, he was going to sit with her and we could come back in a few hours. Everything seemed to have gone as planned. We got back to the house where I still lived there. My sis had moved in with her boyfriend Jim. She called him and he was going to meet us at the house and maybe later we’d all go to a movie. My boyfriend Ryan was on his way too.
“I’m going to color my hair.” I told my sis. I had bought a box of candy red hair color at some point, and decided to celebrate, I’d finally use it.
I was in the middle of rinsing my hair when the phone rang. My sister answered and yelled to me that we needed to go to the hospital. Ryan had just arrived and took one look at my hair.
“You’re mom is gonna kill you.” Ryan stated. My hair was really, really red. I had spent the better part of my high school career getting yelled at by my mom for having red hair. She hated it red.
My sister came into the bathroom and said Mom was having some issues and they wanted us to come back to be with her. I looked in the mirror and thought I better cover up my hair with a hat. I put on a hat and we headed back to the hospital.
My dad looked shaken, standing in the hallway near the room. The doctor that performed the surgery and his wife were there. I knew at that instant it was bad. We were escorted into a small room. My dad, my sister, our boyfriends and myself all crammed into what felt like a very small space. My dad said “She asked me to get her some tea and when I came back she was breathing funny.”
The primary doctor came in. I remember hearing the words heart failure, difficulty breathing and couldn’t revive her. In my head I knew what that meant and I started spitting out questions: what do we do next, how long do we have, can we see the body.
The body. I had already referred to her as the body while my dad and my sister were sobbing next to me. I hadn’t even shed a tear yet, I was in that mode I always get in when a job needs to be done. I started organizing my thoughts and thinking about who I had to call first. I kept thinking about the scene my sister and dad were making. How did they not see this coming? It was like they were shocked.
Didn’t they know this was the sad but necessary end to all that my mom had been going through? Was I the only one who heard “quality of life” in the doctor’s office not weeks earlier? Why were they crying?
This sounds harsh but if anything it was a blessing the way my mom passed. I still remain sure on that statement. She was going to live out the rest of her days going through massive chemotherapy, her liver was shot, and she was basically given a death sentence by her doctor. My mom had going through heavy chemotherapy treatments. The breast cancer had metastasized into her bones. Her hip had broken because her bones were so brittle. It was in her skull, her ribs, and most worrisome, in her liver.
I remember the night the doctor had showed us the x-ray of her liver, it was decimated with cancer and she told us that would explain my mom’s mood. A mood, which I have to admit, was the best thing that happened for her. Her brain wasn’t functioning like it normally did. She would appear loopy, the doctor said. She might not realize the severity of the situation. She may seem really happy. That was a blessing considering what she was going through. All I could think was, would she ever make it back to Lake Geneva, the place she loved.
She never did get back to Lake Geneva but I will always be thankful she got to meet our future husbands. She got to spend the night with me on my birthday, and after her surgery she got to spend time with all of us.
At the end it was just her and my dad, like it was in the beginning of their story together.