THE FOLLOWING WAS READ ONSTAGE AT "YOU'RE BEING RIDICULOUS" AT MARY'S ATTIC IN CHICAGO ON AUGUST 29TH 2015. THE THEME WAS RITES OF PASSAGE.
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Host: Kelly Duff is a contemporary romance writer from Elmhurst and appears for the fifth time with You're Being Ridiculous. She still hasn't finished her first novel, can't seem to keep any of her houseplants alive, and will probably never live down that time she farted in science class. But, she still loooooves the F word and that's all that matters. Please welcome Kim Kardashian's long lost cousin, Kelly Duff.
Rites of Passage by Kelly Duff
“Thirty years ago today, I gave birth to you right in this very place. And here we are again.” My mom reached over and took my hand.
It was my 30th birthday and my mom was in the hospital. In two days, she was scheduled for a hip replacement. In two days, she would be dead.
As long as I could remember, my mom was agoraphobic. And with agoraphobia, there’s usually one incident that sets the ball rolling for a lifetime filled with irrational fears.
When I was a baby, my mom was at a friend’s house where she had what can only be described as a panic attack. That one event changed her life – or rather, how she lived it. After that incident, it was unheard of for her to drive anywhere alone. She’d also never go anywhere without a tiny bottle of whiskey under the front seat, you know, just in case she needed a little nip to calm her nerves but I don’t think had anything to do with the agoraphobia.
It took a considerable amount of coaxing to get my mom to go beyond a twenty-mile radius of our town. When we were kids, my dad made several attempts to drive us to Wisconsin for family vacations. The first time, my mom worked herself into such a panic, we didn’t make it out of the driveway.
The second time, I got carsick reading in the back seat. “Fred! Fred, look, she’s getting sick, she’s going to throw up. Turn the car around right now!” We hadn’t even hit the highway. Of course, I was fine by the time we got home, but she was convinced it was the flu and we just couldn’t go.
The third time, my mom insisted we take only side streets and avoid the highway. A 90-minute drive turned into two and a half hours of stoplights and slow traffic. Thankfully, the result was my mom falling in love with Lake Geneva. A place we’d visit almost every summer once she got past her fears.
My mom didn’t really start to live her life until her own mom was gone. At 53 years old, she announced that she wanted to get a job. All I could think was “yeah, ok.” I mean, this was a woman who still wasn’t driving anywhere alone and the job she was interested in was, like, six blocks away. What a shock it was when she took the job. Within a few months, however, the orthopedics office announced it was building a larger location. I was sure the 5-mile drive was a deal breaker. It would be too far outside her comfort zone. But, she decided she liked this job and these people enough to attempt the drive. Of course, my dad went with her on practice runs to decipher the fastest, safest, and most familiar way to go before she journeyed out on her own.
Then…just as she had seemed to triumph over a lot of her fears, she was making friends at work, she was starting to enjoy herself and feel like she was a part of something, my mom got breast cancer. I’ll never forget the day she stood in the kitchen with tears in her eyes and uttered those four terrifying words. “They found a lump.” And, in three short years, the cancer metastasized.
A few weeks prior to that night of my 30th birthday, a body scan showed the cancer had moved into her bones. It attacked her hip, which eventually broke. It invaded her ribs and her skull. And then there was her liver—it was decimated. The doctor told us that would explain my mom’s mood. A mood, which I have to admit, was the best side effect we could have hoped for. The doctor said she would appear loopy, happy even. She might not realize how foreboding her diagnosis is.
Despite her situation, she was laughing and saying “Fuck” a lot and all kinds of other curse words. Many we had to explain to her. For some reason, she didn’t need an explanation for the term “Cock Sucker”…that word, she knew.
The doctor performing the surgery was also my mom’s boss at the orthopedics office. That morning, all I could think to say was “Mom, Doc’s gonna see your naked butt.” She winked and laughed which was so unlike my mom, who, under normal circumstances, would have been mortified.
My sister and I spent the morning in her hospital room watching The Price is Right and Oprah. In the afternoon, when they brought her back to her room, we talked with her for a few minutes. She was groggy but so relieved it was over and that she’d made it through. My Dad sent us home, telling us to come back in a few hours.
“I’m going to color my hair.” I announced when we got home from the hospital. I was still living with my parents—yeah, I know, 30 years old and still living at home? Trust me, that’s a whole other story for another time. I had been saving a box of candy apple red hair color. My sister and I were waiting on our boyfriends to come over and the plan was to go back to the hospital, and maybe take in a late movie.
“You’re mom is gonna kill you.” my boyfriend (and now hubby) stated the obvious when he saw me drying my hair.
I had spent the better part of my adolescence getting yelled at by my mom for having some sort of red shade in my hair. “Why did it have to be red?” She’d complain. She hated it red. She said, “It makes you look like a prostitute.” Well, at the time, that was probably the look I was going for, hello.
We got the call that Mom was having some issues and they wanted us to come back to the hospital. I looked in the mirror. Shit, my hair was really, really red. I put a hat on before we headed back.
My dad looked shaken, standing in the hallway near her room. My mom’s boss, who performed the surgery, was there—and so was his wife, who seemed to be consoling them both. I knew, at that instant, it was bad.
We were escorted into a private room. My dad, my sister, our boyfriends and myself all crammed into this very small space. “She asked me to get her some tea,” my dad said, “when I came back, she was breathing funny.”
When my mom’s oncologist came in, I remember seeing the doctor’s mouth move, even heard her voice, but the words weren’t registering until she said “we couldn’t revive her.” She was gone.
One minute I was someone’s 30 year old “rebellious” red-headed daughter, and the next I was the matriarch of the family—whether anyone liked it or not.
I immediately went into the mode I get in when a job needs to be done. I started organizing my thoughts and thinking about whom I had to call first. 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.” It was like her death hadn’t even registered. Meanwhile my dad and my sister were sobbing next to me but I was too focused on the main task to deal with them. In the back of my mind, I thought, why are they so shocked, how did they not see this coming? Didn’t they know this was the sad but necessary end to all that my mom had been going through the last three weeks? Shit! The last three years? She had already started massive chemo treatments! Was I the only one who heard “quality of life” in the doctor’s office not weeks earlier? Why were they crying? I hadn’t shed a tear.
I actually felt relief.
After the funeral, which to this day felt like an out of body experience, I helped my dad work through all the bullshit. We didn’t wait very long after she was gone to clean out her closet—the constant reminder of what we had lost. I made sure he ate, I did the laundry, and I cleaned the house. Eventually, I even talked him through some post mom relationships. And when Dad had a stroke two months after I got married, I moved back home for a few months while he rehabilitated.
I often joke when people ask if I have kids, I tell them why yes, he’s 76 going on 17. I constantly school my dad on the evils of signing up for porn accounts and why it’s not ok to send nasty emails to people because you’re bored and lonely.
And no, I don’t have any pot! I swear some days I want to ground him.
In many ways, I took over where Mom left off. Some days, I actually hear her words come out of my mouth. I find myself doing things, things I swore I’d never do, things I resented growing up. She would never let us stray too far from home. Even in adulthood, she wanted to know where we were at all times. More times than I care to count she came up with excuses as to why we should just stay home. There are days when my loved ones go out in the world and I think “wait, don’t!”…Just stay.
I also have certain neurosis similar to mom’s, a tendency for hypochondria, a weird OCD thing with numbers, the “right” way to place silverware.
Do I have some pretty stupid fears like my mom? Oh, you bet your ass I do. Clowns, escalators, balloons, being seen at the grocery store without my makeup on.
My sister also claims I have my mom’s ass…so yeah.
If you’re wondering, I did NOT have bright red hair at the funeral. I mean, I’m not a complete prostitute!
Most people, when I tell them my mom died two days after my birthday say, wow that must be hard on you. Your birthday must be terrible every year. Quite the contrary.
It’s been 15 years but the way I look at it, it was a blessing. I’ve repressed some of the details as to why my mom died that day after her hip surgery. In fact, while working on this story, I reached out to my mom’s friend who still works at the orthopedics office. “Sharon, why did my mom die?” She responded, “Oh honey, the cancer was everywhere. Her organs were compromised.”
So thankfully, she never had to go through the suffering the doctor insured would happen. And although she had started chemo and lost some of her hair, she’d never see the expressions people try to hide when they see women wearing wigs or bandanas to cover their baldness.
On a grander scale, she never had to witness the country go through 9/11. I often wonder how she would have reacted to that day. I mean besides the obvious. Fear had always played a huge role in my mom’s life. Would she have tried to move on like the rest of us or would she have locked the entire family up inside the house for the rest of our lives?
Sadly, while my mom did meet our future husbands, she’d never get to meet her brilliant grandkids and grand-puppies. She’d never get back to her favorite place to vacation in Wisconsin. Going on those long car rides, and out of state, was a huge triumph for her. Even she knew that! In fact, it became a tradition, even before the cancer, when my dad had our boat going at top speed, slicing through the waves of Lake Geneva, in a moment of wild abandonment, my mom would proceed to drop the top of her terry cloth romper and flash everyone, screaming “fuck it” at the top of her lungs.
Well, fuck it, indeed.