While my mother, Wanda Lee Michael Ball, died almost 12 years ago, I continue to recall my times with her. Those are almost entirely happy and grateful. She raised my sister and me solo, did a damned good job of it, and balanced fun and moral and smart by example and word.
On occasion, I do have minor regrets though. I recall particularly how I failed her by turning down one request. Sure, she denied me this or that over the the years as well. Yet, as an old guy now myself, I am increasingly aware of the stresses and pains — interpersonal, intellectual, physical, emotional — that living and aging bring. I could have taken one for the team that afternoon.
In her mid-50s, she had a devil of a year. Even typing that, I snort at Wanda’s example. She was loath to swear or even euphemize. “Damn!” was extreme language for her. When she was angry or very disappointed, her strong language was typically, “For crying out loud in a bucket!” (full emphasis on bucket). A malefactor we might call a bastard or asshole would suffer her, “What a crumbum.”
To most of us her 1979 was a year from hell. It included:
- She had finally found happiness and fulfillment with a lover, who was chased by his ex-wife’s lawyers and courts for new spousal and child support. He got his company to transfer him to Asia and safety.
- Her own company got sold to a much larger pharma who handed payouts to the entire sales staff. Thus she was jobless.
- With her payout, she had to invest it in six months or lose much of it to taxes. That meant buying a house for her and her sister across the country a decade before she wanted to consider such.
- She got a breast cancer diagnosis. Her doc wanted to aspirate the growths, but her nurse sister convinced her to get a second opinion in her pending new town of Santa Fe. The surgeon there saw the lymph cancers as well and scheduled her for a radical mastectomy.
- As part of the treatment at the time, her doctors immediately stopped the heavy doses of hormones she was getting for a hard menopause. As a result, her personality changed and her always modulated and logical self became short-tempered and even occasionally irrational, in other words like most other adults her age.
Beaten up and beaten down in every way, she did cope. In Santa Fe without her friends and lover, without her career, without a breast, and on an on.
In many ways, I was there and helpful. I visited, I called, I sent her goody boxes (something she had always done for her children). I was swell to her until she asked one thing that choked me.
Her surgeon liked to tell the story of when he visited her with the post-mastectomy lady and a couple of nurses a few days after the surgery. The woman showed with a suitcase of padded bras and prostheses. The nurses were there to observe and learn.
Wanda looked at the assembled crew and asked, “What are you doing here?” The woman said she was there to help with the recovery. The surgeon said that Wanda then stated very clearly, “I’m not sick. I just had cancer,” and shooed them out. She was definitely not interested in being fitted for an artificial breast.
You should know that she never identified strongly with her mammary glands. Hers were small. Her daughter’s large. They’d joke about it being obvious whose bras were hanging to dry.
She had cancer of both breast and lymph. The prognosis after successful surgery was death within five years. She went 25.
On one of my visits not too long after the surgery, but when she had healed as much as her body was going to, she asked and I faltered. I knew they had taken a big chunk of muscle as was the style in those years of mastectomy. When the two of us were on the living room couch, she asked in her previous style whether I wanted to see and feel where the breast had been.
I did not and she seemed truly disappointed. It was a ritual offering that I failed to accept.
Yes, yes, the idea of a son touching his mothers breast, rather where the breast used to be, sounds morally and sexually wrong. It really would not have been. It was a medical, anatomical thing. It was yet another of her healing mechanisms.
I should have bucked up and gone with it…for her. I couldn’t and didn’t.
Shortly after I was rereading one of my favorite poets, Frederick Nicklaus. In The Man Who Bit The Sun, one of his poems starts:
I remember a horse in Indiana;
it came from the fields, it ran alongside
the bus. I remember its reddish hide.
But believe me, I failed the fright of its eyes.
So here it was. My mother looked me straight in the face and asked for something pretty simple. I failed. I couldn’t do it.