Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mother And Child Reunion

(Note: I wrote the following three years ago when my mother was still alive. It was in my first book. I felt it was worth posting here and since it's my blog, I make the rules :) )

My mother is the most amazing person I know.

I always say she was born one generation too early. Had she been born in my generation, there is no doubt she would be the head of an accounting firm, or CFO of a Fortune 500 company. Great mind, sharp as a tack, a whiz with numbers. Since she wasn’t born in my generation, she instead did what women of her generation were expected to do – she got married and raised a family. After her fourth and final child was born (me), she went back to work as a bookkeeper. She likes to use that title in an attempt to remain humble, but she was far more than the gal who balanced the company checkbook. She ran whatever office she worked in. She was the confidante to her various bosses, knew where all the bodies were buried.

When she got home, she would quickly cook supper before dad got home from his job as a plumber. We would have dinner, she would clean up, relax for like thirty seconds, then would help me with mine or my sibling’s homework. She would then retire to her chair and crochet afghans. Constant motion. Selfless. Always put the needs of the family ahead of her own.

In 1974, at the age of forty-seven, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 16 at the time. The prognosis was not good, and the treatment plan, given the comparable stone-age era of cancer treatment that existed at the time, was a radical mastectomy - surgery to remove not only her right breast, but also most of the muscles in her upper right arm. We, of course, were horrified. The age I was at, I could not process this. Was my mom going to die?

Yes, that was a very real possibility.

The night before the surgery was surreal. It was a steady stream of well-wishers – family, friends, and neighbors. You could see the fear in each of their eyes. Mom was not scared, or at least she didn’t let on that she was…I am sure she was, but in typical mom fashion, there was no hint of it. Each person came up to her, tears in their eyes, telling her it is going to be okay. Mom’s reply, over and over, was twofold. First she would say “Hey look. I am going to be fine. I’m going to get this taken care of and I will see you next week.” Then she would ask how THEY were doing. Amazing. That’s my mom.

The surgery was difficult. Mom was in the hospital for almost two weeks. The follow-up care involved radiation, which sapped her seemingly unlimited supply of strength. Things were done for her once she got home which she did not like in the least. It took a few months until she was back to where she was physically before the surgery, but the bottom line was, she was alive and cancer-free.

Up next was physical therapy. A regimen was laid out to her that that included; yes you guessed it – taking up golf. Mom had never touched a golf club in her life. The doctor said that it would be perfect for her – a low-impact, healthy activity that would strengthen her decimated right arm. The walking would be good for her circulation. Since she had most of the muscles in her upper right arm removed, golf would help getting that area of her body into condition.

For the two years preceding this scare, I was a typical teenager. Translation: I was a lazy slacker that had to be cajoled into doing the most mundane of tasks. I was in the process of ‘separation’ from my parents. My own personality was developing, and part of that development was to begin rejecting whatever my parents stood for. There were almost daily arguments as I was being, well, recalcitrant.

But now, mom needed to learn to play golf. Whatever rebellion was fomenting inside my brain evaporated. She bought a set of Lynx Lady Tigress clubs and this hideous pink & white golf bag. She bought golf shoes, balls, tees, training aids, hats, skirts, socks, tee holders, headcovers, charms and gloves. She then turned to me and said, let’s go.

And we went. In an odd turnaround of the traditional dynamic, instead of mom helping me with my math homework, I was helping her to learn a game I had embraced years earlier.

This was difficult for me. For one, I did not like to tell my mom to do anything. For two, I did not have a real good grasp of how to communicate in a teaching manner the mechanics of a golf swing. And for three, my first student was a 48-year-old breast cancer survivor with no muscles in her upper right arm. It was a challenge. Much of my so-called instruction was, “Mom, watch me.” And her reply was usually, “Yes I see what you are doing son…but I can’t do that.”

In short order it became clear that mom needed professional instruction. She enrolled for a set of lessons with a local pro, and ate it up. Every Wednesday, 6p to 8p. She would bounce home and come straight up to me, all enthused, “Jerry, look at what I learned!” I had to admit I had to fight the urge to say uh, I don’t think that’s right mom, but the look in her eye dissuaded me from doing so. She had that same look in her eye that I did when I first fell in love with the game years earlier, and I was not about to dampen that enthusiasm with my opinion on what a pro was telling her.

My dad, who never liked to be left out of anything, started joining us. I kind of hate to admit it, but mom really did not like playing with dad, as he was wont to point out anything my mom was doing incorrectly. “Charlie, worry about your own damn game” was one of her common replies. But if I had something to say about her swing, she was all ears. See, I am more similar in personality to my mom. We are both analytical, introspective. My dad was an impulsive extrovert. If you were going to have a party, mom would plan it & dad would crash it. Dad would befriend anyone, then make mom tell them to leave. They worked well together as a parenting team, but when it came to golf, mom preferred her advice from me.

During the summer we would play at least three times a week, usually at Sycamore Valley, a short course perfect for beginners. We usually walked, and we always talked about anything and everything. Every time we played golf, I got smarter. Know how teenagers seem to think their parents are dumb as rocks? I was starting to adopt that attitude when mom’s cancer struck, and the resulting dynamic turned this traumatic event into something beautiful. At an age when most kids are moving away from their parents, I was getting closer to mine. My older siblings were gone – Barb was married, Kenny was in Florida and Patty had her own apartment in nearby Stow. The household was mom and dad…and me. There may have been some animosity of how close mom and I were becoming, but either I was not aware of it or it did not exist. In either case, it was irrelevant in my mind. I had mom’s attention now. They had their time. This was mine.

When we golfed, mom would work on what the pro was imparting to her. I would steer clear of that and help her with other aspects of the game – reading greens, playing the wind, club selection. In other words, I left her swing in the hands of the pro but I took care of everything else. The mechanics of the golf swing are just a fraction of what is entailed in “learning” how to play this crazy game. ‘Mom, see that sand trap over there? I don’t think you can clear that, so why don’t you aim to the right so your next shot is a simple pitch shot onto the green?’ That kind of stuff.

We took golf trips. Myrtle Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Las Vegas. We would discuss the game at the dinner table – “Look what Jerry showed me today”…”Lemme tell you what mom did on the course yesterday”…

Mom’s swing was very slow and methodical, much as you would expect from a bookkeeper, a person who makes a living making sure things are correct, would be. She would stand over the ball for an inordinate amount of time, going through her mental check list – (ball off left instep…hands ahead…weight evenly balanced…) – and once she was satisfied that everything was how it should be, she would take the club back slowly. She would pause at the top, but with the lack of upper-arm muscles, she could not control the club at the top – the weight of the club and momentum of the backswing would cause the club to slide out of her grip – she would then re-grip it as her first move down. This action caused her right hand to roll over too quickly on the downswing and shut the clubface at impact. The result was usually a pull-hook – the ball would start left of the target and curve/hook farther to the left.

The standard joke was, ‘My mother the hooker.’

We became inseparably close. A bond was formed that was impenetrable. For all of dad’s attempts at infiltration or my sibling’s perceived animosity, those forces were moot. Golfers know this bond. Now, mix in that it is a mother and her youngest child, and further that it was a ‘man-bites-dog’ story line, that the child was teaching the mother, and you had something that was unique, wonderful and beautiful.

Cancer is a horrible disease. It robs us of loved ones. But in the case, it reunited us.

Mom is now 83 years old, a forty-six-year (and counting) breast cancer survivor. A few years back, she contracted Reynaud’s Disease, a circulatory ailment that resulted in the amputation of two fingers on her right hand and half a finger on her left. That ended her golf, though she still crochets like mad, cranking out an afghan a week. She then donates her hand-made afghans to Project Linus, an organization that gives sick children free blankets. Recently, she completed her 300th donated afghan.

Once her golfing days were done, she gave away her clubs to a friend of my sister’s who was taking up the game. That she gave her clubs away is typical for the most selfless person I have ever known.


ErinInOhio said...

This was an amazing piece Jerry. So much I never knew or possibly just didn't understand growing up on Firwood. Thank you so much for sharing this and opening my eyes even further than they were :)

Jerry B said...

Thank you, Erin. The relationship with my mom was something that is hard to put into words, but I try my best.

Ian Hicks said...

I might say that the mother you described is typical of that generation.
EVERYONE came first over her.
Mine never got to have some HER time, my Dad was such a tyrant. She both loved and loathed her life. I remember her buying a block of chocolate and eating it all on the way home so Dad didn't see her 'eating CHOCOLATE'.
Her life ended with dementia, and a complete frustration that, half-way through the sentence, she couldn't remember what she was trying to say.
But, somehow she spirited away a small amount that she willed to my sister and I. I used mine to do the "US journey", and as such, that trip will always remind me of her.