I’m about to tell you something you already know.
Hold on to your panties…
Over fifty percent of all marriages will end in divorce.
Indeed, this is a sobering statistic.
“Well, duh, Steph. We know that, right?”
I know, I know but please DO NOT CLICK AWAY.
I come with glad tidings!
If fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, that means another fifty percent of marriages work!
Now you might be asking, “No $#%&, Sherlock-but what’s the secret?”
Today, I’d like to let you in on a few of my own.
Wednesday, my husband and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary.
Yes, we are the proud parents of twenty years of marriage-a very, happy marriage.* One with so much PDA (public displays of affection) at times people tell us to “get a room.”
*Disclaimer: DOES NOT equate with absent of cares and woes (The common misconception that happy marriages are devoid of complexity is the genesis of trouble).
As Wednesday drew near, I found myself making a mental list of why I think our marriage has been so successful. Busy formulating my list while tossing laundry into the washer and my hands deep in dirty dishes, I recalled a conversation we had last winter with my nephew. Read more
This evening while winding down, a commercial for the movie Eat, Pray, Love, based on the wildly popular New York Times bestseller of the same name came on.
The commercial stirred inside me the kind of nostalgia that comes from daydreaming about your first kiss. Read more
I’ve been busy this week writing away on my memoir, Doris, Sophia and Me: A Memoir About A Mom Who Didn’t Live Long Enough and A Daughter Who Was Never Born.
A few months back, I ran into an old friend who told me she too, was doing some writing. We stood outside our local Shop ‘N Bag and chattered, inching ourselves out of the way of the sliding glass doors to the entrance of the store. Men with loosened ties and women with cranky kids in sweaty soccer uniforms jockeyed around our carts making their way inside.
We hugged, chatted and made the futile attempt to catch each other up on our lives in the few free minutes we had to spare while hungry family members waited for us to come home.
“So, what kind of writing are you doing?” I asked.
“Eh, some freelance work, you know.” She fumbled around in her pocketbook. “I’m also working on a novel, loosely based on characters you might recognize. So, how ’bout you? What are you working on?”
“A memoir.” I scooted out of the way of a woman pushing a cart with a screaming kid.
“Oh, man, I couldn’t do that. I think I’d go crazy if I had to relive some of the comings and goings of my life. Way too painful to revisit. There’s no way.”
As we fired spirited, bulleted updates at each other, not always waiting for the other to finish, we lamented the hungry stomachs at home. Parting company, we double checked to be sure we had the other’s current cell phone numbers, bear hugged, waved good-bye and wandered off to our respective isles.
This week, while I wrote more of my memoir, my girlfriend’s words, “Too painful,” rang true. This piece I’m sharing today was painful to write and I’d be a first-class liar, if I said I didn’t at one point ask myself, “So, why exactly AM I writing this?”
My answer to that question never wavered. I write because I’m pretty certain, that sharing my story will help others out there who are struggling.
Call it Catholic guilt, Italian guilt, what- have- you, but I feel an obligation to pass on what wisdom I’ve garnered from this wacky thing we call Life. Of course, there is always the cathartic, personal benefit of putting our own stories down on the page. So let’s call my motivation-part altruistic, part self-care.
Although, when I get to stories like this one, I wish I wasn’t such a do-gooder or at least a guilt ridden, Italian/Irish, Catholic.
It’s Dark In Here (From My Memoir)
One evening I overheard my husband, speaking to a seasoned Italian contractor, he deeply respects, who speaks endearing broken English.
“He’s my paisano, Steph,” my husband would say.
Mr. Madono asked, as he always does, “How’s-a-your father-a-doin’?”
Later that night, my husband shared with me something Mr. Madono said, that I tucked away in my heart for safekeeping.
“You-a-know, Vinny, there comes a time when a son becomes a father and-a, a-father becomes a son.”
I know now the same can be said for a daughter and a mother.
For my Mom and me, our seismic shift came in January 2003, in Florida, when even in long-sleeves and jackets you still felt a chill.
Transplants from the suburbs of Philadelphia, my parents now called the sunshine state home.
In November 2002, my Mom was diagnosed with a two-inch malignant brain tumor, a metastasis from lung cancer she supposedly was freed of five years prior (she never smoked a cigarette, ever). It robbed her of most of her hearing and the ability to stand without the support of a walker or wheelchair.
The day before my thirty-sixth birthday, only six days after her diagnosis, my Mom had surgery; post-op treatment included six weeks of radiation, which affected no therapeutic change unless you consider a burned, bald scalp therapeutic.
Born to both an Irish mother and father, my Mom came from hearty stock. She made applesauce every fall from the apples she and my aunt picked at our local orchard and taught us about the birds and the bees using words like penis and vagina. On winter Sunday afternoons, she curled up in the crushed orange velvet recliner in her bedroom and soaked in the sunny spot by the sliding glass door. After reciting her daily rosary, she wandered off into the worlds that lived inside the stack of books resting on her glass-top table.
She tolerated injury like a soldier wounded on the battlefield but the beast of cancer-peddled pain that made her moan.
To keep track of the medications necessary to make her waking moments tolerable, I drew up a spreadsheet our family initialed after administering. The only drawback was that the drugs caused severe constipation- as in prunes are useless-don’t bother with the Metamucil.
At the time, we didn’t know she was terminal. The doctors don’t always tell you that. They speak in hushed euphemisms that guard against the dreaded d-word.
That January afternoon the house was busy. My brother, Bobby, with the garden hose in one hand and his cell phone in the other, watered my Mom’s orchids and took care of some business from what had now become his virtual office. My Dad baked a fresh batch of Italian rolls and before he hollered, “Guys, I’m leaving for four-thirty Mass,” he put a pot of homemade tomato gravy on the stove to simmer.
“Steph,” my Mom moaned from the back of the house. “Steph,” she hollered again.
Popping in a load of laundry, I smacked down the washer lid with one hand and slammed the dryer door shut with my foot. I raced out of the laundry room and shuffled down the tiled hallway in my pink slippers, to the back of the house.
I rounded the corner into her bedroom and waved to get her attention.” Mom, I’m sorry I was in the laundry room. What’s wrong?”
“Steph, it hurts. It hurts.”
There she sat in the bathroom, wringing her hands and wiping her forehead, dressed in the grey velour leisure suit I bought on one of my routine date nights at the Walmart across the street from the Tandum Rehabilitation Center she “rehabbed” in.
Following her operation that November, the doctor gave my Mom the option to rehab at Tandum or recuperate at home. She chose rehab, which was my first clue she would never be herself again. The month she took up residence at what I affectionately nicknamed, “Tandy,” we passed time playing cards and reading. I’d wait until dinner arrived, fix her decaf coffee and then go out for an hour or so to get some respite in a world where cancer and its co-stars, panic, fear and sadness didn’t hog up center stage. The Walmart across the street offered some semblance of normal and like a junky in need of a fix, I didn’t discriminate how I got the antidote I craved.
“Welcome to Wal-mart.” The elderly greeter offered me a cart. I took it and smiled. I needed something to lean on.
The isles blinked and twinkled with holiday decorations and the sounds of the season blasted the square space, ignorant of the stranglehold cancer had around my heart. I strolled up and down looking at everything and seeing nothing. After about an hour, I bought a few things I thought would make my Mom smile and convince both of us that everything was going to be ok.
Back in the bathroom, I sat on the tub platform and faced my Mom. “C’mon Mom. Just relax and take some deep breaths.”
She furrowed her brow.
I held up my index finger and signaled her to wait a second. I went to grab the composition notebook off her nightstand that we used when she couldn’t quite make out what we said.
As her faced contorted, I panicked.
“How in the hell did I get here? What in the hell is going on?”
My Mom looked to me for help-for answers. I didn’t have any.
The pen levitated off the page as I scribbled, “Breath nice and slowly, Mommy. Take nice, long deep breathes.”
I imagined this is what it must be like to potty train a kid. Hang out in a bathroom, and at a cotton-candy, sing-song pitch, repeat ad nauseam, a clothesline of absurd encouraging idioms to help your child achieve the developmental milestone of going to the potty like a big girl or boy. After suffering from eight years of unexplained infertility, the idea of potty training even seemed appealing to me but the appeal never included my Mom.
She was supposed to be my cheerleader.
I knew a side effect from the pain medication was constipation but the look on my Mom’s face cried epic.
“Mom, I’ll be right back, I’m going to get the phone to call the nurse.”
We hired a home health agency to help us with the transition from rehab to life at home. Three weeks passed since we contracted with them and up to this point we managed to limit calls for help to office hours.
“First give this, then give that. Make sure your Mom drinks enough liquids.” I must have interrupted the nurse while she was filing her nails with her feet propped up.
“Yes, I gave her the Colace. Yes, I made her drink 16 oz of water.” I turned my back to my Mom. “Look, she is hysterical, and to be honest, so am I.”
“Steffi, oh, Steffi. Oh, oh.” My Mom grabbed the grey knit hat that now shrouded her bald scalp, the one she wore when I was a kid when we built snowmen and sled down the snow-covered hills in our neighborhood.
The nurse overheard my Mom and I got the impression she put her nail file down. “Stephanie, I think it might be best to try a suppository. I can hear how much pain she is in.”
Her suggestion ushered in a seminal role-reversal that I was about as prepared for as piloting The Concorde and that scared me just as much.
I scrambled over to the medicine cabinet and fumbled for the pack of suppositories. “How am I supposed to do that?” not asking so much about the mechanics.
“Well, your Mom can do it herself. It should help speed things up.”
An hour or more passed since my Mom first called me. I offered some sort of thanks to the nurse, tossed the phone down on the rainbow pile of frayed towels on the countertop, unwrapped the suppository and walked over to my Mom.
“Mom, the nurse said to try this.”
She stood up but lost her footing and fell backward. “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!”
“It’s ok, Mommy. It’s ok.”
“Help me, Steffi, help me.”
I wanted to grab her-pull her toward me-shake her and scream in her face. “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME? I NEED YOU. I NEED YOU TO BE OK. I…NEED…YOU…TO… BE…OK.”
Instead, I shoved my hysteria into time-out and reached for the surgical gloves under her vanity sink.
“Ok, Mommy. Relax, it’s ok. It’s ok. Lean on my shoulders.”
As I began, she screamed. “No gloves, no gloves. They hurt me. They hurt me.”
Tears pooled in my eyes. The lump in my throat I fought back for weeks bulged. I swallowed – my feeble weapon against emotional vomit.
I tore off the gloves.
As she whimpered, her breath warmed my ponytail.
Suggested Reading: The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan
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