Writer’s note: That picture was taken in March of 1997. I was 11 and my mom was 44, almost 45. My mom passed away from lung and brain cancer roughly three months later. I’m now 30 and sadly, more people I care about are dealing with death and sickness of their loved ones, often surprised by what it brings. Perhaps reading some of my experience can help, even if just a bit.
It’s been nearly 20 years and I still haven’t quite figured out how to occupy a room like she did.
I always walked in on the joke late, big roars of laughter filling the room, eyes lit up. I was young. Perhaps I had heard the joke and just didn’t quite get it. Perhaps I was the joke’s featured player, unbeknownst to me. But there were always the yelps of joy. Or loud crescendos of conversation. Or a solo-roar of anger fits from the piano, with a barrage of “SHIT”s that I occasionally tried to copy, to my detriment.
That’s a thing I truly miss about my mom, Barbara Sue Conick: The fun had in her presence, the joy inspired. She had that extra gear, an almost superhuman ability to light up a room, even when her own switch wasn’t quite flipped to “on”. People were there, present in space, with her.
It was with her until her last days. I recall she looked up at her friend from her death bed and muttered with a sly smile, “You look like a pig from this angle.” It briefly nullified any end-of-life tension we felt at that moment. The jokes became less frequent as the spark in her eyes faded, but it was there as long as she was there, even if just a small glimmer, given away in a smirk or a squeeze of the hand.
Today would have been her 64th birthday. 04/13/52, a date I think about often. I’m not sure what we would have done to celebrate. She’d be different in certain ways, just as I am now. But I’m pretty damn sure part of it would involve me playing “When I’m Sixty Four” by The Beatles over and over, playfully, to her annoyance and amusement. As a kid, I was frequently woken up by The Beatles. Or taught life lessons by The Beatles (note: I learned during “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” that killing animals = bad. Thanks, mom).
Hearing her advanced age in song-form would have surely pissed her off, but it’d be so very worth it after all those years of her waking me up to the maximum-volume sound of “Good Morning” on Saturday mornings when I would have just as soon slept until noon. It’s a bittersweet concept for me now.
Some days, I don’t have fun around myself. Permission granted to myself to be joyous, to be passionate, was in short order after she left. Life wasn’t as fun and I only had so much to give. There were no more days driving down the highway at high speeds in a big blue boat of a Cadillac blasting jazz, no more Saturday morning Beatles at full tilt. No more Twizzlers hidden away in the cupboard for me to steal and later boast that I found her stash.
Death is an open secret in America, and it extends deep into lines of friends and family. It’s considered a faux pas to discuss publicly. It’s unpleasant, almost shameful. But then, how do we ever learn to deal with it? How do we see the proverbial semi-truck careening toward us, ready to blindside us? It’s a difficult thing, longing to feel normal but looking in the mirror and seeing your current state perfectly summed up by the look in your own eyes.
Joan Didion wrote a beautiful passage on this in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a book on her grief after the loss of her husband:
People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal.
While this passage is transfixing and personal for me, illustrating part of my storyline I couldn’t shake for years, there has been so much I’ve learned and gained from the life and death of Barbara Sue, and everything that happened after. Thoughts, memories, and things-once-forgotten-now-remembered still sting too, but I’ve gotten better at inhabiting all the personal skills she had by taking on what I recall of her: Being happy. Listening. Enveloping kindness. By trying my fucking hardest not to take for granted that we are truly vulnerable in our human state. Keeping my own spirit but always giving her’s a nod.
I can make myself and others laugh in the worst of times. I can tell a story. I’m learning how to celebrate and to not think too far back into the past or too far into the future, forgetting, even if just momentarily, that there’s an eventual end to every story and a sickening backstory to go along with it. But there’s that extra-something that I feel fades in and out for me, like an FM radio riding across Midwestern state lines. A secret ingredient that I’ve been trying to fine tune for years, whether I’ve realized it or not.
Was it love lost, an inherent love that only a mother can give? That was ever-present. I remember me, 11 years old, lying down until the late hours of the night with my dad on the day she died and asking out loud “I don’t think I told mom I loved her enough. Did mom know I loved her?” But of course she did. Every exchange we had, playing Nintendo together, listening to music loudly in the car, showing my friends and me how to spell “tits” by folding a dollar bill, dabbing hot sauce onto my tongue after I let out a Barbara Conick-esque “SHIT!”…. It was all love, across its various forms. An expectation, view and feeling for me that I couldn’t possibly have of myself. Not yet. That extra ingredient, perhaps. I’m not sure.
She always felt a way about me that I’ve only recently had the ability to feel about myself. Perhaps that’s what has been missing all of these years. A level of expectation and appreciation for myself and others beyond what may actually be there; a respect for the unseen, the unknown. A level of love and care that allows one to joke and be vulnerable all in the same breath. A level of give-a-shit that lets you be there, right there, no matter what.
I hope I’m getting it back. I wish it never had to leave.