My life was defined by my mother’s dying.
I had a comfortable upbringing, in a nice house in the Denver suburbs, my father and mother professionals. It was a second marriage for each of them. People still talk about how much my parents loved each other with one of those rare synergistic unions that creates an energy of its own. Whenever my father left or came home, he would sweep my mother up and dip her into a deep kiss. Every day. They never argued.
In the fifties my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma. She told me, years later, “After they told me I had three to six months to live, I picked up a magazine to distract myself. The headline read, ‘Cancer: The Silent Killer.’ I vowed then that I would live 14 years.”
She did, without being sick or disabled. She would often take my siblings and me downtown. We wore our white gloves and hat to tea at the Brown Palace. My dad would take the family camping in the summer. We’d talk about her disease. My parents tried to prepare us for her death, always making it an open topic in the family, even while we celebrated her life.
I remember a woman coming up to my mother, asking for her autograph. Mom told her, no, she wasn’t Grace Kelly, but thanks for the compliment. When I related the story to my father, he told me it happened all the time. Mother’s beauty radiated, even when she lost her hair from the radiation treatments.
Was the lead and molybdenum mining she grew up with to blame? Her mother died of lung cancer. They were born and raised in Leadville during the height of the mining boom, and constantly exposed to the dust and infiltration of heavy metals in the soil and water. Will we ever know?
During the summer of 1969, the cancer won the battle. For a month, Mom lay on her bed, finally agreeing to pain medication. She told me, “I had a dream that I was backing out of a room. The walls were covered with the faces of all the people I have known in my life.” She turned to me, held my face. Her ice green eyes glowed fiercely as she whispered, “do you know what that means, honey?” She died the next day.