all of the selves we Have ever been
Maire was the last of my other-mothers.
She entered my life when I was a young adult in my early working years. Maire was the mother of my friend Kathy.
Kathy was new to Pittsburgh. At the end of a long work day, a fortuitous meeting on a city bus delivered Kathy and me to our adjacent apartment buildings and to a lifetime of wonderful friendship. We both worked in the same downtown office building and so shared office gossip and that long ride home. We also shared the same quirky sense of humor. As our friendship evolved, it didn’t take much to have us both falling over with laughter from jokes no one else understood.
We vacationed together at the ocean. Having heard from others that the most surefire way to destroy a friendship is to travel together, Kathy and I talked about our plans. “As long as you don’t make me learn anything, I’m in,” Kathy said. And so, the word “relax” became our mission and our motto. And we were really good at it. Still are.
From time to time, Kathy invited me to accompany her for the five hour drive to her parents’ home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful home of modern design in the heart of Amish country. The blend of modern and traditional described Kathy’s parents as well as their home. Maire was a working woman, interested in style and current trends, but she was also a master of the home arts, maintaining a lovely décor, quilting, and cooking up delicious corn chowder. If hospitality is, indeed, a form of worship, than Maire’s home was a church.
When Kathy’s parents visited her in Pittsburgh, I was often invited to join them. Sometimes the three of us gals would go shopping. Kathy and I could find plenty to bring us to fits of laughter. Maire’s puzzled looks indicated that she did not always get the reason for so much hysteria, but she was patient and never admonished us with more than an “Oh, you girls!”
During eleven of the years that I knew Maire, she faced down five primary cancers. These were not minor episodes. Cancer invaded her breasts. It was the same cancer that had taken the lives of other women in her family. The cancer turned up again in her hip and then returned to occupy other organs. The treatments were long and painful. Throughout it all, Maire remained positive and determined. If she read an article that suggested eating five almonds a day was good for your health, then Maire made it a habit to eat five almonds a day and to encourage us to do the same. If she read about a new wellness community popping up somewhere in the country, she boarded the plane.
Many years into her lengthy battles with cancer, I experienced a life-threatening medical emergency of my own, one that took me to the other side and brought me back. During my recovery at home, Maire phoned in a show of support. We chatted a bit about life, in general, and then Maire asked more specifically about my health and physical recovery. I had already learned that most people do not want to hear the painful details, but Maire encouraged me to talk openly about my experience. Then she said something that flabbergasted me: “Isn’t the hardest part the mental part?”
I was stunned. Throughout all of her diagnoses, surgeries, treatments and periods of recovery, I never imagined that Maire went through “the mental part” that I was going through at the time.
Maire had always seemed so accepting, so positive. As I inched forward in my own recovery, it did not occur to me that my suffering was the suffering of all who experience such brutal assaults on health and life.
The mental part is the part that no one sees, and it is the most exhausting and debilitating part of illness. It is the cause of the great loneliness of being a patient. No matter how much love surrounds, no matter how many hands pitch in, recovery is about garnering the strength to climb out of the hole. No one can do it for you. You are alone.
I did not realize Maire had been like me—waking up each morning feeling weak and terrible, checking for the signs that you are still alive. Then beginning the bargaining: “Please, God, let me make it to the toilet on my own.” On the toilet, the next round begins, “Please, God, let me make it back to my bed.” Then the next, “Please, let me keep down some food today.” Coaxing yourself: “Just one more bite,” or “Just one more step.” And on..and on..all day…every day…exhausting negotiations with God and with yourself.
Maire’s words were like medicine to me. To know that this woman I so admired had survived the same dark hole, had entered into the same lengthy and daily negotiations was the revelation I needed to know that I could survive this too. I am sure I was not so classy as Maire, but she had thrown me a lifeline, an example of how it could be done. I trusted her, and I could hang on.
Maire died a few years later. I have a fabric square from a quilt she started for my baby girl, a piece of her jewelry, and one of her cookbooks. Best of all, I have her own baby girl as my friend. Our shared memories of Maire will eternally cement our friendship.
Maire was my other-mother. Along with the necklace and the recipes, I hope I inherited a portion of her tremendous strength and grace. And I hope that I can be as honest and as brave as Maire when someone else needs a lifeline, when the mental part becomes too hard.