It’s been so many years we might be fooled into thinking we really don’t know each other any more. If we were truly cynical we might posit we never did. But I think we still know each other intimately, at least in a few small ways. And not only that, I believe we carry each other around with us in our every-day lives, without even knowing.

That is, until an image or a sound or a smell shakes that part of us that was shaped by the other long ago. When this happens, all doubt is removed; we are allowed—maybe it’s more like we are led—to relive the moments of the event as we replay the words again and again, re-watching a clip of a black-and-white film in which a word is uttered, critical yet wholly ambiguous.

My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer last December. I was in the middle of an 18-month sabbatical so I drove to Westmount from Boston six times in the dead of winter—between late-January and mid-March. I relished the drive, and all the places it took me—through the Green Mountains, past rivers I’d fished as a boy, not far off the trail from Jay and Stowe, and along Lake Champlain—that great body of mountain water that drains north to the Richelieu, flattening out and irrigating the pastoral lowlands of the Saint Lawrence valley.

If it snowed on the way, all the better as there was a chance I might get hung-up in a small town, snowed-in for the night, and I’d have to wait it out. It didn’t happen, but it might’ve.

My mom was still living in her old house, on Saint Catherine Street at the foot of Victoria, alone as she had for decades. In her mid-70s I’d begun thinking the worst these past couple years—old woman living alone, falling down stairs, slipping on ice, being harassed by juveniles up to no good. I never thought about lung cancer (she never smoked!).

But when I got there the first week, I could see it in her eyes. The fear had taken her and wouldn’t let her go. It was worse than falling or slipping or being burgled; it was inside her, unknown, and with a terrible will of its own.

I timed my visits to coincide with her major medical events. We spent time at the Jewish General, the Montreal Neurological, and even at the Queen Elizabeth in NDG. We walked to Starbucks on Sherbrooke that morning, had a coffee before going to the appointment with her GP. “That’s where Geordie’s grandparents lived,” I said as we walked past the building facing where Murray’s and the old Bank of Montreal had been. I had no idea how I remembered that, but it came out clear as a bell.

My mom held my arm wherever we went. She’s always done that, and it always kind of bothered me and made me feel good at the same time. When I was a kid and she used to hold my arm when we walked somewhere, it made me wish my dad was around, and that she was holding his arm. It reminded me that he was missing. And as I got older, it made me wonder if I would get married and divorced some day. And when I was older still—long since married and divorced—it just felt good to have my mother holding my arm, no matter what it meant.

We waited for lung specialists, cancer specialists, surgical specialists in the unadorned communal offices of the Quebec health-care system. Receptionists in Oncology are noticeably more humane because of the—well, you know—but the system is tired and overworked, and the rooms are not clean, well-lit places.

Most of the physicians were younger than me. And they all carried Blackberries and iPhones, and they showed us MRI scans on desktop computers hooked into the System’s mainframes. The worn leather chairs offered a contemplative contrast as we sat and waited for the young Turks to arrive and tell us more about my mom’s situation.

“You see that little black spot…right there?” the 30-something doctor asked without even looking at us. “That’s nothing—we don’t know what it is.” There was a lot of uncertainty but they had decided whatever it was, they were going to take it out. “The surgeon will make the decision once he’s in; he may only take part of the lung, or he may take two lobes. It depends.”

Walking back to the car in the February wind, mom held my arm tighter than before.

The day she had surgery I got in my car and drove. I drove all over Westmount. I went to every street I knew, and all the ones I didn’t know. Turns out there weren’t many of those. It was a bright, cold, sunny day and I got out at all the places where things had happened—fights, football games, pick-up hockey matches, first kisses, break-ups, pumpkin bashing, trick-or-treating, drinking beer in parks and smoking cigarettes, biking, skateboarding, everything. It was all there.

When I stopped on Roslyn I took a picture of our old house, Six-One-Three. Then I went across the street, and as I did I froze and remembered a shaping moment. I was hanging around that entrance to the Schoolyard killing time when you came over and informed me that the earrings had been found: “My mom found them; they were in the garbage can in the guest room, next to the bed. The cleaning ladies accidentally swept them off the bedside table. I’m really sorry, John, that we thought it was you. I mean it: I should have known better.”

That was how I learned how to apologize with dignity–from you, a twelve-year-old kid, who chose to be direct, sincere, and empathetic. A lesser person would never have even mentioned the lost earrings had been found. Your apology also taught me about the fineness of your mother, and what she had given you: The way you apologized melted me, and dissolved the anger I’d felt about being accused of stealing; your voice and tone and the substance of your words helped me see past the more general anger and sadness I felt as a kid when my parents separated; your words made me feel whole and like there was an order in a world I felt was deeply flawed and unfair. Feeling good about myself and the world has helped me later in life, in tough times like the one with my mom now. I’m happy to have her holding my arm tightly, allowing some of her fear to press into me and lighten her load. That’s made all the difference.

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