Mark is in Scotland, or perhaps his flight has already departed for home. I don’t deny him the joy of this trip, for he has learned that life is not measured by days on the calendar but by the miles of life he explores.
In this week of his absence, I have found myself to be a different mother, a kindler gentler mother. In the days of Marks’ presence, in particular with his girls, he had always been mother and father, there seemed little wiggle room for me. While my son Davis was content to go to whomever was available, for tossing balls or quizzing on homework, the girls still went straight to their dad. And oftentimes, I would just be the maid, the cook, the cleaning lady, the chauffeur, the signer of the many declarations of independence, but never mother.
This week, while Mark was rounding the greens of Scotland, I was traversing the state of Indiana to reach Cheryl in Illinois and return her home for a few weeks before she returned to Loyola for the summer. My stomach was often tight during this trip, on the way up, as I listened to classical music and the return trip, wondering what she and I would have to talk about. But she surprised me, I surprised myself by actually finding common ground, talking to her specific interests. She does not need me for advice, she needs me to just show up, keep her apprised of family events that she or may not attend to, and offer her dinner which she may or may not eat. But she is here, and she is home.
While the middle of the week was occupied with Davis and baseball and Davis and Strings concert, I found myself readily handing out cash to the girls, which most of the time, I don’t do. Shannon, here is money for groceries for Relay for Life. Kaitlyn, here is a ride back and forth from Kiera’s for the science project, waiting up, picking her up later than that time I suggested to eliminate the prospect of being such a taskmaster. The girls readily ate dinner and with aplomb entertained Davis’ grandparents, their step-grandparents, with their stories of boys and grades.
At week’s end, I was scheduled to pick up Kaitlyn for the OB/Gyn appointment. Since the beginning of her periods eighteen months ago, her periods have been irregular, lengthy, heavy flow, unpredictable. I understand her deceased mother also had this problem as a teenager, so we are having her checked out for thyroid, blood and hormonal issues. I have come into raising teenage girls without the benefit of giving birth to them, to knowing their bodies cradled in my arms, such that when the doctor asks, I too can respond with knowledge of their bodies. So all I can offer them is another woman who has a broader knowledge of bodies than me. We discuss periods and breasts and frequent urination with a teenager who is giggling during the doctor’s instruction for a self-exam of her breasts. I glance over at her breasts and see that they are more like the women of ancient times, round, full of life, whereas mine have disappeared, or are at least below my sightline. I tell her, I know that was not fun, but you may as well make friends with your body, so you don’t feel as if you are coming up against the enemy each time you are at the Ob/Gyn.
My final hours of interim single parenthood were filled with boys and baseball cancellations and sub sandwiches for dinner. For as much as I enjoy eating green and red and orange and yellow, I could not fathom another dinner without Mark, cooking at my side, or cooking in my place. Shannon called from the Relay for Life for Cancer Event, first to find out if we had received a letter from her school about academic awards. I confirmed this to be the case. Second, she wanted to tell me that the Relay luminaria ceremony would be held at 10:00 p.m.
During the ceremony, they turn out the lights in the stadium, light bags that spell out HOPE, and then light bags that have the names of those who have died from cancer or are still in the midst of treatments. Shannon had written two – one for Devin, and one for her mom – Susan.
I told her I wasn’t sure I could make it to the stadium, my legs were aching from running around all week, and my eyelids were finding themselves more relaxed when I closed them. But after a quick board game with Davis and a friend, I sprang into action, baked my “love cake” for Mother’s Day, and decided to join Shannon.
I called her from the snack stand at the stadium, and she walked around the track to meet me. Her friends joined in welcoming me, noting that they missed having Shannon’s dad there, as he was last year. We walked in the rain for a half-hour, then made our way up to the main tent. Danny Strunk, a survivor, talked about how he bears the burden of finding a quick cure for cancer. We all do. Shannon stood apart from me, but I could feel her sadness. Quick cure vs. long-term grief. Looking at Shannon’s face, it was an easy choice.
We continued our walk, noting each individual candle and name, first finding Devin’s name. She asked if I wanted to stop, but I shook off that notion, wanting her to know I was here to support her. I have made my share of memorials to Devin over time.
We walked on another 200 meters and found Susan’s name. Shannon and I stopped and she turned to me. I offered her my arms and tears. Soon we were joined by friends who stood by her side, crying in the rain. Why is it always easier for tears to come in the rain? As she sat by her mother’s candle, many more classmates stopped by to share in her sadness. As I stepped back, another group of classmates approach Shannon, only to be surprised by that fact that she had indeed lost her mom. Shannon, her friends and I walked on another lap around the track, slowly they all peeled off. It was she and I for one last lap.
Before we approached the main HOPE luminaria, the announcer was calling out names of those we were honoring. Shannon said, “I don’t know why they say in memory of, because I really don’t have much memory of her, maybe just at the end.” I nodded to agree. “I think they should all be in honor of…”
We continued around the oval and Shannon asked of us, “Let’s listen.” We walked more in silence, and instantly, upon reaching the stadium bleachers where the HOPE was spelled out, the announcer called out, “In memory of Devin Wick.”, then “In memory of Susan Manley.” Shannon and I looked at each other with near delight. A sign, I am always looking for one from above.
We found Devin’s name again and this time paused. I put my arm around her and said, “You know, when I was pregnant, Devin and I were convinced I was having a girl. He knew I wanted a Januzzi girl, really bad. But obviously that didn’t happen.” “And so now, you have three,” Shannon spoke out. “Yes, now, I have three – three bonus girls.”
We passed by her mom’s candle one more time, then she walked me to the entrance. We said our goodbyes and I love you’s. I cried all the way to the car. I was grateful for this time of Mark’s absence, not for the task of driving the kids all over the city for baseball, doctor’s appointments, school functions or Chicago. No, I was thankful that his trip allowed me to be, even for a week, the designated mother to my bonus girls.