When you listen differently –


I have a confession. I love weird music. Well, I think it’s beautiful 🙂 but I’ve heard it’s weird. This is one of those artists I adore. Joanna Newsome writes these little packets of profundity, and I love her oddish voice and the harp. For some reason, her music touches my heart in a happy way, resettles me and centers me emotionally. So, when I found myself singing along with her album “Milk-eyed Mender,” I sputtered along with some words that took on an entirely new meaning….

“…And you do lose what you don’t hold…”

I’ve always held that little line to be a notion of holding on to those things you don’t wish to lose – in fact, to get personal, I’d always stuck to that line as one my partnerish should have heard – a line to help him see, you need to hold me – to really want me – in order not to lose me, dammit!

But when I heard it this time, on my way home from the news that my mother’s cancer had returned, it struck me that perhaps we can take this line from the Buddhist perspective – that, in fact, if we simply let go of the suffering and the hate and the sorrow, that it will leave us. It made me smile as I thought this during my drive – so much so that I returned the track to the beginning and listened three more times, listening for loss and the strength to let go.


10 years, 8 months.


The first time, it was a relief. A long awaited validation of the suspicions well-fought and pressed on for months to doctors who wouldn’t listen. When they finally found it, finally gave it a name, cancer, it felt like a weight lifted. Now they know what it is, they can take it out, can DO something. The second time, 10 years and 8 months later, to the day, she said it knocked the wind out of her. In the neurologist’s office to gather results on the hip and back pain she’d been having for over a year, expecting an uncomfortable cortisol shot, the doctor blurted out, “your spine is full of tumors.”


“Mine?” It came out before she could process – as if he could be talking to anyone else. The first time, she said, that her pains and aches hadn’t sent her mind racing immediately there – and here it was, her body turned against itself once again.


­           ­           ­*          *          *


The first time, it had caught me off guard. I was in my first semester at a smallish south Georgia university, about an hour and a half from home. My car had stayed at my parent’s house when I left, the victim of campus living and parental ambivalence around the first child’s launching. I got a phone call and mom calmly told me the diagnosis and that she thought she was going to be ok. I don’t remember much. I offered to drop out and move home; my quick response shoved quickly aside, “no, don’t change anything.” I remember sitting by the lake in the middle of campus, watching the water – watching the people and world which were seemingly unchanged – how could this be so when my entire world had shrunk in upon itself. I remember thinking, how could I possibly function without my mother.  


Over the next ten years and 8 months, mom recovered out of sight, with occasional drops in. A tumultuous process of surgeries, removals of many different pieces, reconstruction which involved processes which have made the past ten years occasionally unbearable, chemical injections making life temporarily and immediately miserable and, eventually – quickly even – a new prognosis – cancer free. The first few years were full of suspicion and waiting. When would it come back? All of us staying positive to avoid the thoughts of what we had narrowly avoided. But, slowly, our relationships moved forward and we learned to live without cancer – to love and laugh and fight and cry and celebrate together again, about the mundane and ordinary. No longer living our lives as though one of us were defeat-able at any moment.


­           ­           ­*          *          *


This time, though, is thus far a practice in not-knowing. What will come next? What IS it? What are the treatment options, or are there any? The losses seem much more concrete – what will it be like for my mother not be at my wedding someday? To not have her know and love my future partner? What if I have a child who will never know her grandmother? What will it be like for my mother never to witness the successes I haven’t yet had?


For now, I’m grateful for our ten years and eight months since the first diagnosis. I’m grateful for the time we have now. I’m grateful for the woman I call mother.