His mom takes a licking and keeps on ticking

Guest Columnist

Mom recalls finding me, at age six, wide-eyed in bed, unrestful.

“Why aren’t you sleeping?”

“I’m watching the clock,” I said.

“Why are you watching the clock?”

“I want to know what time it will be when I die.”

She’s told this morbid story countless times.

“You were a weird duck,” she summarizes.

The boy duck she speaks of most certainly was me. I always dreaded the Hawaii 5-0 closing theme song, for that’s when the TV was turned off, erasing the living room glow that reached into my room just enough to illuminate the clock’s face. Then, in total darkness, I counted the second hand’s ticks.

A year later, my parents gave me a black-banded Timex wristwatch for First Communion. Did it not occur to them that their gift of time would further fuel my neuroticism? Now I could maintain my deathwatch 24 hours a day thanks to the Timex Death Watch conveniently attached to me.

In hindsight, any number of things could have triggered my early concerns of death.

Take, for example, the giant medical dictionary on the bookshelf. Every disease known to mankind could be found within its pages. It was my summer reading. I was convinced I had every affliction from A to Z. I woke up each morning relieved to have escaped   elephantiasis.

Take, for example, how I was privy to details of the unfortunate demise of my great-great grandmother on my mother’s side. While sailing from Belgium to America, she died. Her immigrant body was dropped overboard into the cold Atlantic.

Take, for example, that I was made aware of a great uncle who was shot in the head during a rumored “hit” in the restroom of an Indianapolis gas station.

Dare I note the knowledge I had of a territorial rooster flogging and clawing my paternal grandmother’s younger brother to death?

What, me worry?

Here in my 50s, thoughts of death have resurged.

Three Septembers ago, mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. She has been an inspiration to many who know her story. After completing multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, mom has surprised doctors with her survivability. For the past three years, we often worried she might not be around for the holidays. Her presence on this past trio of Christmas Eves has represented the greatest Christmas present ever received.

My parents’ lifestyle has yet to change, other than mom tires more often. I can only think of one weekend during the past three years when mom and dad weren’t able to enjoy their precious casino time together—they have stayed there every weekend for many years. We’ll worry only when she no longer can crawl across the casino carpet and pull herself up on a stool. I always joke that there must be something special pumped through the casino’s air vents that keeps the aging, ailing clientele alive (or maybe the comps alone are enough to keep them whistling past the graveyard). Yet, dad recounts witnessing an elderly man die at a slot machine. As soon as the body was removed, someone else claimed the vacant stool (I hope it wasn’t dad) to finish out the dead guy’s remaining turns.

Mom has won a trio of major battles during her three-year war with cancer: the initial surgery to eradicate all the cancer in her colon was a success; a surgery to remove 60% of her liver was a success; and most recently, 15 straight days of radiation added longevity to her lungs.

Throughout it all, a lifelong morbid sense of humor shared between mother and son remains, much to the chagrin of dad, who likens us to a “pack of damn dogs.”

Mom laughs when telling me about running into ______ in Wal-Mart who inquired about her health. “I’m feeling great,” mom told ______, who seemed disappointed. Adds mom, “______’s eyes fell downward. Do you know what she then asked me? She asked if I had anyone in mind to take my place for your dad when I die. Can you believe that? I told her, ‘Oh, yes, I have four names on the list right now.’ Without batting an eye, ______ asked, ‘Would you care to put me on that list?’ ”

I often joke about THE LIST with mom, but it wasn’t until liver surgery last summer did I realize she might not be taking The LIST as lightly as first thought. Before being wheeled to surgery, she grabbed my wrist and said, “Don’t let ______ into the funeral home.” I suspect it was the pre-op relaxant coursing through her body that caused this unexpected request. “Oh, I won’t,” I said, freaked out that these might be mom’s final words. Of course, I couldn’t help but buy a get-well card at the gift shop while she was under the knife, write “Don’t” in parenthesis just before the Hallmark-printed “Get Well,” and sign ______’s name inside. Mom laughed later when I read the (Don’t) Get Well card to her, to the point I feared she might pop her sutures — of course she was already pretty loopy from the meds so who knows what she was really laughing about.

Like that Timex watch of yesteryear, mom takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

She stays positive. She stays mentally strong. She still laughs. She stays focused on her slot machine.

Oh, and one thing she doesn’t do is stare at the clock, for there’s no greater time-waster than that.

Mom lives.

Me — I cannot help but watch the clock.

Contact Scott Saalman at scottsaalman@gmail.com

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