This will be Mom's 'fifth' last ChristmasDecember 22, 2020
By SCOTT SAALMAN
How is your mom?
I’m asked this a lot.
It’s a hard question to answer. Sometimes I’m asked verbally. Sometimes through email. Mostly, though, I’m asked via text message.
I recently read how the average text message length is around seven words. Add a few more words and you risk a reputation for long-windedness.
Brevity is impossible when explaining how Mom is doing. Maybe it’s enough that I simply reply: She’s Alive. God forbid the alternative: She’s dead. The latter would likely result in a very uncomfortable pause while the inquirer dislodges a foot from his or her derrière and then responds with a one-teared conciliatory sad face emoji.
If someone inquires via text, I try calling them to elaborate, but typically the call goes to voicemail, so I hang up. I’m not going to talk about Mom to a machine. My calls are seldom returned.
Sometimes I text a person to call him out on not calling me back.
Other person’s text: Did you leave a VM?
My text: No.
Other person’s text: I didn’t think the call was important, or you would’ve left a VM.
My text: The missed call notice on your phone should serve as my VM.
Other person’s text: How is your mom?
People inquire because they are aware of Mom’s unfortunate backstory. Diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, she has endured so many rounds of chemo and radiation that she can’t have more. Five months ago, she was given only two months to live.
Yet, here she is still taking walks with me. Well, I walk. She talks to me from her home 45 minutes away. She’s the rare person who calls me upon seeing my missed call notification instead of texting, “Did you call?”
While walking recently, I joked how this year will mark her fifth "final" Christmas.
“It will be,” she said and laughed. “That’s so true.”
When she was diagnosed in 2016, we didn’t think she would be alive to celebrate the following Christmas with us. We thought the same for Christmas 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Her carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) number has surpassed 300 — zero is ideal — but she’s still out and about lunching with her lady friends, driving to her Friday hair appointment and gambling at the casino with Dad. She’s happiest while in pursuit of Lady Luck. Dad’s happiest with her, his Lady Luck.
That’s Mom. A defier of the most ominous of odds. A denier of death. Even her cancer doctor is perplexed.
“People seem surprised to see me in town,” she said. “They’ve been hearing for so long about me dying that I feel like I should apologize.”
Their house glows from a multitude of Christmas lights that Dad has installed again. Another live, decorated tree has been placed in the family room. Mom names her Christmas trees.
“It looks like a Mary Lou this year,” she said.
“Cindy Lou would be better,” I said.
“Yes, Cindy Lou Who.”
“Yes. That’s her last name.”
“Whose last name?”
“Cindy Lou Who.”
“Jesus, we’re like Abbott and Costello, Mom. Cindy Lou Who is in 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas,'” I said. This book was never read to me as a child. Dr. Seuss illustrations gave me nightmares.
People seem to genuinely care about Mom. Many don’t know her but feel like they do because of my silly-sad stories about her. Strangers thank me for sharing her story, which has caused them to reflect on their past experiences entailing loved ones with cancer. I’ve learned that there are far too many people personally tied to the topic of cancer.
How is your mom?
If I had a dollar for each time I’ve been asked this, I would have accumulated a nice treasure to donate to Mom’s favorite charity, Anderson Woods Summer Camp for the disabled.
Lately, I have simply answered, “Same old. Same old.” It’s not meant to be flippant. There’s just nothing new to report. Mom continues to be in permanent cruise control on the highway of life, determined to avoid the old jutted country road that will eventually lead her to a pre-purchased graveyard plot adjacent to Dad’s future plot in the Perry County sticks. Mom does take more naps than usual, but she’s clearly not ready to accept the big dirt nap. “I’m done with all this death stuff,” she said during one walk.
When I walk, I never know where she’ll take me. One time she referenced the Evansville “Philharmonica” Orchestra. I nearly doubled over from the mental image of a full orchestra of elite musicians performing a concerto with nothing but harmonicas.
“It’s philharmonic, not harmonica, Mom.”
“Who is this Phil person anyway?”
I couldn’t tell if she was putting me on. “The conductor,” I said, playing along.
On another walk, she mentioned a friend who also had serious cancer. They periodically checked on each other. Their last call consisted mostly of silence because her friend couldn’t speak loud enough to be heard. She died that week.
“I guess we were sort of competing,” Mom said. “It really didn’t feel that good to be the winner.”
How is your mom doing?
I never get tired of this question.
I’m happy it can still be asked.
Today’s column represents my current answer.
Mom’s very much alive.
I look forward to what she names next year’s Christmas tree.
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