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Juxtaposition My mom is dying of cancer. That is a chilling, undeniable fact.

I tried to write those words in a variety of ways, but that was the only way they would come. Just like the news itself: cold, hard, blunt, and permanent. When my brother dropped the news over the phone on November 16, I felt a heaviness seize my chest. There is never any protection from such news. Just like there is never any protection from the denial that follows. The hope that a miracle will arrive. Or that the experts are incorrect. Or that I will not lose someone who has been present all 10,689 days of my life. There is that heaviness in my chest again. Gripping tight. Like the squamous cancer cells in my mothers own chest. When Kevin said those words: Mom has cancer. I guess its really bad. They are not sure how much time she has left, I was sitting in my apartment. I could hear the clock on the wall click the silent seconds that followed. They continued until Kevin asked, Kurt, are you still there? I do not know how much time passed, but part of me, a large part, larger than I like to admit, was in pure shock of not just the news - but also the sinister way time just kept right on going as that news sank in, as if we were talking about work, his daughter, shooting pool, football, or skiing. Then Kevin asked if I would come and pick him up so we could run over to Grand Forks and visit her along with Dad and my sister, Barb. I was nodding but had trouble formulating words. Then he said, Damara wants to talk to you. My six year old niece tried to say hello but was really too shy. This seemed so absurd to me. Here our mother was dying and he hands the phone to his daughter like it is just any ordinary conversation. But that wasnt the end of it. I hopped in my car and drove down to RLF to pick him up. But instead of taking off right away, we had to run several errands for his wife. I wanted to scream, let her take care of these things. Dont you know every second we have with Mom is now limited? But I just drove numbly to pick up a case of Mountain Dew and some Sherbet. Even during the hour long journey to the hospital, we talked of mundane things - work, putting on weight over the winter, his daughter, my students . . . Were we too frightened to talk about the consequences staring us in the face? Every time I brought up something about the situation, my brother steered the conversation back to the routine. What will Dad do without Mom? I asked.

It will be hard on him. I went skiing last week. . . Will he keep the farm? I asked. I would like to see him keep it. Damara is doing well in school this year . . . What type of cancer was it again? I asked. Squamous something. Ill have to get someone to cover for me at the beat plant. I bet Ron will stay over for me . . . And so it went all the way to the hospital - every word betraying my thoughts. The worst part was sitting around with Dad, Barb, and Kev waiting for Mom to awaken from the anesthesia. We all knew her fate. But there she was 50 feet away oblivious to the poison in her very bosom. And what did we do? We avoided eye contact and talked about Barbs job. We talked about her family. We talked again about Kevs family. We talked again about my job. We talked like it was an ordinary evening together. Again, I wanted to scream and cry " Dammit! Is there any hope that she can beat this? What will we do without her? What in the hell are we going to do? What will happen to Dad? Do you want me to move in with him? What will happen to our family ?" But I sat there fighting the tightness in my lungs. Again - words betrayed my thoughts. We sat there and the nurses whisked by. Food was wheeled in and eaten and wheeled back out. A janitor ran a sweeper down the hallway. A lady in a green sweater on the other side of the room assembled a jigsaw puzzle of deer in a snow-covered field. The clock still above the water fountain continued to count the seconds. My thoughts still raged while the words just came calm and detached. I thought I was going to scream, until I accidentally caught my sisters gaze. I saw my panic reflected perfectly. The exact thoughts pounding inside my head were also wailing in her head. I watched the lady with the jigsaw puzzle vainly try to assemble a fawn until the nurse arrived. Mom was awake. I could have lived centuries and never been ready for the sight of Mom propped up in that bed. She was still groggy, still unaware of the sentence the surgeon had passed. Suddenly, Mom looked so old and feeble. Here was the woman who taught me how to ride a bike on our sidewalk, spanked me when I poured shampoo into her stew when I thought I was making a magic potion, kissed my scraped shin when I fell after I made her take off the training wheels, helped me make my Spiderman Halloween costume, always let me buy Boardwalk and Parkplace when we played Monopoly, who cried when I singled in the winning run in the sub section championship my senior year -- Here was

that woman suddenly lying in bed and looking too much like my grandmother in the nursing home before she died. I chewed the inside of my bottom lip until I tasted pennies when I looked her in the eyes for a moment and then cradled her hand. Did those large blue veins just suddenly appear on her hands? Did her flesh just begin to resemble worn paper? Did her hair always seem void of color? And what were her first words to me, the youngest, the baby, the one so dependent, so cherished, so unprepared? "I heard you had a pretty good speaker at the Veterans Assembly yesterday?" Mom asked, venturing a smile despite the pain in her chest. An ex-girlfriend of mine had been the featured speaker at my high school. An exgirlfriend she always liked and wanted me to get back together with. She was still looking out for me. Even on the way home, I couldnt get used to this new reality. Kev rode back with Dad while I had to go back to TRF to get a plan formulated for a sub. It was hard for me to believe I still had a job. Then I almost ran out of gas - I forgot to look at the gauge as I left Grand Forks. When I finally stopped for gas back in TRF, I realized I was starving. It was nine and I hadnt eaten since noon. I was shocked that I could still be hungry. Later that night, I returned to my parents' to spend the night with Dad. Again, the odd juxtaposition was there. We sat at the table and ate together. We talked about Mom, but we really didnt. "You know they can really do a lot with chemo and radiation therapy today, Dad began, The surgeon said they have diagnosed it pretty early. She can begin treatment right away. She is going to see the same doctor who treated my cancer." I just nodded and sipped my coffee. I knew the news really blindsided Dad. Just as it had blindsided me. He finished his soup. The clock continued to chronicle the seconds. For obvious reasons, Dad slept in his easy chair that night while I slept in their bed. I slept the entire night. When I woke, it all came pounding back. The heaviness oozed back into my chest. This was the opposite of all those childhood nightmares I woke up from - eventually realizing, with a sigh, that it had been just a dream after all. This time, however, waking up did no good.

I looked at the alarm clock. Six am. The little red colon between six and oo flashed as the seconds crept by. I was suddenly surprised I could still sleep. The injustice of it came pouring over me with the warm water in the shower. Dad and I still kept up the facade as we drove to GF to pick Mom up. We talked about the weather, his looming retirement, Thanksgiving, farming. All the things I didnt give a shit about but couldnt stop talking about. Barb was there waiting for us. We sat and waited for Mom to wake up like we were at a motel. Finally, a nurse arrived and told us that it would be hours before the doctor would be able to see us. So I left prematurely with my sister. It was past noon and I had to get back to school and get ready for the next day. The next day? Some where inside of me I was truly surprised that today had really come. I knew that the surgeon had been grim. Six months without treatment. Twelve with treatment. What is the treatment? Chemo and radiation. Words that are utterly alien to me. But they sound sinister and malevolent. However, we eventually found that the oncologist was more optimistic. The radiation will destroy the squamous cells. The chemo will keep it from spreading. Or maybe its the other way around. So everyday I call and every weekend I visit. I resent Fate, Time, God, Whatever or Whoever for putting my mothers life on a timetable. But then again, we are all on the clock. At least now I am aware that its ticking before she is taken from me. I know nothing will prepare me for that. But I do know that I am aware of things that I took for granted before. It is no longer just Christmas or the playoffs or going to see my niece's basketball games or just talking about her daily trips to the doctor or telling her about my days or eating the meals she prepares. Instead it might be the last time we do any of those things. So I am in the process of going back and excavating all of those 10,698 days worth of love and hurt and laughter and embarrassment and healing. I must preserve them for all of the time I still have left. Epilogue -My mom died from cancer in the summer of 2004. The last words she ever said to me were, I love you. Those same words replied back were the last ones I ever said to her. What a way to end our time together. My family and friends commended me for the strength I showed during the wake where I read a poem - and during the funeral. But the strength wasnt mine. It came

from the love and care Mom put into raising me. It came from my family and friends who surrounded me and mourned with me. It came from knowing her suffering was over. And I knew I would need my strength, for my suffering was just beginning. My brother in law lost his mother to a sudden brain aneurism. He comes from a line of proud, hard working dairy farmers. During her funeral, his young brother would later say that the only way he made it through was to think about anything and everything other than what was going on at the time to keep from breaking down. I didnt want to resort to that. I looked around at all the people who turned out to celebrate and respect my mothers life. That gave me the most strength. In fact, a classmates mom died this summer, ironically, on the same day as my mom. Dad, Kristie, and I went to the wake. When I saw my classmates brothers, I lost it. I was a blubbering mess. Outwardly, I took it harder than Moms death. But I cried and hurt because I knew what they were going through. I knew the loss and pain. And I dont ever want to feel that again. But its inevitable. I still miss Mom each day. Dad often says how he will be doing something - driving down the highway or changing oil - and something will happen to him and hell think I should call Sue and tell her about this. Thats when it really hurts. A few days ago I was thinking about Moms stew. I have no idea how to make it. Kristie never makes it. Dad doesnt know how. My sister has tried to find Moms recipe. But its lost. Then it hit me - Ill never have Moms stew again. That realization stung for hours. Its amazing how something so apparently trivial can hurt so much. But one thing I have learned is that nothing is trivial. There is no memory too insignificant. Once someone is gone, those memories, and the words and stories we use to preserve them, become as vital as oxygen. One thing that I wasnt prepared for after losing Mom was how our relationship would grow. Thats right. Its still alive, growing and changing every day. Heres how it works -- I was reading an essay entitled Home Is A Place In Time by Paul Gruchow in a superb little book called The Familiar Essay. The essay is the story of a man from Minnesota who loses his mother. Instantly, I felt a camaraderie with him. But as I read, I realized he had something new to show me about my mother. Gruchow recalls how he met with is siblings in their old home to disperse of their mothers belongings. Before doing so, they sit around the table with photo albums and begin telling stories, The stories tumbled as if out of an overstuffed closet. Sometimes we had three of them going at once. We laughed until we ached. I remember it now as one of the happiest afternoons of my life, the metamorphosis of a friendship deepening as the years pass and we three face our own mortality. I think that I have never been more exactly at

home, more tenaciously alive, than that afternoon, when old joy and new sorrow and present lover reverberated together inside me (187). When I read those worlds, I felt like I found a key to unlocking something very, very essential deep inside me. For I have felt that same way - at Thanksgivings and Christmases now that Mom has passed. Last week when Dad came over to watch Monday Night Football he told me a new story about Mom that made me feel like she was right there laughing with us. Dad said once he was standing out in our old back porch. The neighbors were out in lawn chairs in their back yards just enjoying the Sunday afternoon. Dad was just standing in front of the new screen door looking out. Then Mom snuck up behind him and pushed him right out it with all her might. Then she yelled, And dont ever come home drunk again! Dad said he about died from embarrassment. I never knew Mom to be such a prankster. I treasure that new memory more than anything Ive ever been given. Had I heard that story when Mom was still alive, sad as this may sound, I might have laughed, but theres no way it would have been treasured as it is now. Or I might have even forgotten it all together. As I said before, nothing is trivial anymore. So now we tell, retell, and re-retell stories. And when were telling these stories and laughing, the same thing happens as when I write, my surroundings fade and Im transported back in time. To mom. Where she is always present tense.

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