Friday, May 23, 2014

Beyond family ties

My friend Amy lost her mom this spring. I’ve known Amy since we were about 10 years old, zooming around the slopes of Cannon Mountain. And so I’d known her mother since then, too. Tina – or T, as we all call her – was a force in everything she did. She could organize a ski race, win a golf tournament, host a good party, zip through steep powder runs out west or firm and fast ones at home, and orchestrate a family outing to the beach without breaking a sweat.

Surrogate moms and sisters... Crested Butte, Colorado, circa 1998.
So we all figured that if anyone could beat cancer, it would be T. She put up a heck of a fight, but in the end, not even T’s tenacious determination was enough to overcome the constant assault on her body.

I am vastly lucky to have parents who have stood by my side when I’ve needed it and watched from afar when I didn’t. But I am also blessed to have grown up with this network of other parents, the parents of my oldest friends. These other moms and dads have been there throughout my childhood and beyond – to pick me up when I crashed on the ski slope or the sidewalk, or needed a hug or some sound advice on the rare occasion that my own folks weren’t immediately available.

T was one of these, a surrogate parent. Besides being the mother of one of my best forever friends, T was also one of my own mother’s best friends. The fabric of our families is woven together through many years and experiences. This week we will gather in Maine, by the rocky coast that T loved, to remember her together.

For all the good things there are about growing up, growing older, there remains the one dismal, terrifying fact that at some point, some of the people you love the most are going to die. And you will have to figure out how to carry on without them.

This hit home hard a couple of years ago when my normally healthy-as-a-horse father suddenly needed open-heart surgery to fix a faulty aortic valve. As the day of his surgery approached, I had to focus nearly constantly to swallow the panic rising in my throat, as I was forced to face the impossibility that my parents are not invincible, that someday I will be here and they will not.

Dad came through fine and has resumed his normal activities of skiing in the winter, golfing in the summer, and goofing around with the grandkids year-round. And so I have been able to push the panic into the far corners of my psyche, but it is still there.

I think for Amy and her family, that panic has been mercurial. First there was dread. Then hope, as different treatments seemed to hold the cancer at bay, if not altogether diminish it. And finally the gradual acceptance that we are all, eventually, helpless in the face of death.

When Amy called to tell me T had died, she sounded steady and calm. I, on the other hand, didn’t trust myself to say much, afraid the mere act of speaking would reduce me to blubbering. I was sad for my friend, who was as close to her mother as anyone I know, and for her family. That was part of it. But I could also feel my own panic rising as I imagined how Amy must feel, even after months of knowing this day was coming, to be without her mother.

So much of who we are is tied up in who our parents are. Who will we be when they are gone? Who will we call when we have a question about a recipe or that funny noise coming from the furnace or the name of that place we used to go every summer when we were kids? Who will remind us that we used to pick dandelions and climb trees and sport perpetually scraped knees just the way our children do now? Who will remember who we were before we grew up and became who we are?

Our parents’ story is our story, and the story of the generations before them, and the story of our own children. When our parents are gone, the story becomes ours to tell, to continue, to pass on. That sometimes seems like a great burden to bear, if only because we want to make sure we get it right.

Our stories extend beyond the boundaries of family ties, to the other people with whom we have shared experiences and memories. From childhood sleepovers and chilly ski races to wedding celebrations and shared margaritas, T is a part of so many of my memories. Now Amy’s children and mine are collecting their own experiences, shaping their own chapters to add to the collective memory.

And so, somehow, life goes on. The story continues.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings from a full life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

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