My parents rarely made a big show of birthdays. Maybe it was their Depression-era frugality or the fact that there were five of us kids. Birthday celebrations at our house usually consisted of a cake baked from a mix and a few modest presents after dinner. Spring 1974 was different, though: My mother threw me a surprise 12th birthday party. Her prior record of thrift combined with my middle-girl low expectations made me the perfect dupe for her scheme. The day after my birthday she arranged for my brother Bill to take me to the Paramus Park shopping mall, which had opened only two months earlier. To my friends and me, it was the greatest cultural institution to hit Bergen County since the Route 17 Drive-In. In addition to all those stores in one covered space, it had indoor trees and the first food court of its kind in the country.
“Wear your new outfit,” my mother suggested coyly. She was referring to the ultra-cool, creamsicle-colored pants suit with tiny maroon flowers embroidered down the bodice I had received as a present. I didn’t have to be asked twice. I changed clothes and jumped into the car with Bill, basking in the light of special treatment. The feeling was short-lived, however. Shortly after we arrived at the mall, Bill made up an excuse to return home. Disappointed and upset, I selected “Jan Brady tragic” from my arsenal of pre-teen moods and sulked all the way back. At home I marched into the kitchen wearing the pants suit and a sour face — a pickle puss, my mother called it — ready to unload to the first available person about Unfairness and My Jerk of a Brother. Instead I collided with a smiling semi-circle of sixth-grade friends crowded around the kitchen table, with my mother behind them, craning her neck to catch my reaction. I was stunned and needed several minutes to comprehend what was actually going on. Not only had my mother gathered my friends in secret, they had all brought extravagant gifts my practical mother never would have spent money on, such as a tiny “Liddle Kiddle” doll suspended in a clear plastic cologne bottle, useless for anything but the cultivation of pre-teen consumerism. I adored it and the other gifts, of course. My friends and I proceeded to have a fabulous time at the party.
In her book First You Cry, Betty Rollin reports that it took nine months to feel like herself again after her mastectomy. The one and only surprise party my mother threw took place about nine months after her own mastectomy. I wonder if the impetus for the party was as much a celebration of her return to life as it was for my birthday?
Betty Rollin’s doctors told her that the greatest chance for her cancer to reoccur would be within the first three years after her mastectomy, and that most relapses happened within two. Was my mother given the same timeline? As the months accumulated post surgery, did she worry about every new twinge of discomfort in her body, as Rollins did? One fact we do know is that my mother never reached that critical two-year threshold. The next significant medical event any of us remembers happened in February 1975 — eighteen months post surgery.
Around that time my mother began to experience pain in her lower back that didn’t dissipate. She told us it had started after she had slipped on some ice on the back steps of our house. A recurrence of cancer apparently wasn’t on her mind, nor was it on the minds of the doctors she saw for treatment. One doctor prescribed a thick, white foam-rubber brace that looked more like a life preserver than a back support; the other prescribed pain medication that didn’t work.
When the pain spells first began, my mother tried to eased our distress by being as inconspicuous as possible. As they worsened, however, she could no longer conceal her discomfort. She would gasp aloud, jump up from her seat, and push down on the sides of the brace with both hands. The pain forced her to limp and hop around like an injured animal trying to escape a predator that has just maimed it; a predator still present but quietly lurking in the shadows, waiting for its prey to tire. It was an agony to watch. When one of these spells started, I became a deer in headlights: breath drawn and terrified. I was halfway through seventh grade. What was happening to my mother, the invincible nurse with super-human diagnostic powers? Certainly I didn’t attribute the pain spells to her prior surgery. Even those in the know—grown-up medical professionals—had yet to make that connection. I wanted to help my mother, but I didn’t know how. In adulthood I am more aware of ways I could have comforted her, but I can’t breach the decades with soothing words or a course of action. Like a macabre version of the doll in the perfume bottle, I am stuck, a perpetual witness to her suffering.
Finally another doctor was consulted. He or she correctly hypothesized that the back pain might be related to my mother’s surgical history. My mother returned to the hospital for a brief period, possibly to have a bone scan. This time I do remember missing her presence at home and feeling adrift without her. On a phone call home, she lightly reassured me that everything was going to be fine. In reality, the scan would have confirmed otherwise. The silent predator causing her pain had been the cancer all along. It had metastasized to her back.
From on-line research I now know that the diagnosis was likely secondary bone cancer, but of course none of us kids was told anything of the actual medical developments. We understood my mother’s symptoms as originating from her fall on the ice, a detail of the narrative I took as fact until just recently. My father doesn’t remember her falling. Ellen suggests that my mother either fabricated the story as a way to explain her symptoms, or that the fall really happened and she initially—mistakenly—attributed her pain to it.
The new doctor must have prescribed my mother a more effective medication because the pain spasms became less frequent. According to Ellen, my mother also had chemotherapy treatments that spring, arranged and conducted in complete secrecy from all five kids. Did my mother drive herself to the treatments, or did someone else take her and hold her hand? Her clandestine ways were aided by the fact that the chemo treatments didn’t result in hair loss. Apart from perhaps a little weight loss, her appearance didn’t change. Eventually the pain spells went away completely, and she no longer needed the brace.
Incredibly, my mother never let her discomfort stop her from participating in her children’s lives during this time. For example, she continued to attend all of my brother Bill’s high school track meets, usually with several of us kids in tow. She would show up in a white vinyl trench coat adorned with silver, peace sign–like buttons, looking like some kind of mod detective. When my brother’s race began, she would stand at the edge of the track, urging him on by shouting a loud and high-pitched “C’mon Biiiiillllll!” through cupped hands. As the race progressed and my brother had a chance for first or second place—which was often—she would completely abandon the veneer of adult dignity, jumping up and down like an excited child, shouting louder and more frequently, “C’mon Biiiiillllll!” Rain or shine, at home meets or away, my mother was there cheering on my brother.* The other runners and coaches revered her so much, she received special mention as “Head Cheerleader” in the high school yearbook that year. At their awards dinner, the team gave her a plaque for her perfect attendance at the meets.
My mother took the honor seriously. As my younger sister remembers it, my mother thought carefully about what dress she should wear to receive the award. She finally decided on a vibrant flower-patterned chiffon maxi dress with gathered neck and sleeves and matching fabric flower pin. As an afterthought she ditched the flower pin; it might be a bit much for the high school cafeteria, where the ceremony was held. When my mother received the award, Suzanne remembers feeling very proud. One month later my parents hosted a high-spirited graduation party for Bill’s entire senior class in our backyard, complete with a keg of beer. Life was good. My mother’s pain spells had stopped, and everything seemed to have returned to normal. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
*My mother’s distinctive method of cheering may have permanently altered the cortices of those of us present. At my son’s first track meet a few years ago, I half-expected to hear her high-pitched shouts after his race started.
On location with the Head Cheerleader. My brother Bill is to her right.