I’ve been a very bad blogger. I fell off the writing wagon and the futher I fell, the harder it became to come back again. But thanks to a gentle nudge from Ruth and the anonymity of figuring most of you have something better to do on this between-holidays weekend than pay any attention to me, I’m back.

 As a warning, this is a very long and emotional post.

So I was going to start off with telling you all about the four-day food and family holiday marathon that was my Christmas. Perhaps give you an idea about what life is like in a small hometown with a huge and closely-knit family.

Then I realized that one of the main characters, Aunt Mom, would take a bit of explanation. So I guess it’s time to share the story of the first half of my 30s.

Age 30: I left the city I’d lived in since graduating high school and a dear family of friends behind to move home and take up residence in my parents’ basement about 7 months after my Mom was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. I took up the position of chief cook and bottle washer for Mom, Dad, and my single-parent sister and her son while collecting unemployment and trying to help Mom through some of the nastiest chemotherapy created. That summer, the five of us took a vacation to South Dakota’s Black Hills together and reveled in showing a two-year-old boy his first “boflos” (read: buffalos). And, as Mom went back to teaching, I took a job raising money for a small theatre company, commuting 75 minutes each way so that I could continue to live at home.

Age 31: My brother and his wife welcomed their first daughter. My sister fell in love with the local high school band director and, when she and her son moved out of the house they rented from Mom and Dad to marry him, I moved in. I was able to retrieve all my belongings from the storage unit I’d tucked them into in the city I’d left behind nearly a year previously. More than a year without all those things made me realize I didn’t need them, so I ended up stacking a lot of boxes in corners and leaving them there, unpacked.

Mom and I helped my sister plan her wedding and worked hard to add special touches. My godmother and I handpainted more than 30 terra cotta pots in pearl and lavender so that they would match her dress and planted impatiens in them to adorn the tables at the reception. I built silk-flower topiaries for the family tables and wired Swarovsky crystals into baby’s breath for each of the corsages and boutteniers.

At the reception, Mom danced to “I Will  Survive” with her sisters while twirling her cane. Just a few short months later, my sister and her husband announced that they were expecting.

Age 32: My boss at the little theatre company and I were not getting along. He resented my determination to live in my hometown, I resented, well, him.

On Good Friday, while on my way to work, I found out that my sister had gone to the hospital with labor pains two months early. When I called her husband’s cell phone, he told me that she’d had a crash c-section and that he was with their son in the NICU while she was still in recovery.

I went to her bedside. Our Mom had chemotherapy that day and couldn’t be there with her has she lay in her bed in what was supposed to be a family-friendly birthing suite, having been cut open from pubis bone to belly button so that someone could take her baby out. And there he was, one floor up and halfway across the building attached to a respirator and she couldn’t get up to see him, hold him, make it better. Mostly, I just sat with her and tried to be hopeful.

The next morning, I went to work to make up for the half day I’d missed on Friday. When I got to the hospital that afternoon, the were loading my nephew into an ambulance for the risky trip to the university hospital nearly an hour away. I followed in my car, crying on the phone to my best friend and generally being an unsafe driver.

His heart stopped twice on the trip. His tiny lungs popped on the respirator. My sister lost her baby boy just after midnight on Easter Sunday.

We buried him in an incredibly tiny white casket two days later.

Two days after that, Mom fell while getting out of the car in the garage. Later that evening, the pain in her hip – where her cancer had metastasized – was so severe that Dad took her to the emergency room in the middle of the night.

On my way to work, I learned that Mom was in the hospital and detoured to be at her bedside for an hour or two. When I got to work that afternoon, I was fired and escorted from the building.

I took up my new job as nursemaid and companion. Mom was in a chronic pain crisis related to the cancer invading her body. I spent nearly every day in her room, keeping her company, encouraging her progress, cajoling her into trying harder. At one point, we thought we’d be able to bring her home if I functioned as caretaker so Dad rebuilt the downstairs bath to accommodate a wheelchair and I learned to bathe her, move her, and change her bedding.

I took a few days’ break from her bedside to be with my best friend through some frightening surgery. I tried to lighten her fears about her own health but the truth was, my brain just could not accept the idea that I might lose either of them.

Instead of going home, my Mom went first to a rehab/nursing center. It was in a “family room” there than her oncologist and I cried when we all made the decision to stop trying to treat Mom and just make her as comfortable as possible.

On July 7, in the middle of a massive pain crisis, Mom told me she wanted to hold me. As I knelt at her bedside and laid my head on her chest, she hugged me and told me she was sorry to leave me. Later that day, they finally got enough drugs in her to allow her to rest. We moved her to a hospice care center and she faded away three weeks later, surrounded by family and friends.

The same dear friend I had gone to take care of during her own surgery came and took care of me during the days surrounding my mother’s funeral. A month later, on what should have been her 34th wedding anniversary, we buried my mother’s ashes just a few feet from her grandson’s casket.

I started trying to build my own life without my mother’s guidance. I took a slew of part-time jobs in lieu of unemployment and finally landed a full-time position that, at that point in time, was  a perfect match: raising money to help disadvantaged and disabled children in my area.

Age 33: My sister-in-law gave birth to the first grandchild in the family without my mother there to welcome it. But my sister, my Dad, and I did our best to fill the void of her joy and pride. At about the same time, my sister announced that she was pregnant again and we began the tense and hopeful wait.

My Dad, meanwhile, had started to seriously date my mother’s sister – my own godmother. In the lonely months after Mom died, they had taken to spending time together. By the time Mom was gone a year, they were officially dating. She accepted a ring from him in time for the holidays. 

In January, my sister went to the hospital again for an emergency c-section. Again, she gave birth to a beautiful and imperfect child. Again, she lost her baby after about 40 hours of precious life. We went back to the same tree-shaded aisle at our hometown cemetery and buried that beautiful baby girl between her brother and grandmother.

Dad and my godmother decided that life was too short, and began planning for a summer wedding.

Age 34: Another beautiful niece born – healthy – to the family. Dad and my godmother became Dad and Aunt Mom. They’re a beautiful, vital couple and I can’t imagine a happier solution to the previous years’ grief. They built a new house together with a huge, furnished basement designed specifically to host massive family gatherings.

Life is starting, at this point, to settle into blessed normality. We’ve worked our way through painful milestones and seem to be building quiet, happy lives as one big family in a small town.

I could take the time now to reflect on how hard it’s been to rebuild the communication network in our family with Mom gone. Or revel in the strength of the women in my family. Or I could share how living through all this has made me a much calmer and more capable person to have around in a crisis – if only because, if it’s not life-or-death, it just ain’t worth the drama. Or tell you about how when I call my nieces and nephews beautiful, I’m not kidding … we grow some of the world’s cutest children in my family.

But, I will beg your forgiveness if I just can’t write any more. I’ve had a nice, healthy cry putting all this down in words, but it’s worth it. These events have shaped who I am and it was past time to share the backstory of the first part of my thirties.

This is Shelley, 35, and drying my eyes in Iowa.

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