I flew to Des Moines a little more than a week later and stayed from September 10 to 13. Before I left to go home, I asked my former editor one last time what she wanted from this story she’d asked me to write about her. She paused and delivered that familiar stare before answering.
“I want Colin to know just how much I love him,” she said. “The sad thing is, he doesn’t remember what I was like before I got sick. I want him to know that I wasn’t just his mom. I want him to know I did other things too.”
I pulled the door to room 351 shut and went up the elevator and into a skywalk that led to a parking garage. I stopped and cried, knowing she might not make this walk out of the hospital herself, knowing that the more connections we make the more skywalks we’ll have, knowing the assignment she’d given me, and having no idea what to do with all that.
This is what I came up with.
You may not remember me, but we met in September when your mom was in the hospital. I came to your house in Iowa. You didn’t say hello, but that’s OK. I know you had a lot on your mind. It was the first Sunday of the NFL season, after all. I’m sorry Odell Beckham didn’t score any touchdowns that afternoon. One or two more and you’d have won your fantasy football game against your mom. But think of it this way: You gave her a little win when she really needed one. You’ve always had a way of doing that.
She was 10 miles away that day, in room 351 of the hospital downtown. I’d say she was “fighting cancer,” but she doesn’t like to phrase it that way. Cancer doesn’t fight fair.
I watched you agonize over that football game, saw how much it hurt you when things didn’t work out. Here’s a little secret a lot of people won’t tell you, Colin: It’s OK to feel pain. It is. You’ll meet people along the way who try to silence your aches, but it’s only out of fear of their own.
Your mom was a kid once, believe it or not. Your grandfather worked for an oil company and the job moved them all over the world, from New York to Saudi Arabia to Illinois to Virginia. You’ve always had one home, the blue one with the big field and hummingbird feeders, where your mom and dad built a life for you and your dog, Daisy.
Your dad’s a great man too, Colin. You remind me of him. He’s one of those guys who can’t sleep on nights the Cubs or the Packers lose a big game, and he knows every word to every Beatles song ever made. He showed your mom what love was after she married another man who turned out to be wrong for her.
While I was watching you and your dad in your living room that day, the wind blew in from across the field and I thought about the ribbon of life that led us all here. To you, she’s mom. To your dad, she’s his spouse and your mom. To me, she was a mentor. But she was many other things to many other people.
When she was a girl living in Saudi Arabia, your grandfather took the family to Kenya on a safari, and they came upon a local market. Your mom picked out a purse and asked her dad for money. He gave her 20 shillings and advice on bartering. “It’s what you’re supposed to do,” he told her. She asked the vendor if she could have the purse for 10 shillings. He’d priced it at 20, but he said yes. She ran back to the car crying.
“Dad,” she said, “I think I cheated that man, and I’m worried that he doesn’t have any money.”
Your mom never cheated anyone, Colin. In fact, the rest of us always got the better end of the deal.
Another time when she was a little girl in Buffalo, your grandfather lost her at the county fair. He reported her to lost and found. You know where they found her? She was in the bookmobile the library had set up on the fairgrounds. That’s right: When a kid goes to the fair and doesn’t smear cotton candy all over her face or shoot water guns at clowns’ mouths or spin on the Tilt-a-Whirl, we all assume she’s lost. But she’s not. Your mom was right where she wanted to be.
She was reading, like usual. She sat on your great-grandfather’s lap when she was 4 or 5 and read the Sunday comics to him, word for word. She read full books to her cat, Muffin. She was the first person to grab the afternoon paper from the mailbox, and she’d read the headlines, mostly about Jimmy Carter back then. The day she went to college at Mary Washington, she hugged her roommate and cried. Not tears of pain. Tears of joy. After all those moves, after navigating childhood as a bookworm in a cotton-candy world, your mom finally found a place where all she had to do was learn.