Just a couple of months after our first miscarriage, we had a second. And just a couple of weeks after that, in June of 2005, we had a call. Since my epiphany and the release of so much anger, my main method for dealing with grief was to throw myself into the renovation of our new, old house. So I was busy spreading a second coat of Celery Seed on the living room walls and had to scramble down my Little Giant painting ladder to pick up the phone.
It was Mom. From Minnesota.
“Hi, Kel,” she said. “There’s no easy way to tell you this, so I’m just going to blurt it out. I have cancer.” I collapsed onto the tarp-covered couch.
Rectal cancer. Stage three. My grandpa, her father, had died of this when I was one.
As I stared at the freshly-painted walls of This Old McHenry House, that we had just purchased together, she added, “I don’t know how this will affect our move to Illinois.” She was surprisingly calm.
Then, a couple of days later, she called again. This time in tears. “I can’t do this alone,” she sobbed. “You have to come and help.”
So I did. I dropped my paintbrush and drove to Minnesota the very next day.
I spent the rest of that summer in Mom and Dad’s apartment. Driving Mom to chemo and radiation. Consulting doctors, who—thankfully—recommended that they still move to Illinois. Distracting myself and Mom from the cancer with talk of the big move—paint colors and window treatments and bathroom tiles and such. Cleaning out closets and packing boxes. Sorting through old family photos and report cards and crayon drawings. Saving almost every bit of proof that I had once been a child and carefree. Tossing and turning on the futon in the spare room each night. Dreaming over and over that I was riding in the passenger seat of a vehicle that was careening out of control. Speeding. Swerving. Heading straight off a cliff. Waking each time and catching my breath. Then closing the door and calling Peter in a panic. Telling him, “I don’t think I can do this.” Sobbing with fear. And guilt. Letting Peter reassure me that this was the right thing. That it was normal to be afraid. That he would be there to help. And that God would give us strength.
My dad also did his best to be a source of support that summer. Once a week he put the laundry basket on his walker and pushed it down the long apartment building hallway, dropped the clothes into the machine, and sprinkled a scoop of detergent all over the place. He only had to shuffle back to the apartment and ask for my help when it was time to slip the quarters into the tiny slots. When he wasn’t doing laundry, he escaped into his Quicken finances on the computer, poking at numbers on the keyboard with his knotted fingers. He couldn’t talk about cancer or the move. He avoided eye contact and just nodded when we had to bring up either topic. But he eventually started sorting through file after file and drawer after drawer of old bills and cancelled checks. He even threw a few away. His way of preparing for all of the change.
And then, finally, in August we did it. We moved in Mom and Dad.
In the months since we had purchased This Old McHenry House, we had all become fans of her Craftsman style. Mom and I had done some research on the Arts and Crafts movement. We purchased some coffee table books filled with other beautiful Craftsman homes. Poured over paint swatches of authentic Craftsman colors. And set our sights on some Craftsman furniture that might replace our more Victorian-looking things when the budget would allow.
Truthfully, we had fallen in love with TOMH. With her rows of large windows, her built-in bookcases and china cabinets and breakfast nook. Her fireplace and leaded glass and woodwork and three sunny porches. Her lines—simple and clean and straight. Everything life was not.
She was in decent shape too. TOMH. But she did need some tender loving care. Both bathrooms needed a complete overhaul. Some old pine paneling needed painting at the least. Her exterior was dingy and cracked. But I was determined to do right by her. To bring her back to her former glory. To make her young again. To do for her what I could not do for my mom.
For three years, we lived with Mom and Dad.
For three years, we shared TOMH and This Odd Life. For three years, we figured it out—day by day—and leaning hard into grace, we experienced many moments that I will never forget.
Moments of frustration, for sure. Like the evening when Mom and I were washing dishes. And I could tell she was angry. And I pressed her to say why. And she voiced her resentment of my busy life. Said she wanted to see me more. And I threw a spoon in the sink and said, “I’m sorry I’m never good enough. I am trying.” And I left the room.
Moments of bitter irony. Like the evening when Peter and I held hands and walked with fortitude into the baby section of Target. And we bought a baby monitor so we could keep an ear on Mom and Dad at night. So they could call for help if they needed. And I said to Peter, “These are not the conditions under which I had hoped to buy one of these.”And our laughter was wry.
Moments of panic. Like the night when Mom called up the stairs and said, “Peter, help! Jack fell!” And we could see by the glazed look in Dad’s eyes that it was bad. And the EMT confirmed that he thought Dad had broken his hip. And we followed the ambulance to the hospital. And we suddenly had more hard decisions to make. And Dad would never return home to stay.
But there were moments, too, when the light broke through…
Moments of bonding. Like the many evenings when we would clear the dinner dishes and pull out the dominoes for a game of Mexican Train. And Dad would smirk and taunt and call, “Cheater Peter.” And we would laugh. And Dad would keep careful score and record it on a spreadsheet on his computer. Poking the numbers on the keyboard with his ever-more-knotted fingers.
Moments of joy. Like the many Sunday afternoons when we would load up the big old mobility van with Dad’s Hoveround and Mom’s wheelchair. And we would go to the forest preserve. And Peter would push Mom. And I would chase down Dad, who would get going faster than he ought. Who couldn’t stop himself and couldn’t steer well. Who would veer off the path and drive headlong toward the bog until I could catch him and pull his hand from the joystick and drive him back to the path.
Moments of acceptance. Like the evening when Peter and I held hands and walked with fortitude into the baby section of Target. And we bought a baby monitor so we could keep an ear on Mom and Dad. And it felt oh-so ironic. But it also felt oh-so right. And we knew. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. That this was what God had for us. We were smack dab in the center of His will. As hard as it was. And we also knew. That we wouldn’t have had it any other way. That this was a time we would never regret. A time to honor two brave souls. A time to cherish them. And care for them as best we could.
Moments of healing. Like the day when we all piled into Mom’s big Buick. And Peter drove. And Dad sat beside him in the front. And Mom and I lounged in the back. And we took a drive. To nowhere in particular. And by some strange impulse, I leaned way over and laid my head in Mom’s lap. And she rested her frail fingers on my face and gently brushed the hair away from my eyes. And when she did this, she touched some place deep in my soul. The part of me that needed her. The part of me that needed a mom. The power of that longing startled me. And I sat up quick. Looked out the window and blinked back tears. But then she reached over and grabbed my hand. And even though it hurt. I let her hold it for a while.