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Relationships

The Last Pictures of my Mother

By Anne & Jen Ryan

It’s been 20 years since I graduated from high school and that big milestone, two decades of memories having been made since that day, my reunion is fast approaching. With this thought in my mind, I call my mom and speak of the reasons I wish to attend and the large amounts of why nots to make an appearance. A list wasn’t made on the pros and cons exactly, but the inner dialogue that had been just for me, I spill into the phone. My mother, always a sounding bored, listens intently and, once I finish, a brief pause before her voice speaks, “It’s been 50 years. My mom died 50 years ago.” 

And, she speaks of Phyllis, my grandmother.

This year marks 50 years since several watershed moments in my life. In 1969, I graduated from high school, my sister Linda got married, American astronauts landed on the moon and my mother died. It seems impossible that so much time has passed and when I think about it, I am amazed and sometimes appalled by what has transpired during that period of time.

When I graduated from high school on June 20th, we were a class of 159 students.  That evening, my mother was not feeling well so she was not able to attend. I felt kind of bad about that but understood since I knew that my mother had breast cancer and a mastectomy related to that.  It was not surprising that she was not feeling up to sitting through a three hour graduation exercise.

As far as college, I was still considering going to the University of Tennessee for pre-med. My parents did not seem to think that was a good idea and that I should go to Auburn Community College for the first two years.  Since I was a little afraid of leaving home, I decided to just stay in town.

My sister was married on June 28 and my mother was able to be there.  The last pictures of my mother were taken at my sister’s wedding. Looking at them now, I realize how incredibly thin she had become.  At that time, no one knew that she would only live another 76 days! Even now as I write this, it seems bizarre that we had no idea what was going on. As I think about that event, I realize that it had to be very difficult for my mother to attend Linda’s wedding. 

During July, my mother and I were visiting my sister at her house.  I can see my mother sitting at Linda’s dining room table. She was coughing and I said, “Don’t worry mom, that’s just the cancer creeping up on you.”  What an insensitive jerk, right! My mother had been a smoker so somehow that seemed like something that I should tell her. Although, we all knew that she had double radical mastectomies, as far as we knew, it was all removed.  Holy crap, how could I have been so insensitive? I had no clue how scared my mother had to have been. She knew the truth and what her prognosis could be.

On August 15th, my mother experienced what she called “a stitch” in her side.  I would guess it would feel like the discomfort you might get after running for some time.  She went to the doctor and he admitted her to the hospital for treatment. This was the beginning of the end as there were no effective treatments for metastatic breast cancer in 1969.  She told us that she was getting gold shots. I don’t know if it was actually gold or if they called it that because it cost a lot. My father was not forthcoming with us during this time. I remember asking him, “Is mom going to die?” His answer was “No, she is just very sick”. After 2 weeks, she stopped all of her treatments when she noted that her liver was involved. On September 13th, her fight was over.  We had spent the day at the hospital but had gone home around 6:00 for dinner. The hospital called a little after 7:00 p.m. that she had passed. Her lifelong best friend, Mary, was with her. We were not.

I spent the next two years living at home and taking care of the house while I went to community college. During this two-year period, I watched my father wallow in his depression over the loss of his wife. He managed to go to work every day but in the evening he would sit in his chair watching TV and drinking lots of wine.  His favorite shows included Marcus Welby, a medical drama starring Robert Young. The subject matter at times included dealing with a patient with cancer who would die at the end of the show. This would lead to my father leaving the room so that I could not see him crying.  

As I was living at home, it was expected that I would ask him permission to go out with friends. He had become much more accepting of me having a life which I didn’t understand until Aunt Mary (not really my aunt but my mother’s best friend) told me that my mother made him promise to allow me to make my own decisions and to not smother me.

50 years have come and gone more quickly than anyone could imagine. In two weeks, I am going back to Auburn for my reunion from high school. I’m sure we will tell each other, “you haven’t changed a bit,” while we secretly think about how old everyone looks. We’ll talk about our grandchildren and our pets. We will honor the people that we have lost and pray that we will not join them any time soon.  We will meet our classmates and their second and third spouses. We will marvel at the accomplishments of a few overachievers and shake our heads over the classmates that never left high school. We will then return to our lives and wonder if we will be around for the next reunion.

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by Jen Ryan Conley

As a life long journal writer and trauma survivor, I explore the world through the written word to share pieces of my heart, wide open.
With a professional career in customer experience, spanning the course of two decades, I've been granted opportunities to connect with thousands of humans across the globe. This has helped to serve me in inspiration towards seeking the lens from another's perspective.
Taking on the newest avenue of exploration, I'm collaborating with my Mother as we write stories of womanhood, both independent from one another and entwined.

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