Yes, Wendi with an i. My mother was so proud of me, so happy to have this blonde baby boy come into her life 22 years ago. She had been born prematurely; I’m sure she had her concerns when it came time to have her first child. For nearly eight years after marrying my father, inexplicable health concerns prevented her from being able to enter the parenthood she looked forward to.
Eight years before I was born, my mother suffered when she would eat a slice of cake at a party. Anything too sweet, too full of sugar, would leave her feeling nauseous and racked with stomach pains. Bread seemed to harm as well. For eight years, she saw specialist after specialist, all of whom were completely baffled by her symptoms. It was only after many years that one doctor finally considered diet to be the culprit. Yeast? Sugar? Perhaps a particular sensitivity and a compromised immune system paired to leave nearly the entire spectrum of food we all enjoy a dangerous cocktail for my mother. Rice cakes and almond butter, soy milk oatmeal — these became staples of my mother’s diet. Her symptoms abated. Baby was on the way.
Diet is important, oh so important. My mother understood this, because it represented the difference between a good day and one spent curled up in bed. While carrying me, she ate right. No wine, all the prenatal supplements, colorful spectrums of food. I’ve checked this with my father, curious to know the thoughtfulness that went into those nine months. “No, she never drank.” “Oh, yes, she took all the supplements she read about. She was very careful with you.”
When I was born, I was a toe head. “George, what is his hair like,” my Mother first called out. “Bright, orange hair! Lots of it!” “Really?” — my mother would not buy it. “No, jet black hair, like Elvis,” my father would try next. It turned out to be patchy tufts of thin blond hair on a mildly jaundiced, blue-eyed baby boy. My mother’s hair was light brown, and my father’s hair and beard were red until they turned gray in his late 20s. Both had bright, blue eyes.
My mother stayed at home to care for me, leaving her work in custom graphics and a small stationary supplies store her father owned in order to provide the bookends to my days in school. My father continued to work the night shift at ACME markets from when he was 16 until I was halfway through high school, and he was in his late fifties. My parents owned a few small properties and an apartment complex that they rented out. My father performed all of the labor himself, and my mother kept the books under control. Sometimes he drove the school bus for my district’s after school sports. He was also a volunteer firefighter, and between his inverted sleep schedule and the demands of unexpected fire calls, it is amazing that for so many years their system seemed to work. It was in middle school that I first started to find it interesting that as I would be coming up the stairs to go to bed, my father would be coming down to eat dinner in the kitchen before work. The lights would be left off because his eyes still needed a few more minutes to adjust in the 10 o’clock darkness. Sometimes I’d leave them on or unthinkingly flip the switch, only to hear him sigh and sit there squinting as he ate. His body, it would seem, would never adjust to the cycle. It was a tough one.
Through elementary school, I was an exceedingly sensitive kid. My parents pushed me to be a nice person and did everything they could to involve themselves with scouting. My father had been a Boy Scout himself, making it to the rank of Life before he turned 18. Back then, scouting was more adventurous, less safe, and generally harder, he would say. What scouting had become for the troops I was involved with was not the same hardy experience my father had. The experience to be had in surviving three days alone in the wilderness with a gallon jug of water was replaced with my father and I crafting the slickest Pinewood Derby car with his wood lathes in his well-equipped tool shop.
In Middle School, I started looking outward (not yet inward), towards my friends and their parents for models and guidance. My cohort was particularly gifted, and I internalized certain things I wish I hadn’t as a result of the ever present emphasis on achievement. My parents were older than my friends’ parents, and they didn’t seem to have the same background. Alex’s father is an engineer. Marisa’s are both doctors. Ian’s mom and Dad both went to the University of Pennsylvania. Justin’s father is the vice president of College Board. I pulled away from my parents, because I couldn’t understand the difference between my aspirations and theirs. I thought I was an apple that fell far from the tree.
Through all the outward signs of affection and pride my parents showed in my achievements, I knew they were worried that I was not going to maintain the values they surely had sworn they would instill in their child. Their struggle to balance my involvement in scouting against what I felt was more important — academic achievement and intelligence over Church and volunteerism — became greater as I got older. I was obsessed with, focused on, and concerned about what I would become, because it seemed my parents didn’t have the answers, and everyone else and their parents did. My parents loved me, but I grew annoyed that they didn’t seem to know how to form a relationship with the teenager their baby had become. The distance between their generation and mine seemed too great.
But all throughout, my parents — my mother, especially — were quick to put my interests above theirs and support my passions. For a long time, this took the form of my love for aviation, from model aviation to me eventual joining the Civil Air Patrol and completing a solo flight in a Cessna 172 when I was 17. It was around the time that I was literally beginning to take flight that my mother started getting sick. She had been feeling badly for nearly a year before my father would also find himself in the hospital, though only for a couple months, when I was a sophomore in high school.
My father developed a large cyst behind his intestines that laid him up in the hospital for nearly 70 days. Some dehydration and surgical complications landed him in the ICU at one point, which in turn lead to him receiving a pacemaker to regulate his heart rate that had become erratic. The cyst was possibly caused by carrying heavy boxes against his stomach for so many years at work. Some people’s intestines tend to rapidly form scar tissue, which complicates what would otherwise be a simple surgical procedure to remove the cyst. My father turned out to readily form scar tissue, and his hospital stay broke the momentum that had kept him working at ACME stocking boxes all these years. He was 58 years old, and my mother was 56.
My dad got back to work for a bit, but finally left ACME to keep maintaining the apartments. He recognized the need to listen to a body that was beginning to talk back. Six foot two with a heavy, Nordic frame, he had been weakened by the unexpected illness, which was frustrating to him considering the manual nature of his work.
When my mom got sick, she got sick slowly. One night, my parents called me down into the kitchen. Lying on the stove’s cold burners, under the fluorescent stove light, were CT scans of a person’s frame. The hazy gray outline of the body was bespeckled with bright areas over the breasts, the lungs, and extending a bit further down into the abdomen. She was sick, they both explained, and they wanted to wait until after certain tests had been performed to tell me this. I didn’t react — I acknowledged. I accepted the information and came to the conclusion, based on the way they were talking to me, that whatever great things I thought were going to happen to me, my mom would probably not see most of them.
But she wasn’t that bad yet, and I was thundering through high school, focused on growing myself, focused on keeping up with my gifted peers — actually, I was focused on trying to exceed them. I understood the situation, but I didn’t change course. People poured in, expressing condolences, asking how I was doing. This positive attention I did not like, because I felt what might be the last bit of time I had with my mother would coincide exactly with the phase before I left the nest, went to college, and did the sorts of things my parents had never done. There was no time for me to put my life on hold. I felt people’s feelings were natural, but that they did not help me, and certainly would not matter if I were to soon lose my mom. Would would matter were the ways I prepared for further study.
Was there a narrative developing surrounding the Mershon family and Wendi’s terminal cancer diagnosis, their only child just about to finish up with high school? Yes, there was, but I only paid attention to the parts that concerned me. I recognized this blind spot, or rather the blinders that I had put on, but I saw no other way. I’d say it was selfish, but I know that to be only partly true: this was a behavior I’d seen in peers my same age who lost a brother or a mother within a few years of what had happened to my own mother. There were more than a handful of these kids who did not cry, did not discuss. They seemed fine, and indeed continued to excel in high school or college. Perhaps they were selfish, or perhaps their lives had enough rigging to prevent them from needing to change course. Either way, I know I wasn’t unique in my numbness, but I also know it has cost me in terms of memories I wish I’d captured now that my mother’s life no longer moves alongside mine. I think that I, like my friends who had lost parents or siblings in this transitionary phase of life, knew they would be leaving the nest soon and somehow came to understand their loss as perfectly natural — certainly not expected, but not tragic, either.
My mother’s mother had passed away from breast cancer when I was in elementary school. Breast cancer. Brain cancer that would soon take my mother’s older sister, Jill. Now that my mother had fully metastasized breast cancer — her body lit up like a Christmas tree on the scans — I can only imagine what she thought about cancer. We never talked about her illness, about uncertainty — at least she never talked about it in a worried manner, as far as I can recall. I really can’t remember any conversations I might have had with my mother about her sickness during the last year and a half of her life. I don’t think it came up. How was she feeling? Was she scared? She seemed to focus only on seeing me become an Eagle Scout. It was a realistic goal.
When I’d come home from school, the chemotherapy having reduced my mother to a sufferer of flu-like symptoms for days on end, resting quietly on the couch in front of the T.V., I would hurry off to work on my studies. Or go to scouts, or get in the car and drive to the airport for Civil Air Patrol. My father learned to cook. No seasoning, bland, but healthy and wholesome. He made time to chauffeur me around, and began to learn to type. He’d never had to take care of the books before.
One calm Spring afternoon during my junior year of high school, my mom joined me as a drove my old Buick to the school yard so that I could fly my remote control planes while she watched. When I got back into the car, she was silent, and had a confused expression on her face when she looked at me. I asked her what was wrong, but received no reply, only more confusion, her looking around and back at me as if expecting me to say something. Concerned, I drove back home, asking her along the way if things were alright, if she could tell me what was wrong. Only confusion and her wondering gaze around the car and out the window and back at me again. I grab my father when we get to the house and quickly explain what has happened, snag a yogurt out of the fridge, and hurry back out to the car. We’re going to the hospital. We don’t try to transfer her to the minivan, so he hops in my old Buick and drives us to St. Mary’s, where I was born.
At the hospital, she becomes panicked, unable to understand why nurses are trying to pry her from the car to seat her in a wheelchair. She will not speak. She cannot speak. We learn that she is aphasic, her brain having swelled after the cancer reached her spinal fluid. The pressure is reduced, but this episode and the increasingly toxic drugs seem to have chipped away at my mother. This was for me a goodbye moment that others seemed to have ignored. “There’s always hope.” I didn’t hope, that was it.
Near the end of the year, when SATs and AP exams were on everyone’s mind, they were on my mind most of all. My mother had been moved to hospice and family members took time to visit often. It was incredible how many people’s lives had been touched by my mother’s. Sure the pastor came out to see her, but so did members of the fire company, and all of the parents in my scout troop, and friends of mine from school, and my teachers, and lots of other folks who my father would tell me were asking for me. “Mrs. Pearson was asking for you.”
I didn’t go to visit my mother in hospice care very often. Too busy with schoolwork, which I refused to put off. After all, it was mainly testing for college entrance that I was focused on, and I saw no pause button for the workings of college admissions. People seemed to understand, but worried about me. I didn’t think of what my mother felt, assuming it was just agony in protracted days: I reasoned that she wouldn’t want her situation to slow me down in any way. Honestly, I wasn’t comfortable being around her — how thoughtless to stop at my own discomfort. She wouldn’t dare hold me back, and I wish I had been mature enough to understand or had someone willing to explain that she wasn’t. My dad seemed okay to let me be.
One evening, my dad told me that there would be several members of the fire company coming to see my mother. She was doing very badly. I could not bear to see her in hospice. I actually discussed this with my dad. He understood: she was slurring, drooling, bloated, and often groaning in pain. She was often asleep, and that seemed the worst of it. She just wasn’t there anymore. The drugs that had been keeping the brain cancer at bay had been stopped.
This sucked. I’d had one conversation in what I believe was the hospital, before she was moved to hospice. She told me that she was proud of me, that she knew I’d go and do something exciting that she wouldn’t get to see. She only wanted to see me get my Eagle, and by God did she deserve that. I am ashamed to think about how hard she worked to support the troops she was involved in, despite the pushback on the part of the men who protested women’s involvement. Silly as it sounds, boy scouts is a fraternity, but without the women involved the organization would struggle to function! She really loved scouting. My mother camped and did what the men did along with the other few rogue moms who’d pack their tents and join the caravan into the woods. She did get to see me receive my Eagle award before the worst had come. But before I knew it, the opportunity for talking with her had passed, and what remained was only time to visit her, to be near her as she suffered. That last night, I sent my father to see her with my MP3 player, loaded with the song my mother had said was both her and her mother’s favorite song — Hallelujah. It was played at her mother’s funeral, and in thinking of it now, I am in tears. I stayed home that night because I did want to go to see her. I’d already felt we had said goodbye. When my father got home, he said that everyone had sung and been with her. She cried, and Hallelujah was played more than once.
The next morning, my father took me out early to Staples to grab some number 2 pencils for an AP exam I’d have in the afternoon. Later, when I got home, happy to have done well on my exam, my father told me that she had passed in the early hours of the morning. I was relieved, for the suffering had stopped. Two and a half years of pain. Now it was over. She had seen me become an Eagle Scout. Now it was up to my father and I to weather the storms to come as I geared up to go to college and grow in ways my mother would have given everything to see. There would be fear, frustration and anger to follow as things rearranged themselves, but both my dad and I have grown tremendously and continue to surprise one another.
My most important mentor in my life, Nikolay, a software engineer in his early fifties with a shared interest in model aviation, told me one day when I was riding in the car to the airfield with him that he’d be coming to the viewing. I was embarrassed and told him he didn’t have to come, but he was quick to stop me: “If I didn’t want to come, I wouldn’t have said so. Catia and I have always had a lot of respect for your mom: how well she did with you. We think a lot of your mother.” To hear this from someone for whom I had such respect shook me. I had thought so much of Nikolay and his career, the way he had raised his son and older daughter, his outlook on life, his wisdom, his intelligence. Him coming to the viewing meant more to me than any of the other expressions of sympathy made by visitors on the night of her viewing. Nikolay didn’t go to Church. He didn’t tie himself to social obligations if he didn’t have to. He mentioned in the car ride, “You know, since I came to the country, its only now that my wife and I have started to deal with family and friends passing.”
I wrote about my experience with my mother and aviation in my admissions essays for Duke. I explained how my happening upon a hands-on demonstration of the da Vinci surgical robot pushed me to apply to become a biomedical engineer. That formative experience only occurred because I was attending a support group meeting at St. Mary’s with my mother while a men’s prostate cancer group was touring through. I asked her if I could leave the group to follow the men. She said yes, of course, knowing my affinity for all things remote controlled. I got to use the two million dollar machine and seemed quite adroit as well, my young eyes and dexterity an advantage I carried over the other men. I’ve since fallen in love with other pursuits, but I will never stop romanticizing surgery, medicine, and the narratives that accompany time spent in the hospital. I feel uncomfortable in the hospital, but I am fascinated by it.
I wish I had been able to spend more time with her, but I know she understood. If I should find myself in a situation like hers— my control and dignity wrested away from me — I hope to be as graceful and unflinchingly brave as she was.