How to Survive Cancer

I know I’m supposed to be taking a break but I’ve been spending so much time with my mama I wanted to share this for Mother’s Day.

We didn’t always get along. We are very different. We are very much the same. She is stoic and strong and has a deep relationship with God and the feminine. We’ve nicknamed her BQE (Buddhist Quaker Episcopal, and also the interstate next to my old apartment in Brooklyn). She is fierce.

I am stoic and strong but also very sensitive, crying over the symmetry of a ladybug. I am her “agnostic Episcopal,” as she says. I believe in people and I believe in nature. In college I called it newtranscendentalism. I just want life to feel real.

Here’s the thing, though. I chose this woman as my mama. I chose her because she gave me some of my most powerful gifts. She taught me a sense of justice and wonder, she alwaysalwaysalways stood up for civil rights and female rights and the rights of those less fortunate in our very small, sad town of Flippen, GA. She showed me service, and how to care about our elders. She played the guitar and embarrassed me to no end by showing up at school with songs. While everyone was listening to Def Leppard and Sir Mix A Lot she somehow got us to care about peace songs. In fact, she wrote a recycling song that caught on, perhaps even inspiring a tiny recycling movement. She allowed me to pretend I was Huckleberry Finn for an entire week once, and another summer I was an old lady named Barbara from New York with my cousin Katie. She gave me a deep, deep love for music and creativity. She especially passed on her passion and love for reading. She showed me to get lost in a book, which is still my worst addiction.

Alas, she doesn’t/didn’t do all mothering things I wanted her to. Is this because of the archetype of Mother, the American housewife who dotes on her kids and vacuums in heels? My mama was the opposite of a nuclear mother. For one, she’s a horrific cook (my first birthday cake was a raisin and carrot brick; her biscuits could kill a man as a stone to the head would), she’s not into “girlie” things like shopping or housekeeping or makeup, she never let me get a perm, she didn’t dye her hair when it started turning grey (this was the 80's, folks, it wasn’t okay), she didn’t care about clothes or painted fingernails or cool shoes, she didn’t gossip or talk about her girlfriends behind their backs, or give a shit about what the neighbors thought.

She did so many things right. She never, ever shamed me about my body. She encouraged my intelligence and sense of wonder. She accidentally taught me how to smoke when she caught me, around age 14, and laughed because I wasn’t doing it right. I was prepared to be grounded for a month. “You don’t even know how to inhale,” she said. “What’s that?” I asked, and she bent over laughing at the bottom of the stairs. “It’s like breathing it in.” So I tried that later and it made me so sick I think she knew what she was doing, that she knew it would happen.

We joined Amnesty International together when I was in 5th grade, but I only remember writing one letter. My guess is she wrote a gazillion. We listened to U2's “The Joshua Tree” on repeat in the cassette deck. It was okay to love them, even though they’d reached a secular audience. They were still Christians, right?

From my mama I know how to identify edible plants in a garden, and because of her I also know to plant flowers in the garden, too, because it makes it all the more beautiful. No, she didn’t let us have sugar. But this helped me learn how to steal pies at church potlucks and eat them in hidden locations. And, yes, she had her weird non-secular Christian music phase until I was about 11. Evie, anyone? Keith Green? That was interesting.

When a radio was installed on our school bus she fought it due to the advertising we would have no choice in hearing (My guess is that this also had to do with secular music problem). But the first time I cried to a song was on that bus, when George Michael’s “Father Figure” came on overhead and put his tiny hand in mine. My preacher teacher.

Because we had very little money and she was raising 4 kids and my dad was always at work, she was not the least bit excited by most of the latest technologies and gadgets. We were the last to get a Nintendo. I never had an Atari or a Teddy Ruxpin or one of those tiny, dumb pink ovens or Snoopy slushie machines. She was not into material things but we did manage to have a tv. We were allowed to watch the Cosby Show if we read for an hour. She basically just wanted us to read all the time.

Once, late at night while watching SNL together when I was in high school, Pearl Jam performed and Eddie Vedder had a clothes hanger drawn on his tshirt. I asked her what that meant and she explained to me about the dangers of abortion being outlawed, and how women who knew they couldn’t support a child would go to the extreme of using a coat hanger, even though at the time she was not pro-choice. I soon became the president of Southern Students for Choice.

We’ve always talked a lot about current events. I was never allowed to tell anyone at school who she voted for, lest I be metaphorically burnt at the stake. Her father lived in Nicaragua and she was glued to the television set during the trial of Oliver North, explaining everything to me, even though I still don’t really understand.

My mama taught me how to make tea in the sun, utilizing natural energy. She showed me that making waste is a waste. She made me let all of the fireflies and caterpillars and crawdaddies go. She showed me how to burn my name in wood with a magnifying glass. She had many epistolary relationships and therefore so did I. I read all of her books. Her cooking improved.

My mama had a mama that was fearful and mean, and my mama never was. No, she didn’t know how to talk to me about a lot of things that I really wanted her to. And she was really busy serving others and I often resented that. She thought I was on drugs and I never was. Pre-marital sex and Jane’s Addiction was as bad as I got. Yes, I pushed every button and I know I baffled her. I know l still do.

But I picked her. And from her I learned that I can have many mothers, many women in my life. But my pull up every goddamn bootstraps parts? My stubborn I’m-gonna-do-it-and-you-can’t-stop-me parts? My kindness parts? My brave parts? My strongest parts and my fighter parts? They’re from her.

I wish she didn’t have really bad cancer. I wish she would live forever. But she handles her cancer, like everything else, with strength and humor and spirit.

And I love her so much for it.

Hope Hilton·
6 min
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3 cards

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