Friday, July 2, 2010

the cooling breeze of relief

Dad bought a new car nearly every year.  I don't think my mother ever really cared--she never got very excited about them, she just appreciated a trustworthy vehicle to get her from point A to point B.

Until the year the Chrysler PT Cruiser came out.

She admired that car and would remark on it when she saw one on the road.  For the first time, I saw her excited about a new car when the PT Cruiser was delivered and sitting in the driveway at Cleveland Place:  Silver metallic pearl coat, retro-style-- featuring a retractable moon roof, power windows, all the bells and whistles including cruise control.

Dad bought it for her.  It's the first car in all their years that she ever really requested or that I remember she ever showed an interest.  She said it reminded her of her childhood.  She didn't drive it often, and she rarely drove when the two of them went anywhere, together.  She frequently let me drive it when we went somewhere together--a nice new, tight, efficient and compact vehicle.  The ideal automobile for pleasant day drives and comfort while running errands. 

There was a time, shortly before my mother died, that she was feeling rather puny, and one complaint evolved into several, and eventually she ended up with a case of pneumonia and bronchitis--a serious concern for a lung-cancer survivor-- that ultimately required some chest x-rays and a cat scan to rule out anything more complicated.

Understandably, for Pat, this conjured up wicked memories of the horrific time twenty years earlier when she'd successfully battled a malignant case of what was thought to be incurable lung cancer, and she doubted she could face another round either physically or emotionally at that point in her life.

So, I visited and became her morale officer while she underwent these tests and we waited several anxious days for the results.  We played Scrabble (tm), ironed placemats, competed at Triple Yahtzee (tm), washed and waxed the kitchen floor, and busied ourselves with otherwise mundane and distracting household chores while she pretended not to fret.

To get to one of these tests, Dad put us all in her PT cruiser and drove the scenic, country, remote Albert County roads by-passing the usual route to get to the city and hospital.  We wended our way along The Chocolate River at Hopewell Cape, cruised through The Albert Mines Road, passed through Hillsborough following the old train rails along back roads, and solemnly watched the scenery pass by our windows on an otherwise cheerfully sunny and crisp fall day.  We arrived at hospital in time for Pat's appointments.  She was being quietly cheerful and brave, but you could see the concern and the dread of anticipation for both the procedure and feared results.

When she was all done, we made the return trip home while Dad drove in silence.  He's not a fellow who communicates his worries, concerns, fears, or emotions.  Not unless it's anger--the one outward emotion he easily expresses.  His concerns were heavy.

Although there was some relief after the procedures were done; a first hurdle overcome, but what remained was the dread--the 'what if....' so there was still no light-hearted banter in the car on the trip home.  There was little conversation.  It was clear they were both tossing worries about in their own thoughts as the car and its quiet occupants meandered along.

Coming back home through some of the less frequently traveled by-ways revealed some spotty road surfaces which I especially noticed as the passenger in the rear seat behind my mother sitting in the front.

Sitting cross legged, and leaning slightly forward to hear any sparks of conversation my free leg would jostle and bounce with every frost heave, bump, pothole, and rough patch in the road, and I frequently had to re-adjust my position re-crossing my legs.

Meanwhile, though it was a nice sunny day, it was a cool day.  My window was continuously lowering and raising every few moments.  Down the window would silently lower just an inch or two, then up again to be closed.  Seconds later the window was sent wide open, and a gust of  late afternoon chill would blast in.  Then just as quickly the window would return to the half-way point and remain until it was raised a few more inches, then a few more until it was closed, and then almost immediately sent back down again in increments of no particular preference.

This continued for several long miles, with such repetition and so erratically that I surmised that Dad must be doing it to be silly, not to actually adjust the comfort level in the car.  After all, my mother--in all her wool and tweed--would be the LAST person he'd consider would need an occasional cool blast of air.  Up, down, half-way up again, down a little, one inch, two inches, stop, back up again, closed fully, open entirely, down again for an inch, another inch, another inch, back up again....

Silly, Dad--sweet silly Dad, trying to get a reaction--create a distraction; anything to stop thinking the worst---mum's head was bowed, no doubt, she was deep in thought.

Then the car suddenly slowed, Dad downshifted, slowed more.  Pat's head perked up--something in the road?  My window was now descending to its fully lowered position as I strained leaning further forward to see what caused Dad's change in course.

He stopped turned and looked straight at me and said, "You know that you're doing that, don't you?"

"Doing WHAT?" I asked, afraid of the answer--afraid that since I knew wasn't being sparkly, cheerful, and offering a ray of sunshine for this cloud of doom that was above all our heads--and was especially black over my mother's, I was going to be blamed for the somber and heavy atmosphere in the car.  What good am I  if I don't lighten the mood and offer positive quips and remarks?  He's right: I was a failure in my duties as Head of Optimism.

He then pointed to the console between the two bucket seats where the rear-seated passenger can control their own window by the small electric power switch.

Apparently, with each bump and jostle, my foot was hitting the switch and activating the window.  He wasn't doing it at all; I was-and I was completely unaware.

My mother quietly said, "Stupid.".

I laughed.  I laughed loud and hard. I laughed louder and harder.   Here I'd been sitting-- my hair blown into a Flock of Seagulls hairstyle, my hearing distorted, I was alternately uncomfortably cold with blasting wind with the wide open window and then annoyed by the baffled noise of the nearly closed window, and for all those passing miles, I'd been the unknowing operator.

It caught on.  Dad laughed, Mum laughed, we laughed together, we laughed long and loud.  Dad started up again, and on we went.  It was a small distraction, but it worked.  Frivolity crept back into our lives for a few moments, there, and it felt good.  That doom cloud was temporarily lifted.

Back home, after a stressful week of waiting, the call came.  Mum took it in the office.  Dad and I sat at the dinner table.  Silent.

We heard a quiet "Thank you, Doctor." and she emerged.  Tears in her eyes.  We didn't ask.

She came back into the dining room and she tearfully said with quiet relief, "He said I'm going to be fine; there's nothing in my brain, and the shadow on the chest x-ray was just my nipple."

That was the first time in my life I ever heard my mother use the word nipple.  I snickered.


  1. Love the title! You write so well. I always enjoy your stories and think about them for days after reading them. Thank you for sharing your memories!