October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and in honor of that I would like to tell you about my Mom, Susie Farmer, who died of breast cancer in 2001.
My Mom was born on September 23, 1942. She was a war baby, the first child in her generation. My Granddad was fighting in the Pacific, working as a SeaBee. I’m not just saying this, but from the moment she was born, everyone in the family knew she was special. She was the first one all of her servicemen uncles wanted to see when they came home on leave. Even after the war, as more siblings and cousins were born, everyone agreed that there was just something special, angelic even, about my Mom.
She grew up in a typical 1950s environment. She was known for her smile and her sweetness throughout childhood. In high school she was the captain of the cheerleaders and had a lead role in the musical production of H.M.S. Pinafore. Whenever I see her old classmates they tell me that they have such wonderful, fond memories of her. She was popular amongst her peers and amongst her cousins. Her cousins (people I think of “aunt” Nina and “aunt” Terry and the like even though technically they’re my first cousins once removed?) tell me they looked up to her and everyone wanted to be like her. I particularly remember my Aunt Martha (Mom’s sister) telling stories about my Mom’s paper doll collection. She was very precise about how she kept her paper dolls and cut their outfits out perfectly. Martha says she was always reckless and would cut the tabs off of the dresses, but my Mom would come in and make new tabs for her and repair the broken ones.
Mom went to college at Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania. She studied to be a secretary. The big thing I remember her telling me about her college experience was that she was on the synchronized swimming team. I always thought that was super cool. I’m a little fuzzy about what she did straight out of college, but eventually she ended up moving to Atlanta, where several of her cousins were, and getting a job at Rom & Haas Chemical Company.
She met my dad in Atlanta. I have yet to decide if this was a good thing. They worked in the same building. Actually, the story of how they met is pretty awesome. There was a small diner across the street from that building that was often very crowded. As my dad tells the story, he had noticed my Mom before and was happy one busy, crowded day to get a seat next to her at the counter. Mom was eating tomato soup and somehow dropped her spoon on the bowl, spilling it all down her front. Dad turned to her and said, “Looks like someone needs to take you out and teach you how to eat. How about me? How about Friday night?” And she said no. But he kept asking her until she said yes. Their first date was in a revolving restaurant in downtown Atlanta.
Mom was 30 at the time and apparently concerned that she was older than my dad. As things got serious she decided she needed to share her “secret”. They had a heart to heart … which actually started with Dad saying “Susie, there’s something I need to tell you.” She apparently answered, “There’s something I need to tell you too.” As Dad tells it he paused and said, “Okay, you go first.” She got very nervous and said, “I’m older than you.” Dad blinked, grinned, and revealed, “I have two small sons from a previous marriage.” Yeah, he’d forgotten to mention that little detail. Dad says she got up and walked away around a corner. He thought he was never going to see her again. But then she came back and told him, “I always knew I was born to be a mother, and if that happens sooner than I planned it to, then that’s okay with me.”
My Mom and dad were married the next Spring. My two older half-brothers, K.C. and Kelly, were part of the wedding. Their mom was, um, let’s just say “not in the picture”, so my Mom became their mom. To this day they have a deep, lasting affection for her in their hearts and I think when they think the word “Mom” it’s my mom that they see. I was born not that long after, in July of 1974. My brother Stewart was born in August of 1977. Mom was very possible the best mother to small children in the history of the world.
After marrying my Mom my dad went back to college. As I understand it, my Granddad (Mom’s dad) paid for it. As my dad tells the story, he felt like Granddad was demanding too much of him and he didn’t want to be who my Granddad wanted him to be. Also, he felt like he didn’t have the emotional connection with Mom that he wanted to. Did that constitute an excuse for him to cheat on Mom? I don’t think so. But he did. After he graduated from college and joined the Air Force we moved to Minot, ND … so that he could be closer to his girlfriend who was transferred there. Yeah. My earliest childhood memories are of flat prairie and tornados.
Mom didn’t know he was having an affair. She didn’t suspect a thing when she took us, all four of us kids, on vacation to her home near Philadelphia. My most vivid childhood memory is the phone call she had when my dad told her not to come home, he was having an affair and he wanted a divorce. Complete chaos. We never went home from that vacation.
My parents divorced in 1981. In February of 1982 my Granddad died suddenly of a heart-attack. In 1983 my dad remarried the woman he was having an affair with and asked for his children back. Just K.C. and Kelly, not me and Stewart. I honestly think that it broke Mom in a way she never recovered from. So all of a sudden it was just me, Mom, and Stewart.
And actually, we had a wonderful time with each other. We had no money and ended up moving in with my widowed Grandmother. Mom got a job as the secretary of the elementary school that Stewart and I went to, so we had the same daily schedule, the same holiday schedule, and lots of time in the summer to hang out with each other. She would play legos with us all the time. We ate dinner at the table, talked to each other, and played 20 Questions. We would rent a house in Cape May for a week in the summer and sit around reading books. Mom loved Anne of Green Gables.
It was more difficult for Mom to identify with Stewart and I as we got older and were no longer children. We also suffered some serious scars from the divorce (scars which each of us are still dealing with today). I don’t think she quite knew what to do with adult children. But just about the time she could have figured it out she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, but Mom faced it with her usual dignified, quiet grace. She fought it once, was horribly sick, lost all of her hair, and had to have the lymph nodes near her arm removed, so her left arm was always badly swollen. She went into remission … for four and a half years. When the cancer came back the second time it had metastasized. There was nothing they could do. We were told that was it just before Christmas 2000. I have always hated Christmas ever since then.
Mom died on April 3, 2001. I was in grad school for Theatre at the time, performing in the musical “Children of Eden”. During rehearsals she kept telling me she wanted to try to see it. She was always so proud of the things my brother and I did, theater, singing, sports, writing, and wanted to support us at them no matter what. She passed away in the middle of the run. I was with her. We knew the end was near so I skipped classes for three days to sit in her room with her. She died quietly while I was having a conversation with my aunt Martha and a friend of the family. I think it was a relief for all of us that she could finally be at peace. That night I was on stage singing and dancing.
Mom was a quilter. She made the most beautiful quilts you could imagine. She loved bright colors, teal, purple, lavender, and blue. She was so precise in the way she sewed. I remember her saying that she got so much satisfaction in making the points meet up perfectly in her quilt squares. Her stitching was tiny and precise. A lot of people swore her quilts were machine quilted, her craftsmanship was that good. She worked on a quilt up until the last few days of her life. And somehow she managed to finish it too. It was a gift for my brother K.C.’s daughter, Natalie. K.C. and his wife made a special visit weeks after Natalie was born to bring her to Mom. The last picture ever taken of Mom is with her holding brand new Natalie. My sister-in-law swears that Mom is Natalie’s guardian angel and that when she was very young Natalie would talk to “her friend Susie” when she was in a room playing by herself.
My Mom also loved opera. I saved up one year to buy her a ticket to the Met for Christmas. Possibly the best gift idea I ever had. My strongest memories of her are of her listening to the opera on a Sunday afternoon while sewing, the sounds of the radio, her sewing machine, and the unique sounds of her scissors mingling. I miss her so much, but her presence is still with me and always will be. I don’t have a lot of pictures of her either. She was very shy and hated having them taken. But she was beautiful. People say I look like her, and I do more and more as I get older. That’s the greatest compliment of all.
Mom knew there was something wrong with her breast for a year and a half before she went to the doctor to have it checked out. If she had gone much earlier, when she first noticed the problem, she might still be here today. So please, if you notice anything at all out of the ordinary, have it checked out immediately. Breast cancer is a long and painful way to go. I wish Mom could have been spared, but if she couldn’t be, then I hope there are many others out there who can be.