august 13th. happy birthday, mom. i miss you.
caren gail calder. this would be her 58th birthday. fifty effing eight. it’s crazy young. she passed away almost 6 years ago. her death still makes me mad. well, lots of emotions really, but mad is one of them.
i’m mad because she loved life more than anyone i’ve ever met. and that’s not an exaggeration. she deserved to be in this world for a whole lot longer. the funny thing is, she didn’t have an easy one. she had to be really independent at a young age, grew up fast. started having babies around 20. not much money at all. but we were happy little rugrats. she took in as many foster babies as she could. sometimes we had as many as 9 kids in our house at one time (including me and my siblings, there’s 4 of us). my brother phillip was born prematurely, deaf and has several disabilities. both physical and developmental. he had 14 surgeries by the time he was 14. that alone is more than most of us have to conquer. my mom and dad divorced just as i was going into middle school. she held things together as best she could. working several jobs to continue to put food on the table. and she went on food stamps when she couldn’t quite make it work. a bit embarrassed at the checkout when she had to hand them over, but man, she wasn’t too proud to feed her kids. she started her own construction company at some point in there and it was going so well. bought a new car even. that was a huge milestone for us.
when i was 16 (she was 37) she was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma. i’ll never forget that day, or many that followed. her cancer was so advanced (and diagnosed terminal) they wanted to do surgery immediately. they gave her three days to get her life in order. she had four kids. luckily my sister was 17, i was 16, phillip 15 and james 11. we weren’t babies, but it really feels like we were. her surgery was intense. as in her lungs had to be detached from the muscles and moved up so they could cut out a portion of her trachea, intense. on valentines day in 1996 it all changed. she had to start learning how to swallow again. she did the maximum amount of radiation over the next few months. she couldn’t live at home because we had stairs and she couldn’t go up them. she needed a pretty sterile environment because any sort of infection or virus could be life threatening. we didn’t get to see her much. we weren’t prepared for any of it. we were just floating through life trying to survive in this new version of reality. when we did see her she wasn’t herself. she was on so many medications and pain killers. she never remembered what she said, and would just talk nonsense. we pretended it was funny. but it was scary. i remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach. i didn’t know if it was ever going to be okay. but we hadn’t seen anyone go through this before, so we couldn’t really comprehend how bad it could get. maybe that saved us. we just went with all of it. went on with our lives.
eventually she got ‘better’ – still terminal (they gave her 5-7 years to live), but she healed. she moved to alaska for a bit. worked on an oyster farm for a season or two. then to florida. she didn’t love it there though. then back to portland. she had health issues along the way. either needing to get something removed, or doing a trial cancer treatment here and there. she fought for her own care. she was denied coverage at one point from the state of oregon, because the treatment she needed was in california. eventually she fought and won. some of the treatments she participated in seemed to do some good, others made her palms and soles of her feet peel off. sometimes she was on a feeding tube because she wasn’t able to eat enough to keep her body going. i look back and know she must have felt so alone. we were there to talk, but we all had our own lives we had gotten on with. i went to college, graduated and started working. other siblings did similar stuff. we didn’t really know how to help. but we honestly didn’t think she was going to die. i know that seems silly, because we all are at some unknown point. and she was terminally ill. but we didn’t think this cancer was going to bring her down.
until the day it did.
i’ll never forget the day. you see, though my mom was living with this cancer for 15 years, you could consider that long fight as her long death. but really, her passing was heart-stoppingly fast. i didn’t get to say goodbye. i thought she was in good hands with her doctors.
she got a tracheostomy because there was so much scar tissue in her trachea that it was obstructing airflow. it was the best option. the last text i received from her after the surgery was that she was feeling amazing. that she hadn’t had this much oxygen in a long time. that she couldn’t wait to go hiking with her grandkids. remy was almost one at this point, and my sister was pregnant with her first. this was the day before she died. she absolutely had the most optimism of any living person, ever.
the next day i was in a meeting at work in san francisco. with my boss and senior peers. i got a call from my uncle who lived in portland – my hometown. it’s a call that i actually imagined hundreds of times. with a mom who has been going through this for years, in and out of hospitals, you jump a little when any phone rings. but his voice. i’ll never forget it. he was devastated to be the one to tell me that the trach had ruptured her artery, and she was in the operating room. the doctors were doing all they could to save her life. she had been at my aunt and uncles house to recover. she started bleeding and he took her to the hospital as fast as he could. didn’t even have shoes on. i was a mess, sobbing at work, trying to get chris on the phone so he could meet me at home. we were on a flight to portland within a couple hours. chris, remy and i. i was numb. she passed away before i got there, but it was nice to walk into that waiting area of the hospital with most of my family there to hug me. i was in shock. how the hell had this just happened? after all the fighting, how did this just happen?
every year on her birthday i struggle with wanting to celebrate her and wanting to forget. i can’t even articulate it. i don’t want to forget her. she was unforgettable. but i hate feeling like this. when you’ve lost a parent, there are these days that are just huge gaps. this void that literally cannot be filled. it’s a battle you’re not going to win. you’re never going to feel good about it. it’s probably healthy birthdays come around so i can work through some of this. but for anyone out there that has experienced loss. i get you. i feel for you. i know it’s an uphill battle that sneaks up on you sometimes. and these birthdays and mother’s days and holidays, they can be extra rough.
she was our best friend growing up. she was a young mom, so that was natural for us. i adored her. she was crazy and didn’t care what anyone thought. she was so loving. she loved really big. all those foster kids. all her friends. i can’t tell you how many stayed with us on occasion because they were going through a tough time. she wasn’t going to let anyone fall. even if she was just treading water herself.
today remy asked if we could bake her a cake and have oysters. i cried a little. she would have loved this celebration. and i’m glad my kids are getting to know her a little through my stories.