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Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Primer


          i. Encomium

  August 30, 2002. I thought: Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

I was in a church for the first time in forever. The church where I served its first-ever mass as an altar boy. The church where I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The church where my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The church where my sister was married. The church where I almost got married.

My father said: Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy.

Question: How will I get through it?

How did you get through it, friends and family asked.

Answer: I don’t know.

It had been half a lifetime since I’d experienced this vantage point. Standing on the altar, looking down at a church filled with somber, expectant faces. All those years as an altar boy, hearing the words and receiving the ritual on its austere terms, the practiced movements and mannerisms that sought to convey the meaning—and purpose—of existence in sixty minutes or less. Carefully studying the priest who presided over the congregation, routinely looking up at those stained glass images that looked down at us, filling the room with an inexpressible piety and approbation.

Periodically I would be called on to serve a wedding and less frequently a funeral. Weddings were preferable for both obvious and selfish reasons: happy events, pretty women, and typically a few extra dollars for my time. The funerals were, in practically every sense, the opposite. I’d only been to one funeral before becoming an altar boy, and while I’d been old enough, at ten, to remember it, I mostly recalled how surreal it was to see my grandmother in an open casket, and the way my mother, her siblings, and their father wept; not being able to console them or fully grasp the depth of my own sorrow.

“Listen to the words,” my father had told me, sensing my ambivalence before I prepared, at age twelve, for my first funeral mass. “It’s actually a very beautiful service.” I listened to him, and I listened to the words. I listened to everything, then. The passages and prayers—some familiar, some not—were carefully chosen, and went a considerable way toward impressing upon my adolescent mind how communal, and inevitable, this rite of passage was for everyone who drew breath. Someday each of us will watch a loved one die, and eventually all of us will pass on from here to there. That’s where the meaning of the words—and whether or not you believed them—came into play. I believed the words; I believed everything, then.

She said: I’ll never leave you.

Neither of us realized, then, that in addition to comforting me—like she always did—she was also preparing me for this moment.

She knew what it was like to leave. How, she must have wondered, did I end up here? First in the dry expanse of Arizona, and later just outside the nation’s capital, while the rest of her family—brothers and sisters and all those nieces, nephews, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law—remained just outside Boston. All the questions she learned not to ask. Or, rather, she came to realize there are no good answers for. And more, if we’re lucky in life, we don’t need to ask after a while.

Looking out, all my familiar faces: my father, my sister, her husband, my nephew and niece, the two aunts—my mother’s sisters—who had been with us for those awful, awe-inspiring final two weeks, and behind them the confidantes, colleagues, childhood friends, grown-up acquaintances, friends’ parents, and all the less recognizable faces I hadn’t seen in so many years. This is the closest we come to witnessing our own funerals. The same people there to support us, smile and cry with us, becoming part of the moments that become memories; an event that connects us and brings us closer, no matter how far away or disparate our lives might otherwise be.

Looking out at my family and understanding that they helped shape me, that I wouldn’t change anything even if I could. We learn to put away childish things and earn the chances we’ve been given, the responsibility to carry on the work that has already been done on our behalves. Equal parts fate and good fortune, we look at those familiar faces and understand what they have done, and what we need to do.

I think: Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.


            ii. Q&A

Question: What would you do differently?

Answer: Nothing.

True answer: Everything.

Truest answer: I don’t know.


            If the death of a loved one provides the ultimate answer it also prompts all sorts of questions.

The universal ones, for starters: When will I die? How will I die? Why do we die? The personal ones: What will I remember? What might I regret? And ultimately the question that could define the rest of your life: What would I do differently?

            What would you do differently?

I’ve never asked my sister this question. She did everything she could, and in many ways she did more than any of us. She worked the Internet like it was a convention and introduced herself to every article she could find. She obsessively sought all the inside information she could uncover, even if so many short cuts to insight led to locked doors and dead-ends.

(Our mother had been left with the unyielding aftershock of sorrow. When her own mother died everything happened too quickly, without time to facilitate any sort of strategy. She and her six siblings hardly had time to react, much less regret what could have transpired; they never knew what hit them. The cancer that took their mother was like an anonymous assassin: before anyone could look for faces or fingerprints the crime scene was already in the past tense.)

            What could we have done differently?

We knew what we were up against, yet still had no idea how little we knew. “If this were ten years ago I would send you on your way,” the surgeon said after the first operation, in ’97. “But knowing what we know now, I’m recommending a round of chemotherapy. Let’s blast your system so the cancer doesn’t have a chance to come back.”

We wouldn’t worry about what we could have done (we thought). We did it.

The cancer came back, of course. A second, successful surgery in 2000 didn’t give us false hope and couldn’t lull us into a false sense of security. This time the surgeon advised radiation followed by chemotherapy, and we knew we were doing all we could do.

            Do you think it’s going to come back?

That was the question my sister asked me, in July 2001, just before my mother returned for her annual checkup. “No,” I told her, truthfully. “She looks good, she feels healthy, we did everything we could do.”

This is what I said to my sister, and to myself. They caught it before it spread—again—and then her system got the chemical scrub, again. What possible chance was there that it could find another foothold?

The cancer came back, of course. A third, not entirely successful surgery in 2001 left us no chance to kid ourselves. The prognosis was ugly but not impossible: she was still ready to fight and we would back her up as far down that road as we could go.

            Do you think it will ever go away?

That’s the question none of us ever asked. We knew it was in there and we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. But it could be stalled, it could shrink, it could, hopefully, be managed. There were clinical trials to consider, reasons to think positive thoughts, and always the chance that a miracle might occur.

Here’s the thing: what you don’t know will hurt you, whether it involves cancer or used cars. Here’s another thing: my sister learned more about cancer, symptoms, treatments, and clinical trials in a little over a year than most people could—or could want to—learn in a lifetime. One of my good friends is an oncologist, another has been a hospice nurse. We also lived in an era where the click of a mouse could uncover more detail than a thousand old medical journals. And still, looking back, it’s disconcerting how little we knew, how little we still know, how much more we could learn, and how awful it would be if we were ever obliged to do so.

So: we can’t change what we couldn’t do, or know, or ask, or say. And we collectively recognize, and accept, that all the information in the world may have done next to nothing to change what happened to my mother. We knew enough, and were fortunate enough, to sign her up for some experimental treatments after that third surgery in 2001. The fact that they ultimately proved unsuccessful (too little, too late?) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have explored those options; perhaps we could have explored other ones as well.

            What could you have done differently?

This is the question we were never able to ask the assorted surgeons, doctors, and administrators. And what would they say, if we had? What could they say?

            How much more time does she have?

This is the question we asked, as directly as possible, always leaving enough room—for the doctors, for ourselves—to avoid predictions that might be too true or come too soon. The surgeons told us, depending on the way you hear the words (especially in hindsight), as little as they could get away with, or as much as they dared, while steering us as far as possible from an answer we would figure out on our own, eventually.


       iii. Calculus

    My grief has made me, against all previous likelihood, into a half-assed mathematician. Numbers were never my bag, and I’ve got the report cards to prove it. And yet, ever since 2002, I find myself going over similar calculations, repeatedly.

There are the obvious, inevitable examples. For instance, on August 26, 2004: This is the second anniversary of her death; it is therefore seven years since her first operation. Then, with a combination of improvisation and OCD, other variations ensue: I was twenty-seven at that first operation; my nephew will be twenty-seven when I’m fifty-seven, which is two years younger than my mother was when she died. My mother’s funeral cost about (insert dollar amount here), which would buy (this many) trips to (this place). If we went to the various hospitals and treatment centers approximately fifty times over the course of five years, at roughly fifteen miles per trip, this distance would get you from D.C. to Chicago. We ate in the hospital cafeteria roughly twenty times, or enough to pay 2 percent of one of the cashier’s yearly salary. And so on.

And then this, revisited on a regular basis: If I get diagnosed at fifty-four, like my mother did, that means that effective immediately I have x years and y months to enjoy a cancer-free existence (although those malevolent cells could be coursing through my oblivious veins even as I type). Interestingly, the likes of this last equation—and the scenarios it induces—seldom extend to my old man or my sister. It is, I reckon, disconcerting enough to apply these exercises to myself; it is intolerable (or, at least for now, not possible) to project them onto anyone else.

I can barely balance my checkbook, yet here I am, a poor-man’s Pythagoras, my busy brain co-opting or pre-empting the confusion and consternation cancer yields. And just like the bad old days during Algebra exams, I apprehend much less than I’d like. For example: How might my mother have lived her life if she’d known she was never going to see sixty? How might I have lived? How might I do things differently (i.e., better) if I could know how far off, or how unacceptably close my own death will be?

Once again, it gets back to God, the Prime Mover with an advanced degree in these metaphysical matters. Or at least it prompts a concession to—or yearning for—some immutable force that organizes, if not explains, the mystery of being, as well as the when’s, what’s, and why’s of how we come and where we go.

But every dog has its day, right? Take my dog, for good measure. I knew he was going to die (he died when I was thirty-eight, which was six years after my mother died…). I know I’m going to die. My friends’ children will die. Puppies and kids not even born will have litters and grandchildren who will one day die, and it’s not easy to predict which ones may go before their time because none of us knows how long we’ve got once we get here.

And up there, somewhere, that benevolent, or oblivious, or nonexistent—depending on which courses you’ve taken in life—entity is crunching the numbers and checking His work, using the magic red pen to cross out errors or correct any formulas that are inconsistent with the bigger picture, which itself is an open book, and always a work in progress.


iv. Violence

You can’t combat cancer with fists or poetry; you can try with chemicals and prayers, but as it is with most of our earthly affairs, it all comes down to timing and luck.

We thought we were lucky, at first. In many ways, we were, in that the diagnosis was made in time and the initial operation was successful. The cancer hadn’t spread. Ten years ago, the doctor said, I would have sent you on your way. Now, knowing what we know, we’ll do chemotherapy to be on the safe side.

Better safe than sorry, we all agreed.

We got lucky, we said, a year later when no cancer had come back. We were lucky, we said, all through ’98 and ’99, and we entered a new millennium free and clear, the cancer a thing of the past, like the Y2K bug.

A few months later we were back in the hospital. It had come back.

It was, we all agreed, time to fight. What else could we do?

When it returned a third time, in 2001, cancer once again obliged us to circle the wagons, convinced we had no options but to keep fighting, as a family. My sister asked questions, took notes, and worried. My father talked with my mother, lived with her, and ran point regarding decisions, directions, and dealing with the obligations incumbent upon anyone who has repeated the words “till death do us part.” I did my own note-taking, question-asking, and behind-the-scenes improvising. Above all I envisioned the worst, hoped for the best, and lost sleep like it was my job.

During the summer of 2002, when it sometimes felt like the walls were closing in (literally, as anyone who has experienced crisis-induced anxiety can attest), I dropped pounds I didn’t need to lose. I ate some good food and I drank some good drinks, but those miserable months frequently felt like one unappetizing, ill-digested meal. The worst days were when my stomach and mind simultaneously conspired against me: not enough nourishment and too much mental unrest will cause side effects even strangers notice.

Still, I knew what was at stake, and my primary responsibility, I felt, was to keep things as upbeat and optimistic as possible. This was certainly for my mother’s sake, but it was also a fairly pragmatic strategy. What good, I thought, could possibly come from giving up hope, or letting my mother see the insecurity and the dread that on certain days reflected the weather: thick and humid and getting hotter as the afternoons dragged on.

But we all reserved the right to despise this disease that was decimating the woman we loved. It’s not especially difficult to describe, and I suppose it’s not hard to imagine the defensive feelings that boil up when you see someone close to you suffering. The fury, at times, impotently craves an outlet.

My most fervent wish, which at times became an obsession, was to swap places with my mother and take her cancer inside of me. Not in the metaphorical—or even literal—sense of preferring to struggle in another’s place, although there was obviously that. It was not merely instinctual; it was personal. It was not simply a matter of wanting my mother’s agony to cease, though there was clearly that. What I felt was an unappeasable compulsion to engage with this enemy. In short, I wanted to kick cancer’s ass.

This was not a case of reactionary bravado or calculated displacement (though there were elements of both, obviously); this was something I would have given anything to orchestrate. There I was, in the very prime of my life, physically and, perhaps more importantly, mentally; I was as strong spiritually as I’d ever been. I was ready, and ravenous to step into the ring. It was as though I had been working my entire life to prepare for this, to assume this responsibility.

For the first time in my memory, I craved violence. I needed to step in and deal with this bullying motherfucker. I wanted to hit it, chew it, swallow it, spit it out and step on it. I wanted to laugh at it, engage it on its own terms while taking everything it had to offer, and then bury it. I saw it and I wanted it.

Of course I knew the first signs of nausea would take considerable wind out of my sails, and because I recognized it I appreciated it, and that was truly what caused me to crave some semblance of satisfaction. I am more positive of this than anything else in my entire life: if I could have done it I would have, and I would have been ecstatic.

And like everyone else who has had these exact same thoughts, I was mocked by the fact that it’s impossible. Not just the fantasy of some half-assed exorcism, but the inability to do much of anything about cancer. You can’t put your hands on it; you can hardly wrap your mind around it. It humbles us, eventually (inevitably) in terms of how little we actually control despite the ways we create and organize reality with clocks, calendars, words, and games. All the rituals—including faith and love—that we utilize to combat the malevolent indifference of our universe are strategies, not solutions. Cancer reminds us we are ultimately just animals in a world that promises only one outcome, and for the majority of creatures populating this planet existence is cruelly fleet and ruthlessly efficient.

The worst part? You can’t make it personal. Cancer is only an organism, staying alive the only way it knows how. What can we do about that? Make it evil, invest it with the accountability for everything that can’t be reconciled or explained. This is why we created the devil; it’s the central reason so many of us must believe there’s a benign force supervising our affairs. It explains why, with the best intentions, we determine that each misfortune is all part of a larger plan, one we can’t begin to comprehend. When you go from wanting to believe to needing to believe (in something, anything) it’s easier to fathom how faith can quickly lead to violence. This helps explain how—and why—knowledge was scorned or suppressed, and why men of science were burned at the stake.

It’s Nature. It’s natural. It’s our nature.

Cancer reminds us that we’re part of a natural order. Billions of organisms are attacked and invaded each day, all according to the cycle of life and death, the grim ushers in Nature’s play. We are aware of it, we can use fancy jargon to explain it, we may even write poems about it. But we’re pretty much powerless to do anything about it. This doesn’t mean we have to accept it. Depending on how you look at the world, we fight every second of our lives just to live. Each breath we draw defies death; each thought we have outlives oblivion. Each time we give love we are defeating fear and hatred, the twin killers of compassion and connection. When we help others suffer through their final struggle we may be fighting a battle that has already been settled. At the same time, we are solving the ultimate secret of our own existence: we learn how to conquer death by anticipating it—and transcending it. This is the battle we’re all born into, and it’s one we are fortunate to fight as long as we’re able.


v. Aftermath

Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy, my father said. It wasn’t a demand, but it wasn’t a question. Whatever it was, it was the most meaningful thing anyone has ever said to me.

Yes, I said.

Obviously. Or maybe I just nodded.

Of course I would, and without thinking about it (because nobody who is normal thinks things like this), I understood that I’d been preparing all along for this moment.


         vi. Every Time I Scribble a Thought with Artistic Intent

  Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

I’m fortunate, in a sense, to be the type of person who gets more sentimental about the times I read a certain book or heard a particular album than I ever do about holidays. But I’m still human. I still recall the almost breathless inability to accelerate time and make Christmas arrive more quickly. Or the Halloween costumes, Easter candy, or the great Thanksgiving feasts (and the not-so-great family fights that would sometimes ensue). The holidays, as idealized rites of passage, still resonate, but these occasions are incapable of enhancing or obliterating whatever mood I’m already in. As such, the absence of my mother might feel more acute on holidays, but none of these events have been unduly marred during the past decade.

Surprisingly, even the week that presents a triptych of raw remembrance, comprising her birthday (August 23), and the anniversaries of her death (August 26) and funeral (August 30) have been bearable. These have become prospects for celebration, however somber, and I’m mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around, the time I did get to spend with her. Similarly, Mother’s Day is seldom joyful, but it provides an imperative to consider happy events and my relative good fortune—despite what’s obviously lacking, now. It also obliges me to behold my family members and friends who have become admirable mothers themselves, and I’m humbled to see my mother alive in the looks they give their children.

And if I’m ever inclined to stop and consider how corny or manufactured these sentiments may be, I console myself with the awareness of how increasingly corny and manufactured holidays in America have become.


            Any time I need to be reminded that I’m one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken of me and my mother the day I was born. The pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one frameable shot of the post-delivery adoring gaze. Or, every child fortunate enough to have been born in a hospital (or home) under safe conditions to a mother who welcomes the moment and, most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. I don’t need to resort to religion or sociology: I can simply consider the circumstances and the infinitesimal odds that I ever made it from my father to my mother in the first place (if you know what I mean).

Who can’t recall asking, on Mother’s Day, why there wasn’t a Kid’s Day? The response was always the same: Every day is Kid’s Day. Most of us who have lived a single hour in the so-called real world have come to register how accurate this tired cliché actually is. Indeed, those of us who were sufficiently well raised didn’t need to wait long for this epiphany to occur. A year or two punching the clock, paying bills, cleaning up one’s own messes—the literal and especially the figurative ones—and generally attaining that independent status we strove so single-mindedly to attain is impetus enough for reflection. Not merely an appraisal of how impossible it would be to repay the investment made, measured in money, time, affection, and approbation, but a recognition of what was truly at stake: the selflessness your parents displayed, putting in all that effort to enable you to become your own person. The best gift a parent can give (you come to understand) is loving you enough to allow you to not be exactly like them, to encourage you to figure out exactly who you are supposed to become.


            Holidays have not been intolerable, no more than any other day, especially the bad days when I miss my mother most. As a result, I reckon I’m not the only one who has found that my birthday is the single occasion that can never be the same. Inexorable nostalgic pangs, the pull of biological imperatives, or the simple fact that I’m still human has ensured that the annual recognition of my birth day is imbued with sadness and a heavy longing I don’t feel any other time. If so, it seems a reasonable trade-off: that deep and uncomplicated connection, along with the longing any child can comprehend, signifies that yet another cliché holds true: absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Every time I scribble a thought with artistic intent I’m inspired by the support my mother offered, going back to the days I was a kid with crayons, coloring outside the lines while listening to The Nutcracker Suite. She’ll never be forgotten; in fact, she’ll never be gone. This is what helps and it’s also, at times, what hurts.


            How do you get over the loss?

That’s the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing these words, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.


The memoir, now available in Kindle format (at a limited time price of $2.99) is available at AMAZON.

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When I started Sean’s book, I read a section and said to myself, ‘I’m going to email Sean to tell him how amazing that sentence is.’ Then as I read a little further I thought, ‘No, I’m going to email Sean to tell him what an amazing depth of knowledge and perception he’s giving us.’ And then, yes, you got it, on the very next page he wrote something that made me think, ‘His Mom is looking down on Sean with unending love for what he just wrote. This is one amazing book!

– May 27, 2015

Donald R. Gallehr, Director Emeritus, Northern Virginia Writing Project