About a month ago I cried about the New England Patriots. This took place the night before the Superbowl, mind you. And it had nothing to do with the team, their ensuing game, or giving a rat’s ass about football whatsoever. It had to do with the last time they won the Super Bowl. Or at least, what was happening in my life at that time.
For some reason I thought about this as I was brushing my teeth to go to bed. As I thought of our next day’s plans—going to a friend’s house to watch the game—a distinct image popped into my mind, and started me bawling.
It was of a long table that was set up as you entered the cafeteria at Rhode Island Hospital. It was 2004 and the Patriots had just won the Super Bowl. And three adult goofballs dressed top to bottom in Patriots-branded, -logoed, and -colored clothing, were selling t-shirts. Or giving away memorabilia. Or something. The women were wearing plastic dangly football helmet earrings, the man some sort of over-sized foam hat.
They were assaultingly upbeat, overly-chatty, and blindingly bright. If Saturday Night Live were to do a parody of three football fans who were manning a table selling sports schwag, this would be what they’d look like.
I half-expected Will Ferrell to jump out from behind the rack of cafeteria trays and start doing a Patriots cheer.
My mother and I managed to make our way past the Patriots posse without becoming ensnared in their boosterism. To call Mom and I football fans would be an outrageous, imprisonable lie. Neither of us had ever really watched a game, nor did we understand the most fundamental rules of play. And, as with all things we personally didn’t care for, we felt compelled to mock those who did.
I have no idea what it was my mother muttered under her breath to me that day, but I’ve no doubt it was brutal and hilarious.
So then, it was that little flash of a memory that got me teary. Okay, so maybe it was closer to sobby.
Thinking of that dumb table of dumb people was like a time machine blast back to the days when my mom and I were no stranger to that hospital. In fact, we had little routines set up—bunches of them. I’d drop her at the curb, park the car, meet her in the waiting room. I’d have my needlepoint, she’d have her crossword puzzle books. Between appointments we’d moon over how sweet her oncologist was, and we’d walk the long mural-lined hallways to the cafeteria where we’d both get the soup we’d decided “wasn’t half-bad.”
We came to know nurses. We smiled at receptionists. We complimented cheerful hot pink cardigans. And every new doctor my mother met she’d insist was “about 14 years old.”
The telling of it makes it seem nearly pleasant, and in some ways we made it so. Mom was a pro at pretending none of it was happening—so I had a good mentor. She’d shop at her small-town grocery store weighing 90 pounds and wearing a wig, but lecture my sisters and I to not tell anyone she was sick. Everyone just played along.
Minus her intermittently nauseous chemo days, or the bad-news doctor’s appointments, or the moments when she seemed to be vying for Most Ornery Patient (for which she was a worthy contender) we maintained a sort of emotional equilibrium.
But this veneer of pleasantness came with a persistent low-grade stomach ache. Mine that is. Little breaks in the day—counting out a fist-full of pills and marking them off on the refrigerator spreadsheet—reminded me that my days having a mother were a limited time engagement.
An undercurrent of heartache was lurking inside me, waiting for any chance it could get to rise up from the strict diet of denial that my mother had put us all on.
Thinking of that damn Patriots table was like an express train to that slice of time. A stretch I rarely harken back to now. There’s not much reason to, really. Most memories skip over that period to all the pre-cancer days. And in a numbers game kind of way, there are simply many more of those for me to draw from. Thank God.
But here’s what’s weird. As I sobbed with my foamy toothbrush sticking out of my mouth, it somehow felt kinda good to feel so bad. To connect with such a raw emotion about my mom again. All these years have diluted that heart-wrenching time for me. Now I’m used to her not being here. I’ve nearly lost the urge to pick up the phone and call her (unless I hear interesting news about a childhood friend). I can even think of her now and feel happy.
Tapping into this bygone sorrow got me thinking I should go back to the hospital on my upcoming trip to Rhode Island. I was even thinking I’d take the girls.
I’m not sure why this seemed like a good idea, or what I was intending to do there. Trust me, the chicken soup wasn’t that good. I guess I hoped wandering through one of our last stomping grounds might make me feel closer to my mom—even if it was in a sad way.
Or maybe I was hoping some nurse would recognize me—seven years later. You always want to think you were memorable. That you were their favorites, right?
I got back from Rhode Island last week, and while I was there I never made it to the hospital. By the time I touched down—hell, by the time I woke up the day after my tooth brushing tear-fest—I was in a totally different space. In fact, when I thought again about the table of goofball football fans I realized something about that moment. As my mother and I were walking past and secretly mocking them, they were looking at us and seeing a somewhat shell-shocked woman guiding along her older, very sick mother.
Interesting to put yourself in the foam Patriots hat sometime.
Anyway, those poor chumps were no doubt just trying to bring some cheer to people’s days. Distract folks from their current states of mind. And that day—and again the other night—in a twisted way, they certainly did.
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