For the past four years, July has been a doozy of a month for me. I'm not sure if bittersweet is the word. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to call upon the short run E! show, "Denise Richards: it's complicated".
This blog post has proven to be one of the hardest I've ever written. My emotions are still very high, even four years after my mom's passing. It's also one of the most personal posts I've ever written, so have a heart and please try to be kind if you choose to leave a comment.
After being sick for many years, my mom passed away in July of 2009. Coincidentally, I launched my business, Catherine Coaches, that month.
Seeing my mom be so sick for such a long time made dealing with her death a little more bearable. She clearly had a strong will to live. I know I've touched on this before, but my mom and I were very much alike in personality and looks.
I was the baby of the family. I'm guessing my childhood was pretty different in relation to my older siblings. I spent an awful lot of time with my mom growing up.
Growing up, there were several times I was sick of hearing how much I looked like her, or how someone just knew I was her daughter. Apparently, there was no confusion when someone she knew met me for the first time. Physically, we have a similar body type. Very fair skin that is prone to bruising and sunburn, clumsy, prone to gaining weight, high cheek bones, and the same straight nose. But because my father was Japanese American, I have (and yes, I am aware this is totally un-politically correct) "chinky" eyes. Most of my asian-ness, however, stops there.
For the first 6 years of school I attended a private school that was incredibly and ridiculously expensive and bad for my overall well being.
This video breaks down the difference between rich and wealthy. The part about the check rang true from my childhood.
I'm telling you this because I went to that school with the kids of parent's who owned the Bulls, Blackhawks, the President of United Airlines, and people whose job it was to make gazillons of dollars by being the top dogs the Chicago Board of Trade. I learned it's pretty easy to become a dick when you have endless amounts of money and very little boundaries. My time at this school was excruciating for me. I was teased regularly for having "chinky" eyes, ignored by my classmates for looking different, and had my bra snapped when I started to develop breasts. I basically hated all of my school mates (they were the same 25 people you met in kindergarten and went through school until graduation). If you happen to have gone to school with me during this time period, were female, and were in my class, then, yes, I mean I hate you. I really do.
My mom was always very active with the school while I was attending it. Believe it or not, they had something called the "Women's Board" which is just a private school term for PTA. Knowing that I hated it, my mom would often surprise me by showing up at the school for a meeting and then staying with me while I ate my lunch. Even though I transitioned extremely well to public school, lunchtime always brought on a mini anxiety attack for me for many years. I suspect I am not alone in my lunchtime "no one will sit with me" experience. What can I say, kids can be mean little fuckers.
I remember my mom as being complicated, but that is probably usual for any kid. Some of her best qualities were her thoughtfulness (coming to eat lunch with me), her generosity (there are just too many examples to chose from), fiercely protective (she once ripped a gentleman a new asshole because he tersely told me to stop playing with the elevator buttons--I wasn't, by the way. He was just being a douche bag. My mom, however, would not allow any person to speak to her daughter in that tone), and it recently occurred to me that I grew up with an over-abundance of love. My mom had her quirks and faults, but I never, ever doubted for a moment that she loved and adored me. Even as I became an adult, visits with her were always centered around what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, or the like. She was someone who lived for family. This became all the more true when she became a grandmother.
It's so strange that parts of my work as an adult mirrored parts of her adult life. It totally wasn't even on purpose. The comparisons, however, are way too big to ignore.
My mom met my dad because she was a nurse working in the same hospital as my physician father. She quit work to get married, have kids, and move to the suburbs.
Probably one of my most remarkable similarities between us is that both my mom and I worked with the HIV/AIDS community. If I had known the scrutiny I would have been under, then it's completely possible that I might have thought twice before working in the SF HIV/AIDS community. This is even more so because I worked for a "peer based" organization. I did not fit any of the criteria of the organization, and I'm guessing that, to many people, I stood out like a proverbial turd in a punchbowl. I was not under 27 years old, didn't reside in San Francisco, and was not HIV positive. I heard that several people took bets on how long I would end up staying at the organization when I was hired. Little did they know my personal connection to the community. I ended up staying for over five and a half years--the longest record for any person in the history of the organization. People also didn't know that it would have been entirely possible for me to stay at a place longer because of spite. I'm a bit that way.
In the mid 1980's my mom began volunteering for the Howard Brown Clinic in Chicago. It was one of the few clinics that was set up exclusively for HIV/AIDS treatment and was at the forefront of the entire epidemic. My mom was passionately committed to volunteering. Remember that this was the dark era before HAART was developed, and people knew very little about the virus--including how it was transmitted. I didn't know all of what she was doing at the clinic, but I clearly remember going to visit her once while she was volunteering. I remember the doctors telling me how much they loved her and her personality. I also, for the first time, heard what was going to be a very common expression in my life--"I wish I could be adopted by your mom." I believe this was also around the time I became familiar with the term "fag hag". Now, before you get your politically correct knickers in a bunch, remember it was the mid 1980's, and the term only more recently fell out of favor.
When I was in high school, my mom took an accounting job at a Chicago catering company. This was not like any episodes from the short run tv show "Party Down". I learned quickly that a career in catering meant you were surrounded by gay men. As I became older, I started to work for that company on a very part time basis. It soon became evident to me that my mom had a gaggle of gays. I remember being a snoop (I'm now totally reformed) and finding a huge book called "The Joy of Gay Sex" in her bedroom. I can only imagine that my mom was curious (like me!), and in an attempt to help support her gay friends, wanted to get some information on how they get it on. I don't know about you, but that is pretty freaking cool. In a way, this particular example sums up my mom perfectly.
My mom was fun, outrageous, easy to talk to, and loved to talk. She was as generous with her time as her money, and it became easier for me to comprehend why so many people wanted her to "adopt" them. Hearing this familiar saying didn't stop as I grew older. I remember hearing adult co-workers of mine say it to me after spending time with her.
Being the 1980's, HIV/AIDS was pretty much a death sentence. It was horrible, and literally sucked the life out of people. Anyone who lived through that period will tell you just how menacing HIV/AIDS was in the 1980's. Being that my mom worked in an office that was primarily populated with gay men, she saw the rapid deterioration of many, many friends. I know she, like me 25 years later, accompanied many of her friends to doctors who specialized in HIV/AIDS. One of the weirder stories I remember was when Oprah sent a limo to pick up my mom because she was taking a friend to an important doctor's appointment. The friend just happened to be one of Oprah's closest friends at the time and also a producer on her show. I wish that I knew how to have been a better support to her when my mom lost her best friend to the disease. She was obviously heartbroken, and, as a teenager, I didn't have the capacity to understand what she was going through. Looking back, I don't think she was ever the same after his passing. I do remember that, instead of a memorial, he had planned a "Bon Voyage" party.
It is totally a trip to see how I stumbled into working with the HIV/AIDS community 25 years after my mom. Yes, the disease has changed, and thank goodness for that. People are now living with HIV/AIDS instead of dying within months of a diagnosis. I was lucky that, in the almost 6 years of working for an agency that exclusively served youth with HIV/AIDS, there was not one death attributed to the disease. I found my own gaggle of gays from working in the community, and in some respects, it is the one community I am most comfortable in. I too became BFF's with a friend from work. And, like my mom, I don't think I would ever be the same if he were to die.
This has been an extraordinarily difficult blog post to write. Re-visiting much of this only makes me miss my mom all the more. I'm now able to see what a beautiful legacy she has left behind, and how many people she touched.
I will leave you with one last story.
My mom was meeting my now husband for the first time. She and my dad were attending a medical conference in San Francisco, and it happened to overlap during part of our college spring break. We had a lovely dinner and went to Ghirardelli Square for hot fudge sundaes. I never cared for Maraschino cherries so I proceeded to plop mine off the top of my massive sundae. The next thing I hear is "...oh Catherine, look, you've lost your cherry!", and I look up to see that my mom is smiling one of those poop-eating grins while looking straight at my now husband who she had just met for the first time.