Finding peace in an unlikely place

It was 3 years ago in Salt Lake City, on a day between the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament, that I was shown the way out of my anger.

I had planned for this to be a sequel to last Friday’s newsletter about my first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Turns out it’s more like a trilogy, and this is Chapter 2. In literary terms, these are the accelerating events. The conflict. The tension. It has been more emotional than I expected in part because of the feelings that attending the NCAA Tournament sparked and the fact that the third anniversary of my mother’s death is on Saturday.

If it’s not clear already, this edition of “The Dang Apostrophe” falls firmly in the category of personal essay so if you’re more interested in the sports, I’m hoping to have a separate newsletter in that vein later Thursday or Friday. But this one has already taken significantly longer than I expected in part because of all these feelings and in part because I was trying to write a sequel when it’s really more of a trilogy, which means I really better get cracking on the finale.

The third chapter of my life started three years ago on a Friday in Salt Lake City the day between the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

My mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer four years earlier, was in her final days though I did not know that yet. I was talking with Rob Morrell, who was part of the group that had gathered to watch basketball. He had graduated from Loyola High School in Los Angeles alongside my father. They were the Class of 1968. What Rob said to me that trip changed the way I looked at not just my mother’s illness, but the way I saw the second chapter of my life, which started after my father’s death and covered the next 30 years more or less.

I organize my life into thirds. I realized that while working on this piece. These segments are not based on years or my own life’s landmarks, but on my family’s history.

The first chapter was my childhood in Klamath Falls, Ore. My father worked for Weyerhauser, my mother ferried three children around town first in a red Fiat station wagon and later an olive green Subaru. We lived, first, in a three-bedroom house near the back entrance of the biggest pine mill in North America and later in a single-story home. My parents knew the stairs in that first house would become unmanageable for my father, who was increasingly ill.

I was a sports nut, obsessed with the catcher Gary Carter. I played on a Little League team for Henris Roofing, a Babe Ruth team sponsored by Abby’s Pizza. My sister, Robin, was more artistically inclined. She had a loom and loved to weave, and to this day remains ingenious in terms of her crafts. Our brother, Casey, was the youngest, with blonde hair and flushed cheeks with the absolutely sweetest heart. We were fairly well-behaved as a brood, and this was the Eden in our family’s history.

The second chapter in my life began after my father’s death in September 1988. If you were laying out a plotline, this was a triggering event that caused a reconfiguration of everything around us.

My mother remarried about a year and a half after my father’s death. Because my mother remarried, we moved from Oregon to Santa Cruz County. Because we moved, our whole family was turned upside down. I’m sure it’s possible to find a larger gap in American culture than the one between a rural logging town in Oregon and the hippie-laden town of Santa Cruz, but I can’t seem to think of one right now. My jeans were too tight, my T-shirts too bright for the local style. I was 15 and was embarrassed not to have hair in my armpits. I didn’t know a single person when I walked onto the campus at Aptos High School that September.

I adjusted. We all did. But my stepfather was not an easy man to be around. He was quiet and intense. The house grew still when we heard the automatic garage door activate, signaling his return from work as a public-school administrator. He carried a leather briefcase with him, and when he entered the house and placed it down, we were all looking at him for a sign of his mood. After a brief greeting, he would proceed upstairs to his bedroom, shut the door and spend at least a half an hour, often more, before coming down to join the family.

I grew to loathe my stepfather, which is understandable not just because he was a stern and awkward man but because I was a teenager who wanted to keep up with my friends and their more permissive parents. I sought out a college two states away, the furthest I could afford to go without asking him for any financial help. When I tell this story, though, I usually leave out the fact that he bought a Mazda pickup truck that he drove up to Seattle and gave to me just before my college graduation.

It was the high point of our relationship. Four years later, my Mom would call me on her birthday to tell me that my stepfather had moved out. He had run into some trouble in his job as a public-school superintendent partly due to the fact he was driving a black BMW 740il the district had purchased for his use. A $400 fountain pen didn’t help matters. His travel budget exceeded that of the mayor of San Jose. He was on medical leave from that job, and while I don’t know the diagnosis provided, I do know that the following fall he was teaching at San Jose State University while he was still on medical leave as superintendent. The San Jose Mercury News put that news on the front page.

It was all so very public and awkward. What stayed private was even more hurtful, though. Terry Jones was not faithful. It took a year for my Mom to even hint at this to me, and then another 6 months before she spelled it out.

At this point, I had started dating Sharon, and it caused my Mom no small amount of discomfort that THIS was the window she was seeing our family through. She was mortified.

“I wish she knew us when we were the white-picket-fence family,” she said.

My Mom was truly a romantic. She believed in loving fully and without reservation, and she was also something of a prude. She didn’t let me see “Ghostbusters” when it came out. I was in fourth grade and there was a bedroom scene involving a paranormal encounter. She was angered by the flippant way sex was mentioned in television sitcoms. “Sex is not casual,” she said after one episode of “Friends” proved particularly bothersome to her.

My Mom divorced my stepfather in 2003, limiting their contact before shutting it out all together. She received the title to the house as he had spent through most of the retirement savings. She sold the furniture he had purchased and a diamond necklace he had given her. She settled into the next phase of her life. She reconciled with her father, driving up to see him shortly before he died from cancer.

Then, in 2011, my sister’s husband, Mike, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This was shortly after the birth of their second child, the family moving in with my mother. Mike Aston died at home in early 2012 at the age of 38, same as my father when he died.

After all that, I was scared when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2015, but I was also angry. Really angry. It seemed so overwhelmingly unfair for all of us, but mostly for her. She had lost her first husband, whom she saw as her only true partner. She had been betrayed by her second husband. And now — after watching her daughter lose her husband — she was sick herself shortly after she had retired.

The initial prognosis was promising. The tumors were located in a single kidney, which would be removed via surgery. When that material was tested, however, it was not renal cancer, but rather a liposarcoma. She underwent chemotherapy, tried several courses of immunotherapy and had a total of four surgeries to remove cancerous material from her abdomen. The final surgery, in May 2018, was not curative, meaning they were hoping not to eliminate the cancer, but to extend her life.

At the end of December, my Mom decided against another course of chemotherapy. She wasn’t giving up, but she didn’t want to feel worse to add what might be a year, but more likely a matter of months.

This was the backdrop for my trip to Salt Lake City in March 2019, and on that Friday — the day between the first and second-round games — that I received something that was nothing short of a gift from a high-school friend of my father’s. That’s when the third chapter of my life started.

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