Her number

It’s my mother’s birthday today. She would have been 69 years old. She once told me that she was pretty sure that her “number” was 74. This was, maybe, half a year away from her death, during a period of time where things seems to be getting better, or at least holding. “But don’t tell that to anyone,” she said, and I nodded and said that I wouldn’t. I mean, who do you tell, right?

It was an odd moment. I never thought of my mother as superstitious, especially not around her cancer. When it came to that, I pictured her as bloody-minded, intensely practical, without sentiment, like the Scorpio she was. Cancer for my mother was never about support groups or meditation or creatively visualizing the disease as pellets and the chemotherapy as Ms. Pac-Man. It was about getting through and moving on, until it wasn’t.

So the fact that she had a number in her head, that she shared that number with me, was revelatory. I mean, when your mother tells you something, you want to believe her, right? RuthiSusanAdjustedAnd when you’re 58 and you’ve had cancer on and off for 20 years, 74 doesn’t look too bad. There was something comforting in her own admission that she, too, engaged in a kind of hopeful, magical thinking that characterized so much of my growing up. I don’t mean to paint a picture of my mom as anything less than intensely human, down to earth, accessible — but it’s true she very rarely let herself be vulnerable. I saw her cry maybe twice in my life. So when she told me her number, it was a sort of gift, an opening of a door.

Obviously, she was wrong about the number, but who can fault her for that? She is simultaneously gone and — still — everywhere. That’s the best and the worst of it in one sentence, the gift in the taking away.