What You Leave Your Kids

I took my mother’s voice for this piece, and wrote from memory. It’s as true as it can be.

I knew something was up when my dad offered to drive me. I’d been home for a week on summer break and headed to my boyfriend John’s house. I didn’t need him to drive me, he never drove me, so that was the first thing. Then he asked my younger brother, Frank, to come along. We left my 12-year-old sister at home with my mother.

I sat in the passenger seat, Frank in back. He sulked into his madras shirt, a sixteen-year-old on a drive with his dad and sister on a Friday evening. We drove down the two-lane road, headed away from the suburbs to the country estates of Barrington in my dad’s new ’66 Chevy. I watched him drive, noticed that his hair was thinning just a bit on top, making his sideburns look bushy. He smoked with purpose, as if that were the only thing to do at this moment.

I rolled down my window and turned my face to the wind. Tall oaks hung over the road, silhouettes against a darkening sky. Dad pulled onto the gravel shoulder and turned off the car. He took two white pills out of his pocket and asked us each to take one. And we did. Somehow, we just did what our father told us.

He looked at us for a long while, waiting, and finally said, “Your mother has pancreatic cancer, and she will die.”

And for some reason, I thought of my maternal grandmother. She lost another daughter, a stillborn, many years ago. And I remembered that my grandmother once told me that after the delivery, when she held the dead baby in her arms, all she could think was, “Look at those little fingernails. She has fingernails.”

And now my grandmother would lose another daughter, and how different, how similar, would it be?

“The doctor said not to tell your sister. She’s too young.” He stared ahead, not at us, in quiet tears on the side of the road. “It’ll happen sometime this summer, probably.”

(It did happen that summer, six weeks later, and then we told my sister her mother had died.)

And then he dropped me off at my boyfriend’s house, and he and my brother drove away. I waved, lazily, wet cheeks drying, and headed into John’s house. Because that’s what we do, right? We go on?

June Allen Swan

The author’s grandmother on her 16th birthday, 1936

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26 thoughts on “What You Leave Your Kids

  1. So, so many questions. Was there any discussion after his roadside talk? Did Patty figure this all out before your grandmother died? How do Barb and Patty feel about reading this piece? Did they ever get the chance to talk with their grandmother about their mom’s death? How did Frank Sr., Barb and Frank jr. relate to June during that summer? How did those three relate after June’s death?

    Yes, we do just go on. I remember saying probably all the wrong things at that time. Maybe only a simple “sorry.” Nothing deep or profound, for sure. It wasn’t the times for going deep and long conversations about bad or important things. And ” I love you” ‘s were only used infrequently and only with lovers. Interesting how things have changed in our culture.

    • I’m not sure of some of the answers. I wrote it first and then talked to her about it (again). I know Mom had difficulty seeing her mother grow thin and weak. I think Patty knew her mom was sick, but like you say, no one talked about it.

    • Thanks very much. They were strong, and it is admirable, I think. But I also think there wasn’t much of a choice; they didn’t talk about it, certainly not about how hard it was or how they were feeling (a period thing, but also maybe partly due to my family’s northside Chicago Irish Catholic, etc.).

  2. moving story in its simplicity. the question to me, if you will, was why now? what prompted the memory? I noticed you used your mom’s 16th birthday photo. was it her birthday? in any event losing a parent is always heartbreaking, in most cases. so I’m sorry for your loss. and yes, I’ve found we do move on.

    • This is just one of those family stories that has always stuck in my mind. The sorrow of it; also the striking details–having your father slip you a pill before he tells you that your mother is going to die. And then dropping you off as if nothing was new. Her father was a loving person, but I think he just had no idea how to handle telling this to his children, as many wouldn’t.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Jessica. Although we haven’t lost my mother yet, your post hits very close to home for me. I still remember when I was told that we were going to lose our mom. I honestly can’t believe that she is still with us today, almost a year later. She would have passed on within a month of her desperately needed liver transplant. At the time, there were no matches available because of how rare her blood type is.

    I’m sorry for your family’s loss and can only hope that you can continue to inspire others with your writing. I have a feeling you will.

    • Thanks, Julia. That’s nice to hear. It is interesting, as Barb noted above, how different times are now, how different my grandfather was compared, for instance, to how I am. And how much more we talk about things (ad nauseum, sometimes).

  4. Your grandmother was absolutely lovely.

    I don’t know if there is a good way to have THAT talk. I’m of your mother’s generation, and it has occurred to me, lately, that my sisters and I haven’t much discussed our mother’s death among ourselves, compared memories. Too afraid to hurt each other – of that we would be hurt?

    I know that when I got the last bad news – that the last attempt at finding pills to stop the cancer had failed, that I didn’t immediately react. Then a week or so later had a full meltdown as I was leaving school – no idea what triggered it, but suddenly, it all came down.

    • She was lovely, wasn’t she? I never knew her, of course, but I wish I had. Thanks for sharing a bit of your story, and I’m sorry for your loss. I think we are such incredibly interesting creatures–the weight of it was so heavy that it had to be released, if not that moment, then a week later. And at that moment (like you say, for whatever reason) you just couldn’t hold it any longer.

  5. WOW. What a voice you captured here! The brother sulking for having to take a drive on a Friday night. Smoking with purpose. Though I wish I knew what he had given them the pills for–anti-anxiety? Poor children. So young.

    Amazing work, Jess.

    • No – I felt afraid, too, and I knew the story! It is the part my mother always remarks on–how they were so trusting to just accept and take the pill, not knowing what it was. Thanks for your kind comment.

  6. Such a tragedy. It must have been difficult for your mother to hear her father speak those words and then to only have a short time left with her mother. So sad, but beautifully written.

    • Thanks very much. Yes, it was startling. They knew she’d not been feeling well, but went to the doctor and thought she was fine. And my poor aunt didn’t find anything out until after she’d died. Thanks for reading.

  7. It’s so important to capture these stories, these moments in time, and share them with others. This was so poignantly and beautifully written. I felt I was there in the car with them, the smoke, the open window, the silhouettes of the trees . . . . So glad you shared.

  8. Touching story and the pill part hit me as if a pill could ever really ease the shock and pain. Poor man, what was he to do? How difficult to share such news. Then, as children, how to carry on? How brave your mother was.

    Recently, I attended a 98 year old family member’s birthday and her daughter had written down her mother’s words into a memoir. It was touching to read the memories and it provided a glimpse into the lives and spin off that grief and happenings can have on other family members. It’s important to write these stories down. It helps us forgive, understand, and appreciate our family members. Some people have such heavy loads to bear.

    Thank you for sharing this story, Jessica.

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