On June 24th, 2017 my mom Betsy passed away after a brief but brave fight with pancreatic cancer. Everything they say about the grieving process is true. There are good days and bad. This is what happened today.
After nearly two months of work, my wife Aly and I finally have our upstairs bathroom back up and running—the renovations weren't cheap but now I can listen to Howard Stern through our built-in speakers so it was worth every penny. As we put the deodorant, toothpaste and such away, a bar of soap caught my attention. A natural soap scented with coffee, almond and vanilla, at first glance it looked like any other organic product from some hipster who left Brooklyn for the country so they could live farm to table. But as I looked at the Bridge Street label wrapped around the bar, I felt this overwhelming sense of sadness come over me. I bought the hand soap for Aly at a shop on the main drag in New Hope, PA. But it was my mom's idea.
Though Mom had been having health issues for a little while, both her diagnosis in early April and the severity of it came as a shock. Still, something she said really struck a chord:
"I trust God's plan. If I have a year to live, it's going to be the best year I can make it."
Reminding me of Warren Zevon's "enjoy every sandwich" take on his own terminal sentence, my mom's words helped shape my approach to her health situation. Since she was still very much alive, there was no need to mourn her death. Instead, I was going to focus on doing my part in ensuring she got the very best healthcare, doing everything from calling doctors, hospitals and the insurance company to extensive research. When I wasn't doing that, I'd spend as much time as possible hanging out with Betsy—or until I annoyed her and my step dad, Mike. This would mean putting that time ahead of my day job as well as any storytelling gigs or my live "Family Dinner" comedy show I loved putting together.
Thursday June 8th was one of those instances, when I took off to spend the day with Mom and her sister, my Aunt Nancy. When I heard Aunt Nancy was going to spend an entire week caring for and bonding with her youngest sister, I asked my mom if it would be alright if I spent one of those days tagging along. While I was still confident that she'd respond to the chemo, pull through this and everything was going to be fine, just for pure logistics—my aunt lived out on the the Cape/South Florida and my mom and I in different parts of Jersey—I knew there was a chance this would be my last opportunity to spend quality time with them together.
As I drove down to my mom's that bright sunny morning, I took a moment to enjoy the smells and sounds that come with a weekday in the suburbs, as opposed to the honking and frantic energy I was used to at work in the city—not to mention the inevitable aroma of hot garbage and urine that would come as the summer started in a few short weeks. Even the sounds of the James Comey hearing on the radio couldn't take away from how pleasant it all was. After arriving at the house and giving Nancy a big hug and kiss, my mom appeared. Though it had only been two weeks since I last saw her, she looked much frailer and weaker. Swimming in her size small windbreaker and the appropriately named skull cap framing her alarmingly thin face, looking back now it's surprising how normal it had all seemed.
The plan for the day was to eat at a Peruvian restaurant my mom loved in Lambertville, NJ before crossing the Delaware River into New Hope. The historical town where hippies, yuppies, bikers and gay people alike all mixed in held a special place in our hearts. As a kid, my parents, brother and I would frequently walk up and down New Hope, exploring all the cool record stores and antique shops, each smelling like patchouli and incense—my brother and I were too young to realize why the whole town smelled like patchouli and incense, but we enjoyed it just the same. Years later, New Hope would be the site of my wedding after party along with morning after brunch. Full disclosure, it's also home to the Wawa where Aly and I bought our first hoagies as husband and wife at 2am in our full wedding attire. Regardless, I knew it could be the last time I was at this sentimental place with my mom, so I was going to soak in every second.
On the ride over, I kept talking about the old mill where Aly and I married since it was just a short distance from our destination. Since my aunt had to miss the big day, my mom suggested we take a quick detour and check it out—full disclosure, I led the witness a bit on that one in the hopes that she'd suggest we stop. Since she was unable to get out of the car, my aunt and I sat there with Mom, reflecting on what a beautiful day it had been. Aside from helping financially to make the wedding happen, my mom was such a big part of that day and our lives and I just wanted to revisit the scene of the crime with her while it was still possible.
Once we arrived in New Hope and parked the car, it quickly evident that this would be unlike any of the visits we took when I was a kid. While back then Mom took care of me, the roles were reversed as I pushed her in a wheelchair down the uneven sidewalk. Our first stop was at Bridge Street, the aforementioned hipster soap shop. As we made our way in, it was nice to how calming the new age music and array of pleasant smells were to my mom. Wanting to make up for all the souvenirs she had purchased for me in town over the years I wanted to return the favor. As I gathered up some soaps for Mom and Aunt Nancy my mom interrupted. "Make sure you pick one up for Aly, she'll love it." Our organic soaps in hand, we moved on—to a few other shops and some ice cream before piling in the car and heading back home.
All these months later, as I stood in our fancy bathroom staring at the fancy brown soap, I thought about the circumstances surrounding its purchase and was prepared to let the tears flow. And then, my mom's positive outlook in mind, took another look. Yes, she died sixteen days later and I'd never see her in a place that wasn't a hospital or her house ever again. Yes, she was painfully frail. Yes, it was the day of James Comey's Senate hearing, a painful reminder of what a mess the current political state was and is. But it was also a bright, sunny day and we spent it in a place filled with happy memories. We laughed as we chatted about them and I even asked her questions about her life as if I was Charlie Rose—before I knew about the creepy stuff.
And then there was the soap. This woman had sixteen days of life left, was in all sorts of pain, and yet wanted to make sure I did something nice for my wife, her daughter-in-law. I took another look at it and could only smile.