“It’s time for mandatory moments with mom,” she said, smiling, as I followed her into her bedroom. I was there to take care of her while my dad was away.

My visits with my mother were not mandatory, per se. I didn’t feel obligated to fulfill some visit quota, get an emotional time stamp and then get out. But I did go with the same kind of numbness. That kind of muscle-memory of entering a workplace as one has done a million times before and punching in a proverbial time clock—no aplomb, no excitement, just existence.

One could say I am regularly in this state of mind. I’ve got a terminal case of emotional status quo. Except, I was starting to feel different. My shift into non-numbness, happened two weeks ago.

As I drove north along I-15 at 80 miles per hour to the small town of Perry, I felt a twinge of dread. I was joining three of my sisters to accomplish a task I was not looking forward to.

My mother is sick.

It was a lucky save! Stage 1 Cancer, a 1×1 inch in diameter tumor and lymph nodes removed, a rigorous bout of Chemotherapy treatments every two weeks, followed by aggressive radiation. Viola! Cancer-free by month three! Hopefully. Cautiously.

My sisters and mom decided to get together and shave my mother’s head, and I was invited. It was a power move, take control over the things we had little control over.

It sounded heroic, not letting cancer make all the calls, but while getting closer to my sister’s house, the bravery of deciding to bald someone on purpose felt disingenuous.

Chemical poisons were making my mom’s hair fall out. We were just beating it to the punch. How heroic was that? A second thought came to me, why wasn’t I feeling anything more?

My mother is battling cancer, Breast Cancer, the violent thief that had sucked the soul, ravaged the body, spat out the pulp of my grandmother, and then killed her 32 years ago. Why wasn’t I more moved? Why was I so removed from everything, anything that might seem painful?

It was the WALL.

I’m not sure when the construction of this metaphorical wall around my heart, around my soul began. It was not something I consciously figured out, laying brick after brick until I felt safe and free of potential harm. However, I knew a wall was there, fully formed and almost impenetrable.

I have become so used to this wall that I rarely feel pain anymore—actually, I don’t feel pain, sadness, and very little anger. But I also don’t feel happy, or excited, or for that matter, well-rested or well-adjusted, either. I’m generally numb and don’t look for ways to break through that nothingness. Still, I felt compelled to answer the call and help my sisters.

After I arrived, we spent over an hour avoiding the elephant in the room, the one holding electric clippers in its hand. We rearranged furniture, made small talk even smaller, and told ‘Dad jokes’—

“What do you call a pile of kittens?”

“I don’t know. What?”

“A Meow-n-tain, of course!”

When we had used up as much oxygen as possible without hedging toward the deed, without hinting at what we were really doing there, it was suddenly time.

One of my sisters placed a chair in the kitchen. Our mother sat down, and we surrounded her.  On somebody’s cell phone, I found one of my mom’s favorites, the Musical, Singing in The Rain and pressed play.

The soundtrack played, filling up the dead spaces, the empty fill-in-the-blanks where a conversation should go, where heartfelt meaning should go.

The clippers hummed on, vibrating my sister’s hand, making tears overflow and roll down her face. My mother snapped her eyes closed. Her lips trembled at each pass over her head.

I’m singing in the rain. I’m singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again…” Blared over the electric buzz.

“Remember when I was in this play?” I asked. “Remember? I had to lead the tap dancers along the ramp around the orchestra pit. Remember when I tripped and almost fell into that orchestra pit?”

My mother’s eyes flew open, and she smiled. She used to love it when I said that story. I knew she did, and I continued tap dancing, retelling the old tale, trying to distract her from the moment, but I could tell it wasn’t working.

After a few more attempts of denial and emotional removal via clumsy tall tales, I gave up.

I gave in.

I stood in front of her. I held both of her hands in mine, and despite that wall I’d built so long ago, I began to feel something.

Warmth started at the space between my neck and my collarbone. It liquified and spread into each shoulder and grew down my arms. It lasted only a moment, a thunderous whisper, and then it evaporated, leaving its marks. The warmth stopped somewhere in my chest, at the cavernous space containing my heart, the loophole, and the chink in my emotional armor.

When the clippers stopped, my sisters and I released a collective breath.

My mother sat, for the first time in 70 plus years, without any hair. She sat among us, her perfectly shaped head stippled with evidence of what used to be.

I’ve never seen my mom like that. It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize her or that suddenly she looked like an alien. It was that I’d never seen her so beautiful before, none of us had, and she took our breath away. That moment changed me.

Since that Friday afternoon, I have felt more. It is as if that persistent old wall is starting to crumble, bit by bit, and brick by brick.

Every new experience I have with my mother or my father (especially surrounding my mom’s sickness), another row of invisible wall seems to melt away. And a new idea has occurred to me.

I didn’t create a wall for protection. Unintentionally, I built a containment area keeping all those burdens, those millions of tiny and enormous injuries, inside with me to fester, to grow and to ulcer and canker. I had built a wall and allowed it to hurt me.

Last night, I spent the night at my mother’s, voluntarily, something the wall of my recent past would not have allowed me to do.

“I guess it’s time for mandatory moments with mom,” she said smiling, and we both laughed. For the first time in years, I didn’t feel the sharp edges of some invented wall, but the lightness of freedom.

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