Twelve years ago today my mom, Genevieve, succumbed to colon cancer. At least that was her official diagnosis. She actually died of being stubborn.
My mom didn’t like doctors. They scared her. One time she told me that nobody died of an illness without a doctor first telling him or her that he or she was sick. Not until she, in her desperation never to acknowledge sickness, died of a curable disease.
According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. — claiming about 50,000 lives this year — but it also has a phenomenal cure rate if caught early. Seventy-four percent of people diagnosed with Stage 1 colon cancer make it to the five-year survival rate. Considering that approximately half of those diagnosed die, we can do the math and learn that too many folks are like my mom and don’t see a doctor until it’s too late. Of course, many of those unchecked folks probably don’t have health insurance — the American Cancer Society estimates 57,000 cancer patients die annually without insurance — so it wasn’t their fault.
That wasn’t my mom’s problem. She was just scared — stubborn and scared — and it killed her.
Dying unnecessarily was the only selfish thing my mother ever did to her kids. In every other way Genevieve showed us that she loved us more than she loved herself. Even when she drove us crazy, we knew it was out of love.
If my mom had understood that allowing her fears to govern her health care decisions was a selfish act she wouldn’t have done it. See, robbing her kids and grandkids of her love wasn’t fair, and the one thing my mom insisted upon was justice. Genevieve didn’t just lecture us on justice, she acted on it.
My mother abhorred racism, sexism and classism. Any kind of prejudice at any time was anathema to her. The daughter of Irish immigrants, she had a serious attitude against oppression. She seasoned her constant lessons about right and wrong with humor, so we learned to laugh even when disgust would be the expected response.
One afternoon in 1972 I was in the dining room with Genevieve where she sat sewing. An expert seamstress, she made everything from winter coats to curtains. The TV was on, and a news bulletin announced that renowned racist Gov. George Wallace had been shot. Genevieve hated racism, but she also hated vigilantism. She continued staring at her work and in a deadpan tone instructed, “Run in the kitchen, Patty, and see who shot Wallace. Make sure it wasn’t your Uncle Paul.” We laughed, but her point was made; no one in her family should tolerate racism, but no one in her family should resort to violence either.
My mother hated hunger, too. She said it was the worst disease of all because it was so curable and yet the world’s starvation epidemic persists.
Genevieve believed that everyone was the same and deserving of not just food but respect and dignity as well. One night about 20 years after George Wallace was shot, she and I went to a fancy dinner party. An affluent surgeon and his bejeweled wife sat next to her complaining about welfare recipients.
My mom seethed silently. He sensed her discomfort and said, “Well, I don’t mind feeding their children.” My mother replied coldly, “Oh, the poor are like puppies, so cute when they’re small.” The conversation ended.
I think like my mom, and I’m glad. Sadly, if my mom were still alive she’d be pretty sick of what’s going on in our country. Environmental contamination, suspension of habeas corpus for terrorist suspects, corporate bailouts, wars; the list of injustice is long.
But there’s one thing that would make her happy — Elena Kagan — the second female Supreme Court justice nominee in a row. Genevieve worked on the Equal Rights Amendment and was glum when it failed.
Genevieve would have celebrated President Barack Obama’s attempts at gender equality on our nation’s highest court. And she wouldn’t buy that garbage about it not being necessary that half the justices are women. Look at where all these men have gotten us. This country would be much better off run by women: women like my mom.
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.