Only last Tuesday, John and I swayed on our porch swing yukking it up with our next door neighbor, Mike Sperry, in the warm evening twilight.

Today it's snowing.  And April is only days away.

"It's the cruelest month of all," John reminds me.

Spring is always bittersweet.  On a beautiful day when the birds are chirping madly and the tulips are poking through to the sunshine, my siblings and I think of our parents.  Mom died in April, and Dad in May.  For us, the beauty of spring will forever be associated with those very painful losses in our lives.  The cold falling snow seems more fitting somehow.

For the first time, I will not be scheduling my mammogram for April 1st.  No more mammograms.  Ever.  The relief is sweet, but the guilt is terrible. Mom would be the sacrificial lamb.  She would die, and my sisters and I would live.

Sitting in Arby's together, right after Terri made the monumental decision to undergo a double mastectomy last July, my little sister cried in anguish.  "I keep thinking of Mom," Terri wept.

If ever a family was in denial, it was our family.  While Mom lay in agonizing pain those last few weeks of her life, we refused to believe she wouldn't get better.  Even Dad and Grandma, who were old enough to know better, shut their eyes to the awful truth.  At 23, I was old enough to know better, too.

"Why can't I just die?" my mother moaned one day in helpless defeat.

"Don't say that, Mom!" I begged.  And she didn't - ever again.  Silent and miserable, she sadly acknowledged her family's denial.

Breast cancer wasn't talked about in the 70's, and if Hospice existed, we weren't aware of it.  So Mom writhed in her lonely bed day after day without a single family member or friend to confide to.  Instead, we rubbed her sore back, urged her to walk, and plied her with pain pills.

On Easter Sunday, two days before she died, she opened her eyes and asked us all as innocently as a little child, "Am I going to die?"  We couldn't speak. 

It was only when our good pastor, Father Harry Kurtenbach, leaned over Mom in her hospital bed to ask, "Are you afraid to die, Patti?" that the awful silence was broken at last.

"No," she sighed, her head sinking back to gaze at Father Harry in loving gratitude.

When we were older and facing the fear of breast cancer ourselves, my sisters and I began to intimately understand our mother's agony.  I was so frightened as I was wheeled into surgery for my first breast biopsy.  Just before the anesthesiologist put me under, I thought of Mom.  Only 20 years earlier, she'd been in my place.  But she would wake up from her biopsy without a breast.  That's the way it was done in 1976.  I never felt closer to my mother than I did in that single moment before surgery.

"I love you, Mom."  It was a piercing, silent prayer in the middle of the orchestration of the operating room..  Suddenly, a power surge sent every single light buzzing into high beam all around me.

"Whoa!" a masked nurse exclaimed, raising her eyes and arms in wonder.  "And let there be light!"

That Mom was beside me, I had no doubt.  Her nearness was the last comforting thought I was aware of before the nurse woke me an hour later to inform me that the lump was benign.

My sisters and I, several years ago, made two pacts with each other.  First, if any of us would end up lying in a coma, it would be the responsibililty of the others to sneak into our hospital room and remove any embarrassing facial hair.  Second, we promised each other that if we're ever dying of breast cancer, we'll talk.  No more denial.

"If I could go back to 1979," Deb said once, "I'd hug Mom until she was sick of me.  I'd sit by her bedside and talk to her and hold her hand and stroke her hair," she breathed, "and I would tell her how much she was loved."

Our greatest sorrow is that Mom never knew our spouses and her grandchildren.  I especially wish she could have known my mother-in-law, Ruth Howard.  She's the quintessential grandmother with her snowy white hair and rosy cheeks.  The mother of seven children herself, she would have gotten along like a ball of fire with Mom.  I can see them now, swapping stories about the hazards of raising a million kids.

Ruth would tell Mom about the time  her 12-year-old Tom secretly dug tunnels underneath the dirt in their Colorado farmyard.  One day, the tractor my father-in-law was driving was all but swallowed up in the ground when the weight of it sank through Tom's extensive tunnel system.

"Ruth!" my outraged father-in-law roared from the seat of his sunken tractor.  "Get Tom out here NOW!"

Mom would tell Ruth about the time my little brother Joe played with Dad's lighter and accidentally set the bed on fire while he was supposed to be taking a nap. 

And the two of them would laugh until they cried.

I'm lucky to have a mother-in-law like Ruth Howard.  In spite of the many troubles that plague her in her own life, she always views the world with fresh optimism.  After a stroke and a broken hip limited her busy world to her own modest home, she nevertheless found comfort from her countless books and her passionate love for her two favorite sports teams - the Denver Nuggets and the Denver Broncos.

"Sometimes I just have to walk away from the t.v.," she shudders to my husband, also a devoted member of the Bronco faithful.  "That Tim Tebow's trying to kill me."

The loss of John's father almost 15 years ago was a bitter pill to swallow.  Ruth soldiered on, however, and was determined to enjoy life and her children and grandchildren.  But when complications from diabetes threatened her independent life style, she reluctantly listened to her good children, who feared for her life, and moved into an assisted living facility.

She still watches the Broncos every Sunday afternoon in the fall.  And her 86-year-old zest for life is a good lesson for somebody like me who can sometimes let spring melancholia weigh her down. "Things always work out!" Ruth exclaims, as she eases back into her recliner to cheer on her beloved Broncos.  "But that John Fox better pull those players together, or we're all in big trouble. What is Tebow DOING?"

Ruth Howard teaches me that life is an extraordinary journey, whether in Heaven or on Earth, and that even during the cruelest month of the year, it's important to look forward to a few surprises. 

Who knows?  Her oldest grandson might just bring his beautiful girlfriend to dinner at the nursing home.  Or perhaps her gorgeous granddaughter Emily might swing by with her flock of laughing college friends.  And, what the heck.  Maybe the Broncos will even win a Super Bowl next year.

But even my mother-in-law isn't that optimistic.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.