My mother got sick the summer she turned 45. A cigarette smoker since age 16, she stopped smoking that spring because she was already having trouble breathing. So at age 13, I inherited her job of driving the hay baler that summer, listening hard to understand the shouted directions of how to navigate corners and contours from my father standing on the wagon behind me. He stacked the small square bales chugging out of the chute one by one, grabbing each with a hook in his right hand and throwing them above his head with his left, until a load of almost 100 bales were stacked to withstand the bumpy trek back to the barn by the hired man.
My mother never got better. She was diagnosed with asthma, a condition that afflicts many people and a word that I had heard before. So I never really worried. That fall, I stopped taking the morning bus to school and took over my mother’s chores on the farm, taking a quick shower when we were done with the cows, curling my hair as fast as I could in the mirror over the sink upstairs, and then having dad drop me off at school. I grew up in farm country, so it shouldn’t have been embarrassing to be dropped off at school in an old farm truck, but when you’re a 13-year-old girl, everything is embarrassing. I am ashamed to say I worried more about the look of that farm truck than I did the health of my mother.
My mother died the summer she turned 53. The eight years between diagnosis and the grave were not pretty. She became confined to the four walls of the old farm house’s living room, filled with the whir of machines that helped her breathe. By the time I finished high school, Mom wasn’t getting better. So Dad made me a deal that if I turned down the scholarship to the journalism school I’d been offered, and instead commuted from home to the local college, helped him farm and take care of mom, he’d pay my tuition. So I did. And I am ashamed to say I resented that decision because I worried more about missing the full college experience than I did the health of my mother. Her asthma won during the summer between my junior and senior year of college. The next year I moved to Idaho to become a news reporter. The year after that, my dad remarried. And life marched on.
This is the year I turn 45. And summer will soon be upon us. I was 21 when my mother died. Sitting in the church pew next to my father during her funeral, I counted in my head how many years there were between ages 21 and 45. I’ve never been good at doing math in my head, which has always frustrated my father, a math genius, to no end. I suspect that’s why he taught me how to play cribbage when I was six years old: he figured making 15’s and 31’s and counting cards would help. It didn’t. To this day, I have to find a pen and paper or a calculator to do even simple addition or subtraction. So at age 21, sitting in that church, I kept myself from crying by trying to figure the math of how many years I had left before I got sick like she did. And I’ve been on a dead run ever since.
During the past 24 years, I’ve been described several ways, the nicest perhaps being “pushy,” the not-no-nicest starting with a “b” and ending with “itchy.” One boss described me as a snowplow. Another told me I was like a bull in a china shop. When my daughter was young, she would choose the jugs of milk at the store by which Sassy Cow Creamery “cow card” they carried. You can imagine her delight the day she found one that read: “Darlene: her pushy personality always gets her to the front of the herd.” She immediately removed it from the jug, thrust it at me, and said, “This cow is just like you, Mom!” It’s been on our fridge ever since.
For the past 24 years, I’ve lived my life in anticipation of this summer, trying to get as much accomplished as possible, traveling to as many places I can, and earnestly raising my daughter to adulthood, because the most significant woman in my life got sick when she was 45 years old. I’m in good health. I’ve never smoked. I’ve never found a brand of alcohol I enjoy, and I seem to be one of the few people who’s never tried drugs. There’s no doubt that I need to exercise more, and I probably drink too much coffee. But I’m doing fine. No life-threatening diagnoses so far.
That’s why a Friday afternoon two weeks ago meant so much to me. My husband and I took my dad and stepmom (who after 22 years in my life, I’ve started introducing as “mom”) to Baumgartner’s in Monroe for Limburger sandwiches and a game of Euchre. A group of Green County cheesemakers walked in and bought each other a beer. Several came over to say hello, so I introduced them to my parents. And then something amazing happened.
One of the cheesemakers, who knows my personality, and graciously chooses to overlook the “itchy” parts, shook my father’s hand and told him: “your daughter is changing the world.” I nearly broke down in tears. Is there any bigger compliment from a colleague? I don’t know if my father heard him, because the tavern was full, his hearing aid wasn’t working properly, and we would soon leave to find a quieter place. But I heard him. And it made all the difference. The summer that I turn 45 will come and go and I will keep on keeping on. I know I’ve got another 45 years in me.