The movie 50/50 explores, with great pathos and endearing humor, what happens when a 27-year old man named Adam finds out he has cancer. His survival odds stand at 50%. This movie pulls no punches. It’s real. Adam’s best friend Kyle uses Adam’s cancer as a pickup line, and yet Kyle is a true friend to Adam. Adam’s artistic girlfriend cheats on Adam with this ridiculous “Jesus figure,” and Adam avoids returning his mother’s phone calls throughout the movie, right up until when he needs her. And Adam develops a deep but not really inappropriate relationship with his therapist, who is even younger than he is.
But this is not a movie review. This is about putting flowers on Lizzie’s grave every October. And it’s about my third child, and why I so badly wanted to have him even against medical advice, and it’s about my first seizure, which I had at the age of 27. And if I strip it down to its raw essentials, this is about my mother, and mourning for the phone calls I cannot make.
We moved to our current home when my eldest child was 10 months old. Our second child was born a few months later, and we quickly became very close to the Recasners, who lived across the street from us. Ann and Jim Recasner met when Ann was studying to become a nun, and they fell in love and raised two children. The youngest child lived a couple of miles away, and her son, Conor, was Madeline’s age, and he spent time every day with his grandparents. As the months wore on, and my baby Jim shivered against the cold winter air, I heard Ann talking about Lizzie’s Tree, and I asked her, “What is Lizzie’s tree?” Ann didn’t respond right away, and then she gazed at me with her grey eyes and replied, “Our eldest daughter, Elizabeth, died from brain cancer when she was 8 years old. The summer before she died, we realized that this was going to be her last summer, and that she would not last until Christmas. So we planted her a Christmas tree, and we decorated it in July. And she passed away in October.”
I shuffled my feet and searched for something meaningful to say. I held baby Jim in my arms and kissed his head and then I looked Ann in the eye. “I’m so sorry Ann. I can only imagine,” and I stopped speaking because I was imaging losing one of my two children, and pinning all of my hopes on the remaining child. Ann held her hands out to hold Baby Jim, and she smiled at him and replied, “It’s not the kind of thing you ever get over, but the pain recedes with time.” I decided then that two children would not be enough, in case one ever left us.
Over the next couple of years, Ann and I grew closer. She felt like a second mother to me. And then Ann and Jim moved away, and this made me very sad. When it was time to say goodbye, we both struggled not to cry, and I asked her if there was anything I could do for Lizzie. She took a deep breath and replied, “The one request that Lizzie made of us was that each year, on the day she died, that we place a white rose on her grave.” I nodded, and promised to do that, and we hugged and we both tried not to cry when we said goodbye, but even now I am crying and it’s been years since they left. In fact, Madeline is Lizzie’s age now.
But the first time I visit Lizzie’s grave, Madeline was only three years old. And I took her with me, and on the way there, we stopped and bought white roses at Giant, and then we drove the Honda Pilot to the little Catholic cemetery and I wore sunglasses and held Maddie’s hand while we visited Lizzie. Maddie didn’t understand where Lizzie was, but she held my hand and helped me clear the weeds off Lizzie’s headstone, which read “Young and Promising Scholar,” and I hid my tears behind my dark sunglasses and thanked God for my own young and promising scholar.
In so many respects, I am lucky I even made it to see Lizzie’s grave. I had my own life-threatening condition hit me at the age of 27. My husband and I were staying at my parents’ vacation home in Maryland, and my parents were there too. I fell asleep. And then, a few hours later, some man was saying my name over and over again and I didn’t know who he was or where I was or what year it was; honestly, I didn’t even know who I was. But the voice, well, I trusted it, and then I heard another voice, and I knew this voice. It was my mother’s voice. They told me that I’d had a seizure and we had to go to the hospital and I was shaking all over and I felt like I had died. But I did not die.
And I thank God every night for giving me another day with my three children, and I ask him to please watch over me while I sleep. But some things God cannot fix, and while I am at peace with this, it saddens me still that if I need her, I cannot call the woman who raised me. It’s not that she is dead, and truly this is too complicated to go into here. Suffice to say that I cannot call her, but if I could, like Adam in 50/50, I would.