Posted April 19, 2017 by jimhigley
This is a daily installment from my book, “Bobblehead Dad: 25 Lessons I Forgot I Knew.” Come back tomorrow for more!
I spent a fair amount of time as a child playing in a closet. This was by choice, mind you, and I actually enjoyed it. The closet was on the second floor of our home, located in a small town and surrounded by nothing but Nebraska cornfields. Tucked up under the roofline, this little room had a slanted ceiling and no windows. I pretended it was my tree house. I’m not sure of its exact size, but it was plenty big enough for me to lie down and stretch out my scrawny body in any direction I chose.
We referred to it as the “game closet” because on the left side was a wall of shelves filled with an assortment of games and puzzles that rivaled the children’s aisle in our local drugstore. I’d spend hours at a time in that closet pulling out game after game onto the prickly, green carpeting. I’d set up Mousetrap just to watch the cage wobble down the plastic, notched pole and trap the mouse. I’d pull out Life and spin the wheel countless times to see how many turns it took to get my car all the way around the board. I’d play one-man Twister. I’d want desperately to attempt Operation, but ours never seemed to work. And I wouldn’t even bother with Risk. It seemed too complicated.
You’d think that with four older brothers I’d have had plenty of people with whom to play games. But it didn’t work that way in our family.
My oldest brothers, Tom and Dave, were twins and nearly nine years older than me. Mick and Kevin were also older—four and five years, respectively—and inseparable from each other.
Then there was me, the odd man out. The fifth player in a world of games meant for four. The little brother on the sideline while everyone else played two-on-two.
Thank goodness for my mother. She was happy to let me hang out with her. And I was usually content to be with her. It didn’t matter what she was doing—cooking, laundry, cleaning, gardening, grocery shopping, or running errands. She was good company. She liked to talk. She liked to give me jobs. And she knew how to keep me busy.
My mom was always around. Her job was to run the house while my dad was at work every day. I didn’t know too much about her own childhood other than something bad had happened when she was twelve, and her father left forever. I also knew that her mother died of cancer when I was just a baby.
We usually could find our mom maneuvering around our undersized kitchen to whip up her round-the-clock buffet line or in the basement surrounded by volcanic piles of dirty clothes. She never got sick, but she went to appointments regularly with an old man named Dr. Hill who helped her with what she referred to as “a little blood pressure problem.” She treated herself to a weekly visit to the beauty parlor. She rarely drank, but her eyes would light up when someone offered her an occasional strawberry daiquiri.
Her world was her sons. She was the lioness, and we were her cubs. And while she was quick to put each of us in our place when needed, God help the foolish soul who ever crossed or criticized any of her offspring.
She didn’t mince her words. She said what was on her mind. She was very clear. And she could brilliantly give a verbal tongue-lashing while still leaving the recipient feeling as though he or she had just been handed a plate of homemade cookies.
Ask our pastor and the entire parish council, for instance. I believe her fundamental issue with them—back in the early seventies—was how parish funds were being allocated within our parish school. My mom, as well as many others, felt the athletic program—which I should point out involved all of her children—received a disproportionate amount of funds at the expense of music, theater, and arts—which involved none of her children.
It infuriated her; so much so that she did what no one else would do. She took on years of favoritism, documenting her thoughts in a three-page, single-spaced letter that became the talk of the congregation. The parish council, all men, had no idea what hit them.
All I know is not long thereafter the band was enjoying new uniforms as well as a newfound celebrity status thanks to their new cheerleader, my mom.
By the time I entered ninth grade, all of my brothers were out of the house, and I was starting to savor some independence from my parents. That was my perspective. Perhaps my parents viewed it as living with a snotty teenager. Either way, I had the entire second floor of our house to myself. I had access to all the clothes and electronics my brothers had left behind. I was making new friends. All in all, life was pretty good.
That all changed one spring day during that same school year.
A couple of buddies were over one night visiting me because I had just been released from the hospital after an appendectomy a few days earlier. That same night my mom became violently sick. It was her head. Headaches. Bad stuff. An ambulance came.
The next eight days were somewhat of a blur as my brothers, Dad, and I kept vigil in a fluorescently lit hospital waiting room. They believed it was a stroke—bleeding in the brain. She was in a coma for most of that time. Of course, we thought she’d get better. She was strong. She was our mom. Bulletproof.
She died on March 18.
A few weeks later, I came home from school one day and found my dad sitting in the family room crying. He was holding a letter from my mom’s doctor.
“It was cancer,” he said. “Mom had brain cancer.” He said it over and over. “Inoperable.” “Incurable.” He also told me something I had never heard before: she had long feared that she would die of cancer.
It was at that moment I inherited her fear.
I started playing a game shortly after my mom died, and I played it brilliantly for years. It’s actually a game a lot of people turn to after tragedy knocks on their door. I call it the Immunity Game. A therapist might call it denial. It’s a game where you convince yourself—because you’ve gone through something really bad in your life—that you’re immune to other pain, sadness, or loss for a long, long time. It’s basically a free pass you give yourself.
An effective game, it helped me move rather smoothly through my teen years, my twenties, and well into my thirties.
But even with the crutch of the Immunity Game, I still lived with the same gnawing fear my mom had known for her forty-nine years on this earth. Like an eyelash that grows backward and constantly pecks at your eyeball. It was there. Cancer.
Funnily enough, I didn’t even understand what cancer was for a long time. It was just the enemy. If I had a headache, it was brain cancer. Sore groin? Testicular, no doubt. I self-diagnosed that three times. And every time I got a clean bill of health, I’d think to myself, Of course! No bad stuff for me! I’ve got immunity!
And that would hold me over until the next apparent medical crisis.
Unfortunately, regardless of how diligently I played the Immunity Game, it didn’t work for me. Or any other Higley. Our family was an easy target.
Gold medal losers.
My dad died of ureteral cancer when I was thirty-six. I celebrated my fortieth birthday with my dying brother, Kevin, who was suffering from the same brain cancer my mom fell victim to twenty-five years earlier. Before I reached the age of forty-one, our family scorecard was not good at all: Mom, Dad, and Kevin had all lost their lives to cancer. Only three of my brothers and I were left.
Each successive loss made me come to terms with the reality that no Immunity Game was being played. Cancer is a fierce and unpredictable competitor.
There were likely more battles ahead.
Stop by tomorrow for Chapter 2…