Paralyzed by the harrowing fear of losing her grown daughter to the clutches of brain cancer, a mother, Julie Brown, reflects upon a lifetime of details and experiences that have built and shaped her very existence. As she questions her station in life, she finds herself doubting every decision that she has ever made all along the way and wonders if she’ll ever be able to breathe again.
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Foundation of Love
A normal day is something that we all take for granted; it is the culmination of our routine, daily activities, which range from the mundane to the chaotic. Such days entail going to work, attending school, grocery shopping, and domestic chores. In my case, a typical day finds me standing in the kitchen, preparing a meal.
After one telephone call, that one simple task ceased to exist, as everything that was normal in my life within those few moments had been forever altered. Of course, normal meant something entirely different to me throughout my life, but to hear my daughter utter the words, "Mom, I have a brain tumor," was paralyzing and completely against nature.
In that instant, life as I knew it would never be the same again. How did this happen? How was it even possible? How could I be the mother Jessica needed? Then suddenly, it wasn't the voice of my twenty-seven- year-old daughter that I was hearing at the other end of the phone. Rather, it was the sweet voice of reminiscence — my innocent, little Jessica telling me that she had hurt herself. Only, this time, I couldn't kiss away the hurt and make it feel better. It was the most terrifying and helpless feeling. No mother should ever have to experience it. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. We are supposed to see them grow to live long, full, and productive lives.
While these thoughts careened through my mind, I wondered how I could avoid the undeniable guilt of making this situation about me. But then, how could I not? The connection between a mother and child is an inexplicable, bottomless ocean of boundless love wrapped within its own blanket of complexity. A mother wants to absorb any pain that could harm her child. I knew that if I lost my daughter you might as well rip my heart right out of my chest because I didn't know how I could possibly ever breathe again. I stood there within that unfathomable state of panic, clutching the phone in my hand, faced with the horrifying prospect of my daughter's mortality.
It was as though the clock had stopped and had frozen time — only I wasn't there anymore, in that house, on that phone, hearing those words. Instead, I was sixteen years old, standing in a different house with a different phone in my hand. My parents were on the other end of the line as I desperately listened in silence for their reaction, wondering how they would recover from what I had just told them.
Of course, there was nothing normal about that moment either. Now that I think about it, I wonder whether I ever had any normalcy in my life. I guess the only way anyone could answer that question — or how I arrived at this day — would be to understand my unconventional journey and how it all began.
Life had seemed so simple and limitless when I was growing up in Portland, Maine. As far back as I can remember, I think that I could see well beyond the stars within this vast universe. There was a subtle stirring from deep within my soul that had always made me yearn for the unknown world past the walls of my home. I didn't have that in common with my sister, Karen. She was six years younger and always seemed to have more grounded aspirations — somewhat typical of kids growing up in our time. She was the one full of energy, laughter, and corny jokes — always ready to entertain us. My brother, Mark, who was two years older, followed different goals while marching to the beat of his own drum. There were times when I had wondered where he was going to go in his life, but then, I think he had wondered the same thing. I don't think that I could put my finger on any one thing in particular, but I believe there was always something calling out to me that I needed to answer.
I was born in October, 1962, the second child of Karl and Joanne Andersen, who came from Chicago, Illinois. They moved to the East Coast when my father was in seminary working toward a master's degree in sacred theology. When Mom married Dad, she viewed their new life together as an adventure, and she was brimming with excitement to see where their path would take them. She didn't know about all the pressure that she would face.
During the early years of their marriage, while Dad was in seminary and Mom was at home, she struggled a bit not having him around. She believed in him and wanted Dad to excel in his endeavors, but she missed having all the special moments that most newlyweds shared every day. Back then, it wasn't unusual for husbands to go off for days, weeks, or even months at a time for a job, searching for work or getting the necessary training. The wives generally had to be okay with it. Mom made every effort to be the best wife she could be. But she was lonely. And when Dad did come home, she wasn't as good at doing some domestic chores as she wanted to be, which often discouraged her. She worried that she wouldn't be the kind of wife a minister should expect.
As time progressed, Mom had found herself fighting to meet expectations and fit certain roles. Ultimately, she lost track of her own identity, with little support from family members. This was disheartening for her.
Despite it all, she and Dad worked together as a team with some outside help to overcome her challenges. Amazingly, I never saw that part of their life. By the time I came along and was old enough to be aware of things, Mom had managed to find her way back to herself. My parents' roles had reversed, with Mom becoming the one upon whom Dad relied most of the time. I remember Mom spending her days being the glue that kept our family together and a source of unwavering strength, or so I thought. If she had any doubts or insecurities while I was growing up, she did a fabulous job acting otherwise.
I saw my mother as the pillar of our family — and I think that she had to be to keep us in line. Dad, meanwhile, took all the steps required for him to become a minister. Mom was never easily rattled in front of us. She always had her own quiet distinction, allowing life to unfold naturally without deeming it necessary to control every aspect of every experience. While she may have been climbing a few mountains of her own, Mom was there when we needed her and knew precisely when to step back to give us room to grow. Dad, on the other hand, had a difficult time relaxing. He was a go-getter and needed to be actively doing something most of the time, whether he was working or lending a helping hand. I think that men of his generation felt that they needed to fill their hours with some type of productivity to be the true backbones of their domains. Plus, he loved people and always wanted to help when he could.
His outside activities didn't stop him from keeping his thumb firmly on the pulse of his own family. He always was acutely aware of what was happening within our household. Perhaps being a man of the cloth led him to be more particular when it came to his children. Or maybe he was just a dad who wanted to protect us from the dark elements of the world. Either way, he hovered over us while gently guiding us in the best direction that he could.
Dad was a soft-spoken foundation of virtue, and he walked his walk within the eyes of the Lord. Being a minister was undoubtedly his calling, and that path set the tone for our family. Though our life wasn't inundated with daily scripture readings and threats of brimstone and fire, we still had a clear moral code to follow in a home that was filled with life, love, and laughter. Attending church every Sunday was a regular part of our existence, and, initially, it never occurred to me to question the customary teachings of organized religion; these ways simply shaped how we did things within our family. However, our parents told us that, after becoming confirmed, we were all free to make our own choices regarding faith. Until then, we observed the belief system that they taught us without objection.
Sunday was a big day for us. It began with the church service, followed by socializing with friends from our community and then by a large, early-afternoon dinner at home. We sat around the table catching up on everything that had happened during the previous week, and we ate a meal that was fit for a king. My mother's cooking made it impossible to avoid second helpings, which left each of us stuffed for the remainder of the day. That was fine, because we loved snacking on popcorn later while watching our weekly Sunday favorites together — everything from Wild Kingdom to The Wonderful World of Disney. This routine might not seem very exciting to anyone else, but it was a regular occasion that I think we all appreciated and will always remember fondly.
There was a time for fun and a time for serious business. My parents had some very strong convictions, beginning with the importance of effective communication. They worked hard to impart them to each of us. It was essential that we learned to express ourselves clearly and deliberately, saying what we needed to say and standing firmly behind our individual viewpoints. We also learned to listen thoughtfully to one another with open minds and hearts. Mutual respect among us was just as vital to our parents because they wanted us to grow into adults with an unbreakable bond tying us together.
I think that one of the most valuable lessons they taught us was about commitment and honoring one's word. They did not want us to start things that we were not willing to finish. If we said that we were going to participate in a project, they expected us to see it through to its completion. If we made promises, we had to keep them, whether it was something big or small. They felt that, if we could honor minor commitments, then we would be able to handle bigger and more significant responsibilities when the time came.
While we understood that money was a must for survival, we also learned how to enjoy life without being driven by it or by the glimmer of material possessions. We liked nice clothes and toys just like other kids, but we learned how to appreciate what we had without feeling like we were missing out if we didn't have the latest and the greatest. Mom had a great gift of showing us how to stretch a dollar into so much more when finances were tight. She could turn a simple meal into a feast and hand-me-downs into high fashion. Even when we didn't have a lot of the extras, vacations were never sacrificed and were always met with great anticipation, endless excitement, and an array of intricate plans.
Mom could turn an ordinary road trip into a spectacular adventure with what we had in the house. We didn't need to spend a ton of money going to restaurants because we packed yummy picnic lunches that she put together and we found that to be so much more fun. Although our early years of traveling didn't include any exotic locations, it was still wonderful seeing different areas of the United States while spending time with many of our extended relatives, including both sets of our grandparents — Gramma and Grampa Valente on my mother's side and Gramma and Grampa Andersen on my father's side.
With both families being from Chicago, the Christmas season was extra special. In my early years, we traveled to Illinois to spend the holidays with them. Christmas day was a celebration like no other, with music, singing, laughter, and a bunch of excited, happy people talking at the same time. Visitors came and went, the kids were playing, and it was the event of the year.
It was never about the number of gifts beneath the tree for our family; it was more about the quality time we had together and the warm and fuzzy moments of the holidays. Our parents didn't go crazy buying presents that they couldn't afford. Instead, they gave us just a few things and taught us the value of one another and how important it was to be together as a family.
Oddly, both sets of grandparents eventually moved from the Chicago area. The Valentes chose to come our way to be near us in Maine, which was great, because we could see them more often. They eventually retired to Florida. The Andersens went in the opposite direction, choosing the state of Wisconsin to be their new home. It would have been nice if they could have moved closer to us, but they provided us with a new and interesting place to visit.
As tightly bound as we were, we never allowed the miles that separated many of us to break our strong connection. Between visits and long-distance telephone calls, we were a family of avid writers, sending letters back and forth frequently through the mail to fill each other in on all of the latest happenings. It didn't matter if someone was writing to announce a major milestone or just writing to say hello. I don't think that I knew too many families who wrote with the enthusiasm and frequency that we did.
I was little when Gramma and Grampa Valente moved to Maine, and I was thrilled. I'd always had an extra special relationship with them. Grampa Valente was full of life and loved to share a million stories with us about his time in Italy when he was a boy, when he moved to the states, and when he became a man and found the woman of his dreams. His stories kept me riveted, eagerly waiting to hear what happened next. I think he was just as happy to tell the stories as I was to hear them.
Grampa Valente (Dominick) was from a small village in Cesuna, Italy, and immigrated to the United States when he was only five years old. He was proud of his Italian heritage, but he was also proud to be an American, and he cherished family more than anything. When he lived in Chicago, while my mother was growing up, he could have taken a higher paying job elsewhere that would have required possible relocation or him being away from everyone for long periods, but making his wife and family happy was his first priority. He chose to take on various types ofjobs, from working for the public works department to working at Sherwin Williams, because he wanted to do whatever he could to keep everyone together and happy. He and Gramma Valente rented rooms in their house to boarders to supplement their income, which worked out really well for them.
Gramma Valente (Lillian) was of German and Swedish descent. She had a heart of gold, resolute tenacity, and an infinite capacity to love. When I envisioned the perfect mother, it was her. She had her own firm but considerate thoughts about life, love, and family, and I thought that she knew everything there was to know about being a good mom. She was a housewife who made taking care of a family and home look effortless. I always felt that she understood me on a level that many didn't, and she recognized certain facets of me that I hadn't even fully discovered yet.
My mother had an older brother, Uncle Teddy, who died in 1957. He had been in the garage fixing a car with Grampa Valente when he was electrocuted from a spark during a rainstorm. This nearly broke my grandparents in half, especially Grampa Valente, because he had been standing right there as Uncle Teddy died before his very eyes. During those days, other than medical professionals or lifeguards, most people didn't know how to perform CPR, and there wasn't anything that my grandfather could do to save his son. Uncle Teddy's passing was a tragedy that left an indelible mark upon their hearts.
My mother's younger brother, Uncle Rick, came along much later in life when she was already grown. He was bullied as a teenager when living in Chicago and had been beaten severely by a couple of boys in front of Gramma Valente while they were on the street waiting for a bus. She was lucky Uncle Rick's attackers didn't do anything to her, but she felt helpless for not being able to stop them from harming her son. He recovered, but the emotional scars made all of them weary for a while. This prompted their move to Maine.
On my father's side was my grandfather, Lester Soren, and my grandmother, Oca (pronounced O-SAH) Andersen. It should come as no surprise that they were dedicated to their faith, considering Dad's moral compass and how it guided his life choices. They were traditional people for the most part. However, in many ways, they were ahead of their time, choosing to treat each other as partners rather than living within the conventional male and female roles that most couples observed in those days. They believed in maintaining a united front when in the presence of others, especially with their children, while keeping their disagreements at a quiet decibel and behind closed doors.
Both sets of grandparents were religious and went to their respective churches every Sunday. Gramma and Grampa Andersen followed the teachings of the Unitarian Protestant church, while Grampa Valente had been baptized Catholic. The problem was that Gramma Valente was Lutheran, and although most of the people who they knew were Catholic, Gramma Valente wasn't fond of the idea of converting to Catholicism. Grampa Valente adored her and didn't care about all of that, so they married in the Lutheran church. Then to complicate things just a little more, my mother and her brothers were raised Protestant. It was confusing, to say the least, but I guess that the structure of their belief system didn't matter as much as simply believing. I could respect that.
Excerpted from "Building a Life"
Copyright © 2017 Julie Brown and Angel Logan.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foundation of Love, 1,
Tethered to Uncertainty, 13,
Yielding to Expectation, 35,
Waning Endurance, 53,
Revising the Plan, 67,
Fragility of Body and Spirit, 91,
Transcending through Resilience, 101,