My mother, Janis Vaughan, was an incredible woman. On the surface, she had the typical role for Catholic woman of her generation. She raised six children (all redheads like herself and my Dad) and remained at home until we became older when she joined my father in his real estate business. She never questioned her role in life, which was particularly hard because my father was seldom home and she was saddled with small kids only a year or so apart in age with no family nearby.
But she was far from typical, a true survivor before cancer took her life at age 78. Mom experienced many losses early in life. Her father left home when she was a young woman in North Dakota and was in jail for running grain into Canada when she graduated as class valedictorian. Eventually she moved to Minneapolis after World War II and lived with her mother, divorced sister and her sister’s two young children in a small apartment.
Later, she met her brother’s Air Force roommate, Robert Meyer, and they married in June 1950. But Bob’s plane crashed stateside during maneuvers for the Korean War and she became a widow in her 20s, left alone in Florida. Mom decided to move to San Diego where she spent some time with Bob’s friends and then met my father.
She was very smart and worked as a bank teller as a single woman. She easily aced her real estate exams in her 50s after not being in school for decades. Her clients and her friends loved her for her sense of humor, integrity and honesty. She hated when people didn’t conduct themselves ethically, whether the person in question was a salesman, a politician or even her own flesh and blood.
Mom didn’t become a grandmother until I had my first son at 36, but she loved my boys, Kuper and Asher—her only grandchildren—more than anything and arranged to see them as often as possible. She loved them enough to come to Iowa twice in January when they were born, once after a blizzard, even though she hated the cold in the Midwest, fueled by terrible memories of not enough heat and little food as a child in North Dakota. She had a knack for soothing fuzzy babies, laying them on her knees and rubbing their backs for hours. And, she knew how to be there for me, just sitting and expecting little in return.
She never missed an opportunity to visit her beloved sister Marilyn—I’m her namesake. My fondest memories are of them laughing until they curled over and tears streamed down their faces. Aunt Marilyn died of lymphoma; my mother was never quite the same. Her brother, Ralph, lost his battle to pancreatic cancer a few years earlier.
When Mom received the news she had stage 4 lung cancer, even though she never smoked and hated, hated cigarettes, she took the news with grace and grit. The oncologist never located a primary tumor, but it was a hormone-fueled cancer, and mom suspected it was related to a lump that had been removed or 35 years of hormone treatments following a hysterectomy. After several years of grueling treatment, Mom was admitted to hospice at home. I often debated how often I should fly there to visit, conflicted about not being there for her and yet hesitant to leave my young boys. She told me in no uncertain terms that my place was with my family. Period. No question, no guilt, no conflict. However, in the end, she waited until I arrived to die.
I wonder what Mom would think about this trip to Nepal with cancer survivors. First, I think she would have laughed that a 56-year-old overweight woman, never athletic, made this journey. After all, she laughed when I tried Botox once too. But I think she would have been moved to know that her face soared in the sky of Nepal, sending prayers to all four winds for her memory and for her soul. Miss you Mom!
Love always, Marilyn