When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
2020 Blog Housekeeping


By Kay Richard

In the grainy black-and-white film of Aunt Evelyn’s home movie camera, Maureen and I are doing our version of the hippy hippy shake. I’m wearing cut-offs and a button-down collared blouse, along with the ever present headband.

The camera pans over to the kitchen table where Georgette, still wearing her white Henri’s School of Hair Design uniform, is teasing mom’s hair into a beehive French roll while mom plucks her eyebrows.

When her transformation is over, Aunt Evelyn asks me to stand behind mom for a family shot. I’m blowing bubbles with my wad of pink Bazooka and giving mom rabbit ears with my fingers.

They left for their night out on the town to celebrate mom’s 35th birthday. Soon the camera is spanning the club and the musicians are mouthing words to songs we can’t hear. There’s mom, crossing the dance floor with her drink and settling into one of the booths along the side wall. Cigarette smoke rises from ashtrays on every table.

I hear the front door open and close and get up to ask Mom if she had a good time. She is lying on the sofa, her left arm elevated on the back, her right hand in a fist sitting on her chest, creases between her eyebrows.

I asked her if she was alright and she told me to go back to bed. Kissing her on the cheek, I told her I loved her and returned to my room.

When I woke the next morning, Aunt Evelyn was sitting at the table. She’d been there for awhile, waiting to tell me that mom had been taken to the hospital during the night. She’d had a heart attack, but was stable in the newly constructed ICU.

A few days later, Aunt Evelyn drove me to Heywood Hospital. I wasn’t allowed to see mom because the age requirement was 14 and up, so we stood in the parking lot outside her room and she waved to me from her window. I blew her a kiss and we headed home. It was the last time I saw her alive.

If I could ask her any question, it would be, “Were you glad that you kept me”? An unwed pregnancy doesn’t elicit so much as a blink of an eye these days, but in the 1950’s she must have faced shame and ostracism.

We never had the opportunity to have the conversations that would answer so many questions about the circumstances of my birth but I like to think that beyond the fear, she felt that maternal love that made her carry me out the hospital door and into the large French-Canadian family that I grew to love.

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There's a deep sadness to this story, a poignancy, the waving to your mother, not knowing it to be for the last time. How she must have loved you, needed you to stay in her life, going against the shame of those times.

Kay, what a fine writer you are!

I suspect your mother would have been, and IS... very proud of you! Thanks for sharing!

It's a wonderful piece Kay, as sweet as it is tragic. I'm very sorry you didn't have more time with your mother, but at least you have some wonderful memories & images to hold on to... and (fortunately for us) to share.

Thank you for sharing this honest and poignant story Kay. Such an early, abrupt and unexpected loss must have been very difficult for you and your family. I am sorry that you never had the opportunity to get to know each other better and to discuss more things as you both grew.

A friend and I just recently shared the information that our mothers were both pregnant prior to their marriages. We had both made the discovery through family records; our mothers never spoke of it to us. Though my friend asked her mother about it, there was no discussion. I found out late in my mother's life and knew better than to bring it up with her, and certainly not by that point in her life. My parents had divorced many years earlier, but not before having five other children over sixteen years, with each one adding to the strain. Learning that my conception may have been the only reason their marriage ever occurred only created more guilt and confusion for me. I suspect these situations of being pregnant before or without marriage were much more common than we will ever know. Thank goodness women have more options these days and don't have to live the stigma and shame that society heaped on unmarried mothers not that long ago.

How sad that you didn't have more time with your Mother--- and how lovely that you do have sweet memories of her. She must have loved you very much. I am grateful you are generous enough, and talented enough, to share this poignant tale with us.........

You are an amazing writer! I lost my mother at 15 and the circumstances were similar ... even the waving from the window. Holding you in my heart.

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