Moving sucks but cancer sucks more. I speak from experience.
My name is McKenzie Costello and my mom died last year and it seems like that’s how I think of myself now: Kenzie, the girl whose mother died. They sent mom home with pamphlets with titles like Dealing with Cancer as a Family, Fighting the Good Fight and Beating Cancer. She only lasted about six months after the doctors told her how bad it was so two things became very clear: the pamphlets didn’t work and they were right when they said it was pretty goddamned aggressive.
Goddamned is my word, not theirs.
Lots of people showed up for the funeral. Dad spoke in church and before he broke down he managed to tell everyone that she was the kind of person who knew her mail carrier's first and last name and it was true. She even knew that he had two daughters in high school. And which high school. That was just how mom lived her life. Neither dad or me are exactly like that.
Later, at our house, grandma told me, "I see her when I look at you," and then took my face in her hands and I could see that she was about to cry. I took it as a compliment but didn’t really believe her. I hugged her and smiled as best I could - mom was her only child after all.
Neighbors came by our house to check on the two of us for a while after that. Sometimes kids from my school came over with their parents and even though it was nice of them it was weird because I really didn’t hang out with any of them. I think it was the parents making them come over. Whatever. Some of them brought food for us which I didn't understand at first but then seeing how neither dad or me had the energy or creativity to actually cook anything, well, then it made sense. The food piled up in the freezer.
For weeks after I expected to see mom waiting for me in the kitchen before school. Dad seemed to age ten years and our tiny rowhome suddenly became enormous. When I went back to school some of my classmates said how sorry they were but it all seemed awkward. I guess freshman are just awkward by nature. I don’t think any of them really understood death or anything. Maybe I didn’t either.
I think the only honest person other than dad during this was the six-year-old daughter of one of our neighbors. Our tiny backyards were next to each other and she saw me as I was sneaking a smoke. She put her face up to the fence and softly asked if I had seen my mom’s ghost yet. I didn’t know what to say but I burst into tears.
I didn’t blame her, though.
It was impossible to avoid seeing mom in every room in the house. Sometimes I closed my eyes as I passed by her picture in the hallway.
Mom liked to cook and she always danced and sang in the kitchen when music was on and if it embarrassed me (which it always did) she would just grab me and spin me around and then we would take spoons from the drawers and pretend they were microphones…and by then I would be cracking up...and...
...hang on. Sorry...
Sometimes the memories come out of the blue like a punch in the face. My chest hurts and then fills with air and then deflates like a balloon and I’m left with this stale taste in my mouth. If the memories pile up too quickly I’m afraid that they’ll crush me. I think that’s what dad is afraid of, too.
One of the other million things that suck now that mom is gone is that I'll never hear so many songs that I loved. I mean I’m not sure I can ever listen to them again. They bring me too close to the edge. I've heard people say the same thing about a song after someone breaks up with you but I wouldn't know about that. I've never been out on a date.
I know for a fact I’ll never listen to Purple Rain ever again. God, mom loved that song and we sang it so many times together, hitting that high pitch at the end together and then bowing to an invisible audience when we were done. Dad would come in and clap and we would bow again.
Goddamnit. Fuck cancer.
I think Prince would agree.
I also really miss Costello Movie Day, which everyone else in the world just called Saturday. Mom had a love for movies ever since she was a kid and the three of us spent many Saturday afternoons at the Duke and Duchess because it was the only theater in town that still had matinee showings. Can’t beat two dollars a ticket shows, right The movie was usually something that parents could feel good about taking their kids to and If it was a rainy day it made it even better for some reason.
Sometimes they were old movies in black and white and I didn't even care. Just to be sitting between them with a tub of popcorn on my lap made the world seem perfect for a couple of hours. I even started liking some of them after a while. We watched musicals, mysteries, comedies and adventures. “That’s Katharine Hepburn,” mom whispered while we watched Adam’s Rib and made it sound special like a secret she was letting me in on. She was beautiful and didn’t take any shit from anybody. Eventually, I was able to put names to some of the other faces I was seeing on the screen.
One day I asked who built the D & D (as we affectionately called it). It seemed so big and cave-like. “Oh, this one isn’t even that old, sweetie,” dad answered and pointed behind us. “The really old ones would have a balcony, sort of like an upstairs, with more seats just to hold all the people who came.”
“And the decorations,” mom added and popped a snocap (her favorite) into her mouth. “The Freemont, the one in my town, had all these golden angels and heavy green velvet drapes along the walls. There was this fresco above the screen with all these plaster Greek figures and these columns on either side that seemed to hold the whole ceiling up.” She put her head back and closed her eyes, “And the ceiling, wow, it seemed like it was a mile high to me back then.” She turned to me and smiled, catching the grin on my face. “Who knows, maybe it was, right?”
As much as I loved the Duke and Duchess it didn’t look as magnificent as mom was describing the Freemont theater. Dad said they built it the same year that I was born so that was something, right? I imagined we shared the same birthday.
One Halloween, I can’t remember if I was seven or eight, the D & D was having a special matinee double feature. Mom has always had a bit of a soft spot for old horror movies and she and I convinced dad that I was old enough to go.
Officially, the very first horror movie I ever saw was The Creature from the Black Lagoon since it was the first movie on the double bill. Maybe that’s why it’s still one of my favorites. The plot wasn’t complicated: Scientists exploring a jungle paradise come face to face with a prehistoric fish man who attacks them and then captures the beautiful lady scientist who is then, of course, rescued by men scientists.
I loved it even though I could tell at 8 years old that the “Creature” was just some guy in a costume. I also thought that she should have been able to take care of herself.
“I definitely wouldn’t have fallen down as much as that lady in the movie if the Creature was chasing me. He’d never catch me.”
“Yeah, you had a lot of clumsy women in the horror movies back then,” she said as the lights went on and we waited for the second movie. “A lot of screaming, falling down and waiting for the guy to come and save her. Never liked that much either, to tell you the truth.”
After that we watched as killer ants the size of cars gobbled up folks in a small desert town in Them! It looked like nothing could stop them until they were finally defeated in the sewers beneath Los Angeles! Oh, and more screaming women who fall down.
I had a million questions as we walked home.
“How did they get the ants to look so big?”
“Who made the costume of the Creature?”
Mom fielded every question as best she could but sometimes she would just smile and answer, “The magic of movies, I guess. If you ever want to know more you can look through my books from college.”
From then on I was hooked and made sure to catch any of the old horror movies I could if they either playing were running on TV. Mom usually joined me. She loved The Fly with Vincent Price. I peeked between my fingers at the really scary parts but loved every minute. Even the titles back then were great: Lizards from the Red Planet, Vampire Teens, The Invisible Stalking Eye and Bug Children from the Swamp just to name a few.
When video stores started popping up in Philly, like the rest of the country, we sometimes gave ourselves the option of staying home instead but it was usually dad or me suggesting it. At Video City we could pick any movie we wanted! When we got home dad and I made the popcorn (extra butter and salt) and mom would pull out boxes of candy like a magician from her hiding places around the house because she knew dad and I would eat them if we found them (which was so true).
Mom occasionally insisted on us tramping over to the Duke and the Duchess because they were showing The African Queen or something.
“You know, we could just rent it,” I would say.
“That’s not the point,” she replied, putting her arm around me. “Movies are always better in the theater.”
Mom was a student at Temple University when she met dad and they couldn’t have been more different: he was majoring in business while she was in the RTF department. Sorry, that’s (R)adio, (T)elevision & (F)ilm. It was sort of a right brain meets left brain romance. She was working in the cafe on campus and he was a regular. But only after he saw her for the first time.
“I didn’t even really like coffee back then,” he had said more than once and mom would always roll her eyes and smile perfectly because she knew the next line. “But I sure liked the scenery.”
Yeah, he really said that. I guess it was cute.
So dad drank coffee he didn’t like and waited until he got up the nerve to ask mom out - well, mom before she was mom. I was still down the road a bit but not quite as far as they thought.
Mom loved the RTF department. She had worked on a few small film projects with classmates, had taken an intense film editing class and loved it and had even scored work on some of the graduate productions by being the squeaky wheel and getting recommendations from her professors. Everyone loved her and knew they could rely on her. She was a rising star.
She had even acted a few times in these when it was needed but decided it wasn’t for her. “I really stunk it up as an actor,” she laughed. But apparently, she was a very good editor and she had also worked on props, lighting and sound as well. “You kinda had to do a bit of everything on these shoots,” she said.
She excelled in all of it.
Well, like I said, not the acting part.
“I had my eye on the big chair,” she said. “I knew there was no place for me in front of the camera but behind the camera…” she said, closing her eyes, the last word ending in a whispery hush. “That’s where the real magic was for me.”
What she really wanted was to direct. And she was probably heading for it, knowing her.
But then she also started dating dad.
And got pregnant.
I was a bit of a surprise to both of them to say the least but they were in love and soon got married. Dad cheered the loudest when mom accepted her diploma while in her second trimester and when it was his turn the following spring, mom helped me clap my hands because I still had little to no motor control at that point.
Mom soon landed a job writing for a local magazine and dad entered the business world.
“Do you ever wish you had gone out to hollywood?” I asked her one night during dinner. We had just gotten back from seeing Star Wars and my mind was moving a mile a minute. I had never seen anything like it before.
Mom smiled as if she hadn’t thought about it in forever but I always sensed that there was another, slightly sadder face behind the one she always showed the world. One that maybe regretted not heading out to Cailfornia or up to New York to chase that big director’s chair. So many of her college friends did. Most were never heard from again but some actually made a career out of it even if they weren’t exactly household names like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas.
“God, no,” mom answered. “Life just happened, you know?” Besides, you’re the greatest production I could have ever hoped for. Perfect.”
After a few weeks Dad and I had gone through all the donated lasagnas and casseroles. We ate out a lot after that, maybe because sitting at the dining room table and trying to make everything seem normal was pointless to both of us. Costello Movie Day stopped and in a way that made sense too, with all that happened but it also hurt like hell when I really thought about it.
I didn’t want to be around anyone after mom died and as time passed I felt like I couldn’t connect with any of them. It wasn’t like they didn’t try, they did, at least some of them. I just didn’t see what the point was if people could get sick and die so quickly. And how could they know what it was like to lose someone like mom?
Even before all this I could have counted the kids I considered friends on one hand and have three fingers left over. Other kids just didn’t get me and I never really fit in with the girls, especially as we all got older. When boys starting being everything they talked about I couldn’t have cared less. When I thought about the boys in my class for the life of me didn’t know what all the fuss was about.
Mark Teague? Half the time he forgot to zip his pants.
Dennis O’Shea? Got his head stuck in the monkey bars...just last October.
Eric Peters? One day I watched him eat two different crayons and he swore to me that they tasted different.
This was the big deal?
Plus, well, even though dad had always been a bit of a homebody it seemed like now he didn’t want to be alone at all. I could relate to that but it was confusing as hell to want to be alone and also be afraid of being alone. In a sad and beautiful way the two of us became closer after mom. I think she would be fine with that. One night he knocked on my door and quietly sat on the edge of my bed. I was watching Vincent Price in The Fly. Again.
“Kenz, I’m sorry I’ve been so…” He looked over at me and I just nodded. What really was there to say? It sucked.
Which brings me back to moving....