Family Blueprint

This is embarrassing. I don’t exactly know how my father died.

I was at a doctor’s appointment last week, and because I was a new patient, I was asked to fill out a bunch of paperwork. Afterward, a nurse walked me through a family history questionnaire. When it was time to share my father’s medical history, I hesitated and then said:

“I know he had a heart attack (that he survived), and I know he was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma (that was treated). I think the cancer came back after several years of remission, and I assume it spread and became incurable.”

My father died when I was 18 months old. I remember my mother talking to me countless times about his death while I was growing up, but the memories are blurry. Retaining information about my father’s cause of death was never a priority. As a kid, just being fatherless was tough enough because anything that makes you different makes it more difficult to be just like everyone else, which, of course, is what you’re striving for in elementary school.

Today, I wish I had listened more closely back then. Now, being parentless, I am confronted with an issue that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the fading problem”.

If my mother were around, I would’ve called her for the answer to the nurse’s question. Two months ago when I had a sinus infection, and I couldn’t remember which antibiotic caused me to break out in hives when I was 10 years old, I could’ve used her help too. Last week when I had an urge to make chocolate cake – not just any chocolate cake, but the really rich kind with powdered sugar sprinkled on top that my grandmother taught my mother to make – I resorted to a couple handfuls of peanut M&Ms. Because without my mother, I was without a recipe.

Now I don’t want you to think that my family history and sacred recipes are lost forever – There’s an old shoebox with typed Rolodex cards with recipes somewhere in a special storage attic in Maryland. And what I’m fuzzy about concerning my father’s medical past, I make up for tenfold regarding my mother’s medical experiences!

But without either parent around to remind me of things, it sometimes feels like my family blueprint (a figurative genetic code of sorts) is fading along with all the tucked-away recipe cards in the storage attic.

That said, the fading family blueprint is not something that’s top of mind every day, nor does it significantly impact my mood. Never has someone stopped me in the street and said, “Quick! When did your paternal grandfather die, and was your father a light to moderate smoker in his twenties?”

And lastly, to compensate for my mourning of the chocolate cake recipe, I’m creating my own recipes and traditions that I will eventually pass down to my children one day. And knowing that makes me content.

(I just hope they like tofu stir-fry as much as I liked Mom’s chocolate cake.)

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5 responses to “Family Blueprint

  1. As always, your post struck a chord with me. My dad died when I was 16. My mother passed away about six weeks ago. I find myself wishing I’d asked more questions and sought more stories regarding my parents’ lives before I was in the picture–their experiences growing up, their early married life, etc.

    I can also relate to the “blurry medical history.” I felt particularly clueless when doctors wanted a detailed medical history for my mom and she was unable to provide it herself. Had she ever had her tonsils out? Um, I don’t know. Had she ever had a broken limb? Um, I don’t think so. I think I’d remember if she’d had those things in the past 30 years or so, but how would I know if she had her tonsils out at the age of 7? Not exactly something that comes up as dinner table conversation!

    And yes, there are the constant questions for how to cook something, what should I do about this problem at work, what might be wrong with the car, how should we repair this problem with the faucet, etc. I still catch myself thinking, “I gotta call and ask Mom about this,” and then my brain catches up a second later and reminds me I can’t. Duh.

    • Kim — We definitely speak the same language!! I smiled reading your bit above about tonsils and broken limbs. I’ve been there!! Nice to be able to smile/laugh to myself about it now. And you make such a good point about feeling remiss about not asking for more stories and family tales. One of the best things about family is oral tradition (in my opinion), and I absolutely love some of the stories I remember my mom telling me about her childhood. I only wish I had more of them (and stories from my father) in my arsenal.

      Thanks for writing. I really love hearing from you!

      Lauren

  2. Hi Lauren,

    I can relate too, although my mom is still living. My dad died in January 2010, and it pains me that I can’t ask him those random questions about his history anymore. My mom can provide some of the answers, but I wonder sometimes if she’ll remember them right. My dad was never good at sharing stories about his childhood because it was painful. Still, there are things I’d like to ask him about, oh, random things like the books he liked as a child that my mom wouldn’t know the answer to. And I feel kind of panicky now about learning that kind of stuff about my mom but don’t want to become obsessive about it.

    • Hi April,

      Thanks so much for your note. My mom also died in January 2010, and I definitely find myself wishing I had asked more questions and kept better track of her childhood stories. I imagine this will only get harder when/if I have children one day. I’m really glad the post resonated with you, and I hope to hear from you again. Thank you for sharing your story with me!

      All my best,
      Lauren

      @laurenthaler

  3. Hi Lauren,
    With both my parents gone and only a shady memory of my family’s medical history (only to be complicated by the fact my mother was adopted), I always end up leaving a lot of probably pretty important information blank! I have even considered getting genetic testing just so I know what’s on the horizon. Along the same vein, I was talking to my mother in law this week, and she was bragging about when my husband starting walking. As for me, I don’t know when I started walking or when I started talking. And the realization that there is no one to ask such things pains me. I know that when I have children, I’ll do something so that they know these things. That’s all we can do, right?

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