When Tyler Feder was nineteen, her much-adored mother died of cancer. Feder recounts her relationship with her mother, her mother’s brief illness and death, and the stages of guilt that follow in her beautiful graphic memoir Dancing at the Pity Party.
A mother-daughter relationship is special. I was very close to my mother and felt bereft when she died of lung cancer in 2006. I was 45 and had two young children and a flailing marriage. My mom was always in my corner. I am the oldest of four kids and being the only girl made our relationship extra special. (I know my brothers would all say they had a special relationship with mom – she was that kind of mother.)
My mom, Bobbie, was a tiny woman – 96 pounds soaking wet – who loved AM radio, instant coffee, really bad white wine, sappy movies, cooking, cheap shoes, and Tai Chi. You only had to meet her once to be considered part of the family. She loved to laugh and didn’t mind being the butt of the joke, and she often was. She made and kept friends easily because she was thoughtful and kind and generous with her time. She was a wonderful grandmother for the short time my children had her in their lives. We lived close enough to each other that my kids could go down to her house on their own from a very young age. She’d drop anything to make cookies or watch a show or go for a walk. Having her so close was handy because I am squeamish and she was a nurse. On more than one occasion she’d come running after I called and said “There’s blood.” She fixed scraped knees, and torn clothes, and broken hearts. She made perfect poached eggs and lasagna and chocolate cake with boiled icing. Following in the tradition of her mother, Sunday dinner was usually at mom’s. There could be six people or sixteen or twenty-six; it never mattered because she could cook for all of us and never break a sweat. I miss her wise counsel, her steadfastness, her unwavering support, even when I screwed up.
So, Feder’s memoir about her mother resonated with me. Her mom is carefully rendered, a warm and complete human being with a crazy fixation on eyebrow maintenance, distinctive spiky handwriting and “smiley brown eyes.” Feder herself is the oldest of three girls and, as I well know, being the oldest comes with both perks and hardships. By the time her mom’s health problems announce themselves, her prognosis is dire. Like my mom, Mrs. Feder died very quickly. There is hardly any time to process the illness, let alone the loss.
I found Dancing at the Pity Party to be funny and heart-wrenching in equal measure. Other than the fact that Feder is Jewish and so the customs surrounding grief and mourning are different from my own essentially atheist views, there was little in this memoir that wasn’t familiar to me. Her mother’s physical decline, the spread of the disease, the toll chemo took, the often inappropriate jokes and laughter contrasted with the grief and despair: all of it is part and parcel of what cancer steals from us, and weirdly, gives to us.
I think Feder’s memoir will certainly speak to anyone who has lost someone they’ve loved to cancer. Although it has been many years since my mom died, I found Dancing at the Pity Party cathartic, humourous, and honest. I think anyone who has ever been in Feder’s shoes will find something of themselves in these pages.
It is also a wonderful reminder that our loved ones never really leave us. I send Christmas cards by the dozens because I watched my mother do it year after year, including a little family update with each card she sent to the many people she knew from the many moves we’d made as I was growing up. I now host Sunday dinner – though not nearly as often as my mom did – and I feel her with me every time I pull a turkey from the oven or make Washington Pie. I love the family stories we tell around the dinner table, each of us remembering something different about our mom/sister/grandmother. I love sappy movies, (I can’t watch Dirty Dancing without thinking abut her), and Gordon Lightfoot. I get my work ethic from her. Whenever I say “Age is just a number” I think of her. She used to say that energy couldn’t be created or destroyed. She had the most positive energy of anyone I ever met, even when life was serving her a shit sandwich.
She is with me, I know. I hope Feder feels like her mother is with her, too. In any case, she has written a beautiful tribute to her and I highly recommend others read it.