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Lucky Day
By Elisabeth R. Finch

Officer Frank tells me I'm lucky I'm not dead.

Then he tells me why I shouldn't bother pressing charges. "Even if we caught 'em, million to one shot you'll get anything outta 'em. Cut your losses, chalk it off to a bad day."

I stare at his bald spot sticking out like an area rug plopped on freshly cut grass. I watch the tow truck yank away the royal blue mangled accordion that used to be my car. And I start laughing like hell.

Officer Frank just stares at me. "Maybe you should go get checked out by a doctor."

I try containing my hysterics. Fail. Try again.

Perhaps if I'd played my damsel in distress card with any degree of aplomb, he'd have offered me a ride home.

But I am, after all, my mother's daughter.


My mother, all 5' 3" and 110 pounds of her now, was built of South Philly stock -- where everyone was tough, the women just kept it secret. If asked to, Mom could change a flat tire, tweak leaking faucets, and throw a speedball better than anyone three row houses over. But most of the time she baked mandel bread, finished class assignments with stellar penmanship, and played the violin for bored neighbors.

She grew up with perfect teeth, perfect SAT scores, and got a Masters in French while most of her friends majored in Pre-Wed. She had time. So she took it.

The day she finally got married she laid out a budget on hotel stationery, and told my father they were ready to have kids.

Seven years of infertility drugs followed, prescribed by short-sighted doctors with limited resources. Four years in, after everyone she knew was making several laps around the Baby Track, she packed up and moved to France with my father, where cutting edge trials were surpassing any options they had Stateside. They both spoke the language fluently, and were obsessed with warm baguettes. Three years of hormones and poisons injected into her arms, legs, and rear-end at unpredictable, inconvenient times. Timing was everything. My brother was their miracle baby. I followed two years after.

Mom was never a homemaker. But if she'd have cursed more in polyester suits and leaned a little farther to the Left, she could've been FEMA Chair.

Growing up in Jersey, I learned how to change tires and fix leaky faucets, but could never do it without ruining my brand new shirt. I didn't learn violin or how to cook mandel bread. But I learned Mom's art of smiling, doing the work, and taking hits however they came. "Lucky day," my mother would always say, no matter what was going wrong. In the world of glass half-empty/half-full, Mom never weighed in; she was too busy figuring out how to fill it to the top next go-round.

So when she called me and left a message on my voice mail that just said, "Lucky Day," I knew to call back right away.

It was 2001, and I'd just passed under six skies in six days, New Jersey to Delaware, Tennessee to Arkansas to Texas, en route to college. Six skies away from my mother on the other end of the line, telling me something I didn't want to hear. I smiled through clenched teeth as I followed crude gas station directions, turning left, right, left, down Austin city streets I suddenly didn't give a shit about. I was paying attention to the voice on my cell phone. For the first time in my life I was struck with the idea there might be a limit to my mother's words.

I tapped on my thigh, in rhythm with music I couldn't block out and I pulled into Barton Springs. I didn't see the pecan trees and walnut groves that lined the mile-stretch of water. I simply stopped the car, left my keys in the ignition, and threw my body on the grass.

"This stupid thing," my mother called it.

She never used the "C" word. Never will. She never said prognosis or hospital or radiation. I rested my elbows on my knees, my hands running through my scalp, brand new cowboy boots pointing up to the sky.

"Lucky day, huh?" I said to my mom.

"Your father's been getting fantastic parking spots all afternoon," she said.

I told her I loved her. She told me not to drive too late at night without "two flares and a spare".

The next day they launched a nuclear war inside my mother, inside the same flesh I once depended on for love and vitamins. No target dates. No guarantees. Only mothers, doctors, drugs, and prayers pressed tight between my father's fat fingers.

Five years later, we were all experts in pharmacology, wig design, hip hospital lingo, and fashioning surreptitious means of throwing up in public places. I hadn't finished undergrad, but got my Masters in Navigating Red Tape, and a PhD in Managing the Moronic Masses. My mother got to keep both her breasts and one of her day jobs.

The day her margins and mammograms came back clear, she celebrated with a piece of chocolate cake, two glasses of red wine, and told me to get the heck out of her house. She kissed my hands, then threw my empty duffel bag on my head.

No one ever expects that first call, that first time. No one ever imagines hearing their mother talk about "options." The second call, the second time... there's no shock. More like resignation. Sure, you've taken vacations, and completed degrees, moved across the country, made plans and kept them for the first time in ages. But it was always as if you were waiting, no matter how many years later, for the phone to ring.

When it did, when my father said the word "spread," I hung up, and started making calls. Not to my aunt, or boyfriend, or airlines to find a way to get my ass home to New Jersey and fast. I called the doctor, made an appointment for the next day, ate a plate full of veggie stir fry without oil, took a shot of Nyquil, and went to bed.

The next day, a hirsute doctor with an excellent reputation and worn shoes told me he'd have his nurse come in to speak more in-depth about "psychological ramifications." Before I could ask him why I was in a paper gown if I only wanted a blood test, he was already out the door.

A tiny nurse with big hair and no sense of humor came in, sat down next to me, titled her head, and asked me why I thought this was a good idea.

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