My mother, Patricia Bullock, passed away at the age of 65, after having lived with brain cancer for close to six years. She did so with courage, grace, and dignity, a testament to the love and care of her husband Tom. She was the kindest, most self-effacing person I’ve ever met. The type of cancer she had usually afflicts people in their 20s and 30s—the surgery ward at Shands Hospital where she was treated was filled with graduate students, young parents, newlyweds—and she was characteristically more concerned about them than she was with her own health. “If I had been sick when you were 4 or 5 years old,” she told me, “it would have been a tragedy. This is just sad, that’s all.”
This unwavering kindness was mortifying when I was a kid. Mom would introduce herself to strangers, hold conversations with people you simply weren’t supposed to chat with. Toll booth collectors. Crossing guards. Not pleasantries, mind you, long and in-depth conversations. Invariably, we would be the last ones to leave the parent-teacher conferences and school functions of my childhood, because Mom would be there chatting with my teachers. Or the coach. Or the headmaster. The sullen teenager in me wanted to melt into the ground. She would regale me with tales of just how kind people were to her in New York City and, of all places, New Jersey, as if the constitutional rudeness of the state was imperceptible, or simply embarrassed by her resolute kindness. On one trip, we never made it out of the lobby of the Philadelphia Museum of Art because she had struck up a conversation with an on-duty museum guard in front of the first canvas she stopped to admire. They exchanged letters with one another for years.
Once I was mature enough to see it, this is what I learned to love most about my mother: her ability to see the humanity in anyone and to bring out the best in everyone. It was her instinct as a physical therapist, first in the halls of the VA tending to the Vietnam veterans, then in her own practice, and then working primarily with the elderly, trying every day to straighten what was bent and broken. As my grandmother, Helen Bickerstaff, aged and became more frail, she took on the added responsibilities of a daughter and a caretaker. This was hard and demanding work, both physically and mentally, and she undertook it with unfailing cheer, warmth, and heart. Gainesville is filled with the people she helped to heal; it was her calling, and even after her diagnosis and her first craniotomy, she still talked about going back to work part-time because it was therapy for her as well as for her patients.
But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Mom was a pushover. She ran a strict home. Soda and sugared cereals were never an option. When I was old enough to drive, in order to earn the privilege I had to sign a contract that ran to several pages. I was once grounded for a week for telling her I was going to play tennis at the Westside courts when I went to the Woodside courts instead. She told me that if I ever wanted to ride a motorcycle, she would first give me a personal tour of the accident victims at the VA ward to dissuade me. It worked. Right before I left for college, in a seeming lapse of her authority, she allowed me to visit an out-of-town friend who was then in college. I forgot to call home to tell her that I had safely arrived, one of the conditions of my newfound freedom. Several hours after arriving, I was surprised to hear a knock on my friend’s dormroom door. It was a private investigator my mother had hired to locate me—I swear he had on a blazer and a fedora, this can’t be my own fantastical reconstruction of the scene. He was her last recourse to finding me in an era before cellphones. The only thing he said to me, delivered with impeccable timing before turning on his heels, was: “Call your mother.”
Having been a parent now for nine months, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to be a single mother, to move back home, and to remake a life for herself and for me. My memories of her are of course from this time, and I never once sensed that this was ever a burden to her, though at times it must have been. One of the things I will miss most is the ability to understand her more fully now, to know what these years meant to her. And as happy as my memories are of this time, it was her past eight years with Tom that were her happiest. Traveling, dancing, and being completely in love. These were the things the cancer couldn’t touch. We are all grateful for the time we’ve had and the memories we’ve kept between us.
She will be remembered by the husband she adored, the friends she made, the patients she made whole, the dance partners she embraced, the family she leaves behind, the strangers she showered with kindness, and the son she loved.