As an adult I learned that Mom kept everything. In the top drawer of her dresser I found every last Mother's Day card we had given her, catalogued like evidence.
It was as if a judge might one day ask her, "Are you loved?" and the neat stack of cards was her exhibit A.
Mother's Day always meant a card and breakfast in bed. What Mom really wanted was three things she was never going to get: A margarita, a Lamborghini and 10 minutes alone in the bathroom without interruptions.
Instead she got cold scrambled eggs with salsa, weak coffee, charred toast and an uncooked Pop-Tart.
And one year she got something extra.
When I saw it in Woolworth's I knew she'd love it: a tiny Jesus in front of a giant red heart encased in a clear plastic amulet. Hanging from a cheap necklace it was perfect for a sixth grader's budget.
When I handed it to her she apparently mistook it for the Hope Diamond.
A lifetime later I was in her bedroom looking for it when I found one of the cards I had made featuring "i lovE You moM" floating above stick figures in a ranch house surrounded by Crayola green saguaros. She loved the desert and the West.
Mom said, "But it will be fun." That's what I say to my teenagers when I announce we're going on a road trip in our minivan. Any time you say, "But it will be fun" to your kids you know it won't be. You may as well stock the van's ashtray with chewable Prozac and charge the Taser.
"Isn't this fun?" Mom gestured at me to stand closer to the gunfighters for the Polaroid moment. I looked up at the trio of dusty gunslingers. They smiled at her camera. Their mock gunfight scared the freckles off my face and I was done with fake cowboys and Old Tucson.
I made it clear to the camera that I thought going with your mom to Old Tucson was just not cool. She didn't care. She trapped me on lame rides intended for babies, making me wave at the camera from the train and from the stagecoach and from the stupid antique car.
She had a motive for taking me alone that day.
On the drive back over Gates Pass she interrupted my sulk by telling me she had breast cancer.
I stared at the small white plastic Jesus riding shotgun on the metal dashboard. Last summer was so hot Christ melted. He leaned dramatically backward, looking like an R. Crumb cartoon character "truckin'" toward we sinners.
My dad had kept the statue, claiming, "It's your fault. You were acting up and your poor mother was yelling so hard at you it was like a hurricane in here. Even Christ felt it."
A mastectomy and a prosthetic breast didn't affect her ability to make macaroni and cheese, sweep snakes out of the house and make us laugh.
Once over Mom's pork chops and mashed potatoes I was expressing strong opinions about subjects I knew nothing about, proving to all the world I had become a teenager. Despite admonitions to shut up and eat, and my dad's silent cues that my life was in danger, I yammered on.
She reached into her blouse, pulled out her fake bosom and pitched a solid strike across my plate hitting my face so hard it's still red today.
"A boob for a boob," she declared. "Pass me the potatoes. And hand me that thing."
My father laughed. And then she laughed. I was horrified. They laughed even harder.
I became a struggling artist and I couldn't take care of them anymore. My sister who lived elsewhere could. She took them in.
At the Tucson airport I said goodbye to a sick old woman accompanied by a lost old man and every time I earned enough I'd take the Greyhound and help change the sheets and read Psalms into her ears and pry stories out of my father.
She fell into a coma. My brother-in-law said she had awakened, sat up, searched the room for her children, fell back and died.
At the funeral home I placed the plastic necklace in her hands.
I regret I didn't sneak a lock of her silver hair. I wanted to keep her in this world.
All I could think of was how warm and soft she had been all of her life; the warm lap that held my head through colds and measles, the soft hands that combed my hair the first day of school and the arms that pressed me to her when I announced I was moving out.
Days after the ritual of goodbye we were looking at photo albums when we came across a black-and-white Polaroid snapped in front of a Western set.
I expected to see a middle-school brat looking annoyed by his mother. What I found didn't match my memory.
I saw three gunslingers and I saw a boy smiling at his mother with an expression that approached worship.