The Stuff With My Mom
Date Published: November 27, 2019
When writer Marisa Bardach Ramel was a teenager, her mother, Sally, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Amid the sadness and uncertainty that followed, they made an extraordinary decision to write a memoir together. Now, almost 20 years later, The Goodbye Diaries: A Mother-Daughter Memoir, has at last been published. On this episode, Marisa talks about how cancer strained and ultimately strengthened her relationship with her mother, and reflects on how the act of writing brought them closer together when it mattered most.
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. My guest today is Marisa Bardach Ramel. She and her late mother, Sally Bardach, are the authors of The Goodbye Diaries: A Mother-Daughter Memoir, which was published in the spring. The book is almost 20 years in the making. It started way back in 2000 when Marisa was in high school. That was the year her mother and co-author Sally was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was a devastating diagnosis. She was initially told she had just two months to live. And somehow amid the sadness and uncertainty, Sally and Marisa made an extraordinary decision—they decided to document their experience, hoping it would someday comfort and guide others. Many years after Sally's death, the book is now complete. It's a poignant story of a mother and daughter finding resilience in each other. And I'm so glad it brings Marisa to the podcast. Welcome!
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 00:48
Oh, thank you. I'm really honored to be here talking with you.
So I want to start out just with setting the scene a little bit. Where are we when this book is taking place?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 00:58
So when the book opens I'm 17 years old. I'm a senior in high school. It has just turned the year 2000. And my mom comes home from a very long doctor's appointment, and she and my dad tell me and my older brother that the doctor thinks she has pancreatic cancer and that she might only have two months to live.
So the book is really taking that piece of information, that scene, which is a harrowing scene in the book, and projecting it forward in the way that that news changes you at the same time that you're changing as a teenager.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 01:37
Very much so. And I think sometimes when we think about someone being terminally ill or dying, we think about sitting by them in a hospital bed and holding their hand. And that's not really what terminal illness is like, that every day still goes on in this way that's sort of jarring and really difficult and also kind of beautiful because it teaches you that you have to go on with your every day. And as a teenager there still were a lot of things to enjoy about the every day, and my mom, actually, you see in the book and in that time in my life, was very insistent that I still go on with my plans, and I'm so thankful that she really pushed me to keep going forward. And I think that lesson has stayed with me.
Your reaction to the news is so interesting to me on a human level because you're 17, you get this news, and the initial prognosis, by the way, is two months that she has to live. And you push her away. You ignore her. Can you talk about why you feel like you had to do that? It's just such a teenage thing to do, by the way. It's the most teenage thing to do. It's like teenage in hyperspeed.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 02:57
Very much so. So my mom comes home, she tells me and my brother this news, and I think he right away understood, "I need to spend as much time as possible with mom." And I was 17 at the time and much more in that place of childhood. You know at 17, a senior in high school, you're still living at home, you're still relying on your parents to cook dinner. And I couldn't understand how life was going to continue with this going on. And this original doctor had told my mom she might only have two months to live. And I just thought, "Why are we bothering? Why are we bothering with this? Why are we going to have these, like, touching 'Hallmark' conversations about her dying? It felt so false to me." And it felt like we were sort of pretending to be this other type of family that goes through this that you would see, you know, on one of these made-for-television shows at the time that were much worse in the year 2000. Now that would actually be a decent show!
But I want to get across how she becomes a pariah to you. There's a moment when you want to reach for crackers, but they're near her, and you don't even want to go—she's like a toxic—it's just so profound and I think so relatable.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 04:25
We were always very close from the time I was growing up, and even through my early teenage years. So we were, throughout my life, having these very deep, meaningful conversations. And then when she got this diagnosis, I knew that that's what she wanted to continue having. I knew she wanted to have these big conversations about what was going on for her and I just couldn't do it.
Because to have the conversation would be to admit what was true.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 04:56
Yeah. To admit it's happening. And then it felt like it wasn't going to be just that one conversation. It was going to be conversation upon conversation for the next two months. And what was the point if at the end of it she was going to be gone anyway? Why did the conversations matter?
Yeah. You refer to it, I think, in the book as "the thing with mom," right?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 05:16
"The stuff with my mom." To even say the word "cancer" out loud felt like way too much of a reality, and it felt also like a disconnect. Like, "No, that can't be our story. That can't be what's happening with us. That happens to someone else. That's way too serious to happen to us."
What would you say to that kid? That 17 year old? If you could go back and give her advice and maybe try to ease that transition of coming back?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 05:43
I think I would just say, "What you're going through is really scary and how you're reacting is really normal and understandable and forgivable."
How did the idea for this book come about?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 05:59
I always wish that I could take credit for it, but really the book was my mom's idea. My mom was always drawn to writing. That was always how she processed her emotions, and it was always just something she loved doing. She wasn't trained as a writer. She was a special education teacher. And a few months into being at school, she called me up. She said, "You know, everyone keeps telling me to write a book. I don't think I can write one on my own, but what if we wrote one together?" And I immediately said, "Yes." And the next time I was home on break from college, we sat together in my childhood bedroom on my bed, which was always our spot, and we started mapping out the chapters. We knew we wanted a chapter about the night she was diagnosed. We knew we wanted a chapter about her going through chemo. We wanted a chapter about how our friendships had changed since she'd been ill. And we wanted to write about how our friendship had changed. And I went back to college and worked on my chapter and she had recently retired and worked on her chapter at home. And then the next time I was home on break, we printed out our chapters and exchanged them in real time and read them in front of each other.
What was that like to read her chapters for the first time?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 07:12
It was exciting. It was sort of like, I remember us kind of like giggling a little bit, like almost—like it was this funny trade of like, "I'm about to show you something really personal and intimate," and we sort of were like giggling like the way I would giggle with my friends. And then we were both very serious when we were reading them. I think it was very somber to read them except there were some funny moments too. Like she was reading my chapter and in the middle of reading it she burst out like, "I always knew you thought I was just being a hypochondriac and I wasn't really sick!" And we had a good laugh about that because we couldn't hide anything anymore, and I had spent all these months after she was diagnosed hiding from her, you know, hiding how I was feeling, and actually physically kind of hiding from her by not being at home.
Being in your room.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 08:08
Yeah. Being in my room, not going upstairs to her room. And it was kind of a relief to exchange these chapters and it was freeing in a way.
Do you have a favorite chapter?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 08:21
For a while the chapters I liked the most were these bigger moments like when my mom comes with me to buy my prom dress, even though we're going earlier than any of my friends are going to go because she thinks she's going to die. And so she wants to have that experience with me before she dies, and I want to also have it with her even though it's during this moment where we're not really speaking much. So that chapter is one of my favorites. But more so when I look at the book now with some distance from writing it, I really like lot of these mini moments that happen between me and my mom because I feel like those are the moments that every mother and daughter have. And it's, you know, it's the phone calls that we have when I'm away at college, and they're just these casual conversations because you still have those when someone is sick. Not everything is a big moment. The big moments certainly take on a lot of meaning, but those little moments do, too. And I think when you lose someone too early, those are the moments you actually miss are those little moments.
That scene is so interesting in the store because it's like you're constantly switching back and forth between joy at what you're doing and the larger horror and fear of what seems to be impending. Um, talk about the role that Dr. Bruckner played, if I'm not mistaken.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 09:49
Yes. When my mom went to see him, it really changed the prognosis for her because he said, I've kept patients alive for 10 years, and what I need you to do is stay alive while the science and the research catches up. And it really changed my mom's outlook on her illness. And on top of that, he was just a very human doctor, very compassionate, very real, very down-to-earth, and spoke to her like a person. And that human quality he had, I think was, was also part of how she was improving.
What were some of the other things that kind of where the wind at her back, if you will?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 10:38
Well, another scene in the book that I love about Dr. Bruckner is that—my mom has just gotten back some sort of bad news and she's feeling kind of depressed and she's in the hospital getting chemo and she's watching Ally McBeal on TV and Dr. Bruckner comes into the room, he sits down on the edge of her bed and he starts watching Ally McBeal with her and he, like, pops open her ginger ale can and starts drinking her ginger ale. And he didn't even really say much to her, you know, he was just kind of spending time with her and almost maybe seeing what her life was like as a patient. I just love that he was able to show her that they were in it together.
The impression I get of your mother is just of this amazingly warm, kind, connecting type of person. I imagine that a person like that fills the nurses with joy, fills the doctors with joy, and that creates a loop. That comes back to her. Would you say?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 11:43
I certainly think so. She had that effect on everyone she met, and people would often compare her personality to Elaine from Seinfeld, which she loved because she loved Seinfeld.
You beat me to it! I was going to bring up Seinfeld.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 11:53
Yeah. That was like the highest compliment you could give her—was that she reminded you of Elaine.
Yeah. Pop culture was actually one of the things I wanted to ask you about. Here's the big question. It has to do with how our culture deals with and prepares people for these types of experiences. What would you say about that having gone through it and then going out into the world and seeing what pop culture provides for us in terms of guidance?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 12:24
The first moment you see it come up for me in the book is when my mom tells us her diagnosis. And part of the reason why I can kind of make myself believe that it's not cancer is because I say, "I've seen how that happens in the movies and in books and, like, the mom sits the kids down and says, "I have cancer." It's a very direct statement and it's very certain. Where in reality her diagnosis was very unclear. And the amount of time she may or may not have left is very unclear, and that anxiety leaves us feeling very lost. And I think there wasn't much in pop culture to prepare me for that. And yet that's what a teenager is forming their identity around so much.
You know, these chapters were initially written 20 years ago, but the book just came out in May. In the epilogue you mention your son was kind of a motivation to bring it to publication. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 13:31
So my mom and I continued writing these chapters. And then we were also keeping journals separately that were not really—they weren't intended for the book. And I had about a third of the book pulled together, and then I just kind of stopped because I felt really paralyzed by this idea that I might not have enough from her and I felt like I was going to get to this really heartbroken place of—
And that's where the journals came in. They helped you to fill out that material.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 14:03
Yeah. I mean journals in general, they feel very sacred. And what made me feel better about that is a few things. One is that she kind of lived her life like an open book. She wasn't a very private person. And in addition to that, I think when she was writing, she was thinking about these pieces of writing being left behind for us. I don't know that she was thinking about them being left behind for everyone, but I think she was thinking about them being left behind for my family.
I know writing can be a healing process for many people. Was it that way for you?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 14:43
It definitely was and still is. And it was for my mom as well. I still find the days when I'm not writing are days when I feel really disconnected from myself. And I'm always drawn to writing as a way to process my thoughts, process what's going on for me and get some things out. I still kind of have some of those feelings I had as a teenager of sort of that feeling of some things are too sacred to say out loud, and writing them down feels like a safe way to do that and a private way to do that. And then after that I'm able to talk about it with my husband or my friends. And I hope that for other people out there who might be going through something difficult, if writing is something that draws you in, you don't have to be a good writer. It's not about that. You just have to be emotionally honest about what's going on for you and what's going on in your life.
What are your hopes for this book?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 15:54
I still kind of have the same hope that my mom and I had when we were putting it together, which is this idea of this other mother and daughter out there who read it together and who find a way to reconnect with one another through the book. Sometimes it's hard to have those conversations you really want to have in this time with one another, and I hope that the book can be a way to help you have those conversations because sometimes it's easier to talk about it through the lens of a book or another person's story than it is to really hit directly on what's going on with the two of you.
And I think the other thing the book says so beautifully is very similar to the advice that you offered for your 17-year-old self, which is that it's okay, it's normal to go through these ups and downs, and I just think there's a lot to grab onto in this book that will make a person feel less alone.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 16:51
I hope so. And there's so much more that I understand about her chapters now that I'm a mom myself. And you were asking earlier about my son being an inspiration to finish the book. I think part of it was this idea of becoming a mother and picturing children in my life and picturing this new role of loving them and caring for them in that same way that my mom cared for me and my brother that helped me understand her chapters so much better. And her chapters kind of continued to teach me as a mom, because I don't really think you fully understand that experience until you're in it. And me becoming a mother is sort of me reconnecting with her in a way that I hadn't been able to in a while.
How do you describe her to your kids?
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 17:46
I say that she was very funny. She had a very loud laugh. And I tell them that she loves them so much and that she watches over them and that they can talk to her whenever they want. That she's always listening.
That's great. Well, I think that's a great place to end. And I want to thank you so much, Marisa, for joining us. It's been a pleasure.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: 18:10
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
The Goodbye Diaries by Marisa Bardach Ramel and Sally Bardach is available now wherever books are sold. That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. Thank you to everyone who has rated and reviewed as an Apple Podcasts, shared our posts, filled out our listener survey, or told a friend about the podcast. Your support helps make us resilient. Thank you. Road to Resilience is a production of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Our team includes Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson, and me, Jon Earle. Our executive producers are Dorie Klissas and Lucia Lee. Nicci and Justin Gunn shoot video for us, and Cathy Clarke shoots photographs. From all of us here, thanks for listening. Happy Thanksgiving! And we'll see you in a couple of weeks.