Carolyn Ridder Aspenson's mom was what my Gramps would have called, with his usual eloquence, "a hot shit."
She was the kind of mom who, when Carolyn was only five years old, handed her brother's eyeglasses to her and had her take them to the basketball referee with a message: "My mom says you need these because you're a shitty ref." Better still, she was the kind of woman who, in her mid-forties, flashed truckers on I-65 because it would "make their day" (and yes, she was a busty woman, so of course it did).
Let's just say it: cancer sucks. If you're human and have a pulse, you likely had a visceral reaction to the very word, because few among us have been immune to the horror of the C-word. In the case of Carolyn's mother, doctors gave her ten months.
She died in four.
"I'm still really ticked at that doctor," Carolyn told me. "He promised ten months, and I want those six more. Doesn't anyone stand by their words anymore?"
As it turned out, Carolyn would stand by her own words. She began work on Unfinished Business: An Angela Panther Novel in hopes of honoring her mother, bringing her alive for those who had never met her, and keeping her alive for those who had. Fran Richter, the mother in the novel, is very much Carolyn's mom. She's loud, bossy, annoying, fiercely loyal, Italian…and did I mention loud? She appears in the novel as the sort of ghost you will not forget, and she steals the show.
Angela Panther has a busy but predictable life. She's happily married and busily parenting. The appearance of her dead mother as a rather pushy ghost is unwanted - even more so when it seems her arrival has triggered in Angela a talent she wishes she did not have. Suddenly, she sees dead people. All over the place. And they want her help.
Angela's struggle to sort out what this all means for her unfolds in a funny, touching story. Carolyn's greatest strength as an author lies in her firm grasp of relationships and her ability to convey them meaningfully. Her sense of humor and her skill with dialogue envelop the reader. Even with dead folks all over the place, one feels a sense of familiarity and comfort in Angela Panther's world.
Which makes it startling to think that this is a book that very nearly didn't get written. Carolyn started, then faltered. It wasn't coming together as she intended, and she wasn't sure how to fix it - or if she should even try.
Then she had a dream. Her mother was standing behind her, beautiful as ever, her hands on Carolyn's shoulders. When she spoke, it was in her raspy I-smoked-for-much-too-long voice, adding an edge of realism to the moment.
"You need to finish the book, Carolyn," she said.
And so Carolyn did. The book made her a best-selling author, and allowed her mother - thinly veiled as Fran Richter - to come to life in the imaginations of her readers.
I'm sure Carolyn still wants those six months her mother's doctor promised, but I bet her mother is fine and feisty as ever.
Damn proud, too.
Unfinished Business: An Angela Panther Novel is on sale now for only $2.99