“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”- – Calvin Trillin
I have a rather fond recurrent memory of my Mom, one that stands out among all of the others. I was thirty years old, visiting her, and she decided to lay this absolute bombshell on me. I’m the youngest of 7 kids, 6 of us born in consecutive years, then “poof” – – I showed up four years after my sister Barb was born. Mom tried in her gentlest tone to advise me that I was unplanned. I honestly tried my darndest to keep a straight face, but given the stand-up material that was just delivered I started giggling and had to leave the room. Such was the mark of the level of innocence my Mom managed to maintain throughout all of her years, though: she honestly thought she was unveiling a profoundly deep and shameful secret on me. The good news was that since I obviously took it all as a great big joke, Mom considered herself forgiven.
There was much unintentional comic relief in my home that for whatever reasons (being active in an addiction might be one) I never really grew to appreciate til Mom was gone. I remember hearing about the version of forced marriage that her soon-to-be husband was brought into when my uncle Joe, Mom’s brother picked up the man who was to be my Dad, started driving, and as the story goes within seconds said, “Well, are you going to marry her, or what?” So I guess technically since no weapon was produced, this wasn’t a shotgun wedding: let’s just call it a “threat-wedding.”
So my folks followed the good Mexican Catholic old school rules and cranked out one kid after another, until apparently Dad got tired of the whole deal and started seeing his mistress, an alliance that went on for years and years. Mom also played the dutiful long-suffering stay-at-home mom role to the hilt, a role her genuine meekness made her a natural for. And truly, what person needs to be subjected to cheating for years? The huge difference between then and now in Mexican culture is that it is now looked upon with a little more favor to leave the cheating party after telling them in no uncertain terms where to go. Mexican culture as I know it, still has a long way to go in this arena, at least to my knowledge of my extended family.
Mom really was quite uneducated, unscholared, and socially extremely awkward and shy. I believe she made it up to fourth grade reading level when America called, offering her the opportunity to diss her education in favor of working in beet fields for slave wages in order to help support her family. One of my saddest memories of her is her unabashedly announcing every now and then to anyone who would listen, “I’m stupid.” I’m not sure what purpose this served to her, but I know it made me really uncomfortable to hear her talk about her self in such an abusive way, although I didn’t have the terminology to place on what I was feeling at the time.
There is no question in my mind that Mom felt trapped her entire married life. Dad had a habit of picking places to live that were absolute dumps, effectively ending any dreams that Mom had of living in the palatial style that she would sometimes try to describe. Luxury to her would have been a dishwasher: she was certainly not asking for the moon. Dad in turn validated her “stupid” status frequently while heaping on other abuse whenever the spirit moved him.
And so Mom resorted to whatever she could to make herself feel good. She was a huge fan of soap operas. Heaven forbid my getting hungry at 12:30 in the afternoon, because quite frankly, for Mom, the whole world stopped for “As The World Turns,” a show she got a belly laugh out of any time she heard Carol Burnett refer to it as “As The Stomach Turns” in her evening show parody. After her first viewing of the Burnett show, Mom took to referring to her favorite soap very simply as “Stomach,” as in, “I can’t do that right now I gotta watch ‘Stomach.'”
One area that I continue to view with considerably less humor is the fact that mom had a number of JFK pictures strategically placed throughout the house, I’m assuming so as not to be without her fantasy partner if she could at all help it. I also believe that Mom was really quite lonely during her married life. Parenting skills were obviously not there, and when I got into various recovery groups in the early nineties, I began hearing phrases like “they did their best, and their best wasn’t very good,” or things like “they were never ready to be parents.” While those phrases were definitely fuel for recovery in those days, my question today is whoever is ready to be a parent? Nobody gets a manual. I’ve yet to hear a single person say that parenting is a piece of cake. Not much of her life lived up to any of her fantasies as far as I could see. I don’t think she had any idea what effective parenting might entail. She could only know what she was taught.
I never considered myself particularly close to either parent. Still, as I got sober I drifted further and further from mom, really beginning to resent a symbiotic relationship that had been enforced on me due to my Mom’s need for the proverbial “little husband.” It’s not like Mom was the first person to ever do such a thing. I remember a friend once telling me she had a tarot card reading in which the reader advised her that her mom was having an affair with a much younger man, something my friend protested because she knew her mom to hardly ever leave the house. She then put two and two together to figure out that mom was “married” to her little brother.
As I began to find my own internal resolution to my patterns, I gradually let Mom back in. It became a juggling act when I began dating someone, and Laura won out with my time. When Laura and I broke up, however, I began to be a bit more dilligent in attempting to resolve our differences, and I do believe I made much headway. The humor re-entered. I used to absolutely love it when my sisters took Mom out to a movie and then after she would struggle to tell me the title of what she saw. Mom was still heavily accented, and when she tried to tell me she had just finished seeing “Beaches,” per her phonetic capability it naturally came out “Bitches.” I think my all-time favorite was when the girls took her to see “Poltergeist” and she excitedly told me a few days later that they took her to see this really scary flick called “Pocket Full of Guys.” The conversation usually ended with Mom snorting a “shut up,” as I laughed hysterically. She was indeed a card, and miraculously, through all the misery that was visited upon her during her years, she somehow managed to hang on to and nurture her innate ability to laugh at herself.
On December 9th, 1991, I stopped off at Mom’s to deliver a care package and visit for awhile. Mom had suffered a stroke earlier in the year, lived alone,and absolutely refused being moved into a nursing home. As I got into recovery and found my voice and boundaries, clashes with my siblings ensued over what I considered to be unhealthy behavior, situations they obviously didn’t see anything at all wrong with. Still, at the thought of possibly running into me and being called on some covertly abusive behavior, they began staying away from her house. Mom was lonely again. On this visit, at about 7:30 at night, I literally pounded on the door for her to come and help relieve me of some heavy grocery bags I was carrying. We had all pleaded with her to make her bedroom downstairs so she wouldn’t have to climb a flight of steps repeatedly, but she resisted as she did moving. She finally made it to the door, parted the curtain, and gave me an extremely confused look before she fell backward. The door was locked, so I sprinted for the liquor store across the street, grabbed their phone and dialed 911. The paramedics were just around the block, so they broke in through the locked back door of Mom’s house and carted her away in an ambulance. She was still conscious and reasonably alert. I still remember the doctor at the hospital very patiently trying to get out of me the list of medications and supplements that Mom was taking, occasionally telling me “you’re dolng just fine.” She had just had stroke number two.
Mom died that night. Then was brought back and we were told that she was alive but would need some extreme care going forward. The next morning I got a call from the hospital saying that Mom had suffered a major heart attack,and might not live very long. I remember the jolt, then straggling, quickly slipping into denial that I was now going to be totally without parents, and slowly made my way to the hospital. By the time I got there she was gone again. The doctor told me she had “a massive coronary right at the bottom of her heart.” Though unintentional, he couldn’t have painted a more morbid, guilt-inducing description. I immediately began running over and over in my head how long it took me to get to her, and to this day still the the look of what was obviously excrutiating pain that was frozen on her face haunts me. With no one there to hold her hand. Like I did for my Dad. Like I did for my sister Rose. Today is the first time I’m talking about the guilt that still hasn’t gone away completely.
Not long after Mom passed I saw the movie “Jacob’s Ladder” and considered that my “aha” moment around death. Dad had also died on the table, was revived, and died again the next day. I truly believe that they were both given an opportunity to see what lay ahead if they decided to stick around, and opted for what was behind door number two. I’ve tried on several occasions since 1993 to describe the sense of absolute desolation at losing my second parent, and coming to the realization that I won’t be issued any more of these, and have never even come close to putting those feelings of holy terror into words. And I wasn’t even close to my folks. I don’t envy anyone who is close to theirs what they have to go through. Just writing out some of this is relieving some of the guilt I’ve carried all of these years, guilt that I’m sure Mom wouldn’t want me carrying. Guilt at driving the rest of her family away from her because I had become the perceived enemy. Because I was learning to stand up for myself. Guilt at not being there to comfort her as she died. It really overwhelmed me today as I was talking to some friends. Unlike Mom, I had the good fortune to not be alone at the time.
During the weekend that Mom died, I attended an angel workshop at a church in Woodbury,a workshop in which we were all asked to request angelic signs. My obvious request was to know that Mom was ok. Throughout the course of the weekend, not a sign in sight. I had moved into Mom’s house and was sitting and reading (ironically) A Course In Miracles in preparation for that Monday night’s class at the same church. It was really very windy outside, and I was sitting alongside a picture window that was taking a beating as I sat and read. To my right was a sort of trophy case where my mom used to put her collectibles, including a large Opus doll I had given her, as Opus was her favorite cartoon character. All of the items were behind glass. At one point during my reading, I heard this loud “whoosh,” and assumed it was the window taking another blast of the icy wind. After finishing a page, I looked up and noticed the 12-inch Opus doll standing there. Outside the trophy case. I could’ve sworn it was behind the glass. I had gotten my sign.
Dear Mom: In a practical sense, you came up a bit short in parenting skills. In a more Universal view, you gave birth to me into a life and conditions that were perfect for setting me onto a path that has never been easy, but more often than not has been rewarding beyond my wildest dreams. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you to help you cross over. My fear got the better of me. I know you forgave me long ago, but please pardon me if I hang onto my feelings of inadequacy for just a bit longer – – they’ve just become too familiar for me to let go of all at once. You know how it works. I remember the dream I had of you the day after your Opus doll shenanigans: I remember asking you if you were ok, and you giving me that exasperated look of yours and saying, “Oh sure – – they’ve got me walking and walking.” Yeah, I kinda figured you were busy. I only regret not asking you what movie you had seen up there recently. Just to hear you laugh one more time.
A friend of mine has said a few times that as her Mom was dying, she told my friend that going forward she was to “Just think of me as the sunlight on the lake. Just think of me as the diamonds on the water.” That’s you too, Mom. In this shadow life I know you thought little of yourself. From your current vantage point I hope you see yourself reflected on the water often. You are indeed a whole cache of diamonds of eternity. I loved you more than I ever said. And I’m so sorry I didn’t say it more often. Please know that in my heart I miss you so very much. Happy Mothers’ Day.
This is heavy stuff, Dude. Glad you are writing about it. Makes me want to talk to my Mother again, even though I just saw her a couple hours ago. She is stubborn and sarcastic and loving, all at the same time.
So beautifully and lovingly told. I can see her resolute spirit and gentle sense of humor shining through this story.
Two thoughts, Michael:
(1) Your siblings not staying could NOT be your fault. No one took them hostage; they simply made a choice to stay away, and in doing so, probably created an unbearable burden of guilt. I hope they can find the self-forgiveness that we all deserve.
(2) I became fond of a palliative care physician who helped my mother with transition care when she was dying. During one of our many fascinating conversations, she told me that she truly believes people in the hospital/hospice choose the time of their death. Some want family around and wait till all members arrive. Others, it seems, wait till family actually LEAVE (even if for a few minutes to get a snack) before they die. Perhaps your mother’s departing in her solo fashion was a final act of courage, one that she herself needed to complete her life on earth. Think about it: Have you not experienced a deep spiritual connectedness, ecstasy even, in moments of profound solitude? As someone who spent the vast majority of her life caring for others, perhaps this was your mother’s wondrous moment to commune with the Divine on this earth all to herself. How amazing, really.
That said, I am truly sorry for your loss, which you so aptly describe as absolute desolation. I know I’ve never felt so wretched as I did when I lost my mother at age 50 and realized I was, in fact, now an orphan.