Friday, April 9, 2010

Letting go. . . watching your mother die (and no, it's not about Amelia)

Dying. It ain't easy. I interrupt my regularly scheduled Amelia broadcast simply because I need to write about it. Watching someone you loved and admired deteriorate is painful. But it must be so much more painful for them. Yet I think my mother has finally reached a level of peace I didn't expect. Perhaps I'm being naive. I went to see her yesterday, and for once she was alert. Able to talk to me, and to listen. I'm never quite sure how much she really wants to listen. And I find myself trying hard to entertain her as if I'm back in those years when the two of us were thrown together and I was the child who was there to try and cheer her up. It was my role. I was the one who was expected to do what she had done, to be what she'd been, and to love her. She'd struck out with the other two. My brother hated her. My sister fought with her bitterly. Third time was the charm, or at least it was for a while.

By the time I came along my siblings were almost grown. There are ten and twelve years separating us. My brother had been sent off to prep school, one of his biggest pet peeves. It was really because my mother couldn't deal with his behavior. I think she's always been a little afraid of men, and my brother was turning into a man. One with a quick temper. My sister and I bunked in the same room, but when I was six she went to college and from that time on, I was my mother's keeper. Neither sibling cares much about my experience with her. Theirs are so different, perhaps that's what siblings do. They believe that their experience is everyone's. I somehow have managed to be able to differentiate. My father treated us differently. So did my mother.

I think that it may have been partly historical. When I was five, my mother had to give up a satisfying career as an obstetrician and move back to New York from DC.
Then her father died. She was depressed by that and by having to find a way to begin again. Meanwhile my father worked endless hours. So she made me into her buddy. Until I left for college I swore I was going to be a doctor to please her. And in turn, she loved me more. Or at least was able to show her love in a more natural way. Not that she was ever a warm person. Far from it. Still I knew that she appreciated me. I never felt that from my father, in fact, I felt he disliked me personally even though he loved me in a general sense.

Each child gets a different parent. And at the end, each child gets a different goodbye from them. The last words my father spoke to me were, "You're getting fat." Suffice it to say, I am not fat, not even remotely overweight. He said he loved me too. But it was always like that with him, give something and then take something else. My mother made me lean towards her yesterday and she said, well you know I don't remember exactly which is why I have such trouble with the memoir concept, but the gist was "you get me." I agreed. I do get her. I always have. She lucked out the third time that way. And I had a mother I could talk to for years, one who shared with me and supported me. That was a real gift. She's long gone, but that moment I think was her way of saying goodbye to me. She finally seems at peace, I think that death has terrified her but now for whatever reason it doesn't. I'm glad of that. And sad as I am to see her go, and she will go though who knows when exactly, I'm glad that I got her back. At least for a moment.


  1. I think every parent is deficient in his or her own way, and we spend our adult lives searching for whatever things we needed that they weren't able to give. As long as we can recognize and appreciate the things they did provide, as you seem able to do, we can be free of bitterness.
    Thank goodness for that last gift from your mother. As my sister says, caring for 90-something year olds isn't for sissies.

  2. It's something else all this. But certainly it brings perspective. Thanks. . .

  3. Personally Naomi I think you would do great with writing a memoir. Apart from the fascinating and at times heart wrenching content of your words, I have to say the writing flows like a sparkling river. It's like the words write themselves because this is coming from some vital place within you. Memoirs don't require a good literal memory, they can be lightly fictionalized with scenes you invent based on feeling tone memories of the past. I remember reading this long ago in the intro to a memoir called "Somehow Form a Family." Your earlier post about what McCarthyism did to your family was very moving. Your parent's lives were historically significant as testimony to the human cost of the McCarthy era.
    Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, I confess I am appalled by your father's last words to you. It seems to me that some people have a weird addiction to criticizing others, and perhaps this was the case with your father.
    Thank you for sharing this vivid and moving post. I'm glad your mother had a moment of lucidity and was able to convey her appreciation to you for being able to have a deeper understanding of her.

  4. I bet those who are addicted to criticizing others (thank you for that turn of phrase, Colleen!) do so because they feel insecure or diminished. So they try to cut everyone else down to their own perceived size.

  5. Thank you, this post definitely struck a chord on facebook too. It's something we all share, losing a person close to us. I don't think I'd be great at memoir because to be honest I find all this exhausting and the thought of revisiting it after it's done seems beyond me. But thanks for saying that I'd do a good job. I think it's easier to be honest in short bursts than in a long narrative, at least for me. As for insecurity, yes I do think that was the issue with my dad, that and incredible narcissism. Yet I really miss him, go figure.

  6. Just last night Chick and I were talking about my mother, and I expressed some regrets about my relationship, or maybe my communications, with her, in her last years. (Chick said I had nothing to regret, but they always say that.) Then Chick said that even four years later, he is occasionally stopped short in mid-thought when he realizes she is gone.

    But the opportunity to have final words with your mother, and her acknowledgment that you understand her, is a gift. You'll have no regrets. And by writing about her, you'll keep her memory alive; that's the Jewish view, and I really get that.

  7. Thank you Anne, and you were wonderful to your mother. You should have no regrets there at all.