Tag Archives: Grieving

For You, Mom

A year ago today my mother died in my arms. I’ve posted about it before (see Still Here) so I won’t go on. But here are some excerpts from a short story that give you some sense of her. The tense is a mess, and it’s a bit of a hodgepodge without the rest of the story. I have other stories and other excerpts that show a different side of her–complicated, depressed, withholding, cruel–but today this is the part of her I want to share. To remember.

SHADOW DREAMS

Every night, my mother dreams. Sometimes it is nothing more than an abbreviated version of her daily routine. Running to Agway for mulch. Picking up milk and butterscotch cookies at Munroe Dairy. Reading the newspaper while my father nods off watching Murder She Wrote. Sometimes, she dreams in shadows. In these dreams there are objects floating over her that she cannot actually see. They are distinguishable only by the black shapes they cast at her feet.

“I had another shadow dream last night,” she says at the breakfast table one Saturday morning. “It was an avocado‑colored Amana refrigerator. Double doors.”

“How the hell do you know all that from a shadow?” This is my father. He sounds like he is talking to a Jehovah’s Witness or a used car salesman.

“I just do,” she says.

My father claims he has never had a dream. I tell him this is impossible and explain the four stages of sleep to him. I say, you probably just don’t remember them. But he is adamant.

“I never dream,” he says, pulling a package of Marlboros out of the pocket of his shirt.  “Your mother’s the dreamer in this house.”

***

During my first year of graduate school I spend Saturday mornings with my parents.  My mother and I sleep late, but my father is up by five.  He lets the dog out, makes a pot of coffee, reads the paper, makes a grocery list, goes to the bakery.  I wander into the kitchen around ten, just as my father comes through the door with a bag of fried apple dumplings, or poppy-seed sweet bread, or sour cream blueberry crumb cake.  He smells like stale smoke and fabric softener and sweet morning air.  I make another pot of coffee and peek into the waxy bakery bag.

My mother joins us in the kitchen by ten thirty.  Her body is round and soft, but her legs are wiry, like a bird.  She puts a kettle of water on the stove for tea, then stands next to where my father sits, surveying this week’s bounty.

“Look at all these goodies,” she says.  “Oy, Franky, what are you trying to do to my girlish figure?”

My mother thinks she was Jewish in a past life, so she says “oy” a lot.  She pats her stomach fondly.

“This wasn’t here when I married you,” says my father, but he pats her stomach fondly too and turns to cut up bite sized pieces of his breakfast to feed to the dog.

My mother tells us stories about her students—this one asks too many questions, that one doesn’t apply herself, another is pregnant and abandoned by some no account boyfriend.

My father bangs at the window to frighten squirrels away from his bird feeders.  The feeders sit high up on poles he threaded with battered garbage can tops meant to block intruders from the special sunflower seeds he buys at Agway.  He is trying to attract cardinals.  The squirrels look up at him for a minute and then continue.  They climb the pole and pull themselves onto the circular metal barriers like Olympic gymnasts.

My father looks at me and shakes his head.  Then he talks about my brothers—how they should or shouldn’t spend their money, what they should or shouldn’t do for work, why they never should have moved out of the house.  He asks me what’s wrong with them.  He thinks because I study psychology I can solve all the family problems.  I shrug my shoulders and reach for more pastry.

And then, my mother tells us her dreams.

“Last night I had a dream about Jim Deitrick,” she begins.  “You remember, he stood up for your father at our wedding.  Everyone thought I had a crush on Jim because I kept looking at him in Sister Jeffrey Anne’s Chemistry class.”

She waves her butter knife at me.

“Jim was a big shot basketball player, so they assumed I liked him, but it was your father I had my eye on.  They sat right next to each other.”

“How do you remember such crazy stuff.  I don’t remember any of this.”  My father’s thick black eyebrows arch in disbelief.

“Never mind.  I remember.  Your father wouldn’t ask me out because of the rumor that I had a crush on Jim Deitrick.  After all, they were best friends.  There were rules in those days.”

“Your mother’s getting soft in the head,” he says, staring at her over the top of his glasses which have slid half way down his nose.

“Nonsense.  It took me three months to get your father to ask me out.  On our first date we went to Hyde’s for hot dogs and I knew he was the one for me.  So right after we graduated from St. Luke’s we were married.  Seventeen years old.  Imagine that.”

“You should have stuck with Jim Deitrick,” says my father.  “He’s making six figures with Chemical Bank.”

“I’ve got plenty of figure, thank you very much.”

My mother gets up to put her tea bag in a bowl on the counter.  She saves them for fertilizer.  They pile up for months until my father threatens to throw them out.

“What about the dream?” I ask.

“Oh, the dream.  Well, Jim Deitrick was driving down our street in one of those lawn mowers you can sit on, except it was really a Lazy Boy Chair.  Blue, I think.  And when he got to our house he waved and called out, ‘I’ve been to the Sistine Chapel.  Say hello to Frank.’  Isn’t that strange?”

“I’ll say.”  My father rolls his eyes at her.

“No, I mean I’ve always wanted to see the Sistine Chapel.”

“Well,” says my father, “It’s going to be awfully slow going in a Lazy Boy chair.”

***

My mother is talking about her old high school, St. Luke’s.  It is being torn down by the city because they’re building a supermarket and they need a big parking lot.  It is hard to hear her.  The wind is against us and it rattles our clothing like sails.

“Your father brought me home two bricks from the walls of the building.  Imagine that.”

And I do.

My father bends down in the rubble of the building, his glasses sliding down his nose, his knees stiff, his eyes tearing from the dust, a lit Marlboro cupped in one hand.  He picks up a brick and remembers my mother, her smooth creamy skin, her splash of red lipstick, her perfect dimpled smile.  He flicks away the half smoked Marlboro, picks up another brick with this now free hand, and in an instant, forgets.

***

I wrote this story years ago. It needs some attention, but unfortunately I’ve moved on to bigger more convoluted writing. A novel, that as my father might say, doesn’t know if it’s walking or riding a horse. On I go. But I miss her. More than I could ever have imagined.

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Hello Darkness My Old Friend

Oh yeah. I did it. Up at 7:00 AM baking cookies. Watched those Rockettes kick higher than the Empire State Building. Saw Harry Potter singing in a suit and bow tie with John Larroquette (Didn’t I see that last year too? Wasn’t it just as strange then?). Watched my better half cook enough food for a small army and then wrap it up and wedge it into the back of our dilapidated minivan, steaming up the windows and smelling like an aphrodisiac. One hour later dinner at my sister-in-laws sitting at the kids table eating and eating some more. Walked off two forkfuls of mashed potatoes on the beach with my kids. Then back for dessert. Ended the day with Charlie Brown and Lady GaGa. Finally stumbled into bed with a food hangover, a raging fibromyalgia attack, a profound sadness.

I hear from so many people these days say that Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. It feels less stressful, easier, more singular in focus, free of religious overtones and guilt, less expensive. The expectations are lower, the carbohydrate intake is higher. All in all it’s a great day.

And it was. I enjoyed my family, I witnessed only minor dysfunction, I felt full and grateful, the sun shone, the beach was glorious, I didn’t have to cook or clean a lot (thank you TXN), and my sister-in-law lent me 3 new books to read. It really was a day to be thankful for.

Yes, here it comes. The but…

My mother wasn’t here.

Truthfully, it has been a long time since my mother played a significant role in my Thanksgiving. I’ve been out in the world quite a while now. Cooking my own turkeys and pies, buying my own rust colored table linens, getting the lumps out of the gravy or sitting at other dining room tables and oohing/ahing over bowls of white and orange vegetables.

But talking to my father 300 miles away, his voice flat and dull, a pretend voice, empty without her, I am filled with abandonment and loneliness. All day it rattles and wheezes inside of me, like stale air, so that by midnight, stuffed with food and small hapinesses and the confusion of watching Charlie Brown and Lady Gaga in one night, I’m engorged. Like those Macy’s Day Parade balloons, I feel enormous and unwieldy and held to the ground only by a proverbial thread.

This morning I came to slowly, shook off bad dreams and joint pain, made french toast for my kids, started reading A Secret Kept, started thinking about every chapter–how it hooked me in, made me want to keep reading to find out more, how it screwed up point of view and distracted me, how it introduced new characters successfully and not so successfully, and how I loved it. Because I was dissecting it, learning from it and the whole time enjoying the ride.

Books help. They take me away and bring me back and then take me away again. They get me in front of this computer, to this blog, and to my own sense of myself as a writer. They get me through Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Holy Saturday, Fat Tuesday, Christmas Eve, Hanukkah, Ground Hog’s Day, Friday the 13th, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and even my own damn birthday. I love books. Can’t imagine where I’d be without them.

Can you?

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Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

My mother believed in lotion. All kinds of lotion. Foot lotion, hand lotion, body lotion, elbow lotion, face lotion. Lotion for scrubbing away callouses, hiding wrinkles, minimizing dark circles, keeping out UV rays, softening skin, fading age spots. Pink, white, green, yellow, grainy, smooth, thick, thin, scented, lightly scented, unscented, whipped, churned, glopped, dotted. For my mother, lotion solved just about any form of human deterioration you can think of.

So I suppose it was no surprise when this June, a few weeks before she lost almost all of her ability to communicate and then shortly after died, my mother whispered to me, You have to take the Avon home with you. Your father will just throw it out.

So I did. I took home 3 huge cardboard boxes filled with Avon lotions. And after she died and my father decided to go through a few of her things, we found 2 more huge boxes of lotion.

If I stood on a street corner in Times Square for a week I couldn’t give away all that lotion. I didn’t want to take it all. It seems ludicrous even now, first to have that much lotion for any one person and secondly, for me, a user of CVS brand Lubriderm for chapped winter hands and shaven legs, of all people to take it. But, as the only girl, so it would be.

Some people inherit diamonds, furs, a summer home, a little IBM stock, perhaps an antique vaz or the bone china.

I inherited lotion.

When I took it I thought, I’ll just re-gift it to 500 of my closest friends or donate it to a women’s shelter or sell it on e-bay. But I didn’t. I just left it in the basement with the miss-matched Tupperware and empty shoe boxes and Christmas platters and the board games with missing pieces.

Then, a few weeks ago I came across a random box that hadn’t made it downstairs. I opened it. I pulled out colorful tubes and svelte looking jars and the promise of miracles in 5 easy steps. I found AM Solution and PM Solution, and I thought, hell, I could use an AM solution and a PM solution so I twisted a jar open and scooped out a white thick silky glob and I tried it.

And suddenly, like Jim Carrey in The Mask, I was changed. I felt a softness, but a strength as well. I felt protected, concealed, a little more sophisticated, wiser even.

I felt my mother.

And I hadn’t felt her in ages. I hadn’t dreamt about her or talked about her much or even really believed she was gone most times. But pulling out that box, using her lotion, looking for that AM Solution, brought me to a place of serenity and forgiveness I had yet to experience with regards to my mother. It didn’t last very long. A flash really. But now everyday I wear it. I don’t always think of her when I put it on, but many times I do.

I’ve come to realize my mother’s lotion was her secret weapon against the harsh realities of life. Like Green Lantern’s ring or Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, it helped her overcome insurmountable obstacles everyday. Cooking my father another meal, eking life back into a ragged house plant, haggling a good price for a box of used books at a garage sale, checking on her blood sugar, watching her children leave, forgetting the cruelty in her own mother’s voice, trying to understand her son’s addiction or her daughter’s sexual orientation, going to church and praying for forgiveness, passing up a second helping of bread pudding, paying her QVC bill, smiling, laughing, judging, raising her eyes to the heavens in hope for one more day.

Now I wear the lotion. As though it can ward off Kryptonite or evil or bring my mother back. Once more. To hold me. To let me know, finally, I was loved.

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Still Here

I suppose for once I have a legitimate excuse for abandoning this blog.

I was watching my mother die.

About a week before my last blog entry my mom was diagnosed with cancer. It was unclear at the time just what kind it was because they could not identify the source. I went to stay with my parents for a week and attended innumerable hospital and doctor visits, until finally we were told it was pancreatic cancer and she had 2-3 months to live.

Someday I will write about it. I will tell you about my mother-her strength and kindnesses, her stubbornness and guilt, her anger and love. I’ll let you know how she grew into her role as a 75 year-old woman with grace and humor, finally letting go of most of things that were haunting her and choking her spirit–healed by gardening, swimming twice a week, lunching with “The Red Hat Ladies”, separating from her children, QVC, and a realized dream of seeing the Sistine Chapel.

I will also tell you how the cancer weakened her beyond recognition,  aged her body 20 years in 6 weeks. How she lost so much weight that the skin was just flapping around her bones, the muscles gone. How her face was the only part of her that was still her. And though at times she looked so sick it was astonishing, other times her face was almost angelic. I will talk about my father, how he held her hand, asked her if she wanted to fool around, told her how beautiful she is, stroked her cheek, called her a pain in the ass. How he completely fell apart, questioning his God, his religion. Raising his fists to the heavens, tearing at his hair, whispering over and over, “Bring her back to me.”

I might even tell you what it was like for me, to live with my parents again for weeks at a time, saying all the right things, folding sheets, washing the bathroom floor, rummaging for paperwork they never signed and getting them to finally sign it, eating food I never eat at home just to make them happy, talking to hospice nurses and relatives I haven’t seen since I was 10, making funeral arrangements, sorting through 50 pounds of Avon products, washing dishes, helping my brothers cope.

I will tell you about the final days–giving her morphine that my father wouldn’t give her because it wouldn’t make her better, changing her soiled clothes and bedding, cutting her underwear off her because I could barely move her by myself when my father threw his back out, dabbing her lips with water when she couldn’t swallow, holding her hand and saying she was a great mother and grandmother, because dying simplifies relationships. Telling her she could go when she was choking on her final breaths, her eyes glazed over and staring off into the unknown, my father begging her to stay while I told her she could go, we would be ok, there was nothing to worry about anymore.

I loved my mother dearly, fiercely, irrationally. Someday I will tell you all about it. For now, I’ll just say that I’m back, I am writing, and when the numbness wears off I will be wailing and crying and shaking my fists to the heavens for a damn long time.

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