Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Things I Didn't Do For My Mother

I didn't fly back to be with her in her last days. I shipped her off to another state when she needed skilled nursing care. I didn't let her lend my sister twenty-five thousand dollars. I made her do what I thought was best for her. I was like my long-dead father in that way, minus the yelling. Okay, maybe I even yelled once.

It's complicated. 

Maybe it's not complicated. Maybe it's just me that's complicated. Fucked up also comes to mind.

When I was a boy, Mom was, how shall I say it, vaporous. My father was El Jefe. He brooked no dissent. My solution was to escape to California. Mom could not do that, so she escaped to within herself, an anxious place of fierce imaginings. She and Dad were fifty when he died. A psychiatrist treating her, with Thorazine, so that I hardly recognized her on the phone, said I just had to accept that she would never be normal.

So, one good thing about me, I'm not so good at accepting hopelessness. I flew back to Tennessee and got her a new shrink and she began her long road back, a road she walked alone. Her parents lived in town nearby, she had friends, but in a way that is hard for anyone who hasn't survived it to understand, including me, she was profoundly alone.

But she was strong. She did crummy jobs just to have something to do, and to make a little money, since my dad left her without much. She came out to see me once in a while. We had nice visits, but she always seemed emotionally shaky to me. I worried about her, but I didn't know what to do for her, so mostly I did nothing. I wouldn't say I avoided her. But that might well be the truth.

Then events took me back to my hometown, the one to which I had sworn never to return. Thus began my reintroduction to my mother. She was her old self by then. The person I remembered from my early childhood. She was still anxious, a condition I had only vaguely sensed as a young boy, but all the gentle wit and wisdom had come back to her, like a spring bloom. For eight years I breathed in the scent of her blooms, smiled at their beauty, wondered now and then how they had survived her long winter.

That was a lovely time. She got to know my wife and young children, and they her. They loved her gentle kindness. I got to know her too. You don't know your parents when you are a child. When I got to be with her day in and day out as an adult, I understood so many things so much better. Among those, frankly, was what a bastard the man I adored, my father, was. He was a revered doctor. Everyone loved him. He saved some dark side of himself for my mother.

When I moved to California, I sent Mom to a retirement home near my sister in Virginia. That didn't go well. For one thing, Mom said she never fit in with the other women at the lunch tables. They dressed up. They had to invite you to sit with them. It was like middle school. She and my sister had a few issues too, for which neither was really to blame. It was too much change for Mom. Within six months, she was heading back down the rabbit hole of xanax and klonopin. After a phone call that reminded me of Thorazine days, I moved her to California. In a matter of days. Like a rendition.

We had a good five years together out here. At least I want to think they were good. She said they were. We had some fun. I saw her often. She came for Sunday brunch most weeks. But she was lonely. I knew that, but I didn't know what to do about it. I told myself I was doing as much as I could. Thanks to a bequest from her parents, she had enough money to almost certainly live out her years comfortably, but I had heard the horror stories about huge medical bills in the last years of life and I was obsessed with not letting her run out of money.

So I didn't want her to lend money to my sister. She didn't really need it anyway, that's what I thought. But for many reasons, Mom wanted her to have it. It was just a financial decision for me, but I understand now, and maybe even did then, that for her it was like I was telling her she couldn't love her daughter. 

When the time came that assisted living couldn't meet her daily needs, when she needed skilled nursing care, the only places I could find nearby that were remotely affordable were ones where she would have had to have shared a room. A curtain might separate the beds. Bring three comfortable outfits, sweatpants kinds of things, from Target, one told me. That was all she would need. No more family portraits. No more antique furniture and silver. Just sweatpants.

In my brother's hometown, Louisville, KY, I found a wonderful place with reasonable prices and spacious private rooms. She'd love to have some time with my brother, Mom said. When I flew her there, even though I knew my brother would be good to her, I felt like I was abandoning her in the woods.

Over the course of the nine months she lived there, I went to see her a few times, the last a few weeks before she died. On that trip, I authorized hospice care for her. I feared it would be our last visit. The day the nursing home called to say she had died was a Sunday, the day we had shared so many brunches. In what struck me as a horrible, deliberate neglect, when the phone rang I was walking in the door from brunch with my wife's parents.

I'd like to think I was a good son. I'm certain I could have been better. Even as I was doing what I did for her, I wondered if I was doing all I could. Was I being selfish not to visit her more often? Should I lighten up on the financial frugality? Was I treating her like a child? The way my father had.

Scott Simon has a new book out now about the time he spent with his mother in her last days. He tweeted lovingly, achingly, from her bedside. I didn't do that. The last time I saw Mom I pushed her around outside in her wheelchair and talked about the birds that we saw. We listened to their songs, even sang ourselves. But I didn't sit by her bedside for weeks. I went home. 

And now, seven years later, not a day goes by that I don't wish I could hold her hand one more time.


  1. You were a great son. Don't doubt that.

  2. It was lovely meeting you today. This post really moved me. My dad has been gone 3-1/2 years and there's not a day that I don't wish the same.