Shed ask for it outright. In heated moments, shed practically order me to praise her as though I were a child being told to clean my room. It would be nice if just once youd just say, hey, mom, youre really good at what you do, shed tell. If youd say, you do that so very well. If you asked me what my central grievance with my mother was, i would tell you that I had a hard time not seeing her as a fraud. I would tell you that her transformation, at around the age of 45, from a slightly frumpy, slightly depressed, slightly angry but mostly unassuming wife, mother, and occasional private piano teacher into a flashy, imperious, hyperbolic theatre person had ignited in her a phoniness that.
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When i asked her what she thought an intellectual was, she said it was someone who valued education and preferred reading to sports. What was my problem? Why couldnt I just let it go, laugh it off, chalk it up to quirkiness rather than grant it status as a legitimate source of my barely contained rage? For starters, her need for praise jenkins was insatiable. And around the time of her emancipation from her old self, when she moved out of the house and seemingly took up permanent residence in the high school theatre, that need redoubled. We never gave her any credit, she said. We always put her down, didnt take her seriously. And now that she felt really good about herself (for dressing better, for going blonde, for losing weight, for having a career we couldnt bring ourselves to be happy for her. That she was completely right about all of this only added to my rage. We couldnt give her any credit, at least not enough. She just wanted it too badly.
Not that she actually was or did any of these things. It was more that she always felt to me like an outline of a person, a pen-and-ink drawing with nothing coloured. Sometimes I got the feeling she sort of knew this about herself but was powerless to do anything about. She wanted to be a connoisseur of things, an expert. She wanted to believe she was an intellectual. Once, among a group of semi-strangers, i heard her refer to herself as an academic. Later, when i asked her about it, she told me she appreciated college towns and academic-type people and therefore was one guaranteed herself.
In truth, the actor had dropped out before she began working there, but my brother and I nodded and went along with. In our family, being good children did not have to do with table manners or doing well in school but with going along with my mothers various ideas about herself and the rest. Mostly they amounted to white lies, little exaggerations that only made us look petty if we called her out on them so we usually didnt. Or at least we didnt any more. There was a period of at least 15 years, from approximately age 18 to age 34, when every interaction I had with my mother entailed some attempt on my part to cut through what I perceived as a set of intolerable affectations. The way i saw it, she had a way of talking about things as though she wasnt really interested in them but rather imitating the kind of person who thesis was. What i always felt was that she simply didnt know how. She reminded me a bit of the kind of college student whos constantly trying on new personalities, whos a radical feminist one day and a party girl the next, who goes vegan for biography a month and doesnt let anyone forget it, who comes back from.
My father, though sort of in the picture in that he also lived in Manhattan and was still married to my mother, was not in any picture that would have required him to make this trip. My parents had been separated for nearly 20 years, beginning around the time my mother began to self-identify as a theatre person and potential single person, though theyd never bothered to divorce. The rest of us, though, would go the following month, when my brother could request a few days off and after my mother was recovered from her surgery and had gotten in a round or two of chemotherapy. It would turn out to be the last trip she ever took. At the memorial service, she addressed the small crowd of mostly eighty and ninetysomethings about how far shed moved beyond southern Illinois but how she still appreciated it as a good place to have grown. This was entirely untrue, since as far back as I can remember shed blamed a large portion of her troubles on her hometown as well as on her mother. Also untrue was the notion, which my mother had let grow in her hometown some years earlier and never bothered to tamp down, that she was single-handedly responsible for the career of a famous actor who had gone to the high school where shed taught.
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In the outside world, she won piano competitions and twirled the baton, but inside the house she offered nothing more than an occasional mumble. I think the idea was that her mother was so unwilling to listen to her that she was no longer going to waste her breath. For my mothers entire life her mother was less a mother than splintered bits of shrapnel she carried around in her body. As a very young child Id taken the requisite delight in my grandparents; they had candy dishes and cuckoo clocks, plus they lived far away and I saw them only once a year at the most. But as I grew older and my grandfather died and my mother lost what little buffer had once stood between her and her adversary, the more i came to see the pathology that swarmed around my grandmother like bees. She was a mean little girl in a sweet old womans body; she spoke about people behind business their backs in ghastly ways, sometimes loudly just seconds after theyd left the room. She spoke in a permanent whine, sometimes practically in baby talk.
My mother, whose lifes mission was to be regarded as serious and sophisticated, recoiled from this as though it were a physical assault. She often said she believed her mother had an intellectual disability. For my mothers entire life, her mother was less a mother than splintered bits of shrapnel she carried around in her body, sharp, rusty debris that threatened to puncture an organ if she turned a certain way. We didnt need to have my grandmothers funeral right away, my mother said. It would require travel to southern Illinois, a ragged, rural place out of which my grandmother had seldom set foot and from which my mother, despite having left at 23, never felt she could totally escape. Like me, my brother lived in Los Angeles, though unlike me, it was hard for him to get away from work and no one expected him to just drop everything to attend his grandmothers funeral.
But in January 2009, after months of complaining of pain in her side and being told by her doctor it was probably a pulled muscle, she was found to have gallbladder cancer. This sounds like the kind of thing you could easily cure by just removing the gallbladder, which everyone knows is a nonessential organ, but it turns out the disease is not only extremely rare but barely treatable. Not that they werent going to try. The week of my mothers diagnosis, her own mother died, aged. This wasnt as calamitous as you might think. I dont really feel anything, my mother said when she told me the news.
I lost her so long ago. Technically she was referring to the dementia my grandmother had suffered for several years but we both knew that the real loss existed from the very beginning. My grandmother was tyrannical in her childishness. She was stubborn, self-centred, and often seemingly wilfully illogical. Though she didnt overtly mistreat my mother, Im fairly certain that my mother saw her as a neglecter. Not in the sense of failing to provide food and shelter but in the sense that is knowable only to the neglectee, and even then maybe never entirely. Im tempted to say that my grandmother damaged my mother on an almost cellular level. But then again maybe some of my mothers damage was her own. She freely admitted that from the age of 14 until she left her parents house after college, she stopped speaking almost entirely when she was at home.
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I assumed shed known every kind of family and witnessed every iteration of grief, though later I learned shed worked for only one other terminal patient in New York, a man who was dying of something other than cancer and whose daughter apparently cried all. Our family, as my mother might have said, had a significantly different style. my mother died the day after Christmas. She was 67 years old. She lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where shed moved three years earlier after retiring from her job as a high school theatre teacher and director in New Jersey. She had an exquisitely decorated one-bedroom apartment that she couldnt really afford, though, true to her nature, she had a number of business and creative projects in the works that she trusted would change her financial equation. These included theatre coaching for Broadway hopefuls as well as potentially mounting a play shed written (her first literary endeavour) that she told me she felt could hit the big time if only she got it daddy into the right hands.
If she died before then and we didnt have the place cleared out, wed not only have to renew the lease and pay another month of sizeable rent, but wed also have to then go on to break the lease and lose her sizeable security. She was unconscious, so right in front of is a matter of interpretation, but her hospital bed was in the living room and we had to crouch behind it to remove books from shelves. My mother had a set of george kovacs table lamps that I liked very much, and every time i look at them in my own house now, three time zones away in a living room shes never seen, i think about how I had. You have to start sometime, said Vera, the woman who worked league for. Im almost certain she said this because she had no idea what to say but felt some obligation to validate our behaviour since we were paying her 17 per hour. Vera was a professional end-of-life home healthcare aide, referred to us by the hospice. She was originally from Trinidad and spent a lot of time listening to Christmas music on headphones.
come over and fill out the final paperwork and then for the men from the funeral home to take her away. I did this less for the sake of holding it than to make sure she still had no pulse. Shed chosen cremation but had said once that she feared being burned alive. A woman worked for us during the last two months of my mothers illness. She must have found us appalling. A week or so before my mother died, my brother and I started packing up the apartment right in front of her. I know this sounds grotesque, but we were haemorrhaging money and had to do whatever we could to stem the flow. It was late december and her lease was up on the first of the new year.
Id read about this in the death books final Gifts, nearing death Awareness, The needs of the dying that book Id devoured over the last few months. Medically speaking, Id found these books to be extremely accurate about how things progressed, but some put a lot of emphasis on birds landing on windowsills at the moment of death or people opening their eyes at the last minute and making amends or saying. We werent that kind of family, though, and I harboured no such expectations. I had been slightly worried that when my mother actually died Id be more grief-stricken than Id anticipated, that Id faint or lose my breath or at least finally unleash the tears that Id been unable to shed all this time. I thought that in my impatience to get through the agonising end stages Id surely get my comeuppance in the form of sneaky, shocking anguish. Perhaps I would rage at the gods, regret all that had gone unsaid, pull an article of clothing from her closet and hold it close, taking her. But none of that happened.
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People who werent there like to say that my mother year died at home surrounded by loving family. This is technically true, though it was just my brother and me and he was looking at Facebook and I was reading a profile of Hillary Clinton in the december 2009 issue of Vogue. A hospice nurse had been over a few hours earlier and said my mother was very imminent. She was breathing in that slow, irregular way that signals that the end is near. Strangely, i hadnt noticed it despite listening for the past several weeks (months earlier, when her death sentence had been officially handed down but she was still very much alive, my mother had casually mentioned that shed noticed this breathing pattern in herself and that. My brother got off the couch and called her name, too. Then I said, Is that it? I found suddenly that I wasnt quite sure how to identify a dead person it didnt occur to me in that moment that not breathing was a sure sign so i picked up her hand. It was turning from red to purple to blue.