The day my mother died was a perfectly ordinary day. The world didn’t care, nor did it even take notice. It went on, being all sunny and pleasant. It never bothered to stop, or even pause in its rotation. The sun did not hide its countenance, nor did the earth tremble. The only ones to suffer were her husband, her sister, her children, and her close friends. My mother died in 2014. I loved her very much—what son doesn’t love his mother, after all? My adult relationship with her was nevertheless complicated—again, what son’s isn’t?
When I found out that my mother was dying, I had been training at Hanshi’s dojo. I received a message form my kid brother that the previous evening, she was unresponsive when her husband tried to rouse her to go up to bed after she’d fallen asleep in her chair.
He gave her a dose of insulin, in case there was a question of her having fallen into a diabetic coma. However, she still did not wake. At least, not to the point of alertness. So, paramedics were called.
They laid her on a stretcher to take her out to the ambulance. She was alert enough to struggle against them. But when she was on her back, she apparently vomited and aspirated it, cutting off her oxygen. It had been estimated that she was choking for four to ten minutes. Although she was still alive by the time she reached the hospital, it was only in the technical sense. She was already brain-dead. One of the classic signs, which even I recognized when I saw her later at the hospital, was her wildly fluctuating body temperature, as her brain could no longer maintain a stable core temperature. Only her autonomous functions were still working, and even then, she had to be intubated and connected to a respirator.
The doctors kept her going for about two weeks, as they tried to eliminate any other possible causes for her condition, hoping that she might recover.
But eventually, the family sat down together, and we decided that it was time to let her go.
I have heard it said in various ways, and in various media, that you should call your mother now while she is sill alive, so that you can let her know that you love her and care about her. That if you did not, you would come to regret it when she passes away, your chances gone forever. This is not true for me.
Over the last five or ten years of my mother’s life, I studiously avoided calling her. Ever since the financial collapse of 2008, I had been struggling financially and emotionally, as many of us had been. And about the state of the world in those days, the less said, the better. It seemed that every time I called my mother, there was so little real news that our conversations degenerated into extended kvetching sessions. And after a while, I decided that I did not want to remember my mother in such a way, constantly complaining and commiserating.
What does sadden me is that now, at a time in my life when I can again support myself comfortably (for now), and can claim some little personal success as a published author (albeit a self-published one), I cannot share this with her. All those years, I could tell her what was going wrong, and pour out my bitterness and sadness; but now that there is something not entirely awful to share, something that she might have taken some pleasure in hearing, or even—dare I say—pride—that opportunity no longer exists. And will never come again.
As an adult, I remember watching my mother grow ever older, and more frail, gaining weight that she could not support on her small frame, illnesses of senescence descending upon her.
Often, her birthday gifts to me seemed to indicate that she didn’t really know me. Of course, whose fault was that? My own. But I simply could not bring myself to talk with her when there was nothing to talk about except how awful things were. We both suffered for that, I’m sure.
When I was very young, I loved to play “Star Trek.” Around the block from my grandparents’ house was a school—Toby Farms Elementary School. There had been a particular set of monkey bars with an internal platform midway up the structure, about two meters off the ground. That was my Starship Enterprise set. I was Mr. Spock. Grammom was Captain Kirk, and Grandad was Dr. McCoy—He usually stayed home when Grammom took me out to play, so he was always down in Sick Bay, while I was on the bridge.
But I would never include my mother in this fantasy-play of mine. My grandmother once asked me who my mother would be, when I was assigning roles, and I refused to allow her to join, even though she was never there for those play sessions. Mommy was only allowed to be Mommy. She couldn’t be anyone else. She had to be Mom for me.
My earliest memories are not altogether pleasant ones, in case you hadn’t noticed by now. I remember having regular night-terrors all my life until about age six. They would wake me from a dead sleep, and send me scampering to my mother’s bed, where I would jump in and cower against her. She was my rock and my shelter in those days.
I remember her having a very short temper a lot of the time, in those days. And she cried often. Much of it was, I am sure, borne out of the desperation of our situation. Those were not good days. And I, as a young child, certainly did not make anything easier for her, nor did I appreciate then what she went through for me.
My mother left my father when I was about three. It was, in those days and in those circumstances, a brave thing for her to have done. It was not a good or happy marriage, as I have noted before. She obtained a Ghet, and when we moved out, we were almost destitute.
It had been an unhappy, ill-advised marriage. One which my father’s own family tried to discourage my mother from entering in upon, having taken a liking to her. I was told that my parents had often come close to violence with each other, if not actual blows. I know that the abuse was such that my mother had on at least one occasion half-consciously attempted suicide by wrapping her car around a tree on Roosevelt Boulevard. My mother once told me that she had decided on seeking a divorce when she saw me frightened by a butterfly as I sat on the front lawn at my grandparents’. Apparently, I was screaming in terror, and she decided then that she had to get us away.
I really only remember brief images from those days. My mother and I lived briefly on South 19th street in South Philly, and for a short time at 49th and Spruce in West Philly. Finally, when I was about five, we moved to Media— the house at which we lived no longer stands.
Additionally, I was apparently a fairly sickly child, nearly dying on numerous occasions. I’d had two major surgeries before the age of five, and I used to fall ill with high fevers with some regularity. My mother used to aver that in those early days after her divorce, she had thought about giving me up for adoption to a family more financially able to care for me, but that she didn’t because she was afraid that I might die, and she wouldn’t be able to be with me when it happened.
For a time, we were on welfare. My grandparents helped her find a place to live, and an old, but serviceable, car. Eventually my mother held down three jobs at once, in order for us to make ends meet. I remember my mother once saying that it was difficult, but she wanted to have the extra money so that we could do things like go to the movies, or have a meal out on occasion. And despite limited funds, she always did her best to keep me clothed and fed, and with my grandparents’ help, she made sure I had toys. And a very generous and dedicated doctor, Milton Graub, made sure that I had proper medical care, often making house calls, and giving my mother all the consideration he could when it came to bills.
I have an old picture of my mother. It’s labelled as Grammom and grandad’s first apartment. Mom couldn’t have been more than two years old in it. It’s a very strange feeling to look at so young a child, knowing that she will become my mother. Knowing what she will look like in her twenties, her thirties, her forties, and beyond, until her death. She’s standing there, in a cute little dress, smiling, and laughing for the camera. I wonder what the little child is thinking, that baby who will grow up to become (among other things) my mother. What toys did she play with? Which was her favorite? Who were her friends? What songs did she love? To what music did she dance? What was her favorite food?
So small. So free of care. Did she play at being a grownup? At being a mother? What did she love? What did she fear? When would she feel lonely? What was her favorite food? At that age, she couldn’t even know that she would have an end, like all living things.
Did she have a happy childhood? A sad one?
So many questions. But too late to ask any of them. And even if I had the opportunity, would I have the courage to do so?
I remember sitting quietly with my mother to watch Mister Rogers together. And we used to watch Sesame Street and The Electric Company as well. And on Saturday afternoons, we watched local horror host Dr. Shock, another favorite of ours.
I don’t think I saw her as much as I should have, or perhaps even wanted to.She was so often busy, desperate to keep our little family going with noses above water. I spent a lot more time with my grandparents, and grew very close to them. I wonder if it hurt my mother that I was closer to her parents than I was to her.
I wish I was the kind of person who could remember the good times at least as much as the bad, or hard, times. I wish I could remember all that was best and noblest about her.
I wish I could have made her proud. Oh, she always said she was proud of me. But for what? Mostly undeserved, I think. Just a common maternal reflex. I wish I could share my published writing and reviews with her.
I wish, I wish, I wish…. I wish a lot of things. But wishing can’t make anything so. And there’s reality to face. And the rest of my life to live. Without her.