We loved her. She loved us. These facts were undeniable. She was a person of great passion about anything she embraced, whether it was her family or cake decorating. She needed and absorbed love like she was the Sahara needing water, and no matter how much love, friendship, adoration she received, she was still the Sahara. It wasn’t that there wasn’t enough – it was more like she hadn’t even started.
Whatever she decided to do – and she did many, many things - she excelled at it. Well, maybe there were a couple of things she couldn’t do. I understand that waterskiing was a bust, but then I can’t say she’d decided to do it, either. As a rule, sports weren’t something that interested her, as a participant. There were sports she enjoyed watching – baseball comes to mind.
She fell off a swing when she was twelve; reportedly it was at its highest point when she fell. She landed in a seated position, she said, and broke three vertebrae. In that era, she should have never walked again, perhaps even should have died. She said that there was a lot of pain initially, and she was immobile for a long time. It’s a testimony to my grandmother’s iron will that she wasn’t a hunchback. Nonna was an old-world Italian lady who knew deep in her soul that a woman with no marriage potential wasn’t a human being at all, and a hunchback certainly would have no marriage potential. She wouldn’t accept anything but a lady’s posture for her daughter, and for the next seven decades, people would have to be told that there was a terrible curvature to her spine. By people, I mean her primary care doctors.
That curve was likely a partial cause of her death. As osteoporosis set in, and she lost height, the kyphosis compressed her lungs so that she couldn’t take a proper breath. In the end, she needed oxygen to keep her well-oxygenated. She needed hospitalization for pain management because of that spine. During that stay, she had a stress test that was negative. I suspect that she was so unable to ventilate that she didn’t exert enough to produce a good result. Less than a week after that stress test, she had a heart attack.
She called me at 7:00 AM on a Saturday morning, four days after her 89th birthday. “Did I wake you up?” she said.
“Yes, Mom. Just like every Saturday.” I think she got some kind of perverse pleasure out of this ritual. I had given up talking her out of it some time ago.
It was a good chat. Newsy. I asked her if the birthday present I’d sent had arrived. Indeed it had: last week.
“You didn’t open it?”
“Of course not.”
I can’t explain why that would be a matter of course. She was like that about presents. Nothing we could give her was ever “right”, and three quarters of our gifts were returned. But if she didn’t receive that gift exactly the way she wanted it, then it was inconsequential. I was away working on her birthday. Therefore, my present wasn’t worth opening. However, if I hadn’t sent one…
Oh, and if I wasn’t sent into orbit by anything she gave me, my life was not worth living. I don’t mean that as in: she’d make my life hell. I mean that as in: I didn’t deserve to live.
If that sounds harsh, remember that she loved us.
I don’t know if she’d have kept this year’s gift. It’s still in its box in the room I grew up in. It’s a soft, soft, soft silk-cashmere infinity scarf in a mouth-watering shade of teal. I imagine I’ll use it; it feels too good.
Three hours later, Dad called to say that she’d fallen in the shower, and the EMT’s were there to take her to the hospital. I could hear her scolding them in the background, telling them how her back hurt. I settled down to paperwork at my desk and waited for the next phone call.
Five and a half hours after that, I did get that call, from an Interventional Cardiologist I’ve never heard of, telling me that she’d taken out her LAD and her mitral valve, and he’d been trying to reopen the vessel all this time, but it wouldn’t take a wire, much less a balloon. He said she’d been in shock by the time she reached the ER and she was in the Cath Lab before Dad could even park. He said that her pressure was too low on three maxed-out pressors, and they’d never been able to get the systolic above 80. He said that she desperately needed a balloon pump, but the scoliosis was so bad, he couldn’t get it in. The curve of the bones pulled the aorta along with them. A balloon pump doesn’t work except in a straight line.
“The whole thing had to have been a challenge for you” I said. I wonder now at how clinical my demeanor was. He allowed as how it had been a long afternoon.
He said that she was on a vent, on three pressors, and he thought they might be able to keep her going until we got there. I fought the urge to ask him if he was sure he’d called the right family.
The rest was an odd, numb blur. I wandered into the living room where my husband was, and just stood there. I didn’t know what to say. Beloved had had a hip replacement not five days earlier. He couldn’t travel. I had to leave him to fend for himself. I fought down a feeling of being torn apart.
I called the dispatcher at work to say I had a problem. He said “If it means you can’t take your shift tonight, I have a bigger one.”
I said “My mother just had a heart attack and won’t last the night. Trade ya.”
My father was alone. I tried to call neighbors, friends. It was Saturday, who would be reachable? My dearest friend had annoyed my mother 20 years ago. She wouldn’t let her name be spoken in her house since. I called her. “Mom’s had a heart attack and she’s dying. Dad’s alone, and I can’t find any of their friends…”
“Hang up” she said. “I have somewhere to be.” She was standing next to him in 15 minutes.
I started trying to reach The Boy at school, but he wasn’t answering his cell. I gave it three tries while I tried to figure out what went into a suitcase. Thank God for all the traveling I’ve done – most of that went on reflex. Weeks later, I found one of the texts I’d sent: “Honey, you need to call home”.
I don’t remember the four-hour drive up to The Boy’s school. Two of the teachers were waiting up with him when I got there at 1:00 AM. He latched onto me, too stricken to cry. We found our way to a little hotel where we could get a couple of hours of sleep, and hit the airport at 4:00 for a 6:00 AM flight. We arrived at 10:00, rented a car and by some miracle, made it to the hospital by 10:30.
I caught sight of her from the door and stopped in my tracks. The Boy saw my face and started to cry. He’s been on rounds with me enough to know. He knew his Nonna was gone. We tried to talk to her, but the body in the bed wasn’t her. She was that stereotypical ICU preparation, a body on a vent, conjunctiva puffed out of her eyes because of the high force needed from the ventilator to keep her oxygen up, eyes drifted in two different directions, and lips and hard palate blue in spite of all the best efforts. But my mother wasn’t there.
An intern showed up and told me all he knew, including her labs. Heart barely beating. Lungs unable to take in sufficient oxygen. Kidneys and liver non-functional. She may have had a stroke in the night, judging from muscle tone and reflexes. “Should I call a Neuro consult?” he asked helpfully.
I smiled and patted his arm. “No need, dear. I can tell you what you need to know.”
The Boy opted to go back to the house before the ventilator was taken away. Dad & I held her hands and watched four partial ventilatory efforts, and the body followed the rest of her.
I don’t remember much after that. There were visits to the funeral home, plans for a reception, even a trip to buy a black dress. A friend appointed herself to come with us to the funeral home and wrote down absolutely everything that was said. I read her notes later and was dismayed to realize that I recognized nothing. Apparently, we’d demonstrated some presence of mind in the decisions we made, but without the notes I would never have known it.
I had had the bright idea of sending Beloved an Edible Arrangement for Valentine’s Day. When he told me that the delivery of that resulted in such a tussle with the door, a walker and four dogs that he fell, the torn-apart feeling finished its work and I lost it. I’m not sure how long it took two friends to put me together.
They say that the service was lovely, and the sermon was sensitive and personal, and all the other nice things you say about funerals. I remember assembling behind the casket in the narthex, and when the music started, The Boy in his trim dress uniform fell in behind the casket as it rolled down the aisle, performing a parade march as smooth as butter, and my heart clenched. The rest of the day is lost to my memory.
The friends that have been part of our lives for so many years surprised me. They showed up with food or invitations to get dinner. They kept tabs on Dad when I had to go home for a while. The next-door neighbors invited us all to their Easter dinner. They proved themselves to be true friends, and I am still overwhelmed.
I had wondered how we were going to process things in the aftermath. Loss of a mother, loss of a wife of sixty-three years, this is a huge hole in our world. I briefly wondered if Dad would turn her into a saint the way she did her own mother (SO not a saint). He said over and over to well-wishers “She was a wonderful, remarkable woman. She was the consummate military wife.”
It wasn’t a week after her death that he put down his dinner fork and said “You mother was a remarkable woman. She was. She was also a pain in the ass.”
“She loved us” I replied, and shrugged. “She couldn’t help the rest.”
She couldn’t. Years after her death, I analyzed my grandmother’s behavior and realized that she had borderline personality disorder. What’s it like to be raised by someone like that? Especially early in the 20th century when no one knew what the hell was going on anyway. Nonna cut a swath through her Italian community outside Pittsburgh with an alternating beneficence and destructive power that I think people still talk about, although admittedly, those who remember are pretty much dead and gone themselves. “Street angel and house devil” said the closer cousins who knew.
Her daughter was predictably neurotic, and was a control freak like none I’ve ever seen. She suspected all her friends of duplicity, or at least of laughing at her. She could count the people she trusted on the fingers of one hand, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t include either Dad or me. I’ve said she could do anything she wanted. I’ve never met anyone as smart or accomplished as my mother. She had a fine scientific mind, a prodigious memory and really good fashion taste. She was funny and pretty. She could be a lot of fun. She had the least reason to be insecure of anyone I’ve known or heard of. And she was the most insecure person I’ve ever met. There was never enough reassurance. Never enough obedience. Never enough of anything.
The older she got, the needier she was, and the very worst thing I ever did was grow up. She was proud of my accomplishments, my knowledge, my profession. But if I dared to display any knowledge that she hadn’t taught me herself, she lashed out with a force that was heartbreaking. At first I was spun around by this. I was only doing what she wanted. She had preached education, success, and my being a doctor all my life. I was doing that. What was wrong? It has taken me years to understand, and I’m pretty sure she never had an inkling of the damage she did.
She and Dad had legions of friends. She ran off any friend I made without her approval. She ran off every boyfriend after high school. Her jealousy was frantic.
She took vengeful offense without warning. I spent my early adult years tiptoeing around her, trying frantically to please her with nothing to show for it but an ulcer. I watched her begging my deeply demented grandmother for the smallest word of approval. She never got it. It broke her heart, and there was no presenting to her that she was asking for something her mother was physiologically incapable of doing. Eventually, I realized that she was repeating her mother’s pattern, and if I didn’t do something, I’d have no life of my own. I couldn’t face the idea of living that pattern for another generation; it would end the same way. I had to find a way to stop it. Programed as I was for obedience, that was a tall order. My med school years and after were a whirlwind of out-of-control controlling behavior. She listened in on my phone calls, she read my mail. When I moved out, she’d come to my apartment and go through my closets, my drawers, my checkbook. The interrogation would start when I got home from work:
“That is a skirt.”
“Where did you get it?”
“Was I there?” Obviously not. “You’re taking it back.”
Dad picked up on the results of this pretty quick. She’d say she was going to see me and he’d say “There goes the bank account”. Funny.
She’d look into my bathtub drain to see if there was male pubic hair in it. It was at that point that I freaked out. Never mind that I knew the Italian attitude that no matter what a woman did – she could get a Nobel Prize for wiping cancer off the face of the earth – if she didn’t have her hymen, she was RUINED. Worthless. Fit for nothing but execution a la Deuteronomy. My entire value depended exclusively on a vestigial transluminal membrane. But this level of paranoia was the limit. That wasn’t a pretty confrontation, but if she continued the freaky spying, she didn’t say anything about it.
I don’t suppose it was a surprise that this situation couldn’t do anything but explode. When I finally married Beloved against her wishes, her denouncement of us was humiliatingly public. She demanded that her friends denounce us as well, which confused many of them. Those who refused this were cut from her society, and even after we reconciled, some she never spoke to again. At the time, all I could think of to do was stay out of town and out of sight. Nosy people would call and try to get my side of the story, but I was too repulsed by the whole scene to play along.
But it all passed. She loved us. We loved her. This was the way she was. And I still believe that she had no power to stop herself.
This is the memory minefield we find ourselves confronting. I started going through her closets to clear away her clothes and decide what to do with them. I’d find a favorite housecoat or sweater and shed tears, and then the booby traps were uncovered. The floors of the closets were heaped with layers of things that hadn’t seen the light of day for years. Old bedroom slippers that should have been thrown away. A bag of Christmas cards from five years ago. And stuffed into a plastic bag and buried under a pile of shoeboxes, my gift from med school graduation, an antique garnet necklace and earring set, and a couple other pieces of jewelry I had received as gifts in college. These weren’t taken to the safe deposit boxes as she usually did with her more valuable jewelry, but shoved away in spite. They’ve probably been there for twenty years. I could almost feel the anger as I opened the bag. Boom.
When we went to the bank with her death certificate and to check on those safe deposit boxes, we found that my name had been taken off the signature cards twenty years ago, and then replaced later. And there was one box that Dad didn’t know about and had been in her name and mine only, but now had only hers. Why did she do that? “Oh, you know, she was angry” said Dad. Boom.
Birthday cards and Father’s Day cards I had sent to Dad over several years, even before the Big Breakup, were tucked in a sweater drawer, unopened. Boom.
There had been things like vacation trips that she told me Dad didn’t want to join us for. I asked him why. He’d never heard about them. Boom.
I found a travel journal from the summer we had our church wedding. She noted that she’d heard that I’d had an anaphylactic reaction and wound up in the ER. So distressing, she said, that they were no longer next of kin. Really? That particular booby trap was almost funny, until it sorta gave me the creeps.
It’s hard to mourn. At dinner with friends, we’ll reminisce, and sometimes the story ends with Mom having been Mom. Dad and I chuckle fondly, and the friends look nonplussed. They’re right, it isn’t funny. But what else do we have? Last week, I patted an old friend’s hand and said “Don’t feel bad. This was my mother. We all know that. And we loved her just the way she was, because she wasn’t going to change. And she loved us.”
My best friend suggested years ago that I have been too forgiving. But what else could I do? To continue to fight was to continue to be angry. I couldn’t stop her. But I could limit the damage she did. I could predict what would happen, and plan accordingly. Sometimes I’d feel depressed that I could predict so well. But the problem wasn’t mine to fix, no matter how much she demanded that others fix her life by doing what she wanted. We tried that. She just wound up wanting more, and she was no closer to happiness. God, I hope she’s closer to happiness now.
Dad says he’s “bereft”. The thing that saddens me is that he seems more to be relieved. He’s much less irritable than he was over Christmas-time, when he’d forget something or mess it up, and she’d snipe at him about it. She blamed him for his dementia, and he knew it. I may not be able to figure out how to forgive her for that. Especially when I see that he’s able to take this in stride so much better now.
I feel guilty that I feel relieved, too. Dear God, if Dad had gone first, this could be unbearable. And I feel guilty knowing that. It’s not very daughterly, is it?
Especially since she loved us. And we loved her.
This is beautiful and made me hug my mom. She has some borderline Spectrum-type behaviors that raise a lot of the issues you describe. For all the crazy-making though, her love is still a wonderful gift.
(I do admit to LOLing at the R1 asking *you* if you wanted a neuro consult. They're so cute when they're little like that.)