Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
Piece 1 of 3
-from June 2008.
My mother is dying. It’s not pretty. It’s not patient. It’s not silent nor unseen. It’s disturbing and unsettling. It’s rambling and shaking and repetition. And it’s happening quickly.
My mother’s birthday is March 13, every so often it falls on Friday the 13th; an omen, a gentle warning of nothing more than a day of celebration of my mother’s birth. This year my mom’s birthday falls on a Thursday and that’s okay too. To celebrate, I take her to dinner. She holds my hand as she gets out of the car. She holds my arm as she walks and she holds both my hands as she climbs the wooden steps. When I was a child, I used to hop up steps. I used to jump up steps. For dinner, I used to leap up steps where my mother would feed my face, wipe my mouth and wash my hands. Tonight, with my mom, we climb steps, much harder than before. “It’s okay,” I repeat after each step, “almost done.”
She holds my attention as we talk over bread. I don’t pay so much attention to her words as I do her, her frailty, her liveliness, her storytelling. My mom loves to tell stories. Normally, I hate to listen. Normally, I hate her (hatred being defined as anger toward those we love). For years I hate my mother for sitting by, looking on, while my father beats me. I can’t forgive her and I can’t forget. I want her to feel the hurt that I feel as a child, the loneliness, the helplessness, the terror. I want her to know she hurts me. I want her to apologize. She never does. But that is not tonight. Tonight is her birthday. And I enjoy her company.
I suggest the salmon, she gasps at the price saying soup is much better. I tell her the dinner in on the house to make up for the less than delicious Thanksgiving meal two years before. She smiles. “Crusted Salmon with Sun Dried Tomatoes” it is. Over dinner, she continues to tell stories and I smile and admire her, her warmth, her tenderness, her supreme innocence.
[My mother was abused frightfully, at first as a child by her alcoholic father, then by her husband (my father) and finally by me. We all took our turns taking our frustration out on her. Her father would shoot at her with a shotgun as she would go running from the porch screaming into the night. He always missed. Probably too drunk to see straight. Too drunk to stand. He was a fall down drunk, a despicable drunk. A real Mr. Hyde and no Dr. Jekyll kind of a drunk. He was my kind of a drunk or my drunk was of his kind. Either way, we were related and I never met the man. His liver gave out when my mother was a child. My life gave out much later.]
I indulge her generous appetite and her quiet satisfaction. We celebrate her birthday. I celebrate her smile. She wears it often.
I tip the waiter and thank the manager by hand, not for the food, but for the experience. I know it is one I will remember. I record some of it on my cell phone. As it turns out, she remembers it too. She raves about the salmon for weeks.
Three months follow and my mom’s health declines dramatically. I visit her often. She is in the living process of dying. I read her stories: “Grandfather Stories, Grandfather Stories, Grandfather Stories,” she repeats, and “Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul” (she does not repeat that). My mom can’t feed herself. She can’t clean herself. She can’t dress herself. She can’t carry on conversations. She rambles and repeats herself. What starts as a quivering lip becomes a trembling hand and finally becomes a shaking arm. At dinner, I feed her face, wipe her mouth and wash her hands.
This evening, after dinner, while my mother lies in bed we talk. She is the most coherent she has been in weeks (dementia is like that, it seems to come and go). Without any warning, my mother makes an announcement: “I should have done better for you. I should have done better.” After all these years, my mother apologizes. I crumble and weep in her lap.
I realize I am given something else, something I have long hoped for, but never had…release from my hatred. Somewhere, someplace, somehow my hatred for my mother disappears. When her mind goes, my hatred goes with it. I can’t see to blame my mother for her actions or intentions when she doesn’t have either anymore. She has no malice or mistake. She is simply an innocent old woman living out her last days with her son by her side.
When I stop expecting an apology and hoping for release, I get an amends and I’m given relief. My mother is dying.