My mother died in the early minutes of March 21, 2012, just as spring was coming to its fullest expression in Birmingham, Alabama, the city where she was born, married, and had her children, and where she had lived her entire life. The foliage was a promising shade of bright green. The suburban lawns were visions lined with banks of azaleas in full bloom. The year was still young; as yet, the sun’s heat had no weight to it.
On March 9, she was diagnosed with bone cancer. How long she had had the bone cancer, her doctor would not suppose. What was known was that the bone cancer was a metastasis from breast cancer she had survived fourteen years ago. For the past twelve years, she had been cancer-free, but, as it was explained, breast cancer is sneaky and insidious and doesn’t give up easily.
The doctor giving her the diagnosis stressed the positive aspects: the cancer had not spread beyond the bones, and with chemotherapy, she might live a few more years, although she would likely be confined to a wheelchair. If this was meant to be the silver lining, my mother didn’t see it that way. She confided her true state of mind to her rabbi. “Rabbi, I know I’m dying,” she said to him when he visited her in the hospital.
“We’re all dying,” he replied.
“No, I know I am dying soon,” she said, “and it’s all right.”
He told us this after the funeral, at the shiva minyan.
As I drove along the roads of my childhood, it occurred to me that my mother’s youth had been the best season of her life. Everything afterwards was a disappointment. And she had never really gotten over it.
Inside the woman she became, there was always the popular girl, the belle of the ball, whose life had never fulfilled its promise. Once her wit and repartee had charmed girls and boys alike, and young and old; she was accustomed to being the center of attention, adored and adorned.
Long after she married and had children, flirtation lived on in her encounters with tradesmen and repairmen–Stanley at the grocery store, Gus at the gas station–men she saw casually in the course of her errands. She seemed happiest when she was flirting, but I never saw her flirt with my father. Nothing so lighthearted existed between them. Instead there was a furious passion that erupted in explosions and battles.
It is one morning at breakfast, and I am three or four years old. I don’t know what started their argument, but Daddy wants to leave for work, and Mama is angry and threatening to pour coffee on him. He is angry, too, and taunts her that she won’t dare do it. “Don’t you believe it,” she cries, grabbing the coffeepot from the stove. She flings a fountain of hot coffee that reaches him as he tries to escape out the front door, splashing all over his good suit. He screams, and she flees back inside. Furious, he stomps up the stairs and inside the house to change, cursing her but avoiding her. His suit is stained the color of dirt, the color of excrement.
That stain endures—dirty, shameful, coloring our family life for years to come. So much unhappiness and disappointment. And so little tolerance and affection.
Long before my parents met, something had happened to each of them that left them damaged. Neither was emotionally whole enough to love in an unstinting and generous way. Their connections to each other and their children were based on transactions. “I’ll do this for you, if you do that for me.” Nothing was free, and everything had its price.
This was how they related to each other, and it was how they treated their children as well.
Mom tyrannized over us because she could dominate us. The home was the only sphere in which she was powerful. Every morning Dad escaped into the practice of law. It was a place where he had reason and justice on his side, and she didn’t exist. Only within her family was she all-powerful.
My parents fought constantly about money. There was never enough. Because my mother had no way of earning money and no intention of trying, she intensified the pressure on my father. He’d left a law firm where he was unhappy to go out on his own and struggled for years as a single practitioner before he was successful. But even after success came, the obsession with money continued.
It was more than a need for money that they expressed. They thought about money constantly, how to get it, how to hoard it, how to save it from anyone else spending it. My parents let their lust for money control their lives. The conclusion was that money was worth more than we were. We were constantly being reminded that they couldn’t afford us, but they were stuck with us. They calculated each expenditure, and it was up to us to prove we were worth every cent they grudgingly spent on us.
In her battles with our father, my mother pressured us to take sides, and woe befell us if we didn’t select hers. We grew up afraid of her temper and her outbursts. “What if Mom gets mad?” we would worry, and by “mad,” we meant her screaming until the veins stood out on her neck, and her vocal cords sounded as if they were stripped raw. In her rages, she hit us, and she tore up our rooms. Once, when I was a teenager, she picked up a heavy pair of ceramic mushrooms that sat on the coffee table and hurled them at my head. I ducked instinctively, and when the mushrooms exploded against the wall, shattering into fragments, she screamed that I had broken them. And in the shadows of her screams was Mimi, trying to find a way to glue the mushrooms back together.
Mom did not care how much she inflicted hurt. The harm within her that in turn caused the wish to harm seemed inexhaustible. That she never apologized was like a badge of honor for her, as if an apology were an admission of shameful weakness.
She claimed that she hadn’t wanted any of her children, that we were all the results of accidents and mistakes. She told us that she had jumped off the kitchen table, and thrown herself down the stairs, hoping for a miscarriage, but it hadn’t worked. Even though she said this many times, it was hard for us to believe. After all, she took care of us; she hadn’t abandoned us. She shopped and cooked, sewed our clothes, made sure we went to school, and took us to the doctor.
She was kindest to us when we were sick, and then she would bring us trays with soft boiled egg scooped out of the shell into an egg cup, to be spooned up with bits of toast, ginger ale with some of the bubbles stirred out, and hot tea and saltines. She loved us best when we were babies, before we had learned to talk or to walk, or express our will, when we were still helplessly dependent. Once we were toddlers, she did not like us so well. She was sure to find something in our behavior to object to.
At our first therapy session after my mother’s death, my husband said, “It may sound blunt, but I think that your life will be a lot better now that she is gone.”
It was hard for me to hear this. It set me apart from other daughters. It was as if I could hear my mother’s voice in my ear accusing me of being hard-hearted and unnatural. She enjoyed reducing me to tears, until I had dissolved into a pool of water, like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz.
“Everyone thinks you’re a good girl, a smart girl. You’re a sneak, you’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes but mine,” she would yell at me. “I know the real you. You’re a nasty, two-faced little bitch, you’re a selfish fuck who doesn’t give a good goddamn about anyone but herself. You don’t love me, you don’t know how to love. Look at you! I can’t stand the sight of you!”
How I sobbed and begged for forgiveness, hoping she would stop. But she remained cold and hard, as ungiving as steel. And I thought what she was saying must be true, because when I searched my heart at those moments, I could find no love for her.
Ten years passed, and twenty. This scene was replayed hundreds of times, in countless variations. My mother’s gift for twisting meaning was worse than the cursing and the hitting, because it caused me to doubt myself.
When I was younger, the only way I knew how to resist was passively. While she attacked me, I stood stiff and still, my face expressionless, while my mind escaped. I imagined that I was a prisoner in a cell, peering out the bars of a window, turning myself into a bird flying free. When she gripped me violently by the shoulders and shook me so that my teeth rattled in my head, I imagined that I had left my body behind, and I was somewhere else, where I wasn’t being hurt.
She knew what I was doing, and it infuriated her. And even though I tried as hard as I could to be a stone that absorbed nothing, I didn’t completely succeed. There was a part of me that took in every word she said and believed it.
And in between her rages, my father lectured me that it was my duty to endure whatever she did to me, just as he endured it when she got mad at him. He believed that his forbearance made him morally superior, and he wanted me to be like him. He insisted and then pleaded that I should give in to her. Do it for me, he begged.
And so I would agree to give in. And then all the crying that I had repressed, the sadness and the suffering that I had been holding back with rigid control, would burst out of me, and I would sob, wanting to believe that what he was offering me was comfort.
And I would go to my mother, dread in my heart. Time and again, my dread was fulfilled. Despite my father’s promises, my mother interpreted my apology as an opportunity for a further attack. She went for the chink in my armor, and she struck deep. She struck again and again, until I was like the mutilated dragon, writhing at St. Michael’s feet.
My father’s claim of the moral high ground went hand in hand with his belief that he commanded an impartial view from this exalted place. He meted out blame. “What do you do that sets her off? She never gets mad at your sisters the way she gets mad at you. Why can’t you learn not to provoke her?”
I didn’t want to provoke her. I wanted her to love me, but she didn’t. She constantly found fault. Something I did or said, or something I didn’t do or should have done was always setting her off. Maybe she was right. Maybe deep down I was a bad person, pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. The truth was that I hated my mother, and at the same time I loved her with a painful love.
It took me a long time to learn to protect myself. It took distance. It took silence. It took decades.
At the end of my mother’s life, she stopped battling. In our last conversations, she showed no wish to fight with me. While there were no deathbed confessions or revelations, neither were there accusations or threats. I didn’t know how close to death she was, but she knew, and she kept her own counsel. She never used the word “cancer” in conversation with me. She insisted that it was her chronic fatigue syndrome and her chronic mononucleosis that was causing her problems. I had stopped challenging her years ago. I listened, and I sympathized.
In a strange way, illness always brought out the best in my mother. She was long-suffering and heroic. As a patient in the hospital, she made an effort to cooperate. On that floor, she was the nurses’ favorite. She always wanted sympathy, and now it came to her in abundance.
But she wasn’t getting better. And the depths to which she was falling took her by surprise. I could hear the shock in the tone of her voice.
The pleasures of her life slipped away from her; she could no longer concentrate on reading, or watching television. Eating, walking, going to the bathroom, getting dressed were no longer activities of her daily life. Given this state of things, did she make a conscious decision to die sooner rather than later, in order to avoid the misery that lay ahead of her? Did she will her heart to fail, her lungs to fill with fluid? I wonder what it was like for her in those final moments, alone in the hospital room. I admire her courage, and I love her for not fighting the inevitable. If I were in her place, I would prefer it her way.
After my mother’s death, I was left with a sense of emptiness. I found consolation in the family treasure trove of pictures. I loved looking at the images of my parents at the beginning of their marriage, when they were younger than I had ever known them, and their life together was a future promise. They seemed to beckon mysteriously from the unknowable past. What secrets could I unlock if I were to speak to them?
My sisters and I have fallen in love with these pictures; we copy and exchange them by email and flash drive. In these idealized images, our parents are smiling and beautiful. They appear happier and more confident than any of us ever remember them being.
Appearances deceive. Self-assertive and opinionated though my mother was, she was not confident. Despite her obvious gifts and accomplishments, she allowed herself to be paralyzed by fear. She was miserable every day of her life, and yet, long after her children were grown, she didn’t have the nerve to leave an unhappy marriage where she felt dissatisfied, overlooked, misunderstood, and unloved. She was afraid to take a risk for happiness, although she found my father emotionally stunted and self-absorbed, and she blamed him for not providing for her in the way that she wanted. Ultimately, it was not love, loyalty, or friendship that kept her from leaving my father. She had never worked outside the home, and she didn’t intend to start. She was worried enough about losing financial security that she clung to the evils she knew rather than fly to others that she knew not of.
In his own way, which was not her way, my father loved my mother very much. Once she was gone, it was touching to see how much he missed her, and how lost he was without her. Oddly enough, what he seemed to miss most was her sarcasm. Funny how I never realized how much he actually enjoyed being the butt of her jokes. When I asked him about his happy memories, he fondly recalled her witticisms at his expense, variations on the theme of how she wished she’d never married him.
“The thing with Mom is that you never knew if she really meant it or not,” I commented.
“Nah, she didn’t mean it,” he replied softly, twisting his body with shyness like a schoolboy. Or was the gesture just a manifestation of his Parkinson’s disease?
A friend who recently lost her own mother wrote me, “The best metaphor I have heard for this rite of passage is that it’s like having the roof of the house yanked off, and suddenly you’re looking up at the sky, exposed to the elements.”
I find this metaphor rich and suggestive, as it hearkens back to the maternal ideal as intermediary, shelter, protector. I picture the black sky, pricked by stars. I feel the cold wind. But I don’t feel the same way that my friend does.
I feel an emptiness, but it isn’t the vastness of space. It is more like a physical sensation in my body, located at the pit of my stomach. It can’t be relieved, or explained away. It’s just there.
Instead of a roof, it was as if walls came down for me when Mom died. From the time I was young, my mother had erected walls to try to separate us from each other. Her idea was to divide and conquer. With walls, she controlled us, confined us, defined us. The walls were metaphorical, and they were also real. Sometimes they were the misunderstandings she liked to stir up between us, the way she talked about us to each other behind our backs and goaded us with what others said about us, or how she interrupted when two of us began to have a conversation that wasn’t about her.
Now she is gone, the walls that she put up are gone, too. Each one of us sisters had spent years without speaking to the others, but now we find common connections in our shared griefs, our worries about our father.
We are trying to reach across the void my mother left when she died, and hold hands.