A Door Unopened

A Door Unopened
Knock, knock...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

In Advance of Mother's Day

I spent the Sunday before Mother’s Day working in my garden—my first big spurt of gardening since the fall. I spent half the day hacking back the neighbor’s overgrown ivy from our fence and aggressively pruning our own outsized, overly exuberant bushes. The rest of the day I devoted to carefully planting iris rhizomes—not too shallow, not too deep, but at just the right level. It occurred to me—not for the first time—the dichotomy of cultivating a garden. It necessitates having both nurturing and destructive capabilities. Oftentimes they are called into play on the same day.
When I’m in full-blown (or even shallow-breathing) gardening mode, I can’t help but think of my mom. And with Mother’s Day looming, thoughts of her are more haunting than ever. Weekend after weekend, in her infamous and inglorious gardening moo-moos, she enslaved herself, and with less regularity, her daughters, (thankfully we were spared the humiliation of wearing moo-moos) to yard work. In addition to a painstakingly maintained rose garden, Mom had the best bearded iris collection around.
Bearded iris at the old house.

In what might be deemed hereditary solidarity (and with prompting from my husband who seems to feel roses are floral essentials) I made my last residence a spring/fall iris spectacle and rose grove to behold. I’ve recently taken the bulbous iris outcroppings from the old garden to propagate in our new garden. We’re starting anew with the roses since I couldn’t justify digging up the old bushes. They seem to like life in their current location. If Mom were still around to see her legacy of gardening activities, I think she’d be delighted. And when I survey my work, I acknowledge it as an homage to her.
My "old" rose garden--not yet in full bloom.

She died a little over seven years ago from complications and consequences of being morbidly obese—the state in which she spent the greater part of her adult life. I wish I could report it was a “good” death—whatever that consists of—that she was fulfilled and satisfied with her 70 years on the planet. I’d like to tell you she went easily and calmly, that she was at peace while she took her leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dying isn’t often easy. When you’ve spent a lifetime abusing yourself with food, inactivity and other destructive behaviors, departing can be—and was for both of us—torturous.
The only positive thing I can say about her death is that she was ready. In fact, my mom had been ready to depart this world for as long as I can remember. This manifested in some—shall we euphemistically say—self-destructive habits. There were three crises which occurred around the time I was between the ages of three and four that highlighted her injurious propensities. I vaguely remember all of them but required prompting and rehash from my sister (a year and a half older) and my father for the details. The three emergencies happened over the time span of a year or two. No one seems sure about the exact timeline anymore.
One incident involved the doctor—Mommy’s beloved Dr. Foster, a psychiatrist who became her unwitting knight in shining armor—coming to the house. She was very sick. My father explained to my sister and me that she’d taken too many pills. I don’t know if he used the word “accidentally” or not but I instinctively understood that it wasn’t an accident. My father took her to the hospital where they pumped her stomach. Apparently, this was a relatively benign aspirin O.D.
In a repeat episode (and this involved a lot of fill-in from my dad) she again took too many pills. This time things were more serious.  Apparently she’d been stockpiling the sleeping pills (tuinal) my father cautiously doled out to her, to save up for the big event. He found her in bed barely breathing. A call was made to the aforementioned Dr. Foster. This time her hospital trip involved not only a stomach pumping but an overnight stay in the psych ward. She demanded to be let out the next day and was released AMA—against medical advice. Luckily, too many pills had turned out to be not quite enough to achieve her goal.
The third misadventure is what I call the “Where’s Mommy?” night. I recall this somewhat more vividly than the other two events, which makes me think it happened later on in the timeline. She left the house in only her nightgown sometime after dark. As my dad tells it, he called the intrepid and by now nearly sainted Dr. Foster and a close friend to help him scour the sleepy streets of Los Gatos in search of his errant wife. My sister and I, also in our nightgowns, were wakened out of beds, put into the backseat of our black and white, 1957 Chevy Bel Air and told to look for Mommy.
We didn’t find her until we got back home. Decades later I found out why when Mom recounted the story to me. With weirdly perverse pleasure, she described how she’d slipped out of the front door in nothing but her nightie and hidden in the bushes next to the house. While we were out trolling the roads, looking for Mommy, she went back inside. Twenty plus years later she laughed at how she’d pulled one over on my dad. She made no mention of her two young daughters being hauled out of bed when they should have been sleeping. She offered no apology for making us worry. But man, she had a good laugh at my dad on that one. Hilarious.
Obviously, she never was successful at a full-on sayonara; otherwise she wouldn’t have lived to see her 70th birthday. But you get the idea. These goings-on set a certain tone of anxiety. Growing up, I couldn’t help but feel very worried about my mom. Apprehension and daughterly devotion were my overriding sentiments about her.
In those initial decades, the pitch didn’t change much. There was the divorce from my father. There were numerous bouts of her drinking too much. There were hysterical crying jags. There was a completely wrong-on-so-many-levels, marriage to a man who should never have been allowed to visit our home, much less move in with us.  This person mentally and occasionally physically brutalized my sister and me. I don’t call him my stepfather and have not kept in contact. Luckily, she divorced him, too. However, that spiraled her into further depression, a recurrence of drinking and much time spent abed.
Mom’s bad financial decisions stacked on top of each other like a slow-motion, chain-reaction, freeway pile-up. There was a house foreclosure—the home we grew up in—at a time when foreclosures were not only rare, but shameful. Both my sister and I, by then in college, were afraid for her during this particular time, and rightfully so. We were acutely aware that her “way out” was a default for suicide. If she didn’t like how things were going she could always just take her ball and go home. I honestly, believe that’s how she saw it. Her daughters had learned by then we weren’t supposed to feel responsible. We were just supposed to sadly wave goodbye and not give voice to the fact that we wished she’d stuck around longer.
You’re thinking: That’s not how it works.
True. But you couldn’t get her to understand that.
Empathetic and excessively concerned for the first three and a half decades of my life, my feelings about Mom gradually shifted.  Being around her became more and more a horrid chore. I still worried about her but the intensity of the worry was supplanted by resentment and exasperation. By this time I had my own child who needed and depended on me.  The obvious questions I’d kept in the depths started bubbling up like a toxic potion. Why couldn’t she be trusted her to take care of herself? Why couldn’t she be good to herself? What was wrong with her? What I once saw in soft focus as her weak and wounded spirit fell into sharper, harsher definition. A person more beset with terminal self-loathing, I’d never met.
Not surprisingly, around the age of 50, Mom was diagnosed with diabetes. Her decline was dawdling, occurring in bits and pieces, encroaching in fits and starts. Escalating ailments related to obesity closed in on her. Her once desired goal—to be dead—was taking a drawn-out, tedious and agonizing route to fruition.  I removed myself even more from her during this time. I know that sounds bad. It was. Your mom needs you as she becomes more and more ill and you pull away?  I did.  My sister did too.
Mom asked me about it—confronted me, really—and I told her the truth. “I can’t stand watching what you’re doing to yourself. You’re hurting yourself. You’re killing yourself right in front of me and there’s nothing I can do about it. You won’t do what you need to do to get better. You just do things that make it worse. You can’t expect me to enjoy spending time around you.”  
It’s extremely hard to care for a person who doesn’t care for themself.
Instead of keeping her weight down, being physically active, monitoring her blood sugar and insulin, she helped the disease and her girth along by downing bakery goods like a greedy, deprived child. She refused to believe in the circulatory problems associated with diabetes. Her mother, also a diabetic, had never lost her vision, or a limb, or her kidneys, and therefore it wouldn’t happen to her. In a vague sense, Mom was right. She didn’t live long enough to go blind, or lose body parts. She lived just to the point where she decided to take her ball and go home.
A week after she turned 70, she had enough. With a final heart attack, and protracted hospital stay, her abilities to walk and live on her own were extinguished. Rehab attempts did not amuse or arouse her. Threats of moldering away in a nursing home did not inspire or motivate her. She was ready to go. She asked me in front of my son who was ten at the time, to put her in the car and drive her to Oregon where they allow assisted suicide. “Mom. It doesn’t work that way. You have to have been a resident already. You have to be diagnosed with a terminal disease. I can’t. I’m sorry.” “Please,” she begged, “You have to help me.”
She died not so many weeks later of septicemia which began from bed sores—a direct result of her immobility and her decreased circulation. The doctors advised us to let the infection progress. Mom had a DNR (do not resuscitate) order placed on her file and the doctor was taking it more seriously than we would have on our own. Shocked and resigned, my sister and I agreed.
It took days—maybe a week. Between regular pain relief shots, she suffered loudly and indignantly. Finally, I pleaded with Kaiser to put in an IV to allow a steady supply of drugs. They were concerned. Did I know this would hasten the process? Well, no, I didn’t. But if that were the case, I wondered, why didn’t we do this immediately? Wasn’t that the point—to help her on her way as comfortably as possible?
A call came from Kaiser early one morning—around 4:30. Mom had finally passed. When would I be coming to the hospital? What should be done with her body? At her request, she was taken into the care of the Neptune Society. A month or so later, I took her ashes home with me.
There was relief. There was sadness. There was regret. There was emptiness. As I write this I understand that there was also irony. She’d been so intent at various times on taking her own life and in the end it had to be done for her with medical intervention. Yes. There was that.
I don’t miss my mom the way I presume most people miss their deceased parents. What I miss is the person I think she wanted to be. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I miss the person I wanted her to be. I’m not so sure how similar those two people are to each other. Mom certainly had good intentions—having a marriage and a family—she just wasn’t always great on follow-through. And I have to wonder if I should be missing her at all or just be happy for her. She finally got what she wanted—that one-way ticket most of us dread. At the not-so-ripe age of 70, her heart’s desire was finally fulfilled with the help of her daughters’ consent and a team of healthcare professionals.
So when I’m tilling the soil, maniacally slashing back the overgrowth, tenderly planting seedlings, ripping up weeds, nurturing blooms, pruning off dead wood, or coaxing healthy, new growth, I’m thinking of Mom.  She was, in her way, a garden. The first part of my life I spent cherishing, loving, and fretting over her. In later years, I wrongly believed she should be able to take care of herself. At the end, her diabetes and weight evolved into a kind of rampant ivy, taking over her body and pulling her down. It was not a thing over which I had control. She was not a person over whom I had control.  Finally, the best thing that could be done was to agree to speed her on her way. The decision—both lethal and compassionate—was the most benevolent conclusion we could offer our mother after a lifetime spent trying to hurl herself over the garden gate.
I wish she were here to see my new garden go in, but I think she’s happier being on the other side of the gate.

The first iris in my new garden


  1. it's very good and very moving. nice work

  2. I think Tim is correct, but has understated it. As I type through my tears, I would say extremely good, extremely moving and beautifully written. Your gardens may be an homage to your mother, but your life, with your son and animals, is a tribute to overcoming a major deficit - the most basic right that we all deserve, a mother who is there for us.

  3. You've related bits and pieces of this story to me before; but hearing it full-blown like this renders the soul. Your writing is getting a little too good. I had a gentle and loving mom; the original prairie mother. So sorry.

  4. Wonderfully written; insightful and interesting perspective. Our deceased parents (in my case, my dad) will always have the power to influence us from the grave--on so many levels, and with the power to take us through so many weather zones of emotions as we analyze the 'data' they have left behind for us to evaluate. Regarding your mother, as I see it--she was definitely terminally ill with her deep refractory depression, decubitus ulcers, immobility and septicemia. Making her comfortable with pain medications is not synonymous with taking her life with medical intervention. Rather, the implementation of "comfort measures only--with no heroics" via IV pain medications (ie. what DNR status is all about) represents a humane path to the inevitable expiration from the culmination of her multiple medical problems and their respective complications. In politically correct terms, she merely died of complications of metabolic syndrome with comfort provided by appropriate use of palliative medications to prevent suffering as she languished in a terminal state. Irrespective of whether she received the humane doses of pain medication, her path to the end would have been that of septic shock, which culminates in multisystem organ failure...and she would have slipped into a coma and felt no pain...but it would have taken longer and would have prolonged her suffering to get to that point. You and your sister ABSOLUTELY did the right thing for your mother. As well, I feel I absolutely also did the right thing for my father by having him terminally weaned off the vent when he went into septic shock as a result of peritonitis from a surgery gone bad--after which there was essentially no chance of meaningful recovery. I gave him what he wanted by giving his MD the permission to let him go as I made my dad a DNR and thus stopped all mechanical support. The right decision in a terminal state is that which the patient desired prior to getting to that point. No regrets here, and certainly not where you stand. The sadness of your mother's deep depression and her inability to try to fight her way out of the black hole by helping herself and working with her docs, while she sabotaged her health with self indulgent eating with refusal to take responsibility for her health (while actively trying to end it) is heartbreaking. Clearly, her depression defined the decisions she made. Unfortunately, it was so profound that she probably never envisioned the potential for life on the 'greener' side. Her desire to die (given that she was not 'living') consumed her as she aimed for the 'blacker' side. For the joy she found in her garden, I offer this: Plants were 'safe' for your mother. They could be nurtured, loved, admired...while looking beautiful. They could never hurt her the way she may have been hurt as a child by humans. She had some control with no backlash when dealing with plants. They provided her with some forms of simple joy. Clearly, she transferred some of that joy to you. Beautiful gardens/beautiful flowers definitely have a healing/soothing effect. May your mother's gravesite be massively abloom and abound with the flowers and plants that she so loved!!!

  5. Lyn,
    I couldn't stop reading it. It was very moving and obviously from the depths of your experience. So different from my own experience and made me realise how lucky I am, although I probably already knew it. In the exact popposite of your experience, my mother who is 85 is still doing fantastically, I don't get to see as much as I would like living so far away in New Zealand. There isn't a day that goes by or a time that I talk to her that I don't tell her "I am not finished with you yet. When I am, I will let you know and then you can go." Very selfish on my part but I do know how lucky I am to have such a mother. Ask Tim, he knows her and can hopefully attest to what a wonderful person she is. I am sending you a big hug this mother's day because you deserve it so!!

  6. From someone who knew her, although not well, this is a very wonderful testimony about your mom, but also about you and how you are a creative, insightful person. I can see her now bustling around the office where she worked.

  7. Very well written Lyn, some of your best yet.


  8. Well done.

    I laughed out loud at the first mention of the moo moo because that is how I remember your mom in your front yard. Then, as the story progresses it unwraps the layers of the not-so-subtle pain that we bring from our childhoods into adulthood. I understood it perfectly.

    Bravo, sweetpea. ♥

  9. Dear Lyn,

    A truly moving story and extremely well written. Thank you for sharing it. It would appear you are increasingly finding your voice.

    We are all, dare I say, direly in need of healing. We do it by processing our pain, our grief. our sadness; our anger, our frustration and our rage; layer by layer, moment to moment, insight to insight. It ends, I believe in forgiveness of our selves and others; others and our selves. And it transforms into unconditional love and loving, compassion and understanding. And it is no small task.

    So . . . Peace be with you, dear,
    and Blessings.


  10. Laurie LaumeisterMay 6, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    Lyn- Happy Mother's Day to YOU! This was a very enlightning message of Hope in a sense. You went through so many trials and tribulations with your mom, whom I knew pretty well from our High school days, and look how great you turned out!
    I always loved your mom. Everytime I came over, she was warm and friendly to me and had a great laugh! I had no idea she suffered as much as she did during those days or how much you have been through with her. I'm sorry she caused you so much pain. You are such a good person, and very strong to have gotten through what you did in your childhood AND adult life. May she rest in peace, and peace be with you this Mother's Day.
    I love you Lyn!

  11. Thanks to everyone for the many kind comments. I guess I didn't touch on this in the writing, but please be assured that I know my mom loved her daughters very much. I never doubted it. If only she'd been able to feel that kind of love for herself, she (and I) would have had a much more enjoyable time while she was here.

    It's a good lesson for us all.

    Thanks again for reading!!

  12. As the aforementioned sister, I can attest that every word is true and my sister has given words to my own mixed feelings about my mother. Mother's day has always been a difficult day, but my own brood has helped me move beyond that pain. I never see a bearded iris that I don't think of my mother. Lyn, thanks for connecting some dots.

  13. Lyn,
    I had heard some of this, and have lived through some of it with you, but reading the entire story spelled out like that is tremendously moving. This is real writing from the heart. Kudos to you for becoming the person you are and the mother you are, given the example you had. I hope you have a happy mother's day, and that your mothering is appreciated for the gift that it is. LUV, Joyce

  14. well written and moving.... jeffyd