These are random thoughts and ideas that pester me into submission. There is no theme. I have no agenda. I like to write and am in need of an audience.
I hope you read something here that elicits a smile or a laugh. There is a chance I offer a kernel of truth or shared experience that may bring about an "Ah" or "Ah ha." Really, I'm looking for connection.
I do so appreciate your COMMENTS! Thank you for taking the time.
A Door Unopened
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.