crazy mothers

You have to understand: my mother wasn’t the sort of person you could imagine ever turning eighty years old. She was blond and beautiful and so sure she’d always be young–and she was so disappointed as each sign of aging came to her: the arthritis, the wrinkles, the thinning hair, the watery eyes. I mean, no one likes that stuff, but she seemed shocked that such things could dare to happen to her. Shocked!

“How can I get so old?” I remember her asking me one time when she was probably 50. “How can I ever not be pretty?”

It’s a little sad to think of, I suppose–someone who was so taken with looks that the thought of them disappearing made her feel as though nothing at all would be left of her. Wasn’t this the same woman who had told me when I was 10 years old that it was important to develop a personality because cuteness just wouldn’t see you through?

When she went to hospice four years ago at the age of 76, the nurse told me she was the first nursing home patient they’d ever had who insisted on wearing a toe ring.

And we laughed, my mother and I, because, as she put it: Cancer takes so much from you. You don’t have to give up your TOE RING to it, too, do you?

I’ve been through several deaths with people, but none quite like hers. When my father was dying, he simply got more and more quiet and introspective, stared out the window for longer intervals, whispered his requests for songs he wanted to hear on the CD player, and occasionally he’d rouse himself to try to make pleasant conversation about the cardinal outside at the bird feeder, or just who I thought might win the World Series.

My grandmother told me three days before she died that she’d be coming to my house in the spring–a fact I knew was untrue since she was in a hospice, hooked up to feeding tubes, with a terminal diagnosis. When I tried to talk about actual endings, she shushed me. “I’m going to be fine,” she said.

But my mother talked about it.

She’d call me in the middle of the night and say, “Where do you think I’ll be when I die?” and “How can I just not exist? What do you suppose that’s going to feel like?”

My uncle, her brother, was planning his wedding for the summer, and she and I would sit outside in the late May warmth, watching the azaleas bobbing in the breeze, and she’d say, “It’s the weirdest thing, talking to him about the wedding. I won’t still be alive then.”

“Maybe you will,” I said.

“No,” she said, and she wasn’t even particularly sad when she said it. “I won’t.” She was the one who had heard the cancer diagnosis, the prognosis, and then marched over to the phone, called hospice, signed the papers, and even joked with the startled, soft-voiced man who was being so delicate and careful. She was facing death head on, unflinching.

But now she looked out at some children playing across the street. “I just can’t picture how it’s all going to happen.”

I was worn out with grief and regret and arrangements, and I didn’t know quite how to be with her. I sat next to her for hours on end and let her talk. It was all I could think of to do for her. It’s sad now, thinking of her imagining not existing–sitting there so alive, so full of opinions and thoughts and regrets and remarks.

“I like this toe ring a lot,” she said. She and her toe ring. They were going to part ways.

She and I were going to part ways, too.

“I’ll contact you if I can,” she said one day out of the blue. But it wasn’t out of the blue, not really. It was just that we’d been at that moment discussing the banana pudding in front of her, pudding that she was pushing away from her. She had stopped eating by then. She was preparing to go, and she was sure it was coming soon.

When they called me at 6 a.m. a few days later and said she had died, I wasn’t surprised, of course. She and I had talked about this moment so much. I went to the hospice and sat with her in the room for a long time, or the part of her she’d left behind that really no longer seemed much like her. I couldn’t figure out if she would want me to see her like that or not. Maybe she would want me to turn away.

I knew she wanted me to take the toe ring, and so I did.

She would have been eighty today. She always said she hated growing old, but maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. She could have gone to my uncle’s wedding that summer. She could have seen her first great-granddaughter born, could have met the two great-grandsons who were newborn infants when she died, infants she never got to see.

I don’t know where she is, but sometimes I still feel her around. I know sometimes what she’d say in situations, or at least I’m pretty sure I know. I can summon up the sound of her laughter. Is that just a memory or is it the same as her contacting me?

I’m not sure. She would have been eighty today. Would that have been so bad?

My mother wasn’t really a fan of Mother’s Day. She always said it was one of your hokier holidays–just filled up with enforced sentiment and guilt, and whether her kids remembered it or not was no big deal to her. But we did it up just the same, the way children love to do: breakfast in bed, consisting of runny eggs and burned toast; necklaces made of pasta;  little two-leafed seedlings barely thriving in a paper cup, and of course the piece de resistance, the construction paper card.

I am proud to say that I had a signature design that I presented year after year, made the same way for each and every holiday that might come up. I drew a bird on the front and wrote, “This birdie has dropped in to say…” and then you opened the card and it read: “HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!” (or whatever the holiday might be…Happy Birthday and Happy Valentine’s Day worked equally well, and so did your lesser holidays, like Arbor Day and St. Patrick’s Day, if need be.) I felt this card was brilliant for its versatility, and I was quite taken with its rhyme scheme. It was easy to produce, could be dashed off at a moment’s notice (after a day of forgetfulness about the big day), and always was guaranteed to bring a smile.

I guess I grew up not really thinking much about Mother’s Day, once I was too old to make my fabulous card anymore. 

Last year, though, two days before Mother’s Day my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and two days after Mother’s Day they told her that it was incurable. It had spread to her liver and lungs and bones and was on the march to every other organ it could find, in a mad sweeping rampage across her body. 

She had, it seemed, been ignoring some symptoms for a very long time.

And so we started talking on the telephone every day during the next five weeks. We’d sit up late at night–her in Florida and me in Connecticut–and I’d hold the phone to my ear, hearing her laugh and cry, listening to her stories, to her fears, to all the random, stream of consciousness things she wanted to tell me. She’d light up her cigarettes and take sips of her beloved Pepsis, coo to her little dog, and we would stay on the phone for hours and hours.

What did we talk about? Just ordinary things, nothing momentous at all. We’d talk about songs playing on the radio, about the men she had loved and the crazy things she had done. Why she liked to sunbathe but didn’t like to swim. What the lady across the hall said last week. She had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder years before, and she talked sometimes about why she hated taking the medication for it (“it makes me feel so colorless, like all the red has gone out of the world”) and we talked about the delicious freedom she felt in ordering madly from Home Shopping Network, buying jewelry and diamonds and kitchen appliances and makeup, even though she knew she wasn’t going to pay for any of it.

Whereas I had once seen it as my job to lecture her about all this, now I didn’t anymore–not when she was dying.

But now, in her final illness, she seemed real to me, neither manic nor depressive. She just talked, and I just listened. I felt it was the least I could do, to listen. Sometimes I would type the things she was saying to me on my laptop. My family was fast asleep, and I needed to be sleeping, too, but it was as if I were connected by this umbilical cord of telephone wires, hissing with static, holding me fast to her, even as the time grew short.

She said: I can’t understand how it’s going to happen that I’m going to go from being the fun-loving, lively-spirited person you see before you to being a dead person. Just how is that going to happen? How is it that I won’t be here on the Fourth of July? What in the world is going to happen between now and then that I don’t know about yet?

She said: I think I’m depressed. Or I would be depressed if I weren’t in denial.

She said: In this whole nursing home, all any of us want is to get naked. And they won’t let us.

And then she said: I’m not going to put up with this. I won’t live under these conditions, feeling as bad as I feel. I am out of here. Will you write about me someday? 

And then she stopped eating and let herself fade away. I flew down to Florida and sat beside her and played her favorite songs and held her hand, and she’d smile and squeeze my hand sometimes, silent now.

“Are you scared?” I asked her the day before she died, and she shook her head no. Emphatically NO. 

These days I think of her a lot, even without Congress enacting a Mother’s Day holiday to bring to mind all mothers.

My mother, like probably a lot of women out there, was often not that great a mom. Now, a year out from her death, I think that she was probably consumed with her illness, fighting to stay above it, to remain as clear as she could. Whereas for so much of my life–even as a child–I was the adult in our relationship, the one who needed to protect her and to try to manage her finances and her medications and her adventures, I’m so grateful to have had that winding down time with her. At the end, we were just two people, not mother and daughter necessarily, but just two people who had shared a whole lifetime (mine) together, having made mistakes and come to a place of talking and maybe understanding and forgiveness.

That is grace, I think. That lightness I feel now when I think of how, in the last five weeks of her life, she poured out all she had to me, and that I wrote it all down.

My daughter Allie is a member of a book group consisting of moms with babies. They call themselves the Dead Tired Society and they meet whenever several conditions can be met: (1) they have all read the same book, or nearly all of them, at least; (2) they can agree on a day when a majority of them don’t have anything else they MUST DO; and (3) their babies are in relatively decent health, or at least good enough so that they won’t be the one blamed when two days later, the entire group is throwing up.

I think they’ve been together nearly a year, and they’re up to three books. My hat is off to them. It’s been a bad year for babies and flu.

Last week they invited me to come and talk to them about my book, What Comes After Crazy, which was the novel that took me 17 years to write. (I wrote it while I, too, was raising kids, and thus had to wait for conditions to be perfect). I told them I LOVE going and talking to book groups.

“Wellll…” said the hostess, whose name is Sam. She’s the mother of Esme, who has just turned 1. “There may be more crying at this group than you’re used to at most book groups you talk to…”

I said I was familiar with crying at book groups. Usually somebody has to go and get tissues.

But then there wasn’t any after all. We all sat in Sam’s wonderful Brooklyn apartment, while babies climbed over us, poked fingers in our eyes, played with rattles and balls, tried to climb over partitions so they could get to Sam’s valuable computer system (how is it that all babies can sense immediately where computers are located and just what button to push to dismantle them?) A very energetic toddler named Zane–admired by the others for his ability to actually WALK–went down the hall to the nursery and managed, with great difficulty, to come out with the entire floor covering for the nursery, a rubber puzzle mat consisting of the ABC’s, I believe. This was a very time-consuming project for him, but he was definite that it had to be done, and all the other babies were impressed.

It was lots of fun sitting on the floor, passing babies around. Young moms have such an incredible ability to do such things as breastfeed, wipe noses, change diapers, search out hidden pacifiers, tie shoes, soothe tears, and save a baby from leaping off a couch–all at the same time and ALL WHILE CARRYING ON AN ADULT CONVERSATION.  They don’t even break a sweat doing it. It’s always a pleasure to watch them. I think women in their twenties and thirties could run the world without any trouble at all, even on the limited sleep most of them get.

Because the book is about a woman raised by a mostly crazy, fortune-telling, narcissistic mom, book groups always love (and I love) to talk about our own moms, for good and for ill, and what they forced us to cope with and how we managed to grow up. Everybody always wants to know whether the book was really about my mother.

“Sort of,” I say. My mother wasn’t a fortune-teller, and we never lived in a trailer, and she didn’t get married seven times…but let’s just say there are certain qualities that she shared with Madame Lucille. When my publisher asked me if Madame Lucille was essentially my mother but just “exaggerated a bit,” I had to admit that she was partially my mother but actually TONED DOWN some.

That made the group laugh, and then they started telling stories about their moms–all except for poor Allie, of course, who had to sit there, smiling and insisting that she had a perfectly normal, sane childhood with a loving mother and no problems whatsoever.

I think I owe her, big time.

This is a picture of my mother in the hospital, with her little dog Bear, a few days before she died.

Bear is looking at Peggy, my mother’s friend who had brought him to the hospital for a visit. Peggy lived across the hall from my mother and she now (bless her) raises Bear. He was restless and agitated in the bed, and a few minutes after this picture was taken, my mother said, “Okay, he knows I love him. He needs to leave now.”

I have been thinking about her a lot lately. I miss her so much, even though in the last year of her life, all I did was worry about her all the time. She was always feeling sick and tired, and she was constantly ticked off at her friend, Mike, whom she said was too clingy and also smelled bad. They took turns calling the ambulance on each other, like two children tattling on each other to the principal.

Yep, it was a precarious life there in the senior housing complex in Clearwater, Florida, and she was always getting into scrapes. When I went through her papers at the end, I saw that she was often getting fined because Bear “would urinate on the rugs in the public area and sometimes on the other residents.”

I remember she would call me up in outrage that somebody in the hallway hadn’t moved out of the way in time when it should have been clear to anyone that Bear was lifting his leg! “And now,” she’d sputter, “I have to pay the fine because SHE didn’t get out of the way when Bear was going to pee!”

“Why don’t you teach him not to pee on people?” I’d ask her, but she had no idea that was the kind of thing that dogs and humans could ever negotiate. Dogs do whatever they wish. Didn’t I know anything?

It’s odd how when someone dies far away, you almost can’t wrap your head around the fact that it’s really over. I still go to the phone, thinking I have to call her, I have to make sure she’s okay, and then I remember a split-second later that she’s gone. I feel sadness mixed with relief. Ohhh…she’s not in the hospital again. She hasn’t gotten evicted. Whew.

As though those things would be worse somehow than what IS true: that she’s dead.

I’m so glad I had those days with her in the last month, but of course they don’t feel like they were anywhere near enough of what they should have been. I guess the mind looks for meaning somehow, and there was no meaning. Looking back, it boils down to the fact that one ordinary Wednesday afternoon, she called me up crying and said she thought she had cancer all over her body and that her doctor was making her have a colonoscopy to find out for sure, and then two days later her surgeon called and said, yup, that’s pretty much what we found…and then I went to see her, and for a while it seemed like she might have some time left, but then the time ran out more quickly than anybody expected, and the last days were very hard, and then there was a moment at the very end when she looked up at me and talked to me in such a way that I could remember that once, a very long time ago, before a lot of the bad stuff started happening–the mental illnesses and the separations and the charging thousands of dollars on Home Shopping Network–I had been her beloved child, the one she loved so much and took such good care of.

And then, just when I remembered that, she closed her eyes and died.

I spent two days cleaning out her house and giving her possessions to her friends, and then I came back home. And when I came back home, there were these new babies to cuddle, and a book to finish, and a whole rich life going on right where it had been going before, and after a week or so, it was almost hard to remember those days in Florida when I was there with her, pushing her in her wheelchair and talking about what the end might be like, and whether she should have another cigarette before we went back inside, and wasn’t that a funny time when my uncle sang that song in a bar. All of those conversations–the mundane and the tragic–all mashed up together.

One night when I was there, I had to do a phone interview with a book group that was reading “A Piece of Normal,” and my cell phone would only work outside the hospital. My mother wanted to come with me outside, but I didn’t want her to. I was worried that she would be too cold or too bored, and she’d be stuck outside with me until I finished being interviewed, but no, no, she wanted to come. So I pushed her wheelchair, and we sat outside while I talked to the book group, and it was the first time I had ever had any book-related thing to do with my mother present. My books were sort of abstract to her. She read them, she said “how nice,” but she never heard me talk about them. I was interviewed for about 45 minutes, and she just sat there beside me, in her wheelchair. I was surprised to look over and see that she was smiling and listening–really listening–and when I hung up from talking to the group, she started to cry. She said, “I never knew what your life is really like…I didn’t understand how you felt about your books.”

So there are all these things, these little memories of her, that rise like bubbles to the surface of my mind, and then pop. My mother was the only person left whom I had known for my whole life, and some days now are heavy with the knowledge that there was so much we didn’t get to yet.

Tomorrow, though, I’m going to call Peggy and see if Bear has peed on anyone lately. I’d like to think he gave that up.

…and suddenly everything gets a little serious.

That’s what is happening right now, and it’s the reason I haven’t been posting in the blog lately.

The news is not good. My mother–who is 76 and lives alone in Florida–has just been diagnosed with colon cancer. And even worse, the cancer has already spread to her liver.

Right now she is in the hospital, having had the obstruction removed from her colon, and I have spent the last 24 hours making arrangements to get down there to see her.

I’ve written about her before, how she has done so many wacky, crazy things–finger-painted her refrigerator, taken out a whole grocery store display by riding her scooter directly into it, gold-leafed the toilet seat. But I haven’t been able to truly explain what she’s like, how she can be both funny and impossible in the same second. The bad things: she has a quick temper, and she quite simply doesn’t have even one tiny scruple about anything. Ever. For instance, she has never bought a pair of sunglasses in her life; she simply walks into a store and trades her old ones for new ones, and is amazed when you tell her that’s not such a good idea.

The good things: She’s hilarious and adventurous and will do absolutely anything. She has had about a billion best friends in her life because she’s extremely talented at drawing other people to her. One time her then-best friend told me that being out in public with her was like walking around with a movie star: “Men just come over and try to give her things, try to help her with anything she needs, try to get her to go out with them. Now me, I could fall in the gutter and lie there with two broken legs, and there isn’t a man in the world who would even notice!”

Like a lot of mothers and daughters, we have not always gotten along. I always wanted her to be a little less insane than she perhaps was capable of being. And she always wanted me to just understand her the way she was and to laugh with her at all her antics and also to wear more eye makeup so that people wouldn’t guess that she was old enough to have a daughter my age.

So I am going down to be with her. We will try to figure out what’s best for her, when there’s no way to really know. Should she have chemo? She doesn’t want to, but the doctors are pressuring her to do it. Should she leave Florida and come to Connecticut, where at least we could be close to each other for whatever is going to happen? Should she go to stay near my cousin in North Florida, where at least the weather is still warm and where she has some childhood friends left?

And the big unanswerable question: how long do we have? And what do we do with the time we have left?

On the phone she said to me, “I don’t WANT to talk about all that. Here’s what I need you to promise: that when I’m dead, you’ll have me cremated and then I want you to rent a plane. It’s GOT to be a small plane, and you’ve got to rent it, and then I want you to fly across Crosby Lake and scatter my ashes. Don’t just throw them from the shore. I want them tossed from the air. DO NOT LEAVE ME SITTING AROUND IN A JAR. Do you promise?”

“We’ll figure all that out later,” I said. “I’m coming to see you.”

Maybe there will be some gift we can give each other in this awful, scary time. That is all I am hoping for, that out of the fear and the unknown, we can just sit together in her hospital room, grateful for the chance to be there in that moment. Maybe the eye makeup will come off, and we’ll just be who we are, sitting there facing the darkness. Together for a time, before it’s time to go rent the airplane.

There’s nothing like a brand new year to get a person in a mood to reminisce about the past.

And since I talk to my mother for approximately an hour each day lately, we’ve gotten into some pretty heavy talks about the past. Only with my mother, being as how she’s borderline insane, you never know what’s coming.

The other day she decided the agenda should include the topic of Marriage, The Things One Learns In.

“I learned so much from all my husbands,” she said. “You know, marriage is really a fascinating education.”

I was playing a game of Spider Solitaire. I moved an ace over to a two and opened up a blank space.

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

I could tell she was taking a deep drag off her cigarette. “You know, if I had to pick, I think the husband I learned the most from was Jack.”

Jack was my stepfather during the years I was twelve to eighteen. He was a nice-enough man who couldn’t help dispensing dating advice. He told me that the best way to talk to guys was just to repeat everything they said to me. That, he said, will make men think you are very, very intelligent.

“Really?” I said to her. “Jack taught you the most? What did he teach you?”

“Well,” she said, and gave a dramatic pause. My mother always talks like somebody who’s on a soap opera. “I guess the main thing he taught me was how to say cement. Before I met him, I always said it seee-ment.” 

I’ve been talking to my mother on the phone a lot lately. It’s Christmas, after all, and she doesn’t want to get on a plane and travel to the far reaches of North America, which is how she thinks of Connecticut. So instead, we’re talking on the phone enough to make us feel as though she’s taken the trip here. 

The only possible advantages to this are that I don’t have to fight with her about smoking in the house, and also nobody has to fight the traffic at the airport.

Otherwise, it’s exactly the same.

Naturally, we cover a lot of subjects in these calls. But last night we got to her theory of decorating a house, and, because by that time, I had been talking to her on the phone for enough hours to turn my brain to goo, I started typing what she was saying–just so I could keep myself from slipping into a coma.

Here, then, just in time for Christmas, is my mother’s verbatim advice for those in need of some decorating tips:

I used to have an old rusty refrigerator, and one day I couldn’t stand looking at that anymore, so I just got up and went to the store and bought me some finger paints. And I came home and finger-painted that refrigerator! All you’ve got to do is just mush it on. It looked absolutely gorgeous so I did the cabinet doors and I did the bookcase that was serving as a pantry. I still have that and it still looks great. One day a man came to deliver something, and he said, “That refrigerator looks just like somebody finger-painted it!” In fact, I made so many improvements to the place that the landlady started charging me $50 more a month for rent. (wild, cackling laugh) No, that’s not it. She said she hated it and that she was going to have to get rid of it and buy a new refrigerator. So I said to her, give it to me if you’re going to just throw it out. “


Today I bought a rug from a man and it turned out to be orange. Orange! What am I going to do with that, in my lavender and aqua living room? I guess I’ll have to finger paint it. Now what color do you think will cover up the orange? Do you think yellow will work? Maybe black. It’s a beautiful Oriental wool carpet, but it just doesn’t go. So I’m going to finger-paint it black. I think black carpeting looks cool, don’t you? “