Category Archives: mother’s death

On a rainy Los Angeles day in October

Her name was Gahlit.

We were on a Yahoo group together, and we exchanged a few emails.  Her daughter did Mommy and Me at our preschool last year, so we met several times.  She was wiry, tall, and definitely a helicopter parent.  Like so many L.A. parents, she was hovering just behind her toddler as she climbed monkey bars or rocketed towards the edges of coffee tables (a precaution that… ahem… maybe a few more of us ought to consider).  This was one mama who took researching preschools almost as seriously as I do, although I suspect that I hold the record for researching preschools in the most locations.

I am pretty sure Gahlit was a total pain in the ass to those who got in the way of her doing right by her kid.  She took parenting mighty seriously.  I knew – we all knew – that she was fighting cancer.  Fighting it hard.  Because cancer was one of those things trying to get in the way of her doing right by her kid.

And, yes, I am writing about her in the past tense.

We all hang out in the courtyard before the noon pickup.  All us mommies who may not see another adult for the rest of the day hungrily grab seven minutes of adult conversation before our little succubae are released from their classrooms and we become preoccupied with art projects and car seat buckles.  We gossip, we comment about the weather, and we actually get to finish our sentences.

Yesterday, we talked about Gahlit dying that morning.  As the mothers began to gather, I sternly told myself this was not about me.  “It’s not about you,” I said to Me.  “Don’t go trying to make this your drama.”

There is, of course, nothing more delicious than borrowed drama.  When we try on someone else’s sadness for an hour or two, we can luxuriate in the deep, silky feel of it before tossing it into the laundry bin.  However, when a young woman dies of cancer, leaving behind a three-year-old daughter, there is no excuse for making it all about oneself.

Except when it is.

Walking back toward the classroom, I suddenly had the thought.  You know the one – what if I weren’t here for him anymore?  What if the three-year-old I was gathering was suddenly motherless?  And then I was crying.

Because, it will always be about me when I hear of a child losing her parent.  Not solely because I am incredibly self-involved, but because motherlessness is an unchangeable state of being.  The rest of that kid’s life will be shaped by this loss.  I oughta know.

My mother died when I was almost two.  I don’t remember her and apparently keeping track of the home movies she made for her daughters was far too taxing a chore for my father.  So those movies have gone the way of Chia Pets and Gourmet Magazine.  All I have to imagine my mother by are a couple of photos.

I don’t remember her, and for a long time, I never really missed her.  She was a phantom, someone who, had she lived, could have protected me from the abuse that followed, but who otherwise was pretty insignificant in the face of the very real assholes who went about raising me.  Then I had children and my mother became incredibly real to me.  Now I know how painful dying must have been for her.

She fought that cancer hard, my mother.  She was pissed at it.  Because it was getting in the way of doing right by her kids.  And in the end, it won.

It won and she couldn’t protect us.  It won and she died, leaving us in the hands of a man unfit to raise a spider plant, let alone children.  It won and my stepmother took over.

It won.  She could not stop it.  For all we try to control what happens to our kids, we cannot stop the cancers that come raging through our bodies, forcing us to abandon our children.  I am angry on behalf of the little girl I was and my mother and Gahlit and her daughter.

When I got to Benjamin’s classroom, I was busily making plans to marshal the forces of the internet to set up a trust or somesuch shit for that little girl.  Because maybe I could protect this one.  I have the knowledge – I know what comes next.  Because it is all about me.

And then there was a note in Benjamin’s cubby that he hit his head on the play castle outside.  “Is the castle OK?” I asked the teacher, because that kid of mine has a mighty hard head.

“He had a rough day,” the teacher told me.  “He hit another child.”  I got caught up in my own little drama, although the grand plans for Gahlit’s daughter were still reproducing like little amoebae.  We could post it on blogs!  And get press coverage!  People could donate!  So that she is protected against the vagaries of life with cold, hard cash.

When we got outside, it was raining.  It has been so long since it has rained here that Benjamin does not remember ever having seen the stuff, so we pretended to be trees and stood there, catching the water in our mouths.

I was back at the preschool a few hours later, picking up Zachary.  Due to the drizzle, Los Angeles was in a state of gridlock, with drivers slowing to a crawl as they talked into their Bluetooths (Blueteeth?).  This gave us a good, long time to chat in the car.  My kids love to talk to me in the car, because, hell, they are strapped in, but so am I, which means there is no escape for either of us.

The topic of conversation was the World Trade Center.  Just what I was in the mood for.  We got to that topic because he had discussed Columbus in school and I wanted to rectify some of the whitewash the preschool had given the conquest of America and he wanted to know how anyone can steal land which is how we got to guns but the Native Americans had bows and arrows but guns are more effective when one wishes to steal land and you can also use a bow and arrow to shoot a tightrope across the air between the twin towers like some dude in a book we read six months ago and did you know that’s a true story but the twin towers aren’t there anymore except in memory.  All before we were half a mile from the school.

“Most things don’t last forever,” Zachary informed me.

“That’s true, baby,” I replied.  “But you know what does last forever?”

“What?”

“If you love someone, that lasts forever.”  It’s true, somehow, I think.  If you hate someone, well, that evaporates eventually.  At least I’d like to believe it does.  Love, however, sticks around.  Even when a mama dies, the love she felt is still there, hanging out in a sort of cloud over the heads of her babies.  I am an atheist, a pragmatist, and a bit of a cynic, but I’m going with the Love Lasts Forever theory, despite the fact that of course love does no such thing because people die and love is lodged right inside the very perishable human body.

Love lasts forever.  When my mother died, she left her love behind and it’s still out there somewhere.  I have to believe that the love I give my children is more indestructible than the fallible, breakable body in which it is housed.

Thirty years from now, Gahlit’s daughter will still be feeling her mama’s love.  I have to believe that, and so does she.

Every day is like Sunday

Today is my mother’s birthday.  Had she lived, she would be 69 years old.  It feels as though I ought to write something meaningful about her on this particular day, but the truth is that August 3 is only one of many days when I feel her absence.

In July, there is the anniversary of her death – 34 years ago last month.  In August comes her birthday.  September brings my birthday and two of my kids’ birthdays, and I reflect on how she felt all those decades ago, holding her new Baby Me.  Then there is October, when my kids dress up for Halloween and I imagine her seeing them with me.  November is Thanksgiving, the holiday when I am a perpetual guest, and December is Chanukah.  Then there is January, with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, decided the year I was born, and each year I am reminded that she found out she was having me right around the time it would have been legal to abort me, which leads me to thinking how wanted I must have been.  Then there is February, a month designed for brooding, and March with Passover, and April is the cruelest month, and so on and so on.

The truth is, I grew up without parents, and no amount of healing or growing is going to change that.  It is a sign of my progress in the last few years that I am able to acknowledge that the emptiness of motherlessness knows no season.  Her absence is there all the time and in everything I do.  It does not dominate me, I do not think about it all the time, but it certainly shapes me.

I haunt Facebook, seeking friends from college and high school.  I’d like to find people I knew in elementary school, but I don’t know their last names.  There is no one to ask, no contact who can help me dig up those earlier memories, so my attempts to build myself a creditable past necessarily stop when I was eleven.  And no matter how thoroughly I reconstruct the last quarter century, I will always be missing the first decade.

You cannot plant yourself roots or grow yourself a childhood.  It is what it is.  I am not angry so much anymore but I am sad.  There will always be a missing piece.

Afternoon delight

I lie on the bottom bunk with Benjamin.  As reluctant as he is to go down for a nap, he is never in much of a hurry to wake up afterwards, and I like to lie down next to him, taking full advantage of his lethargy to cuddle him in safety.  In a half an hour, he will be bouncing, high on the exuberance of being almost-three, and his affection will turn considerably more hazardous for all those in the path of his running-start hugs.  Right now, however, I am lying on my back with an Ugly Doll behind my head, several stuffed animals under my butt, and a very wet giraffe blankie pressing up against my chest as Benjamin snuggles into what Carrie Bradshaw referred to as “the nook.”

Giraffie is wet because it spends a lot of time in my son’s mouth.  Benjamin doesn’t just suck that thing, he nurses on it, tongue-thrust and all.  Fortunately, we have four of them, so we can wash it daily, but it never stays dry for long.  When given a clean blankie, the child protests, “I want a wet Giraffie,” and then immediately sets to work turning the freshly laundered blankie back into what we fondly term “The Source of All Staph Infections.”

“Honey, Giraffie is getting me all wet,” I whisper, pushing it off my body and burying my nose in Ben’s hair to escape the rotting-carpet smell of his lovey.  Brown waves brush over my face, and I imagine my own mother, looking down at a very similar head of hair thirty-four years ago.  She knew she would be dead soon, but what did I know?  Was there any discomfort in cuddling with her, or was she the same source of love Ben feels with me?  How did she feel looking at my hair when her own was long-gone?

There are my thoughts as I lie with my middle child as my elder son reads books with our au pair in the other room.  I also feel guilty, because I am lying here, enjoying the hedonistic delights of nuzzling with my ever-so-affectionate toddler, when maybe I should be reading with Zachary, instead.  Maybe that’s the harder job, so I should do that one, instead of the pleasurable task of gently waking Benjamin with kisses and back scratches.

“Do you want to get up soon?” I ask him.

Of course, if I were reading with the other son, I’d feel guilty that I was not in the bedroom, waking the littler one, who after all deserves to be awakened by his mother.  Because maybe that’s the harder job, and clearly as the mother I should be doing the most unpleasant tasks.

But, why? I ask myself.  After all, I do plenty of the miserable stuff.  My kids poop in sequence, so I wipe their asses one after the other all morning long.  I wash their dishes and discipline them, which, let’s be honest, is the crappiest part of parenting.  So, why should I necessarily always assume I should do whatever is the “worse” job, instead of simply enjoying the reward.? The best part of parenting is reading to your kid or holding him as he drowses towards alertness, and I shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying it.

Lord knows why these kids want me.  Most of what they see of me is managing their lives – applying sunblock and remembering to pack a snack and spare underpants.  Hell, I would have given up on any meaningful emotional contribution ages ago if I were they.  But, they seem to know it’s there, seem confident in understanding that I adore them, even if I growl way too often.  There is a security in my love that I think they have, a security that totally baffles me.

I lie there pondering the peace of mind that they possess, one I never even knew existed as a child.  They are full in some way I cannot comprehend because they are certain of parental love.  I think back to my own childhood; I had no idea something like that was missing.  Yet, I must have known because I continually sought love, adoration, anything to fill that empty place I did not even know existed.  Is that why I grasped at those who flung any scrap of tenderness in my direction?  My need was huge as a child and adolescent, yet I had absolutely no idea that not everyone feels that aching and destitution.

What finally filled it?  I would like to think it was my husband, but he kinda just filled the normal need for a partner.  I stare out the window at the palm trees and realize that the kids supply the love I once sought.  What I had needed was maternal love, and, since I will never get it, giving it will have to do.

I lie there, and there are things I need to do.  I ought to be getting up and sending those emails, making those calls, because Lilah will wake soon and I need to nurse her and then there will be three kids up and I’ll never get anything done.  And I feel so guilty for thinking that way, because I am supposed to be letting go of the mundane and reveling in the waning moments of Benjamin’s babyhood.

So, I will myself to remember my lesson of last summer: we don’t get to keep the babies.  And I give myself permission to lie there.  He turns, grunting as he aggressively wedges his head into my collarbone, and Giraffie comes dangerously close to my face.  I push the offending object away as best I can, but I don’t want to move for fear we’ll never fit together this well again.

“We can stay here as long as you like,” I tell him, although I know it is not true because he would like to keep me captive on his bed all afternoon, and my breasts will be needed in the next room shortly.  I can already hear the baby stirring.

About her

            She was less than a month shy of 35 when she finally died.

            A non-smoker, she had nonetheless been diagnosed with lung cancer.  By the time she got her persistent cough checked out, she was too sick for anything but palliative treatments.  She got her affairs in order, recorded home movies for her young daughters, and tried to remain hopeful even as the cancer ravaged through her body.

            She did not live to see me turn two.  She did not live to publish her first book.  She did not live to turn 35.

            She left us behind, knowing he could not care for us.  She had no choice.  She was leaving her daughters and knew it and could do nothing to change it.

            My second child has turned two, a milestone I was relieved to witness.  I have not published my first book.  And my 35th birthday is on September 25. 

            I will be on tenterhooks until then.  I am not superstitious, but then again, maybe I am.  Check in with me on the 26th.

Ready or not

There are questions we are ready for and questions we can never be ready for.

“How will the baby come out of your belly?” he asked. 

This one, I was prepared for.  “I’ll go to the hospital and Dr. Chen will help the baby come out.”

Unfortunately, this opened the door for a follow-up question a few days later.  “But, Mommy.  How will the doctor get the baby out?”

OK, so not exactly a question I wanted to answer, but I am fortunate. I could answer honestly without having to explain the details of female plumbing.  I showed him my c-section scar and explained they would help the baby come through there.  Pitch, swing, hit.

Then, there are the questions about the war.  “Why is he angry?” my going-on-four-year-old asks of the President.  It is harder to answer this one, as I am not sure anyone really knows.  But, it is impersonal, and so the answer comes slowly but clearly.

In the airport, on the way to visit his grandparents, Zachary asks, “Where are your grandparents?” 

He asks about death a lot.  Remembering his lessons from the church school in London, he believes people can rise again after they have died, which gets a little sticky as we try to respect another religion without fostering beliefs we do not hold.  Much as I hate to feed his curiosity about death, I answer honestly.  I tell him my grandparents died, and when he asks why, I explain they were very old.

A whole summer before he turns four, and I am getting really good at the four-year-old questions.  I might even be called a master of being clear and honest while giving just enough information.  I even handled the recent, “How does the baby get in your belly?” with grace and sensitivity, giving some bullshit about mommies and daddies loving each other very much.

And, then it came.  Yesterday, we were in the living room.  Benjamin was napping, and Zachary was quietly playing while I tried to nap.  A wrong number woke me up, and he came over to cuddle.

“You look so much like your Daddy,” I mused, stating an obvious fact if ever there was one.

“And who do you look like?” he asked.

Well, the honest answer, the only honest answer, is that I look like my mother, a stronger resemblance than even his to his father.  And, so, I took a breath.  “I look like my Mommy.”  I prepared for questions about where she is and why he has never seen her. 

He seemed to know already.  “Is she dead?”

“Yes, she is, baby.”

“Why is she dead?” Zachary asked.

“Well, honey, she got very sick and so she died.”

His next question was immediate.  “Why didn’t you take her to the doctor?”  Doctors, he knows, make people better.

“I was very little.  I was as young as Benjamin,” I told him, not mentioning that I was almost Benjamin’s age, to the day, when my mother died.

“Is your Daddy dead?” he asked, rather relentlessly.

“No, he’s not.”

“Why didn’t he take her to the doctor?”

“He did, honey, but she was very sick.  The doctors couldn’t make her better.  And so she died.”

“How was she sick?” 

Good God, child, leave a few questions for next week.   “Well, take a deep breath.  You see how the air goes in?  It goes into your lungs.  Well, her lungs were very sick, so she died.”

He thought for a moment, allowing me to do the same.  Then, “I don’t understand the process of death,” he said.  “How you die and then rise again.”  (And, yes, these were his exact words.)

So, I tried again to explain that people don’t rise again after dying, although some people do believe Jesus did.  He seemed to accept my answer, and I preempted the worries I knew would follow by explaining that I eat healthy foods and exercise because I want to live a long time to be with him.

But the worries, I think they came anyway, because 3:30 AM found me standing on his bunk bed ladder, keeping one hand on him as he fell back asleep after an hour of anxious wakefulness.   Somehow, I think neither of us was ever going to be ready for that conversation, for the questions we both knew needed to be answered. 

Genetics

            Zachary looks nothing like me.  Well, OK, he is a stringbean with a belly-button, all limbs flying about from nowhere, so maybe he has my body type.  But his face and his coloring are all his father and his father’s father before him.

            Benjamin is just the reverse.  He has J’s body, a massive trunk with little flipper-like limbs stuck about the edges.  His body reminds me of a seal or a python, sleek core strength.  His coloring he gets from me, down to the wavy dark hair.  And his face.  When I look in the mirror now, I love my eyes, I love the shape of my face, I love my smile.  I cannot help it; I love them because I see my little boy looking back at me.

            I have but one childhood picture, and in it I cannot be much older than Benjamin is right now.  My face, like his, is round with toddlerhood, and my hair, like his, is still wispy and fine.  I am giggling, and I can practically hear the sound, because it looks just like the giggles that come out of my younger son.  This picture hangs on the wall in our hallway, two over from a picture of my mother when she was 17. 

            If Benjamin looks like me when I was two, I look like my mother when she was a woman.  Yes, her high school graduation picture features a woman with tighter skin and a clearer complexion, but she looks much like I have since I passed through puberty. 

            I sat on a step between the two pictures one evening, resting for a moment as the boys played naked before their bath.  Benjamin’s body of steel came bounding over, and his smooth muscles wiggled into my arms.  He looked up and pointed at the picture of my mother.

            “Mama,” he said, as his brother had two years before him.

            “That’s my mommy,” I told him.  Big grin as he nodded in assent.

            “Mama.”

            “That’s my mommy,” I tried again.  “Did you know I had a mommy?  And I’ll bet she loved me just as much as I love you.”  Bigger grin, more emphatic nod.

            “Mama.”

            Then he squirmed down, ready to invent a new game wherein he ran down the hall, threw himself into my arms, pummeling me with the sheer force of his existence, and then ran back down the hall again.  Over and over, giggling the whole way.  I watched his face as he approached, glancing up at my own toddler face.  Then I braced myself for the force of impact, as 27 pounds of baby-steel launched into my arms.