a note on my mother

My mother died Monday, May 13, after a long time in a nursing home. She was 93.

The brief obituary I wrote stayed close to the bare facts – date of birth, marriage, a little about where she and my father lived over the years. Call it occupational wariness: in my professional life I deal with a lot of obituaries and I have read too many that strain, and fail, to capture the story of a life lived.

So this note is not that; it is only a slice of her life. Granted, the one I think that defined her, but still only a slice.

It’s clear to me that my mother suffered from depression. In the end, the depression won. But she should be remembered for having fought a long campaign to cope with an illness that wasn’t understood at all back when she was a child and young adult, and only understood marginally better as she got older.

Where’s the proof? Well, for one, her own mother was *sickly* from a young age (sometime after having had my mother and her sisters) and often *took to her bed,* as my mother would put it. I was of course too young, and saw her too infrequently to know first hand, but my recollection is that grandmother suffered from a nebulous set of symptoms, the sort of vague unwellness that depression can bring.

As well, my mother’s oldest sister drank, had relationship problems and ended her life living quietly in a shabby motel. To my mother, my aunt was a morality play – Look, see what can happen to you if you’re not vigilant! – but you could just as well explain my aunt as someone who was struggling with depression.

Finally, and most of all, there was my mom herself. She married my dad, who came from an abusive family, and they both came of age in the fearsome years of the Great Depression. So the fear of not having enough was the tent pole of her personality; some of my first memories are of being warned about spending money. (As a five year old, it frightened and saddened me.) That fear led her to be beyond diligent; she’s the reason my parents got through some tough times and had enough to retire on. But the price she paid was very high, as she maintained a constant watch against adverse financial weather.

In this, she was no different than other children of the Depression; what distinguished my mom was how at war with itself  her world view was. It’s what got her out of bed in the morning, gave her a way to navigate the day. On the one hand, she believed that life is hard, that fate is unkind and that you are entirely your own doing. That was half the emotional sense of it, but because my mother was bright, she also understood intellectually that the world was more complicated than that. And because she felt failure deep in her bones, my mother was also very compassionate at times – in the 1970s, she worked for a mental health agency helping to run a “halfway house,” and understood full well that many of the women she had under her wing were the victims of circumstance.

Faced with these two contradictory impulses, my mom (and by extension my dad) retreated into a measured life lived almost entirely with and for each other; they talked out everything, proceeded cautiously and – when something hit a rough patch – they would simply withdraw. I know of one couple my parents were friends with that they simply stopped talking to for 25 years; there were never any angry words exchanged, and when the ice broke, they just resumed the friendship, with no acknowledgement of what had happened.

If what I’m describing sounds terrible, it wasn’t, not most of the time, day in and out. As long as you stayed focused on the here and now, things were pretty good. There was laughter, and community, though my parents managed to move often enough that I’m not sure they could ever claim anyone as a life long friend, an aunt and uncle excepted. And my mom knew enough to try to raise me lightly; I think she understood her deepest leanings were dangerous, so we sang silly songs, dyed Easter eggs, had great birthday parties and Christmases. She loved me fiercely, even if that love could not escape the gravitational pull of life’s disappointments. When my mom lifted her eyes up to the horizon, considered the longer view, the depression would come rushing back in.

So much of this was not obvious to me until the long, sad decline of her last decade. Without my dad, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, and with neither abiding faith nor great curiosity about the world, she had nothing to build a life on. Living alone in a house they had foolishly bought when they moved back north, she was easy prey to the sadness she had held at bay for decades. She would sit in a chair by the hour, clipping self help articles from the local newspaper or a magazine. She couldn’t bring herself to visit the church down the street, though she and my father had belonged to it, been active in it decades before. She was uncomfortable when people came around, when friends or friends of friends tried to visit. She lost the fundamentals of how to make sense out of a life. I was no help then, less help later.

In her last days, whatever was left of her struggled to breathe, to move, for the meat machine to keep going, but those stretches would be leavened by moments when I would stroke her hair or her forehead and she would quiet for a moment. At one point, after I thought any real awareness had fled, she reached out to me with her shriveled up hand, ran that hand across my hair, over and over, and stared at me, eyes wide. It strikes me now that my mom, if she had been sitting next to me watching all this unfold, might have said “Look, I was right. Life is hard…right up to the end.” And then she would have given me a hug.


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