"I'm resting, leave me alone,"
my mother said, waving my sister off with annoyance. We would later put it
together that she'd been lying there on the floor of her cluttered, studio
apartment for about two days by then. Her vital organs were already beginning
to shut down.
My sister, a detective
in the San Francisco Police Department, had just broken the front window and
let herself in. She didn't have a key; she hadn't been to see my mother for over
a decade. No one in our family had, apart from me and my brother. And
he--a fairly high-functioning autistic man, from whom my mother was
regularly stealing disability checks--had no real choice in the matter.
Not exactly Norman
Rockwell stuff, I know.
As far as I can
tell my adoptive mom had always been crazy. I may have initially realized this when she told
my sister and me about the end of her first marriage, which happened when she
was about nineteen. It seems that her then husband was trying to sleep with her. She
would have none of it. She'd only married him, she informed us, because he had
a very nice car. She hadn't counted on sex as any part of the bargain. When
that angle became clear, she promptly left the man and the marriage was
annulled. Even at a mere six years old this struck me as more than eccentric. It
was just nuts. So was telling all this to a six-year-old. But I wouldn't recognize
that until much later.
Your own mom is,
of course, the only metric by which you can measure motherhood until you begin
to venture out into other people's homes. So for the first few years there you
really have no way of knowing if you happen to be living in Bizzaro world. I
took it for granted that all mothers regularly sat on the edge of their children's beds
for several hours in the dead of the night, a fragrant glass of scotch in hand,
telling stories with no endings while alternately laughing and sobbing. Turns
out, not so much.
And still fewer
mothers, I would eventually learn, assert completely imaginary
"facts" with honest and utter conviction. It's called confabulation
and it isn't the same as lying, because the subject is completely unaware that
he or she is making it all up.
body needs water," my mother once informed me very sincerely over breakfast. "But our
best scientists are still not sure why." Perhaps because the brain floats
in it was her own theory, and she was very pleased with it. Someday medical research
would prove her right. Watch and see.
Another time she convinced
herself that there are two officially sanctioned sets of Cub Scout apparel which
may be worn to any and all scouting functions. These are, she explained, the
familiar blue uniform with yellow neckerchief (which I already had);
or you could wear a homemade, buckskin-fringed, Hollywood Red Injun
get-up, complete with brown, papier-mâché bald pate and fake Mohawk. She was absolutely
sure of this. And happy to make the latter for me.
This kind of
thinking didn't stop her from being a reasonably cautious mother, in some
respects. Regarding the Indian outfit, she did call the local fire department
first to ask whether it was unhealthy to paint a child's body with shoe polish.
Red-headed and fair-skinned, I was a bit too pale to pass for Native American
in her view. I'm not sure why she decided firemen were the appropriate authorities
to check in with, but apparently they gave her the all clear. I remember the
smell to this day.
What I don't remember, and wish I had home movies of, are
the faces of the other parents at that night's Cub Scout Pack 52 meeting as I rain-danced
in, shirtless, covered with Kiwi brown boot polish, and wearing the most
unconvincing bald-head/Mohawk hair appliance in the history of prosthetic makeup.
She could paint
and draw quite well. That part is heartbreaking, because I always imagined art
could have saved her had she only devoted herself to it with half the passion
she reserved for resenting everyone in her life. (We children in particular had
ruined everything, we were frequently told.)
She used to paint murals on the
back fence of our suburban home, bucolic scenes of deer and birds, streams and verdant
hillsides. She'd start at one end of the yard, paint her way around the perimeter
and as soon as she finished she'd whitewash the whole thing, then start all over
again. It made her happy.
I bought her
painting supplies near the end. We found some of her unfinished canvases after
she died. Technically all of her canvasses were unfinished; she'd never called
a single painting of hers done. They were never good enough for her. But these
pieces she was actually still working on. One surrealist seascape had Spanish Galleons
sailing up and down on a cerulean ocean that bent at right angles to itself. It
was weirdly beautiful.
Here was a place for her madness to roam free without
staggering into little children and knocking their lives over. She might even
have lived an artist's existence in relative peace. Like I said, that part's
memories of my mother include a lot of Auntie Mame episodes. Like the custom
made, miniature accordion she had built for me when I was just shy of three years old, and
the professional lessons that came with.
I'm clear about my age then because I was born in December 1960, and I remember my mother and my accordion
teacher having an excited conversation as the news of John F. Kennedy's
shooting in Dallas trickled in. Would he make it? Not if he was shot in the left
temple--my mother intoned with expert assurance. While many types of bullet
wounds to the head are recoverable, she elaborated, you just don't survive a hit
to the left temple. Ask any neurologist.
Over the next few years my mother's mental illness darkened her formerly bright moods. Quirkiness
gave way to psychosis and rage. She hurt and she wanted us to hurt too. Here her creativity came perversely to her aid. Like the time when I was five years old and she explained that she was leaving the family forverer. I would have to stay up late until my father returned from work, to tell him his wife was gone, tell him how it was my fault she left. Because I was bad.
And then she went out shopping for several very, very long hours.
When she returned and informed me that I'd get another chance, I wept with relief. I would try harder to be a good boy, I promised.
She also drank steadily beginning in the mornings,
and by dinnertime it was best to avoid her. Except you couldn't. One night at the
table, after finishing a piece of meatloaf, I asked if there were any more left back in the kitchen.
My mother never brought any serving dishes to the table for some reason.
Unfortunately for me, there was not.
She dropped her
fork and yelled, "Selfish! You're always so selfish. Never think of
I was probably no
more selfish than the average seven-year-old, but there was no one there who
could defend me. My father had taken to working nights and sleeping
days, effectively avoiding his troubled and troubling family altogether.
"No, there is
no more you greedy little boy. So take mine. Here." She dumped her own
serving, untouched, onto my plate. She generally ate very little. She was frighteningly
thin by then.
please." I didn't want to take her food from her. The very thought was horrific.
It would make me a monster.
"Take it! Eat
it! And I'll go to bed hungry," she said.
Through tears and
protestations I choked down each miserable bite. There was no just refusing outright, or
physical violence would be next. I knew this from long experience already. I finished, then
it was off to bed with me. No sleep, though. I couldn't get the picture of her
lying there all night with an aching tummy out of my mind.
Life wasn't always a banquet
with this Auntie Mame.
When my brother told me my mother hadn't answered her phone for several days, I called my sister to check what was up. That's when she went over and found her on the floor.
I caught the first
plane from LA to San Francisco, rented a car and drove over ninety all the way to the hospital up in
Petaluma. It was an emergency and my sister was a police detective, so no worries
there. My mother was still conscious when I arrived, but she was delirious and
her speech was incoherent. I saw it clearly though, the moment that she
recognized me. The depthless sadness.
My sister was there too. She had cut my mother out of her life many years before. Mom threatened
to make trouble for my sister's family, which
included her new baby boy--a line you just do not cross. There was no legitimate
issues there, my sister was and is a fine woman and a wonderful mother. That
didn't matter. My mom had, by then, her own blackness to guide her, so who
needs facts? It was a wise move on my sister's part.
She adjusted mom's
pillow. "What's this thing?" she said, frowning. Something small and pointy
behind my mother's neck, on a gold chain. She removed it. And froze.
"My Academy star."
I watched my
sister's face turn a shade close to magenta, like someone had just cranked the color balance
on an old TV set. Her wide eyes went glassy. It was her ornamental gold star, from
graduating the Police Academy. She had given it to our mom twenty years earlier.
My mother had worn it every day since.
She couldn't say any more,
and she didn't need to. The emotions were too complex for words anyway.
For my part, I had
forgiven my mother many years before. I did it mainly for selfish reasons, which
I'll get to in a moment. So to see now that this frail, old woman was human and
that she in her own way still loved us--this was not a shock to me.
We both held our
mother's hands as she died. It wasn't a peaceful process. He body seemed to want
to quit, but her brain kept fighting against this last and most intimate betrayal.
Over and over again she stopped breathing. Then sucked in desperate, ragged breaths
that eventually evened out. Then it would happen again. It was never easy for
her. Even this.
It's never easy
for anyone, really. My mother's was just an obvious example. Besides the mental
illness she had to contend with, she had lost both parents at an early age, and raised her younger siblings by herself. She was working in a brothel when she met my father. He was a regular john. Unsurprisingly it was not the story they told us about how they met; we'd learn this from our aunt only after dad died.
liked to laugh, and before the drink and psychosis took her she exhibited a
good and caring heart. After my father's son from an earlier marriage--whom she loved
like her own child--drowned in a city reservoir, she sued the city. Not for money, not a penny, but to have fences erected around all similar facilities.
Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. The quote is variously ascribed, but these
are probably the words of John Watson (penname Ian MacLaren), who wrote the
line in response to the request for a Christmas greeting to the world, and who
went into more depth here:
"This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with
strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have
skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however
surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to
bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a
battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help
his lower self."1
So yes, we all
deserve kindness. But as I mentioned, my motivations for forgiving my mother
were selfish as well. I'm not a particularly strong man, and it's just too heavy a burden to shoulder to the end, all that
resentment. There's an old story that illustrates this idea nicely.
Two Buddhist monks
come across a prostitute trying to cross a muddy street. One monk picks her up
and carries her over.
Farther down the
road, the second monk, who has been brooding over this breach of sanctity,
finally speaks. "How could you defile yourself like that? Touching that
And the first monk
says, "Are you still carrying her? I put her down on the other side of the
1 1903, The Homely Virtues by John Watson, Courtesy, Page 168,
Hodder & Stoughton, London