Tomorrow is the U. S. holiday, Thanksgiving, and when my mom was alive she was this incredible, introverted cook who shoo’ed everyone out of the kitchen to single handedly create a fucking magnificent array of dishes. She’s been gone for 17 years this month but until this year, I couldn’t think through our story with clarity nor could I share it with everyone.
I danced among urban cowboys in tight jeans the night before my mom died. There was no question: after a day at the hospital, it made sense at the time that one of my longtime best friends takes me out on the town.
I remember feeling nearly gleeful on the dance floor. Free. Happy to be alive.
She was several blocks away. Her brain had suffered a series of strokes; her heart, heart attacks; her arteries and organs, breakdowns and malnourishment. Stuffed into her mouth was a ventilator tube, hooked up to a breath-giving machine.
And there I was, dancing in a gay bar.
The year was 1998. I was 27.
Our stories can only tell so much.
As daughters, especially, how can we possibly contain our mothers within the boundaries of words?
Memories that sing:
With her 70-year-old boyfriend, she showed up in my college town on the back of his motorcycle. It was a time sandwiched between her surgery and her death. Usually a robust and curvy woman, she had grown thin with gaunt cheeks. But, on this particular day, her face was flushed pink and she looked happy. She was enjoying a respite from critical health issues and loving her guy, a nurturing yet adventurous man with whom she was madly in love.
I remember giggling with her as he and I helped her off the motorcycle. I surveyed her gear: black cotton gloves; black leg warmers with silver glitter, and a black acrylic scarf. She looked like a 1980’s Hell’s Angels aerobics instructor. Only it was 1997.
This woman, my mom: she was often my best friend. She listened as I thought all thoughts aloud. She modeled the healing effects of curling up in bed with a tome of a book, surrounded by cats and dogs. We wrote to one another when I was a teenager, slipping notes under bedroom doors – from loving cards to long letters spewing with anger.
Between college classes and office work, I called the hospital several times on Surgery Day in 1996. It was estimated to last a few hours. After 10 hours, I finally heard the doctor’s voice on the other end of the line. It was shaking, slightly.
“Your mother’s arteries and veins were very weak,” he reported, “but the surgery is done and she’s in recovery.”
My brothers told me later that Mom withheld the truth from her doctor: that she had been drinking hard liquor every night since she was 16 years old. When they opened her up, she was 63. Her insides were a mess.
This was the invasive procedure she’d worried about and postponed for a long time. Almost ten years earlier, in the 1980’s, she was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.
She wrecked her car drinking and driving the year after the surgery. No other cars were involved. The officer didn’t notice the vodka cocktail she had boldly kept in the cup holder. She was tight-lipped with me – my aunt, her sister, revealed this incident after Mom passed away. Even my acute awareness of her drinking didn’t impact the trust I had in her around that time. She was gradually returning to work but still managing post-surgery complications. Never in a million years would I have guessed she’d pull such a stunt.
The aorta: that artery, the largest in our body, running through the center of us, through our core, from our heart.
On the dance floor the night before she died, I recalled the details of the early evening: my brothers and I gathered around her hospital bed, talking to one another and to her, hoping she could understand us. It was my first time being in the presence of a near-death human and I watched, in heart dropping shock, as she moved within her own world. Her eyes were clouded over with infection but she turned her head to look toward a corner of the room. She was attempting to rise up out of bed, her arm reaching in the direction of her gaze.
We create, tear down, repair, keep going.
We build and lose friendships, try our hearts at romantic love.
We keep our own bodies alive through turmoil.
All the while, if we’ve lost our parent – whether from abandonment, neglect, death – we are also stripping away layers of motherless grief across our lifetimes.
Even after the late night dancing, I awoke very early the next morning. I quietly dressed as my friend continued to sleep. I left to take a walk around the neighborhood. I remember stopping in front of a bakery and enjoying watching the workers ready the shop for opening. It was a cool, overcast southern California morning in November and I breathed in the damp air and the smell of the breads and pastries.
I kept walking in search of a pay phone so I could call the hospital.
After my feelings of love and freedom on the dance floor the night before, there was a sensation of calm acceptance, of gratitude, as I strolled past stores, a small park, and warehouses.
But, the dancing, the morning stroll – they didn’t fit in with the roller coaster of terror, ecstatic relief, guilt and hope I’d been riding for two years, or longer.
Finding a phone in front of a bank, I inserted the coins and dialed the hospital. When I was connected to my mom’s nursing station, I said, “Hi, this is Kim, Jackie’s daughter. I’m just calling to see how she’s doing this morning? I’ll be visiting later today.”
I could hear other nurses’ voices in the background and the electronic sounds of an intensive care unit. The nurse on the phone was quiet for a long moment. “Sweetheart, are you sitting down?” she asked.
She must have asked that question in particular because I have a clear memory of looking around me – at the sidewalk, the gray concrete of the bank building, the shiny silver metal of the pay phone structure – and I answered, “Well, no. There’s nowhere to sit. I’m at a pay phone.”
My knees began to tremble a little.
In a quietly gentle voice, she explained that my mother had just passed away minutes before I called.
I remember hearing her and I recall responding in a kind manner – “Oh my god OK well thank you for taking care of her thank you for letting me know” — a rush of words from a sweet, shocked young lady for whom I now, as I type this, have the utmost love.
I hung up the phone and I nearly fell down; my legs were jelly.
Saying goodbye to a mother, especially an addicted mother, may also mean disappearing a need to support a woman, to keep her safe, to be a mom to your mom.
Over time, in slow and small ways, we learn to mother ourselves.
When we arrived at the hospital, I was afraid. Every detail of spending time with a sick and dying mom was a first for me, but I’d managed to “handle” everything with relative grace and strength. But seeing your own mother’s corpse? A nightmare.
What I didn’t expect was what I saw instead:
All tubes and machines and needles had been removed from her body. The nurses had straightened up the sheets and blankets, smoothing them across her chest and under her neck. Her thin hair was brushed and her face was smooth and clean.
For the first time in my lifetime, my mother’s face looked restful.
I knew she was gone but I still stood there, saying goodbye.
Even as wiser adults decades later, we awaken one morning feeling self-contained and another feeling very lonely.
When was the last time you told you and meant it, “I’m human. This makes sense. There is nothing to Fix. Keep on truckin’.”
The night before and the morning of her death, I must have sensed her ending, her release, her flight.
I danced to vanquish her physical and emotional pain.
I danced to say farewell to my life with my mom.
I danced to keep going without her.
Thank you for reading.
As always, you are not alone.
/c/ Kim Adonna