When I was a little girl, I was consumed by fear that my mother would die.
At the time, she worked for Bank of America in Pacifica, and she would travel each day over Devil's slide from our home in Moss Beach and back again. The windy bit of road, with its sheer cliffs on each side terrified me, and I was convinced that a mere gust of wind might blow my mother's small V.W. bug off the road and plunge her into the sea. I would wait for her each night, my face pressed to my bedroom window, almost holding my breath until I saw her car turn into the driveway. On nights that she was inexplicably delayed, I would be in tears by the time she arrived, and I would run out to greet her, crying and wrapping my arms around her waist. She would collect me in her arms and laugh in that comforting way she had, and would remind me that cars don't just blow off the road. "Don't be silly, my car will not fall into the sea. You needn't worry anymore, okay? I love you."
I was always terrified about losing my mother. I thought it might happen in an instant, and I would never have the chance to hold her again. But as it turned out, losing my Mom took an agonizingly long time.
They call Alzheimer's "The Long Good-bye" for a reason. Because I've been grieving my mother's death for a good ten years, ever since she was diagnosed with a disease that terrified her. From the first day she told me-- when she and Dad called me at work to deliver the devastating news-- I went outside and sobbed uncontrollably. They may have well have told me she had died; it felt no different. To me, at least, a part of her died that day. But what I couldn't quite grasp is that I'd be experiencing her slow death for the next decade.
Each month, each day robbed me of my mother; and piece by piece I would watch her deteriorate; I would watch her die.
I had always known that my mother was brilliant. Not only was she a linguist, who could speak several languages fluently and effortlessly, she had a grand command of the English language as well. She had a wickedly good vocabulary, and there was no one I trusted more than her to read my writing, to grasp and edit my work, and through her gentle teachings, open my mind more and more to a language that I loved.
Like me, she loved words. She loved crossword puzzles. She loved scrabble. She loved chimpanzees that talked. She loved languages. She loved vocabulary. But what she really enjoyed the most was intellectual discourse. Nothing pleased my mother more than a good debate with the family; her favorite subject being the existence--or non-existence of a God. A staunch atheist, she would only accept science as a way of explanation for life and the Universe. She had no use for such fantasies as a supreme being, heaven or hell, or an after life of any kind. If I close my eyes, I can see her in her favorite chair; legs crossed underneath her like a woman a third of her age; a cold martini clasped in one hand and a cigarette held tightly in the other. Soon enough we'd all be embroiled in a rather lively discussion about the meaning of life; debates so heated that new friends would find themselves alarmed; they would fear they were witnessing a family squabble. But in reality, it was a way that our family loved each other. "We are a clover passionate lot"--that was what my mother would say.
I never saw Mom happier than during cocktail hour with the family, with a good rousing discussion about the meaning of life. "Is the sun over the yard arm yet?" she'd say excitedly when 5 o'clock approached. Mom was always counting the minutes to cocktail hour. Eventually Mom and Dad set an alarm that would go off at 5 o'clock to warn them that it was time. "How about a nice cold martini?" Mom would ask me, as if it were the very first time she ever had. But each time she would wait for my excited response. "Oh yes, a martini sounds perfect," I would reply. And Mom's eyes would light up as if it were Christmas morning.
When Alzheimer's started stealing my mother from me, what pained me the most was watching her lose that great intellect of hers. When I first received emails from her with misspelled words and grammatical errors, the pain was almost too much to bear. Mom was a great linguist; but I'll never forget the day she asked me to teach her French --a again-- using the Rosetta Stone software on her computer. To see her struggle with a foreign tongue she had all but mastered, would greatly depress me. Mom was a life long banker and mathematician; but I remember the day when I realized she could no longer balance her checkbook. Mom was a voracious reader; but there came a day when I found her pretending to read a book upside down and I knew she could no longer read.
She was regressing--she was turning back the hands of time--she was becoming a child.
Some days her slow decline was so painful, that I wanted to avoid her company. Her constant questions and anxiety unnerved me, and I would find myself growing impatient with her. But other days I couldn't get to her fast enough; I needed to feel her kiss on my cheek; I needed to have that moment of clarity or lucidity that was evaporating before my very eyes. There was no time to waste. If I waited two months to see her, her decline would be evident. I had to catch every moment that I could. But those moments often left me dissatisfied and depressed.
For a long time, I never believed that I would find any peace with my mother's disease. But the biggest gift in all of this, is that I did. While her brain seemingly began to deteriorate into ash, I discovered that her soul was still very much there, unharmed, untainted, exactly the way her soul had always been there.
I can hear my mom arguing with me now, pointing out that there is no such thing as a soul; that life is nothing but a series of brain synapses firing. But I witnessed her soul first hand, and even in her final day, her soul was the way I had always remembered it. Though she spoke nonsensically, she had the same lyrical voice and particular way of phrasing. Her humor was intact, she knew when we were joking with her and would laugh right on cue. Her love of music remained the same; I can hear her singing along with Peter's guitar as he played her Beatle songs at the rest home. Her love of her family remained constant; on my last visit with her she knew us all, and still referred to me as "My Cathy." Her soul was the same. Her huge heart and capacity for love, her gentle loving spirit. All the same. That hadn't changed a whit. It was still Mom.
But what was gone, and what I was grateful for, were her fears, her anxieties, her constant nagging worry, and the grief she wore like a glove; a grief that she never seemed to heal; anger that she never could let go of from experiences in her life and choices that she had made. All of my life, I have known that Mom could never forgive herself or others who contributed to the worst period of her life. But as her disease progressed, that was all gone. Suddenly she was lighter; she was freer than she'd ever been. I learned to love her in a new way. She was still alive. She was still there. She was still my Mom.
So when I learned of her death on Monday, it still came as an utter shock. I was once again that little girl with her nose pressed against the window, not wanting her mother to die. I sobbed from a place that I had long buried, and I realized, finally, that I was at last able to grieve. I couldn't give myself permission to grieve her when she was alive, so I disconnected. But finally I could. And ten years of anguish bubbled up inside of me. I missed my mother. I wanted her back.
I love my mother with all of my heart, and today I remember all the things that made Mom, mom.
How as children, she made Chris and I the sweetest little breakfasts every day. A fruit course would be served first, along with some orange juice and a vitamin pill. Then a second course would be served. Even if it was only toast, she'd make it cute, with little individual pots containing such things as butter, cream cheese, or jam.
She was the kind of Mom that would type your papers, darn your socks, iron your blouses, sew outfits for your teddy-bear, embroider flowers on your wedding dress, and tell you that everything was going to be okay, when you were in the bottom of despair. "Something so so bad has happened," I'd tell her. She'd stroke my hair gently, and say, "Tell me what happened, so I can fix it." And fix it she would.
I still love the time I got kicked out of the Brownies, and she was so angry that she called up the Troop Leader and demanded to know what had happened. When the meek troupe leader told her I had used unsavory language, my mother began a litany of guesses. "Did she say SHIT? DID SHE SAY FUCK?" The poor troupe leader, all a'tizzy whispered, "No, she took the lord's name in vain." My mother laughed. "OH GOD," she yelled, duplicating the words that had gotten me thrown out. It goes without saying that she got me reinstated in the Brownies, although I never went back. And when I was fired from a job for not working on a holiday, she called my boss and got my job back for me as well. I only needed to tell her what troubled me, and she would fix it. I think people saw her as meek, but when it came to her children, she was a fierce lioness intent on protecting us.
Mom never lost her English accent, although she thought she had. But she remained a true blue Brit her entire life. She was proud of the fact that she had never become an American citizen, although I think she was jealous when we would discuss voting issues and Presidential races. You could take Mom out of England, but England never left her; from her roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, to her sausage rolls and English trifle. And to me, what made Mom, Mom, like a black and white photograph, were her stories of World War II in London, and how living through that experience shaped her, including her strong dislike for English tea and margarine.
The other time of her life that most shaped her, is when she was in the Linguist Club. Whenever she'd talk about it, her eyes would light up, and she'd often say it was one of the happiest times of her life. On one visit to Hopland, I learned part of the reason she was so happy. She showed Chris and I a scrapbook of sorts that she kept during that time, which had been signed by members of the club. My sister and I laughed when we read the entries from the men; many were apparently quite smitten with her, and one professed his love. Mom had never considered herself very attractive, even though that wasn't true. But still, I'm glad that for a time she was the Belle of the Ball. She deserved that.
Mom loved to cook and she loved to entertain. How can any of us forget her other signature dishes. Her curry with the endless tiny bowls of toppings. Her Paella. her Coq Au Vin. Her brussel sprouts with chestnuts at Thanksgiving. Her strawberry pie at Easter. How she lovingly prepared everything ahead of time, so she could spend time with her guests. There are many things my siblings and I learned from Mom and Dad, but how to throw a party was certainly one of them.
Her favorite song in the world was the Rolling Stones, "I can't get no satisfaction." That is the song that she chose to walk down the aisle to when she married Ray, and she enjoyed nothing more than when we would blast the Stones, Janis Joplin, Jacque Brel, Dr. Hook or one of her favorites. Sometimes I'd go wild, singing at the top of my lungs, expressing myself with a fiery passion, and she would watch me with a big smile on her face. "I wish I could be like that," she often told me. "I wish I could be more like you. I like you."
And I liked her.
Of all the memories that have been flooding my head this week, it's funny the one that has been coming back most often. It was one day when Chris and I were talking to Mom as she was getting dressed. She thought she was putting her sweatshirt over her head, but instead she tried to put her pants over her head. With one arm in each of the legs, she tried to push her head through the neck hole which didn't exist. In short time, Chris and I both fell on the floor howling in hysterics, and when Mom realized that it was pants she was trying to get over her head, she rolled onto her back, pants still over her head, howling with laughter. The three of us laughed until our stomachs hurt.
I liked my mother. Because beneath that English demeanor, she did have a fire. She did have a great passion. She was an artist, creating her ceramics and all the daemons and angels and creatures that she created. She was that mother lion. She was Artist. She was Sculptor. Banker. Linguist. Cook. Entertainer. Intellectual. She was all of those things.
But mostly what I saw was a woman that took care of me, and took care of everyone that she loved. A woman that was so self sacrificing it was to her own detriment at times. A mother, a grandmother and a wife who let us know--every single day-- how fiercely she loved us.
And today I want to say how fiercely I loved her. She is at last at peace. She has her dignity back. She is now preserved perfectly in our memories and hearts. She lives on in me, and she lives on in her family. We are a part of her. We came from her. And she will always be a part of us.