“We need to talk about your mother.” The first person to say it was a friend who’d just taken my mother out to lunch. “Fredelle walked out of the restaurant and didn’t seem to know where she was. I had to walk her to the subway station. My father-in-law is a doctor; he thinks this could be serious.”
The next friend had just hosted my mother and her partner, Sydney for a Passover seder. “Your mother took a plate of food that was meant for the whole table and dumped it all onto her own plate. When she read aloud from the Haggadah, she read in gibberish. She had no idea what she was doing. It was painful to see. Some of my guests were so disturbed, they had to leave the table.”
How could this be? My mother was a literary scholar who spiced her colourful anecdotes with flourishes from Shakespeare and Yeats. She had written four books and advised parents on TV. She proclaimed her views on everything from misplaced modifiers (a crime against language) to baking with margarine (a crime against cookies). I adored her and craved her company, even though her presence made me feel a little smaller than life. With her big hats and bigger voice, she still seemed the invincible protector of my childhood. Or had, until the winter of her confusion.
In May I sat down to write her a Mother’s Day letter. On Mother’s Day I would be in the Bahamas, working on a travel story. She and I never spent Mother’s Day together but this year something compelled me to honour the date. I took the streetcar across town to deliver the letter. My mother came to the door in her apron, a wooden spoon in her hand and toast crumbs on her sweater. She said, “Something strange has come over me. I was going to make macaroni and cheese, but I can’t remember how.”
“Let me do it,” I said. As if by cooking macaroni I could set the earth back on its axis. The kitchen smelled of burnt flour and the milk had turned. I opened the fridge to find only the motley remnants of food: a cheese rind, turning blue, a couple of shrivelled lemons and a carton of eggs, well past their best-before date. “What are you eating when Sydney’s not here? We need to go shopping right now, to get your strength up. No wonder you can’t remember things. You’re not getting the proper nutrients.”
That day I stocked her fridge with food she wouldn’t have to cook, cheeses and ready-made salads. On her counter I placed a loaf of whole-grain bread. I filled the fruit bowl with oranges, and then I remembered the letter. At my mother’s kitchen table I read it aloud while she looked at me, wonderingly.
When I was little, I watched you lace a stew with mushrooms and wine. You taught me that a meal should nourish the spirit as well as the body. When I still saw my future as a haze of ballet tutus, wedding veils and long-stemmed roses, I watched your world expand as you began to teach and write. You taught me that a woman needs a career suited to her talents. When I was struggling to build my marriage, I watched you end your own failed marriage and start a new relationship. You taught me that it’s never too late for a woman to strive for mutuality and respect in love. This Mother’s Day weekend, you are teaching me still—about dignity in the face of adversity, about faith in the sustaining powers of friendship and family ties, about the courage to fight for what makes life worth living. I am proud to have your example before me.
All my love,
ON MOTHER’S DAY I went swimming alone in Eleuthera. It was night, no sound but the surf. I stepped out of my white beach house in the palms and threw myself in the waves. I could have screamed at the moon. I could have been naked. I could have shredded my clothes like mourners in other times and places. No one would have seen or heard. Instead of swimming, I let the waves carry me and swallow my tears.
At last I knew for sure what I had feared all winter. Today’s call from Toronto had simply confirmed it. My mother had fallen on the stairs at night. When Sydney rushed her to the hospital, the doctors ran a battery of tests. They found a brain tumour. Inoperable. Nothing to offer her but palliative care. She was sixty-six years old and I’d been betting on her to reach one hundred. My mother was dying.
MY MOTHER’S KITCHEN opened onto a narrow garden where geraniums spilled from Mexican planters in all manner of fanciful shapes. She’d haggled for those planters in dusty villages unknown to other tourists, always shipping back too many. If the bird shattered on the journey, she would still have the goat and the mermaid. And the maidens, a whole retinue of them, with broad Mayan faces and flower-encrusted gowns. In the first weeks after her diagnosis, while steroid drugs could still moderate her symptoms and seemingly roll back the months of her unmaking, she liked to sit among her maidens, as brown as the pottery and as still.
I had never known my mother to do nothing, not even flip through a magazine, but this new gravity became her. It let me believe she could sit there forever in her silver necklace and straw sunhat, waiting for her next visitor. When I joined her she would say what she had never said in better days: “You always look so beautiful.”
Friends came from all over the continent; my sister Joyce had brought her three children. There was always a delivery at the door, a well-wisher on the phone, one of Joyce’s poppyseed cakes in the oven. The neurologist had warned, “Anyone who wants to have a conversation with Fredelle should do it in the next two weeks.” But four weeks passed, then five, and still my mother held court in the garden between her impenetrable naps.
I didn’t notice the naps growing longer, any more than I noticed tulips giving way to roses that summer when nothing seemed to catch my attention except my mother and her illness. I put my work on hold to spend every afternoon in my mother’s garden, stopping on the way to comb the shops for perfect raspberries, her favourite fruit. It was as if, by giving up my own brain, I could somehow restore hers.
Meanwhile my mother seemed unshakeably serene, even blithe. She finally knew what she had and thank God it wasn’t Alzheimer’s. “I’ve had a good life,” she said to all and sundry. “I would have liked more time but nisht is nisht.”
Fredelle, do you have any regrets in life? “Just one. I would have liked more men!”
Oh, Fredelle, you devil. She ate whatever she wanted: big wedges of runny Brie, second helpings of cake with whipped cream. Why not, since she’d never wear a swimsuit again?
She said whatever came to her mind, whether charmingly addled (to Joyce and me: “You girls are my greatest trousers”) or flagrantly mischievous (to everyone: “How many lovers have you had?”). She embarked on her death as a grand project on which she would lavish all the exuberance of the decades that should have been hers.
At the end of May she convened a few dozen intimates and admirers for a garden wedding. With her glass of Chardonnay held high, she walked through the geraniums on my son Ben’s arm: Sydney had finally proposed after years of resistance to the very thought of marriage. On her way to the chuppa she called out greetings (to her gay friends: “I wish I could marry both of you, but you’re already married to each other!”). She wobbled on her feet but I could have sworn it was only from the giddiness of her pleasure in finding, at the far edge of life, what she couldn’t have in the thick of it.
Sydney smashed a glass with his foot as the rabbi wished long life to the bridal couple. “Would it were so!” said my mother. Sunlight spilled everywhere—on the clinking glasses of the guests, on the froth of red blossoms, on my mother’s iridescent silk dress that was either purple or blue, I could never tell which. My mother laughed. I held my breath, and the moment.
THAT LAST SUMMER was a season of rituals, with a ceremony for each of us. My sister pushed the wheelchair and prepared the breakfast tray, always with a flower from the garden. My mother sent a farewell letter to everyone she loved. When her pen began to falter in her hand, I would take dictation in the garden. Her custom-made stationery came in three colours—hot pink, purple, lime green – and had a border of frolicking figures, drawn by Joyce in pen and ink.
The effect suggested celebration, and the messages delivered on that promise. The fewer words my mother remembered, the more lavishly she poured her affection on the world: “You and I have been part of each other for long, complicated, amazing, happy years.” “Dear Frances, dear Frances, you are deeply dear to my life.” Everyone got a letter—friends just met and friends long lost.
For Ben, who would turn 18 that year, my mother dictated, “I send no message, no list of things to do, no prediction of your future, no estimate of your talent. What I send, deep and true, is love.”
Just the words I wished my mother could choose for me. Lists, predictions, estimations of talent . . . plenty of those used to come my way in single-spaced pages from her ever-clacking typewriter. I had a sheaf of those letters, saved from my student days. Amid my mother’s incomparable stories, I often found a steely criticism of my spending habits or, more woundingly, my choice of husband.
What she wanted for me was what I wanted for myself—a better life than she had. The problem lay in her insistence on defining what that life should be. As I tucked Ben’s farewell note into its envelope, she said, “I’m going to miss Ben. He’s sensitive, strong and funny. A really beautiful man.”
“Boy, you mean. He’s only seventeen.”
“No, he’s a man now. Soon he’ll be falling in love, leaving home. Making some woman happy.” She did not tell me I had been a good enough mother after all. Those were the words I most wanted from her. So many times she had accused me of neglecting my child, her beloved grandson. She thought I cared too much about my career. If Ben was in trouble at school, she assumed I was to blame—and said so, with the ringing authority of a TV parenting expert.
As language slipped away from my mother, she still found a way to keep the upper hand, avoiding any hint of positive connection between Ben’s character and my mothering. But if I had raised a son who would make a woman happy, then surely I had done something right.
NO FRIEND COULD LEAVE the garden empty-handed. As each guest stood up to go, my mother would call for her jewellery box. It overflowed with bounty from her travels: pendants and chokers, bangles and cuffs, earrings feathered with fake-gold filigree or inlaid with amethyst and turquoise. My mother had a brooch for every mood, a ring for every finger. She decreed to each guest: “You must have something of mine. Your choice.”
Everyone picked something modest until my mother commanded, “Pick again.” After a few weeks of this, the pickings grew thin. A friend from New York took the last silver chain in the box, leaving a tangle of lone earrings that had lost their mates long ago. Suddenly my head was in my hands and a cry rose from a subterranean cavern of myself: “Don’t leave me!”
My mother took both my hands. Her touch steadied me the way it used to do when I woke in the night with a fever. “I’m not leaving you. I’ll always be with you. Just think of me. It’s enough.” She drained the last of her wine. “L’chaim,” she said. To life.
MY MOTHER GAVE BIRTH to me twice. The first time is a matter of record. The second, almost forty years later, took place at her deathbed. She lay in her own room with the cathedral ceiling and the seaglass-green walls. Her red lipstick was freshly applied, her skin still sun-burnished from afternoon teas in the garden.
I could have sworn she was only resting up for her next project—a speech, a book, a cocktail party for a hundred guests, with all the appetizers cooked from scratch. In fact, she had reached the final stages of brain cancer. Weeks had passed since she could move or speak. “Talk to her,” the visiting nurse had said. “Hearing is the last sense to go.”
All my life I had been talking with my mother, and most of the time she took the lead. No one else I knew could tell such stories, or declared opinions with such pungency. Now my turn had come to do the talking. I took my mother’s hand, which the nurse had manicured to unnatural perfection. My mother should have had parsley under her fingernails, or a thin line of dirt from planting tulips. When no one was looking, she used to bite her nails to the quick. I stroked the soft place on her wrist where her watch had always been. “It’s me,” I said.
Did she know? Or had she already gone? My mother’s house had never been so quiet. What I said to her that day felt more like meditation than speech. One thought opened onto another like a series of doors swinging wide. Behind the last door I found a dream in which I won a job that took me to the top of my profession. I got there by doing what had always seemed too dangerous: competing against women of drive and talent. I became what I had never been before—a leader.
If my mother had been well, I would not have told her any of this. She would have engulfed me with reasons why I was the woman for the job and all the others mere pretenders. She would have prodded and advised. I needed to believe that this dream was mine, not hers, and fear of her torrential enthusiasm would have nailed my tongue to my mouth. I held her hand and spoke: “I’m feeling restless. I want a new challenge. I want to be the next editor of Chatelaine. What do you think?”
No point asking her that. It was a courtesy to her, or a salve to my own pain at seeing her immobile and silent. Then my mother squeezed my hand. No moment in my life—not marrying my husband, bearing my son or eventually winning the job—has changed me like that moment. At my mother’s deathbed, I crossed the threshold between the life I had led in her orbit, craving her attention yet wary of its blazing intensity, and the life I made without her as a more or less grown-up woman.
All the tangled frustrations and desires of my first forty years point toward my mother’s blessing. All the rewards I later found are rooted in her final affirmation that I could succeed on my own terms without her hovering, shaping, controlling hand.
Previously posted comments:
September 04, 2007 at 2:02PM
This excerpt blew me away. It was so poignant and beautifully written and it hit on so many issues regarding women’s lives, I think. I woke up this sunny day with a whoosh of feelings consisting of “I have to do this and I have to do that today” — silently grumbling to myself and wondering if I could light a fire under my (wonderful) family…wondering about my own mother who lives in a nursing home while Alzheimer’s ravages her mind and spirit. Then I sat down and read your wonderful excerpt and identified so much with all that you wrote (I am just now, in her declining years, quite beautiful and smart and wonderful in my mother’s opinion!!). Thank you for refreshing my spirit and soul.
September 04, 2007 at 5:05 PM
Sarah, I’m struck by your comment about being beautiful, smart and wonderful all of a sudden. Excruciating as it is to see a parent sink into terminal illness, there can be glimmers of compensation. Illness turns some into absolute curmudgeons, but with others it reveals a tenderness and a sense of gratitude that never found expression in “better” times. I know a woman whose formidably critical mother said, on her deathbed, “You’re the best daughter any woman could have.” This moment is a talisman the daughter will keep for the rest of her life.
February 10, 2012 at 12:12PM
Moving and beautifully rendered. It’s also hopeful. My mother has never been able to see me for who I am. She is 88 now (and shows no sign of stopping), but I know she won’t be around much longer. There are still times she makes me so crazy I wish I she would get off the train now. And yet, I know it’s not that easy or clear. Thank you.
February 11, 2012 at 5:05 AM
Janice, I’ve talked with many women in your situation. A tough one, they all agree. But you never know–your mother might surprise you at the end. Some pretty crusty people start to soften as time runs out. I know a woman whose crazy-making mother finally told her, “You’re the best daughter a mother could have.” If you enjoyed the excerpt here, I think you’ll like my book. Let me know if you’d like to order a personally inscribed copy. Either way, thanks for visiting.