I was talking to an old friend who lost her mom around the same time and we agreed it feels more like five years. Not like yesterday or last week anymore, like it did for the first couple years, and not even one year, because a lot of details have faded.
But twenty years just seems so impossibly long ago. A lot of memories are hazy, but too many are still pretty fresh. Like my brother calling me just as I arrived home to tell me our mom had died. I remember he said she'd "passed." Though we knew it was coming, I was still confused by the phrasing for the first few seconds. "Passed" what?
The most tragic thing about my mom's life—and there were many tragedies—was that she never really felt good enough. She never felt pretty or smart and for that I blame my grandmother, the she-beast.
My grandmother had a list of charming epithets for her eldest daughter—one of her favorites being "cocksucker." Mind you, this was from when my mom was a toddler. My grandmother had apparently been attractive when she was young, but but the time I met her she'd grown into a horrible, ugly, racist, morbidly obese nightmare. One of the many charming memories I have of her is being unlucky enough to be sitting next to her, watching TV when a McDonald's commercial, featuring a black family, came on. "Goddamn niggers are taking over the tv!" she bitched. There was never a time when I didn't find her completely appalling.
Then there was all the shit-talk behind my mother's back. My mom would leave us with her—not often, but if there was a funeral or something. My grandmother would take these rare moments alone to remind us that my mother had always thought she was better than everyone else. I just remember looking at this horrible cruel beast and thinking, no fucking wonder—we ARE better than you, bitch!
My mother theorized that she had been the product of a rape, because my grandmother sometimes talked about being "attacked" in a park by a "spic" just before she married my grandfather. She was very vague about the details, so my mom assumed it was a sexual assault. I don't know if that's true or not, but I suppose it gave my mom comfort to think that her mom didn't hate her, but something about her that she had no control over.
There were two younger siblings who were treated very well by comparison. My aunt turned out to be a very nice person and utterly hilarious. Her brother is a spineless asshole who couldn't be bothered to come see his sister the entire time she was in the hospital because he couldn't "handle" seeing her "like that." If I saw him catch fire, I wouldn't so much as spit to put out the flames. Though I might throw a cup of pee on him for fun.
Incredibly—to me, anyway—my mom kind of followed her mother's example and beat me up a lot too. You would think that knowing the pain of physical violence would steer you away from repeating the pattern, but apparently that's not the case, because people who grew up in violent households are more likely to be violent. It's one of the myriad reasons I never wanted to have kids. She hit one of my brothers a little bit, but the rest of my sibs got off scot-free. I don't know why I was singled out, but I don't have the "comfort" of thinking I was the product of a rape.
One thing my mom wasn't insecure about was her voice. She would sing out at clubs around Philly (her parents never bothered to come) and even cut a record that was never released. Her voice reminds me of Tracy Thorn's, from Everything But the Girl.
I guess it was something good girls did at the time, but my mom quit performing when she got married. I truly believe that if she'd kept up with the singing she would've had a much happier life once she escaped her mother's house. Instead she had five kids, which I know she wanted, but I think she could've leaned on my dad for help and still pursued a singing career.
Unfortunately, this traditional Catholic bullshit dies hard. My youngest brother was born when I was six and we were living in Lefrak City in Queens, while my dad was getting his MBA at Columbia. Apparently Michael's birth was really difficult and the doctor told her that the next one might not be so lucky. He said that kid number six could kill either her or the fetus (though she would've called it a baby as they were both extremely anti-choice in those days). So she reluctantly started using birth control, in spite of the sin-factor.
Before we moved back upstate and were shuttled off to all-white Catholic school, we went to a pretty progressive public school out there in Queens. There were people of all religions and races in my class and Mrs. Gilbert, my first grade teacher, made sure that we learned about every country and culture represented in our classroom. So when I came toddling out into the living room one day, wearing my mom's diaphragm on my head, I announced I was wearing a "little Jewish hat." Though I didn't know the correct name for it, I really thought it was a yarmulke. My mom thought it was Jesus punishing her for using birth control, so she slapped the crap out of that messenger.
The sad fact is, my mom and I had a very rocky relationship for the most part. I loved her and I know she loved me, but we did not get along. In fact, one of my sisters fully believes that the stress of having a me for a daughter brought on my mother's cancer. But it's a chicken/egg conundrum. Was I an awful kid that deserved having my ass kicked all the time? Or did the constant ass-kicking turn me into a "bad" child? As I was getting hit a lot when I was just a toddler (and I wasn't the kind of psycho kid who killed animals or did anything really bad), I tend to think the violence helped make me rebellious and smart-alecky. Which then brought on more violence.
(I should note that however rotten I might've been, I don't believe my behavior brought on my mom's cancer. As far as I know Ted Bundy's mom didn't die of kidney cancer, so I'm letting myself off the hook on that one. However, that sister and I still don't speak.)
But not all my memories of her are bad. I inherited my love of Christmas from her. Even when we were broke, she would go out of her way to make sure we had a good Christmas. I never doubted that she thought I was smart and predicted I'd be a writer even when I'd had my heart set on running my own AM radio station. But maybe she knew that from reading my journal ALOUD. TO MY ENTIRE FAMILY. Sigh.
Mostly there was a lot of yelling. I remember one day while I was at school, she searched my room and found my birth-control pills along with a business card from a tattoo parlor that I'd picked up somewhere along the way.
When I got home that day, she confronted me, screaming that I was a slut and that she would adopt any child I might get pregnant with so I wouldn't have an ABORTION. Which always made me think of this scene between Francine and Lulu in John Waters' brilliant Polyester. As she stomped out of my room she hissed, "And I know you have a TATTOO!" (I didn't.) She didn't toss the pills so I never did find out if she'd actually adopt my bastard spawn.
Once we were all in school full time and had moved from Rochester to the Millburn, NJ (we were only in Queens for two years), she went back to singing. She took classes at the New School and started performing in clubs again. She was always so happy when she sang and while I might've been rolled my eyes when she'd sing at home, I was very proud when she would sing in public.
She played Birdland, the Village Gate, Danny's Skylight Room . . . all the places where they still dug the classics. She was friends with John Hicks, from the Mingus Big Band, even though she suspected (correctly) that he might be a drug user. (My parents were very L-7 about drugs and sex.) She had an accompanist named Patrick, who'd play piano alongside her.
About six months before she died (more or less), my mom moved out of their house in New Jersey and into Manhattan, leaving my dad behind. I was furious at her, but in retrospect, it was the best thing she could've done. For the first time she had only herself to worry about. She played out more often. She dabbled in weird self-help cults. She got more confident and started to lose weight. We were even getting along better—that April she gave me Albert, a retarded little cockatiel, for my birthday.
Then one day I was at work and she called, wondering what I thought she should do—she'd just coughed up a blood clot. I told her to go to a doctor immediately, though I didn't think it would turn out to be such a big deal. But the doctor put her in the hospital, suspecting TB. She was so upset because we'd have to wear gowns and masks when we visited. This was around Memorial Day weekend.
Within a a day or two, they figured out that it wasn't TB. On the upside, no more gowns and masks. But the downside was far worse.
The news kept getting more horrible and my memory is a little fuzzy because I was pretty much in shock this entire time and it was two decades ago. They found out it was lung cancer, but during a cat scan, she noticed that they didn't stop the scanner at the lungs. I remember her telling me the doctors conferred and the scanner kept moving downwards. She was scared out of her mind. It turned out to be kidney cancer that had spread up into her lungs.
Beth Israel (her hospital) was a few blocks from my office—I was managing editor at High Times back then—and living on the Upper East Side with my then-boyfriend, Lou. Never the most nurturing guy, Lou was pretty useless during this difficult time. There was one night when I was particularly sad and scared and so I was laying in bed, crying. Lou sighed and asked why. I confessed that I was terrified that my mom was going to die. Then I started crying even harder because I'd actually said "dying" out loud. His answer: "I don't know what you expect me to do about that."
It was just a dumb guy thing to say—men always want to fix everything and there was no fixing this—but it really stuck with me, obviously. BECAUSE I CAN HOLD A GRUDGE LIKE IT'S GOT A HANDLE!
The next few weeks were just one awful hit after another. Because she was so close to my office, I would go to the hospital at lunch and bring food, trying to get her to eat something. My dad moved into my mom's apartment and was there every day and night too, along with my brothers and sisters. My dad even covered for her at work, since he knew how to do her job.
Finally, there was a surgery, which took an impossibly long time. Luckily, my mom's boss's wife was a doctor at the hospital and kept going into the operating room and reporting back with progress reports. They were in there for something like 12 hours and removed 10 pounds of tumor. It had apparently stretched from her kidney up through her torso and wrapped around her heart. They said if they'd known it was that extensive, they never would've done the surgery.
But since they had done the surgery and taken out a tumor the size of a cat, I stupidly thought it meant everything would be okay. I mean, the cancer was gone, right? It was in some medical waste bin, right? Not exactly.
They hadn't been able to do anything about the tumors in her lungs because that would mean cutting off her air supply, so they hoped to shrink them with chemotherapy.
I'm not really clear on the chronology, but my mom had a long-standing gig at Danny's Skylight Room that she was devastated she was going to miss. So her doctor told her she could have the weekend "off" from the hospital in order to go perform. We were all worried because the tumors were making her cough a lot, but she was determined to do the show.
I'm starting to cry as I write this, because I'm so happy she went through with it. Friends from Rochester came down to see her, as did some family members from Philly. One of the sweetest things was that a bunch of guys from the homeless shelter my parents volunteered at showed up and were so excited to see her sing. They were seriously the best audience anyone could ever hope to have. My mom performed beautifully and didn't cough once until the show was over. I remember feeling so relieved she hadn't coughed because although nobody else would've minded, I know it would've really upset her. We were all so incredibly proud.
Then it was back to the hospital.
A couple weird things happened soon after.
Lou was out in Queens staying with his mom, because she was sick, and so I'd pulled the futon into our living room because it was so hot in the bedroom. So this one morning, I felt something tickling my forehead. I brushed it off, still half asleep. Then I felt something on my arm. And then another something. I jolted awake and saw thousands of fat black flies, covering me and the white sheets of the futon. They were in my hair. They were everywhere.Thousands of big, fat, black, slow-moving flies. It was like Amityville Horror on the Upper East Side.
I jumped up, screaming my face off. I slapped them off me and when I felt more land on my head and shoulders, I looked up to see that the light fixture was teeming with them, covering every centimeter of the glass. I grabbed the vacuum and started sucking them up, crying like a loon the whole time. Then I went into a panic and decided that it was a sign that my mom had died. I freaked out, but managed to get hold of my dad. She was sleeping peacefully.
Soon after that, I had a horrible nightmare. I'm used to having scary dreams, but this one seemed so real. In it, I was standing by my mom's bedside, talking to her, when her mouth got really huge and came at me, like it was going to swallow me whole. It woke me out of a dead sleep, determined to apologize to her for my part in our shitshow of a relationship.
I'd always tried to get my mom to admit that she beat me and she never would. This made me mental. She would insist that she never used belts or other implements, only her hands, therefore, it wasn't a beating. Nor had I ever been bruised, cut, or needed to be hospitalized, so again, not a beating. One of my sister's first memories is of me screaming as my mom beat the crap out of me. I was probably three. It was a beating.
This dream (I still don't understand the metaphor) convinced me that it didn't matter if she admitted she hurt me. We both knew she had, but I had to apologize for my part in it. I went to her room that day and said I was sorry for having been a bad kid. While she still didn't acknowledge the extent of her abuse, she apologized too, for not having been a better mom. Not exactly the kind of closure you see on the Lifetime Channel, but good enough for me.
It's jarring to see the way people treat you when you're diagnosed with cancer. I mean, I got fired from one of my jobs, writing for a lady blog, two days after I had cancer surgery. I don't know that the two were connected, but the timing was weird. Some of my friends refused to discuss it, brushing off my concerns, saying I'd be fine. And this was for a tiny melanoma on my ankle. Even though you can't really pass it around, cancer is a bummer and some people can't handle a little second-hand rain on their parade, so a lot of people just weren't there for my mom.
But disappearing altogether was better than the well-meaning morons who'd give her new age books and advice about improving her attitude, implying that she'd brought on her own cancer. She was extremely hurt that her brother never showed up even though he lived only a couple hours away in Philadelphia. (DEAD TO ME!!!)
My mom was supposed to come home from the hospital on the day she died.The sister who thinks I murdered our mom called me on a Sunday, flipping out because she'd tried to call my mom's room and kept getting hung up on. My sister was in San Francisco, so I booked down to the hospital to see what was going on, because I couldn't get through either. My mom had gone into some sort of arrest or something.
There were no cellphones then, so I was trying to track down the rest of my family as best I could via payphones. It seemed that one of the tumors had moved into her windpipe. They were trying to get oxygen into her. She went into intensive care.
My mother's friends weren't the only ones who got weird around her disease. Her doctor, a woman named Nadesan, had started off really nice. But as the prognosis got worse, she started to make herself scarce. My mom's surgeon was amazing. I know surgeons have this reputation for being cold fish, but he was sweet and empathetic. Couldn't have asked for a kinder doctor. Eventually my mom stabilized and I went home to sleep.
The next morning I got a call from Dr. Nadesan. Because my parents were separated, I had to make her medical decisions. Dr. Nadesan told me that if my mom didn't have surgery immediately, she'd die that day. Did I want her to have surgery?
OF FUCKING COURSE I DID! She made it seem like they were going to go right into the operating room, so I asked for a prediction on when they might be done. She told me by 11am. I called my dad and everyone else and we made plans to meet at the hospital around 11am. When I got there, my mom was still in ICU.
I asked the nurse when the surgery was happening. She looked confused. There was nothing on the schedule, she explained. I started to flip out, because I had been told if there wasn't any surgery, my mom was going to suffocate to death. I explained this to the very uncomfortable-looking doctor on staff, and asked them to page Dr. Nadesan. But she wouldn't pick up her phone or call back and they weren't authorized to tell us anything.
So we sat in the waiting room and waited. You really don't know terror/stress/horror until you've sat in a hard hospital chair, waiting for your mother to die, depending on a doctor WHO WON'T CALL YOU BACK to tell you what's going on.
There was another terrified family in the room with us, eating some kind of smelly food. It was stifling and their food was making me sick, but of course you don't say anything because they're in as much pain as you are and if they want to eat some shit, that's their prerogative.
My friend Sarah was a hospice nurse at Beth Israel and came to see me. Somehow, she managed to track down Dr. Nadesan's home phone number and called to see why my mom hadn't been operated on. She asked Dr. Nadesan to come in and explain the situation to us, because nobody else was allowed to do so, as she was the primary care physician.
Dr. Nadesan was not happy to get a call from a nurse and after threatening to have her fired, she told Sarah, "I told THAT GIRL everything she needed to know when I spoke with her this morning."
Twenty years later and I still want to punch her in the throat for that one.
Sarah knew my mom didn't have much longer to live and so went into hospice nurse mode. I will never forget how kind she was on the most horrible day of my life. Sarah gently explained that I needed to tell my mom that it was okay if she left us. That everyone would be okay. That she wouldn't be in any more pain and everyone would be taken care of. She told me that even though my mom was unconscious, hearing is the last sense to go, so I could still talk to her. It took me a couple hours to work up the nerve to say those things, but I did.
Then I just couldn't take anymore and I left. I know this sounds heartless, but I went out to a tearful dinner with my boyfriend and then went back to my apartment. A few minutes after I walked in the door, my brother Jake called and told me that our mom had passed.
I don't expect that anyone else has read this far. It's the longest thing I've written (besides a book), in ages and I don't even know if the chronology makes sense. I'm sure I have facts wrong, but this is how I remember things. I didn't include a lot of interactions with my family, for privacy reasons. Though we didn't have a Hallmark relationship, I loved my mom and I miss her every day.