I woke early on Christmas morning to a dream of my mother. She was lumbering down a narrow alley wearing a hefty coat. All around her were pillars of concrete block infilled with giant industrial windows divided into dozens of black-framed mullions. She was only a silhouette, yet there was no mistaking her. She raised her heavy arm. I could not discern if she held a mallet or a hammer or just a clenched fist. She struck at the windows, pane after pane, breaking the glass. In the instant before I came full awake I was confused – was she was trying to get in or trying to get out?
My mother died in June this year after what I like to describe as the perfect death. My brother found her struggling in her apartment one afternoon. He took her to emergency, they diagnosed an array of system failures, transported her to hospice and after eight days she was gone. No extended lingering; just enough time for the family to rally and pay respects. A month before she died my mother had been on a vacation with her cousins, two days before my brother found her she had been shopping at Target. My mother was well prepared for death and fortunate that it fell so swiftly
I was fortunate as well. I had been to Denver in late May and had a lovely afternoon with her. My sister and two brothers stood vigil the entire time she was in hospice; I did not feel compelled to go. When I returned for her funeral my sister asked me to do the eulogy, a welcome opportunity to reflect and compose and send mom off in a wobbly, tearful voice. All nine of us were there – the five siblings and four spouses. We spent two days sitting around eating and talking and reliving ancient particulars. When I flew home I felt at peace with my mother’s passing.
Mom has a healthy presence in my life these days. Traces of her laughing, the scent of her housecoat, her morning songs, all pass fluidly in my mind. My children and I talk about her with ease, always in fun. Her liberal spirit and family dedication don’t get as much attention as the tales of her terrible cooking and horrific gift-giving, but that seems only right in a family where sarcasm has always been the supreme sign of affection. Fallon’s are not constituted to deify the dead. Occasionally I miss her – she was my go-to girl when I craved idle phone chat – but mostly she pops in and out of mind with a welcome, cheery countenance.
Abby resurrected the Christmas gift my mother gave her last year from the Goodwill box in the basement to wear to an ‘ugly sweater’ party. She danced around the dining room in the mauve polyester track jacket festooned with a blurry procession of reindeer. “I could never give this sweater away! It’s so bad that it’s good. Besides, it’s the last present Grandma gave me.” To which I replied, “No wonder mom had to die – she reached the epitome of bad presents and had nowhere else to go.” We laughed to convulsion.
In wakeful moments my mother is comforting as milk and cookies but grieving demands more sustenance than sweets can offer; we have to swallow gruel before it can be satisfied.
Revised truth, my mother’s death was not easy. Her final system failure was a leaking aortic aneurysm, a lingering, painful way to go. Hospice plied her with morphine upon morphine to stem the pain, but the drugs loosed my mother’s strict composure and she spent her final days in an agitated soup of regret and recrimination. We can pretend that my mother on drugs wasn’t really my mother, but all of that stuff about our father, about us, about her failures and unsatisfied dreams, that all came from somewhere.
Revised truth, despite trying to keep it light, I have grieved more than the passing of ugly sweaters. The summer was a blur; I grew absent-minded, I took naps, time passed unacknowledged. I couldn’t understand why; my mother had not been an active part of my life for over thirty years, until I realized that understanding was not the point. The point is to accept. The body and the mind take the time they need to accept, even if that time is not consciously given.
In the Fall I read The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wells. Actually I consumed it. The family she portrays may have been more troubled than my own, but the dance of dysfunction and devotion between her two beautiful, damaged, narcissistic parents is the tale of my growing up. I cried page after page. I was happy to find someone who described the wonder and the hell of it with such accuracy. I was comforted, but also saddened, to know that others had persevered a grueling childhood and emerged strong. The book was a catharsis. All the years of adventure and uncertainty, of parents behaving as children and children forced to behave as adults, are behind me now. My mother and father’s drama has played itself out in this life. All that is left is sorting it out, itself a considerable task.
Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, bore on me like a steamroller. Last year my mother was with us, with my aunt and my children and my cousins. It was a worthy feast. This year we were only nine, two of them friends of friends I had never met. I slogged through the preparation. My sister called, ever astute, and reminded me how often my mother travelled to Cambridge for Thanksgiving, how mom was wrapped in that holiday for me. People arrived, the food was delicious, the conversation lively. We toasted mom. More people came for dessert. It wasn’t the same without her, but I got through it. People say it will be easier next year. Perhaps, though I make no assumptions.
On December 9, the morning after my mother’s birthday, I woke to a different dream. I was in the room I grew up in New Jersey, the room with the baseball wallpaper that I shared with my brothers. I was grown, the time was the present. My mother was dead, laid out on the bottom bunk bed and I was tending her. In the dream I had been tending her for some time. She had been dead for weeks and I was holding her captive in my boyhood room. I had not told anyone she was dead. I was keeping her for myself.
I spend about as much time with my mother in death as I did in life. And just as in life, most of our time together is good; some of it hurts. Is my mother breaking windows in death to escape the constraints of the life she lived on earth? Am I keeping her captive in my room to claim time I craved as a boy? These yearnings will never be satisfied for either of us. I cannot control the weird dreams and unrequited longings that will pop up for the rest of my days. But when my spirits are keen and I can appreciate the value of good intention no matter how well executed, that’s when I remember mom in her glory; a terrible cook who longed to nurture, a purveyor of bad gifts who loved to bestow them, a woman with the most generous smile and the sweetest laugh who tried, to her dying day, to be the best mother she could.