where the writers are
Homage to An Unsentimental Mother
bibliomaniac
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books
My mother in 1955

  Mother’s Day was more of a rumor than a reality when I was growing up. I heard friends talk about cards and flowers and going out to brunch but it wasn’t something we did at my house.  It’s not that I didn’t have a mother at home -- I did. But she and my father did not believe in Hallmark card expressions of filial devotion  -- Father’s Day was also a nonstarter -- and they scoffed at anything that smacked of sentimentality.

Part of a group of forward-thinking young liberals in Washington D.C. in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, my mother prided herself on having left the tenets and traditions of her past behind.  Although she’d grown up in a politically conservative, Catholic family who prided themselves on their family connections (Daughters of the American Revolution, various illustrious ancestors), my mother had gone off to Sarah Lawrence and recreated herself as a modern, secular woman devoted to a “life of the mind.” Mother’s Day was just a manufactured tradition, she scoffed, a product of our consumerist culture.

For years, I accepted this interpretation. Until I married a man whose mother was the opposite of mine; every occasion, big or small, was an excuse for a present or a card, filled with flowery sentiments.  Raised in that tradition, my husband naturally taught our two daughters to make a big deal out of Mother’s Day. And so, in my thirties, I found myself part of the Mother’s Day brunch brigade, clutching my flowers and homemade cards at some nice restaurant table, dressed in my springtime best.

I loved every minute of it. I never found these rituals trite or clichéd; I found them touching and exotic. Like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July must feel to foreigners celebrating these occasions for the first time.

            It was during these early years of motherhood, that my mother’s Parkinson’s disease grew markedly worse and she began to talk about wanting to end her life on her “own terms.” She’d been in a Parkinson’s support group and had seen first hand how bad things could get for some people, and she was determined not to end up “incapacitated and incontinent.” At first my two sisters and I did not take her seriously, but after she joined the Hemlock Society and asked me for help in procuring a lethal dose of Seconal, we began to suspect that she might indeed go through with it.

            For over a year, my mother talked of little else. True to form, she spent little energy inquiring how my sisters and I might feel about her committing suicide but would call up and matter of factly ask  --“I was thinking about ending things on April first. Would that work for you?” – and insist I check my calendar. These conversations, which invariably happened just as I was cooking dinner or getting my daughters ready for school, were both maddening and distressing.

            By the spring of 2001, I was flying to Washington D.C. from my home on the West Coast every three or four weeks and worrying nonstop about my mother’s increasingly serious suicide plans. Finding myself at home a few days before Mother’s Day, I did something I had never done: I sent my mother a bouquet of flowers -- with a card.  On it, I told her that I loved her and wished her a happy Mother’s Day.  It felt both right and vaguely transgressive and I had no idea what she would make of it,

            “You know, I never thought I cared about things like this,” she said, sounding a bit amazed when she called to thank me. “But I realize that I do!”

            “And to think, you could have been getting flowers all these years,” I teased.

            “Yes, I suppose you’re right,” she laughed. “I guess you’re never too old to learn something about yourself.”

            Two months later, my mother stopped eating and drinking. Eleven days later, she died.  She chose fasting, in part, so that my sisters and I could be there with her at the end without having to worry about the legal consequences.

My mother remained remarkably cheerful throughout this time. I think she was relieved to have the dying process finally underway. “I’ve had a good life,” she told me, sternly. “And I’m not sorry to go.”

Our conversations while she was fasting were the usual -- blunt, funny and argumentative. Later, my older sister and I would joke about how it took having my mother in a coma to be able to hold her hand and unabashedly tell her how much we loved her. But long before the morphine and the lack of food caught up with her, I was also able to say a number of loving, sentimental things to her, like what a great mother she’d been, and how much I would miss her. Things I had never said before.

I guess you’re never too old to learn something about yourself.

 

(This piece appeared in The San Francicso Chronicle on May 9, 2010.)