Friday, December 30, 2016

My mom would be 100

My Mom n the 1950s. She hated this photo.
One hundred years ago today, my mother was born. That fact is just as surreal to me as my dad’s 100th birthday in February was. On the one hand, I can intellectually accept that I’m the product of people born a century ago, but on the other, that seems impossible: They were in their 60s the last time I saw them. But, then, I was 20-21, so clearly a lot of time has passed since then.

When I’ve written about my mother’s birthday in past years, I’ve included anecdotes and stories about her, and all of those have been basically positive. In last year’s post, I said that “there are other stories, maybe darker ones, that tell other things about her, and about me,” and I intended to tell some of those in that post, then didn’t. I wasn’t ready, mainly because I also wasn’t quite in the right frame of mind, having been sick earlier that week.

That mattered because my having been sick, and needing to write a post for her birthday, collided in what would have been a darker story: My mother had a problem with illness.

This post is basically an edited version of the post I didn’t publish last year. Having re-read it, I think it provides a fuller picture of who my mother was, and, besides, having talked about my father’s childhood challenges in his birthday post, some balance makes sense.

When my mother was a little girl, she came down with one of those childhood diseases that at the time could be deadly, but that now are easily prevented with vaccination. I don’t remember which disease it was, but she told me years later that as she was recovering, she played with her somewhat older brother and her younger brother. I’m not clear if they were already sick or became sick, but either way, they died from disease. She blamed herself for this throughout her life.

My Mom, ca 1940. My dad took the photo.
I didn’t realise it as a kid, but she was a barely adequate nurse when I got sick. She was reluctant to be around me too much, nor to tend to me, which I thought was just because she was annoyed that I was being too demanding. I later found out that she hated it when we kids got sick, and sometimes even got panicky. For her, every time we kids got sick, she revisited her guilt over her brothers, and nursing us, even taking care of necessary tasks, stirred it up again and again.

My dad was often a better nurse than my mother was, though he often seemed annoyed, too, for other reasons—maybe that my mother wasn’t a better nurse? I’ll never know.

As I got older, I got sick less often, and this became less of an issue. But when I was still in university, she herself became sick with cancer. My father died suddenly about the same time, so I took time off from school and became her primary caregiver for the last months of her life. That meant blending food for her feeding bag, changing her adult nappies (diapers) and washing her. She was rarely conscious the last months of her life.

I long ago blocked most of my memories of those months and that work, so over the years I’ve often wondered if I was annoyed as I took care of her. Was I displaying the behaviour that had been modelled to me when I was younger? I can’t know the answer to that.

And yet, I remember certain things. I read that lecithin helped with brain function, so I sprinkled a little lecithin powder in her formula in the hope she might stay conscious, and she might fight the disease. I didn’t know that vegetable lecithin didn’t help in that way, but eventually stopped when it obviously did no good.

I also put a fish tank in her bedroom so that she could have something living to see and watch when she was awake. The light on the tank provided a nightlight, and the gurgling was a soothing sound. That eventually became pointless, too, but I kept up the attempt pretty much until the end.

When she died, I was adrift, not knowing what to do or where to go. I went back to my university and completed my degree. I came out, and started to find a place for myself in what was a much more hostile world than I’d anticipated. I stumbled far more often than anyone ever knew, sometimes fell very hard, and I made some colossally stupid decisions as I struggled just to survive—and I survived. I didn’t know where the strength came from.

Things eventually got better, and in time they got great, but that led eventually to a stark realisation: My mother had to die so that I could live.

Had my mother survived, I would have stayed in my hometown to look after her, and nothing else in my life would have turned out even remotely the way it did. Much the same probably would have happened if my father hadn’t died, because I would have ended up looking after the both of them in some way.

My Mom in her Confirmation
photo, ca 1930.
Not having my parents to fall back on was a huge problem many times in my young adulthood, but the reality is that only because I had nothing holding me, no one depending on me, I was able to get on with life, and that led me to where I am now.

Years later, I realised that this is what they prepared me for—not literally, of course. They wanted me to be strong, resilient and independent, and they succeeded. My mother’s persistence in the face of her family tragedies ended up making me resilient, too.

I know I didn’t appreciate all that in the darkest times of my young adulthood, but I do now: My mother made me strong.

SO, when I look at old photos of my mother, like those with this post, I often see sadness in her eyes. I know why it was there, because of her childhood and other things, but I also see something else: A survivor.

By the time the cancer took her, she’d fought a long war, first with life, then her disease. My siblings were launched in life by then, and I was well into university. She knew we’d all be okay. She was right, of course—she’d seen to that.

In her own way, my mother taught us (well, me—I haven’t talked about this with my siblings) to be strong and resilient. It’s served me well. Add this to the long list of things my parents gave to me, things that help me to this day.

Happy 100th birthday, Mom. And, thanks.

Tears of a clown
– one of my favourite posts about my mother

Previous years’ birthday posts:
Mom at 99 (2015)
Remembering my mother (2014)
Mom’s birthday (2013)
Mom’s treasure (2012)
Remembering birthdays (2011)
That time of year (2009)
Memories and words (2008)


rogerogreen said...

Extraordinarily interesting. Reminds me of the last time I really ever saw my mother, other than the day before she died.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

Thanks. To be honest, I was still unsure if I should "go there", even after I clicked "publish".