I’m half an orphan now. Maybe I’m being dramatic, but goddamn it my mother died last week and I now feel as if my umbilicus was ripped out by its roots and I’m floating, unanchored and adrift. Motherless. I hate this feeling. I know it will change, and I knew my mom would die some day (right? we know this?) but OMFG I had no idea how it would feel.
Let me tell you about my mom. Jane.
Jane was born during the Great Depression, the younger child of Clarence and Bea. They lived in a Chicago suburb, next door to Jane’s aunt and uncle, constantly surrounded by cousins and family. Lazy riverside summers. Backyard chickens. Jane adored her father. Clarence sold tires for a living and was a handy guy — he made a wee cart for Jane’s puppy, Pepper, to ride in. Beatrice taught special education and wore her hair in an elegant chignon. Her handwriting was neat and rounded. In those days they forced lefties to write right-handed, so Bea could only print after that indignity. Jane was left-handed too. Maybe that’s why she was such an amazing piano player.
Piano. Jane’s high school graduation gift from Clarence and Bea was a stunning Kimball upright. When I was growing up, sometimes in the evenings after a glass or two of wine she’d bring out the Chopin and the Rachmaninoff and the Schubert and music filled the house. She could have been a concert pianist, she was that good. Or maybe she could have sung in the opera, her mezzo soprano was that good.
Then Jane met Gordon.
They were 17. The first week at Cornell College (Iowa) for both of them. Tall Gordon, with nearly-black hair and dimples when he smiled, must have been devastating. They were married in their Junior year. 1955. Gordon wore a white dinner jacket. Jane wore a dress like Elizabeth Taylor’s in Father of the Bride. They were married nearly 25 years.
Jane loved animals. Two years ago when my brother and I were helping her go through her tiny house and scrape months of accumulated kitten poop off her carpet and wade though years of unopened mail and bills, she came out of her bedroom clutching a photo album. My brother and I hauled trash bags and sorted mail, but Mom pored over the photos that her mother Beatrice had lovingly placed there for her so many years before. These were photos from Jane’s childhood, photos I had never seen. We sat for an hour and looked at them together. She couldn’t remember the names of the people, but oh, the animals! Jane was especially tickled by a photo of her pudgy six year old self, handfuls of kittens draped down her arms. Animals were her thing. There was a little dog, Skippy, when I was very young but later we had cats and then more cats. Two by two they showed up at our house (ark?) until we had six and then some of the six had kittens. And the horses. One, two and finally three of them. And barn cats. And a barn dog, Skeeter, who appeared one day in our back yard, and no amount of substituting vodka for that dogs water could make it go away (I tried)(not a Dog Person). Jane would have her animals, come hell or high water (one of her phrases).
Jane got scared (my theory) of failing at piano playing or singing, so she became a teacher. In those days, what could women do? Be a teacher. Be a nurse. Be a secretary. Gak. She was MY teacher in the 4th grade. That was weird. She told me later that she graded me harder than anyone else so no one could accuse her of playing favorites. Jane wanted to make a difference. Those kids in Pittsburgh in the late 1950’s who came to school in bare feet and who lived in houses with DIRT FLOORS, for those kids she felt she made a difference. The other ones, the entitled little middle class shits in our San Francisco suburb, those kids called teachers names and the parents made excuses and blamed the teachers. So she quit after 20 years of teaching and divorced my dad and moved to a little house on the edge of town and married a guy in jail for murder and tried pot and took up smoking cigarettes with her nightly white wine poured from a big green glass jug.
We talked on the phone every week for years and years. She asked about my kids. She listened to my fears and triumphs and cheered me on. She had two hip replacement operations and a knee replacement. Wouldn’t let me come out to help her, so I called every day and cringed to hear the pain in her voice. I think she wanted to spare me the worry. She came from a time when moms were stoic like that.
I didn’t see the signs until much later, but they were there. Christmas gifts to me and my family became things she ordered through the mail, products of late-night infomercials. I stopped phoning her after 6pm her time because her voice slurred too much from the wine, and sometimes she cried. She talked about her kitties a lot, and nature. Trees and animals. She became increasingly distraught and paranoid about her job (customer service for industrial sales), telling me that people were ganging up on her, and finally they fired her. I offered suggestions. I thought she had been treated unfairly and could fight back. She wouldn’t let me help. Out of frustration, I disconnected. Didn’t call for more than a year. I am so, so sorry I did that.
In October 2010, I drove through California where Jane lived. Hadn’t talked to her in more than a year, but I had an intuition to check on her. She wouldn’t answer the door. Scared, I called the police. She finally opened the door. Didn’t want me to come in. She was hiding something. Two months before, I had training to be a hospice volunteer and an entire day was spent on Alzheimer’s and dementia, so when I stepped in her house I knew what I was looking at.
Cats and kittens and stacks of papers and cat poop everywhere. There was nowhere to sit. Post-It notes covered the kitchen cabinets, desperately scribbled notes, names, phone numbers. The smell made me gag. I tried not to show alarm, and convinced her to get in my car and go to lunch with me while I assessed her condition. She proudly told me she had quit smoking and drinking. She joked with the waiter but couldn’t figure out the straw in her iced tea. There was no food in the refrigerator, just a half-thawed frozen dinner.
The last time I saw Jane, at the end of 2010, I had The Talk with her. While my brother scraped kitten poop off Mom’s carpet, I told her we thought she had Alzheimer’s disease.
She was terrified. Her mother had Alzheimer’s. Beatrice’s end was so hard for Jane. She never talked about it, but the wall of fluttering Post-Its told a story of a woman trying to hang on.
“Mom, I learned about this. I hear that for the person going through it, it’s actually pretty fun. You’ll get to a place where you don’t mind not remembering.” Her eyes lit up. A weight lifted. And that’s how it went down. She moved to an assisted living home and after a week it was like she left the whole weight of her life behind her to become the carefree Jane she was always meant to be.
We didn’t know about the cancer. 30 years of alcoholism. 30 years of smoking. 30 years of being married to a guy who would never ever get out of prison. I’m sure they all took a toll, and in the end they claimed her. It happened fast. The day before Jane died, my brother held the phone to her ear and I told her how much I loved her and that she was a really good mom.
That night I felt Jane’s hands on my shoulders, giving me a massage. I felt the texture of her skin on her fingers. She wore a mustard-colored turtleneck sweater that contrasted beautifully with the long straight brown hair and cat eye glasses she wore at age 37 when we rode horses and she was thin and young and beautiful. I think that’s how she wants to be remembered.