I’d been feeling a trifle melancholy all weekend and couldn’t figure out why until I realized that today is my mother’s birthday. She’d have been 63, and has been gone nearly twelve years. Sometimes it seems like forever, and sometimes it seems like yesterday.
Mom was a piece of work – I’ll never understand how my very prim and proper grandparents managed to produce her. In many ways, she reminded me a great deal of my grandmother’s older half-sister (a woman worthy of a great many posts of her own) – tough, brash, and independent. Never one to mince words or hide her feelings, you always knew where you stood with Mom. If she was pleased, she’d carry on about it until the cows came home; if she was displeased you’d not only know it, you’d know damn well WHY.
Mom was always ready to get on with the next phase of her life, and that caused her some problems, especially as a teenager and young adult. She ran off and married my father (an extraordinarily handsome and charming man from a well-to-do family, but who had serious problems with alcohol and, later in life, drugs) when she was 16; I was born when she was 17. They’d separated by the time I was two, and my mother left me in the care of my tough, brash, independent great-aunt for the better part of a year while she went to New Orleans. I’m not entirely sure why she went, or what she did there – she didn’t elaborate when she told me after I became an adult – but for some reason my parents reconciled and my mother reclaimed me. While I was never privy to the details of my parents’ reconciliation, my mother did tell me that my father made an effort to get his act together, and when I was 5 1/2, Whacky-But-Lovable Sister was born.
Six months later, Mom contracted viral encephalitis after suffering from a bad kidney infection. She probably wouldn’t have gotten nearly as ill as she did if her immune system hadn’t been compromised, but she quickly fell into a coma that lasted three weeks. I don’t remember a great deal of what followed, but I do remember that my sister and I were sent to stay with my maternal grandparents, and I remember my father’s awkard attempt to explain that yes, my mother might die.
Needless to say, she didn’t die – in fact, she recovered far more rapidly than the doctors expected and was out of the hospital within three weeks of recovering from the coma. She was not the same person, though; the swelling in her brain caused not only blindness in one eye, but personality changes as well. Always charismatic and forthright, Mom became nearly brutal in her bluntness. I’ve had more than one person tell me she never quite the same after her illness.
It effected my father as well; it was apparently too much for him and he gave up any attempts at responsibility or sobriety. They muddled on, though, and less than a year later my only brother was born. He was a little over a year old when my father disappeared for several months; I imagine my mother was frantic, although she didn’t show it to us. She went to work and, struggling to make ends meet, met another man. When my father showed up once more, many months later, Mom left. Without us.
It was a misguided attempt to force my father into taking some responsibility for his children, and it did not work. After leaving us with various relatives, none of whom could afford to take care of three small children, my father remanded us to an orphanage and put us up for adoption. As soon as Mom found out, she came back for us, but although my father could not legally put us up for adoption without my mother’s permission, the orphanage would not release us to her. After several months, my mother and grandmother more or less kidnapped the three of us when we were released for an afternoon visit. Not one of us had so much as a change of clothes.
Mom was also several months pregnant when she reclaimed us, and took us to Houston to live with the man she’d met while my father had been gone. My youngest sister’s father was not a bad man, but he also was not ready for the responsibility of a family and abandoned us before his daughter was born. We went to live with my mother’s brother after that, and when my baby sister was a year old, my mother met and married my stepfather.
Mom never was very good at judging men. I guess the kindest thing that can be said about my stepfather is that he stuck around until Mom was 40 before he left her. Mom liked to say, “When I turned 40, he decided he wanted to trade me in for two 20s – he just didn’t realized he wasn’t wired for two 20s.” It turned out that was the best thing that could have happened to her, because she just decided she’d had enough.
Her fortieth birthday seemed to be the turning point – she embraced independence, dated around a little and opened her own business. It was a moderate success and for the next 6 years she did what so many of us do in midlife: she became her own person. Happy, independent, confident. She even met a decent man who doted on her.
The year she was 46, she began suffering from a constant nagging pain in her back. Since her illness when I was young, she’d never really liked or trusted doctors and avoided them whenever possible, but it got so bad that she finally broke down and went to see one. The diagnosis was a muscle spasm, and she was prescribed pain relievers and muscle relaxers. They didn’t help much, if at all, but the doctor stood by the diagnosis. Several weeks later she was home alone with my youngest sister, who was barely 20 at the time, when the pain became so unbearable she simply began screaming. My sister called my grandmother, who insisted that she call an ambulance. By the time the ambulance arrived, Mom was no longer in pain and tried to send the paramedics away, but my sister (who, understandably, was very frightened) convinced her to go to the hospital.
It was a good thing she did, because Mom suffered an aortal anyeurism that had burst and she was slowly bleeding to death internally. Emergency surgery repaired it, but Mom’s health suffered from that moment on, especially because she refused to quit smoking. Five years later, she had a massive heart attack and died in the living room of her condominium.
Mom and I weren’t on good terms when she died; I was making a vain attempt at working things out with The Young One’s father, whom she didn’t approve of. I have several regrets in my life, and one of them is that Mom isn’t here to see me now. I like to think she’d approve of what I’ve done with my life in the more than 10 years since she died – that she’d be happy with me. I wish she could be here to see her many grandchildren – Oldest Son, who was her oldest grandchild, was 13 when she died, and The Young One, who (at the time) was her youngest, was not even 2. In between were three granddaughters and two other grandsons, and she never saw my brother’s children at all. She probably would have been both amused and appalled to not only have ten granchildren, but three great-grandchildren; I don’t think the possiblity ever quite occurred to her. Of course, when you’re 51, it rarely does.
I miss her.