“ … a feeling deep in your soul
Says you are half … “
There was a time when I had dreams, infrequently but strikingly, that my mother had died. These occurred some years ago when I did not talk to her very regularly or see her often. Then she was living in Philadelphia and still ably getting on with her life after having been widowed for a second time. I do not know why I had such dreams, always vivid, but they disturbed me greatly as I found it difficult to imagine my own life without my last living parent, but also felt that perhaps it is better she should die sooner than later. It is funny that parents surely think and hope their children will outlive them, but children think their parents will always be a fixture in the world. But then I wondered what if my mother lived too long. Is that not possible? For someone to live too long? What if I had to take care of her in her old age? And worse still, what if I did not want to? I sensed terror in those dreams but relief too, as they were, alas, just dreams.
I thought, simplistically enough, that the dreams were induced by guilt because I did not see or communicate with her sufficiently, that she did not seem very important to me. Since I was acting, in effect, as if, for the most part, I did not have a mother, my unconscious smote me with my foul desire of getting rid of her. That was my line of thinking for a time. But if it was an uncertain question that the dreams were induced by guilt, it was a certainty they always evoked it: I would call my mother after having such a dream to make sure she was all right, something I was sure to be assured of, because in those days, I would hardly have been kept in the dark for long at all if she were not. I could always feel a frequency in the air that she was fine and, in that sense, the calls were superfluous. She was always glad to hear from me but not ecstatically so. She did not seem put out that she had not heard from me for a while and sometimes wondered out loud why I called. Was I just checking to see if she was alive? That stung a bit. It was not unusual for her to cut the conversations short. Her responses were usually tinged with a sort of hardy indifference. It was her way of telling me not to get sentimental and to give her her space. Do not be too attentive as a son and become some kind of pseudo-son. I got the message; subtlety not being one of my mother’s strong suits.
She was always glad to hear from me but not ecstatically so. She did not seem put out that she had not heard from me for a while and sometimes wondered out loud why I called. Was I just checking to see if she was alive? That stung a bit. It was not unusual for her to cut the conversations short.
Now, I am fairly sure that guilt, at least by itself, does not explain why, when I was in my late 40s and early 50s, I went through this period of dreaming of my mother’s death. I think the dreams reflected fear of my own mortality as after all I was then middle-aged and had arrived at the point where I had lived more years than what I could reasonably expect to have left. I realized I was running out of life, another kind of terror that could only be compensated for by the fact that my mother must be running out faster still. I had come to accept the biological logic as justice that parents should die before their children. Besides, a filial hubris informed me that no matter how upsetting I could bear her death far better than she could bear mine.
On the other hand, the dreams may have been afflicted with homesickness too or a certain sense that home, whatever that was, was irrevocably unavailable to me in any kind of way. Maybe I was angry about that, unsettled. It was funny how I would awake from these dreams feeling, among other things, very much like a rootless person, an exile, for lack of a better word, bloodless. My mother gave me a sense of having a right place as a child; but this lasted for a rather short time in my life, or the life of any child. After a point, growing up becomes a process of losing your parents, or for me a process of losing my mother. Some mothers may try to disguise this but my mother never did. Far from wanting to retain the mystique, the sentimentalism of a special bond of intimacy because she was my mother, she was fond of revealing, of unveiling the temporal nature of it all. “You don’t owe me anything,” she would tell me over and over as a child, “You didn’t ask to be born.” Did her mother say this to her? Did she believe this because in the hubris of her own youth she could easily afford to say it? As an adult, I was so convinced of her sincerity in saying this that I could only conclude that, hard-headed realist that she was, she was actually naïve. At any rate, in this way, my mother ceased to be my mother in any way where I could fully understand our relationship or in any way I could fully understand her. We were not ever estranged, there was never a time we were “out” with each other; we just reached a point where we stopped trying to know each other, thought there was nothing left or nothing worth knowing or we just unable to know each other, really. Perhaps this happens to all children and their mothers. She got to the point in her middle age, surely, where she did not need a son, whatever that was. Of course, she does need a son now and takes it for granted that I understand that but I must find out how do I need my mother now, whatever that ever was?
After a point, growing up becomes a process of losing your parents, or for me a process of losing my mother. Some mothers may try to disguise this but my mother never did. Far from wanting to retain the mystique, the sentimentalism of a special bond of intimacy because she was my mother, she was fond of revealing, of unveiling the temporal nature of it all.
Since I brought my mother to live in an assisted living facility in St. Louis, I naturally see her far more often than I did 15 or 20 years ago, but still feel guilty when I do not see her. When I have not seen her for several days or a week because I have between out of town, she often says to me in a weak voice, utterly confused, as soon as I enter the room, “Jerry, I need some help here. I can’t get any help. I don’t know what’s going on.” I get on my knees and put her socks and shoes on; I get lotion for her hands; I find her glasses and everything else she has “lost” since I was last there. I tell her that there are people in the facility who are being paid to do this for her. She ignores what I say. Perhaps for the both of us doing these acts of nursing, of service, are a penance for my being away. But I cannot help thinking simultaneously that I wish I had not been away, but being glad that I was.
“ … now you’re whole”
Now my object of terror is not dreams of my mother’s death. I have not had such dreams in many years but rather the telephone and the news that my mother has died. Every time that phone rings I think it is the assisted living facility wanting to inform me my mother has died. I always wonder how I will take that news when someone in charge there tells me. Of course, as things might turn out, I may never get such a call because the circumstances of my mother’s death may be very different from what I expect and I may be there when it happens or I may not be there at all as I may die before her, a thought that unnerves her for many reasons, perhaps as much as the thought of her death unnerved me as a child. What I know, and my fear of the phone symbolizes this, is that my mother will die here at some point and it will likely be I who will be informing my family about it. That would be quite the opposite of how I had dreamed about it in the past, or how things would have occurred had she stayed in Philadelphia.
The very person I longed to be free of as an adult fixture as she longed in her way to be free of me as a child fixture has now returned to me as I have returned to her, tethered by the unbreakable bonds of that which supposedly breaks when childhood ends.
I suppose my mother fears death as much now at 89 as she did when she was 19. She gives no indication at all that she wants to die or that she is particularly resigned to its inevitability. That is a kind of courage, maybe the only courage most people have, but I have heard people talk about stubborn old relatives who refuse to die or, let us say die conveniently, which is to say to die today instead next week, next month, next year. This is why, like my mother, I do not wish to think about her death either. No one wants to be tormented with the possibility of how hideous one’s unconscious might truly be. In this respect, I need my mother as much as I did when I was a small child: I need to be deserving of her needing me. There is nothing sentimental in this; I simply want her to know that she can depend on me to do a particular job well. The very person I longed to be free of as an adult fixture as she longed in her way to be free of me as a child fixture has now returned to me as I have returned to her, tethered by the unbreakable bonds of that which supposedly breaks when childhood ends.
What my mother always liked for Mothers’ Day was getting a huge, flowery card with a nice-sized check in it. I provided them like clockwork. It would take her weeks, even months, before she cashed the checks, despite the fact of how much she would say that she needed the money. I was surprised in going through her things in preparing to move her to St. Louis, to discover a cache of my old Mothers’ Day cards, stored in a box. It was only then that I realized she did not think that these tokens, small things really, were tribute but that, in fact, her actions were those of someone overwhelmed with gratitude. She really did want me to feel that I owed her something, but somehow tempered herself not to expect it.
Today, I do not send a card and she has no need for money. She would not remember getting it. And she has no way to spend it. We go out for a Mothers’ Day brunch, which, I think she feels is a poor substitute for her big card and generous check. But she takes in stride with the paradoxical attitude that the brunch is her due and the least I can do, combined, with her pure indifference, spurred by a failing memory that cannot recall the day at all, with an attitude of why bother. Last year, she thinks the place we went to made her sick. I do not think it did because my wife, my daughter, and I all ate the same food and did not get sick. She remembers that clearly enough, something like this: Her son took her out to eat on some special occasion and she got sick. Maybe the food at that place made her sick; she has bad eating habits and her stomach might be more sensitive to upset. It does not matter. Nothing matters, really, except helping her go on, and hoping in some small way that that might matter. Maybe she is helping me to go on too. I guess that might matter too. I told her we would go to a different place this year.