The Myth of the Good Son What we learn from the death of a parent.

 

  1. My Foolish Heart

Beware, my foolish heart

“My Foolish Heart,” Victor Young and Ned Washington (1949)

 

In the last several years of her life, certainly in the last three or four, my mother’s favorite place to go was Dunkin’ Donuts to have a cup of overly-sweetened, highly-creamed coffee (the joke I told her was that she liked a little coffee with her milk and sugar) and a glazed or cake donut. She would wear a heavy sweater in the summer because no matter which one we went to, the place was always too strongly air-conditioned, as if the management was not trying merely to comfort their customers but, like refrigerated meat, preserve them from the possibility of spoilage. And she would sit at a table there, drinking the coffee, eating a small bit of the donut, sometimes about half of it, and either say very little, drifting in and out of sleep, or would talk a great deal about things she had already talked about before but had forgotten she had spoken to me of these things many times in exactly the same way.  When she was talkative, I would sit across from her and be either amused or annoyed, depending upon how my day had been going, for we always went to Dunkin’ Donuts in the afternoon, by which time I had something of a “day” to judge.

When I was amused, I would banter with her in a sort of patronizing way, not taking anything she said seriously, making witticisms, at least, what were witticisms to me. I suppose some of what I said were witticisms to her too, of a sort, for I learned that I had an enormous capacity, gift, if you will, to make my mother laugh. It strikes me in retrospect that when I smiled, my mother smiled too.

This son-as-martyr talk, as it were, was always more disconcerting for me in the end than for her, although it was a tactic meant to disarm her by reminding her, not so subtly, that she was a burden. But there was something more: I wanted to convince her there was nothing left or nothing more for her in Philadelphia. Her life was now with me in St. Louis. I cannot imagine the magnitude of her depression about this. I can only say it was probably immense.

If I was annoyed, I would be abrupt and hectoring, taking out on her what I should have been taking out on someone else, giving her lectures about this or that: eating proper meals (Dunkin’ Donuts had become a major staple of her food intake), socializing more with the people in her building, giving me better accounts of what her physical problems were, upbraiding her for misplacing her cell phone for the fiftieth time, contemptuously dismissing her pleas to visit Philadelphia, where she lived for 87 years.

“I don’t have time to go back there now,” I would say. “Besides, do you know how much work it is for me to travel with you?  Just taking you to a public restroom is arduous and stressful. The one time we went together to Philly, it nearly killed me.”

This son-as-martyr talk, as it were, was always more disconcerting for me in the end than for her, although it was a tactic meant to disarm her by reminding her, not so subtly, that she was a burden. But there was something more: I wanted to convince her there was nothing left or nothing more for her in Philadelphia. Her life was now with me in St. Louis. I cannot imagine the magnitude of her depression about this. I can only say it was probably immense. But she made an effort, considerable, to hide it, I suppose, to make me happy, and perhaps herself a little less unhappy.

She did not mind what I said during our outings, inasmuch as she engaged it at all. If anything, she would find these moods of mine bemusing, perplexing, but not especially disturbing or even important. If she were drowsy and uncommunicative, I would play with my phone or wonder how much longer I needed to stay before I could take her back to her apartment in the assisted living facility where she lived. I did not want to take her back too soon as an outing such as this had to count for something and, for her part, if she never went back, she would not have minded. I would wonder at times if she would find it ever so lovely for me to drive her around forever with no particular place to go.

This was a chore, going out with my mother like this, something I had to do so that she would not be lonely, or a little less lonely than she was. Sometimes I would feel sorry for her. If she had known this, she would have found the last to have been unworthy of me, unworthy of her. She would not have wanted my pity. She would have thought her son could offer something better than pity. I was trying very much to, in my way. But I had a fool’s heart then. Blinded I was then by my efforts at trying to be something that would pass for her as the good son.

 

•  •  •

 

As I often took my mother to one of two Dunkin’ Donuts, at least twice a week, we became known to the people who worked there. From the beginning, they displayed a certain level of respect and regard for me; sometimes they would give me the coffee and donut for free. Once a black worker gave me a dozen donuts for free on some strange pretext. (Black workers were always especially glowing whenever my mother and I walked in.)  Strangers opened doors for us, let us move ahead in line, would smile when they saw us together. The one time I did travel by plane with my mother, porters and wheelchairs appeared almost magically and we whisked through security and were transported to the gate as if we were VIPs. I knew what this was about: the people around us deciphered the relationship instantly. A son spending time with his aged, walker-using or wheelchair-bound mother, the good son and his mother. And as we were black, it only made us more endearing. The nurses, nearly all of whom were black, at the assistant living facility where my mother stayed referred to me among themselves as “the good son.” But the white nurses at the various doctors’ offices where I took my mother seemed impressed with me, were more helpful than they normally would be. And some of them called me “a good son.” For a black man to get this sort of social deference is unusual, although I think to some degree any man in public with an old, infirm mother would have been treated nearly the same. A woman with an aged mother would be less likely to be called “a good daughter.” But clearly, strangers thought I was something that the public ought to be proud of. The only other time in my life that I was treated this way was when I was in public with my children when they were very young. I was then the good father. Indeed, with my mother, the treatment was more intense. To be the good son was somehow even more impressive, or more likely to induce a certain kind of warm sentiment in others than being the good father. I suppose there are greater glories in the self-abnegation of being the devoted son than the devoted father.

A woman with an aged mother would be less likely to be called “a good daughter.” But clearly, strangers thought I was something that the public ought to be proud of.

My mother ignored all of this “adulation” or seemed completely indifferent to it.  She took my attention to her for granted or, better expressed, she took its significance for granted. I was uncomfortable about it all in two contrary ways: I did not like it because I felt I was something of a fraud and was not such a good son and, second, I did not like the fact that I liked having people think of me in this way. Inadequacy, dishonesty, and egoism are such a combination of self-awareness as to make one think almost that it is good to be alive to enjoy such a delicious edge of self-abasement and self-congratulation. I knew this simply, this simple truth: it is more or less good to be alive as long as no one you really and deeply care about dies. Any fool’s heart knows that.

 

 

2. Haunted Heart

 

Haunted heart won’t let me be.

“Haunted Heart,” Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, (1948)

 

By all rights, my mother should not be dead. She certainly should not have died when she did in the way she did. She did not die at the time because her death was imminent any more so than my own. She was muddling along with her dementia and her infirmities, slouching toward death at a pace that would not have killed her on August 4, which is when she did die. Her death was my fault.

She died because she could not recover from the surgery to repair her shattered right leg. She broke her leg because she tried to stop me from pushing her too quickly in a wheelchair down an incline as we left the bank where I was trying to get her a credit card. (The irony is that I had her in a wheelchair instead of having her negotiate herself on her walker because I thought it would be safer.) I was pushing her too rapidly because I was completely lost in the fog of rage because we had waited in the bank for nearly an hour and never did get the credit card. I was angry because the officer at the bank would not issue the credit card for my mother because she had insufficient identification. My mother and I had two joint accounts at this bank and I showed all the necessary identification to prove who I was. My mother had only her debit card. The official would not accept only this form of identification for her. I was incensed as I thought I had produced sufficient identification to get the card. “What do you think,” I said angrily to the official, “that I dragged some 90-year old woman off the street to pretend to be my mother in order to bilk this bank out of a credit card! I have proven myself a patron of this bank. This is my mother. My word is not good enough?!” It was not, as things turned out.

She had tried to stop it by putting her foot on the ground as a brake and I had simply rolled over it. But when she screamed, my blood froze. I came back to reality as if someone had electrocuted me back to this life. I was jolted.

Of course, being blessed with the singular self-consciousness of the member of a persecuted minority, I immediately thought that this was happening to me because I am black. “If I were a white man,” I thought, “this bank official would accept the IDs that have been offered as sufficient for getting this damn card!” I was momentarily convinced of this, that I was being victimized because of my skin color, and felt humiliated. This fueled my anger. Nothing seems, even now in retrospect, to be clear. For several seconds, I was irrational in the way this sort of thing can make a black person insane because suddenly so much seems to be at stake when, in truth, I had sobered to realize nothing was at stake. I had no evidence that I was being treated in some prejudiced way. I simply assumed it was because things were not proceeding as I thought they should. Perhaps I was right but I was operating on default. And I owed it to myself NOT to make such an assumption, not so much in fairness to the people I was dealing with but in fairness to myself not merely to react as if rage were a form of heroism, not to be at the mercy of the worst instincts of being a minority person. I have always told myself, nothing good ever comes from losing your temper in these situations. I cannot recall a single instance in my entire life where something good resulted from losing my temper. I am shocked even now and puzzled that I did in this instance. Did my mother’s presence affect me in some way to make me act as I did? If it did, why in this way, and not in some other? Why did I not act better? Clearly, my acting in this way did not make me the good son, in any sense, as things turned out.

My rage at the bank official had dulled my senses, made everything unclear; I did not even know I was wheeling my mother until I heard her scream, “Jerry, stop!” when I was pushing the wheelchair. She had tried to stop it by putting her foot on the ground as a brake and I had simply rolled over it. But when she screamed, my blood froze. I came back to reality as if someone had electrocuted me back to this life. I was jolted. I saw my mother’s twisted leg and knew she had suffered a bad injury. My God, I thought, what have I done!

When I finally managed to get her into the car, her reaction surprised me. She was in great pain but very calm. She kept repeating how she could not believe that I had gotten so angry over something so unimportant. “You’re always so calm,” she said, “You are always so much in control of yourself. Jerry, I can’t believe you lost your temper over this.”

I was perspiring heavily from the exertion of getting my totally helpless mother in to the car, from guilt, from unutterable remorse, from a rising sense of panic. I banged the steering wheel again and again, crying, “Look at what I’ve done! Look at what I’ve done!  What can I tell the family back in Philly? What can I tell them? I was supposed to take care of you.”

“Tell them I fell back at that apartment,” she said evenly. “Just tell them I fell. They don’t need to know. Nobody does. Don’t tell anybody. It was an accident. You’ve taken good care of me.”

I looked at my mother and she smiled at me as if, after all, she was my mother and knew best about these sorts of things. Helplessly, as a reflex, I smiled back at her. We had an agreement, I suppose. It calmed me, seeing her smile, as if I were a little boy again and my mother was soothing me, easing my upset. I would never see her smile again. I suppose mothers are always trying to save their sons. And sons are always making their mothers suffer, always making their mothers need to save them. Despite my stupidity, my unworthiness, my mother was determined to save me anyhow.

“Tell them I fell back at that apartment,” she said evenly. “Just tell them I fell. They don’t need to know. Nobody does. Don’t tell anybody. It was an accident. You’ve taken good care of me.”

“Let’s drive a little,” I said to her, as I put the car in gear. I could think of nothing else do at the moment. She liked that. I could have driven around forever. The thing she most hated about the ravages of old age was that she could no longer drive. But she surely loved being driven.

 

•  •  •

 

I did not think, at first, that my mother would die. I thought I had, through my negligence, consigned her to a nursing home. That was nightmarish enough, a sort of living death sentence. The orthopedic surgeon explained that her only hope for recovery was surgery to repair the break. Otherwise, she would be bedridden for the rest of her life and in constant pain. I clung to the hope of the surgery as a desperate drowning man clings to any flotsam drifting on the surface of the sea. She had to make it through the surgery, she just had to. And I would be with her every day at the rehab center. We would make it together. I would not fail her. I would get her through. I had enough will for the both of us. My will alone would get her through. I prayed unceasingly, bargaining with God as we always do in moments like this: “God, let the surgery work. I will retire from my job tomorrow. I will be with her every waking minute of the day. I will be completely committed to her. I will see her through the rehab no matter the cost. God, give me a chance to make things up to her. Please, God, give me this one chance and I won’t disappoint you or her. Put me in the deepest part of hell for what I have done but let the surgery work.” (For what I had done, I was hoping there was an actual, certifiable hell I could go to. In those hours in the hospital, the thought was a comfort to me.)

The orthopedic surgeon thought her chances were decent, more likely than not that she would make it through the surgery and be able to rehab her injury. I did not interpret this as her chances of surviving the surgery as much as I did being a question of whether the surgery would be successful. I did not doubt then that she would live. For me, it was simply a matter of whether she would be going back eventually to assisted living and being able to walk or being eaten by bedsores in a nursing home. The last time my mother recognized me was when she was being given morphine for her pain in the emergency room after we first arrived. For the remaining 48 hours that she lived, she never knew I was there.

 

•  •  •

 

It is one of the major delusions of human beings to think that they are in control of much of anything, despite their savage hunger for it: control at all cost. As my episode at the bank proved, we are hardly capable of controlling ourselves, let alone controlling anyone or anything else. It is the one attractive aspect of anarchist philosophy that acknowledges that humans cannot control anything and when they try they usually make a hash, a botch of it all, so let us rid ourselves of the illusion of control, for this is the only way we will ever rid ourselves of the illusion of power. Leave people utterly to their own thoughts and devices. It is pretty to think so. Calvinism, I always thought, was half-right.

The day after my mother’s surgery, the real possibility that she might die, would die, began to dawn on me, poisoning my optimism. My mother never came out of the anesthesia. She was never cognizant of her surroundings. I could not get her to eat or drink anything. I could not get her to say anything. I turned on the television to her favorite show, Steve Harvey’s Family Feud, but her eyes were unseeing. Her breathing was raspy. She slept. I talked to her incessantly, about what we were going to do when she was back on her feet, about how I was going to help her with the rehab, about how we would be going to Dunkin’ Donuts again before she knew it, about how my grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, had moved to St. Louis, about how we could still get her cataract surgery done in September. When the social worker came by, I signed her up for a rehab center and made arrangements for her to be transferred there as soon as she was able, maybe two or three days later.

Mothers and sons endure but they endure differently, not simultaneously, despite occupying this world together for a time. I said stubbornly to myself, “I am going to save you anyhow, Mom.”

But as hour after unresponsive hour went by, I could feel a creeping coldness grow upon my neck and fingertips. I kept up my inane patter as if wishing it to be some magical way of reviving someone. In the afternoon, in her sleep, I heard her say distinctly, “Kissy.” That was the pet name for my oldest sister, Lenora, who had just two years earlier died of pancreatic cancer.  When I heard that, I was frightened to the very core of my being. My God, I thought, she is in some dream world of dead people.  She is drifting away from me. I went up to her, bent over her and whispered, “Don’t die on me, Mom. Don’t do that to me. Please do not die! God, don’t let this woman die! Oh, God, if someone must die, please take me. Take my miserable, worthless life but do not take my mother!”

At that instance, I was horrified by what I was thinking, wishing for. I could sense, feel, my mother’s revulsion at that thought. I could feel her saying to me, “Jerry, did I raise such a cowardly son? Did I raise such a selfish son that he would rather I bear his death than that he should bear mine? I have already had to bear the death of one of my children. How can you ask me to live with another? If I must go, let me go. Be a good son and let me go.”

I sat down in a chair. I was silent. I realized that I could not save my mother. I was not supposed to. It was always her job to save me. And it was my job, when the time came, to let her go with gratitude. Mothers and sons endure but they endure differently, not simultaneously, despite occupying this world together for a time. I said stubbornly to myself, “I am going to save you anyhow, Mom.” But it was impotence speaking as the adumbration of grief. In my fool’s heart, I knew this to be true. There was nothing to do but wait in silence. In five hours, when evening came, the waiting ended.

 

•  •  •

 

One month after my mother died, I was standing at a lookout point, on a sunny, mild day, staring at the Grand Canyon from the North Rim. I had taken my mother’s body back to Philadelphia (she returned at last) for a funeral service in the Episcopal Church she had attended in her later years. She was buried next to my father in Beverly National Cemetery in New Jersey. My family, her family, all came to pay their last respects. It was good to see them all. In fact, I was never so happy to see them as I was during those days.

I told one of my aunts, one of my mother’s sisters, exactly what happened, expecting, bracing myself, for a volley of execrations but she responded simply, resignedly, almost peacefully, “It was time. Sis knew it was time. It had nothing to do with you.” She said nothing more, and I was not eased.

The view had nothing to say to me. Its blank, grand indifference was no comfort. It was not beautiful, or transcendent, or compelling. The Canyon was just there as the dumb, unfeeling earth, reducing everything to utter insignificance. I did not matter to it as a subject. It did not matter to me as an object. It was not sorrow or self-pity that made the Canyon nothing to me. I even knew that one day, a year from now, five years from now, I would return to the Canyon, as I must, and it would speak to me as it used to and I would be stunned by its majesty instead of numbed by its emptiness. But not today, this day.

I stood in the morning breeze and weak sunlight brooding about something that confused me. What is a son or what does it mean to be one? In my mother’s old age had I conflated mistakenly a function, a role, with an identity. In our identity-mad age, people commonly do. I was a son no longer. A set of duties and obligations had ceased. This I understood. But how does an identity simply cease? Was this loss of an identity what I truly mourned? Was I now significantly and irrevocably diminished as a person because I was no longer a son, regardless of whether I was a good one in my mother’s eyes or anyone else’s? Had I never stopped being my mother’s dependent despite the fact that she was totally dependent on me in the end? And God knows what it means to be dependent on someone.

While in Philadelphia, I told one of my aunts, one of my mother’s sisters, exactly what happened, expecting, bracing myself, for a volley of execrations but she responded simply, resignedly, almost peacefully, “It was time. Sis knew it was time. It had nothing to do with you.” She said nothing more, and I was not eased.

My wife thought my mother had been wanting to die for a while but had neither the courage nor the opportunity to do so. She kept on living out of habit, not desire. The accident at the bank gave her both courage and opportunity by making something in effect beyond her will. What happened was the equivalent of a big, brightly-lit neon exit sign over a door that stood completely open. All she had to do was not bother or even try to wake up once she was put under. Perhaps this is so but I do not really believe it.

All decision-making is a treacherous enterprise, even when most banal, but we cannot claim innocence because we do not know the extent of the consequences of our choices at that moment they are made. The conundrum we must live with as human beings is that we are inevitably careless in our caring.

As it is said, Fate is the hunter. And of course we are the prey. On the day of the accident at the bank, that odd set of circumstances that so upended and in distinct ways ended two lives, it was as if my mother and I were hunted. All decision-making is a treacherous enterprise, even when most banal, but we cannot claim innocence because we do not know the extent of the consequences of our choices at that moment they are made. The conundrum we must live with as human beings is that we are inevitably careless in our caring.

“This is how eternity is won,” I heard a preacher once say of death. There is a price we pay in order for life to have meaning. It is not the will that is limited but love itself that is limited and flawed, the most profound current we will ever carry in the broken vessels that we are. I have learned, finally, from my mother’s death, that if you live long enough that when you die it will not be from a broken heart, but surely you will die with one.

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