This was a status update posted on Facebook on May 24, 2018, the day after my mother died. As it is one of the rare times I have written about my family, I decided it was worth recording here as well.
Where to begin?
Today is my father’s birthday. Yesterday, my mom died.
Two days ago, while on the phone with my Aunt Marilyn (my father’s older sister), she noted that it was quite possible my mother, at this point completely unconscious and fading away, might end up passing away on my father’s birthday. I agreed that we, my sister and I, were aware of that. But in my head I thought, “No way. My mom would never steal his thunder like that. Nor would she ever let him steal hers.”
My parents both had a flare for the dramatic. I know this comes as a massive shock to you all. My father grew up in New York going to the theater and it was he who instilled in all of us a love for it, but it was my mother, small town raised and terrified of skyscrapers and interstate highways, who showed us we could make theater. My father was a storyteller. My mother was crafty. My father told us, “Listen to your ideas.” My mother showed us, “Your ideas can become something.” My father took us to Broadway shows. My mother made our costumes, first for Halloween, and then for our theater companies we started. My father was making sense of his world. My mother was always trying to change hers.
My mother was doing a lot better. I feel that I should clear up some confusion about that. She was. And then suddenly, and quite quickly, she took a bad turn on Wednesday of last week. Not terrible, but enough my sister, despite the doctors saying not to worry, decided to fly home that Friday anyway. I asked if I should come, and was told not yet. Something had happened, but she was stable, she was conscious, the important tests were fine, and I should wait. Which I was fine with, because I had a full weekend ahead of me.
“She’s sad you’re not here,” my sister said, “but she’d want you to live your life and focus on that. It makes her happy when we’re happy.”
This is the most true thing we can say about our mother: it made her happy when we were happy. In many ways, she really lived her life for us, and that’s a deep compliment while also a heavy load to bear. She never really recovered from my older brother’s death, for instance, because it just shattered her. When he died, both my parents believed they had failed, but while my father once told me he thought he was a disaster of a dad, my mother, I suspect, believed she was a total defeat of a human being. My father rallied before he died, five years after my brother, and his final couple years were physically rough but spiritually bright. He remained engaged with the world even from his bedroom, and sent me New York Times articles up to the day he died. My mother rallied too, but she was always haunted, even when she was happy. She depended deeply on love not to let her down, and it had. Many times. My father was my mother’s third husband, after all.
“Your mother had been married twice before Jerry?” my Aunt Marilyn asks, so incredulous. “I did not know that.”
My mother was also secretive. She hid things from me, my sister, her siblings. Like medical conditions we now only know she suffered from because my sister found the bills.
“Well,” says my aunt, with a deep sigh. “I always thought she might be depressed, to be honest.” Probably true. “But she really loved her children.”
Yes. She did.
Real Talk: there were times it was both overwhelming and embarrassing. Like, she could be weirdly competitive with other parents. It was almost a joke amongst my friends. Once my close friend, who we think of as Straight Jim, caught her and his father embroiled in a sort of public “My Son Is Better” slam poetry contest that made Straight Jim laugh and me want to crawl into a hole and die. She was also wildly over-protective, to the point of being paranoid, and that combined with her small town roots could make her very fearful and close-minded towards anything she didn’t understand or was threatened by. This included my homosexuality, which she was stubbornly deaf to until I finally brought my then boyfriend, who we think of as Gay Jim, home for the first time.
“Where is your friend sleeping? Should I make up your brother’s room.”
“He’ll be in my room.”
“On the floor?”
“In the bed.”
“But where are you sleeping? On the floor?”
“In the bed, Mom. With him.”
LONG ASS PAUSE. TEARS.
“But you were a Boy Scout!”
“Oh please, Mom, where do you think I learned how to jack off two other guys in the shower at the same time.”
Everyone in my family has a flare for the dramatic.
But though she was stubborn, she was also capable of astounding moments of bravery and personal growth. My mother barely spoke to Gay Jim on that first encounter, but by the end of the week she made a Thanksgiving dinner, in July, to make him feel welcome in the only way she could think of. When I told her he was a chocolate fanatic, we woke up on his last morning in town to find a chocolate cake waiting in the kicthen. We ate it for breakfast before I drove him to the airport. From that moment, my mother has never ceased to ask about Jim. Long after we stopped being a couple.
Speaking of driving, she was convinced that I was going to get myself killed that way, if the Gay Lifestyle didn’t get me first. And when I got into a terrible car accident only three months into driving on my own, she magically appeared at the scene of the accident, claiming to have had premonitions about something being wrong. I thought for certain I would never be allowed to drive again, but two days later when I asked her to drive me to rehearsal for a play I was in, she agreed. Then on the way home, she handed me the keys.
“I don’t want to.”
“Listen. If you don’t do it now, you may never do it again, and that’s not going to make your adult life any easier. So drive.”
“I thought you were terrified of my driving.”
“Yes. And I always will be scared that you are driving. But you can’t be scared to drive.”
This from a woman who adamantly refused to drive on the highway. EVER. Who took the long route to EVERYTHING. Who drove FIVE MILES UNDER THE SPEED LIMIT. Who made EXTRA RIGHT TURNS if it meant she could avoid making a left one. Who held her breath and tightly smiled the whole way I drove us home that day. Who told me I could take her car to rehearsal on my own, until mine got fixed.
I have two very distinct memories of my mother standing in driveways, watching me drive away. Once, in the early morning when I drove out of Tucson to move to San Francisco, all my stuff packed into the Toyota Camry I’d learned to drive in. Once, years later, one Christmas she lived in Bullhead, and I was headed to Tucson for a New Years Eve party. I think about her waving in the rear view mirror, and realize how lonely she was. In the first incident I recall opening my window right before I pulled away, to say, “Mom, stop. You’ll see me again.” She smiled an replied, “Yeah. But I’ll probably never see that car again.” She was right. Two days later it broke down an hour outside of San Francisco and I sold it for scrap metal. Which is a better fate than it deserved, frankly, but my mother had a remarkable ability to grow fond of everything and anything, and everyone and anybody.
On Saturday night, sitting at the KML fundraiser, I got a call from my sister and stepped outside to take it.
“Mom’s fading really fast,” she said. “I want to put you on speaker phone so she can say something to you.”
I stood in an alleyway, wearing my best dress shoes, and had my last conversation with my mother.
“Stuart? Are you okay?”
“Yes. Are you?”
“No. But I want you to know I love you and that I’m proud you’re my son. I have really loved being your mother.”
“I love you too, Mom. I’m really glad you are my mother.”
“Okay. That’s all. I’m gonna go. I’m tired.”
“Okay. Goodnight, Mom.”
My sister got back on the phone. “She’s probably not going to make it through the night,” she said. “But if she does, I’ll call you in the morning.”
“I mean, call me either way, right?”
She made it through the night. On Sunday morning the doctor arrived and told my mother she was in bad shape, and they wanted to move her to the ICU again, but that they also thought she definitely had a fighting chance of recovering. They knew what was wrong now, what to do, it would only require-
“I’d like to go home,” my mother told them. “I’d like to stop all this, and go home. I’m tired. I just want to be home.”
“Do you understand what it means if you go home?” the Doctor asked.
“Yes,” my mother replied. And then she turned to my sister, and smiled, and said, “I’m sorry.”
They got her home on Sunday morning. I held my breath for the two hours that she was in transit from hospital to her home, a ten minute drive, normally, less so when you must first be stabilized enough to move, then moved, then re-stabilized. I paced the apartment. My boyfriend sat in his study, actively listening to me, and letting me have the hall to myself. When my sister texted to say our mother was home and stable, and in her bed, and happy to be home, more happy than she’d been the whole time Robin had been there, I went to Cody and hugged him. “She got what she wanted.”
“That’s our Jane,” he said.
“Julie,” (my mother’s close friend from the costume making years) “and I got drunk on the kitchen floor last night,” my sister tells me on the phone, Monday night. “Alex,” (my mother’s other close friend of decades and decades) “was with Mom for a bit, so we gave her space and then we just sort of got drunk on the floor,” she laughs. And I don’t ask why she didn’t get drunk in the living room or in the dining room, or somewhere that had chairs, because I know that there is a time and a place for kitchen floor drinking. “There are all these lizards in the house, Stuart,” she tells me. My mother loves geckos. “Like, they keep trying to get in the house. And a hummingbird flew into my face. Like I stepped outside and it just flew into my face and looked me in the eyes.” My mother loves hummingbirds too. “It’s like all these little desert creatures are coming to say goodbye,” and that sounds right to me. The desert was my mother’s dream, it was where she wanted to be, had wanted to be her whole life, since she first saw pictures of Arizona on Tripple AAA magazines on her parents’ coffee table growing up, and she got to be there, to the end. In her own house. In her own bed. On her terms. Which is good because the only thing she loved more than animals, was her independence.
And her children.
“Being alive when you aren’t living is no good,” my Aunt Marilyn is saying to me on the phone, this morning, now that my mother is gone. “We should all be so lucky to be your Uncle Phil and just go. We should all be so lucky to be your mother and go on our own terms.”
“We should all be so lucky to be Uncle Dave,” I said.
My Uncle Dave is a family legend. He epitomized an era of men, particularly Jewish American Men, who built respectable lives despite the turmoil of the 20th century and became pillars of the Eastern Seaboard and a certain way of life characterized by pluck, intelligence, bravado, and resilience. When he died, at something like a million years old, he had his wife and sons at his side, and joked with the hospital staff to the end.
“Are you comfortable, Mr. Bousel?” the Doctor asked, 2 hours before Uncle Dave died.
“I made a living,” he replied with a shrug.
My sister said the last lucid conversation she had with my mother, and it’s both fitting and perfect that her last conversation should be with Robin, who of all of us, including her sibilings and her husband(s), probably knew our mom best, she ended it by saying, “See you later, Alligator.”
Everyone in our family is a comedian.
There are things about my mother, about both my parents, that I see in myself that I don’t want to let go unremarked upon. Some because they are not healthy, not happy things. These include cosmic stuborness, irrational fears and worries, a tendency to suppress my true feelings, to want to control impossible situations, to present a facade of wellness, to save people who can’t be saved or don’t want to be, to sacrifice my own needs, and to willfully make illogical choices for the wrong reasons. These are the price I pay in exchange for everything I have from my parents that I think makes me worth knowing: my generosity, my intellect, my refusal to accept easy answers, my passion, my commitment to seeing things through, my compassion for other people including people who have hurt me, my principals, my sharp wit, my off-beat humor, my ability to dream and my belief in the possibility of actualizing my dreams. In the last few years I have been working very hard to be the best parts of me with less baggage. The dad that worked hard but not the man who worked himself to death taking care of others. The mom who fed all the kids on the block and made all the costumes but not the woman whose love for her children left very little room for her to love herself.
“Still,” Aunt Marilyn was saying, “I guess I was hoping she’d make it to your father’s birthday. It would have been very ironic. Or poetic?”
“Yeah,” I say. But next to one another makes more sense to me, frankly. After all, in life, they were complimentary, not symbiotic. Which is probably why all their kids can be described, politely, as idiosyncratic. My mother and my father came from two very different worlds, and were two very different people, and this did not always make for an easy life. For them, for their respective families, for their children. But what they both shared was a profound sense of humor in even the darkest moments, a profound love of their children, and a profound strength to endure when needed, and to go when it was time. My father, too, had died on his own terms.
My parents were, in their own rights, giants. They had that in common. My father threw lightning bolts and rained wisdom. My mother generated abundance and creativity, and raised wild animal offspring. Our family wasn’t Eden, but it was a garden, and I am so lucky to have grown up there.
“I don’t have a mom anymore,” I whispered to my boyfriend last night, thinking he was asleep. “I don’t have a dad. My childhood is gone.”
“What did you say?” he said, rolling over.
“Nothing,” I smiled.
He put his arms around me.
“I heard what you said.”