I wrote this for my a submission in my writing group, with the prompt “Mother’s Day.” It’s not my usual style for the blog, and I did not initially write it for this. However, the wise and talented women in the group suggested I share it, and they are rarely wrong. Please remember I said that ladies. I share it in honor of my mother, Carole, who died December 31, 2011 of Huntinton’s Disease. She was 68 years old. This will be my first Mother’s Day without her, and changes the holiday in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It’s a journey however, and each milestone shows me something new. To Mom.
The silver car pulled up to the light, preparing to turn left and pass me in the opposite direction. The driver caught my eye, and I held my breath. My car made the right at the green arrow on it’s own, as my head pivoted in slow motion, to look more closely at the driver of the car, turning and passing me on my left. Stunned, my senses racing, I watched the woman navigate her own turn, while my heart sped up. She looked so much like my mother that I had to force myself to look back and focus on the road ahead. Our cars moved past each other, and I looked at her more closely. The resemblance was striking. The tight line of her jaw, the determined look, the way she held the wheel lazily in her hands, as she looked around her, as if driving were an afterthought: all of it was my mother. Each nerve in my body tingled, the synapses fired the message: she is gone, while my heart tugged and raced in disbelief.
Of course, even as it was happening, I was acutely aware that it wasn’t, couldn’t be, my mother. She has been dead for four months; her ashes sit in a box beside the fine china she loved so much. By the time Huntington’s Disease finally took her, she relied on a walker and her ability to navigate was gone. She had become a frail woman who could not care for herself. Before her death she hadn’t driven a car in nearly five years and I would no more expect to see her behind the wheel of a car, than I’d expect to see my twelve-year old niece driving. Yet in that moment, as that silver car drove past me, I wanted desperately to turn around, follow the car, and find my Mom.
The rest of the day, the woman’s face played in my thoughts. I saw her turn her head to look for the right building, over and over. I replayed the look on her face as she drove. The day slipped by and I saw more of my mother in that face, until my memories had me believing that I’d actually seen my mom driving around town. I want to believe that I’m not that foolish: that I didn’t really think it was my mother driving past me, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d seen her ghost.
In the four months since her death I’ve slowly been coming to terms with my mother’s illness and all that it took from her, and from us. I’ve been trying to remember more of the times we shared before she became ill, instead of the slow, agonizing decline that was her life for far too long. It’s not easy. The reality is that mom’s illness came to define her, over the twelve years that she suffered. In the end, it was often what people saw first when she approached them, and what we saw too often, in place of the enormous personality that she’d once had.
Her walker; the messy, unfashionable clothes she wore; the toothless grin, because she hated her dentures; the vacant look in her eyes so much of the time… all of this replaced the mother I’d once felt so enmeshed with. It replaced the mother I adored, resented, struggled with and loved, the woman I tried to emulate and then tried to distance myself from. In the end, gone was her perfectionism: regarding her hair, her wardrobe, her overall appearance. Instead, she had settled into the simple goal of being as comfortable as possible, without concern for other’s opinions. It’s an attitude that so many of us claim we aspire to; but trust me, it can prove very different in real life.
For much of my life, I believed my mother worried too much about what other people thought. I believed that she was too focused on how she looked; what label she wore; standing out in the crowd. And she did stand out. She was a business owner before many women had even figured out how to survive without a man. She was independent and smart about so many things, while missing some of the crucial things that would have made her life easier. She was stylish and charismatic; she was funny, playful, ballsy. She was the one who made so many of our family get-togethers an event, often the life of the party, whoever was having the party. She was sarcastic and wry, and she rarely missed a good line, all while looking better than most people around her. Lilly Pulitzer skirts, silk blouses, the perfect shoe for each outfit, and her hair, make-up and nails were always impeccable. When she walked in a room you noticed her.
When I was young, I resented her obsessive fascination with style and fashion: with how things looked. It was something she forced on us as well. Throughout elementary school, my mother insisted that I dress in styles that were better suited to Vogue and Cosmo, better suited to adults, than to the small town where we lived or the kid I was. Navy blue gauchos with “pop” daisies, paired with a kelly-green jacket-top, while my peers were wearing simple jumpers. In Junior High I fought forever to finally get a pair of what was then the biggest craze amongst my peers: straight leg boy’s Levis. I was forbidden to wear them: “They’re so boyish, so plain.” Finally, in ninth grade my pleading finally caused her to relent. I bought them with money I’d earned babysitting. As I walked awkwardly into the kitchen, the first time I wore my powder blue Levis, she looked at me carefully and stated sarcastically, “Hmm, they look comfortable too.” As if comfort had ever played a role in her fashion choices.
Only later would I learn to appreciate her discerning eye and her high standards. Anyone would be hard pressed to find a photo of her, where she isn’t completely “put together:” the latest hair-cut or style, tailored outfits, and perfect make-up was always in place. I struggled to emulate some of her stylish choices, even as my own inherently casual nature left me forever falling short of her standards. She was totally at a loss whenever she looked at my unpolished, often dirty, finger-nails. “How can you walk around without a manicure?” She asked this as simply as if it were the most obvious thing to wonder. Never mind that my jeans and sweaters hardly called for manicures. I would roll my eyes and remind her that gardening and horseback riding, something I did daily until ten years ago, were enemies to any manicure. She never bought my excuses.
So, as her Huntington’s progressed and she began to lose one piece of herself after another, it was her lack of interest in her appearance, in the end, that most startled me… right to the last days. Each time she showed up without a bra, or with food on her already faded, favorite black shirt, I was startled. Each time her luxuriously thick silver hair stood up, clearly un-brushed or styled, I had to resist the urge to grab a spritz bottle and a brush. She hated that her appearance bothered me. “Just leave me alone, Dawn,” she’d state, tiny bits of her autonomy still intact. Only now do I see that my desperate desire to help her look good, was my unconscious attempt to deny the end I knew was close, and that I was not ready for. She died with perfect red polish on her toes, a striking contrast to her wasted body. My sister and I each did her fingernails as well, days before she died. I offered to have a friend come do her hair, as she lay in her hospice bed, days away from death. She rolled her eyes and told me she “it doesn’t matter anymore.”
I bought her new clothes right up until the end, but she clung to a few items she’d come to love, and I came to loath. “Why aren’t you wearing the nice brown sweater I bought you?” I’d ask. “It’s in the laundry,” she always replied, sometimes avoiding my eyes, other times staring me down. I’m certain that she was still cognizant enough to calculate that that answer would shut me up. This reasoning, however, left me wondering why she didn’t wear the brown sweater with food on it, instead of the old black shirt with food. Each time I went to her closet, in frustration, the new items sat neglected on the shelves. “Your new pants/shirt/sweater is right here Mom!” “Oh, I didn’t know that.”
When she died, I can’t count how many of the things that I sent to the YWCA’s back to work program, were brand new. Many had never been worn. The ironed-on name tags, which I fastidiously put in each item of her clothing, were the only indications that they’d ever belonged to anyone. Honestly, it is at the least hopeful of me to think that she was still clear enough to willfully choose the older, rattier outfits just to push my buttons, and at the most, delusional of me. Yet, many times that’s exactly what I believed. I need to believe that she wasn’t completely gone in those last few years. I need to believe that parts of her lay hidden in the body that suggested otherwise. While the dementia and ticks of Huntington’s drove my mother, grief drove me.
Now I long for a few of those tangled interactions. Some days, I miss the vacant look and the ravaged body that was left, as much as I yearn for the vibrant mother of so many years ago. My frailer mother hugged me as if it would be the last time, each time she greeted me or said goodbye. Mostly it annoyed me, as I was simultaneously struggling to get her to the car, make dinner, not engage in a discussion about her clothing choice. And even then, I knew that one day I’d regret my short sightedness, my frustration and harsh judgment. I knew, even as the days were ticking by, that I would miss her and wish for at least one of those moments back. I knew all of that; but I guess I never really anticipated that I’d be seeing her ghost, that she’d come back to haunt me.
Note: Share your thoughts. Is your mother still alive? What do you admire most? What drives you nuts? If she is gone, what do you miss most? Take a minute to share your thoughts in the comment section, and if you liked this post, please hit the Like button… I’ll count it as a Mother’s Day gift. : )