Sunday, April 18, 2010

Last conversation with my mother - finished 35 years later

My mother spent her last summer with us living (fading) on the den couch, which was in the center of our house. She was beyond what a hospital could do for her, and she wanted to spend her final months at home. The couch was her command post, even as her command of things faded.

Last year I realized that my brother’s 11 and 13 year old sons are close to the age I was during Mother’s illness and her death. Despite many conversations in therapy about it, it only sunk in with me through observing these two bright boys, who I would say are emotionally mature for their ages, that I can do better at forgiving myself for being a self-centered 12 year old – because really, is there any other kind of 12 year old, other than the kind that sees their parent as a chauffeur and social director and buyer of school clothes and birthday presents, and becomes peeved when the parent isn’t handling those things.

My dad was self-employed during those years, working 6 days a week and long hours with his appliance installation and repair business, and left pretty much all the domestic affairs to Mother. When she became less able to manage – and she was a Super Woman, so she managed for a long time – we all felt the strain. Her way of dealing with her illness was to keep up appearances as best she could. She hid most of her discomfort and all of her fear from her children. However, in the last year we all knew she had stomach cancer and that it had gone too far to be curable. That news was given to us straight – we instantly believed it – and even if we hadn’t accepted what we were told, it was reinforced as we saw her age horribly – shrinking, losing skin color, not looking or even smelling like her former self.

Eventually, as Mother declined and the inner life and energy went out of our family routine, I just wanted – and yes, I still feel guilty saying or even thinking this – I just wanted it to be over with. That being said, as long as Mother was centered in her couch bed, she was still the authority – in many ways still the calm presence and the smart, practical woman I had gone to with every question of my 12 ½ year life.

When I cleaned house it was always as Mother’s apprentice – she would subcontract little pieces to me – dust this, wipe that down with alcohol. (I keep forgetting to try that in my own house – wiping bathroom fixtures with rubbing alcohol instead of a commercial cleaning product, it’s old school but I remember it working great.) For anything more complicated than dusting I deferred to her expertise.

One afternoon I was cleaning my room, always a frustrating project since I shared with my much-younger sister, whose total clutter kept creeping over our borderline. In defense to this I tried to make my side as perfect as I could make it, which was, not very – nothing matched very well and the wallpaper was faded and out of date. My room was part of the original house shell my father had built in the 1950s, and it still had its original blue wallpaper – kind of a watery, sickly pale blue with raised white flecks that were no longer white. (My brothers’ larger room next door still had its original paper too – pink flowers on a white background, which wasn’t completely offset by the wagon wheel lamps and bed frames. )

For whatever reason that day, I became especially concerned about pencil or pen lines and other stains on the wall near my bookcase, so I went and ask Mother, my oracle, for help. I noticed she seemed weaker than the day before or even that morning, and it took her a few minutes to respond. Her eventual answer was, “Use a piece of bread.”

I countered with some version of, Really?, but she had turned her head toward the back of the couch – she had been spending more time sleeping, probably from medication if not from pain. I decided to work with what I had been given and went and got a slice of sandwich bread out of the twist-tie bag. I tried to rub the bread on the wallpaper, but that was an immediate disaster. Being thin spongy bread it immediately developed holes where my fingers held it, and shed crumbs.

When I went back to recheck things with Mother, my dad had come into the house – lately he had shortened his hours to keep better track of things at home. Or, now that I look back on it as an adult, maybe he was having trouble concentrating on his job, with his wife dying. (Wow – the juxtaposition of adult and child perspective in writing this – it’s a painful kind of clarity.)

Daddy heard my second attempt at questioning Mother about the wallpaper and followed me back to my bedroom, to say some awful version of this awful thing: You shouldn’t bother your mother with that kind of questions.

Or maybe he said, You don’t need to bother her any more - but whichever phrasing it was, my memory is that the emphasis was on my bothering her, being an overly questioning, overly needy child. Mostly, the way I heard his words moved the focus onto my guilt, concerning my needs that didn’t really need to be met. I had been bothering Mother.

Never mind the elephant in the room, the house, the town – that a loving mother of four school-age children was dying. (I only later realized that many people, not just our family, were upset by the horror of that.) In general, family shock waves, from delicate to elephant-size, were internalized rather than talked about.

I stayed out of Daddy’s and Mother’s way for a while after that. I think I tried again to dab at my wallpaper with a wet towel or paper towel and then gave up. Then we drifted into the evening routine of dinner and whatever passed for domestic routine back then – probably me trying to lose myself in a book, my dad doing reading or chores, my brothers off doing something and my sister out playing with a friend…and my mother in life transition on the sofa.

I don’t remember that she had conscious, coherent conversation with us after that afternoon. So, that framed my question about the wallpaper as a ridiculous Last Conversation, and one which I had pushed past its ability, like wringing out a rag that was already dry.

Despite the vast tamping down of feelings in our family, there were many awful moments in that time period, but for years I felt this as one of the worst. The Day My Mother – with all that the phrase “my mother” means to anyone, and what it meant to me, given the amazing woman she was and the extent of my dependence on her – stopped making sense.


Not exactly fast-forward, but more than 30 years later…last November while driving to work I heard an NPR piece about cleaning the walls of King Tut’s tomb. I have a vague interest in Ancient Egypt and the pyramids, so I was at least half listening. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard the word “bread” mentioned in the context of cleaning walls. It’s not like I had obsessed about the bread-cleaning story every day of the years since, but “bread” and “wallpaper” had strongly remained connected in my brain.

The leader of the conservation team told NPR reporter Michelle Norris that for the crumbling plaster on the tomb walls and the brown spots of fungus or dirt, they were having to be very careful with their technique - she stressed the need to use simple tools, like brushes and Q-tips, and said, “You can even use things like bread…it’s a good kind of absorbent material, you know, depending on what kind of dirt you want to remove.”


As soon as I got to work I Googled bread and cleaning. One site recommended making a “fist-size wad” of rye bread to rub on nonwashable wallpaper. Other sites didn’t specify rye but said the bread should be stale, and one gave an alternative technique of making unbaked dough - mixing rye flour, wheat flour and cornmeal to roll into a dough ball to rub on dirty walls.


I wish I had known before that the bread was supposed to be mashed into a wad. I don’t know if the kind of bread we had in our kitchen that day would have cleaned my bedroom wallpaper, but it certainly was gummy enough to make a ball.

Cleaning walls with bread is rather weird – uncommon enough that I had never heard of it before or since Mother’s mention – and weird is also the word for my mix of emotions when I heard the NPR report. Some of the feelings were really good - that Mother was still with us mentally for longer than I had realized, that to the end of her conversation with me she not only made sense but was helpful.

Despite my father’s well-meant admonition to leave Mother alone, it felt like the NPR piece validated me for asking her advice – I needed it, she apparently still wanted to give it, and was, even if feebly, able to. There was also some sadness and guilt that I had doubted Mother, but I immediately realized this came from the child-adult disconnect. (Yay! Years of therapy finally kicks in!)

It’s not that she reached out to me from the grave and gave me a loving signal of her continued presence – something I admit I have sometimes craved, although I’m certain it would scare the hell out of me.

But it’s more like, with this new validation of us having been present with each other on that last afternoon of coherence, I am strengthened in living with her memory, without an after-death reaching out.

It feels slim and cold sometimes, but we motherless daughters mostly have only our memories (good and bad), and our cellular connection. Scientists have learned that mothers and babies trade cells during the gestation process , and they know that some of those exchanged cells remain with us for life. It is felt only subconsciously, if at all, but I like to think the cell connection strengthens our memories.


Showing up for the Muse said...

Oh my. This completely moves me. I've been in a few haunting last conversations...TY for touching on it so eloquently. Tilly

Ruth said...

WOW. A really emphatic loud WOW. You had me both laughing and crying in this poignant narration. I am fortunate to still have my mom around, but makes think of the what if and how will I handle my real last conversation?