SUE AND HER MOTHER, “MAMA”
She’d been in the hospital since early spring. At one point her temperature had been 108 degrees, but I had no fear of her dying then. On the day that she did die, I really didn’t know any details, but I had a feeling that she died. I remember being very frightened and it was connected with that.
My father came home and told me. She died early in the evening and he had to deal with arrangements or whatever, and when he came home, he told me. I remember crying a lot and telling him I had prayed. I don’t remember… There was a table or a couch there. I just got right up in his lap and he cried too.
What I can remember over the years, running it through my head, was waiting for him to get home, being uneasy. My older cousin was babysitting. I was put to bed and I remember I didn’t sleep the whole night at all. I remember it was super early in the morning. It was still dark. My dad was outside with Tom, my brother. He was 10 at the time. I don’t remember the next day.
The funeral was at St. Denis. I remember a lot of people being there. I don’t remember going to the cemetery. A lot of people back at the house, mostly relatives on both sides of the family. It was hot and sunny.
We had to deal with her being sick. She’s been sick for about five years with rheumatoid arthritis. She was in a lot of pain, but she could still walk. Her hands were a great source of pain, and her legs. She wasn’t confined to bed but spent a lot of time in bed. Actually I see her on the couch in the living room. That’s how I remember her. She was five feet tall, dark features, very French. The cortisone for her arthritis caused great weight gain, and she was very overweight with water retention.
My brother and I did got to see her once or twice while she was in the hospital. Being 13, I was not allowed to visit regularly. You had to be 14. We had to get special permission. It seems to me I saw her the very day before she died. She was in wonderful spirits. I remember I massaged her feet with the hospital lotion, something like Jergen’s lotion. We had a really nice visit and we had a big hug. I’ve heard that before people die, they get an extra burst of energy, of strength before they die. I feel very fortunate to have seen her that day. I don’t remember if I saw her after she died. I can sort of see that, at the funeral home.
I have a nice feeling about her. Certainly I missed out on a lot. It felt like the time I’d be needing her more, in adolescence, she was gone. It seems like an especially bad time. She was a great communicator. She treated me pretty much as an equal. I don’t remember a lot of specific things about her, which has kind of annoyed me. My memory is kind of slight.
When I was younger, I went through an angry stage about the death. When I was 13, 14, 15, I didn’t realize that the anger was in me. It’s a shame that 20 years ago there wasn’t counseling available or so widespread as it is now. Eighteen, 19, 20, I hit the rebellious stage. Anger, sadness came out, all those “horrible” emotions. They can be very painful. Self-destructive is a good word to describe where I was at that age. It’s when I went for counseling. I’d gotten to a point where I was self-destructive in relationships. I was very depressed. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of living. I don’t remember if I was smart enough to say, I need counseling, or if someone pointed me to it. But I was in counseling for a couple of years and it was very helpful.
Afterwards I was ready to live, ready to be positive about myself, ready for relationships. I felt deserving of relationships, friendships. The idea of having to learn that I deserved some happiness… I don’t know if I ever said, I feel guilty and don’t deserve this. Why should I be happy when she was miserable?
Sometimes I don’t know if I’m trying to separate from her or connect with her. Somehow this has been important to me: Just now I’m a month past the age that she ever got to be, 34 and a half. I sort of started thinking at 30 that soon I was going to be older than she ever got to be. Everything from now on is my life. I think everything might open up from this point on. Now anything I do will be my own thing. I can’t stop and compare what she might have been doing at that time or what she might have been feeling at that time. It just doesn’t exist anymore.
Freshman year in high school Diane and I met––a year after my mother died. It turns out that Nan [Diane’s mother] and my mother had been friends. We spent a lot of time together. Best buddies. I let Fran be a mother figure. She was certainly equipped for that. She had a lot of extra love. She treated me like a daughter. I got things out of that family that I don’t think I would have had even if my mother had lived. They’re a very openly loving family.
Nan’s death brought back a lot of memories. But it was also very different. Having had to deal with my own mother dying, I knew I could deal with it. It certainly gave me a strength other people didn’t have. The death was horrible; it was tragic. I had a little something extra to give to the girls [Nan’s daughters].
Thirty-four years old seems so young to die. One’s perception of age changes. When I was 13, 14, I didn’t think, that’s so young for her to die. I just thought, how terrible for her to die.
I don’t know about fathers and sons or fathers and daughters, but it seems like daughters and mothers have the most powerful relationship of parent and child. I feel that my short 13 years with her have had an effect on every single thing in my life, my personality, my attitudes. I know by how she treated me, just my thoughts of her, wanting to be like her has followed me along through my life. Sometimes that’s been difficult. You don’t feel like you measure up. The effect is there, and I know it will always be there.
Twenty-one years later the tears came to my eyes when you were zeroing in with the questions you asked. The death still brings up the same old feelings. Even at 80 I’ll remember how that felt.
I think I would be a really good mother from what she gave me, but I think also from what was lacking. She made some mistakes, I think. Here’s a woman who knows she’s going to die. She only told an aunt of hers. She kept that within her self. I really feel that if I were in that situation, I would tell my friends, my children, my husband, so that the last few years would be open, honest relationships so they could deal with life more easily after I was gone.
Here’s this woman with two children she’s trained to go on without her, but she doesn’t tell them that she’s going to die. She taught us how to take care of ourselves. There wasn’t a lot of pressure; still, that takes away a lot of childhood. If I had been a bit more of a kid, I would have been a happier adult. I was a very serious child. At 13, if she’d been up front with me, I think I would have asked her a million questions about her family, about what it’s like to be a mother. I like to think I would have. If I have a family, I’m going to be up front with them, communicate with them.
She was raised Catholic. During those last two or three years, she read about every religion. She discussed it with her friends; it gave her strength. There are all kinds of books on religion with notes in the margins. I remember my dad coming home and I told him I prayed and prayed, but it didn’t do any good. She still died.
Over the years I’ll talk with her. I go to the cemetery plot once a year and have a little chat and a visit. I believe that she can hear me. I give her a lot of power. When I pray, I pray to her. When I’m at my worst, in dire straits, that’s when I ask for help, when I call out her name: Mom.
All these prayers of mine, I think they’ve been answered in a good way. I just got engaged and will be married in October. If I’m going to separate from her, now feels like the right time to do it. I’m going to start on life’s journey, and I’m going to do what my mother did but at a different time and in my own way. It all feels just right.
Sue was 13 when her mother died and 34 at the time of this interview.