How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 12

MARY AND HER MOTHER, SARAH

Mary speaking…

She was a very, very unhappy woman. Her death happened so slowly, for many, many years. It’s so complicated in my mind. It went from depression … I think she was afraid she was losing her mind. It’s what I call a death.

I remember they went to Greece. She wanted to go so badly and then she didn’t enjoy it. It went downhill from there. I think she was about 69 or 70. She stopped to see her sister and had a shock: Her sister had become senile. From that point on my mother was afraid she was losing her mind. She concentrated on it. I remember we went to an exhibition once, and she said, “The words don’t come out the way I want them to.”

At some point in this depression you couldn’t reach her. She needed love so badly, but she wouldn’t let you.

She wasn’t an alcoholic, but she had very stiff whiskeys at night. My sister and her daughter and my dad were with her one night. This terrible argument went on at the table. The next morning they went in to see why she wasn’t up. She had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. She was in a coma. They took her to the hospital. I met them down there. I remember saying to the doctor that if she came out of it, she couldn’t come home. She needed help.

So then they took her by ambulance to an institution in Massachusetts for alcoholic and depressed people. She was still in a coma. They wanted to take her there before she came to because they were afraid she would refuse to go if they waited. I was about 38 at the time.

The part that really interested me was that we couldn’t see her for a few days. My dad and I went to see her, and they had her in this big room where the seriously psychotic people were. My mother was sitting in this room, and for the first time my mother seemed quite happy. One woman was banging her head against a wall until she broke her nose. I remember saying to my mother, “Let’s go out and sit in the sun,” and her saying, “Oh no, I want to stay here.”

Eventually she got better and they put her in a private room. She met some very interesting people there, but she got unhappy and wanted to come home. She was dissatisfied. Here was my mother, a great artist, and they’re trying to get her to do artsy-craftsy things. You could just feel it. They had no understanding of her at all.

Eventually at the end of the summer, I went up to bring her home. I remember going into her room to get her and it was so pathetic. She said, “Do you think I’ll know how to behave when I get home?”

She was home for one, two, or three years. Her depression didn’t get any better, and she had what they thought were small strokes. Her depression got worse and worse. She would lose control of herself and scream at us. She was so cross. I remember going into her room. She’d be sitting in her bed, and I’d try so hard to entertain her, and I’d think, how can a person stand this stress? You just couldn’t reach her.

She was terrified of therapy. I think she was afraid they would say she was losing her mind. A doctor talked her into going in for electro-shock. She was 75 years old then. I remember the first time we went in to see her and she didn’t know my father. She was very frail by that time. It was very hard for him.

Occasionally they’d let us take her into a park nearby. She had so many treatments we just couldn’t stand it anymore, and after three weeks, we took her home. The electro-shock is supposed to reverse the channels of your mind. When we got her home, she was quite changed, but only briefly. I remember taking her up to her room and her saying, “I can’t remember which foot to put into which shoe.”

For the first week she’d go out for these long walks. For the first time in years she told me how she felt, how much I meant to her. I remember going to the Yellowfront to do shopping and I just felt this great love for everybody.

From then on it’s pretty much a blur in my mind. Physically she went downhill. She fell and broke her hip. We had nurses all day long. She was in and out of the hospital with various things. Once we took her to Portland to a doctor. She was run over by a car on Congress Street. She couldn’t remember how it happened. She wasn’t hurt, but we had to rush her to the hospital. We had been through so many anti-climaxes with her. I remember feeling nothing, not anger, not exasperation, not sorrow, just nothing.

The important thing, I think, is that she became more childlike. After two years we had her in a sort of nursing home. By then she couldn’t talk at all. I never knew, but they said it was probably a series of small strokes. She had wonderful nurses who really loved her. She was like a child trying to be good. My father went over every single day.

Our whole relationship had changed. I was no longer afraid of what she would think about me. I was the mother trying to entertain the child. In fact I loved going over because sometimes I could make her laugh. She was there for two or three years, and she stayed pretty much on the same childlike level. She had nurses around the clock because she couldn’t do anything for herself. They fed her. She was always in bed.

The only part [around her death] I remember is that I was home with my father, and the nurses calling in the morning and saying she wasn’t expected to live through the day. The nurses recommended not bringing my father over. When I asked, “Are you sure I shouldn’t bring my father over?” I remember the nurse saying, “It isn’t a very pleasant death.” I didn’t feel much of anything. I didn’t feel sorrow. She had been dying for so long. I didn’t feel relief. I was just really concerned for Dad. My feelings were with my father. I was surprised at how shaken he was.

I did exactly what she always said she wanted done. She did not want a funeral. She wanted her body to stay in the house until she was buried. We had her body in the music room. The next day we had three nurses who really loved her, the Episcopalian minister, my father, and myself. It was a very small service. We had flowers in the big room. It was very attractive, just the way she would have liked it. My mother had very good taste. My brother and sister were away. I know they didn’t like it because we didn’t have a conventional funeral in the Episcopal Church. My father and mother were both cremated. [They’re buried together in the same plot.]

I was very bitter for a long time towards my mother. She treated me lousily. One day a hospice worker asked me about my mother and I got it all out of my system. I figured out, to my mother I became her. All the things she had not finished in her life, the fact that she didn’t continue being an artist, she projected into me. She wanted me to be an artist. She almost saw herself in me. Everything she hated in herself, she saw in me and hated.

My sister and I were both taken abroad, she to study music and me to study painting. And my brother was to be the great writer. He became an editor. He tried to please my mother. I was invited down to show my paintings [at a gallery] in New York City. Instead I got married. She began to go downhill after that. From then on I felt this hatred from her. I remember asking for this little table in the laundry room meekly. “Certainly not! I use that.” After I figured this all out, I didn’t feel bitter anymore.

I remember so many times when I’d get a letter from her, and she’d say she’d gone back to drawing, and she was much happier when she was drawing.

Mary was 56 when her mother died and 72 at the time of this interview.

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