Three sisters tell their stories …
SUSAN AND HER MOTHER, ESTHER
Susan speaking …
I have trouble remembering some of the details of the time around the death because of the space I was in––drinking and drugging. To this day I feel a lot of guilt because I wasn’t there for her when she was dying and I couldn’t be.
The context of that summer––I was going through a lot anyway. I had some guilt then because George [stepfather] and Mom came up to visit in June. I didn’t know how to entertain them. They wanted to stay for three to four days. I wasn’t comfortable with that. They stayed only for a night or two. The last night I made up a story like I wanted to get away from them. I had been feeling uneasy about the whole visit. That was the last time I saw her as herself.
It seems I can’t get into the death without getting into the relationship. I’ve always felt so much anger towards her from my childhood til the time she died. I was still angry with her when she died. The logical question is why were you so angry at her. Because she didn’t protect me as a child from my father’s abusiveness. The death brought up the other side, all these other feelings.
I remember I was working in the afternoon at the inn when you called up and explained that she’d had a stroke on Saturday night and it looked like she might not last very long. I’m surprised looking back on it, considering all my anger, that my first impulse was, I have to be there. I guess I don’t remember what I was feeling that afternoon. I guess panic more than anything. It was like the bottom was dropping out of everything. And a disbelief. This can’t be happening. It’s funny because I’m ordinarily very conscientious about my work, but I just put down my tray and said, “I’m going to Massachusetts.” There may have been people waiting to be waited on; I don’t know.
Then it’s kind of a blur, the sequence of events. All I can break it down into is the earlier part and the later part. For a week after she had the stroke she was recovering and back to herself physically. I remember going to the hospital every day with George. We were there every day, noon and evening. It was only three weeks but it seemed like an eternity. It seemed like that was all we’d do: Get up, get ready to go to the hospital, go to the hospital, come home and get supper and go back to the hospital.
I don’t remember the chronology of the disease. I just remember impressions. There was a lot of the month she wasn’t able to talk. I remember going in and holding her hand. She had problems writing her letters. She would write a word with three p’s instead of one. Something was missing. She was flaky, giggly, giddy, lighter. She wasn’t like that ordinarily. There was one day I remember her laughing and joking. I remember asking, “How y’ feeling?” and telling her the weather outside is this. I remember going in and rubbing it in that Nixon had stepped down from the presidency. She had voted for him and tried to hide it.
The problem I had is that I didn’t have any relationship with her. Now all of a sudden I’m supposed to be supporting this person, but there was no context. I was at a loss. We simply never talked about deep things. For me, when I think of that time, I think of a terrible conflict inside myself. I needed to be there with her, but I had nothing to communicate with her because we’d never done it.
I think particularly of a time when you and Barbara and I were all there together. I remember Barbara making nurse-type observations, like, look at the color of her skin. The three of us being there and you telling me to tell her I loved her in a desperate voice. And I couldn’t honestly say that to her. I couldn’t. I was mad at you at first for telling me to do it, but it was just because I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel the love I had for her. It was buried beneath too much other stuff. I also had the thought that she’s gonna know that I’m speaking something that isn’t true for me. She would know. It’s only in the past year that I have come in touch with some of the love I have for her, and that was triggered by the death of a friend’s mother. I went to the funeral and it all came back.
The middle period is just a blend of visitors and going in and seeing her basically in a coma. All this time––it was difficult––I was going through a lot inside myself with this conflict and being aware of George and feeling like I had to take care of him. It was like I could make it up to her by taking care of him. I was always aware of what he needed. I felt a pull. As I think about it, George was a helpful distraction. At least I could do something for him: I could cook for him and make sure he got his diabetic menu. You could really see that George was hurting. We were really quite a pair. I couldn’t be affectionate with him easily, so in a way it’s a smaller version of my conflict with Mommy. I wasn’t sure how to help him either, outside of cooking and housekeeping.
I remember a day––I can’t say when it was in the series––a day or two before she died, she was in a deep coma in ICU. It comes back to me because I thought for the first time she really might die. It looked like the person was totally gone. It was like sitting there and looking at a stranger. I remember the feeling of futility and helplessness on my part, not being able to do anything. Part of realizing that she was gone was that she had always responded through the hand by touch. This day I held her hand and was waiting for a response. It was so faint I might have imagined it. It’s unclear to me to this day. The last time I saw her be aware of me––the last time she looked at me––to this day I don’t know if it’s my own projection––a look of concern, like how was I going to be cared for, something like that. It was the time just before these last few days. It was the last time I saw her conscious.
Just an observation, what I was really aware of all the time I was with her was that it was a real truthful time. There wasn’t any room for the half-truths we tell as socializing. I didn’t know what to say to her because she was in that space where there was no point to bullshit. My side of it was that I was in a space where I couldn’t get in touch with the depths inside myself. Anything other than the absolute essentials would have been superfluous, meaningless, offensive at a time like that. Some of my communication with her was silence.
Then I go right to the day when she died. It was on George’s and my evening visit and they had moved her out of intensive care into a regular room. This was suspicious to me because she looked so different. Her coloring had changed. She wasn’t red anymore. She was sort of gray. I didn’t ask the doctors and nurses anything. All I can think is that they must have given up on her.
I’m having real trouble remembering how we left the room. I think the nurse asked us to leave the room, but I don’t remember why. I knew something was wrong, so in a way, I didn’t want to leave. In a way I wanted to because I didn’t want to see whatever it was. I don’t think George and I were in the lobby for long when they have a blue alert or whatever they call it, and about six people came running with that cart into her room. I’m just remembering what an awful moment that was. It’s like a sense of panic and denial and the bottom coming out all at the same time.
I think it was actually Father F. who came out and told George and me that she was gone. I guess I started crying pretty quickly. I don’t know what I was––embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to see me grieving like that so I went into the bathroom. I remember George crying too and I felt bad for him, but I felt worse for myself and so I went into the bathroom. But Father F. followed me in. Wasn’t I surprised. He put his arms around me and held me for a few minutes. In a way I was a little uncomfortable that he did that. It felt good to be comforted, but I didn’t know this guy from a hole in the wall, so it was kind of weird.
I remember calling George [brother-in-law] telling him to tell Barbara to come to the hospital. I don’t remember calling Tommy [brother]. George must have because Tommy arrived too. We went to George H.’s house. All of us went there for a while and then Barbara and Tommy went home. I think I slept. That’s the one time I remember crying a lot. I cried my self to sleep.
It was really strange to be in the house with her not there. The emptiness of it was appalling. I hadn’t realized how much she filled the house until she died. Then it was totally empty. I’m thinking that it was many years later that I had the sense of her presence. I was not open to that at the time.
I don’t remember much about days after. I remember seeing the obituary in the paper, and I remember the dress she wore and I thought it was kind of a weird dress. In one of the obituaries I saw she was wearing that dress. I don’t have any memory of input into the details of that funeral. It was awful to be at home with George getting all the phone calls.
I remember being at the wake in the reception line and that was awful. Painful. I don’t like those anyway. I didn’t like it at Daddy’s funeral. The whole ritual. I would just as soon have not been there except it’s a little reality therapy.
What I remember about the funeral was Father C. talking about her. I remember being comforted by the fact that he took such a part in her funeral. Maybe that was the first time I was aware of him having such a connection with our family. He really seemed to have a sense of who she was.
I liked the cemetery. It seemed like such a nice place.
When I think about that period, I was just going through the motions. I was taking her place with George, housekeeping, tending the garden, stuff like that. I remember doing some canning. I remember getting some pressure from his friend N., “You oughta stay and take care of him.” It was getting to me. I was starting from a base of guilt. I began to feel it was expected of me. But yeah, I did want to get out of there. It was okay for a little while to be in her house and do some of the things that she used to do. I was concerned about George, though, beyond guilt, about his special diet. I don’t know why I didn’t think he could take care of himself.
I would have been 27 when she died, and I’d say that probably for three or four years it was like it didn’t affect me much because I was stoned. A lot of the reason I was stoned was because of the pain of my relationship with her. I had believed in an afterlife, but during this period, if you had asked me, I would have told you, “This is it. There’s no life after it.”
You have to remember that in the context before her death, my life had not been good. After that there was a kind of winding down to the point where I was suicidal in 1980. I was 33. By that time, I had wound down as far as the drugs go. I think that I had stopped drinking, not by any conscious choice, it was just that I was getting so sick. As far as I was consciously aware, I had no connection with her over these years, but subconsciously I was running away.
The first time I had a strong sense of her presence was when I was living with E. It was triggered by all of what E. was going through with her daughter, seeing her sort of disappear. We didn’t now why at the time, but she was disappearing behind her face. It was the drugs, but we didn’t know at the time. I was closer to that in the parent experience than I ever had been before. I functioned as the father in the family, the responsible one. It was because of seeing things thought the parent’s eyes that this thing happened.
In the vision I could see me about four years old drifting away from her, being lost to her as a mother. The feeling of that vision was a sense of powerlessness to do anything about it. It wasn’t just in that vision. It was during the three or four months of going through that with E.’s daughter that I had a strong sense of her presence. I’ve never felt her presence as dramatically as that time.
I am sure she’s there. When I have the urge to call on her, I sit down and I write a letter to her. I can’t really prove it, but I have the sense when I sit down to write a letter that it doesn’t just go into the air.
Another way I’m aware of her in me, which I never would have admitted 10 or 15 years ago, is in terms of the gestures or some of the limiting ways I think about myself, and in terms of what’s become important to me. For example, I never used to be concerned with baking, decorating, housekeeping. I’m getting better at it and I can see the spiritual value of it. Something I thought of recently, because of all this environmental stuff, I used to think it was really funny how she would recycle stuff and eat yogurt. I guess this reevaluating will go on.
Susan was 27 when her mother died and 42 at the time of this interview.