ELLEN AND HER MOTHER, RUTH
Ellen speaking …
She was a martyr really. She was part of the disease as a codependent. At that point, if you knew it was a disease, maybe something can be done. She made choices. She allowed that to happen. Why didn’t she do something about it?
She was a real lady. She could entertain in a proper way, very fine and sweet. I really think a lot of her cancer was caused by stress. She was in all sorts of clubs, garden clubs, the church. She worked up until about six weeks before she died. She was the assistant librarian in the North Reading Public Library. She was the typical mom, only worked part-time. She was always there at home.When I was an adult, she worked full-time. She was in the public a lot. Everybody knew my family.
Growing up in Rhode Island, that was his alcohol abuse period. When I was ready to be a freshman, he was transferred. Then it was Little League, the Lions, he joined the church. The drinking was still there, but nothing like it was. My memory as a child was that it was really rough, out every night and drunk.
She was firm and determined. That sweetness comes to mind too. There was some aloofness there. She was a barrel of fun; she wasn’t prim and proper. She had this little bit of a regal, proper way. I guess it was the Victorian way. She was reserved. There was a standing back. It surrounded her and held her together. In some ways I’m like her. It holds me back from friends or people. It was a protective thing. She was an only child. Her mom died when she was ten or twelve. She was raised by her stepmom. She was closed about her mother. A lot of energy was expended just keeping things on an even keel with my dad’s situation. She was a fine woman. She was deprived but she rose above it.
She was sick, knowing she had cancer from 1974-78. A biopsy on her gum area––it was malignant. They did surgery, had to remove all her teeth. They took out bone and tissue from her face.It was very disfiguring. She had a good recovery. She was up. She had to have a plate made. They did such a beautiful job at Mass. General.
A year later, another spot. Traveling to Boston for radiation and chemotherapy––she did it all alone. She was tough. She never complained to anybody, my dad or anybody. She was going through this torture. She had trouble eating.
The second year of her four-year stint, I was pregnant with Sarah. She was still working. Having little Sarah there, she knew her for a year. After three surgeries they would operate no more. The treatment was worse than the disease.
The joys were when we as a family would go down. It was so hard to leave and drive away. I didn’t want her to suffer anymore. And she was alone. I mean I think my dad gave her a lot of support. Here we were in Maine. I had two young boys and a baby and Dick had his job. That’s the regret, I think. Maybe I could have had her up here. It was a horror for me to see her. She wasted away.
Christmas of ’77 it was hard for her to get through. She would cough and couldn’t eat. She was up here for Christmas and Sarah’s first birthday. She said, “Ellen, I’m going in again.” She knew it was the end and I did too. It was hell. I got pneumonia. I was so beaten down.
She went in the hospital after New Year’s until February 11. We took the kids down to the hospital knowing it was the last time they would see her. She could talk a little. Jim and Matt and Sarah, 8, 6, and 1. She was fed by tubes. She said to the kids, “It’s peanut butter in the fluid.” Her feet were swelling. I remember how hard it was for me to leave that room.
The terrible winter of ’78. By February the snow was up over the windows. I went down in February. She was almost totally out of it. I was nursing the baby there. Dick’s mom came from Holyoke and stayed with the children. I was stuck in North Reading in the house because there was a blizzard. I wanted to get in to the hospital. I got on the train and I knew. There was this huge twinge and a jolt and I was jarred. It was no complete surprise to me that she had died. I got off at North Station.
“You just missed her. She just died.” They were cleaning her up. They let me in. I stayed with her and she looked better. The nurses were angels. The morphine ended up killing her. The pain is so great. Dealing with the pain was the most important thing. It wasn’t like she was plugged in. She was only given shots of morphine. This was a ward that dealt with terminal cancer patients. She was in very good hands. She asked for one last shot. It’s almost like a lethal dose. I stayed there alone with her. She was dead. She was peaceful. She was brave. She kept it all inside her. It was hard on us because it was hard to give to a person like that.
Between January and February, when I was home here really sick, I wrote her a letter and told her how much she had given to me in her life. She could hardly talk, so that was the last real big communication I had with her. I told her my ability to care for people came from her. I’ve always been in social service or counseling. I wrote it because I was afraid I would miss her. I know she got it because my father commented on it.
I had to call my father and tell him. In reality the doctor has to declare to the next of kin, but I was given permission to call my dad. He was at home because it was a blizzard. That’s why I was on the train, because we couldn’t get the car out. There were four feet of snow. I felt really badly that I wasn’t there when she died, but I was there. There’s always been a kindred spirit between us. She was the buffer in my life between me and all that happened. But it was over. I went home, ran over to my dad and just sobbed. My dad loved her deeply. It was another loss for him.
We knew right at that minute to call the funeral home. I was in a daze. We were going through the motions. You’re sort of in shock. All of that yucky planning, like what’s she going to wear. I went through the motions and I was just sort of numb-ish.
We had a wake one day and night that was well attended. The wake was out of the funeral home. She didn’t look like herself at the wake. She looked more normal to me the half hour I saw her in the hospital. People were aghast. The makeup-type look was so unreal. I didn’t have too much of a reaction because it wasn’t her. Her spirit had gone. That wake was so unreal. We did the wake for the people. We felt like, she’s gone. She’s definitely gone.
The funeral was harder. Dick did the funeral. He did a wonderful job. My father’s sister and brother came to the funeral and lots of people from town. Dick’s brother and wife took the children. Folks in the neighborhood were really nice, bringing food over and helping with the baby. Wonderful folks and people. Nice gathering of family and friends back at our house.
My dad’s very sentimental. He couldn’t cope with his emotions very well. He was really overcome and awed by people’s sincerity and love. He was bowled over but it didn’t sustain him. At that time I remember the doctor giving my dad something before my mother died. He had valium. “Ellen, take one of these.” So I did and it was helpful. It blurred things a little. It calmed me down somewhat.
She had no requests, had made no plans for the funeral. We had everyone sending their contribution to the Cancer Society. The town dedicated a scholarship in her name for anyone who went into library science. If I had my head together, I would have planned it differently. Even though she was dying for four years, we didn’t prepare for that.
It was hard to leave my dad. After, I had to call him a lot to find out how he was doing. He was the loyal guy. My mother was it. In ’82 he had a stroke. He’s still weepy. He’ll talk about Mom. He’ll say, “Oh, Mom would have loved that.” He’ll have the housekeeper cook her favorite recipes. Because of his connection it continues.
I think about her a lot. It’s not very consuming, but she is still a presence. I definitely have dreams about her where she’s whole, healthy, like real life. It’s not that often; it’s kind of rare. It’s when you reflect on it that you have the impact. Because of that illness, everyone knew how she must have suffered. It’s later that you dwell on these things.
It brings me great joy to have fresh flowers arranged. I got that from her. She had a knack with flower gardening and flowers. She would give people fresh flowers for their table.
I see her in Sarah––her poise, the way she carries herself for such a young girl. She was 5′ 7″, dignified carriage. It was hard because she got bony, small and hunched over, and that’s not the memory I have. It’s the other. Sometimes it’s startling. I wake up from a dream and think, “She’s alive!” and then, no, it’s not true. It’s icky to know it’s not real.
With all the people you love, you want them to see the children grow up. I lost her and had Sarah in the same year. I got really close to Sarah as a result of losing my mother. She has blond hair and blue eyes like her. She was not a replacement, but I know I bonded with her extremely. There was a dependency between she and I. It almost became something I had to work at to let her go. But that’s happened because I’ve been aware of it.
I have a different outlook about cancer. Life is never stress-free. I feel that I’ve done a lot to try to reduce my stress, at least be aware of it. I’m taking measures by dealing with the stress and not stuffing it like my mother did and living like my mother did. My husband and I communicate. I don’t have a total fear of cancer, but I am a high-risk person for cancer. I had an aunt die from it last year.
After she died I didn’t want too much change. I really couldn’t have taken a move at that time. My husband sacrificed for me at that time. I was shaky, like everyone who goes through that. It did affect our family, definitely. It does cramp your freedom. It’s a burdensome life experience that saps your strength. Your life is different because of these things.
Ellen was 36 when her mother died and 47 at the time of this interview.