Archive for October, 2009

Losing Mom

October 23, 2009

“This is the second big tragedy of the summer,” my eight-year-old son announced glumly, tears welling up in his eyes.

I was momentarily grateful for the thought patterns of an eight-year-old, which put a smile on my face for the first time all day.  I couldn’t fault my son for ranking the death of his grandmother second to the death of Michael Jackson as the summer’s worst tragedy.  Grandma didn’t have a Thriller video in her legacy.  But then, on the other hand, Michael Jackson couldn’t bake pies like Grandma.

For me, it’s no contest.  As my son later said, “This must be even harder for you, Mom, because Grandma was my grandma, but she was your mom.”


I got the call I had been dreading and anticipating and wishing away at about a quarter to 5 a.m. on August 14.  I knew it was bad news.  “No good news comes at this time of morning,” I muttered to myself as I awoke to answer the phone.  The only question in my mind was, was the bad news about Mom or my brother Greg?

“Carolyn, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mama died this morning,” my sister Cheryl said.

“Oh.  Okay.”

At least, that’s what I think I said.  I don’t remember what I actually said, or what we specifically talked about.  I understood that my brother Greg had found my mother in the dining room floor, unresponsive.  She had fallen out of her favorite chair at the table, the chair where she ate, received visitors, and sat to read her Bible every night.  Greg called my other siblings in the Detroit area and told everyone to “come, just come.”   Someone called 911.  The EMS medics pronounced her dead of a massive heart attack.  My oldest sister called me.

These are the facts as I know them.   I wasn’t there when my dad died, and I wasn’t there when my mom died.   My own selfish ambitions had taken me far away from the city of Detroit long before.  Somewhere deep inside, I feel just the tiniest bit of guilt about that.

I went upstairs and told my 12-year-old daughter, then gently extricated myself from her arms to go downstairs and tell my nephew, my second oldest sister’s son, who was visiting from Howard University. 

I decided not to tell my son until later.  It was his last day of baseball camp, and I saw no need to ruin his day.  I told him after he returned home from camp, after more of the details of the broad strokes of the day had been filled in, after I had accepted in my head but not my heart the truth behind those words:

Mama died.

My mother suffered her first heart attack in about March 2004, during her second and last visit to New York City.  She had come to help me.  My marriage was falling apart and my husband was erratic and unstable.  I was afraid of him and didn’t know who else to call. 

In the back of my head, I must have had a vision of my mother going to help my aunt get rid of her incorrigible husband many years ago.  Mama had packed her brother-in-law’s things in garbage bags, set the bags out on the front porch, locked the doors and put a huge pot of water on the stove to boil.  When he came home and demanded to be let in, my mother gave him two options: take his shit and get to steppin’, or force open the door and get a pot of boiling hot water thrown in his face.  He chose the first option and went to his mama’s house.

I don’t think I expected my mother to put a pot of water on the stove to boil for my ex.  Nor did I ask her to.  I did figure he’d stop acting like a madman with her around.   It never occurred to me to ask Mama how she was feeling, if she was up for the trip.  She offered to come and I accepted.

When I picked her up from LaGuardia Airport, I was startled a bit, as I had been in the last several years, to realize that this little old lady in the wheelchair was my mother.  I wasn’t used to thinking of her as old.  Mama had always been a giant, even though she was only 5′ 2″.  She was formidable and stubborn, with an iron will that could move mountains.  If Mama said it was so, then that’s how it was, or how it was going to be.  She had been more God to me in my childhood than the Holy Trinity combined.

As always, Mama was a little old lady until she started talking, and then she was back to just being Mom.  I drove her home, and she seemed fine.  She said she was hungry.  I hadn’t cooked.  My kitchen cabinets were pretty bare, but I did have a tin of sardines (but the good ones, packed in olive oil, OK?).  I offered her sardines and crackers, and she accepted.

A few minutes after she started eating, she ran to the bathroom.

I raised an eyebrow.  I hadn’t seen my mother run like that in decades.  I heard the sound of retching.

“Mom, are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” she said, and then I heard the sound of vomiting again.

Mom was on the floor, clutching the toilet, vomiting like I’d never seen before.  She told me the sardines must have given her heartburn. 

“I feel this pressure in my chest, and that’s what’s making me feel like I have to throw up,” she managed to explain before vomiting again.

I ran out of the bathroom and picked up the phone.  “Mom, I’m calling EMS,” I said.

“For what?”

“For you.”

“I don’t need no EMS.  This is just heartburn,” she protested.

“Then they’ll send you back home,” I said as the 911 operator began to take my information.

I am not a doctor, and had never heard heart attack symptoms described as pressure and nausea, but something in the questions the dispatcher asked — something in her tone — made a little thought enter my mind: “Mama’s having a heart attack.”

That little thought was confirmed when the EMT techs showed up and gave Mom a nitroglycerin tablet to put under her tongue.  By this time, my ex-husband had come downstairs to see what the commotion was all about.

“She’s having a heart attack,” he announced, even though the EMT techs hadn’t said anything.  “My mother had heart trouble.  I’ve seen this before.”

Shut up, I hissed at him in my head, but I said nothing.  There was no point in arguing with him and causing her additional distress.

But he had been right.  She was rushed to St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital, and within two hours, she was in the cath lab, getting two stents implanted into her arteries to clear near-complete blockages. 

I found out later that Mom had been having symptoms all week before she boarded that plane.  She had been out of breath after walking a very short distance.  She had complained of “heartburn” and mild nausea all week.  She had her first heart attack within two hours after landing at LaGuardia Airport.  I shudder to think what would have happened if her flight had been delayed.

Back then, we were told she had achieved a good result.  She was treated just as her heart attack symptoms began, so there was little damage to the heart muscle.  She was advised to get a pacemaker, but she refused.  So she was advised to start a program of moderate exercise, change her diet, control her high blood pressure by taking her medication regularly, take the anti-cholesterol drug Plavix, and put herself under the regular care of a cardiologist when she returned home to Detroit.

Mom did . . . pretty much none of the above.  She kept frying her foods and cooking with salt.  She continued to refuse a pacemaker.  She stopped taking the Plavix.  She refused to take the new blood pressure medication she had been prescribed.  She saw her cardiologist a couple of times, and then stopped.  She tried walking around the block, but after a few outings, she realized she was too weak to do it alone.  She feared collapsing or being attacked by some thugs in the neighborhood who decided to prey on an old lady.  She sat in her favorite chair and rarely left the house.

And that was how she liked it.

I argued with my mom, begged her to go the doctor more often, implored her to listen to her doctors when she was hospitalized again three years later, and it was pretty clear things were not going in the right direction. 

(There was one final hospitalization prior to her death, but she was released with a bunch of prescriptions she never would have been able to take on her own, and she died at home, as she obviously wished.)

I wasn’t the only one, of course.  My sister Caroletta worked even harder to try to get Mom to do what we thought was the right thing.  Mom said and did just enough to shut us up, and then went right back to doing what she was going to do.

My mother’s will was unlike anything I have ever encountered from anyone else in my life, with the possible exception of my 12-year-old.  When she made her mind up to do something, there was no stopping her.  This was a woman who sat in the back of my elementary school classrooms to see and hear first-hand what and how I was being taught.  When she was dissatisfied, she would call the teacher out into the hallway to speak with her.  When that didn’t get the results she wanted, she went to the principal and threatened to go all the way to the school board.

(Did I mention I was an unpopular kid in elementary school?  You’re not surprised, are you?)

Mom fought for me to get a great education in a mediocre Detroit public elementary school.  She somehow coerced my notoriously cheap father into sending me to Catholic school for 8th grade, because she worried I was succuumbing to the negative influences of the bad neighborhood middle school. 

I tricked her a bit for high school, by failing to tell her I’d gotten accepted to the Catholic high school she wanted to send me to, so that I could go to Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s top citywide public high school, instead.  But by then, she didn’t have to fight for me anymore.  She believed in me so much that I was more than a bit cocky when it came to academic achievement.  I’d learned from the master how to fight for myself.

My mother also was a woman of incredible talent.  Her vegetable garden was the stuff of legend, where everything grew and nothing ever died.  (We used to joke that Mom’s garden was the real Pet Sematary, but we were too afraid to bury a dead thing there to test out that theory for real.)  She made pies — as recently as a month before her death — that were better than any restaurant — “store-bought,” as she said with disdain — pie I’ve ever eaten.  Because of her — and my father, but mostly her — I made it from the “hood” to Harvard Law School, to partner of one of the country’s most prestigious law firms and vice president of one of the world’s premier cosmetics companies.

And it bothers me to no end that she never turned that iron will on herself, and willed herself to live, instead of allowing herself to die.

Since her next-to-last hospitalization, I would periodically dream about getting that phone call, hearing those words — “Mama died.”  And then I would immediately wake myself up, thinking, “That’s silly.  Mama’s not dead.”  I wish I could wake up and find out this was still a dream, that I could just call Mama and hear her voice and assure myself that she was truly, 100% alive.

I know better, but I still wish.

I used to think of Mama as a series of contradictions.  She used to infuriate me because I couldn’t make sense of some of her decisions, including her decision to refuse medical treatment and accept the risk of a massive cardiac arrest.  Since her death, I’ve been consumed by trying to resolve those surface contradictions to find the common thread.  For example: Mama was an excellent cook and would prepare meals for people for free, but never took up the suggestion that she could open a restaurant or catering business of her own.   She made all my clothes until I was in middle school and decided I was too old to still wear “hand-made” clothes.  She would give our neighbor, who ran a tailoring business out of her home, advanced sewing tips, but she wouldn’t try to get business of her own. 

She was a snob extraordinaire, but not in the usual sense.  She was not impressed by money, or people with money, or the things they possessed.  She taught us that class had nothing at all to do with wealth, and that there were plenty of people with money who lacked class, and vice versa.  She wouldn’t let us associate with the classless, regardless of income or family net worth. 

Yet she couldn’t stand to see people go hungry.  The same people we were not allowed to play or associate with as children, grew up to be the adults, the neighborhood drunks and winos and crackheads, who she fed and whose children she fed, because it wasn’t the childrens’ fault that their parents put their substance abuse ahead of their children.  She leveraged all of her talents for the care of her family, and when we were gone, she took care of the people in the neighborhood, the struggling adults who had been children with her children, and who became like her surrogate children.

I’m no longer as angry with my mother as I was when she died.  I was angry with her because I had convinced myself that her death was due to her stubbornness, that it was avoidable, that she could have been with us many, many more years had she only cooperated, acquiesced, done as she was told.  As I type those words, I am reminded of the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes:  “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  says the Teacher.  Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.”  On one hand, I wonder — what difference does another five, ten, fifteen years make, compared to the eternity that you spend in death? 

On the other hand — in five years, her youngest great-grandchild would have been five, and would remember her great-grandma.  In five years, my children would be 13 and 18, respectively.  She would have been able to see both of my kids reach adulthood and young adulthood.  

We would have had five more years to try to crack those apple and sweet potato pie recipes.

Five more years of everything I miss about her, and would miss about her even more five years from now.

So I try to hold onto the things that make me smile, the special moments that were our moments alone, that no one else shared. 

When I was growing up, my mother was a notorious prude when it came to topics like sex.  When I started my period, she handed me a book.  When I had questions about sex, she handed me a different book.  “Let me know if  you have any questions,” she said in a way that made it clear that questions were not welcome and would not be easily entertained. 

I had tons of questions, most of which were answered by the porno books and magazines I found under my brothers’ mattresses, or in Harold Robbins’ novels.

After she came to New York to help me with my ex-husband, my mother and I began having “girl talks.”  

Somehow, a floodgate opened up that I wasn’t expecting.  When I would come to Detroit to visit– after the kids were in bed and her favorite televangelists were off the TV — we would sit at the dining room table, Mom in her favorite chair and me in the chair next to it, and chit chat about woman stuff. 

And by woman stuff, I mean sex.  

And by sex, I mean the stuff you don’t usually discuss with your 70-something year-old mom. 

Mom did most of the chatting.   I was too busy most of the time being appalled.

And oh, boy, did Mom have some stories.

I was real good at listening — and laughing — but less so at sharing.   Once, she asked me very directly about my sex life with my ex-husband — after oversharing some info about my dad that I never needed to know — and I totally punted.  I gave her enough of a response to keep the “girl chat” thing going, but inwardly, I froze.   Talk to my mother, my Mom, about stuff like oral sex and anal sex and oh my God are you fucking kidding me?

And yet, in these months after her death, it’s the girl chats that make me feel the least like crying, that make me feel warm and special and happy, as if she was still here.

There is no “over it.”  Every day without her gets a bit easier, until it doesn’t.  I have dates embedded in my brain that will forever be difficult:  August 14, November 21 (her birthday), Thanksgiving, Christmas. 

Then there are just the times I want to call her, the random triggers that I suspect will never go away.  I recently traveled to Las Vegas and Miami within the same week.  When Mom was alive, I would always call her before I got on a plane and give her all my flight information, just in case.  I would call when I landed, to let her know I landed safely.  I would call when I boarded and de-planed again at my final destination.  And if I traveled someplace I’d never been to before, I would tell her all about the places I’d been, in hopes that one day I could encourage her to travel more, to see more of the world.

This time, I felt lost when I was traveling.  I kept texting my flight information to my sisters, since someone in the world should know where I was.  I wanted so badly after those recent trips to pick up the phone and call her and tell her all about Vegas and Miami.

After a few months, people stop asking you how you’re doing, are you OK.  People sort of expect you to get over it and move on.  And death is a subject most people want to avoid, anway. 

So, in case you were wondering:  I’m OK, except for those times I’m not.  I’ll never be over it.  I’ll never stop missing my Mom.  I’ll never stop wanting her to be at the other end of a phone line when I call, or rising up from her favorite chair when I enter her house.  It will never be OK that she’s gone, until I’m no longer here.

Other than that, I’m fine.