as an infant my mother was adopted into a family, of sorts– adopted by a couple who could have no biological children of their own but who had previously adopted a set of blond twins, boy and girl. and along came baby betsy, from day one a fiery redhead, both in appearance and personality– not one, or even able, to maintain a low profile, she would fall under the scrutiny of strangers for her bright locks and solicit time and again the har-har rhetorical question, where’d’ya get that red hair?— and hate it with every fiber of her being because she didn’t know.
my mom wanted desperately to belong to someone, to be loved and cherished and seen and known– and instead she lived in a household of propriety where there were no caresses, no hugs, no overt, distasteful displays of emotion. my grandparents meant well– the truth, I suspect, is that my grandmother hadn’t the first clue how to mother children, having lost her own mother in a tragic accident while still a toddler herself– and my grandfather, well, he was a guy– a staunch upstanding citizen by all accounts if not a particularly cozy fella.
so betsy was a fish out of water– highly emotional, vivacious, bright, sensitive– and the children had a nurse, as well-to-do families did in those days, and the nurse would discipline the unruly child betsy– by beating her with a hairbrush.
the twins had their own difficult paths, one mentally ill though undiagnosed with schitzophrenia until adulthood, and the other angry and bitter and mean. there’s a lot there, but I only know it by hearsay and what I witnessed in later years– and this is not the place or time to process this part of the story.
my mom survived her growing-up years and went away to boarding school, as nice young ladies did, and went on to a smart ivy league college– and met my dad, a student at a neighboring ivy league men’s school, and fell in love. and said to hell with waiting, despite her parents’ desire that she finish her college education– my mom couldn’t wait any longer to be loved, to have a family, to have a place she belonged– so as soon as my dad graduated, the two were married. he was even a redhead, too.
and off they went on their married adventure to my dad’s service years, paying off the education debt in fort sill, oklahoma– they weathered burnt newlywed chicken and giant cockroaches and orange winds together– and they had their first baby, my eldest brother. after a couple of years they moved back to their mutual home state, michigan, my dad started law school in order to keep my grandfather’s daughter in the style to which she was accustomed, and they had another baby, my second brother. a little while later my mom had another baby, another boy– but this one was born with an incomplete skull and only lived a few moments. she named the baby and mourned him deeply, who had come to define herself above all as wife and mother, and took the doctor’s advice and got pregnant right away again with my sister.
someplace after that things begin to get a little foggy in the mom narrative– the order of events gets a little uncertain, a little scrambledy, as things would continue. she began to have headaches. really really bad headaches. she had three young children, and she was sick, though it was for a long time unclear with what. she got pregnant again and gave birth to me. she went to doctor after doctor. she went to psychiatrists. no one could explain to her why she was having the terrible headaches– which were becoming blind spells and blackouts. finally a doctor ran an imaging test of her brain and found a cyst– it was blocking fluid drainage and building up the pressure behind her eyes– her life was in danger. she went into surgery convinced she wouldn’t survive.
she survived. but the person who emerged from that surgery was brain injured. the doctors had been unable to reach the cyst and had only been able to install a shunt down her neck to drain the fluid. the process of doing this, who knows, doubtless they did the best they could– they saved her life– inarguably. but the woman, according to those who knew her before and after, was substantively changed. her longterm memory remained intact, but her shortterm memory had been fouled up. there were a few years of seizures and no-driving-the-car and a lot of medication, but the most substantive effect was her lack of tracking– like a cd prone to skip and stutter. there would be glimpses of the shining woman and then perseveration, repetition, getting lost, misplacing things, and sheer, wretched frustration– because she was wholly aware that her goddamned brain wasn’t functioning the way it had before.
my mom’s a fighter, she’s a survivor. this narrative thus far barely scratches the surface– her life was far from over– hell, it was 1972. she has lived a long time and survived a whole lot more. after she emerged from that first big surgery, shocked and grateful to be alive, she resolved to find her biological mother. this was a long time ago– adoption records were sealed, and there were laws protecting the information– but she persevered. she traveled to new york, the state shown on her birth certificate, and pestered the bureaucrats until someone blatantly left a file on his desk while he went out of the room for a cup of coffee. and she found her mother.
my mom has survived cancer. she has survived diabetes. she had a second brain surgery in 1987 during which the doctors removed both the cyst and the drainage shunt using still-experimental microsurgery. all the anti-seizure medication she’s taken for years turned her bones porous, which she learned several winters back when she slipped on the ice and her ankle crumbled. my mother is ornery and outspoken and fey and stubborn– and lately she has been getting lost and scrambled more frequently. today the diagnosis came in and my dad sent an email out to us kids: early stage dementia, alzheimer’s.
this is, I fear and know, not something my mom’s going to survive. she is going to struggle against it and get angry at it– and it’s going to take her, what is left of her, all the pieces, this disease will bit-by-bit steal them away. and there is nothing she can, we can, do. my mom is not well. this is what I’m sitting with tonight– miles away, powerless, thinking of her. my mom, whom I love.