mom

my mom’s been through a lot– and for the most part if you were to ask people about her, they’d pretty much say, that betsy, what a hoot. she has definitely kept her sense of humor, which is, frankly, sort of amazing. her story is a mouthful, and not really mine to tell– but for various reasons tonight I feel the need to share a bit of it here– in part to honor her, my mother, who has come before me in all things, to celebrate her, and to process what she’s currently going through, for myself.

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.

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21 Replies to “mom”

  1. I am stunned by this. Your narrative is so full and beautiful, it made your mother alive and strong to me – so her diagnosis is doubly shattering.
    Think of her, be strong for her, communicate with your family, try and form a circle of love around her – no matter how distant you are.
    I am so sorry.

  2. Sarah, I'm really sorry. This is a gorgeous tribute to your mother and what is happening now. Please know I'm here if you need anything, even just a hug.

  3. My dad died when I was four and all I know about him is what I've persuaded other people to tell me about him. Reading this, I imagine a great deal of your image of your "real" mom consists of memories from years ago and of snippets other people have told you, too.It seems recent accounts including your mom have described her condition as worsening and I don't know if having a diagnosis, a label, for it is disarming, comforting, or a bit of both.I'm sorry to hear this bit of news. I hope you can find the emotional strength to deal with it as well as possible. Hugs from me, too, from far away.

  4. This is such a moving, beautiful piece about your mother. It made me cry, in part because you don't need to say that you love her at the end, it is there in every word, and, in part, because I know where this story is headed. You and your family are in my thoughts.

  5. smart man. you're right about the diagnosis not being a complete surprise and both a blessing and a curse. apparently my mom is relieved at least to know that it's not her "fault," what's been happening to her lately. the road ahead, however, can't be the happiest. thanks for the words & wishes.

  6. thank you, ef. I've written around and about my mother for so many years now that it's impossible not to be aware of all the ways I've failed to do her justice or to honor her in the past in the course of various types of daughterly and often very adolescent resentment. love is, in my experience, seldom a clear or straightforward thing– so I'm relieved to hear that it comes across here without my needing to state it at the end. the last thing I want to do at this stage would be to objectify or cause any kind of pain to the woman who's been such a central and important element in the course of my life.

  7. This is such a moving, beautiful piece about your mother. It made me
    cry, in part because you don't need to say that you love her at the
    end, it is there in every word, and, in part, because I know where this
    story is headed.This exactly describes what I was thinking as I was reading the post originally, but in no way could I have put that into words — especially so succinctly — so I didn't even attempt to.Wow.

  8. Oh Sweetheart, this is such a beautiful story, I am so sorry about the diagnosis. My grandfather is suffering from dementia, he gets so mad at himself. It is so hard to watch. It just breaks my heart.

  9. thank you, LOL– and, yeah, one of the hardest things to witness is my mom's frustration with herself. it helps a bit to have documented reasons, although it doesn't really make the cognitive degeneration less cruel or frustrating. but the diagnosis also helps my dad do his own work around dealing with my mom– acknowledging his need for help and his own frustrations and coaching himself not to react to the things she says as simply dumb or annoying. he's the most honorable man I know– I'm pretty sure I've never given him as much credit as he deserves, either.

  10. I'm so sorry to hear this news. Poor mom. Poor you. I can't imagine how difficult it must be.I echo your other friends' sentiments — what a moving tribute. You're such a gifted writer.*hugs*

  11. Thanks for sharing the story of your mom, and wow did you ever do a wonderful job telling that story. electric firefly said it best. Hopefully things go as well as possible for your family.

  12. thanks for the compliments. I feel I need to point out that I'm far from wholly responsible for the resonance of this story– it's our main family myth, retold over and over in different ways among our family members, by my mom, between my siblings and myself– the only one who by and large stays out of this compulsive retelling and myth-making practice is my very pragmatic dad– who's been busy for years putting one foot in front of the other, supporting us all, doing the honorable thing without any obvious credit. families are amazing organisms. very complicated.

  13. A very touching read. Thanks for sharing your mom's story! I have a close family member who is in the early stages of alzheimer's as well (the medication has helped a bit). The only comfort, if it is one, is that once it gets really bad they won't know anything except the present moment – like a baby – so their awareness of their own state won't be hard for them. It won't be easy for anyone, though. Hugs to you, soul sister.

  14. oh, sweetie, i'm so sorry. there really isn't much more to say, is there? i wish there were. just so sorry. i watch my mom like a hawk for the signs, because she's so certain she's going to go that way that i can never tell if she's psyching herself into it or actually displaying symptoms. yer in my thoughts and heart…

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