It was thirty years ago today–July 1, 1986–when I woke up to the doorbell ringing.
7:30ish in the morning, as I recall, on a Tuesday. I was annoyed as hell. I’m a night person, always have been, and no one should be bugging me at that hour. I was 19, six weeks to go until I hit 20. I’d stayed at home that summer, making the astonishingly bad decision to accept my friend’s request to be music director of what was the second worst show I’d ever been involved with.
(And not just because it was the worst summer I had, but seriously, “They’re Playing Our Song” is just an awful show. Still, “The Good Doctor” wins out for a truly execrable lack of anything to recommend it. Interestingly, I only just now realized that they’re both Neil Simon. And I like the guy!)
But anyway, the badness of the decision had nothing to do with the quality of the show. What I should have been doing was traveling with the rest of my family–my sisters, father and mother–to the Bahamas. Their destination was an experimental cancer treatment clinic, in what I was too blinkered and naïve to realize was a last-ditch effort to save my mother’s life.
To this day I don’t know what the treatment was, which probably says a few things about my ignorance as well as the open nature (not) with which my family discussed this stuff even thirty years later. I’d spoken to Mom whether I should go to the Bahamas, and she encouraged me to stay home and do the show. Since it was the answer I wanted to hear, I gratefully obeyed. A cowardly decision I regret deeply. Because I don’t know if my Mom was secretly hoping/expecting me to say, “no, I want to be with you.”
I hope not. I really, really hope not.
Anyway, back to that morning. The doorbell rang and I was irked, because I thought that it was our housekeeper who’d come on the wrong day. (Wow. What a minor, first-world problem I’d thought I was facing! It’d be funny if the circumstances were anything else.)
My sister Kim was sleeping in my parents’ bed–Kim had come home a couple of days earlier, in what I believe was both a mercy to her, because Mom was in such bad shape, but also some prescience on my father and our older sister Karen’s part. I think they knew what was happening and didn’t want Kim there or me to be alone in Great Neck.
But for whatever reason, I was the one to get up and go to the door. I threw on my father’s paisley silk bathrobe to cover up the fact that I was only wearing my red Albany University sweatshirt. So I was quite an attractive sight when I stomped downstairs and opened the front door.
It wasn’t our housekeeper. It was Uncle Danny, my mom’s younger brother. He just stood there and looked at me. I can’t imagine how he must have felt, and he obviously didn’t have the words. Because I was still half-asleep and had so expected it to be Marva the Housekeeper, I just stared back in dumb confusion.
Seconds behind him, another car was pulling into our driveway: my cousin Billy’s car, which was disgorging Aunt Gladys (Mom’s younger sister). I digested this new arrival with the same lack of comprehension–the mind is really a remarkable denial delivery system–when yet another car zoomed up, parking on the street. This one housed Pop’s sister and brother-in-law, my Aunt Kay and Uncle Irving.
At this point one of my brain synapses finally fired off to connect with another, allowing me to make the correct assumption that something was up. I just couldn’t figure out what. So my sole verbal response was simply a flabbergasted:
“What the hell is going on?!”
And yes, I was still annoyed at having been woken up so early. And I was still not getting why all these relatives were suddenly converging on my house.
Since poor Uncle Danny was still speechless, I turned to find my Aunt Gladys, who was almost never speechless, emerging from Billy’s car, rushing up the sidewalk, moving past Uncle Danny to grab me in a hug.
“It’s happened,” she said.
Since we have some time here before my brain chugged into action (yet still took the wrong track), I’m going to diverge for a second to again marvel at the mind’s ability to push off that which it believes the self cannot handle.
I mean… it’s super-early in the morning. My mother has metastatic brain/lung cancer, didn’t recognize me the last time we spoke on the phone, was in a cancer center in the town of God-Knows-Where, The Bahamas. And it seems as if all my older relatives, from both sides of my parents’ families, are descending on me.
And my aunt says to me, “It’s happened.”
So what is the first thought in my head? This:
Did Grandma die?
Yes. This was literally my conclusion. My entire NYC-based family rushing over to our house not because of my dying mom, but because of my 86-year-old but relatively healthy grandmother.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a textbook example of a brain, after having been pushed past the brink of a chasm, flailing for purchase and grasping for one last attempt to protect itself from what is very, very obviously the awful truth.
Denial until the very, very last second. I’m still pretty good at it, but this was Olympic-level ignoring reality here.
Aunt Gladys was clutching at me, and as I recall, I stared, dead-eyed, past her–she was easily a half-foot shorter than I was–to Uncle Danny and Aunt Phyllis (his wife), and probably by then Uncle Irving, Aunt Kay and Billy.
I don’t remember when the truth dawned. First there was that denial, the confusion, when I seriously thought all this meshugass was over my grandma. Then, hours later but really only seconds later, came the realization that of course, of course: it was Mom.
* * *
It wasn’t a sudden mind-change, like a light switching on. More like a cross-fade. Hell, at some point I’m almost certain I held both beliefs at once.
My reaction, and since I’m baring my metaphoric breast here I admit it’s unworthy and selfish, continuing my pattern for that summer, was to just walk out of the house and start pacing. The selfish part is my reason for doing so: I don’t want to hear them tell Kim about it. She’s going to be hysterical and I can’t take that.
At that point in our lives, Kim was much more vocal and emotive than I was. I was a closed book who shriveled into nothingness when confronted by something horrible. Kim went into full-tilt Greek-tragedy mode when upset. (Interestingly, I think we’ve switched places, or at least we’ve moved much closer in the spectrum.)
I was frozen at that point. And somehow I knew that if I heard Kim wailing I would shatter into a thousand pieces, shards that no one would be able to pick up.
So I started walking around the perimeter of our yard. Uncle Danny, bless him, followed me. I don’t know what he was expecting, if he thought I’d do myself an injury or something, but whatever his thought process, he wanted to be there for me. I didn’t want him there. I didn’t want to deal with anyone. I had to process this. We must have made a bizarre, silent parade as we circled my house one or two times. By the second lap, I heard Kim’s crying from inside the house. I think I shut my eyes and just kept walking.
Do I seem like a sociopathic monster to anyone else? Why wouldn’t I have wanted to be with my sister, the closest person to me at that moment? I don’t know. Unfortunately, shock and grief don’t tend to bring out my most rational and compassionate sides, the way they should.
Almost everything else that day is a blur. I don’t remember seeing Kim for the first time. I don’t remember a thing any of my relatives said, although they must have been present the whole day, and must have explained whatever they knew about exactly how Mom died. It’s all gone. I do remember making yet another super-weird decision, in calling my closest friends, and one of them–Bart–driving like a maniac from his home in Bayside to me in Great Neck (and Bart was none too great a driver even in the best of circumstances; frankly I’m surprised he survived that journey). I told him I had to get out of the house, and he took me to Scobee’s, the official diner of my high school.
Again, I just can’t fathom what my relatives must’ve thought of me. “Her mother’s dead, her sister’s fallen apart, we’re all here, and she goes flouncing off to get some breakfast?” I don’t know. But God, did I need that breakfast. Mostly I needed the distance. I needed to process things, because I knew my life had changed, I just didn’t fully understand how. I very literally hadn’t expected my mother to die. Whether this was because the older folks in my family hid the truth from me, or (more likely) because I was just so fucking stupid and willfully ignorant, I don’t know. But despite every extremely obvious sign that Mom was being eaten away and wouldn’t survive this, I simply hadn’t imagined it.
Now the unimaginable had happened.
* * *
When speaking of moments like this, it’s customary to use the cliché that one’s childhood died. But y’know, I’m going to turn that on its head. For me, my adulthood died. Whatever trajectory I’d envisioned (and I fully admit I wasn’t and am not very good at envisioning the future) for myself in becoming an adult, when my front door opened that morning, the door to my future shut.
Thirty years later, I’m ashamed to admit that a big part of me is still that almost-twenty-year-old girl, not even what I’d call a young woman. (It’s not an age thing. For example, although my niece is only four or five months older than I was at the time, I do consider her a young woman.)
For years, most of my sentient life, I’d wanted to be a performer, a singer of some kind. My mom’s death caused that goal to die, although I wouldn’t realize it for about ten years. That increasingly nebulous goal sputtered on like–well, okay, I’m sorry to 80% of my relatives for bringing politics into this–Bernie Sanders’s campaign, held together with duct tape and hope that really had no logical rationale for existing when the rest of me knew it was a moribund, barely animated corpse that hadn’t realized it Just Wasn’t Going to Happen.
My strength was my mother’s, or so I believed. Without her I didn’t have the will to continue. I wasn’t helped by my inability to garner support from others. I wasn’t a social animal (that hasn’t changed much) and I closed up. There were people around: above all, my wonderful sisters and, to a lesser extent, my father. Never a popular girl, I had three friends who did their best by me: Leslie, my oldest friend, who loved my mom and knew her best; Bart, the one I’ll never forget for rushing over the instant I told him what had happened, and who also thought the world of Mom; and especially Jessica, who knew what it was like to lose your mother and who became the one person I knew understood me.
Of the other adults in my life, one–my choral director/music professor/student advisor, David Janower–took me somewhat under his wing, and I’m grateful to him for it, though as with all the rest, I couldn’t believe his sincerity. None of my other professors extended much sympathy. One–unfortunately, my temporary voice teacher, whom I saw most often–was outright hostile to my daring to feel grief a whole six months after my mom died.
I wasn’t a shining idol of compassion either. Toward my extended family, who were grieving as well of course, I developed a low-level but long-abiding resentment and anger that I can’t fully explain. Well… I kinda can, but they may read this, and I’d rather not dig up those old wounds. I’ll just say I didn’t feel, or maybe more accurately I didn’t accept, much support from them, though I know they loved and cared about my sisters and me.
So without much support, a significant part of me froze in amber that day thirty years ago. It wasn’t fair to me, and it wasn’t fair to my mother. I think she would be desperately saddened to know that I’ve sort of become her. I took on her grief and guilt, wearing it like a mantle because I felt I deserved it, and also for protection. If you don’t hope, you can’t be disappointed, right?
* * *
Something in me–God knows I’ve discussed this with therapists over the years!–feels guilt about the possibility of living a fulfilling life without my mother. She suffered from terrible depression and I think some weird part of me believes my staying in that dark prison cell is the only way to remain close to her, to be loyal to her.
But thirty years is an awfully long prison sentence especialy when you’re not entirely sure what crime you’ve committed. This year, wholly coincidentally given the significant anniversary, I’ve taken some unusual risks and steps forward. Building new goals, bolstering up my education, meeting new people both as potential social contacts and career/creative partners. I just returned from a week-long writers’ workshop/retreat, something that terrified me beforehand but that ended up being the most fulfilling thing I’ve done for myself since I stopped performing.
My mom’s been gone thirty years now, and as disloyal as it is to acknowledge, there are parts of her I do want to leave behind at last. Her fear. Her mistrust of the future, or indeed the idea that good things can last. Her guilt. Her sorrow.
Far more plentiful are the things I can take with me, that she’d want me to have. Before a family tragedy experienced before I was born, my mom enjoyed life (I think). She gave me my love of literature. My Anglophilia. My voice. (Though that was also from my father’s side of the family.) My compassion. My appreciation of the arts. (Again, Pop had plenty to do with that as well.) My ability to listen, which I suppose is an offshoot of compassion. My impatience for hypocrites and my mistrust of bigotry masked by religious piety. My liberalism, although I’m not nearly as pink as she was. My rooting for underdogs. My vocabulary.
So on this anniversary, as incomprehensible and sobering as it is to realize just how brief my time with her was, compared to my time without her… I’d like to invite Shirley Lerner back into my life. I have stronger goals now and maybe they’re able to sustain the two of us. The manuscript I’m currently working on is very much a personal project that has some intense autobiographical elements, including those relating to my relationship with Mom. They’re exaggerated, because it’s fiction, but I’ll be telling truths nonetheless. I think, I hope, Mom would understand.
So, to finish at last: Mom, I’m taking you out of the grave where you’ve resided far too long. Come with me and, as I enter the same age group you were in when you died, let’s fulfill our unmet promises. There’s still time, I hope. I’ve wasted thirty years; if I’m lucky enough to be granted thirty more, I don’t want to waste them.
I’ll never be a performer like your granddaughter Katherine, whom you tragically never knew; I’ll never be a parent like Karen; and it’s likely that I’ll never be a wife like Kim. But there are other paths I can take, ones that none of them can travel. I’ll take you along, and will be all the stronger for it.
Thirty years ago, I lost you. It’s time to find you again.