My Mother

This is an episode from my cancer memoir.

Symmetry does not exist in nature, but sometimes the curves and inclines of life lead us back to the starting point. As a storyteller, I’ve always liked cyclical structure — to end where we began.

(If I start singing Elton John’s ‘The Circle of Life,’ you have permission to shoot me.)

I had these thoughts a few months before the cancer diagnosis, when I sat by my mother’s bedside massaging her legs. She was in her “assisted living facility” — Jesus God, I hate those antiseptic euphemisms — the place she called “the old folks home.” She was 92 but did not consider herself old.

She was right — in a lot of ways. Her body was giving out and she was entertaining a guest late to the party: Parkinson’s Disease. But she never saw herself as old and hated the sloth and inactivity her body’s betrayal had brought upon her.

In August 2014, Nicole returned from the Philippines and so I took a late-summer weekend to see my mother for the first time since the spring.

With my mother during the years we lived in Germany

I surprised her. My flight landed just before five and I rented a car to speed down to Bloomington from the Indianapolis airport. I got to her open-door apartment at Hearthstone Health just after 7 that evening. She was already asleep, but I stood over her for a moment, then reached down to touch her cheek. She opened her eyes and the look on her face is one of those memories I will take to my grave.

She was surprised, elated, loving — this was the one person I could always count on to love me, and now my appearance at her bedside had brought her joy. I was aware that waking her was selfish, but her reaction made me realize everything was all right.

“Bill — oh, Bill,” she said. “You’re here.”

“Yep, I came in for the weekend. I’m sorry I woke you, but I wanted to surprise you. It took a long time to get the rental car and then the traffic was crazy.”

“You’re here,” she said again.

“Yep. And I’ll be back in the morning. You need to get your rest, but I couldn’t get in town and not immediately come see you.”

Her health and her memory might have faded, but I could see the love I’d been lucky to know all my life.

“I promised the nurses out there I wouldn’t stay, so I have to go. I just wanted to see you.”

She couldn’t pull herself up, and her head remained nestled in her pillow as she looked at me. That smile. That moment will be on my death-bed highlight reel.

That weekend, I made a feeble effort to pay her back for the splendid life she and my father had given me. Her legs pained her and so I massaged them for her. There was an anesthetic ointment that provided relief but the nurses said the supply was gone and the new order hadn’t arrived. I drove to a pharmacy and found a tube and massaged it into my mother’s legs. To hear her sigh with comfort, to see that she had some respite from pain, gave me pleasure. Later, at mealtime, I fed her. Her arms were useless to her, so I repaid my debt. At the beginning of my life she nourished me. Now, at the end of her life, I got to repay her, even if it was in such small measure.

I thank God for the opportunity to help my mother.

My father and mother on their wedding day in 1943

We were close. My father died when I was 20. I spent that last day with my parents.

I lived across town in a decrepit shack with a friend from my newspaper days. He had left the paper and taken over a bar downtown — Bloomington, Indiana, one of the nation’s greatest college towns — and turned it into a hugely popular hangout in a ‘burg with a lot of them. When my newspaper went out of business, he took me on as a roommate and doorman.

But every Sunday I’d go home to my mother and father — to do laundry, help with yardwork, watch football and consume a great dinner.

That particular Sunday, the three of us watched The Last Picture Show together. Afterward, I recall turning around on the front porch to say goodbye. My father was standing there, and the door closed — dramatically in my recollection — in front of him.

I was back in a couple of hours, summoned by a phone call. My father had died next to my mother in bed. When I got there, the medics were removing his body from the house. My mother couldn’t return to the bed. She took up residence on the love seat in the family room and I lay down on the floor beside her. Eventually, we slept.

I moved home. This was a difficult strategic move for me — a randy 20-year-old man — but she was my mother. I stayed there for more than a year and it was hard. My father’s physician friends showed little true sympathy for my mother’s enormous grief and wrote ‘scrips to keep her in a drugged haze. She was difficult, sometimes irrational. And I was a selfish young asshole.

But we got through it. I dealt with my tremendous grief with silence. My mother didn’t understand why I wasn’t talking about him. She was a vessel of incoherence and pain, constantly asking why my father had gone.

Eventually we found rapproachment, and began to understand each other. She removed herself from that tissue of grief and pharmaceuticals and again joined the living.

My mother — second from left, standing — with her brothers and sisters during the Second World War. This was the last time she saw her brother, Richard — right, front. He was killed in the Pacific not long after his visit home.

She traveled, she made friends. Eventually, she started dating one of my father’s oldest friends.

They ended up dating more than 30 years, until his death. But the poor guy suffered by comparison. Superficially like my father in many ways — a physician, a lover of literature, a raconteur and deeply witty man — he still was not my father. He became my mother’s regular companion for trips and television, but when he died, she did not cry. She’d had only one love and never allowed herself to love again in that way.

In my divorced-guy years, I saw her monthly. I’d drive up from Florida for weekends with the kids in Indiana — my ex-wife moved to the same town — so I’d stay with her and we’d have coffee and long talks and spend time together with the children. She never told me how to run my life but did offer advice now and then, especially when I let my girlfriend — a devoted and charming divorced mother of two — get away.

But she did what a parent was supposed to do: she believed in me. I saw myself as the black sheep of the family. My brother was a physician and he and his wife built a wonderful life with five children, right there in Bloomington, where my mother lived. My sister, a nurse, married a superman and together they raised two nearly perfect children and built yet another handsome life, outside Washington, DC. Her husband John had been in my life since I was nine, so he was more brother than brother-in-law. He stumbled at the start of adulthood, got drafted and served in Vietnam, returning home to build a career that ended with his retirement as a respected aerospace executive.

My mother found this picture in an album a couple decades back and gave it to me. “When I die,” she said, “and they need a picture to use in the newspaper, give them this one. This is how I want to be remembered, not as a little old lady.”

Then there was me. I chose paths — journalism and education — that traditionally did not lead to great wealth. I did all right, but then came the shame and embarrassment of divorce and my feelings of failure. But my mother always stood by me and encouraged me.

So it meant so much to me to be able to repay her. I hadn’t visited as often since the older kids were grown and I remarried and had little ones at home. Visiting just three or four times a year, I could see the changes in her more dramatically than I did when I saw her monthly.

She had rebelled when it came time for the “assisted-living facility” and when my brother told her, at age 90, that she could no longer drive. He and his wife took a lot of her wrath because they were there — their farm was a five-minute drive from Hearthstone. They took the heat and took care of her.

And despite my sister’s great distance from Indiana, she — often with husband John; always with husband John after his retirement — came monthly. A parent could wish for no more devoted and loving child than my sister. Yet she too was sometimes on the recieving end of my mother’s anger.

She was angry because she had always been so independent and active. As her body and mind betrayed her, she’d sometimes take it out on the ones around her. As the old song said, you always hurt the one you love.

Now I was the distant child, the one she saw only two or three times a year. I got the pass. Still, we talked once a week by phone and I felt I could tell my mother anything and everything.

But not this.

During that visit in August, my mother’s hospice nurse, Mary Ann Iracliano, took me aside and told me it was time to say my goodbyes. My mother could be gone at any moment.

“Think about those things you’d want to say,” she told me. “When she’s gone, what will you wish you had said to her?”

I’d tried to always be straight with my mother. I remember that years before, we were watching terrible afternoon television talk shows while waiting for the kids to get home from school. On the television, some guy in his forties was screaming at his mother about what a lousy parent she’d been and how she’d ruined his life.

“Don’t worry, mom,” I said. “I’ll never turn up on one of these shows.”

She laughed.

“I mean it,” I said. “I have no complaints. You were great. You and dad made me feel loved. And I always loved you.”

“I know,” she said. Her eyes held a whisper of a tear.

So was there anything left unsaid? I didn’t think so, and I also didn’t think I was ready for the final goodbye.

That August visit was among my last lucid moments with my mother. I sat at her bedside, fed her, massaged her legs, and talked to to her about my life. But I did not talk to her about what was going on with my body.

I was back a month later for son Graham’s wedding — my mother could not attend — and spent most of my non-wedding time with her, but could tell she’d slipped a lot in just a few weeks. I could not talk to her about what was happening to my body, about how my problems were worsening weekly.

I planned a quick trip home before Christmas – to see her, to see Graham and his new bride, and to see my brother’s family. But then I got the diagnosis and canceled my travel plans.

I called my mother and said that work was just too crazy — which was true — and that I had to cancel. She understood; she always understood.

Now I remembered the words of Mary Ann, the hospice nurse: “She needs to let go. You need to let her know that everything is fine, that you’re doing well.” Mary Ann didn’t know about my cancer; I didn’t even know about it when she told me this. But now the words took on meaning.

All of my life, I’d told my mother everything. But now, I couldn’t tell her this.

Of all the secrets I had to keep, this one was the hardest.