I was told she was agitated, uncomfortable, and upset while lying in bed watching TV. But this was a state of normalcy for my mother. In bed, amped up, and yelling at political pundits.
I didn’t have the heart to share this with the caring hospice nurses. I knew they were doing their best to ease her pain. What they didn’t know, cancer or not, was that was an impossible job.
When I learned of her lung cancer in early October, we talked daily. Our conversations were light, often pointless. Sometimes she asked about my kids. But speaking with her always made me feel lighter, more understood. Then she stopped picking up the phone. A few weeks later, I received a generic Christmas card.
Santa was stuffing his giant red bag down a chimney. The card read, “Have a wonderful Christmas! xoxo mom.”
Below in different print: P.S.: MOM IS DEAD.
Naturally, I was a bit stunned. So I hadn’t noticed the contents that fluttered onto the floor — a collection of inappropriate photographs of Mom from the '70s wearing halter tops and sitting on the edges of 40-foot schooners in Marin County. Further still was the one page form letter, clearly meant for all six of her children, a kind of hand- crafted memorial to herself. The truncated version was as follows:
“Mom was a fearless butterfly, a lover of life who could whip up a soufflé that would put Julia Child to shame. She devoted her time to earning Ph.D.’s, sewing pillow shams, and helping Caryn (my younger, very abled sister) fill out complex disability forms, all the while on her death bed.”
The note ended with, “Now she can eat cheeseburgers with abandon while listening to Bach. So don’t break down at this horrid loss. Soldier on and carry forth.”
I was furious. My initial thoughts were: How dare that witch die and not warn me, then to suggest I might come undone! I’m not exactly falling apart here you presumptuous cow!
Because she had lied and told me her cancer was stage one and treatable, we thought there was time. Nonetheless, a sister and I made plans to go see her.
“Mom, Liz and I are flying up,” I told her.
“Over my dead body! You cause me nothing but stress,” she replied.
Then she hung up. Liz washed her hands of the entire ordeal.
“I’m done. Would have been a nice vacay away from the kids but whatever.”
I was not willing to give up without a fight. I would force my way into her house.
I had no idea Caryn was living with my mother. Caryn was not only witnessing Mom getting sicker by the hour, but ushering in hospice workers and arranging funeral plans. Their scheme was to ship my mother’s dead body to a parlor for “science” so it would be free. After six months, the body is cremated and left with the other anonymous ashes.
Knowing all of this, Caryn did not deem this worthy news. She called no one, most likely to lessen any drama regarding wills and transferring ownership of the house. To put this in perspective, my mother married at 15, had six children, grew bored of that life, and in short order, we did the gypsy dance until she successfully abandoned every one of us.
After receiving this October Christmas card, there was a flurry of phone calls. My sisters and I discussed at length the absurdity of it all and compared our bizarre photo collections.
Next we moved on to the Xeroxed memo. Here, we could not contain our laughter. This may have been a combination of collective grief and incredulousness. But it was certainly cathartic.
My mother hated life, was not fearless, never earned an honest paycheck in her life, pursued Ph.D.’s for the grant money, was a bitter alcoholic, and wreaked havoc everywhere she went. There was one truth. She could sew a mean pillow sham.
Because Caryn would not take my calls, I took the matter into my own hands. Perhaps because I had been denied a mother, I would not be denied her death. There was this urgency for me to know what her last words had been. Did she mention me? Any of us?