It’s Time to Close the Book on My Mother
Writing a memoir helped me understand her critical, controlling ways. But now I need my life back.
Two hours before she dies, my mother lifts her head and tries to speak but can’t form words. She falls back on her pillow, panting.
It stuns me into stillness.
I gaze at her sightless eyes, her open, empty mouth. The blue-white light flickering across her face. The impossibly small oblong of her in the nursing home bed. Her faded blue blanket a vast forbidding sea.
What had she wanted to say?
I long to know.
But do I?
“Come to the page without a plan,” my instructor said long ago at a weeklong freefall-writing retreat. “Write with no idea where it might lead.”
I planned anyway.
I scanned for topics the night before and mind mapped in early morning light when I should have been writing—at last eking out some stilted paragraphs about my mother and our despair, which I’d slip under the instructor’s door by noon.
She always knew when I’d played it safe.
“Go toward fear,” she’d urge. “Write about what has energy.”
When I finally learned to catch story threads blowing through my mind like stray wisps of cotton candy on the wind at a fairground, I’d merge with the keyboard. Time vanished as I took dictation from an urgent inner voice.
Years later those outpourings, alive with truth, knit themselves into draft one of my memoir.
My mother’s words have always been a constant. Even the hemorrhagic stroke that paralyzed her right arm seven days before she died failed to silence her.
When nursing home staff called with the news, my husband and I launched ourselves west on the 401, Ontario’s busiest and most dangerous highway.
“I’m pretty determined,” my nearly ninety mother said in her new, slurred voice when we showed up in her room three hours later.
If the arm didn’t come back, she informed us, she would simply learn to steer her electric wheelchair with her left hand.
Through the years, we’d lived no more than half an afternoon’s drive apart. We widened that distance by putting most of our words in writing.
Birthday cards, her commanding “Love M” at the bottom inflated, underlined and punctuated.
Her short letters like the one accusing me of “psychobabble” when I’d patronized her with sympathy for her crooked finger, which she thought was rheumatoid arthritis.
My long letters in which I tried to close the divide by sharing my love, confusion and anger about our family’s perennial dysfunction.
The remove implicit in letters and emails seemed to suit us both.
Head-turning beautiful with honey-brown hair, movie-star cheekbones, eyes like sky and steel, my mother was a woman unaware she was in torment, triumphantly estranged from everyone who should have been important to her: permanently from her mother and three siblings, often from my father, repeatedly from me, her only child.
As a kid, I would ask about the polio that had paralyzed her legs at age eight. What was it like to need crutches, braces, an acrylic corset shaped into a gentle S-bend to support her fused spine?
“I’m not talking about that,” she’d say, all business and rebuke.
Ashamed, I erased my curiosity. For years I took her withholding personally—until I wrote it down and held what I’d written to the light.
She had been distancing herself from tragedy in the way survivors do from all kinds of wars.
Over and over, my father asked for my silence in response to her critical tongue.
Safer for us both, he implied. Easier.
I swam in the space between the daughter she wanted, made in her image, and the daughter she got, unable to excel in what she valued most: proficiency in piano, fluency in her native German, shimmering conversation.
She had little to say about my corporate communication career and busy freelance practice. What mattered was that I was too sensitive, too soft, too reminiscent of her mother, my beloved Oma, whose kindness she called “marshmallow.”
I’ve been wary of my mother’s voice most of my life. We’d once gone seven years without speaking, fallout from her hostile superflare during what was supposed to have been a pleasant afternoon visit.
I had arrived at my parents’ house half an hour late. Mother was polite, but I could hear the hiss of ice forming beneath her words.
“So, what can I do to help around here?” I said brightly, seizing on a topic that had worked well in the past. “Declutter, clean some hard-to-reach places, pull some weeds?”
She had a written list this time.
I held out my hand. “May I see it?”
She stuffed the list in her pocket.
We sat at the glass-topped rattan table in the sunroom that day, our conversation a little like turning pages of adhesive paper bound glue to glue.
Out of the blue she asked me the difference between abstract and surreal art.
I didn’t know. “So, you tell me, what’s the difference?”
She shrugged. “Why would I bother? Your entire education, a waste of time. Tell me, what do you know?”
I pressed both palms against my thighs as they began their familiar tremor.
“I wish I’d never come.”
She smiled. “Aww, poor baby.” Her singsong voice. “Wishes she’d never come.”
One corner of her mouth curled up. She looked at me with loathing, her face contorted with it, eyes shining. Then she lifted her chin and laughed. A maniacal cackle.
The writer’s instinct to document hard upon me since adolescence, I’ve captured conversations, discoveries, emotions in more than thirty black Blueline journals, each hard-backed and roomy with its pre-numbered two hundred and eight pages, each page stacked with twenty-seven beckoning lines and a one-inch margin on the left like a porch for second thoughts, each book a room of my own, swollen with the ink from my messy blend of print and cursive handwriting.
I also have her letters. Copies of every letter I’ve written since I was a teenager, a practice I picked up from her. Transcripts of interviews with relatives taped before anyone was aware a future memoirist lurked in their midst, including me.
Writing filled our seven-year estrangement—my voice and my mother’s blending into countless journal pages contributing over time to memoir chapters that burned to answer, Can this relationship be saved?
The sheer volume of written words gives me enough to form a shape that approaches truth.
My childhood truth. A happier time when my small compliant self didn’t threaten her fear of abandonment and need for control.
Decembers, she baked my favourite lebkuchen and stored it in a cookie tin on a lower shelf, never seeming to notice the dwindling supply.
Christmas Eve, she’d hide with me and the dog in the back bedroom, lights out, to wait for Santa.
“Stay away from the windows,” she’d whisper, “or you’ll scare him away.”
There was also the truth of that time when I was in my forties and we returned from visiting my father during one of his many hospital stays—triple bypass, arrhythmia, osteoporosis, aneurysm—to find the home care worker had made her a rainbow confetti angel food cake for her birthday.
We sat at the kitchen table chatting as we tore pieces off with our hands. I think we polished off the whole thing. I felt relaxed and connected, the way I’d always hoped things would be with her but almost never were.
I have no memory of leaning into her for warmth. It wasn’t her way. Her crutches and braces fenced her in.
“I don’t think you like me,” I once ventured.
“You know who I do like?” She named a friend’s vivacious daughter.
Once, when I bent to kiss her to show goodwill after a quarrel, she put her crutch-hardened arm around my neck and held me down in a hammerlock, crowing with victory in my ear, my claustrophobia blooming so that I wrenched away, lifting her briefly from the bed before she let go.
Not long before she died, Mother called to complain about a male staff person who had refused to help with the bedpan.
“He told me I’ve been a cripple all my life. He said I have no rights at all. That I’m useless and powerless.”
“What? Who is this man?”
“He’s got a viciousness in him that is nonpareil,” she said. “He told me, ‘You can pee your pants if you need a bedpan.’ I just looked at him and smiled.”
I was almost as shocked at her using the word “pee” as I was by the encounter.
The charge nurse assured me no male staff person had entered my mother’s room.
“Most of the time your mother is pleasant and upbeat,” she said. “Other times, when she’s been doing a lot of thinking, she’ll tell us we’re her servants and required to do as she asks right away. Or she’ll tell us these scrambled, vivid stories like the one you heard.”
The next day, I puzzled out my mother’s bedpan story on the keyboard.
The usual alchemy ensued. My fingers, charged with their own intelligence, showed me things about her I’d failed to understand.
Tell me more, I said. Tell me why.
And through the psychic medium of memoir, she did.
I saw that her story had been an inner monologue, a self-characterization raised from the depths of her being and released in the only way acceptable to her: disguised as the voice of the “Other,” a mythical male support worker invented for the purpose of giving vent to her self-hatred and despair.
As I wrote, I heard her raw and unresolved shame in being defective, her horror of appearing weak driving her to push away those who would love her.
To avoid shame, she must not need anything from anyone. If need could not be avoided, she must reframe it as demand, entitlement, control.
Minutes before my mother dies, I’m in a chair pulled close to her bedside, thumb and fingers clenched around a white, fat-barrel ballpoint pressed to page sixty-eight in journal thirty-one.
The place where I will make peace with even this.
I write how mere hours ago she was nodding yes and no to questions. How staff had increased her pain meds. How she’d slipped into what looked like a soothing sleep.
My concentration breaks when suddenly, as though from a tunnel, deep and dark, a sound emerges from my mother’s throat that I have never heard before. I thought I’d heard them all.
Yet I recognize the sound, low and guttural, a percussive knocking.
Her death rattle shivers through me like brittle leaves in a storm.
A fascination with death has tracked me throughout adulthood because of the way I imagined it would sidle up to truth. Who at the fraught edges of life has time to be anything but truthful?
I put the question to the page. Didn’t death have the power to unite?
What had she wanted to say?
That she regretted the decades of turmoil?
That despite everything she loved me?
Far too storybook. I can hear her mocking me for being so trite.
Three years later, I am content to wonder and not know.
We’ve done all our talking, for now.
Trusting my pen has lifted me so high above the fray I can see the edge of darkness catch the light of stars—a perspective that has ushered me through grief and compassion.
Helped me understand that the path to peace and healing lies in accepting that some relationships cannot be fixed. That hope for the past, present and future to somehow be different must eventually crumble under its own impossible weight.
Engaging Mother on the page has taken a toll. She’s lived in my head for millennia. Painful events loom like yesterday.
And I’m tired.
My final edits are done. Soon, I’ll close the covers on my book. Memories will shrink to their natural proportions.
And my mother’s voice will fade into the past, as it’s supposed to.