Today is my mother’s birthday.
She should have been ninety-six years old today. She should have lived that long; she had the genes. Her mother, my grandmother, lived to be ninety-seven. Mother would have lived to see seven precious great-grandchildren, some of them now almost grown up themselves. But she didn’t live. She died of uterine cancer in 1985, when she was only sixty-five, so young by today’s standards. Had she gone to the doctor sooner, it’s possible that she might still be here, but she ignored the signs that something was wrong. She was too busy taking care of my grandmother, who had had a stroke that fall, to take care of herself. The way she’d neglected herself to look after my father.
In February 1982, my father had died of a heart attack and the bottom dropped out of my mother’s world. They were married forty-seven years. She was eighteen and he was thirty-two when they married–an unlikely pair, but they adored each other. A couple of months after his death, Mother hemorrhaged, and her cancer was diagnosed. She underwent horrible treatments: radium implants in her uterus that kept her in bed for a week in the hospital, unable to move, then surgery, then more radiation. And after, she suffered from various complaints, strange swellings and numbness, odd neurological symptoms nobody seemed to be able to explain, weight loss. But she persevered. I can see her now, doggedly walking the block of broken sidewalk in front of her house, back and forth, back and forth, to get in her “mile” for the day.
The thing is, she lost the will to live. I asked her once, when she seemed particularly down, “Why aren’t we enough?” By we, I meant me, and my sons; why weren’t we enough to make her want to live? She had no answer.
I read a piece this morning in The Washington Post about depression and suicide. I don’t believe my mother ever contemplated suicide. She would have believed that suicide was wrong, sinful. But I know she suffered from depression, and periodically, when she felt “low,” she would go to her local doctor for a B-12 shot to pick her up.
When I look at photos of her now–her pretty blond hair, her blue eyes, her smile–I think about how those photos belie her real nature. She was often sad and insecure, even though she was smart and beautiful. When she was dying, the nurses in the hospital talked about how beautiful she still was. But she had a complicated and difficult relationship with her own mother, and much of her insecurity must have sprung from that. I remember one day when my grandmother made a cutting remark to Mother and stalked out of the room. My mother stood with her back to me, bracing her hands on the kitchen counter. She was already sick by then, but it wasn’t the sickness that spoke when she said, “Why is it that nothing I do is ever good enough?”
I don’t remember what I said to her. I was too furious with my grandmother and if I recall correctly, I followed her to her bedroom and told her so.
Today I’m remembering the complex dance of three generations of women, our lives bound together by blood and place. Long after my mother’s death, and my grandmother’s–she outlived my mother nine years–I still feel my mother’s presence. Sometimes when I laugh, I’m startled because for a second, it’s my mother’s laugh I hear. Because she did laugh. She grew roses. She entertained her garden club. She was active in her church. And she loved my father and me and my sons so very much.
One last memory: when she was getting sicker and could no longer drive, she would get a friend to drive her to meet me half the distance between our towns so that my two younger boys could spend a few days with her. I wonder how they spent that time together. I’ve never asked them. They were old enough to understand that she was ill, but they went anyway, willingly. I think she was determined to spend time with them so they would remember her, and they do. They loved her.
As do I.