This is a story about my biological mother. I’m lucky to have had three moms in my life. Last month I told you guys about mom #3 needing to get a pacemaker. Mom #3 is awesome. She’s been in my life for 27 years. She was my dad’s third wife and the one everyone likes. This story is about mom #1. She’s the one I grew up with.
My mother was a tremendous smoker. It was something she excelled at in the same way other people excel at throwing a baseball or dancing the rhumba. Sometimes she used a cigarette holder and looked very elegant. Other times she’d go a cappella and use the cigarette as a prop to tell stories about growing up in the Bronx.
Wherever she went a pack of Viceroys went with her. They were part of her life and she carried them with her the same way a magician always has a deck of cards on him. The downside was that her two-and-a-half-pack-a-day habit ensured our house was constantly full of smoke. The air quality in our house was so poor you’d swear the television was powered by coal. We could have run an iron smelter in the living room and the visibility would have been the same.
Even worse was that anyone who came over to see us ended up going home smelling like the bartender at the VFW. I’d go to a birthday party and when one of my little 10-year-old friends unwrapped the present from us the smell of a thousand cigarettes would burst forth and all the parents would suddenly find something for the kids to do outside.
Strangely, my mother’s smoking was the only thing I was brave enough to stand up to her about. She had a wicked temper and it was never safe to argue with her. If she was the Baryshnikov of smoking she was the Mike Tyson of parenting. Tyson had a left hook that came out of nowhere and mom had a temper that came out two or three times a day that could floor you in a second. She was an actress and had a voice that hit you like a cannonball. It was a formidable weapon I had no defense against.
For some reason, though, I would occasionally find the courage to bring up her smoking. I could tell my own breathing was affected and it was embarrassing to have to go to school smelling like a pool hall. Sometimes I would ask her to stop and she’d try for a week and then start up again. If it had been a while since she last tried to quit I would come to dinner table wearing a bandana over my nose and mouth and tell her about all the wonderful statistics I’d learned about in health class.
“What if you get sick?” I’d ask over the mashed potatoes.
“We’re not talking about this,” she’d say, stubbing out her 47th butt of the day.
“You’re killing yourself,” I would mumble between bites.
“What did you say?” she’d yell from across the table.
I considered smoking a long drawn out act of suicide and was upset that she was rolling the dice with our lives.
Looking back I’m embarrassed by how little I understood what it must have taken for a single woman to raise a kid by herself in a place she didn’t belong. Alaska is a long way from New York City and when your only job skills are acting and raconteuring life is going to be hard. But in my child’s mind I always felt she was choosing smoking over me. Or at least that she was choosing to smoke over making sure she was around long enough to see me grow up. I would always try to frame my pleas as compassion but even then I knew it was more self-preservation. If she died what would happen to me?
Then one day I woke up on a Saturday and mom couldn’t speak right. Nothing she said made sense. She asked for the phone but could only say, “The thing…downstairs. The black thing with the…” and she pantomimed a long, curled cord. She wanted me to find her address book but all she could do was make an opening and closing movement with her hands.
I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what was wrong. Every time she tried to speak she sounded like someone trying to remember the name of a song that’s on the tip of her tongue. Except it wasn’t a song, it was the word for milk or bread or Paul.
We didn’t own a car so it took me two days to get her to the hospital. The next day I found out she had cancer of the brain and everything else. I don’t think there was an organ in her body that didn’t have some kind of tumor in it. The diagnosis was terminal. Some adult friends checked her into the hospital while I tried to figure out what to do next.
All I could think to do was to go back to school. I was 17 and just starting my senior year. I had always been good in school and it was full of adults who praised me. I didn’t know what to do about cancer but I knew how to go to English class and talk about The Great Gatsby. So that’s what I did. I went to my classes, did my homework, and told no one what was happening at home.
Over the next few days my self-control began to crack. My own anger inched closer to the surface. I started talking to myself out loud as I walked home from school.
“I told you this would happen!”
“I hid in my room all those years like Anne Frank just for this??”
“If you die I’ll have to call dad!”
My father lived 400 miles north in Fairbanks which is about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. I saw him maybe once a year and had no desire to leave all my friends and move in with a guy I barely knew.
A few days later a friend came up to me at my locker between classes and said he had seen my mom wandering the halls. I told him that couldn’t be true. It had to be someone else. Then another friend said he’d seen her. And another friend after that. Finally, just as physics class let out, I saw her slowly shuffling down the hall, buffeted by teenagers on either side of her.
I ran up and asked her what happened at the hospital. She looked at me confused.
“Did someone drive you here?” I asked.
She shook her head. That meant she must have taken the #31 bus from the hospital.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
She shook her head again.
“Do you want to go home?”
She nodded her head.
I called the mother of one of my friends who came by and took her home. It turned out mom didn’t realize she had health insurance. She left the hospital because she didn’t want to die and leave me penniless. I knew it was too late for that but I took care of her as long as I could until she agreed to go back. A month later she was dead.
The funeral was rough. Luckily, someone else planned it. All I had to do was show up and sit in the front row. I wanted to be anywhere but there. I didn’t want to hear people talk about how charming and funny my mother was. I didn’t want to hear about what an inspiring woman she was. I wanted someone to get up there and say, “She was an angry woman who smoked a lot. I wish she had taken better care of herself.”
My dad did his best to support me from afar. He paid someone to let me stay at their house until I finished school. He said he was sorry about what happened and bought me a watch. He was upset when I dropped out of college after two months and suggested I join the navy.
Years later when I had my own son I promised myself that I would do whatever it took to be there for him. Over the years I forgave my mom for everything but the thing that killed her. It still bothered me that she smoked herself into the grave. That weakness was unforgivable
Then one night, after years of depression and crippling loneliness, I found myself writing a suicide note to my son. I’d made it 46 years on sheer grit and willpower and now that well of inner strength was empty. I had raised my son to adulthood and he was out of the house. I had proved to myself that I was stronger than my mother.
After rocking back and forth on the floor of my darkened living room for two hours clutching a straight razor something inside me finally broke. I crawled to the phone and for the first time in my life called a crisis line. I talked for an hour and then passed out from exhaustion. The next day I fought the urge to pick up the razor and called a psychiatrist.
In the years since that night on the floor of my apartment, I’ve come to believe that there are some things we cannot do alone. There are situations and circumstances that are greater than us and we have to ask for help if we’re going to survive them. My mother never asked for help and it was that more than anything else that killed her. She could have gotten help for smoking. She could have found someone to talk to about her rage and depression instead of bottling it up until she exploded. I used to think that a person could survive anything with enough willpower. I was wrong. You only need enough willpower to ask for help.
This month’s theme is “Mistakes – Stories of getting it wrong.” Tell us a story about a time when you realized you were wrong about something. What was it? How did you deal with it? What did you learn from it?
Don’t worry. You don’t have to bring a story about your mom dying. You can talk about cupcakes if you want. Of course you’ll have to talk about how you were wrong about those cupcakes so they better be pretty amazing cupcakes.
Remember to keep it clean, practice out loud on friends or pets, and make sure it’s under 8 minutes. Here are the updated Rules & Guidelines for telling a story at the show:
I hope to see you at the next FGS, Thursday, May 26, 7:00pm at the Roy St Cafe.