My mother was a world-famous physician. In my childhood, she began appearing in local papers as a kind of Super Woman — she was a mother of 5 at the time; the youngest woman in the US to have entered medical school; a practicing pathologist and part-time medical examiner for the city. By the time I was in high school she had already appeared in Life magazine and as a guest on some daily morning television show that I don’t recall the name of. Needless to say, I suppose, it’s pretty clear that she was far more of a professional person than she was a mother, though she did make sure to supervise her children’s baths every night, and, for the first three of her children at least, she almost always helped with special school projects on the weekends.
What she didn’t do was to stop her husband from molesting her children or stop her father from marketing them. It was a largish error, from my standpoint.
Because I was the oldest of her ultimately 11 children, and because I happened to look like a Cuban version of her, and because I was one of those kids that craves love and affection and touching, I ended up as my father’s “favorite,” a dubious role at best. I also ended up, in many respects, and because we were essentially — and sometimes literally — sharing him, as my mother’s competition. But it was she who would have to purchase my birth control pills because I wasn’t old enough to and it was she who took care of terminating the unwanted pregnancy that finally got my father to leave me alone.
To my mother’s credit, she was always decent to me, but that was about it.
I had managed to repress most of the memories of my childhood until my father’s death, at which point the dam broke. And when it broke, I felt compelled to let my mother know that I hadn’t forgotten, to let her know that while I had suppressed the information for a long time, it had all come back to my fully aware waking consciousness. I told her this because there was no way — no way! — that I was traveling all the way down the East Coast to go to that funeral. I was in New Jersey; the funeral would be in Florida, and I would be staying home.
My mother had been traveling all over the world, lecturing, and all over this country, acting as an expert witness. I knew that the telephone was probably not the best way to do what I was doing, but the chances of seeing her were just as slim as they always had been.
She acknowledged, flatly, with regard to my father that, yes, everything I said had indeed happened and I could attend or not, it was up to me, one way or the other. I was angry. She was distant. I decided to continue my rant and started in on her father and his activities. But when I brought that up, and started talking about what had happened to my closest sister and I at his hands, she kind of lost her mind, sputtered a couple of incoherent sentences and hung up on me.
Within approximately two months, I received a telephone call from my mother’s secretary informing me that my mother had just called in from an airport somewhere in the Southwest. She had called in to find out where she — my mother — was, and to find out why she was there. Her secretary filled her in and then called me.
Thus it began. And it escalated rapidly. Within another few months some of my siblings arranged to move her closer to where the majority of us were living then and to where she had last lived. She moved in with one of her younger daughters for a year or so but became difficult to handle, resentful of not being allowed to drive, and so an elder care facility was sought out for her.
As a lifelong physician, she had enough money to afford a relatively high-end elder care facility. It presented itself more like a fancy hotel than as an end-of-life institution. In the many years that she spent there, I never met any staff member who was anything less than gracious and kind. My mother was well looked after and, with 11 children, she had frequent visitors, though for the last four years of her life, I was living very far away and could visit only three or four times a year.
For me, though, those were the best times I’d ever spent with her. She no longer just put up with me. She actually seemed to enjoy my company and shared stories about friends of hers that I’d never even known she had. She was treating me, not like a daughter, but like an equal. I was comfortable with her for the first time I could ever recall and begrudgingly grateful for the mental state that had rendered her more accessible to me. I’d say that our newfound ‘friendship’ may have come about because she had forgotten the role I’d played in her life, but everyone knew that wasn’t true, mostly because of the 40 x 40” nude painting of me that hung above her bed.
(I know… WTF.)
The painting had been created when I was in my late thirties and had been modeling off and on for the man who had taught my first husband how to paint. My mother had spotted it in a gallery in Philadelphia and purchased it. For many years, as my younger siblings were growing up in my mother’s house, my father having divorced her by then, the painting hung over the fireplace in their living room.
I’m pretty sure my younger siblings tried to avoid bringing friends home.
The large painting had accompanied her north as she refused to part with it.
My mother spent the last couple of years of her life in the special dementia unit of the facility where she’d been living. As she became weaker and weaker and it became more apparent that death was close at hand, all the siblings arranged to make sure that they came to visit, bringing their children, allowing my mother to enjoy her many biological creations.
There wasn’t an awful lot left of her mind by that point. Mostly, she’d just sit there and smile. When it came time for her visitors to leave, everyone would walk, one by one, to her chair, at which point she would hug them gently, very loosely, taking care not to dislodge her oxygen tube, and she would tell each person that she loved them. Everyone told exactly the same story about their visits with mom. It was a ritual.
Everyone, that is, except for me. Because she never said that to me, never told me she loved me. What she did tell me, on our last visit, was “You’re my buddy.” Those were the last words she ever spoke to me.
They were also perhaps the sweetest words she had ever spoken to me… and I treasure them. It may have been the dementia speaking… but I have no problem with that. In fact, I am about as grateful as a dutiful daughter could be.