“One is white, two is green..”
“We cannot afford to forget any experience, not even the most painful.” Dag Hammarskjold
It was sometime in my eleventh year that I remember crying was a way of life. Alone in my own pain, as if it were a nightly ritual, determined tears kept drenching my bedspread with a repitious rage. I can still hear those weird, barely audible, wailing sounds coming from my mother. Arguments no doubt, between my mother and father. At the same time, the ‘Monster,’ a neurological illness, was planning its own horror story. Such a premedicated plot was soon to run its lengthy course while its central victim, my mother, had little to say – – ever. Along side my mother, we, the family witnesses, suffered in our own private world.
But we humans are unique as we design our own survival kits very early on. We have to. I would play many roles in my family in order to preserve my own sanity while becoming a ‘pro’ at gaining attention through any number of behaviors – smiling, laughing and cajoling. I became proficient at my best role – that of the clown. If I laughed, I made my mother smile. If I laughed, my father would adore me. If I laughed, I eased some of the tension between my father and my older sister. Lastly, if I laughed, perhaps I could convince myself that all was not so horrid. But who could make me laugh?
When my mother turned 38 years of age, she was christened with a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Harder than pronouncing this dreadful illness is having to live with it while watching its ruthless rage. Though I was only in sixth grade at the time, this ‘monster’ took eleven more years to complete its final run. While I did have my mother as a healthy, nurturing, loving parent for the first decade of my life, there is much to be said for that period well beyond our childhood. My recollection of those earlier days is extremely sketchy. In fact, most of what I remember is the tragedy. Most of what I cannot forget is the pain.
It is not easy to watch your mother die. There is no real preparation for death. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross had not yet surfaced and the entire subject of death was regarded as taboo. Also, the truth regarding my mother’s prognosis was never discussed in our home as my father merely refused to accept the inevitable. Now that I am older, I understand that it was not his fault. “Close your eyes and the disease will go away” was the silent message my sister and I received from him, year after year. However, my father was not the only one guilty of denial. We all were. Remaining loyal, responsible, guilt-ridden and enormously frustrated were the roles my father played in our home. My sister shut herself out into her already hardened shell of protection and isolation while devoting much of her time and energy to books. I gained and re-gained my sanity by living outside my home as much as I could. Though I was my father’s ‘favorite’, his pal, his confidant, a greater part of me still hated my home.
My mother gradually regressed from her normal gait to a cane, two crutches, a wheel chair, and eventually, the final surrender, her bed. She lay in that magnificant antique bed for a period of over six years – until her ‘last stop,’ nearly one year in a nursing home. Unable to read, write, void, or talk, this once highly intelligent woman succumbed to incredible, inhuman degradation. As if the patronization of countless nurses wasn’t enough, my mother had now relinquished herself to hours and years of endless quiz shows, soap operas and the like. No more of my mother’s favorites such as Bronte, Keats, or DeMaurier. The once young linquist who easily mastered four languages could not utter one audible sound. The high cheek-boned, Greer Garson look alike, my mother, was slowly dying before my own eyes.
As the ‘Monster’ continued on its own morbid momentum, newly formed gray hairs were making their bold entrance along my mother’s hairline. I needed her so much in my life then. We all needed her.
During the last year of my mother’s life she remained in a nursing home. I remember feelings of nausea and fear entering my body when I made those visits to my mother. I did not have the courage to make them alone and elected my father to escort me. All those old familiar sounds and smells again – sounds of nursing home confusion coupled with smells of dying flesh – a sweet suffocation blended with powders and medicines. The ‘monster’ itself was approaching its own finish line. My mother, not yet into her fifth decade, was barely reconigzable now. She never smiled for me, my sister, her mother or for any of her nurses. She only smiled for my father.
As none of us is denied our last day, it finally happened to my mother. She shared her last breath of life with my father by her bedside. That long, well-earned peace was ultimately, quietly rewarded.
In an ironic sense, I feel very fortunate. Because of this great void, I can truly appreciate so many fundamental things in life, too numerous to mention, which I never had or remember experiencing with my mother. And yet I can always feel my mother’s love. I never doubted it nor have I ever felt she doubted mine. In fact, I think she understood me in her silence. I could see it in her eyes. I will admit, however, to having felt cheated – not only in my own adolescence but well beyond those years. Those feelings are a life-long battle for me.
Fortunately, my father and maternal grandmother have given me enough memorabilia for two lifetimes. I have countless love letters which my parents gave to each other. Such confirmation of their love has, is and always will provide me with great inspiration and strength. My maternal grandmother saved nearly all of my mother’s letters written to her when she was away at college – letters filled with my mother’s love for her mother. I was also blessed with photos of my mother’s happy childhood which were always of extreme comfort to me. Lastly, compliments of my father, are several hours worth of homemade movies taken from yesteryear – a confirmation of my mother’s love on screen! Such marvelous motion – my beautiful, young, long-haired mother moving carefree – always touching my head, my hand, my heart.
Sounds and smells do not always have a negative connotation. I can remember the sound of my mother husky voice when she sang. On Saturday evenings, she would faithfully wear her favorite French perfume, Eau de Sortilege. How could I ever forget that swishing sound of her black taffeta dress as she walked downstairs for those special evenings with my father. And when she ascended on her way back up, it was always a comforting sound to my ears – my mother was home.
“One is white, two is green, three is yellow..” a game my mother would carefully teach me when I was very young. This happy yet haunting riddle is a constant reminder of those early subtle bonds between mother and child. My mind cannot forget this connection – probably one of the first lessons my mother taught me. If only she knew how much she really taught me.
Because I know my mother loved me, I am able to love myself and others. Because of what happened to her and our family, I have come to know how precious the relationship is between mother and child, mother and father, and lastly, mother and home.
And so I thank her for giving me the greatest legacy of all – the foundation for love, life and the true appreciation for the meaning of family.
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