Scroll up to read chapters 1 through 5 or scroll down or click on “home” to read earlier or subsequent chapters in history of my family – the story of where I came from.
This is chapter 6:,
“She Is Not Gone”
The birth of my daughter seemed to breathe new life into my parents. They functioned more as a couple and the thrill they felt at the arrival of their granddaughter took the edge off their bad blood. They volunteered, together, for babysitting duty on a regular basis. My mother was absolutely smitten by my daughter. My father’s grandiose act seemed to evaporate whenever he saw her. He even wrote poetry to her.
This is not to say my father’s vainglory disappeared completely. The poetry was a perfect example. He had a few imaginative moments on paper and he was prolific but it wasn’t very good for the most part. There were some good ideas in his verses but with no regard for grammar, spelling, punctuation or penmanship. He would hand me sheets and sheets of poems, some written on cocktail napkins and the back of menus, and task me with the job of typing these works. I cleaned up the spelling and re-wrote some of it so it would be, at least, coherent – he never noticed. I didn’t relish the task and did not take any satisfaction in improving the writing. Sometimes it was so incomprehensible I had to guess what his scribbles meant and make something up that I thought he had in mind. He always deferred to my opinions if I consulted him. There was a semi-famous Italian-American poet, Felix Stefanile, so if you Google “poetry” and “Stefanile” that’s who you will find. That wasn’t my Dad.
The best works of my father were the poems he wrote about my daughter. There was real feeling there, stripped of pretension and posturing. I confess I don’t know what became of those poems. They were on one of my hard drives a few computers ago and I haven’t really thought about them until now. There is also a book of his poems which he self-published and called himself a published poet from then on. He also, later in life, organized what he called a “writers’ room”. Another conceit where he claimed to be hosting regular salons with like-minded writers. There were meetings but the people I saw were merely his bar buddies and fellow Knights of Columbus.
My mother seemed to gain some relational insight toward me in her later years. She was more loving, more responsive to me and more communicative. Growing up I was constantly frustrated by her stubborn dissatisfaction which could not be assuaged. One of my childhood roles was peace maker and I could never get through to her. She clutched her resentment toward my father tightly around her and would entertain no discussion or compromise. I gave up trying to get through to her when I began to emerge from childhood. Their difficulty didn’t seem so scary anymore. She seemed to loosen up in her later years to the point where our conversations were not laced with vitriol toward her husband and we could interact simply as mother and son. I’m sure that her feelings for her granddaughter softened her up. Like my father, she was a different person when she was with my daughter or talking about her. Smiles did not come easily to either of my parents but they seemed to lose their inhibitions when it came to that baby.
This truce, of sorts, between mother and father lasted for a year – the first year of my daughter’s life. It was a good thing, in that it was the last chapter of their relationship but it also blinded my father to what had gone before in reacting to the events that were to follow.
My mother loved to shop at Alexander’s department store in Paramus. It was an enormous store on the intersection of Routes 17 and 4 in Bergen County – a huge shopping area. My mother shopped there for years after Klein’s department store went out of business in Newark. I remember the excursions to both places. Klein’s was on Broad Street in downtown Newark and was the poor man’s Bamberger’s, also downtown and soon to become Macy’s. She bought everything in these stores including wool boys’ suits for me which itched like crazy. If you listened carefully wearing these clothes you could still hear the sheep bleating. Mom would emerge from these stores with bags full of clothes and sundries for the whole family. My father, quite out of character, relied on her for his fashion collection. She bought his clothes and chose his ties. She also balanced the family checkbook and kept track of finances. He never had any capacity for financial planning or budgeting. That was my mother’s department and she relied on her accounting skills to accomplish this for him. She also cooked and kept the house spotlessly.
They could never work out an amicable relationship based on mutual respect or, even, forgiveness, but they did establish a modus vivendi for practical matters. He made the money, bought the cars, improved the house. She maintained it, ran the family finances and kept everyone fed and clothed.
As I’ve mentioned, one of her favorite ploys was to convince my father to take her on a “quick trip” to the department store. He never went in with her but would wait in the car – for hours – as she leisurely shopped and left him to stew. It was her favorite passive/aggressive revenge, made even worse when she would require another trip to bring back most of what she had bought.
One winter day, however, she emerged from Alexander’s within the first half hour and my father knew something was wrong.
I got a call from Dad that day saying Mom was in the hospital and the doctor said it was quite serious. He sounded very shaken on the phone and I headed for the hospital immediately.
She had emerged from the store saying she was dizzy and light-headed and had a pain in her back. It was actually her idea to go to the emergency room so you know she was hurting because doctors were never her thing.
She had, however, just a month before, had a basal cell removed from her nose at that same hospital and just prior to that had given up smoking. She said she figured it was a good time to quit. She was 79.
The doctors informed us that she had gone into shock as she was being wheeled into the x-ray room where it was revealed she had a ruptured aortal aneurism. The aorta is one of the main arteries, supplying blood from the heart. There is a membrane surrounding the aorta and when there is a tear or rupture in the artery, blood seeps out into that membrane little by little until it hemorrhages catastrophically. That’s when shock occurs.
Mom was a big woman and the doctors could not palpate, or feel, to diagnose the problem and that’s why she was on the way to x-ray. By the time they figured out what was happening they had to call a “code blue” which, in medical terms is the mobilizing of every available doctor on the premises for emergency cardiac surgery.
She was in surgery for 12 hours as the medical team replaced the damaged part of her aorta with a synthetic tube. It was a, truly, heroic effort.
When she emerged, the next day, from the operation she was on life support and her prognosis was not good. I visited her in the ICU where she regained consciousness briefly. I thought it must be awful to wake up with life support in place. I stood over her, held her hand and told her not to be afraid and held up pictures of my daughter for her to see. My father was in the background and a total mess. His ability to process this situation was fatally compromised and he had no choice but to stand aside as I spoke to specialist after specialist – the cardiologist, the anesthesiologist, the nephrologist, the hematologist, the surgeon. None was encouraging. The damage was too severe, despite their best surgical efforts, she was too old, the heavy smoking had taken its toll and she wasn’t responding. Please understand, also, there was no medical power of attorney, no living will, no planning at all for this event so we were all flying blind.
Mom died the next day. It had only been 48 hours from the time she complained of feeling dizzy.
When your experience a death of someone close to you for the first time it’s very unreal. When I saw her next the life support had been removed and she was lying, lifeless, on the ICU table. I was having trouble taking this in as reality and, of course, I was upset but my father was dissolved in grief. He kept posing me next to her so he could see us both for the last time.
When we returned home my father kept weeping and telling me how much he loved me. Even then, I thought it strange and I even said to him I’d have preferred to hear this at an earlier time and not just at this time of stress and loss. He also went on and on about how much he missed Mom and how wonderful she was. Maybe he had always thought those things but you’d have never known it and I thought it was a great shame that it took her death to bring this out in him.
Of course, I was the only one coherent enough to contact the undertaker, arrange the flowers, call the family, purchase the casket, obtain the crypt and arrange the funeral luncheon. I’ll risk seeming petty by reporting that I paid for most of this myself. Dad came along on these errands but he didn’t put his hand in his pocket and he had no great input on the decisions. He did come out of his grief-stricken shell long enough to tell me that the $6,000 Mom had in the bank and which she had left to me in her will was his and he was keeping it. How do you respond to something as non-relational, almost sociopathic, as that? I decided it was not worth controversy and let it go, but, as you can see, I didn’t forget. That and another financial decision of his would play a part in my thinking years down the road. I was a grown man, a father myself, and his behavior at my mother’s death triggered in me a re-evaluation of him which had consequences for our future.
I had the presence of mind to buy two side-by-side crypts, actually shelves in a mausoleum wall. Mom had expressed a desire not to be buried in dirt but rather in the wall of this new structure in the enormous cemetery where most of the rest of her family was buried. The space for her was on the second floor of the mausoleum and you had to take an elevator to get there. To me, burials have a forever quality about them and I wondered if this building and its elevator was going to be there a hundred years from now. I even posed this question to the person showing us around who had no good answer. My father tried to save me by telling our guide that I was only joking. I wasn’t.
There was a full-blown wake and viewing over numerous days, days spent doing nothing but hanging around that funeral parlor, greeting relatives and looking at my mother lying in that casket. It was very unreal and I was having a lot of trouble handling the situation emotionally. Not surprising, you may think, but it had everything to do with the new reality of the mortality of my parents and my emotional situation at the time which was not as good as, I hope, it is now. When my father died I felt not at all the same. I have learned that when you don’t have a strong, loving connection to a parent, their death is an emotional double whammy – you grieve their loss and also have no loving memories to console yourself with. That compounds the loss. My memories were laced with conflict and anxiety. I had seen my mother suffer by her own actions, that of her family and, certainly, at the hands of my father. I should mention he was never violent with her although he did, once, throw some food across the room. There was a small gash in the kitchen door as a result and I noticed it every time I passed by that door.
The funeral mass was in Queen of Peace Church in North Arlington, the church attached to my high school. We held it there because grim, old-world Sacred Heart Church, where they had worshipped for years, was undergoing a renovation, or maybe an exorcism – I don’t remember – and Mom had always liked Queen of Peace – she thought it was a cheerful church, which it was. It was kind of a shame, though, because none of the clergy who participated knew my mother at all – it wasn’t her church.
My father set to work on a poem – an elegy to my mother. The clergyman read it at the burial chapel in the mausoleum. It went, partly, like this:
With a wave of her hand and a look behind, she smiles and leaves today.
She is not gone, she’s just away.
As I said, he had some pretty good ideas in his poems and this was very sweet, if also a bit deluded. That smiling, gentle creature he conjured in this poem was not my mother but his idealized vision of her, maybe a vision he always wished for and never saw in the flesh and blood person he lived with for all those years. Maybe a vision of a younger woman I never knew and a relationship that, when newer, wasn’t toxic. It would be natural to think there’s no way anyone but the couple involved would ever understand a relationship completely – not even the children of that couple. Maybe so. Maybe there was a depth of feeling, even if it was in the past, that was not apparent to me. I saw no sign of it, however, for the 47 years I had to observe my parents. Can you imagine never seeing your parents laughing together or smiling at each other or exhibiting any sign of affection? You can’t? Good. I’m glad for you.
The funeral luncheon was in the enormous addition my father had built on their house. I picked up the cold cuts on the way to the funeral and the cashier asked me where the party was. I probably should have let her off the hook by answering innocuously but I was in no state to have that presence of mind and I told her it was not a happy occasion. I still remember her reaction, a mix of confusion and apology and embarrassment. I wish I could find her again and apologize.
I was also in no mood during that luncheon for my mother’s family’s shenanigans. They had no discretion, no sense of occasion and the appropriate behavior necessary. I could see the representatives of my father’s family looking a bit shocked as I had to tamp down some explosions among my mother’s tribe from time to time. These two groups had not really been exposed to one another very much and the difference in their demeanor was in stark contrast. I had assumed the role my father had played all those years – shutting up these indecorous maternal relatives. Dad was in no shape to do it and it was the beginning of a role reversal between us that grew more obvious with time. The eruptions in familia maternal happened more than once that day and enough was enough. My last intervention was quite stern and that seemed to tame them. I never saw them again or had any contact with them after that day, to this day. Oddly enough, I didn’t miss them.
What did follow, from that day forward, was the steady decline of my father and my assumption of the role of his parent and manager of his life.
Next time: Chapter 7 “Orphaned”