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How Will We Know When She is Dead?

One thing my mother did to me was so incredible that I wonder whether anyone I've ever told it to actually believes it, except my sister. She believes it because, even more incredibly, my mother did the exact same thing to her about a year earlier. And for some reason that is unfathomable to me, having breast cancer has suddenly turned this story, something I always recalled as a terribly painful event, into something that makes me burst into side-splitting, utterly delightful hilarity. I keep it in a bright red subfile in my main set of mnemonic “Chicago" files; it is marked “That Balcony Episode.”

With only one significant exception, I was too scared of my Mom to ever give her anything but the actuality and then a pretty good imitation of hero-worship. For a while, it seemed I might be able to let her have a piece of my mind by writing short stories with mother and daughter characters, carefully disguised as to names, physical attributes, styles of dress, and decorating tastes. If one of these stories won a prize or got published, all was silent, all was calm. But there came a point when this no longer worked and such stories, no matter how well-received, would result in 3:00 a.m. telephonic haranguing about the daughter-character’s bad behavior, sluttishness and complete lack of insight, and the mother character’s unsung virtues and unmentioned childhood traumas.

Hadn’t the poor mom lost her genius for the piano by playing for Arthur Rubenstein? How about the fact that the poor mom, as a kid, had had to be sent off to boarding school (the very selective Boarding School of the Mind), where she watched her only friend, Ben the kindly gardener from The Secret Garden, get struck by lightning and fall off a ladder?

Usually, these witching-hour calls caught me in my dorm room making out with some boy, sleeping, and/or stoned.

“Mom,” I’d try to say, still pretending to believe the Rubenstein and Ben-the-Gardener stories – “this is fiction. The mom’s a tall, red-haired housewife; you’re a tiny dark English professor. The daughter’s an aimless, not too accomplished, buxom school kid who eats all the time. I have a laser focus and I never eat, nor am I all that stacked.”

But once my mom caught a whiff of criticism, there was so stopping her Rage Train from pulling out of the station, and no stopping her riding it until it had rounded every bend in its track, some twice, and come to its destination.

Eventually, I stopped giving her the stories themselves, just the award certificates in their leatherette folders. My main survival tactic was just to stay out of her way as much as possible until I was 17, and then get out while the getting was good.

There was one time that was different, when I’d stopped being a writer, was instead a law student, and I took a “summer associate” position with a prestigious Chicago law firm. The purpose was to give the idea of living in the same half of the US as Mom one last try, since I really liked the city, its broad accents and broad faces, its many ethnicities, the Art Institute, and the smell of Lake Michigan. Perhaps I was also still looking, still hoping, still hungry for my mommy. I still woke myself sometimes calling for “mommy” in the middle of the night.

Idiotically, in order to save my summer earnings to pay for the next year of law school, I was staying with Mom and Jim, her husband, and she was having a wax rather than a wane in her nuttiness that summer. Nights were characterized by gargantuan screaming fights with Jim, most of them concerning trivial or nonexistent events of years ago.

How could he have told Janet – eight years ago -- that little piece of gossip that Peter had told Edith, when Edith was clearly using her eyebrows to indicate that he shouldn’t?

Breach of loyalty. Unforgivable.

How could he keep being friends with his lifelong best friend Tom when Tom had either (a) raped her; (b) lost control and come all over her new Chanel suit or (c) hidden what he knew to be Edith’s favorite pearl necklace in the broiler pan, just to torture Edith? Many of these evenings ended as day began to leach into the night, with two-on-one wrestling matches, as Edith tried to ramble abroad in her negligee. Or they ended when Edith began dumping Jim’s dresser and desk drawers off the nineteenth-floor balcony. Sleep was impossible, except for my mom, who would pass out as Jim and I were having breakfast and setting off for work.

I tried to let this roll over me and sat reciting like a mantra “Not my problem. I’m leaving. I’m outa here.” Or sometimes I’d phone Rich, my sister’s brother-in-law, a resident in a local hospital who was in the process of committing his schizophrenic wife to a locked facility, after years of believing he could cure her if he were only gentle enough. We’d go out for drinks just to get each other away from where we each were, and we’d try to find the line where craziness changes from volitional to inevitable, the line where it becomes extreme enough to obliterate the person you love, and the line where the caretaker’s obligations come to an end. We’d get so tired from this effort sometimes that we’d go to Rich’s apartment to look for bodily comfort in one another, finding it primarily in the holding afterward – and finding a certain gleeful companionabilty in the total secrecy of it, especially when we had “recreational” outings with Mom, Jim, and Ann’s in-laws, Rich’s parents, who lived at that time in one of the suburbs of Chicago.

These outings were always preceded by especially violent nights-before, so my Mom, Jim and I would be exhausted by the time we piled into the car for the drive to Owen-and-Jayne’s. Owen and Jayne were solid middle-class Methodist folk whose idea of a great vacation was to go camping in the wilderness and whose only books were the matchingly-bound “classics” from a mail-order book club in which the first selection, Moby Dick, had cost the low-low introductory price of ninety-nine cents. She was a junior high school biology teacher, he a middle-level bureaucrat of some kind. Despite their Stanford-educated Jewish daughter-in-law, my sister Ann, they harbored a not-so-secret hatred for all things Jewish and/or “cultured,” while my Mom openly detested all things organic.

One afternoon, we went there for an all-American barbecue, my Mom in her couture suit and heels and tranqued to the gills, and Jim and I walking on eggs. Edith was the walking embodiment of “spoiling for a fight.” We got there and out came the scotch. Soon thereafter, my mother launched from a discussion about the stupidity of some new environmental regulation into a passionate declamation about what one should do if one had to choose between saving the Sistine Chapel or a 500-year-old-redwood tree.

Owen-and-Jayne spoke passionately in the tree’s defense, and Edith heaped contempt upon them.

“But, Mom,” I said. “Why are we talking about this? I mean, it’s not as if there are any redwood trees growing in the Vatican….”

Hopeless. Rich and I met eyes and jerked our heads toward the door. Around and around the block we went in the humid midsummer evening air. When we thought the argument had probably petered out, we returned, but it was raging louder than ever. My mom was purple in the face, Jim was drinking silently, Jayne was shrilly trying to keep up with my mother’s much more skillful verbal technique, and the steaks were burning on the barbecue.

” But, Mom,” I said. “I personally like my chapels and my cathedrals, but who cares? It’s not like we have to pick.” No use. Rich and I rolled our eyes at each other, and eventually Jim and Edith and I went home without our dinner.

The next morning, when I was getting dressed for a day at the law firm, my mother made a very huge deal of wanting to know EXACTLY when I'd be home and about my not being late, and not being early. Idiot that I then still was, I thought she must be planning a surprise party for me, including all my long-lost (farfallen) childhood and high school friends.

So at eggzactly the appointed minute that night, 7:30, not 7:29 or 7:31 p.m., and in a carefully picked “day-into-evening” outfit suitable for a day in the financial district followed by a night of cocktails and canapés, I let myself into her condo to find that she had climbed over the rail of her 19th floor balcony (from which -- not for the first time -- she'd hurled all of Jim's clothes and various papers the night before), and was dangling from the railing by her hands, all 92 pounds of her.

I had an instantaneous epiphany about what all the to-the-last-second scheduling had been about, and understood that I was now supposed to rush to the balcony, crying, begging, etc., and haul mom back indoors, following which she would weep and rage all night and I'd get another rendition or three of her famous "Life is Loss" speech, while fetching Kleenexes and more wine for her, until she passed out.

Surprise party? My ass!

I couldn't do it, and instead said from the doorway, while I wrestled my key from the lock, spoke in a tone accurately and fully expressing the bone-deep ennui I was feeling in that moment.

"Aw Mom, cut the shit."

Then I wandered into "my" bedroom to change out of my 1979 imitation-lady-lawyer suit into something more comfortable. I spent quite a while getting rid of my big-city-almost-lawyer makeup. Then, truly not giving a flaming anything if she was still dangling from the balcony, had let go, was in the bath, or whatever, but mildly curious, I went into the kitchen for a snack. There I found Mom calmly slicing onions with a huge Japanese cleaver that had played a supporting role in other weird evenings.

What I thought was, “I’m outta here.”

I went home and worked for the next twentysome years at a law firm in San Francisco, returning to Chicago for three-day weekends at most, and those as seldom as possible. If my Mom wanted to see me, it had to be on my turf.

To be released soon ...