The downstairs of the house I grew up in was smaller than my current kitchen. Mr. Blandings thinks I’m stretching, but he only saw it through the haze of my stress and grief over my mother’s sickness and dying. He wasn’t looking at the house. Condo. Duplex. It wasn’t charming. My mother purchased it after an extended stay, and possible breakdown, at my grandparents’ house following my parents’ divorce.
The light was fairly good and the space was very livable. New construction, it was still unfinished when she bought it. Being the early ’70s my mother chose orange carpet throughout except for my room, which had yellow and my sister’s, which had green. The wallpaper in my bathroom was silver with very large white flowers on green vines. This may seem unlikely based on what I’ve just told you, but my mother had an unfaltering eye.
The odd thing about our house (condo, duplex) was that it was so incongruent with what she loved. My mother loved old houses. I think she could have afforded something old and small; I still don’t know what drew her to the duplex. My guess is that if she couldn’t have something old and at least largish she preferred to pass altogether. Perhaps the thought of maintaining a home without a husband seemed daunting. Maybe she thought it was temporary. It was not. She spent the rest of her life there. The decor evolved. The orange and yellow and green gave way to beige and white and navy. Except for my room with the yellow, faux bamboo furniture, which stayed exactly the same until she could stand me no more. Then it was empty.
The house was a sadder, less well-kept version of itself when I came home to Tulsa to see her after two years of not. She had been standing on a ladder painting the ceiling an orangey-red (it was genius in the small entry, but did not go well in the larger living space) when she felt a pop in her left breast. The doctors mentioned many times that there was no known explanation for this sensation. She had a tumor the size of a golf ball on her left chest wall.
My mother’s best friend, Sharon, called to tell me my mother had breast cancer. My mother met Sharon roller-skating on the sidewalk in their neighborhood when they were in third grade. It was a typical post-WWII neighborhood built to accommodate the returning GI’s and their brides and broods. In her gentle, melodious and measured tones Sharon told me I needed to go home. I needed to make up. Two years was too long in any case, and things might not end well.
My relationship with my mother up until that time had been tumultuous. Throughout the sickness and the treatment, the diagnosis and the dying we put aside the past. Her moods my whole life swung from peppy and cheerful to dark and low and cruel. It was disconcerting to know that after she had forced me from the house to go live with my father the summer just before I left for college, that a few of my friends still went to see her. For them she was a confidant. Incredibly funny and bright, she could listen to their almost-grown-up crisises and triumphs and empathize or celebrate like a friend in a way their own mothers could not. Them she did not judge.
She chose different personas depending on the situation and the one we got at home, whether it was truer or not, was coarser than the one she showed the world. She lived in her own version of reality and would tell stories and recreate conversations that only happened in her imagination. My younger sister and I would stand by, watching, silent, complicit in the lie. Just as she conjured her character, she crafted our roles as well. For the brief stretch of our childhood we were clever, creative and, above all, connected. By adolescence we were hateful, defiant and drug addled.
She turned my uneventful adolescence into a roller coaster ride. She was frustrated at my unwillingness to provide the drama she was yearning to suffer, so she created her own by fabricating eating disorders and substance abuse issues. Desperate to maintain stability I cajoled and reassured as much as I could, but descended into eye-rolling distain in the end. In a final flourish, she created a scene and sent me into the world on her own schedule.
For cancer she put on a cheerful and courageous face. She became something of a saint among her co-workers, this single woman whose children had turned their backs on her. They cooked for her, raised funds for her and applauded her when she removed her hot and itchy wig in the Midwestern heat. When I would go to visit and we would run into her friends I could see the query behind their eyes, “What’s wrong with you?”
In the end she could not live alone. I was 26 years old and living in Kansas City. Working in not-for-profit, I did not have the means to care for her myself. Healthy, I abhorred her; sick she terrified me. Sharon took her to her home in Savannah to care for her while she died. We found a home for her dogs and cleaned out the refrigerator and locked the door.
I was with my mother when she died in Sharon’s house. We had been taking turns keeping watch and Sharon had to wake me for the end. She was in Sharon’s eldest daughter’s room, a woman my age at the time not long gone from her childhood home, and I can still see her high school paraphernalia on the shelves that I committed to memory while I sat, too weary to read, while I waited. It’s not difficult to be with someone when they die. It seems it should be, but it isn’t. My only regret was that I hung back. I should have been nearer. Closer.
When I called to tell Mr. Blandings that she was gone, his receptionist chirped back, “He’s in a meeting.” “I understand he’s in a meeting; I need to talk to him.” “He really can’t be disturbed.” For some reason I was sick at the thought of telling this woman that my mother had died – my mother had died just five minutes ago – before I told my fiancé. I told her it was an emergency and to have him call me right away.
We arranged to have the body flown back from Savannah so she could be buried in Tulsa with her parents and her brother. Sharon and her daughter were at my house when I arrived. “We thought you could sleep in your mother’s room,” said my peer as I carried my bag up the stairs. I paused at the landing in confusion, overwhelmed with emotional vertigo. Then I realized that I had relinquished any authority, any ownership, when I had abandoned my responsibility for her care. This had not been my home for a long time.
Planning a funeral is an interesting and surreal chore. It really could not come at a worse time. When we went to the church the priest who had been there for many years, a friend of my mother’s, was still in charge. My grade school was associated with our church and I attended Mass there at least twice a week, and sometimes more, under the direction of this man. He met with me in the conference room of the church offices. “In the Catholic Church,” he instructed, “we generally have a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament and then a Gospel reading. Then I will give a homily.” There to pick readings and hymns for my mother’s funeral he took the opportunity to offer his disdain.
After the funeral, the house was filled with people. People who had known her her whole life. People who had lost touch, who had not known she was sick. People she had alienated with her erratic behavior. People who said I looked just like her. And the next day they were gone and I was still there with Sharon.
When my mother died, I felt untethered, a little looser in the world, like being in a car without a seatbelt. My mother had been a poor safety net; in fact, she was the thing from which I felt I needed the most protection. Still, once she was gone her absence was palpable. As it turned out I didn’t really want her to be gone; I wanted her to be better. Sharon, her friend, now my friend, had done a heroic thing. Unselfish and noble it was something that I could not manage myself, which might have had less to do with age or location or finances than I cared to admit.
Sharon stayed to help me close up the house. There were things I wanted, and things I did not. My sister took nearly nothing. But it was awkward to leave things behind. “Someone should want these things. These are the things of her life.” But as we sat in the downstairs-smaller-than-my-kitchen I knew that I did not want them and that I did not want to be reminded of her life or mine in that house.