Hope Will Out
My mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was Audrey Hepburn thin, chic, and classy, always put together with her ever-present red lipstick. I pitied all the other kids because their mothers were not my mother. Ma was perfect in every way.
At least I thought so until I was four.
I was watching her put on her makeup one morning, something I loved doing, especially when she brushed on her liquid eyeliner with one sweeping motion, a delicate swoop at the outer corner of each eye. She was glorious; she was a princess.
“Ugly,” she said to her reflection in the mirror.
That word flipped my entire world on its edge, sending everything I believed flying. My mind scrambled to gather it up again, to make sense of it. If Ma was ugly, then what was I? If Ma wasn’t perfect and beautiful, then what was?
That was the day I learned about worthlessness.
Even before that day, I sensed Ma wasn’t happy deep down. Not that I was fully aware of it, being so young, but I could feel something in the air that unsettled me.
Ma hadn’t wanted to move to that one-horse town in New Jersey, away from our whole family in Buffalo, New York, a thriving metropolis of two million people. But Dad got transferred, so off we went. I was two and a half, but I still remember her tears.
Those first few years were the hardest; we knew no one in New Jersey, and with my father at work and my older sister, Maria, in school, it was just my mother and I most of the day. I remember tea parties with chocolate milk and peanut butter finger sandwiches—and the weight of my mother’s loneliness.
She used to say I was attached to her hip, but I wonder who needed whom more.
The day I went off to kindergarten, Ma cried all the way to the bus stop. That day, I learned that going out into the world was a scary thing. This was no way to inspire her little chick to fly, but that was Ma. She didn’t know who she was without her children.
I was a fearful, clingy child. Maybe Ma made me that way, and maybe I was just sensitive and artistic like her. I spent a lot of time in my room reading, writing, dreaming. I didn’t understand other children very well—even as a child, I thought them childish. I suppose I spent too much time with Ma. I adored her, hung on her every word—her every mood.
But then, we all did. Ma’s moods set the tone of the day for all of us. When she was happy, it was heaven. She doted on her children—played with us, read to us. She had a tremendous sense of humor, could be giddy and silly, suddenly bursting into song, grabbing one of us for a jitterbug in the kitchen. We’d wail and roll our eyes, “Maaaaa, stop it!”
In truth, you didn’t want it to stop, because when the mood shifted, it could be devastating, mostly because it seemed to come out of nowhere. One minute we’d be doing homework, and the next, Ma would be screaming at us about having six inches of dust in our rooms. The dust, the dust! Something had set her off, something we couldn’t understand.
The heartbreak wasn’t that she was screaming at us; it was that she’d been happy and wasn’t anymore—and now, neither were we. I wanted to make the ugly beautiful again.
In our early years, we often existed in the space between Ma’s moods, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I started to believe I could make it better; fixing my mother’s pain was how I coped with the instability of our lives. I learned to please, to overachieve, to be a source of pride. My strategy was simple: don’t piss off Ma.
She could be strict, rigid sometimes. Critical. It’s how she was raised and how she raised us. I learned to work within the rules of the house, work around them. Maria coped another way: she kept stirring things up.
Maria fought our mother on everything, threw violent tantrums, seemingly thriving on the chaos she created. By the time Maria was a teenager, the screaming matches between her and Ma were the new mood killers around the house.
The further my sister pulled away, the harder Ma tugged me close. I could feel her pain—Dad’s, too, and that only made me paddle faster to keep things from sinking. I was the good daughter, the one who got straight As, the one who did her chores, soloed in the chorus. I felt important and useful—and in control. Somewhere in there I convinced myself I was the one holding it together.
Someone had to, right?
I grew to resent my sister, my parents’ helplessness, but felt guilty about it because I loved them, too. A familiar mix of emotions. My way of dealing with Maria’s pain was the same as it had been with my mother’s: assuage it any way I could. Keep things calm. Mediate. Moderate.
Or hole up in my room. There was always that.
I couldn’t understand why Maria was so intent on screwing everything up. Why fight? Wouldn’t it be easier just to go along with the status quo? Like I did?
But that wasn’t her role in our family. She was the bludgeon, shattering the delicate order of things as Ma had done, and I was the broom, furiously sweeping up after them.
The damage was done. Ma’s sense of worthlessness had seeped into both of us. I compensated with perfectionism; Maria with rebellion. Whatever the tactic, both of us kept ourselves from taking part—from taking risks.
I remained the responsible one, the good daughter, the fixer, way into adulthood—long after it was needed for survival. It was hardwired into me now. My sister moved away to Florida, while I stayed close by, in New York, and naturally became Ma’s go-to girl, especially after Dad died.
Ma slotted me into his role as companion and problem solver, a role perfectly suited to me, one that was created all those years ago when we first moved to New Jersey. Once again, we were attached at the hip.
I’d visit her on weekends and we’d go antiquing, or have high tea at a café in the neighboring town, one of those quaint villages that boasted, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE. Or we’d just sit in her kitchen for hours, yakking away. We never ran out of things to talk about, the two of us so alike we were more sisters than mother and daughter.
Our relationship had grown up, and I had the best of Ma now, the happy Ma. We had each other.
Thanksgiving and Easter were just Ma and me. Mother’s Day, too. And Ma’s birthday. We created our own holiday traditions for the two of us—Thanksgiving in New York at a swanky restaurant; Easter at her house, where we dyed eggs together for our Sunday breakfast. I’d still find the token chocolate bunny beside my plate, no matter how old I was. Maybe our relationship hadn’t quite grown up all the way.
I helped Ma decorate for Christmas, prepare her taxes, plant her garden. She always rewarded me with my favorite roasted chicken with crispy potatoes. Her reliance on me grew as she aged, but for all my complaints about wanting a life of my own, I needed her as much as she needed me. I liked my role as fixer daughter; it made me feel important. And as long as there was Ma, I could exist safely inside the boundaries of her needs and expectations, my responsibilities keeping me from venturing too far from the safe and familiar.
The problem with making your mother your best friend is that, well, your mother is your best friend. The shrinks have a word for that: codependence.
When we got the news that Ma’s breast cancer had come back after fifteen years in remission, it was already stage three. By the time we were decorating her house for Christmas, it was stage four.
* * *
After six weeks, a hospital becomes less horrible, especially when you have someone you love in one of the beds. It’s surprising how fast you bond with the place. When you’re in a hospital day after day, you become deeply attached to the people who work there, because each of them is a sign of hope, a line tossed over the side of the rescue vessel. You cling for dear life.
Routine is critical when you’re a daily hospital visitor. Anything to make it seem normal. As you pass through those familiar front doors each day, you no longer recoil from the smell—a potpourri of floor polish, antiseptic, and bodily fluids. You wave to the guard at the entrance. Hello, dude I see every day. That’s your guy, your “welcome back” guy. The guy who helped you get a taxi when you were hysterical. And you swear that, after the third week of seeing you, pity is starting to show in his eyes.
By now, you’re on a first-name basis with the volunteers at the gift shop, the cashier at the cafeteria. You’ve developed a personal relationship with the entire staff—nurses, assistants, interns, specialists. Particularly the nurses and assistants. They’re the ones who are really doing all the work. A good one can make your day; a great one can save the day. You know their schedules. You bake treats for the nurses’ station—because that’s what the regulars do, especially when gratitude kicks in. When it’s your mother, you don’t want someone just going through the motions, tuning out when your mother cries all night because the morphine is making her hallucinate. You want that person on the floor to remember your face, your tears, your thank-yous—to see a mother with a loving family, not the cancer patient in Room 301, Bed 1.
It’s survival in a place of survival.
You feel yourself pulling apart, but you hold it together with everything you have. When your mother needs you, you muster courage and strength from somewhere deep. It’s the only way, because a hospital forces you to make decisions no person in your state of mind should ever have to make, like, do you want to sign a DNR—a “Do Not Resuscitate” order. Meaning, if your mother should go into cardiac arrest, the hospital should not save her. They should just let her die.
They send in a young doctor, one who looks like he drew the short straw, to explain gently—so, so gently—that in your mother’s weakened state and advanced years, the chest compressions needed to start her heart again would shatter her ribs, and, well, she’s already had to undergo hip surgery because she fell in the rehab facility just when things were looking up. Now she’s on a downward spiral and probably can’t be brought back. The doctor asks the patient’s beleaguered daughters, who are on the brink of exhaustion, if they really want to put their mother through any further aggressive, lifesaving treatment at this point.
The man waits for your response with eyes big and round, a pen in his hand.
Jesus, Ma’s dying.
So? Do you want your mother’s ribs crushed while they’re trying to save her for what might be only one more day?
No, of course you don’t. In theory.
The man reminds you that your mother had a living will, as if this will make it easier. You’re simply doing what she wanted. If you want to, of course; it’s not for them to tell you what to do. Except the DNR the man is holding is already filled out. All it needs is your signature.
You ask for the pen. You watch your hand sign your name.
Then you throw up in the john.
Our mother’s decline was so swift it threw us into a perpetual grasping state, hurtling downhill with her, desperate to catch her before she hit the bottom and broke our world apart.
No one grasped harder than I, frantically managing our mother’s care, liaising between her oncologist, cardiologist, urologist, nephrologist, generalist. If I pushed hard enough, spun fast enough, I could save her. I needed to save her. She was everything.
Then she was gone.
Suddenly, I had only myself to worry about. The first words out of my mouth when my mother’s last breath left hers: “Oh my God, now what?”
There was a great big hole where my life should have been.
* * *
Some people say the first year after a death is the hardest. I don’t agree. In that first year after Ma died, I was still numb. That’s why I could plan a memorial concert and organize a team for a breast cancer walk on Ma’s birthday. Why my sister and I could go to Paris for Christmas and have a beautiful time—in every photo, toasting our mother with wistful, poetic smiles of those who can only be numb. In the first year, we were swaddled in the love and sympathy of family and friends, like a morphine drip keeping the pain dull and our heads hazy.
Then the second year rolled around, and Ma was still dead.
The friends had gone back to their lives; the sympathy at work had dried up. When I received the “We really need you to show up on time” speech, I knew the honeymoon was over. But I was just starting to feel the pain. It took a year after the wound was made, but there the pain finally was, sharp and relentless.
My dining table was piled high with Ma’s estate papers, thousands of dollars in medical bills, stacks of her mail, now diverted to me, needing to be canceled. According to the U.S. Postal Service and direct mail databases, my mother was still alive. Her beloved charities, her favorite catalogues—fragments of her daily life—arrived in my mailbox every day. Every piece of mail like a punch in the gut: Ma’s life is no more. Selfish marketing bastards trying to sell stuff to a dead woman.
An endless deluge of mail, of pain, came in—so much that I had to carve out an hour every day to call or email these organizations and notify them of Ma’s death. Some would reply and express their shock and sadness, especially the smaller charities she’d helped keep afloat. I began every day like this, breaking bad news, ending Ma’s relationships. Deceased was a word I wrote hundreds of times. “Please remove her from your database, she is deceased.” Remove her. The one person who wanted her alive was actually helping to delete her from existence.
I still had to function; I was an executive creative director in a large publishing company, yet getting myself out of bed was becoming more difficult each day. When I didn’t have to go to work, I’d sleep until one in the afternoon, get out of bed around four. Laundry piled up. So did the dishes in the sink, the dust.
What was the point? Death was inevitable, wasn’t it?
My mother was eighty-three when she died. People would always say, “Well, she lived a good, long life,” presumably to comfort me. But Ma didn’t want to die; she wasn’t ready to die. There were a couple of rough nights in hospice toward the end, when we’d get a call saying she was dying. We’d rush over there, but she’d hang on. She was anxious, would call out. We couldn’t calm her. She’d fight sleep as if it were the Reaper. She would shout at her dead sister, “Helen! Helen! Go away!” If her sister was coming to take her, well, she wasn’t going—no effing way.
There was still so much to do.
I know she had regrets, dreams unfulfilled. The end came too soon, as far as she was concerned. To say “She lived a good, long life” was an insult to her, and to her children—a pat dismissal of the magnitude of our grief.
Watching Ma fighting death, I felt more fragile. After she died, it grew more intense, this fragility. I hung on to my own life with the same tragic tenacity. So much to do. Would I get to do it, or would I die with a long, unchecked list of regrets? It’s all I could think about: Would I matter? Would my life have been for anything in the end? Everything seemed futile, and tragic.
Around this time, I convinced myself that the Mayan end-of-the-world myth was true. It wasn’t a conscious thought, but it worked on me in the background. I started to stash money around the house. I bought six gallons of water and canned goods, a seven-hour backup battery. I would survey my possessions regularly and agonize over what I would take if I had to flee—you know, to catch that end-of-the-world evacuation bus. I understood without a doubt we were going to die, and it seemed as if I was the only one who knew, or cared, which only made it worse.
Or, with my luck, I’d be a survivor and would have to bear witness to the carnage, this Mayan doom. I didn’t want to be a survivor. If the end was coming, I wanted to be right in Times Square with a target on my chest. In fact, screw it—maybe I’d just beat the Mayans to it. Why suffer longer than I had to? It was just a matter of how to do it and finding the will to do it.
A moment of courage, and I’d be free from the pain.
But the mind is an amazing thing. As long as you keep breathing, it keeps you wanting to breathe. And my mind began to fixate on a tiny dot of light, a pinpoint of hope in the form of an apartment in Paris. That hopeful part of my mind that wanted to live went online and looked at apartments for sale in the City of Light.
That first day, I looked at a few places. Then a few more. Suddenly, it was two o’clock in the morning.
The next day, I didn’t have to psych myself up just to coax a leg over the side of the bed. I jumped up and went back online. I looked at a few more apartments. Eight hours passed.
Four weeks. Six weeks. Two hours after work each night and entire weekends searching, exploring: million-dollar mansions in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, small attic studios in Montmartre. Every dream was indulged. My mind was on a mission.
The obsession became organized into folders: by neighborhood, by size, by price per square meter. I wasn’t really going to buy anything, but it didn’t matter.
The dot of light, of hope, started to expand.
Copyright © 2016 by Lisa Anselmo