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6:34 p.m. - Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004
Anniversary
February 15, 1987, fell on a Sunday, and it was a day much like today: cold but sunny. Early in the morning I took the dogs for a walk along the railroad tracks. I was back at the house not long after 7:00 a.m. At 7:30 the phone rang. I knew instantly what it meant: no one calls you at 7:30 on the Sunday morning to give you good news. I picked up the phone; at the other end my little sister said: "Hi, Lily. Umm... Mom died this morning."

It was a shock even though I knew it was coming. I had known it was coming the night before, when I sat up with Mom until after midnight. She was all doped up on morphine. I held her hand, but I doubt she knew I was there. Every now and then I had to take a tissue and wipe away the blood seeping from the corner of her mouth. I had heard the term "death rattle" before, so now, as I heard a quiet rattling in Mom's throat as she breathed in and out, I simultaneously assumed it meant the approach of death, and tried to reason it away.

It was not until after Mom had died that I started to become aware of how willingly she had gone. In the weeks before her death, caught as I was between my father, frantic and clinging, and my mother, cold and distant, I had not the luxury of noticing nuances. The week before she died, on a Wednesday night, my father was suddenly seized with the idea that she was about to go; he called me, begging me to come over, so I did. I came in to find my mother sitting on the edge of the bed. When I spoke to her, it took a moment for her to answer, and I watched her eyes as they seemed to shift their focus, slowly and unwillingly, from a great distance, to see me, with an effort to recognize me, and finally to speak. She lay back down and pulled up the blanket. She was saying something soothing, something like: "I was just feeling a little tired, that's all." She repeated it several times, slowly, in a "there, there," tone of voice. I know now that she must have found it burdensome to have to try to pretend that she was just "tired," but how else could she get rid of me? And I was too distraught to understand, at the time, that she really did just want me to go away; but there on one side was my father, who couldn't bear to face this alone, who thought my mother needed us all there, and on the other side was my mother, who couldn't gather up the honesty to tell us that she wasn't sorry to be dying and we should just let her go in peace.

I stayed home from work for two days after her death. I told them I was sick: I didn't want to talk about my mother. After I returned to work, I told no one except the office manager, and I asked her to keep quiet about it. Some time later the receptionist said to me, "Ever since you came back from being sick, you seem angry." That was highly perceptive of her. I was angry; I myself hardly realized how much. I was angry with my mother. Part of it was pure selfishness: I was angry that she had abandoned when I was still young enough to feel I needed a mother. The rest of it took me longer to understand: it was that she had devoted all her waning energy to keeping me at a distance; that she had never had the balls to say straight out: "Lily, don't be sad, and don't try to make me better; I don't want to get better; you know I always feared above all that I would end up a helpless old cripple in a nursing home; now at least I know I'm safe from that ever happening." She couldn't help at last abandoning me physically, but she had first, willingly, abandoned me emotionally, and that's what made me so angry.

I got over it. I got over being angry, I mean; I can't say now that I love or miss my mother, but I forgive her shortcomings. She wasn't playing with a full deck, but in that time, in that place, in that social and economic milieu, you just didn't get help for psychiatric problems. It was pure happenstance, that I, a painfully sensitive person, should be born to an emotionally unstable woman in a bad marriage. Those are the breaks. No one is to blame, except, of course, God, and no one can call that asshole to account.

 

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