This story wants to be written. Every time I try to avoid it, it pops up again, nagging me with an insistence I really can’t like.
Please don’t read it if you’re looking for an upbeat read; I can guarantee you this isn’t it.
I was standing in the kitchen of a house in Boulder, Colorado, staring down at a letter from my mother on the counter, no longer seeing it. The shockwaves in my mind seemed to come from the paper, and my eyes began to see planes of shadows and light, forms without meaning as the photons of sunlight coming through a nearby window rode the waves. They battered me and turned my brain to cellophane.
The letter that had arrived a few minutes earlier in the morning mail was from my mother, and it announced that by the time I got the letter, my mother would be dead. Dead. My mind careened with live-mother images from the past few weeks, months, years; then dead-mother flashes; I leaned on the counter to support my wobbly legs.
The house, where I lived with three roommates and four dogs, was eerily silent, and I could hear my heart in my ears, a counterpoint to my raspy and rapid breath.
It was a sterile suburban house down the hill from NCAR (the National Center for Atmospheric Research), and none of us who shared it would have chosen it except for the fact that the owner almost miraculously allowed dogs, which was becoming all too rare in Boulder. The white, textured walls and olive-green carpet in my peripheral vision contributed to the rubbery-reality-stretching I was experiencing. So much ugliness.
My parents were in the process of separating, and I had just flown to California once again, this time to drive my mother and her brilliant black-and-white Springer Spaniel, Lincoln, back to Boulder for a visit. She wanted to formulate a plan for her life during her stay, maybe even move here, oh dear.
She’d been injured in a car accident years before, and her doctors had neglected to find some broken cervical vertebrae that were causing her lots of pain and immobility. As sometimes happened then in those cases, there were vague accusations against her of malingering, or hysteria, or who the hell knows what, but she was nevertheless well-supplied with pain meds. Between the drugs and increased alcohol use, she devolved over time into an unhappy and paranoid version of her former self. The eventual surgical repair two long years later helped her pain somewhat, but couldn’t fix the damage to her soul or her spirit. So I’d brought her to Boulder to try to help her heal, or at least give her some respite from her personal hell…or something.
Lady, for that’s what I called her, a bit of a barb at her pretensions of class elegance when she’d had a few too many cocktails…had the most romantic notions of log cabins and mountains, and nothing would do for her but to stay in a little cabin. I found a motel at the mouth of Boulder Canyon: each room was its own petite cabin, with a tiny bathroom and a tiny wall heater. She loved it. I can’t say she made much headway in her plans, but then she must have known she didn’t really need one.
After a week or so, she said she wanted to take a trip into the mountains by herself. Check. She would call me after a few days and we’d plan from there. Check.
On this particular morning the day after she had ‘left for the mountains,’ I got the letter in the mail. It said, in effect: ‘By the time you read this, I will be dead. I am in a motel near the Denver airport close to your cousin Jim’s house. I’ve left a note with his number on it, and being near the airport will make things easier for all that will come next.’
Christ; it was apparent from the letter’s date and the postmark that it had arrived earlier than she had counted on; she might still be alive.
Much of what ensued is blurry for me. I called the police, who said they would send a car and some officers to help. While I waited, my roommate Connie and her boyfriend Bob came home. After reading my mom’s letter, they asked for a description of her car, my cousin’s location, and headed to Denver. They would damned well find her! An absurd notion, but off they went, while I waited for the police, who never did show up, which is still perplexing. While I waited for them, I called suicide help lines to see if they’d heard from her. It sounds lame now, but it was hard to think what to do.
Jeezus; what a dupe I was; all this fiction of her bravery in the face of my father leaving her for the woman whose parents lived in the condo above my parents. Phyllis. And God, I wanted to hate my father, but I just couldn’t; Lady’d grown more bitter and twisted over the years; maybe he would have a bit of happiness in his life. Some bloody mess it all was.
I paced and smoked and waited and snuggled with Lincoln; ack; that was why she’d left him with me… No police came, but finally the phone rang. It was my roommate Connie; against all odds, they had found her. They’d cruised motel parking lots in areas near the airport until they spotted her the white Olds 98 with a green-tinted rear windshield. She was still alive when the manager unlocked the door to her room; I won’t describe the scene they found.
An ambulance had taken her to the hospital, and I managed to cadge a ride to Denver General Hospital where the ambulance had taken her.
I asked for her at the admissions desk when I got there, and was directed to the basement (‘follow the green tape on the floor’ instructions included). Fuck. It was the Jail Unit of the hospital. It was still illegal in Colorado to attempt suicide. Illegal.to.attempt.suicide.my.gawd.
When I walked into the room, the jail room of the hospital, I found my mother handcuffed to a gurney, lying on her side, trying unsuccessfully to find a comfortable position that the short chain on the cold metal cuff would allow; I found her a pillow. I can cry now remembering the stricken and sheepish look on her face, mixed with the apparent despair of finding herself still alive.
I remember none of the dialogue between us, save her pitifully small voice asking for a cigarette. Now, back then smoking was still allowed in hospitals, but there was, by God, no smoking for hospital suicidal jailbirds! She should suffer a bit more; having her stomach pumped of the barbiturates she’d swallowed wasn’t quite punishment enough, I guess. Her lips were so dry, and I retrieved her pocketbook and put some lipstick on them for her. It made her look worse, but was a small comfort to her.
Shock protects us in emergencies like this, ensures that the molecules of our brains and bodies don’t explode into space; its protection dulls the pain into almost manageable levels. It can help us to perform like automatons; but it makes everything seem like we are moving and speaking in slow-motion underwater, at least for me. All the car accidents I’ve been in were like this.
Bright lights, mercilessly bright lights showed every pained angle of my mother’s face, and her struggle, mirroring my own. She couldn’t meet my eyes but once or twice. What next? What am I supposed to do? I’d have to call my pop for help; I was twenty, hadn’t any money or a car, or any of the skills this called for; I was in a strange city, in a fucking jail cell. Oh, Lady; how did we get here? I can recall sitting with her, and mouthing meaningless words, and holding her free hand, but like still shots produced by a camera, with no flow or continuity; just the click-click, whirr of the shots.
Gradually I tuned in to a voice softly calling, “Help me; please help me.” I followed the sound of the voice, a woman’s, to a corner, where I saw a hand gripped around the bars of a door. A cell door. “Please come here,” she begged. I went over to her cell. She was dark-haired and a petite forty-something, well-dressed, standing in a tiny barred cell with a bench along the wall behind her. “Call someone for me; I shouldn’t be here. You have to help me.” And she must have told me more about her incarceration and its wrongness, but I didn’t register any of it; it was beyond me.
Christ in a canoe, it was like I’d gone through the Looking Glass. Ennui and confusion engulfed me; there was no way I could make an informed decision about whether I should help her, much less if I could help her. I think I must have whimpered, “I’m sorry…my mother…I don’t know…” and backed away. Her voice, louder, followed me. I retreated, trying to gather myself. I should call my pop; he’d have to help.
I was so hungry; it had been at least a day since I’d eaten. I went out to the nurse’s desk, and asked if there were a place to get something to drink. “Ah,” said a nurse. “We have some milk in the refrigerator; I’ll get you a carton.” She did. I was so grateful, it sounded heavenly to get something in my stomach, to sop up the acids of fear and shock. I opened the little red and white box greedily, and sucked down a big glug of it. And immediately realized it was rotten, so out of date it had curdled and smelled like it was black around the edges… I threw it up into the nearby drinking fountain. Jeezus.
It may have been the day that I subconsciously decided that it would be good for me to become a fan of irony; I swear. I think I cried then.
Did the nurses let me call my pop? I can’t remember; but when I reached him, he said it would take some time to get to Denver, but he’d try to send someone from the Denver branch of his company to help until he could arrive. Mr. Already-had-two-heart-attacks would come and help sort things out. Oy. His surrogate arrived in the jail room a couple hours later, and was very helpful. He advised getting my mom the hell out of the nasty Denver General, and checked in across the street at another, better, hospital. Under his direction, we did it: my Homely Angel of Mercy in glasses, in front of whom I was stupidly embarrassed for my mother’s condition, and afraid that he might gossip about it to others in the company. I’m sure I never thanked him adequately, and am equally certain he didn’t mind.
Somehow during the night we got my mother to the tall, blue edifice of Saint Joseph’s, where it was said they had a nice mental wing. They could take care of her; God, was I relieved to give over that duty for a while. My father had arrived some time later, but when I try to conjure him up now, all see is his pained, remote eyes and the deep, dark circles under them. Oh, daddy; my heart aches for us all even now.
There would be more hell to come, but for now, this was a blessing. And at least she could smoke.
Part II: A Brief Respite in the Wilderness
I visited my mother in the mental ward as often as I could, and met most of her fellow inmates in the common area. She took on the informal role of social worker, a job she’d had for the county for a few years in Ohio.
Occupational therapy was the clay-ashtrays, potholders and leather-craft sort, and my mum wanted to make me some moccasins (preferable to a popsicle-stick jewelry box). We decided on the size, and over a couple weeks she made them. They were the Tandy Leather Kit kind, remember them? Split-leather suede that tied below the ankle, with three inches of machine-cut fringe around the collar; no hard sole, just the same suede—you could curl your toes in them. They were grand and pathetic all at once. And, it turned out, useful.
I’d been earning a modest living sewing dresses made from cheap India-print bedspreads for would-be hippies; a few stores carried them, and I sold enough for the basics, and sometimes I could even afford a little pot. Over the past two years, I had spent a lot of time in San Jose, helping my parents with the hospitalizations of one or the other of them, so self-employment worked best. With frequent interruptions, funds were tight, and I was down to my last pair of shoes, semi-dilapidated sandals. So the mocs were handy, if not great for my feet.
During those months I moved into an apartment (more olive green ookiness) and got a couple new roommates, one of whom invited me on a wilderness camping trip. It would be my first. Two of the young women knew some men who had been hiking the Continental Divide for a few weeks, and had made plans with a two other men to meet up at a cave in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness on the Colorado-Wyoming border. I needed a break, (boy, did I need a break!) so I borrowed a short sleeping bag and pack and whatnot from a short friend, packed up, and we got underway. We stopped at the house of two men who would join us at the cave the following day, and they loaded our packs: pounds and pounds of rice, lentils, granola, dried fruit, etc. and we found room again for our clothes and bags and other necessities, packed them into the car. Whew; they were heavy! Wagons, ho! Leslie, Beth, Mary Kay and I set out for an adventure.
We drove five hours to the Mica Creek Trailhead in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area, parked and creakily unfolded ourselves, and our three dogs, from the crowded car. There was a plan to this, it seemed. Three confirmed city girls and one diminutive non-stop-talking woman with hiking skills from Montreal had a map to this cave. Now, Montreal Mary Kay elected herself leader, which made sense, given her extensive back-packing experience and extreme self-confidence. She would lead the way, call the breaks, and carry the map. (Shut up; you can see it coming; but we couldn’t.)
We strapped on our packs, bent nearly double with the weight, and trudged up the steep start of the trail. Hi-yup! Here we go! Dogs, heel!
It didn’t take long to realize we were…uh…seriously not in shape for this. We might be twenty-somethings, but for this hiking and schlepping gig, youth wasn’t quite enough. We toiled, we rested, we bitched, we groaned…and kept doggedly on, Master Sergeant Mary Kay goading us all the while.
After a few hours, we got separated; uh-oh. I can only think that it was due to the pounding of the blood in my ears, and keeping my eyes on my feet to encourage them to keep moving along the trail that I lost track of the others. My feet! My dear feet, clad in the Tandy moccasins my mum had made for me! Not exactly worthy boots for hiking, but… there they were. Thanks, mom!
I bailed out of my backpack and called behind me, “Leslie? Be-eth?” No answer. I walked up the trail, “Mary Kaaaayy?” Nothing. The dog I had inherited from my parents, a wonderful, smart, black-and-white Springer Spaniel named Lincoln, sniffed and snorted and pointed at picas and whistle-pigs in the rocks and screefields we passed. Surely Miss Montreal would be up ahead waiting for us; she was our fearless leader, after all. Lincoln and I came to a fork in the trail. Uh-oh: A fork: that meant there was a choice to make, and there was no Mary Kay waiting wisely with the map waiting at the fork! No handy little Forest Service sign pointing, “Cave, that-a-way.”
Shit! I was hungry, so I decided to find some food in the hulking pack I was toting. Digging madly through it, all I could find was food that needed cooking. Bad planning, this was. I called again to my hike-meets; no answer.
And then it started to rain. I had a little plastic tube tent with a rope, so I set that puppy up between two trees, stashed my pack in the doorway, and gathered some rocks and branches to make a fire. My friend had lent me a tiny cooking set, so I got some water out of the creek, made my fire, and set some rice cooking. As I sat in the opening of the tube tent with Lincoln, the rain finally eased, and with the quiet came, “Hellooooooooo!” And again; I went out and the voices kept up. I tracked the sounds to some tiny figures high up on the nearest mountain. I waved. “Cooome ooonn uuuup!” they hollered. One was a small female; well, how special of Miss Montreal to have found the Cave!
“Noooooooo!” I yelled back, “Come on dowwwwn,” and we all repeated that discussion a few more times until I lost interest and sat down to eat my goddam rice; no Tamari, either.
By and by, they came down, and we introduced ourselves to each other, and I refrained from busting Miss Montreal in the mouth. They complimented my little camp, though they found my efforts pretty funny given that I wasn’t really very far from the Cave as it turned out; but my inappropriate footwear simply knocked them out.
Not long afterward, the other two women arrived, exhausted and grouchy. The men kindly took some of our burdens, and we set off up the mountain. In the shuffle, I discovered someone had taken my pack, but left me with five gallons of water to carry! Well, gee…such a trade! Up the scree fields to the cave we went, my moccasins clinging well to the rocks, but the edges denting my good feet; ouch.
We spent two nights there, making forays higher into the mountains, bathing in the glacier-melt of Mica Creek, listening to tales the men told of their weeks on the Divide.
It was a grand trip in the end, and Leslie and I ended up staying after the others had ‘gone back to civilization.’ We had passed a magical spot on the way up the mountain I’d fallen in love with: a tree graveyard. It was along the bubbling Mica Creek, and there were so many trees, and so much under-story, that the shaded and moist fallen trees were melting into the ground in ways you might see in a rain forest, but rarely in arid Colorado. Trees were turning into soil in such a vivid way; lichens grew on the fallen and half-buried trees in every imaginable color, and we saw a bushy-tailed red fox traverse one and skip away. It was a place of true enchantment, a place of pixies and elves and maybe even a Merlin. We made a home there for two blissful days. Blissful except for the very large black bear who came into our camp, left his “calling card,” took a nap, scaring the crap out of us…then left…but, as they say, that’s a whole n’other story.
Leaving was hard, and returning to the city and responsibilities was even harder.
After some time in the Cuckoo’s Nest, they moved my mum to a half-way house, then to an apartment on her own. It wasn’t clear why she chose to stay in Denver, rather than coming to Boulder where she could be closer to me. She had a car, I didn’t, so visiting her would be difficult. Bus service in the area sucked; hitchhiking was easier, but not very reliable.
Her prognosis was unclear, if indeed there had been any evaluation as to ‘better’ or ‘stable’; it was in the days before psychoactive pharmaceuticals, so she got no chemical help. She had been advised to write out her story, her grievances, her hopes, her fears. She did, and what she read to me was painful to hear in its bitterness and condemnation of my father. Maybe not so much therapeutic, but what did I know of self-revelatory, therapeutic writing?
She at least had escaped ECT, though many of her co-patients hadn’t. I discovered that in a sincerely awkward way one day while I was visiting them all in the common room at St. Joe’s after Group Therapy. The women were yakking about their lives, who was getting better, and who wasn’t so much, swapping minor life vignettes, and consuming lots of cigarettes.
“At least they don’t give electro-shock any more,” I chirped. The room went silent for a few dozen ticks (you could count: one-awkward, two-awkward, three-glance-glance…), then a few bashfully admitted to receiving it on a regular basis. Fucking beautiful faux pas, there Wendy; got any more? At least I didn’t try, “At least they don’t give lobotomies any longer…”
Once more my mum took pills. It was just after a visit from my father, who was in Denver to see about a divorce. When I got to the hospital (I can’t remember if it were a different wing of Saint Joe’s, or a new one, really), there was my mother, swollen up like a giant baby bird, as helpless and featherless as she could be. Whoever had removed her stomach-pump tube had done it roughly; she could scarcely speak. She was so angry at finding herself still alive. “Why can’t you all just let me die?” she rasped.
I don’t even remember now who found her that time; it must have been my pop. The hospital wasn’t having any more of this crap; they wanted her Out. I don’t know if it may have been an insurance issue, or the Good Catholics being judgmental, or what. But, out she’d be going, and we needed a plan.
I was worn out. My older sister was never part of the equation of any of these plans; I can only guess why. How queer is it that none of us ever factored her into the equation, or asked for her help? Was I somehow accidentally raised to parent my parents? Was it determined by birth order, personality type, or had my sister simply refused when asked to help? Did I even question it back then, or simply accept it as inevitable?
The plan we settled on was to take her back to Ohio, where she’d lived most of her life; she and her sister were close, so it made sense. We embarked on another cross-country drive, this time to Ohio and the welcoming arms of her sister, a dear woman full of love, but self-saddled with the care of too many children and grandchildren. We found her an apartment, and I went back to Colorado to string my life back together. Perhaps her almost-goofily optimistic sister could help her find a purpose to life again.
My father died a few months later, which was very hard. We’d had bitter rows over Viet Nam, my quitting college, and the fact that in doing so, I’d cut off my options. My sister was an MBA, and had moved to Atlanta because she and her husband had determined it was the best locale in the US to make the most money, so even she was no longer in Ohio. My pop and I had never had the occasion to forgive each other, and his sudden death made my dreams the only possible venue for me to communicate with him now. And dream him I did, quite often, and found him smiling in approval and acceptance of me and my life: I love you, pop! I’m doing great, aren’t I?
(Ah, Sigmund; you may have gotten it right on the ‘dreams as wish fulfillment’ principle, at least!)
At the time of his death, I had been living with the best of the Mount Zirkel hikers, who eventually became my husband. I spent the summer building balconies for faux-Tyrolean apartments in Breckenridge, Colorado, and once they were finished, Steve, our dog Lincoln and I embarked on a hitch-hiking odyssey. We first headed to Poland, Ohio to visit my mother, and to and ‘do something’ with my dad’s cremated remains. No one seemed to want to touch them; God knows why.
We drove to our old stomping-grounds near Kent; Twin Lakes really, walked to his favorite golf hole, and sprinkled his ashes and bone fragments there. A huge, smiling papa-face filled my mind; I imagined everyone could see his radiant smile as it seemed to fill the sky. Bye, pop; God, I love you.
After our marriage, my husband I did some traveling, searching for a new place to call home. We lived in Truchas, New Mexico, for a few months, but left after some scary occurrences. 1973 was toward the tail end of the Spanish-Anglo wars, and we just weren’t cut out to be desperados, so we packed up our ’56 Ford pickup truck, and went in search of a safe place to live. A place where the police were more likely to be on your side as long as you weren’t breaking any laws.
Back in Colorado, toward evening, we came over a big hill not far from Mesa Verde National Park, and spotted the edges of a tiny town: it was raining lightly, the clouds were just parting, and those spears of light that remind you of heaven, all gold and blue with a tinge of peach pointed down at the town, sort of a Eureka! moment. It looked safe, and small and rural; the topography was inspiring in every way: red rock mesas, Silver Mountains (La Platas), verdant valleys; it looked wonderful.
Inside my fifth grade geography book was a reproduced painting of a striated, red rock formation labeled ‘Tabletop Mesa, Southwest Desert. God, the wonder of that! I’d find myself flipping to that page often, adding ponies and Indians to the painting in my mind. And here one was, on the doorstep of the place we decided in a snap to call home now.
We found a funky old house that came with a farm/ranch job, and settled in, put in a garden; I started substitute teaching and…then it was time to go get mumsy again; her sister and her family had decided to move to Florida, leaving her, of course, behind. No, not really. Aw, come on. Cripes. Okay then.
I flew to Ohio, packed her things for the movers, and off we went again, in my mum’s Oldsmobile ’98; man, did I put the miles on that car! I’d discovered on the trips from California that it could do 110 on the Salt Flats! It was an emotionally hard trip; Lady (we had somehow started calling her that) was extremely unstable, and could fly into rages at nothing. Getting home was a relief.
We got her a little apartment in town, a shabby little place, fixed it up, and she did make the best of it. She was so crippled now that I had to do all her shopping, cleaning and laundry; she could still cook, and loved to make good dinners for us. She had a television; we didn’t, so it was nice to watch with her some evenings. We were watching the night Richard Nixon resigned. Wow; “Your President is not a crook.” We played endless games of Scrabble, and she was killer at it. “Eighty-seven points,” she might crow once in awhile.
It grew more evident that Lady was not enjoying life. We didn’t have as much time to spend with as she’d have liked, and she was drinking more, and still had plenty of pain pills. She could pick fights over any nonsense, and there was always the edginess of wondering if she would end her life after the bad ones, and somehow not feel held hostage to the possibility.
I guess she had given herself X amount of time to either get better or give it up, and that time must have been up. When she’d talk about ending it all, we’d try so very hard to tell her all the reasons we wanted her to stay alive, but she was tired of pain, and felt like a burden on us.
One morning, we got a call from a friend who was living in our tipi in the back orchard. She had arranged with him to come over that morning to do some little chore for her; it was her infernally clever way of being considerate of us… sparing us.
When he got there, he let himself in, and found her dead in her bed, a note explaining things, and telling us what clothes she wanted to be cremated in, who to give her clothes to, etc. She’d had me take her to an attorney to make her will months earlier, and her note reminded us where it was.
Unattended death in Colorado has to be checked by the police; I called them. When we got to her apartment, two local police cars were there, plus a county Sheriff, and the County DA. I folded onto the front stoop.
I couldn’t go in; I just fucking couldn’t face seeing her dead. The night before we’d borrowed her car to take some friends to the county fair. Steve had taken the keys in to her and said goodnight; I’d gotten into the truck without a last goodbye. Oh, God.
The asshat DA and the Sheriff came out to question me. I don’t know where he’d been headed when he gotten the call, but the DA was wearing shorts and a cheesy navy sleeveless tank top with yellow binding, all his bristly red chest hair springing out at me; I could scarcely look at him. He and the Sheriff got a little intense about their questions. Huh? I finally twigged to the fact that the DA was there!
Wait a minute–DA’s do Crime! It turned out that one of the geniuses thought I might have murdered my mom; her note might have been a forgery; brilliant, boys; just what we needed right then was a little bit more sick irony in our lives. “Did she use a cane? Your mother’s will names you as executor and a primary beneficiary. How did you get along?” I guess I should have been grateful that the Meatheads didn’t arrest me; they must have watched too much Columbo or something.
The funeral home sent the wagon, they took her away, and we went home. Here now was that shocky-underwater thing again, but at least we had each other, Steve and I. There was a finality to this that hadn’t been available all the other times, though it was hard to internalize the meaning just then.
For a few days we forgot how to do life. We made it through the unspeakable horror of making arrangements at the funeral home (“Surely you wouldn’t want your dear mother buried in that cheap casket, would you? We’d have to special-order that one…”), and fed the spaniels (by now we had two). But we forgot how to eat, really. And cook. We had made a dozen or so friends in the valley, and they knew of my mother’s death through that small-town grapevine you hear about. And they stayed away. I guess we’d been tainted by death and they couldn’t overcome their discomfort to reach out. They didn’t bring food, which I now know helps the shock and can fill some of the empty places; the Jewish and Italian mothers sure got that part right.
The secretary of the school I worked for brought a meal on the third day; we were speechless with gratitude. It taught me to always take food to our bereaved friends. To paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara: “as God is my witness, I will never let anyone go hungry again.”
By and by I sorted out my feelings: the immense loss, including the grief of discovering that it was impossible to provide another with the desire to live; the idea of being an orphan, even an adult orphan. I felt the everyday missing, which includes the forgetting; the oh-I-can’t-wait-to-tell-Lady-this moments, only to be brought up short with the forgotten realization of her permanent absence.
All that, plus the hardest one of all: the admission of Relief: I would never have to go through those episodes again—the fear, the anguish, the Next Steps. It was over. We would have a ceremony and sing some songs, and spread her ashes in our rented apple orchard, and be able to breathe better now. We never would have wished for this, but the Relief Factor was considerable.
Goodbye, Lady. God, I loved you; we loved you, and the dogs loved you; and how I wish our kids could have known you. We told them all their lives how much you would have loved them. They loved to hear about that.