I didn’t start having dreams about my mother until months after she died, though I had been warned that I would. But the dreams I was warned about were dreams in which she was alive and well, dreams I would wake up from feeling stricken, lost.
Instead I had dreams — dozens of them — in which she was resurrected, or just hadn’t died — but in which she was still sick, really sick, and knew it. Knew she was dying.
A little back story is in order. When my mother died she had been an induced coma for several weeks: sedated because the ventilator was breathing for her, and our conscious bodies don’t like to let machines breathe for us. We have to be knocked out. In my mom’s case, they’d knock her out for a few weeks, let the steroids heal her lungs, then wake her up gradually.
The first time this happened doctors encouraged us to talk to her, to play music for her or leave the TV on stations she liked (basically: HGTV), but also told us it was hard to know how much she heard or how much she’d remember.
When she woke up, she told us what it had been like: sometimes the nurses let the same CD play over and over and over and over and over, so that Neil Diamond – whom she had loved, which is why I bought her the CD – made her anxious and weary. For some time she believed the balloons we brought her (none of us really liked balloons, but we couldn’t take flowers into the ICU) were people, ghost-figures floating in the corner. Occasionally during visits, she thrashed in her bed, frantic. It seemed to upset her more to have us there than not, because she could not answer us when we talked.
There were two more of these, episodes where she’d be knocked out only to wake up and discover she’d lost weeks of her life in a hospital bed and that she had to learn to walk again: not for the reasons stroke victims do (the brain has to re-learn), but because the cortiosteroids and bed rest had sapped her muscle strength entirely, because her arms and legs had rapidly wasted to skin and bones.
The fourth time, she begged my father not to allow her to be put on the respirator again, not to allow her to be knocked out, and lost. Three weeks later her lung collapsed. Several other organs were failing, either due to the progression of her vasculitis or due to the toxic effect of high doses of cortiscosteroids and chemotherapy drugs administered during the previous six months.
My brother and I flew home. My brother, my father, my grandmother, and two of my mother’s sisters and I held several strained and tearful meetings with my mother’s pulmonologist over the course of three days. On the third day, we decided to withdraw life support. My father and I said our goodbyes privately and waited in the lobby; the others elected to be with her in her final moments.
On top of all that: at the end her doctor informed us that her blood oxygen levels had been so low that she had very likely suffered brain damage, too. In the unlikely event of her recovery there was no telling who or how she would be, or what kind of life she would have.
All of which is to say that when I went into the hospital room for the last time and told my mother she didn’t have to fight anymore, and that I loved her, I don’t know how much she heard; I don’t know what it meant to her; I don’t know how she processed it.
I’ve never had an answer for the question of what happens after we die: specifically, whether some part of our consciousness continues. I like to think so, but I don’t know, and I’m actually all right with that.
But I have – some part of me has – been haunted by questions about the degree to which my mother was conscious when she was still alive, particularly in her very last hours. Haunted wondering whether she heard and understood me when I told her I loved her. Haunted, more to the point, by whether she understood and accepted the decision she had made. Whether (for all her talk about death with dignity) she was really ready to go. Whether there was anything she wanted to say to us before she did.
Whether I was wrong not to give her the sliver of a chance (less than five percent) at survival.
In the dreams, we found a way. We bought her time. In some of the dreams she was…re-animated somehow. Rose from her grave.
The problem there was that she was still dying, still very, very sick. We knew we’d have to re-dig the grave. We had no idea how we’d explain to all of our friends that we were going to have to have another funeral in a few months, how to explain to the newspapers that actually, we were going to need to place another obituary.
It turns out that, actually, re-animating your dead relatives is kind of a dick move.
Apart from the…awkwardness, the additional expense of a second funeral, it would happen again and again, that bringing Mom back to life, giving her this conscious, careful death, this closure – it wasn’t something we’d done for her. We’d done it for us. We’d brought her back to die awake so she could suffer. We’d brought her back to say goodbyes and have her heart broken again and again with dread. She had watched people die, who knew they were dying: her own brother was dying slowly and utterly conscious when she went. Why did we want that for her? Why did I?
This is my actual last conversation with my mother: I was standing on an astroturf lawn in Venice Beach, talking on my cell phone. I’d flown down to Los Angeles for a work-related conference and decided to stay on an extra couple of days and go to the beach.
For the part of the trip I was not to be reimbursed for, I stayed in a hostel (and successfully determined that, at 27, I was officially too old for youth hostels). I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember what was on my mind that weekend: how much I loved the sun and sand after a somewhat chilly Portland spring (though nowhere near as chilly as the one I just experienced), how I derived a surprising amount of pleasure from driving on the LA freeways (I’d never done it before). I was getting ready to move into a new house in Portland (though I wouldn’t see it until the next day). Mom was in Moscow; she just found out she’d been accepted to a doctoral program. I congratulated her; she passed the phone to my father, who’d just turned 60. I told him happy birthday.
That was about as heavy and eventful and emotional as conversations with my mother ever got. Given that she’d escaped death twice that year (let alone that she’d be dead in a month), though, it was light as the breeze coming up from the beach.
I never for a second, for instance, doubted my mother’s love for me, but she rarely said it. Instead she wanted to talk to me all the time about silly little things, which is a theme I’ve trotted out more than once in this space already.
It’s the reason that, while — to my surprise — I can listen to “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Tapestry” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and the bittersweet whole of Neil Diamond’s catalog without crying, when I heard Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” a little over a month ago on a jukebox at a bar, it took everything I had not to hold the tears back.
Was this, like the others, one of her favorite songs, a song she always sang along to, a song that sometimes made her cry?
No. Actually, “For the Longest Time” drove her nuts. It was an earworm. We sang it whenever one of us was in the other mood to drive the other out of her mind.
Last December I saw A Serious Man. It’s a strange, sad, grimly hilarious movie, and I adored it — despite (or perhaps because of) the distinct sensation I had, from the second the projector started rolling, that my own heart had been ripped out of my chest.
If you’ve seen the movie, and paid attention to the grotesquerie above, you might have figured out why: in the film’s prologue, a dybbuk visits an elderly couple during a snow storm and begs to be let in. (A dybbuk isn’t actually a reanimated corpse, rather a ghost that’s been attached to a living person, but – not being familiar with Jewish folklore – I didn’t know that; I saw Miserable Person Believed to Have Died Already, Dying All Over Again.) He dies a second time before their eyes, saying, “I don’t feel well at all.”
The scene was so bizarre and so darkly funny and so closely resembled so many of my nightmares about my mother that I almost couldn’t breathe.
And as we’ve established, I’m a fan of conversations of great emotional import, but pretty much only in theory (or, apparently, on the Internet). As we were walking out of the movie I muttered something to my date about dybbuks and wanting to research them, and for a moment or two considered telling him the other part, why this notion of a free-floating, furious person who’s supposed to have died a long time ago set me on edge. Instead, I either changed the subject or let him change it. I figured a lot of dead mom talk would send the evening straight to hell. (It went to hell pretty quickly anyway, for reasons that may or may not have had to do with one or both parties being a tad or more on the emotionally avoidant side. GOOD TIMES.)
I think I write because I’m sort of ambiently anxious, rarely resolved in my interactions with other people. I use the expression “the ghost in the stairwell,” I am guessing, once a week, and the cruel appropriateness of that analogy only just now occurred to me.
The easiest thing is to blame the blithe way my family tends to relate. The stories that feel more authentic to me, in terms of trying to tell you exactly what it is I lost when I lost my mother, are ones like these: every day at five o’clock my mom and I watched “The Simpsons” together in syndication. Every day after the show was over, channel 12 would show a short spot listing its translator stations. One of them was in Tuscarora, Nevada.
If it happened that we were still tuned to channel 12 when this spot aired, my mother would sometimes get up and leave the room, or change the channel, or just throw back her head and yell: “AUGHHHHH! TUSCARORA!”
Because every reference to Tuscarora, Nevada would invariably trigger an association, in my mother’s mind, with the episode of “Happy Days” where Pinky Tuscadero drove her motorcycle off a cliff. This had been going on since the first time that episode had aired, 20 years before, and she was well and damn sick of having to think about Pinky Tuscadero several times a week: sort of a non-musical earworm, an association so firm and frustrating it was almost Tourettic.
It haunts me, she said.
I, of course, sprinkled our conversations with references to Tuscarora, Nevada at every opportunity. I was delighted by a scene in “The Simpsons” wherein Marge tells Homer he’s confusing his own memories of adolescence with “Happy Days,” and he says, “No, they weren’t all happy days. Like the time Pinky Tuscadero crashed her motorcycle, or the night I lost all my money to those card sharks and my dad, Tom Bosley, had to get it back.”
(This scene at least provided some consolation: she hadn’t realized it was such a well-remembered episode.)
Once I was playing a Springsteen tribute album that included a Suzi Quatro cover of “Born to Run”; my mom asked who it was; I said, “Oh, this is Suzi Quatro. In addition to her music career, she’s done…a little acting. She had a short run on ‘Happy Days,’ as Pinky’s sister, Leather…Tuscadero.”
Of course, the comeuppance for all of this is that while references to Tuscarora, Nevada, are fairly rare in my current life, now I’m the one who, say, stumbles across a blog post paying tribute to Suzi Quatro and groans.
I’m the one who, on hearing references to “Byzantium,” thinks about my mother’s story of being a sleep-deprived college student, writing a paper about Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,”and realizing with a start that she didn’t actually know what or where Byzantium was. She could find no reference to it in her dictionary, or in her encyclopedia. The day after she turned in the paper and she managed a little sleep, she looked it up again, and there it all was: Istanbul. Constantinople. The Byzantine empire.
For years I took this as evidence that my mother was an abject lunatic, or maybe a little dumb, and ribbed her about it for years, until I went to college myself, lost a lot of sleep and with it, a lot of what I used to know.
For all I wish I could talk about the big things, it is actually the little and terrible and stupid things I’m terrified of forgetting, the memories like hangnails, the ones that drive you crazy and then quite suddenly fall off. A month ago I was talking to a girlfriend and I remembered a story I used to tell about my mother all the time, but one I was sure I hadn’t thought about even once in the last two years: once, Mom and I were walking down the cleaning products aisle of the supermarket and, with little warning, she punched a package of Brawny paper towels, square in the face of the grinning, blonde, mustachioed fellow on the label. I followed suit.
It’s not hard to see things her way when you give it even a second’s thought. He’s so smug! And blonde! And the rolls of paper towels have a tremendous amount of give! We each hit him several times, giggling like school girls, until a checker (someone we saw nearly every day) yelled HEY!, trying to summon a manager, not really certain what was going on.
We quit, pulled ourselves together, but occasionally re-indulged the whim during our rather frequent trips to the grocery store.
(I’m telling you. The son of a bitch has it coming to him.)
There’s a reason I’d rather tell you that story than tell you about holding her hand for the final time, and I don’t think it’s just that it’s funny.
I still have the kind of dreams I talked about, these alive-and-knows-she’s-dying dreams, sometimes.
In one, she was a little smaller than me, and when I asked her if she was ready to die, she cried like a child. In the one I had a couple of weeks ago, though, I asked her if she was sad she was dying, and she got a little sad and contemplative, as if it wasn’t really at the front of her mind after all, and she said, Well. Of course. But it was an afterthought, simply the fact of the matter. She wasn’t angry. She wasn’t dragging her weary body around anymore. She was just dying.
But in the middle of all those there are these others, and these are more frequent. Last October, she said, Christen, I got you your birthday present already. It’s a purple velvet blazer. Delighted, incredulous, I said, Mom, you’re dead. How are you ever going to get it to me? She paused, and said brightly, I guess you’ll just to have to buy one yourself! And both of us laughed and laughed.
(I still haven’t found one, though I acquired an unbelievable purple suit at a clothing exchange a few weeks back. I figure I’ll know my purple velvet blazer when I see it. Mom rarely got my birthday packages to me in time anyway.)
I read once that we use our neuroses to protect us, because we’re afraid of love. And, fine: I’m increasingly aware of the fact that my difficulty discussing things of emotional import until it’s too late is, in plenty of circumstances, a hindrance.
But then I think that some neuroses – some tics – are also evidence of love, evidence that somebody has gotten under your skin or are rattling around in your brain and will for a long time.
I don’t think I believe, as some people do, that the mother I see in my dreams is some real manifestation of her afterlife self, her spirit trying to speak to me.
But I am certain that if she did want to speak to me, to check in on me from the other side from time to time — if she wanted to haunt me, she wouldn’t do it as a dybbuk or a reanimated corpse or a slow-suffering patient. She wouldn’t come bearing bad or burdening news. She’d want to talk about clothes and birthdays.
I’ll never forgive myself for quoting You’ve Got Mail here, but by dint of being one of her favorite movies, it became a guilty pleasure, and anyway, she’d approve of my recalling that Meg Ryan at one point closes an email saying, All this nothing has meant so much more than so many…somethings.
It isn’t that Mom was afraid of feelings or big, heavy, real, hard, dark stuff. But because the big, heavy, hard dark things just are, and they cannot be fixed, so why belabor the matter? When you tell your daughter you love her by calling her up to tell her about a commercial you saw this morning that reminds her of something you used to say when you were in middle school, you’re not going to haunt her with your own sense of dread and anger. You’re going to say, I’m dead, honey. Buy your own birthday jacket. It isn’t the whole truth about her, but it’s about as close as I’ve gotten yet.