Friday, May 17, 2013
My Mother's Daze
I told a friend recently that my mother was neurotic and emotionally needy. A true statement, but I realized those three words don’t begin to capture the woman who birthed me more than fifty-four years ago three days shy of her 22nd birthday. Especially now that she is confined to a skilled nursing facility in Connecticut, beset with Lewy Body Disease—a brutal combination of Parkinson’s and dementia—and struggles to feed herself or remember the names of her five grandchildren or where I work, a place she has visited many times. So it is easy to see her in one or two dimensions, as a product of her neurosis and needs and disease, but that is only a sliver of the woman.
Beverly Bernstein loved to dance. My father did not. So she bopped and boogied at home with her oldest son (me) to American Bandstand while she ironed clothes. She always danced with one of her first cousins at family functions while my father sat on the sidelines. She loved music, mainly rock and roll. She took me to my first concert when I was four, a rock and roll show hosted by Dick Clark. We had front row seats at Hartford’s Bushnell Auditorium. Dick Clark singled me out during the show, thrust a microphone in my face, and asked me about myself. When he learned I had a younger brother, he asked if we fought and could I scream for him? I curled into the seat to hide.
My mom took us regularly to the library, the town pool, weekend outings to the amusement park. She played word and number games with me before bed. She was one who always got up in the middle of the night if I was sick. She signed my brother and me up for extracurricular classes. I took tap and music at the University of Hartford and recreation classes across Bloomfield in the summers.
OK, her neurotic side was frustrating at times. We lived on a dead-end road—four houses—that backed up to the woods. One trail, maybe a couple of hundred yards at most, led to Blue Hills Avenue, a major thoroughfare through town. I was not allowed to cross Blue Hills Avenue alone until I was 12. I went to Treasure City to buy 45s. Or I biked to Rockwell Pharmacy for comic books and candy.
She got me my first job when I was 16. She walked into the Cow’s Barn (or Farm?) and asked if they were hiring. The next day I was hired as a cashier and stocker. I worked there that summer, after school during my junior year of high school, and all the way up until June 1976, right before I went on a six-week trip to Israel with other teenagers from Hartford and Baltimore.
When it came time to apply for colleges and money was an issue for our family, my mother spent several hours a day, preparing the financial aid forms for the various colleges I was eyeing. Her hard work earned me enough to supplement the scholarships I’d also won.
I had emergency surgery on a perforated ulcer in 1988, less than a year after I’d moved to San Francisco for graduate school and a change of pace in life. She came out and stayed at my home in the city and visited me every day with the daily paper. I couldn’t eat food, but she befriended my twenty-something hospital roommate, who was donating a kidney to his brother, and they ate frozen yogurt every evening and bragged about the other great meals they were enjoying.
My mother has always tried to be physically fit. She started jogging in the 1980s, and my brother and I were there when she finished her first three-mile race. Later, she became an avid walker. Up until two years ago, she was walking 5-7 miles a day at least four times a week.
Now she can barely move without a walker and rarely gets out of bed. Her hair has grayed considerably and she looks older than her seventy-six years. We used to have long phone conversations, ones I feared might never end, but now it is hard for her to talk more than a few minutes.
My brother and I cannot believe how far she has deteriorated in such a short period of time. Some of her nurses don’t think she will ever leave the skilled nursing facility. Her husband, my step-father, Fred, is dutiful and kind and would walk across the world’s oceans for her. They used to go dancing, to the movies, out to dinner, visit family. Now he is reduced to being a bachelor of sorts, though he has two sons in the area.
My mother always made us feel loved as we were growing up. There may have been some impossible or unreasonable emotional expectations from her, but the love was (and is) real. She is needy, and now she needs us more than ever.