Be like my mother
July 25, 2015 by Thomas Wictor
My mother and I didn’t get along. It wasn’t her fault; I can’t explain our problem because that would violate her privacy. She was stuck with me. Staunchly pro-life, she couldn’t have had me aborted, and everyone knew she was pregnant with me, so she couldn’t have given me up for adoption. In the last three years of her life, I became her closest confidant. She was trying to make up for the previous five decades.
Some of the things she told me blew my mind, but they made her more real. Don’t get the wrong idea: She didn’t cross any lines. It was just that the person she was and the persona she showed the world were diametrically opposed. Mom was always at her best in a crisis. She panicked only a handful of times, the last being hours before her death.
Mom was a rebel. Born on February 28, 1928, she was pushing forty when the hippie movement came along. My Grandmother Carolina always said she was grateful that Mom was too old to have gotten swept up in pot-smoking and communes. I’m sure that even if Mom were twenty years younger, she wouldn’t have become a hippie. They were too conformist.
Mom did things like make friends with the local teenagers.
That’s Sandy, whose own mother died in an airliner crash. When he and Mom became pals, it was perfectly respectable and bizarre. That was my mother. She had a completely everyday facade that hid someone with dangerously radical ideas, such as making friends—honest-to-goodness buddies—with a teenager, letting her children address her by her first name, treating kids as individuals, learning as many obscure words as she could, studying all sciences and religions, and rejecting all forms of groupthink.
She was neither a feminist nor a supporter of traditional female roles. Nominally a member of one political party, she despised the people they ran as president.
“They give me the willies,” she told me.
In Venezuela I saw her vault like a gazelle over a chain-link fence after a kid crashed his motorcycle into a parked truck and gashed open his leg. The sound of the collision hadn’t even finished when Mom launched herself. She grabbed the bright-red arterial spray and staunched it with her bare hands.
As her husband lay dying forty years later, I witnessed her genteel evisceration of someone who’d called to complain that Mom wasn’t showing enough emotion.
“Who are you to tell me how to feel about my husband’s death? You have the unmitigated gall to say that to me at this moment? Excuse me! I’ll decide when we’re done talking about this. Is that clear?”
It was indeed. The caller hung up much diminished. I knelt in front of Mom, chanting, “I am not worthy” as she laughed.
“I don’t know where that came from,” she said. “I guess I had to get it off of my chest.”
After Mom died on October 13, 2013, Tim reminded me of the one time I ever confronted her about our problem. I’d completely blocked this out until Tim brought it up.
I graduated from high school in Stavanger, Norway, in 1980, and then I worked for a year on a shore-support base, loading and unloading the boats that supplied the oil platforms in the North Sea. In 1980 I became a titanic alcoholic. One night I went out with “Lola,” an Argentinian musician.
When I stumbled home at 3:00 a.m., the downstairs door was locked. I had to go into the house through the front door. There was Mom, sitting on the sofa.
“Where’ve you been?” she asked.
“Out,” I slurred.
She stood up, came over to me, and sniffed the air.
“You stink,” she said. “You smell of booze and…and… You smell like you’ve spent the night in a brothel.”
I roared with laughter.
“So what?” I shouted at her. “You’ve always hated me! Now you’re going to start pretending to care what I do? Don’t bother!”
Her face went white, and I staggered downstairs to pass out. The next day I tried to talk to her about it, but she simply put up her hand like a traffic cop. Then she went to her purse, pulled out a huge wad of cash, and handed it to me. We never spoke about it again. I used the money to get even drunker than I’d been that night.
And no, I didn’t imagine Mom’s problem with me. This is the first photo of her and me together.
Her expression shows how she felt about me all of my life, except for three years. She didn’t like to touch me.
This photo best represents our relationship. It was my second birthday.
The distance between us closed for three years, but after she was diagnosed with Stage IV peritoneal cancer on January 16, 2013, she withdrew from me again. When I visited her, she became extra-uncooperative, so Tim and I had to make the decision to keep me from her as much as possible. I last saw her two days before she died. She went into a coma that night but was still responsive to her surroundings—in a very, very bad way. She was terrified. So I stayed away, not wanting to add to her fear.
Raised a Catholic, Mom was afraid that she was going to hell. Of course she didn’t end up there. I don’t hold anything against her. She was in an impossible situation on multiple levels, as I discovered after she died. When she and I meet again, things will be better.
I didn’t witness her finest hour, which occurred in Denver, Colorado, in 1987. Mom and Tim went to visit my Great-Aunt Oma, who was in her late nineties at the time. Oma was outrageously star-crossed. Her sister Marian was born when their parents were in their fifties.
Their mother gave Marian to Oma, saying, “You take her. I’m done raising kids.” So in her early twenties, Oma became a forced mother. When Marian was ready for college, Oma married and had one son. Her husband died right afterward, and then her son—who led a secret life—was murdered in a hotel room. Oma became addicted to pain killers and went blind.
So in 1987 Tim and Mom went to visit Oma in her nursing home in Denver. As they approached the building, there was a massive explosion from a window three stories above their heads. A man flew out and landed face down on the sidewalk, a pool of blood instantly beginning to spread.
Everyone on the street froze for a second, and then Mom began giving orders.
“You! Call 911. Go inside the flower shop here. Move! Okay, you! Go into that store there and get the blanket from the bed in the window. Tell them I’ll pay for it. You! Open this door and call upstairs. See if anyone needs help. Don’t go inside! Just yell.”
Tim said Mom completely took over, and everyone obeyed her. The cops and firefighters arrived, requiring statements. It turned out that the man who blew himself up was freebasing cocaine. Tim said that Mom and the cops spoke to each other as equals; it was as though the cops thought she was a fellow officer. They barely spoke to anyone else.
Once the freebaser had been carted off to the hospital, Tim and Mom continued on to the nursing home to see Oma, who was cranky that they were late.
“Where the hell have you been?” she shouted.
“A man blew himself up,” Mom said. “We had to stop and help him. How’s your day been?”
Mom had a very macabre sense of humor. We once went to a funeral that ended with a front-end loader dropping the coffin into the grave right in front of the mourners: Ka-BAM! Tim, Mom, and I were killing ourselves trying not to scream with laughter. It was like a scene from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Mom’s favorite entertainment, bar none.
So keep calm and see the funny side. Your reward will be a long and weird life.
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