Note: This post is part of the Donna G Project. This is written to and for my boys.
I will begin with the flaws, because they are glorious.
- My mother’s defining characteristic was her smoking. My mother was the best smoker in the world. Credible estimates have her between 4 and 5 packs a day. She was so nicotine-addicted that she couldn’t sleep more than 2 hours before her body would wake her up to smoke 2 quick cigarettes before she could go back to sleep. After we moved out of the house I grew up in, when we pulled away her chair there was a huge brown stain that ran up the wall and out over the ceiling. She literally left a smoking shadow after she was gone.
- She had a bizarre skin condition that made her prone to rashes. She refused to see a doctor (because a doctor would tell her to quit smoking), so she tried to medicate the rash through a series of diet changes that friends and strangers told her about, but nothing really worked. It condemned her to a wardrobe of loose-fitting mu-mus that minimized any chafing.
- She’d broken her shoulder when I was in 7th grade when she slipped on the ice. She refused to go to the doctor (because a doctor would tell her to quit smoking), so it had healed in a way that left her slightly askew. She walked with a slight hunch and she couldn’t raise her right arm above her head.
- She had exceptional trouble with word recall.
“Go downstairs and get the…thing!” she would demand.
“The THING! The…the…THING!”
“Thing” could mean anything from a can of beans to a folding table. I can remember countless times I had to bumble around the basement searching for the “thing” that was right next to the “other thing”. Then I’d be sent back down until I finally managed to retrieve what she needed.
However, her word recall did work to your favor sometimes when she couldn’t come up with your name. If a crappy job was headed your way, you could sometimes make your escape if you were quick enough.
“Someone needs to paint the porch. Harry….no, Chr…no…”
“I gotta go, Mom! Bye!”
“God damn it! Get back here…YOU!”
- She had insane theories about how the world worked that were based on nothing even resembling fact. The barometric pressure affected mood. The key to being organized was to buy dozens of multi-colored pens. The skunks were eating all the dandelions!
So with all of this, it should be no surprise that she had a heart attack when she was 55 – and that she didn’t go to the ER for nearly 48 hours. I was living in NYC at the time. When I got the message from my father, I called her hospital room.
“The doctor said I have to quit smoking,” she told me.
“Are you going to?”
“Yes!” she barked at me. “I don’t want to die!”
But she did die. She died that night. The phone rang at 3AM; it was my dad. He told me what had happened, but I knew the instant the phone had woken me up. I don’t remember the conversation clearly. I know I called my brother right after, but I don’t know what we said to each other. I remember Shani staring right into my face and saying, “You don’t even get it, man!” I think we went through my address book together to pick out all the people she would call and tell the next day. What I do know is that the whole world became a vacuum the instant I heard that phone ring. Gravity disappeared. I was somehow floating and so was everything around me.
I was really close to her and I liked her a hell of a lot. I looked up to her. She was a damn good mom – first ballot Hall of Famer. And I could physically feel her love like a heat lamp blasting on me – and not just when I was with her. It was love I felt 24/7 and love I felt a thousand miles away.
But the heat lamp had been unplugged. I guess that was where that vacuum feeling came from.
(For the record, I’m writing this on a plane and the woman next to me is trying to pretend not to notice that I’m crying. It’s messed up, boys. I still miss the crap out of her.)
OK, so this is going to sound nuts – but the days immediately following her death were fun. They were.
I took the bus to Binghamton. My brother flew in. My uncle Coddy came. Uncle Bob. My Aunt Joan came back into our lives (thank God). Marie, of course.
My friends appeared like genies – POOF – they were there. From all over the country they came to make me laugh, to talk it out with me, to cry with me. I can remember being on the phone with Chief when he called from LA.
“I’ll be there tomorrow around noon.”
“Wait,” I started. “You don’t have to…”
He bulldozed right over me. “I’m coming. I just got off the phone with Discover to raise my credit limit. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
People brought heaps of food. They hugged the hell out of me. Neighbors came by. My mom’s huge array of friends sat and told me stories about her. I got drunk with my father and brother. Your uncle Chris and I went for a walk at midnight and didn’t get back home until dawn. About a million people came to the funeral and every last one of them told me just how much they loved my mother.
And it was fun. It was filled with love and authenticity and support and laughing. It was fun.
What was not fun was pretty much every day for the next 9 months. Because the truth is, it sucks when your mom dies and you feel like shit for a good long time after it happens. I barely did any writing for the entire summer. I got an awful review at work that September. I kept feeling cranky or unmotivated or just sad. Time and again Shani, bless her heart, would say to me: “Is this because of your mother?” And AHA! The light would go off and I’d realize that had been it all along. Until I’d forget it again a week later.
In fact, I will share with you my death advice. Here are 3 things that were really helpful:
- My Uncle Bob told me that the average grieving time is 13 months. He warned me that you would feel it for that long – and you would notice when it starts to pass. And knowing that was helpful.
- My high school English teacher came by and shared her husband’s story. He had nearly died of a heart attack earlier that year. He described it as floating up through layers and layers of light, and each layer was more wonderful than the next. Knowing that helped too – especially when I imagined her that night when the second heart attack took her. She’d told me just hours before that she didn’t want to die – but I hope at the end there were layers of light and wonderfulness.
- My friend Bruce told me this: He said that he was sorry I was in pain. But the pain was there because of love. And while he wished he could take away my pain, he would never want to take away the love I’d had. That really helped. That was some genuine wisdom that I clung to many-a-time.
But back to my mom – because now I want to tell you about the positive traits.
The best way to describe her is to say that she was a force of nature. And a force for good. She was one of the most active forces of good I’ve ever personally known.
She was the president of the school board and a deeply involved one at that. She knew everyone in the district and they all went to her with concerns. Bus drivers, administrators, teachers, students – everyone knew Mary. And she seemed to know whatever tough thing that was going on in their life.
At least once a month a parent would show up at our door. Usually it was a father, and usually he would be near tears. The doorbell would ring and a giant, strong man would be at the door asking for the help of my bent and nicotine-addled little mother.
And my mother would go to bat for every single one of them. She’d set up meetings with principals. She’d intervene with the police. She’d arrange for tutors. She’d talk to truant officers. Once a teacher had put his hand down a female student’s shirt – and believe you me, Mary Nuckols took that one on full force.
And the school board was just the beginning.
She was an Accord Mediator. Rather than go to court, people would first try Accord mediations, which basically meant my mother tried to help families work through really bad situations before going to court. You can bet she needed a few extra cigarettes after those meetings.
She was on the local board of Voices for Children, which is a group that advocates for kids in foster care. This meant that kids who didn’t have their own parents to stand up for them had my mother. Who was a pretty damn good advocate.
She was on all kinds of state committees on education and frequently went to Albany for meetings.
Then beyond the formal, organized ways she helped people out, there were dozens of more personal examples.
For example…A young girl down the street was in an abusive relationship. My mother brought her into the house, showed her an envelope with $500 cash in it, taped the envelope behind a picture in our living room and said to the girl: “If you ever need to get out right away – that money is there. The front door is never locked and this money is yours.”
For example…One night over winter break when I was in college, I came home to find a woman and her teenage daughter in our guest room. They lived at the end of the block and their house had burned down. And sure they were much closer to other neighbors on our street, and yes they had literally never met my mother – but guess who took them in? Guess who negotiated with insurance companies for them? Guess who took them out to buy clothes and toiletries? My mother just couldn’t help herself.
Which brings me to my main point – and why I started with the flaws. Here is what I learned from my mother:
You always have an excuse. Everyone does. You always will have plenty of reasons why you’re too busy, too distracted, too whatever to help people. You’re too busy to volunteer. Your life is too hectic to pitch in. You’ve got too much going on to help out.
My mother is evidence that those excuses are a load of crap. My mother had every excuse – from poor health to too much going on already – and still she always jumped right in at every turn. I try to live up to that. It makes me SO damn proud that your mother has been the president of your PTA, runs the local book fair, volunteers for her college. And there’s something poetic about the fact that your mother and I met volunteering.
My mother was a good person. I believe she is in heaven (smoking). I desperately wish she could have met you boys — I think about that during talent shows and diving meets. She would have delighted in the two of you and would have annoyed the crap out of me with advice on how to raise you. That would have been fun. We missed out on that from her dying.
And the takeaway? I have three takeaways to share with you:
- Please don’t smoke. Not a single puff. Not ever. It would hurt me deeply to see you do that. I would see it as a major failure in my job as your parent.
- Please be good people. And to be good, you have to do good. Goodness is active; you can list it like bullets on your resume. That’s what being good is.
- Finally…please accept the full-blast heat lamp of my love for the two of you. It is mighty and it shines with terrifying intensity. And know this – if the pain of loss is equal to the strength of love that existed, it is my intention to make my death as painful for the two of you as I possibly can. I apologize for this in advance.