Five years ago today, early in the morning, I got a phone call — I think it was my brother who called first, but there were a lot of calls that day and it blurs. My mother’s house was on fire and a neighbor had described the bedroom as “blazing.” I also can’t remember if the fire was still smoldering when we got the call. Since we hadn’t heard from my mother we assumed she was dead, but it would take all day to confirm it.
This was both an expected and unexpected event. In fact, we’d gotten many calls from neighbors, from police, and from hospitals, over the years. Any time I saw a 701 area code I had to brace myself before answering the phone, especially when the call came at a strange hour. They always informed us that our mother had been arrested for DWI and committed to 72 hours of rehab, or had fallen down the stairs and committed to 72 hours of rehab, or had somehow otherwise brought brief intervention into her long descent into alcoholism and dementia. The police and medical professionals gave us the info dutifully; they probably made such calls often enough. Sometimes neighbors would give the info with heart-breaking circumlocution… as if we were completely ignorant of the situation and they were telling us for the first time and needed to break it to us gently. At times I felt judged: how could a grown man let his poor mother totter drunkenly about the house by herself?
People without addicts in their lives probably have little understanding of the incredible difficulties of intervention. TV movies tend not to dwell on the legal and logistical hurdles, the high costs of trying to commit someone against their will to a rehab clinic even before you pay the clinic. They don’t show a situation where a woman would hurl plates at police officers and have to be physically subdued, dragged literally kicking and screaming into treatment, and then simply count days until it’s time to leave and drink again. Maybe I’m trying to let myself off the hook here because I did nothing. I wanted nothing but distance since the day I left the home. I made occasional phone calls, happy to find my mother merely incoherent and rambling instead of raging, and made excuses not to visit. We went through great pains to bring her to our wedding, five years before she died, and I only saw her once more on a trip I took to Grand Forks later that year for work.
On that last visit I met her at the door because I hated to see the inside of the house: too many messes and broken things which I didn’t have time or resources to tend to. She was pretty lucid that day. I took her to Hugo’s Grocery. By that time she had constant vertigo and used a walker, but on our trip through the store she left it behind and let me guide her through the aisles, clutching my arm with a trembling and claw-like hand. She was a weak woman but she had a strong grip: all those years of typing on a typewriter. I left her on the doorstep, and that was the last time I saw her. Unlike the way these stories generally go, I absolutely suspected it might be the last time, even though she hung on for another four years.
When people write about grieving for late parents or memories of moms they rarely consider the possibility that the reader is someone with a story like mine. They tend to write in broad, generous terms about what “our” mothers mean to “us,” or what “you” go through.
“We’re left to wander back into the world, where everything looks the same, but for us, every movement and every breath feels weighted down by this suffocating cloud of sadness,” David Ferguson writes in an essay I saw shared a dozen times on Facebook. “We,” is he and all the people who have uncomplicated relationships with their mothers; those who were not abused or neglected, who did not see their mothers succumb to addiction, who were never lashed at with a metal ruler, who never mopped their mother’s gray vomit off the bathroom floor, who were never humiliated by having mom stumble out of the bedroom at 3:00 in the afternoon, already lit, when we brought friends over, who were never roused from sleep at 2:00 in the morning with a rambling tirade. I certainly don’t begrudge Ferguson his grief or his fond memories of Mom, but I do wish the first person plural weren’t invoked with such authority. It’s one thing to assume your experience is normal, another to presume it is universal.
For me, “losing” my mother was gradual, an erosion over decades with a lot of ugliness, too ugly for a TV movie, too harrowing even for a Eugene O’Neill play. I did not feel suffocating clouds of sadness when she died, but liberated, released from guilt, relieved that it was finally over. People like my brothers and I don’t get to mark these anniversaries with warm sentiment. I wish I could say something like, “Mom died five years ago. I miss her every day.” But this wouldn’t be true, and this is all I’ve got. “Mom died five years ago. I’m glad her soul is at rest.”