“Do you want me to get your vadge?”
My mom, unable to speak, replied with a shrug and a face that said, “Sure, why not?”
We were in the bathroom of her hospital room in Reno, Nevada. She had undergone surgery for throat cancer seven days earlier and was moved from intensive care to gen pop a few days after that. Liberated from catheter and bedpan, we held hands and took slow, careful steps about six feet to the bathroom, rolling along with us her oxygen tank, IV bag and a weird vacuum thing that sucked post-surgery mucous from a tube lodged in the front of her neck.
Her first trip to an actual toilet after she’d been admitted to Saint Mary’s was a stormy affair, and after our long-distance relationship — the most recent years of which we were more or less estranged — after she left my father and me in California when I was six years old, when her ambivalence about motherhood and married life turned into a desperate, drunken escape in the middle of the night…Twenty-five years later, I found myself in the awkward position of wiping her ass.
That could make me sound like a good person: letting go of my lifelong grudge against a delinquent mother to be present in her most vulnerable and disgusting state. But there wasn’t any moral waffling on my part, like “Should I call the nurse instead?”
It was a reflex, a deep-seated caregiving trait that children of alcoholics tend to develop early on, (sometimes before developing their own alcoholism). We become so attuned to the needs of others that we neglect our own until we become human husks with poor health and sporadic anger issues.
So when my mom called me the night before her surgery, crying like a little girl about how scared she was, I didn’t think about saying I would fly out from New York the next day to be with her at the hospital — I just said it — and it felt as natural and satisfying as a yawn, or a stretch, or popping a pimple. When you spend your life feeling useless to your own mother, you tend to come alive when she needs you in a crisis.
Maybe that makes her sound like a bad person, but my mom was essentially good. Though her life looks like one long drunk driving accident where she sped along, sideswiping five different husbands, bearing four children by four different fathers, moving around every major region of the continental US, and leaving all sorts of injured loved ones in her dust, the pattern is that she kept trying to get it right. She was pulled between a life of reckless freedom — she had a superstar quality and yearned to be more expressive — and the stability of home and family.
With each vow of marriage and each pregnancy, she thought she could make up for the last one she botched. She thought she could finally commit to the performance of motherhood.
In the six years we lived together as mother and daughter (with my dad, as well), she nailed the basics. She made sure I was fed three meals a day and put me in a Montessori school. I always wore a cute outfit and my hair was always brushed, clean and pulled together in barrettes and ponytails. We also had fun. She’d put on Joan Rivers’s standup records and recite the jokes with a spot-on impression. She’d play Prince or Cyndi Lauper cassettes and dance with me in the living room. She dusted a tile floor with baby powder so I could slide around and pretend I was ice-skating.
But time goes by, afternoon drinks start earlier, and she probably woke up one morning with a Betty Friedan moment of “Is this it?” Maybe fixing my hair and hearing about my exciting day in first grade wasn’t fulfilling her anymore and she had to find excitement of her own.
In 1985, though totally compromised by her then full-blown drug and alcohol problem, my mom had a choice. She could commit to a role she wasn’t sure she really wanted in the first place, suffer through each day with a hangover, sweat through keeping it all together but fall apart in front of me anyway, or she could set us all free and leave.
Of course, there was a third option. She could have sobered up when my dad tried to send her to rehab and therapy. She tried that, too, but the sad fact is, most people don’t stay sober, and cases like my mom are some of the toughest. She was an intelligent, charming and funny drunk who seemed so functional and pulled together, even a little bit glamorous, as she was engaged in a quiet, lifelong suicide.
Years later, when I was 13 and flew to Indiana to visit my mom for Christmas, she picked me up at Evansville Regional Airport wearing a full-length fur coat and diamond earrings. We hopped into her dented Buick, where she had a Dixie cup of Robert Mondavi white wine waiting in the cup holder. She swigged from it and drove us straight back to the holiday party she had left earlier to pick me up.
I have ancient hurt feelings over stuff like this and much worse. It’s easy to complain about missing out on the perfect mom, but we all know she doesn’t exist, no matter what your Instagrams say today. It’s even easier to mourn a “normal” mom, but I’m not sure that exists either.
Maybe having a mom who was essentially dead to me from the time I was six years old instilled in me too cynical an attitude towards motherhood, but it seems beyond the basics, that instinctive caregiving that keeps kids bathed and fed and looking adorable, moms are just performing. They make a daily decision to show up for their kids, or not, which inevitably results in contending with their own old wounds and issues through raising their kids, to varying degrees of psychic and emotional damage.
I had a friend whose mom didn’t drink, but called her a whore when she was eight years old. I have friends who are in their mid-thirties whose moms live hundreds if not thousands of miles away and still know all their friends’ names, where they go every weekend, and what they had for dinner last night. And mostly I know women whose moms judge them for being less than perfect, even call them fat, because they are miserable mothers who can’t help channeling their self-loathing and anxiety onto their kids. It goes beyond Toddlers & Tiaras.
My mom never did that. She spared me her misery, in a way, by leaving. A big part of me truly respects her for that. Yes, she “should” have gotten sober and stuck around, even if she and my dad ended up divorcing anyway. She “should” have been a fiercely protective, nurturing and consistent presence in my life. But no one would expect her to if she had cancer at that time, and the reality is, she was just as gravely ill as a mom with leukemia. And they don’t dedicate a month or special color ribbon to people who look like they’re having fun while they drink and smoke themselves to death.
My mom didn’t know much about me. She dominated every conversation but she never failed to tell me she loved me when we spoke on the phone. The handful of times I flew out to visit her while I was growing up, she always told me I was beautiful. Even when I was an overweight fifteen-year-old covered in acne and hiding under a vintage pair of men’s overalls.
At her funeral, I met her friends and extended family members who all knew who I was. Apparently, my mom would brag to everyone about her fabulous daughter in New York City. People told me I looked just like her, and how proud she was of me. All my mom knew about me was the basics: I was 31 years old and making a living as an internet writer person in New York City. She didn’t know my friends’ names, had no idea what I did on the weekends (well, maybe some idea, we were cut from the same yard of DNA, after all) and no clue what I ate for dinner, but I was hers and she loved me and that’s all she needed to know.
I don’t regret dropping everything and flying to Reno to be with my mom in the hospital that week, even though no one expected me to, and even though she cried on the phone before I left, saying, “You don’t have to!” in her most honest, pleading tone.
I also don’t regret leaving after a week when she stayed in the hospital for over a month, and then in and out of surgeries and nursing homes until she died. I never saw her alive again — I flaked on the one plan I made to see her before she passed away.
I played the part of an angelic, all-forgiving daughter who arrived at the ICU and fell to my knees next to my mother’s chair and cried in her lap when all the tubes in her face and the giant incision on her neck prevented me from hugging and kissing her. I sat at her bedside and talked to her even though she could only speak with facial expressions and hand gestures. I talked to her doctor about her treatment, I made sure the nurses replenished her oxygen tanks, and I brushed her hair back into a neat ponytail. I was there for her first trip to the toilet after her surgery and cleaned her up, because no matter what kind of mom she was, I wouldn’t let her go back to her hospital bed with a messy vadge.
Then it stopped. That’s the thing about caregiving, there’s really no limit to what you “should” do or what could be done, and you’ll always judge your limits against what the perfect mother would do. Someone could always use your help and your company, but it comes down to how much you are willing to commit.
About a day or so after I found myself thinking, “Okay, that’s enough of this hospital room in Reno Nevada,” I left.