Twenty-one years ago, when most parents were getting their kids ready to go back to school, I was tending to the burial of my mother, Vera. A few days before, she had slipped into a coma at St. Joseph's Hospital in London, Ontario after developing an infection from an operation to remove most of her intestines.
It had been Vera's choice to go to London, after checking herself out of the Toronto Hospital, the place that had been her home for most of the previous year. She was fed up with spending her days attached to an I.V. pole, with doctors doing test after test, and finding nothing. She wasn't in any pain; she was just tired of being treated like a medical misfit and took a chance on moving to London to stay with my brother, Gary.
The visit was not a long one; before she knew it, she was in excruciating pain and was immediately booked into the OR and sliced open. It took a doctor with a scalpel to locate what all the fancy equipment could not find: the bowel blockage that was killing her.
But it was too late. At eighty-five pounds, she had nothing left and could not fend off the infection.
Too bad, so sad. You won the battle but lost the war.
Vera spent her last summer days in a coma under the watchful eyes of my brother, Gary and his family. I flew from Ottawa only to see her lying in the ICU, snoring peacefully, with no evidence that she was even in the room. The lights were on but nobody was home.
It's funny what you notice spending time with a dying person.
I noticed her breasts -- which I had never seen before -- as I self-consciously watched the nurse giving her a sponge bath and I thought they looked pretty good for her age. And her feet, she had really nice feet for a nearly dead person.
In the end, we decided to unplug her.
I didn't stay. There was nothing for me to do and I had three small kids at home who needed me. And in these final days, I wanted to be in the land of the living instead of in an antiseptic hospital room with a woman who was not there.
So I flew home in a daze, to the arms of my children, and I waited.
Vera died just before the Labor Day weekend, and the family gathered in our hometown of St. Catharines for a three day vigil -- due to the long weekend. I've never been sadder in my entire life, not even a year later when my husband left me. I couldn't process my husband's leaving; I was still in a state of mourning my mother. No one has mattered to me as much as my mother did. When she died, a part of me went dark and I began to exist in a state of emotional collapse.
It was only after her death -- and in the midst of my own breakdown -- that I finally understood my sweet and complicated mother.
I myself became my mother, emotionally drained, distraught and absent from my children. I stopped answering the telephone and started watching bad daytime television. I couldn't work. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep.
I exhausted my life's savings and hired nannies to look after the children during the school year and engaged in destructive behavior when they spent summers with their father. I moved all the furniture out of the family room and spent nearly every Saturday night sitting in a chair by the fireplace, a self-help book in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.
It took maybe three years for me to straighten out, three years to recognize that depression was killing me, as it had ravaged my mother's life.
I began to recognize my own childhood terror in the eyes of my children and that is when I began to fight for my life.
I remember when I was about 20 and got papercut on my eyeball which left scar tissue that would periodically open up and feel like I'd cut my eye all over again. The pain was excruciating.
My own deep-seated childhood trauma was like that paper cut. When something bad happened, old wounds oozed to the surface. The death of my father. My mother's mental illness. Abandonment, sadness, neglect...rage.
As a young child, my mother was never really there for me even though she took me everywhere. She was always busy, always distracted and only happy when she was drinking with my cousins.
Basically, she left me to be raised by my grandparents until they died in my early teens.
I never knew my father, so she was my only parent my whole life. She led a terribly sad life. She was bitter and she could be mean, but I dedicated my entire life to making her smile, just a little. One smile was worth a dozen Hallowe'ens, they were so far apart.
As I got older, I became an expert at cleaning up her messes. When I was eight, I held her head over a pan while she puked the best part of a bottle of whiskey after a fight with my uncle. I became her counsellor as a teenager when she off-loaded her pain during marathon drinking sessions. When I got old enough -- fifteen if you can believe it -- I found it easier just to drink with her. That's the first time we really started to get along.
Drinking became our common bond, the great leveler. It let us open up; it eased our pain.
It was only through my own good luck and hard work that I was able to break the cycle and move forward. At 18, I went to university and finally left her, once and for all.
I had mixed feelings about this; I didn't want to leave this woman who was both my rock and my pain. I was afraid something bad would happen to her.
Nothing did, of course. She was able to move on. I think she was relieved to finally be done with the job of mothering me.
But she was a luckless soul and a few years before retirement, she developed chronic back problems which left her a virtual shut-in. Her only solace was the company of a few devoted relatives and her substances. She lived on cigarettes, beer and peanut butter sandwiches and spent most of her days with Giraldo, Oprah and Phil Donahue.
This would all be very sad, if it were not for the fact my mother and I became close again when I had my children. She helped me out with my three young kids and stayed by my side for weeks everytime a new child entered our world. I like to remember those days, because they were our best minutes, hours and days the times when we could for forget the past and move past the pain.
I do have one last searing memory, however, over a snatch of conversation we exchanged a few years before she died. Vera was visiting us in Oakville, when Marissa was just a tiny infant. My husband was off on one of his business trips. We had put the kids to bed and were enjoying her favorite dinner, spaghetti, salads and a bottle of wine.
I was feeling warm towards her and wanted to say something nice, so I congratulated her on her success as a mother.
"You know, you should be proud," I said. "You have three great, successful and happy kids with wonderful families."
She looked at my darkly.
"What about me?" she fumed. "What do I have to show for it?"
I didn't have an answer and I still don't.
I hope, in the end, as she was trolling along the hospital corridor attached to an IV pole, that she might have reflected on a job well done. I doubt it.
I think, overall, she hated her life. Hated my dad, resented us, mourned a life wasted on us.
I remember her telling me once about how she had left home at 16, got a job and a new mink coat. That was when she was happiest. If there is an afterlife, I hope that's where she is, having fun, smoking her cigarettes and having a few cocktails.
If she's not, then I hope there is no afterlife for my mother.
Or for the rest of us for that matter.