Friday, September 9, 2011

My mother and 9/11

My mother had terrible timing in fashion - this picture, taken in the 90s, shows her wearing an ensemble from the 70s, a decade whose fabrics and bold textures seemed to appeal to her, for some reason. Perhaps it was the era's crop of strong, famous women, and progress in social justice? I don't know. She had terrible timing in other matters, too, which was punctuated by her untimely death on September 10, 2001. The ten-year anniversary of her death, a moment I'd been waiting for for most of my adult life, for many reasons both good and bad, is tomorrow. I'll forgive you for observing other anniversaries.

When our loved ones die, I think most of us have the reasonable expectation that it is, to some degree, our moment. We get to grieve, have privacy, arrange a funeral or memorial service, have relatives and friends fly in to comfort us, and eventually get over it. When my mother died the day before September 11th, we had less than a day to proceed as though it were our moment and try, in our grief, to make our plans. Then the next day arrived, which of course, became everyone's moment, and made privacy, funeral arrangements, and certainly loved ones flying in to comfort us, impossible.

My mother was a very strong woman, though an unusual parent. She adopted me and my brother Jonathan after our real parents (my real father was her brother; it's a long story) were both killed by our gardener (an even longer story) in Antigua in the mid-70s. She and her husband made sure that every need of ours was filled, and they raised us as their own. Strangely, they regaled us with stories about how, before we arrived, they'd dined out most nights, but now were forced to eat meaner fare at home, stuck there with two small, traumatized boys. And they were already so tired, from raising their own two children.

My brother and I were very good at finding ways to "act out" that must have perplexed these older, tired people from a different era. Over the next ten years or so, I learned to overeat, shoplift, talk back, get in trouble at school, and lie. When I was still just a tween - though we didn't have that word back then - I began showing an interest in "dirty" magazines. Bad timing on my part - I was a little too young for that to possibly sit well with anyone. My brother, over that same ten-year period, became sickly, slow in school, was frequently hospitalized, and later on, counter-intuitively, began hanging out with a rough crowd.

Willful though we may have been, we were no match for my mother, who was frequently a terrifying presence in the house. After my father's first heart attack, she threatened to send me and my brother to an orphanage if he died. I don't know about my brother, but I believed her, and was frightened to sleeplessness at the thought. She and her husband weren't stingy with the beatings, either. Once she sent me to school with a note for my guidance counselor. I read it over the counselor's shoulder: "Thank you for letting me know that our son misbehaved in school yesterday. He was soundly whipped last night." Soundly whipped! What an old-fashioned phrase, but, again, they were from a different era. When my mother found a Playgirl in my room once, she told me that if she ever found out I was gay, it would be worse to her than when her brother (my real father) was killed.

Many times during my childhood and teen years I prayed for my adoptive parents' death, which is common enough behavior as to have entered the territory of the unfortunate cliche. But eventually, I developed a very macabre sense of humor, and then found them quite hilarious. But I started fighting them, too.

Years later, when I was in my very early 20s and living in Manhattan, I got into my head that I wanted to move to California. My mother was stunned. Her two real children, after all, both lawyers, had lived under her roof until their mid-30s. They both still visited her almost daily, although she had been, by all accounts, even meaner to them than to me and my brother. None of her children had ever been as difficult as I had been as a child. And now, in the ultimate form of rebellion, I was moving away to the other end of the country, beyond her reach. She told me I would fail there, of course. On the day I went out to Queens to say goodbye to her, she shook her head at me and announced with great grimness, "I don't know who you are anymore." "Mom," I said, expasperated, "that's what mothers say in movies, not in real life." Then she gave me $500 and a hug.

I didn't have such a great time of it in San Francisco, as it turned out. I was pretty broke all the time, underemployed, and San Francisco's delis are allowed to sell liquor, which helped me to, ahem, develop quite the taste for the sauce. Feeling like I was flaming out in SF, I began looking for a reason to retreat back to NYC, without it seeming like my mother had been right. Her timing was great for once: she got sick and was hospitalized for an extended period of time. Seizing the opportunity, I announced to my family that I would return to be closer to her in her time of need.

Years passed. By now, I was in my late 20s, and I had learned to balance my terrible memories of my childhood with my gratitude for her willingness to take me and my brother in. She started getting weirdly sweet around the time she turned 80. She would call me up and tell me not to go down to the West Village, "because they're killing gay men down there." I had never come out to her, only to my siblings, because of what she had said to me that time with the Playgirl, so that was a somewhat awkward phone call. My sister, who still visited her every day, told me that she was "slipping," forgetting things. Entering the first stages of some sort of dementia. Which explained her being nice, too. That's how it works sometimes. (But at first I didn't believe my sister. My mother had always developed "illnesses" that to my mind were direct comments on the lives of her children. My sister and brother were overweight, so she developed arthritis. They smoked, so she became short of breath and claimed to have emphysema. When we heard her emphysema self-diagnosis, we were horrified, and asked if she had seen a doctor. "Why do I need a doctor to tell me what I know I have?" she replied. She even started carrying around an inhaler. That was my mom!)

During the last conversation I ever had with my mother, I was telling her about my best friend's baby, who had said or done something particularly adorable that week. My mother laughed and said, "Well, you could settle down with a nice young lady, you know, and have a baby of your own!" This was her fondest wish, for a grandchild. My sister had lost a baby once, and could no longer conceive. The same thing had happened to my eldest brother's wife. My real brother, Jonathan, was long dead by then (that rough crowd). I laughed at my mother and replied as emphatically as I could, "Mom...I don't think you have to worry about a baby with me." She laughed, knowing exactly what I was saying - that I was finally coming out to her, in a way - and we said goodbye. Although I obviously couldn't know this was happening, my sister told me later that my mother put down the phone and immediately started telling everyone that she was ready to die. Three days later, on September 10th, she was dead. And then it was the next day.

Sometimes when we are hit with a tragedy, it makes us more aware of, or perhaps more sensitive to, how others deal with the tragedies of their own lives. Over the next few years, I watched with morbid amusement and some jealousy how the relatives and loved ones of the 9/11 deceased dealt with the tragedy, with the rest of the world expected to mourn with them. This isn't a blog post about them, however; many blog posts have already been written about these people, and deservedly so.

Every fall I almost forget that the anniversary of my mother's death is coming, but then with the news coverage, I am reminded again. Because this year is the all-important 10th anniversary, maybe each subsequent anniversary will be heralded less and less, as everyone moves on with their lives? When I accidently tune in to a 9/11 anniversary "special" on television, it can still take me back to those terrifying days ten years ago, when my mother stopped breathing and died, and we had to wait for the ban on airline flights to be lifted so her son Michael could return home from vacation and attend her funeral.

A few years ago, my father let me know what my mother's last word was: my name. Not her real children's names, but mine. I was deeply touched by that. Today, in my late 30s - too late to let her know, but still early enough to make a difference - I've finally grown to love even the bad memories of her. They're useful, after all: there's usually a crazy mother character in the fiction I write, for example. And the macabre sense of humor my childhood gave me now enables me to laugh at the emotionally unavailable men who make up the dating pool in New York. And laugh, too, at the indignities that are heaped upon me (and everyone else who works in an office) throughout the average working day. Do I think my mother experienced a similar evolution in her feelings for me? I theorize that my mother eventually learned to love and respect me because she realized I was a worthy opponent. And that's exactly how I like to remember her.

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