My cell phone rang today as I was hoisting Josh into a Trader Joe's cart. I had my hands full and my sweet boy needed buckling, so I let it ring.
Jeff's phone rang a minute later. He handed it to me without answering when he saw my brother's number.
My sister-in-law's voice was utterly steady, even chilly. She asked where I was. (What's wrong?) I hate to tell you this, but...
My first terrifying thought was that my dad had died. But it wasn't.
My mother had.
I was relieved.
The last twenty-five years of her life were a blur of unrepentant self-indulgence, dishonesty and bravado. Her ego--good god, her ego. Unparalleled.
She was also an accomplished writer and a gifted public speaker, with a scortching intelligence and a peculiarly compelling charm. She wrote books and essays and published newsletters. She hired dozens of people and had hundreds of friends. She was generous. She was an engaged listener.
And then there was the wildly addictive nature of her personality.
Drugs--first pot, then ecstasy, then 2cB and ketamine and finally meth and prescription narcolepsy medications--became central to her life. It wasn't that she was depressed without them; no, she was never depressed. That wasn't her nature. It was different: she was bored, she was uninspired, she was out of synch with the higher powers without them. She thought that she had been selected for some sort of greatness; that she was entirely different from the other unwashed women of advancing years with too many cats and no income. She thought that drugs put her in touch with her greatness, society's conventions be damned.
Her myriad friends disappeared, to be replaced by hangers-on who milked everything they could from her. She, in turn, used them to prop up her ego and provide the adulation she always craved. Finally, the hangers-on had nothing left to gain, so they left.
There was a selfishness to her that precluded a warm kind of love. It's funny to say that about a generous person, but it was true. Her generousity didn't encompass the kind of self-sacrifice or humility that the word normally conjures up; it was more limited--money, things, praise. The way I loved my mother--and I did, in some primal way--was the kind one might have for an engaging teacher who singles you out for approbation.
Over the last month or so, my mother overdosed three times on the Schedule C sedative-hypnotic prescribed for her dubiously diagnosed narcolepsy. She was using more than twice the therapeutic dose because she couldn't come down from the adderall binges she so enjoyed. My brother had to have the authorities come and get her when she started making wild threats and accusations. Each time, the hospital physician recommended a psychiatric treatment facility, but each time she lasted just the 72-hour minimum. She didn't think she belonged there.
I have been trying to remember the other mother, the one from the early '70s who wasn't more in love with herself than she was with her children and her intellectual pursuits. It's hard. There are a few dingy memories of a mother who found me a new yellow dog when I had thrown up on my first poor stuffed mutt; the mother who put flashcards up on all of our household furnishings when it was time for me learn to read; the mother who...but I've run out. I'm sure more positive memories will come, though perhaps not as easily as the bitter, angry ones.
I stood in that store and listened to my sister-in-law for a moment, stunned. Then Josh looked at me, seemed to understand that I was upset, and beamed the gentlest, sweetest smile. My thought in that slow-motion moment was a simple one: please let me be a better mother than she was. Please let me be the kind of mother I wish she had been.