O Brightening Glance

One lesson I’ve learned from writing this blog is that when life gives you lemonade, enjoy it while it’s fresh. Cleaning out my father’s basement recently I found a long-lost newspaper article about my mother that altered the way I had intended to start this final post. The article was written in 1968 by our neighbor, the mother of teenage daughters infamous (to our wholesome Catholic family) for the fact that they regularly climbed out a bedroom window in warm weather to sunbathe nude on their garage roof. To my mother’s mind, the obvious explanation for such immodesty was that they were “from California.” Nevertheless, she consented to be interviewed for the neighbor’s column The Gourmet Corner, in the local weekly. In early March in the height of the Lenten season and approaching St. Patrick’s Day, the paper featured my mother’s Irish cooking, specifically her Irish spin on several meatless dishes.

One recipe was called Belfast and Warsaw Cabbage and Rice Casserole. From the ingredient list it appears to have earned its Irish moniker solely because of the requisite two tablespoons of “Irish parmesan cheese” sprinkled on top of the casserole before baking. I never remember my family having any kind of Irish cheese in the house, let alone parmesan (if Irish parmesan does in fact exist). “Ah, the Irish,” she is quoted as saying. “You know how we are about food. Come day, go day, God send Sunday—but it had better taste good!” I could almost hear the Irish accent as I read it.  But wait. Despite my mother being born a mere two weeks after her parents disembarked on U.S. soil, she was a tried-and-true American with a corresponding Yankee accent. The Irish accent in my head belonged to her mother, my grandmother. Was my mother playing up Irish for the reporter, given the topic of the article? Was the “quick Irish wit” that our neighbor attributed to her something my mother put on in the company of other adults? Or was it a slip of identity, a quick reversion to her own mother’s way of thinking? The Irish poet William B. Yeats famously asked, How can we know the dancer from the dance? Is the same true for mothers and daughters? Our mother’s identity can be so entwined with ours that we sometimes can’t perceive where one person’s mannerisms, habits, and dreams end and the other’s begin.  

This was definitely true for me, even after my mother died—especially after she died. Emotional ties can live on, in good and bad ways. For decades I felt a subtle sense of duty—commanded by no one— to live for her. Perhaps it was a type of survivor guilt to pay tribute to her loss by living out the life she didn’t get to have. Perhaps I felt compelled to go where she had gone and do what she had liked to do, almost as if performing a ritual to remain connected to her in adulthood. Whatever the impetus, it lasted for decades, until I was approaching the age of the neon number—the age my mother was when she died. One day I took a walk on a beloved stretch of beach on Cape Cod that I had played on as a child. The unusually greedy tide had devoured much of the shoreline leaving a scant foot of dry sand before the grassy-fringed dunes. I negotiated the narrow space between water and grass, feeling the bracing air against my skin, smelling the sand and the salt. Cape Cod author Joan Anderson celebrates the edge of the sea as a mechanism for the “change and erasure” that is integral to human existence.

I came to the end of the walk, where the beach opens out to the parking lot. Glancing back at the single set of footprints snaking through the sand, I immediately thought of the poem by Mary Stevenson about a woman reviewing scenes from her life. She sees two sets of footprints for many of the events and is aware that God walks besides her; during more difficult times she notices only one set. Feeling abandoned, she questions and learns that God was in fact carrying her during those difficult times.

Unlike the Stevenson poem, there was no doubt as to ownership of the Cape footprints: they were mine and mine alone. I felt no grand gesture of spirit, nor did its absence cause concern as my glance drank in the last expanse of sky and water. I continue heading toward my car, but the single track of prints along the water’s edge tugged my attention still. And then I got it: on the narrow strip of sand there was no more room for another set of prints. The second set that had hounded me was not God’s but my mother’s. With the neon number approaching I was no longer compelled to follow her path in lock step: as a way to honor her life; to somehow reconstitute her presence into my own life; and, yes, even as a journey to ill health. For worse and better I was released from the need to follow the same path. I was free to make my own way.

In his recent inauguration speech, President Biden said “to heal, we must remember.” Before beginning this blog I had forgotten much of who my mother was. Like the memory I wrote about in the first post—of sitting on church steps with her beside me but not visible—her presence had begun to recede into the periphery. In trying to remember, I could not go back to the consciousness of the young child because that reality was no longer available. It was as if my adult consciousness had surreptitiously begun not rewriting the past, but rearranging it, bringing details of present relevance into the foreground and sending to the background details of things gone. Writing the blog helped to redistribute some of the forgotten facts within my memory, although I’m the first to admit that the profile I’ve refashioned doesn’t represent the real person any more than the paper dolls I used to cut out of my mother’s McCalls magazine. It has changed the course of my healing, though. The act of writing takes time. It forces one to bear witness to the pain trapped beneath long-forgotten memories, to thaw out frozen emotions with gentle tears. Even while writing about other events in her story, my mind often returned to the last time I saw my mother alive. I’d imagine myself back at her hospital bed, the adult me comforting her in her final hours, providing the emotional strength, perspective, and maturity I didn’t possess as a child. Or I’d imagined my adult self holding the hand of my father, who was also present that last time, squeezing tight and promising him we’d get through the tough times together. Finally, I’d imagined my adult self holding the hand of the terrified, confused, and angry 13-year old scowling at the opposite side of the bed. I’d reassure my younger self that things would be ok, you’re not alone; in time you’ll heal and hope will again burn bright.

As I put the finishing touches on this post, by coincidence I was flooded with more lemonade: dozens of photos of my mother, color images we hadn’t seen in decades from christenings, holy communions, and graduations. In each, a younger version of my mother wears a different gloriously stylish outfit and beams with only slightly less pride than whatever child is being celebrated. Receipt of these images—a result of my brother Bill working to covert my father’s slide collection to prints—felt like nothing less than a crowd of well wishers cheering me on for the final mile of the marathon that writing this blog has been. The pictures are proof that my mother’s love—the glue that kept the family together back then—still exists. Like the dusty boxes of slides removed from the basement­—like my memories themselves— it may be slightly worse for wear, but it has resurfaced at precisely the right time. May we cherish its bright splendor for years to come.

Yellowing, wrinkled photo of my mother from the Gourmet Corner article. Life in our new home had just begun.

Little Triggers

In May 2015, along with three million other viewers, I watched the series finale of Mad Men. The show’s director delivered fans a rare happy ending; a montage of future possibilities for each character—all positive—set to the sound of sweeping violins. The camera then cut to protagonist Don Draper meditating on a hilltop with other participants at an oceanside retreat. As Draper sat in the lotus position repeatedly chanting “om,” the camera panned in slowly for a closeup.  In perfect timing, a peaceful smile alighted on his face and a chime rang, as if to indicate sudden inspiration. And then I heard it. The reedy, hope-filled voice of one young woman singing, followed by a cut to the original “Hilltop” TV commercial for Coca Cola, first aired in summer 1971. “I’d like to buy the world a home…” sang the voice as it became embodied in a fresh-faced blonde. I hadn’t seen the ad for decades.  As more and more voices joined in song, the screen filled with an increasing number of young people of all races. I’m sure many viewers of a certain age were enjoying a nostalgic trip to a simpler time, but not I. With the first haunting strains of the woman’s voice, grief began to bloom from the depths of my being, expanding with the addition of each singer. By the time the camera panned up and away for the final bird’s-eye view of the group, I was doubled over with grief. Here’s the interesting thing: the sorrow had not subject. I wasn’t particularly attached to the commercial and certainly not Coca Cola; and although the end of the Mad Men series was disappointing, it was not catastrophically so. The commercial apparently had triggered a memory related to my mother that I couldn’t put my finger on. I couldn’t remember why I was sad; the depth of sorrow provided the only clue.

 It wasn’t the first time I had experienced overpowering emotions unmatched with reality. It started six years earlier, during the first legally enforced time I spent away from my children as part of a temporary custody arrangement with my soon-to-be ex-husband: a weekday afternoon of perhaps three hours. A colleague who had gone through something similar had advised me to stay busy, so I scheduled every minute of those hours to take care of the pile of errands that accompanied my new status of single parent.  At the prearranged hour my Ex picked up the kids at the house, and for their sake I pretended it was an ordinary outing I cheerfully waved goodbye as they got into his car and I watched it reverse down the driveway. A twinge of sorrow surfaced but I immediately rationalized it away, reminding myself of the impending break, and wasn’t it fortunate to have time to run errands that couldn’t be done otherwise? My first stop was the local hardware store. While selecting light bulbs I observed a daughter helping her father load their shopping cart. At the grocery store I watched a mother soothing her young child who wanted something he couldn’t have. My children weren’t with me; I couldn’t soothe them if they were in distress right now; in fact I was legally prohibited from doing so. That phrase —legally prohibited — reverberated through my brain. As a mother who had lost her own mother, it was the cruelest irony I could have faced.

Feelings of sorrow and despair had grown so strong by the time I got home, I felt them as a physical sensation, like the wall of heat released when one opens a hot oven. It was my first indication that the unresolved pain of my mother’s death was starting to resurface.

Other triggers involved dates rather than events, especially for what author Hope Edelman calls the neon number: the age of one’s same-sex parent when they died. Edelman explains that for a daughters who identifies strongly with her mother, she “can’t properly distinguish between her mother’s experience and her own. If cancer or heart failure or suicide took her mother’s life, she reacts to the illness as if it were a threat to her system, too.” (p. 232) My mother’s neon number was 50.5 years. Even before I was anywhere near that age, I had to contend with the fact that the anniversary of her death created an ill-fated conjunction with my own birthday, which was six days later. Not to mention that we shared the same name, as discussed in the previous post.

It was difficult to avoid a feeling of inevitability. I had witnessed first-hand how that elusive illness, persistently one step ahead of all treatments, spread throughout my mother’s body with quiet, relentless efficiency. Cancer worked in mysterious ways, just as I had been taught God supposedly did. My strong mother had not been able to beat it, so how on earth was I, her much weaker daughter, going to survive? Surely the same fate awaited me.

 As the decades of adulthood passed one by one, I began anticipating a kind of self-imposed health crisis for my fiftieth year. Because of my mother’s history, doctors had recommended I take a baseline mammogram at age 30, but instead of relief it only reinforced the fear that some time in the not-too-distant future this pre-illness stage would morph into full-blown illness. I had another mammogram at 35, and then annually starting at age 40. As my age climbed closer to the neon number, the anxiety surrounding the mammogram results grew greater. A primal and irrational flood of fear would accompany each procedure. The nursing staff of my health facility helped by fast-tracking follow-up appointments whenever possible. “See you in a year” became a mantra of comfort and relief; it was the message my radiologist scrawled on notifications bearing good news.

Positive events elicit positive feelings, but what about negative events that we no longer remember, like the one that triggered my Mad Men sorrow? Research indicates that such feelings can last long after we stop consciously thinking of them. In one study (Feinstein et al., 2010), anterograde amnesiacs — brain-damaged individuals unable to create new conscious memories lasting more than a few minutes —watched a series of clips of sad films, such as the heart-wrenching scene in Sophie’s Choice where a mother is forced to choose which of her children should live and which should die. Sadness-induction techniques like these are effective in eliciting sorrow in viewers. For comparison, a group of neurotypical participants also watched the film clips. The healthy control participants understood that the sad feelings were a result of watching the film; put into such context, their feelings of sorrow dissipated rapidly. In contrast, the amnesiac patients, who because of their disorder promptly forgot that they had watched the film, felt sadness for a much longer time — even thirty minutes after the viewing had ended —despite the fact that they could no longer consciously remember the origin of their saddness. The amnesiac participants could not square their feelings with the present moment and so those feelings lingered. I’ll never know for sure the source of sorrow elicited during the season finale of Mad Men, but that doesn’t matter. By then I was well acquainted with managing occasional torrents of sorrow triggered by seemingly benign events. I had learned to accept them fully, to sit with the waves of grief and bear witness to their unknown pain until they subsided. After the Mad Men experience, my efforts at self-healing yielded something else besides relief: the decision to write a blog in memory of my mother.

Source: Pixabay

Colorless Green Ideas

I’ve often wondered if the beginning of human life resembles a scene from the stop-motion animated classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. As Santa’s reindeer-driven sleigh soars over rooftops on Christmas Eve, a pointy-hatted elf retrieves toys from the overstuffed bag in back, choosing precisely the right toy for each home in accordance with Santa’s list. The elf hands the next toy an open umbrella, offers a few words of encouragement, and waves cheerfully as the toy glides down to its destiny.  Substitute God for Santa, a radiant angel for the elf, and you’ve got a possible mechanism for ushering souls into human bodies. If such a scenario were true, I can imagine what advice my angelic instructor might have offered when it was my turn:

“You’re going to a good family with fine parents, but one of them is going to contract an illness—fatal, I’m afraid. You’ll have to watch her suffering for a couple of years without being told much by the adults. You’ll be confused, angry, and terrified. It’ll start about twelve years from now; you can’t miss it.” With a gentle push he’d send me parachuting to my new human form. Maybe I would shoot back a look of panic, which makes the angel regret his candor.

“One more thing,” he’d shout down to my spiraling soul. “You’re going to have the same name as the parent, so thoughts of mortality will appear early. Try not to look at her tombstone too much. Good luck, kid!”

            Why God and the angels (or Santa and his elves, for that matter) would sanction such a script has eluded me for decades. Perhaps I’m naïve, but that kind of start doesn’t provide an efficient roadmap for success. I have encountered twists and setbacks as varied as what Dorothy Gayle experienced in The Wizard of Oz.1 At least Dorothy’s adventures occurred in a world of color revealed upon landing in the enchanted world of Oz. The timeline of my life did just the reverse: starting in color and switching to black-and-white in 1975 to represent the indelible “before” and “after” demarcation of my mother’s illness/death.

The degree to which the experience of my mother’s death colored—or should I say, paled—my subsequent outlook cannot be understated. It’s a comfort to realize that the true horror of her illness lasted less than six months, a disturbance as brief as a stone’s ripple in a pond when compared to the full expanse of my life. Yet the emotional fallout would endure for decades, receding below the surface of consciousness only to reemerge at significant moments. There was the loss itself, the perpetual aching void I wrote about in the previous post. My mother’s death also meant that she would not be present at any of the future milestones of our lives, beginning with my middle school graduation the month after she died, to all other graduations for myself and my siblings, to marriages and the births of our children. Her unremarked-upon absence floated silently in the hazy periphery of these events, shading each otherwise joyful celebration with a sepia tint of sorrow.

Only someone with a dazzling disposition could be unaffected by these changes. Perhaps because my own personality fell short by several hundred lumens, I began to develop a pessimistic outlook on life.  I was in good company. In her excellent book Motherless Daughters, author Hope Edelman describes the feelings and experiences of many daughters in the years after their mothers died.  One recounted how she felt that “calamity might be lurking around every corner, and that some terrible loss might come at any moment for which there is no preparation and no defense.”2 The statement has all the hallmarks of abandonment; I shared the same catastrophic ideas for years.

I also developed a deep mistrust of adults.  Not long after my mother’s death, her family ceased contact with us for reasons still unknown. At roughly the same time my paternal grandmother died. Any hopes my sisters and I had for an adult female role model in the family were gone.  I wish I could say that a kindly teacher took me under their wing, but the truth is that I kept adults at a wary arm’s length throughout high school and college for this very reason, and the trend continued into adulthood somewhat. What’s the point in getting close to people when they can’t be counted on to stay around, is the common sentiment I’ve read about children who lose a parent early. In those days I was of the world but not in it, with attention often trained elsewhere in hopes of rekindling an old feeling of comfort always out of earthly reach.

After some time passed I also began to sense that my emotional life was frozen in some way. I continued to mature and age into adulthood, and yet my understanding of my mother and the knowledge that she imparted didn’t update in tandem. Everything I learned from her had been encoded from a child’s perspective. Decades later when I was pregnant with my children and preparing their nursery, I sewed a ruffled skirt to go around their bassinet and wove a pastel ribbon through its bonnet just like my mother had done— but for a toy bassinet I had received as a girl rather than for a real baby! All of my references for what to do originated from this girlish perspective, frozen in time. According to psychologist Nan Birmbaum, a young girl’s identity develops as layers of knowledge that reorganize upon each other, sometimes replacing old information with new, but consistently building upwards to adult identity.  When a mother dies, the daughter’s identity gets stuck at a given level: mine was thirteen with all of its glorious emotional inconsistencies. I used to joke that I had an inner teen rather than an inner child.

The memories of my mother themselves also began to lose color. Memories are not stored holistically, like individual books sitting on a shelf, but rather are spread throughout the brain. Visual characteristics are stored in the occipital lobe, spatial characteristics are stored in the parietal lobe, auditory components are stored in the temporal lobe, and so on. When we remember something, what we experience is not so much a replay as a reconstitution of the components of the event. This means there’s a possibility that incorrect details get assembled, or that some components are left out of the memory altogether. Sometimes we can catch the errors and update according to reality, but other times we are unaware. Before I began working on this blog, I had discovered that certain details of memories of my mother had begun to fade, likely because there was no reality to compare them to.

Linguist Noam Chomsky invented the sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” to demonstrate that short, illogical phrases strung together can cohere into a complete sentence that contains correct grammatical structure.  Nevertheless, the sentence remains semantically meaningless. In the whole, the structure of my life has contained no real controversy. However, the brief circumstances of my mother’s death were meaningless, and still are. This side of heaven I may never receive a satisfactory answer as to why.

Thanks to the website Find A Grave, the fifth image produced by a Google search of my own name is my mother’s gravesite.


  1. I was curious to read that author Hope Edelman used a similar reference, although obliquely, in describing her own mother’s death: “When my mother died, I remember feeling as if a tornado had blown through town and carried my roof away.” (Motherless Daughters, p. 235).

2. Motherless Daughters, p. 80

Dreams of My Mother

I was the family outlier, a daydreamer and a romantic, the one with the thinnest skin whose tendency to upset easily was tested heartily and often. I found solace in books at an early age. “It’s a beautiful day, “my mother once fretted after discovering me reading in bed on a glorious Saturday. “Don’t you want to go outside?”

In those days I sometimes found fictional characters—preferably those of the 19th-century and earlier—more relatable than members of my own family. I’d take the eclectic March sisters or the intrepid Ingalls family any day, especially a glorious Saturday. Without looking up from my book, I shook my head “no” to my mother’s query. “Suit yourself,” she said without reproach.  Our relationship wasn’t perfect, but she tolerated much, just as she did with all of us. I believe she saw glimpses of the gold parts in me and was willing to let them flower at their own pace, as long as I refrained from bothering my younger sister too much in the process.

During her illness the carefully managed familial détente she had woven over the years began to slowly unravel. That I was aware of the imminent loss of an ally was evident in a dream—not quite a crisis apparition, but close—which I had the day before she died. In the illogical parlance of dreams, several of my siblings were in charge of her burial. For convenience’ sake they decided not to bury her, but instead to keep her body in the spare fridge in our basement. My protests against this gruesome decision went unheeded; my outlier status cemented. They made a raucous, wisecracking parade of it as they carried my mother’s limp form, still in hospital gown, down the basement steps. With a final flourish they deposited her in the fridge and banged the door shut. I awoke gasping in horror. The dream was a preview of my deepest fears about what it would be like without her. In reality we became a house full of grieving individuals with no neutral party to turn to for support.

That nightmare would not be the last time my mother appeared in dreams.  During waking hours I never felt her presence, the way some claim to sense their deceased loved ones nearby. Not for trying, anyway. I could never conjure her during bumpy moments of teenage life, when a mother’s advice might smooth over the wayward deeds of a friend or boyfriend. Alone in my bedroom I would tearfully attempt to feel her presence or intuit some kind of advice from her. I felt nothing.  Time would pass, and I might convince myself that I was getting over her death. Then I would dream of her, and the hair-trigger longing for connection that lay coiled just below consciousness — ready to spring at the slightest ethereal provocation — indicated otherwise. 

These dreams were rare, occurring maybe twice a year, but they always followed a similar script. In a cruel twist of memory, my mother appeared as she had in the last stages of her illness, clad in a loose white nightgown or hospital gown that dwarfed her form. It was as if the witnessing of her illness had retroactively blotted out the entirety of her personhood, overriding more than a decade’s worth of memories of her in sound health from my earlier childhood. One positive improvement to the dream version was that her mind was intact and we could communicate. And so with wringing hands I would desperately implore her to come back and help me, to resume her maternal role. Her response was always positive but somewhat distant, the exhortation of a saint or an angel. She would smile gently and say “keep praying” or some other such benevolent phrase. As if on cue, cracks of wakefulness would begin to seep through the pores of the dream, and the Poynter painting would happen all over again, only this time the emphasis was not on Eurydice but on Orpheus, whose compulsive look back over his shoulder loosened Eurydice’s grasp and sent her slipping back into the Underworld forever. “Wait!” I would plead, “don’t go!” I would struggle to remain in that ethereal space with my mother, even as layer upon layer of dawning consciousness separated us further. When my eyes finally opened I would be alone and abandoned all over again, tasting bitterness and real tears.

In my senior year of college, my roommate and I went to a psychic fair on a whim.  It was one of those crowded events at the local convention center where you chose a reader, paid a nominal fee for a 15-minute reading, and stood in line to wait your turn. We were curious about past lives, so we chose a reader with that specialty. When I finally sat down at my reader’s table, her first words were not about past lives but past relatives. “There’s someone here who wants to speak to you,” she announced. “I can’t hear her name clearly, is it Millie?”

“It’s Mollie, I said, taken aback. “That’s my mother.”

“She wants you to know she’s OK.”

The message was almost as vague as her last-known written message to me, the one in which she expressed to my brother that I shouldn’t be such a typical teenager. Disappointed, I cut off further conversation and asked about the past lives, which seemed intriguing enough until I learned that my roommate, who was next in line, had an almost identical reading for one of the lives. I dismissed the entire incident as a fraud.

The most recent dream I had of my mother was a few years ago, shortly after I had started this blog. In the dream she had just read the second post—the incident with the hamster. She said positive things but had a few suggestions, until I pointed out that she was working from the wrong draft. She examined the correct draft and was pleased, saying encouraging things about my writing.  Most significant was her appearance: the hospital clothes that had long plagued my dreams were gone. In fact, her appearance was radiant. She looked to be in her 70s, older than she had been when she died, but younger than her actual age would have been had she lived. She had long, billowy back-lit blonde hair and wore stylish but comfortable clothes. When I awoke I realized that she had appeared as the actress Blythe Danner. I was curious as to why. My mother didn’t look at all like Blythe Danner, and she was of an older generation than her. Then I remembered that dreams sometimes embed meaning in words as well as images. There is of course the negatively connotated blithe, meaning happy indifference. But there’s also the word blythe, which according to Wikipedia derives from an Old English word meaning joyous, kind, cheerful, and pleasant, as in the last rhyme on the cookie tin I wrote about in a previous post: “The child who is born on the Sabbath day is bonny, blythe, good, and gay.” I’d like to think that the name associated with my mother in the dream was an indication of her current joyous state.  I speculate that her improved physical appearance in the dream means that my own wounds are healing, too. Still, her interactions with me continued to be warm but not overly emotional. Perhaps the deceased view their previous lives from an advanced perspective that minimizes familial connection. Or maybe they’re too busy navigating their new reality to sustain those old ties. The mother in my dreams has always radiated connection, just not a specific maternal one. If that’s the best indication of her well-being that I’m likely to receive from the the other side of the Veil, I’ll take it.

Edward Poyntner’s painting Orpheus and Eurydice (source: commons.wikipedia.org)

The Seven-Year Glitch

The day after my mother’s funeral I awoke to a gigantic hole in the sky.  Relief should have emerged with the dawn—at least according to the prediction of a friend’s mother whose husband had also died of a lengthy illness—but it didn’t. On the one hand, her suffering was over, and my family’s helpless witnessing of her suffering was also over.  On the other hand, I was little prepared for the overwhelming door-is-closed, chapter-is-over feeling of her departure. My mother was Gone, vanished from the earth. The dark, jagged-edged hole in the sky represented a singular puzzle that all people who survive loved ones struggle with: coming to terms with loss, what Psychologist Martin Lunghi describes as the  “transition from existence to non-existence.”

How does the mind make sense of such an epic transformation? In the 1970s there were no hospice workers to explain what was happening, nor outpatient clinics for bereavement support. There were no school psychologists, and my family was not the kind to seek private help. Instead we avoided discussing my mother’s death whenever possible and resumed our lives from before, almost as if her illness had never happened. With no neutral party to turn to for support, my grief was locked in a holding pattern, cycling around and around on itself like a wayward pinball as I restlessly searched for answers. If only I could grasp the meaning behind what had happened, maybe I could deal with the unbearable pain. My mother had been a huge part of my fourteen years on Earth. Where did she go? Where? Where? Where? My brain turned over the question incessantly.

With all of our interactions in life, an organic network takes shape wherein every conversation, every feeling, every event is transformed to invisible, interconnected nodes stored in a vast memory grid. When we interact in real time, the network is activated, and every new experience is incorporated into it like an ever-expanding tapestry. My mother’s death had blown a hole in the tapestry, and I didn’t know how to mend it. The proposition itself was too painful to bear. I couldn’t fix it; it was an impossible task. You may have heard of cognitive dissonance—the internal conflict someone experiences when they perceive a mismatch between outer events and inner thoughts or feelings. With my mother gone, I experienced  cognitive dissonance on steroids. An over-the-top incongruity mixed with profound grief produces a correspondingly unrealistic rationale. As a way to cope, I found myself manifesting a peculiar belief— a secret hope that my mother might come back. Joan Didion speaks of something similar in her book The Year of Magical Thinking. In the months after her husband’s sudden death from a heart attack, she describes not being able to give away his shoes, just in case. “There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible,” she recalled.1 (p. 32)

I, too, experienced a fervent wish of reversibility. My need for my mother was so great that I simply could not accept her absence as permanent. And so I struck a bargain with myself. On some Fairy Tale thought plane it was easier to accept that my mother was in the deep, suspended sleep of a Rip Van Winkle or Sleeping Beauty rather than actually deceased. If so, I could then commit to the following logic:  As long as the world didn’t change too much after her death, my mother might be able to come back and resume her former role within our family. This tantalizing possibility provided a temporary patch to the tapestry and immediate relief to my soul. The material facts told me that my mother was dead; I had seen her cancer-diminished form in the hospital bed. I had attended the funeral mass and burial with the rest of my family, and the upbeat party afterwards where relatives extolled her virtues and sang her favorite Irish songs. Nevertheless, the enticing prospect that my mother could return pulsed expectantly in the background of my mind like a hummingbird on a spring day.  If hope is the thing with feathers, it surely has wings as well.

The trick was to monitor current events to ensure that the world she had known was not too different from the world that marched on without her. As long as that congruity held, she might be able to come back. And so I developed a kind of double awareness, in which one part followed the trajectory of the typical teenager while the other monitored major news stories like a seasoned journalist, combing through them for outlying details. The Bicentennial had occurred a few months after my mother died. Could my mother come back to celebrate it? The answer was yes. Her illness had only begun in earnest in the winter months of 1975, at which time plans for the 200th anniversary of the country had been well advertised and well underway. Deductive validity held. Later that fall I entered high school. Could she take that in stride? Absolutely; there were three older siblings who had already gone through the same. Births, deaths, national kidnappings, a royal wedding: Though unique and sometimes surprising, each major news event passed muster, leaving open the possibility that my mother could reenter Earth through some celestial portal. How precisely this miraculous reification would work I could not articulate, but that didn’t matter. The hummingbird’s wings beat brightly.

It didn’t help matters that my grief went unattended. By the early 1980s I was enrolled in college. Looking back, I was probably one of the sorriest characters ever to wash ashore on a university campus. I had anticipated that getting away from family and the friends I had grown up would provide a fresh start, but it only served to emphasize the cracks in my paltry emotional support system. In reality I had barely scratched the surface of my grief. Within the first semester I stumbled upon a modicum of warmth and kindness in, of all places, the health services facilities, where nurses simply doing their jobs were the first adults in years to show care as they attended to me and other suitemates who had contracted a stomach flu. Given that my mother and I had last seen each other when I was thirteen, these facts might have been a jolt. But no, I reasoned, because at least regarding campus life there was precedent: my brother Bill had gone through his first year of college during most of her illness. My illogical premise thus remained unchallenged, and I drifted through academic majors and friend groups for the next few years.

Things changed in my junior year. The campus was abuzz with the new concept of personal computing and how it could revolutionize society. I enrolled in an Introduction to C++ Computer Programming course to see what all the fuss was about. A few weeks of intriguing yet challenging classes passed before logic tripped me up. Not the logic of C++, but the secret, carefully tended premise about my mother. I realized that the advances in computer technology I was learning about would possibly upset her mid-1970s worldview. If she had miraculously reappeared on Earth in 1983, the idea of a computer would have baffled her or even frightened her; what’s worse, such advanced technology might cause her to realize she had missed out on a significant chunk of time. I didn’t wish my mother to experience any more discomfort than she already had been through during her illness. With a heavy heart I dropped both the C++ course and my preposterous premise of her return.

Joan Didion reports that the magical thinking she experienced after her husband died lasted one year. Mine lasted seven. Only after then, as a reluctant 20-year-old college student, did the dual awarenesses I had cultivated crash back into each other and fuse forever. I was forced to accept fully, squarely, and with profound sorrow that my mother was never coming back.

Artist: Matryx. Source: Pixabay.


1 Didion, J., The Year of Magical Thinking (p. 32).

Alive But Not Living

For a recent Cognitive Psychology course at Smith College I assigned a reading by Psychologist Daniel Levitin describing a case study from his own life— a former colleague who began to lose memories of the past due to a brain tumor on his temporal lobe.1  Levitin’s article explored the relationship between memory and our sense of self: Does eradication of the one also eradicate the other? The students wrote brief reflections on this question.  One compared the patient in the article to the famous anterograde amnesiac Clive Wearing, who lost the ability to form new long-term memories after contracting encephalitis. The resulting damage to his temporal cortex forced him into a blinkered existence of discrete moments fading before he could react to them. Wearing was so debilitated, wrote student Yulia Lavysh, that he seemed “alive but not living.”2 As I read through her paper, the phrase leapt off the page. It was an accurate description of Clive Wearing’s life all right, but on a deeper level it captured my mother’s state of being during the last months of her illness.

Remember my mother this way (circa 1967).

March 1976 was a time of extremes. In the space of a few days the weather in Northern New Jersey swung from a low of 19 degrees to highs over 70, while my family grappled with the final phases of my mother’s cancer. A letter my sister Ellen wrote to a friend around that time provides rare details of my mother’s medical treatments.  The results of a scan (most likely another bone scan) revealed that the secondary cancer had spread to every bone in our mother’s body. Ellen must have shared this with me because I remember murmuring that ominous phrase —“every bone in her body”— to a few close friends. The doctors had also detected cancer in my mother’s liver, and had just scanned her brain as well.  It wasn’t looking good.

I have researched several cancer websites to determine whether the final months of my mother’s illness followed a typical timeline.  The sites categorized two sets of cancer symptoms: One for the final weeks of life, and another, involving more severe symptoms, for the final days. According to cancer.net, symptoms associated with the final weeks include: “worsening weakness and exhaustion, minimal appetite, weight loss and muscle thinning, decreased ability to talk and concentrate, and loss of interest in the outside world.” What is striking about my mother’s illness is that she showed these symptoms not for weeks, but for months before she died. The more severe symptoms—for the final days of life—include: “dryness of mouth and lips, disorientation, a tendency to drift in and out of consciousness, and gradually becoming less and less responsive to touch or voice.”  My mother showed all of these symptoms and more, but rather than days, the symptoms lasted for weeks.

The hallucinations that had plagued her weeks earlier finally stopped, to the relief of the entire household, but the resulting silence heralded something far worse. By late March my mother was no longer cognizant. Her body continued its steady decline, wasting to perhaps seventy pounds; Ellen thinks she might have been down to as low as fifty pounds. For weeks she lay stiff and immobile in the bed. And yet my mother hung on, like Edward Poynter’s painting of the pale Eurydice clinging to her beloved Orpheus as he drags her out of the underworld. My mother’s life was her family; we were her collective beloved. Her desire to remain with her husband and children impelled her through the advanced cancer stages. At least that’s how I had always imagined it, until someone suggested recently that our own feelings —a tannic brew of love, fear, and dread—might have kept her tethered to life.

Either way, in adulthood I understand and appreciate my mother’s tenacity, but during her illness, her lingering state terrified me. Back then I could only witness the grim transformation, the unremitting toll paid to a faceless enemy who ravaged her body and altered her appearance beyond recognition. I remember a graded bump protruding from her lower back, but Ellen says no; that’s not medically accurate.  Perhaps the bump is a memory confabulation caused by horrified notions of bone cancer. My mother’s hair began to thin, eventually falling out in handfuls. Her signature jet-black side curls transformed to wiry grey tufts. With each passing day, she resembled less and less of the person I had grown up with, most notably in the eyes. In the last weeks they stared vacantly into a perpetual midrange, focused on nothing and nobody.

I coped by deliberately separating home and school life; to stay sane I revealed very little about my mother’s illness to people outside the family. Most of my friends didn’t know, the family for whom I babysat regularly didn’t know.  Even teachers were told the bare minimum. By cordoning off my mother’s illness like a crime scene or the site of a biohazard spill, I could keep it to a manageable size. When people did find out, their sharp, in-breath concern blew out the proportions of grief again. I couldn’t bear the awkward attention and overbearing sympathy they inevitably rained upon us.

One such incident involved a neighboring family with whom my mother had feuded. Lest I’ve given the impression that she was a perfect person, she wasn’t; she had personality flaws like the rest of us.  Hers veered toward self-righteous inflexibility now and again. During the previous summer, the brother of one of our neighbors had tried to crash my brother Bill’s high school graduation party. He was in the class one year below Bill and his friends, so not on the guest list.  Some hosts might have made an exception once the party was in full swing, but not my highly principled mother. She refused to allow the interloper to stay. He left with a scowl and a chip on his shoulder that had forged an ever-widening rift between the two families ever since. Months later, when word got around the neighborhood that my mother was in failing health, a few delegates from the disputing family came around, most likely to get a glimpse of her downfall and perhaps even a taste of self-satisfying smugness. I remember ushering them into her bedroom where she lay, hair disheveled, unresponsive, staring into middle distance with glassy eyes. The neighbors gasped aloud and exclaimed, “We had no idea she was this sick!” Some awkward minutes later they shuffled out of the room, silent and ashen-faced.  As I type this memory, extreme discomfort blooms like a firework in a distant sky. It trips a motherly instinct to reach across the dining room table to protect my own daughter—who sits opposite absorbed in her own work—from something that happened decades before she was born. I catch myself just in time.

The most difficult change we witnessed occurred during the last week or so my mother was home. This transformation involved more than the accrued subtraction of things she could no longer do, as described in that second, more severe list of cancer symptoms. It was a qualitative shift, prefigured by another change to her eyes: They took on a wild cast, like the glare of a terrified horse.  And then one day she passed an impossible threshold. I have searched in vain for a more delicate way to describe it, but the truth is that the essence of her personality departed, as if a candle flame had been snuffed. To my young mind it seemed as if imprisonment within a failing body had been too much for my mother’s refined soul to bear: In protest, she slipped away, like in an old-fashioned movie where the double-exposed image of a character’s body sheers off the bed while the physical body slumbers on. What remained was not a sleeping person as you might expect, but something less—a loose arrangement of bodily elements on the bed. That was all: alive but not living. Her body hung on, but only in the most basic, biological sense. 

When I assigned Dan Levitin’s article to my Cognitive Psychology class, I already knew the answer to the puzzle about memory and the self. My students and even Levitin himself reached the same conclusion: Memory loss alone does not extinguish the essence of who we are. From witnessing my mother’s illness I know that it takes something far more insidious. Cancer didn’t just rob her of her life; it also took her humanity. 


1 Levitin, D. (2012). Amnesia and the self that remains when memory is lost. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/amnesia-and-the-self-that-remains-when-memory-is-lost/266662/#:~:text=Professor%20Pribram%20felt%20that%20when,memory%20had%20not%20touched%20it.

2Yulia Lavysh gave me permission to use her description of Clive Wearing.

Seeing Things and Hearing Things

When I was about eight years old I had a very high fever that caused hallucinations through the night. I remember lying in my bed in the room shared with my younger sister, staring up at the ceiling as a parade of miniature creatures crossed my field of vision. It was difficult to tell if the beings were human, but they were translucent and colorless and very animated, and they seemed to be hosting a party for my benefit. They were so real I couldn’t help being drawn into the conversation. Continue reading “Seeing Things and Hearing Things”

By Her Hand

We saved precious little of my mother’s writing. To the best of my knowledge, neither notes nor letters nor even a grocery list remains. We have my father’s correspondence to her in the last stages of World War II, when he left New Jersey for Army Basic Training and then shipped to the Philippines for several years. My mother preserved these letters in a tidy bundle stored in the lower right-hand drawer of her dresser, but her replies are lost. Other documents were thrown away several years after her death, at around the time we gave away her clothing in an effort to help my father move on. My sister Ellen kept one birthday card signed with my mother’s uniquely spelled “Mommie,” but that ‘s all we have. Continue reading “By Her Hand”

Reasoning by Analogy

A classic puzzle that cognitive psychologists use to test thinking skills is the Tumor Problem, which poses the following hypothetical dilemma. A patient has a malignant tumor in his abdomen. If the doctors direct a strong dose of radiation through the surrounding healthy tissue, it will destroy both the tumor and the healthy tissue. On the other hand, the dosage that can pass through healthy tissue without harming it is too weak to destroy the tumor, and the patient will die. What can the doctors do to destroy the tumor without damaging surrounding tissue? Continue reading “Reasoning by Analogy”

Thursday’s Children

My first photo album contains a pockmarked old picture of my mother baking Christmas sugar cookies. The dimpling is the result of the photo being ironed into the album at too high a temperature, but it’s still easy to make out the subject. My mother stands in the red-tiled kitchen of her first home with my father in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. She is wearing a red top and grasps a cookie sheet with a red potholder. I recognize her signature shade of vermilion lipstick, which she used to paint onto her lips with a tiny brush. Against the backdrop of these shades of red, her pale face glows ethereally. She smiles broadly as she leans forward to place a freshly baked cookie from the sheet onto a platter of others. Closer inspection of her shirt reveals that it’s maternity wear, which provides a further explanation of the glow and also dates the photo to December 1956. At age 31 she is pregnant with her first child, my brother Bill, due three months later. She had had two prior miscarriages in the previous two years, so making it through her second trimester around Christmastime would have had special significance. Continue reading “Thursday’s Children”