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.