Moments With Ma
By Patti Johnson
My mother has been dead for over thirty-five years. She has been gone for more than 70% of my life, and still, I miss her. Still, I grieve. It is all so much a part of who I am. There were years, of course, that I had with my Ma—sixteen of them—but the memories are scattered across the years. How much is actual memory, and how much is from “stories” retold over the years, I cannot say. If the following are not actual memories, then I, in my mind, have chosen to preserve them as such in vivid detail, with pictures of the events in my recollections, nuances of our voices and with love.
Patti and Ma, 1962
My Mother’s Death
At some point, I must tell the story of her death. It was the single most life altering event of my existence. The experience of it made me who I am and formed the bases of the beliefs that I have. It was the single most traumatic event of my life. Parts of me are forever stuck in 1971 at age 16 in the hurt, the pain, the grief and loss of my mother.
My Ma was an alcoholic. It hurts me to say that. For years, I could not admit it. I am not comfortable with saying it now. It still feels wrong, and it feels as if I’m being disloyal to her—focusing on something negative about her. Alcoholism was considered a weakness back then, a choice, and not the complicated disease that it is. She was just 52 years old, a month shy of her 53rd birthday.
My Ma drank wine—cheap, yellow colored port wine—and a lot of it. Her wine of preference was Muscatel, marketed by the vintners as an aromatic white wine which tends to be wheat colored and have a clean fruity bouquet. To me, it was a pale gold color and it stunk. I suppose I thought that Muscatel was a brand name and not a type of wine. I won’t claim to be an expert. I know next to nothing about the different varieties of wines, and I really don’t understand the attraction to drinking the stuff. I don’t enjoy the smell of wine and I can’t stomach the taste of it.
Ma drank every day. I won’t claim to know why. I used to drive myself crazy, wondering why. Was it because she was sad? Lonely? What did she feel? What pain was she trying to ease? Something physical or some emotional sorrow that she quietly carried? After Ma died, my older sister Paula once infuriated me by asking, “What did she really have to live for?” I wanted to scream, “Me!” She had me to live for. I needed her. Didn’t she know that? Wasn’t I enough? For many years I believed I wasn’t enough—that I didn’t matter—that her wine was more important to her than I was. The experts would remind me that the reasons for drinking do not matter and that alcoholism is a disease of dependence. Yet, the reasons have always mattered to me. Perhaps if I knew them then I could have done something— a fantasy— a rage against the reality that there is nothing we can do if the alcoholic doesn’t see their drinking as a problem.
So, my Ma drank. A lot. I’m not sure she even realized how much she drank. My Dad didn’t even know how much or how often she drank. And we never told him. She kept it from him. And so did Paula and I—to protect him from the hurt—to protect Ma from his wrath. We kept it to ourselves to avoid all conflict of endless yelling and arguments. Ignorance is bliss, and what Dad didn’t know couldn’t hurt him. But the booze was killing Ma.
It was sometime in October of 1971, when Ma took a fall, outside. She said she hurt her knee. It swelled. She couldn’t walk. I didn’t want to leave her home alone, unable to walk. I missed a lot of school, staying home with her, keeping her company and doing whatever I could for her. Us kids, Paula and I, eventually got her to the doctor. I believe Paula’s boyfriend, David, drove us. I don’t think my Dad even knew that we took her. She had gout, and the pussy fluid had collected in the joint of her knee. The doctor drained it and told her in the presence of Paula and me that if she took another drink it could kill her. I vaguely recalled that, four or five years earlier, he had told her the same thing when she’d had her gall bladder removed. She hadn’t listened then. She wasn’t going to listen now either, unless we forced her to listen. We took her home.Patti, Ma and Paula, Niagra Falls 1968
Paula and I went on a search and destroy mission. We searched the house top to bottom and found every bottle she had hidden—in kitchen cabinets, in closets, in our dresser drawers, under the bed. There were empty bottles, full bottles, half-full bottles and one with only a few drops left. We took them all out to the back yard and hurled them over the fence, smashing those glass bottles against the cold steel rails of the railroad tracks.
I missed more school. She’d beg me for just a sip of her wine. I had to tell her “No!” The begging hurt, the saying ‘No’ hurt—life just hurt. Ma wasn’t eating. She wasn’t getting any better. I called the doctor and told him. The doctor wanted her to go to the hospital so he could run some tests. We told Dad that the doctor wanted her in the hospital—we couldn’t exactly keep that from him. She went by ambulance in the first week of November, 1971.
All of my teachers at school were understanding, except one. They let me catch up with my school work at home, or at school, whenever I managed to attend, a day here or there. Except one—Miss Marian Denicola, my 11th grade English Literature teacher. She didn’t think there was anything more important in the world than sitting through her class. I’ve wondered over the years if she ever figured out that there were and are things more important. She gave me an E, which is equivalent to an F. Yep, she failed me for those nine weeks, in more ways than one. Even with my nose to the grindstone, in the following months I never achieved higher than a C grade from her, which was a real contrast to the A’s & B’s I had received, and continued to receive, in all of my other classes throughout high school.
Meanwhile, they were running all sorts of tests on Ma at the hospital. She was there for almost two weeks and then we learned that they were going to do surgery on her. From what I remember, they told us that she had gall stones in her liver and they had to be removed. Surgery was on Wednesday, November 17, 1971. Ma made it through surgery, but she was not doing well. They found that she had cirrhosis of the liver. I don’t know what they planned to do for her, or how cirrhosis was treated it back then, but they told us that the next 24 hours were critical. I guess we thought if she made it through the day then everything would be OK. She was on a respirator with the hose taped to her mouth. She couldn’t talk, but she tried to tell us something. She tried writing it down, but we couldn’t decipher her handwriting. I wish I had those scrawling notes now, but we never understood just what she was trying to say.
On Friday morning, November 19th, the hospital called at about 7:30. I was home alone just preparing to leave for school. A nurse, or some lady, said, “Please notify the family that Helen has taken a turn for the worse.” I didn’t get any details. I called my brother, Jimmy, I called my brother, Billy, and told them. I asked one of them to get a hold of Dad because I didn’t know how. I told them that I was going to try to catch Paula at church where she’d gone to early morning mass. I raced down Halstead, running with everything I had. Church was just letting out. I found Paula and told her what the lady said. She asked what time it was. I looked at my Mickey Mouse faced watch. It was 11 minutes after 8:00 A.M.
Paula said David was supposed to pick her up at church, but if he wasn’t there by 8:15, we’d start walking. David got there and he drove us to the hospital. Paula and I were the first ones to arrive. They wouldn’t tell us anything and they wouldn’t let us in to see her. Paula said she was just going to go to school. I said that I was going to wait for Dad. Dad got there at about 8:40 A.M. They took us into this little room and told us that she had died at 8:11 A.M.—11 minutes after 8:00. Ma had died at the exact moment I had checked my watch at the church.
Dad wanted to see her. I did too, but they wouldn’t let me. Billy arrived. I said somebody should go get Paula. Billy went, and brought her back. She and I just looked at each other and collapsed into each others’ arms—two sisters who just lost their mother—plunged into one of the closest sister moments of our lives. Jimmy got there. I don’t remember how long we stayed at the hospital, or who left with whom, but I went with Dad. I asked him if we could stop at my boyfriend’s mom’s house which was just across the street from the “back side” of Lakewood Hospital. She opened the door and I just fell into her arms. She wanted to call Rick home from school, but I told her not to—to just wait until after school to tell him. Dad and I left and went home.
I remember Billy and Cheryl being there together with Dad and me in the kitchen of our house. The funeral arrangements had to be made. Cheryl was sitting at the table, Billy was on the phone with somebody and I was sitting in the chair just under where the phone was mounted to the wall. From this place in the kitchen I could look over my right shoulder, all the way through the living room, and into my bedroom. There was a small dark red (maroon) velvet couch there in my room, right next to a dresser, with a big mirror. Ma or I would sit there, on the arm of that couch, and fix our hair, put on make-up, whatever girls and ladies did.
Billy was talking on the phone to someone about what dress they were going to bury her in. I looked towards my room and there was my Ma, sitting there, on the arm of the velvet couch, fixing her hair, wearing the blue dress she had worn for my brother Billy’s wedding, just 11 months before.
Calmly, I told Billy, “She wants to wear the dress she wore for your wedding.”
He stopped mid-sentence, and looked at me. It was like he was searching my face. I think he struggled to find words, and then without a doubt he asked, “How do you know that?”
I said. “I just saw her, sitting there, wearing it and fixing her hair.” I pointed to that couch. We all looked, but of course she wasn’t there. It had been my moment with my mother. And no, she didn’t just disappear into thin air. She had quietly and softly slipped inside my heart, where she remains forever safe and comforting.
Of course, Billy and Cheryl thought I had “lost it” and Cheryl pulled out a bottle of tranquilizers from her purse, popped one out and said to me, “Take this.” I did, not even knowing or caring what pill it was, but I was already calm. I was not hysterical, nor frightened, nor freaked-out. Maybe they were. I have never been frightened by the experience, or the memory of it. Instead, I have always been comforted by it. Ma knew how badly I had wanted to see her, and since they hadn’t let me do so at the hospital, she was enabled or allowed to show herself to me, to give me that sense of comfort and peace.
The rest of the funeral wasn’t easy, but I kept going back to that moment with Ma and finding strength in it. Periodically, Cheryl would ask if I needed another pill. Maybe she needed them, but I always said no.
I asked Rick to buy a single white carnation for me, with the edges tinted blue, and I laid it in the “crook” of Ma’s left arm as she laid in her casket. It helped to hide the bruising where the I.V.’s had been, but the reason I gave my Ma one last flower was because I always brought her flowers very Spring, Summer and Fall season that I picked and snatched up from other people’s gardens on my way home from wherever I went. I wonder now how many ticked off “gardeners” I left in my wake. But I wonder, too, if they ever realized that I plucked them with love, for my Ma to enjoy. She always did and never even asked once where they came from. If it was wrong, then it doesn’t matter because, it still feels right.
I can say now, that I never “got over” her death. I have accepted it. I have lived with it. But I have never gotten over it. I miss her still. I suppose I always will—thirty-five years and counting. And the only comforts are the moments with my mother.