Tuesday, March 2, 2010

tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/creeps in this petty pace from day to day

Approaching the first death anniversary of this year, I've been giving a lot of thought to how we remember people and how to write about things that are difficult. On March 2nd, 1998, my mother died in our living room. That's rather blunt, yes. That's the facts down to the barest essentials, though, which is usually as far as I delve into the subject. I barely discuss this with anyone - not even the therapists I have had or my own siblings, whose loss this is, too. A recent Psychology Today article related news of a study in which writing about death produced reduced levels of depression in participants, but I'm not sure that's totally reliable. I discuss the circumstances surrounding my father's death only slightly more. But for some reason, when the anniversaries come around (one in March, one in August), I feel almost guilty not even acknowledging them.

On the flip side, however, writing about it also makes me feel incredibly bare, like I am flaunting something I shouldn't be. I really don't want it to seem like that. I'm ashamed of it, but I know that in my younger days I used tragedy to gain attention to some degree. I'd like to think I am more mature than that now. I may not know better how to express pain, but I know a little better how not to.

Yet on days like today - the twelve year anniversary of my mother's passing - I feel overwhelmed by the memories that I am often trying to piece together because I never want to forget. Some of them are extremely painful - like those of the day she died - and some are funny, silly things that I just don't want to forget about her.

After my mom died, I remember feeling shrouded in a way. I felt distant from the world, like there was a layer of fog between me and everyone. I remember finding all these little things. I connected and attached meaning to everything, realizing that everything had meaning. A shopping list she'd written. A box of cake mix she'd bought but never had the chance to make (I presumed she'd planned to save it for the April birthdays of me and my father, but she died in March). And some things felt like they had no meaning at all: being in school, listening to small talk, sleeping, eating.

The morning she died, I remember my father's frantic voice coming through my sleep, calling for help. And I remember my brother's pleading voice asking me if I knew CPR, him asking the EMT questions through his tears. He was only 17. That EMT was the first person whose shoulder I cried on. I wasn't thinking about her being a stranger - I was unable to think at all, really. She patiently let me do so and I never even knew her name.

In the last years of her life, my mother's health problems had increased and with them came a heavy depression. She stopped bathing, claiming that she felt claustrophobic in the shower/bathroom. She stopped taking care of herself at all, so that she developed a somewhat gritty scent. She lost some of her teeth. She lay in bed for most of the day, until an hour or so before my dad was due home from work. Her respiratory ailments had finally come to a head and she was put on oxygen by her doctor. She was so sad, and I was an angry brat, a young adult coming off a difficult adolescence. I didn't really talk to her and when I did, it was in mocking tones and sarcastic retorts. At the time of her death, I believed that her depression must have been partly my fault and partly my dad's, because we were such difficult people (I have always said that I am very much my father's daughter). 

I don't really believe that anymore, though I do regret that our relationship wasn't a closer one. I have a great deal of really wonderful memories about my mom, too. I invoke her in conversation regularly - she had many strange sayings that my siblings and I picked up and now jokingly refer to as "mom-isms." She'd say, "I'm hungry enough to eat fried doorknobs!" or "Oh, horse feathers!" My best friend from high school got such a kick out of my mom's exclamation, "sugarfoot!" that she adopted it as her own replacement for cursing.

She also recited verse regularly, especially the few lines from Macbeth that is the subject line of this entry and the following from Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" :

"Water, water, everywhere,
     And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
     Nor any drop to drink."

She did this so often that I knew these lines long before I knew the poem or had ever read Shakespeare. 

She also sang songs - I believe she spent some time in the church choir in her youth - and the one I remember most was the old Sinatra song "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." And she loved movies. She could talk about old movies and movie stars like they were old friends. She was actually a really great storyteller and had, at one point in her life, wanted to be a writer. She'd considered taking a newspaper writing course in Connecticut in her younger days, but had "chickened out" at the last minute. She used to tell me how my dad was going to drive her up there and knowing my dad, I always imagined that he'd talked her out of it. 

But she is the person I credit as the reason I began dreaming of a writing career. She got me addicted to books when I was a kid and praised me for reading and writing. One Christmas, she bought me the entire series of The Sweet Valley Twins (along with several other books, like Behind The Attic Wall, Daphne's Book and several Sweet Valley High and The Baby-sitter's Club books). She got me and my brother library cards and she bragged to all my teachers (and occasional family members, nurses, etc.) that I was going to be a writer. As if I was, no matter if I liked it or not. In the early days, I beamed proudly along with her. In my teenage years, I was embarrassed and annoyed by it and took to dead-panning that "No, actually, I'm gonna be an undertaker."

After giving up on dreams of her own writing career, my mom seemed to have developed a dream to have a writer in the family and despite my arguments, I knew that I really wanted to be that writer. 

By the end of my life, perhaps I will have managed to tell the story of hers in some way that does her justice. 


  1. What a lovely post; I'm truly moved. Thank you so much for writing about this. I hope it felt good to write out, in one way or another.

  2. This is great and the tears it brought were from the humor. She really sounds wonderful. I swear I am gonna start saying "hungry enough to eat fried doorknobs"! Never heard that one EVER. I got a great big laugh from that!!

    I think you should try writing some anecdotes about your parents/family/youth. These little stories are great.

    Seriously I should write a book about my dad, his insanity and Volkswagens. I'd name it like Folly of the Volkswagen Hoarder. I should copyright that.

    Lovely post.

  3. Charity - She had quite a few - seriously, I could go on: "You're slower than molasses in January," "Hallelujah, praise the lord and pass the ammunition!" Actually, now I am drawing a blank, but I know there are more.

    I have been working on a zine for awhile with several family stories in it, but it's coming along slowly. Writing about family is always hard for me (and those pieces are hardest to share). I worry about making the living half of my family upset or not presenting the deceased half as well as they deserve, as the vivid, complex people they were. For some reason, I find it the hardest thing to write about. I am glad this turned out as well as it did, but there's still a lot to tell.

    Ha, you should totally write something like that. Go for it! I'd fully support your endeavor. :)

    Thank you...

  4. Ammie - Thank you so much. I feel like there's a lot more I could have written, actually, but it's nice to be getting such feedback (though it feels a little strange, too).

  5. Hi Louise,

    It's your cousin, Robin Barton. I found what you wrote very moving. What I hadn't known, especially since our families strayed apart after Daddy died, was that your mother passed away on his birth date. He was born March 2, 1930. Just sometime to add to your knowledge of the family. That seems to happen in the Barton Family. Daddy (Henry Andrew Barton) died on May 12, 1980 and his grandfather (Henry Andrew Barton Sr.) died on May 12, 1981.

    Hope you are doing well.
    Take care.

    1. I feel like I always find comments so late. But thank you, Robin, for the added knowledge! Not sure if you will see this, or if you have a Facebook, but if you do, I would like to add you: http://www.facebook.com/lulutripp