An Ordinary American Life

My mother was a good-looking broad. When she was young she could have passed for a movie star with her nineteen-inch waist and double-D bust. She had giant hazel-green eyes and a bright smile. She was dramatic and sometimes the class clown yet the only makeup she wore was lipstick.

The one-year anniversary of her death is chewing through the pages of the calendar to November 30. Just like Richard Thompson sang, the ghost of you walks. I pick at my grief, trying to make it bleed so I can feel close to her again. 

Maybe I hope to understand myself better by understanding her. There's a lot I wonder about, for instance, why didn't she take better advantage of her physical beauty? Mom knew that life was a contest. She had been her high school Homecoming Queen and the runner-up to Miss Orlando in 1958. She said the pageant had been rigged, that the winner had been some rich man's daughter. So why didn't she play the game better?

Sure, my father may have seemed like a catch initially. He was handsome, came from an upper-middle-class family, and had lovely manners. But he became chronically ill only two years into their marriage. Why didn't she try to find a financially secure, not mentally ill husband after she divorced him twelve years later? She was barely forty and still beautiful.

Could be she did not wear plunging necklines and thicker eyeliner because she didn’t feel good. She wasn't up for it. When you have migraine headaches, depression and anxiety, five pregnancies in five years with only one miscarriage, weight gain, and prescription drug dependency, it's hard to feel pretty. She lacked ambition. There were people who called my mother a hypochondriac. Those people needed to walk a mile in her non-fussy shoes.

Maybe using her looks simply wasn't her style. Mom was not a flirt. It's possible that her experience of sex had been a drag, and lord knows she had plenty to complain about. But I think the real problem was how near the end of her emotional rope she swung. Mom was simply too exasperated to be sexy. She took whatever came to her, too defensive and too tired to reach. Besides, that would have been vulgar and for all her faults, being vulgar was not one of them.

All of this to say, I think my mother experienced an ordinary American life. She had been lucky in some respects, like being born an attractive white person in the U.S. of A. And the dream she claimed to have wanted more than anything in the world, having children, was realized. She got five of us. But her marriages were awful and she lost several houses; she had a low earning capacity; and after decades of warding off one shit show after another, she wore out. Something Broke Her, the song Sarah Silverman recently wrote and sang at the Blue Bird Café in Nashville hit emotional pay dirt for me. In the American tradition, she compared and blamed, took offense easily and the only things she truly never gave up on were her children and her anger. She had all she could take. She made peace with "I can't." 

But on a good day, she was funny as hell.

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Good Sport

My Mom died Wednesday, November 30, 2016. She was 77.  Eight years prior, she had a debilitating stroke, lost the ability to control her speech, and the reliable use of her right hand. She was right handed. Linda Ellen Sellards Austin Stafford had been a painter, seamstress and excellent cook. The stroke took most of that away as well as her neuropathy, neck and back pain, decades of resentment and the migraine headaches that had plagued her since her twenties. The last eight years of her life she needed a walker, a lot of help from my nearby sister and brother-in-law, and the extended help of my two brothers and sister-in-law who lived a few hours away. With that support, she was able to live in her own apartment with her insane cat. From my perspective, she had a thing for crazies.

What she did not lose was her sense of humor, love of shopping, depression, green thumb, social anxiety, colitis, or appetite. She accepted her lot in life, once again, and plugged away meal after meal, television show after television show, phone call after phone call, doctor visit after hospital stay, and fall after fall. She was a good sport, especially for a woman who fell a lot. The falls scared us. Would she have to go back to the nursing home where she had rehab after the stroke? Her quality of life had been almost unbearable at the nursing home.

So Mom fell and got a black eye. Or she fell and cut her head bad enough to require staples. The last time I visited her, in February of 2016, she took a fall that landed her in the bathtub, where she spent most of the night blanketed by the bent shower rod and curtain. When I returned to her apartment mid-morning (I’d spent one night, just that night, with my sister) and knocked on the locked door, she yelled, “Help! Help me!” and began to whimper and cry, then wail.

I shriveled; plummeted into my eight-year old self, frightened and adrenalized. My mother was in distress and I did not have a house key! I stood in the hallway, trying to assess the situation just like I had as a child, at her bedroom door listening for clues.

“I’m getting help, Mom! We’re coming, Mom,” I yelled as I called my brother-in-law and texted my sister who was at work. Laura and Johnny would have the keys. I stood in the hallway of my Mom’s senior living apartment building, alone and small, filled with guilt and shame. The exact nature of my wrongs flooded me: I was bad, I had been wrong not to spend the night with Mom and prevent this crisis, I had once again failed my mother and would never be able to make things okay for her.

It was one of the saddest moments of my life. That it has become one of the sweetest memories I have of spending time with my Mom and sister is the miracle.

Outside that locked door my spiritual practice of recovery kicked in. I was given courage and strength, not to save the day, but to be in that moment, exactly as it was, without making it worse with a shame spiral and distorted thinking. I could be right where I was under some very lousy circumstances and not wither. There was nothing wrong with me or with anybody else, and we would do our best to take care of each other.

I did the next right thing, one next-right-thing at a time. I talked to Mom through the door, calmly, and gently. What I had to offer was a loving, concerned voice. Laura and Johnny got there in less than 10 minutes, and when the three of us could not get Mom out of the tub without hurting her further or wrenching our own backs, we called the paramedics. They came directly from helping another elderly woman out of her tub. Why our mother did not press the Medical Alert button she wore remains unknown.

Mom was exhausted and demoralized, but not so hurt that she or the paramedics thought she needed the Emergency Room.

My sister and I got her cleaned up, dressed her in warm clothes and had her eat a bite so she could take her medicine. We cooed and fussed over her, and somehow found something to laugh about. We talked about how awful that must have been and my Mom cried on my shoulder. After a nap, we took her to the Doctor’s for an appointment that just happened to be scheduled for that very afternoon.

It was a somber Doctor’s visit.

Afterwards, we went to Mom’s favorite restaurant to get pie, and the three of us ended up eating an early dinner. I’m pretty sure we had solidarity cheeseburgers and onion rings. We were so tender and sweet with each other. Rueful. There could not have been a better outcome to the day.

Mom fell again, and again. I was not there to catch her but my sister and brothers were. Not for a second do I believe my Mom thought badly of me, or that I had failed her. Even if she did, I’ve learned that’s not my business. What’s most important is that I know I did not fail her. We adored each other, trusted each other to the lives we had chosen, and there wasn’t one unspoken word between us. I will miss the sound of her panting as she carried the phone into the bedroom to talk, incapable of figuring out the remote and its mysterious volume button. I will miss her silliness, the way she’d say “Oh crap,” to get a laugh, when she got tangled up in her words. I will miss her warm and cushy embrace, the Mom-smell on her neck, and her big emphatic eyes. I will miss taking her to the DQ for peanut buster cups and WalMart for a haircut. But a weight has been lifted, and even though it left a hole, I feel grateful she will never be scared or lonely again, and there will be no more falls. Rest in peace, Mom. You deserve it.