Death: the most unlikely of happy endings or ‘Bossiest Eulogy Ever’

MomReadsPaper

Mom died on February 25th. Her funeral was in Utica, New York; yesterday was her memorial service. This is the eulogy I wrote and read yesterday.

Eulogy II

The first Tuesday after Mom’s funeral, I woke up and, because it has been part of my waking-up ritual for what seems like forever (even though it wasn’t) she was my first thought.

The picture that immediately popped into my head was her coffin newly lowered into her grave – a gorgeous, round-topped pine box the color of warm tea, black grain running through like tea leaves.

The feeling it evoked was a mixture of happiness, relief and serenity. Mom was okay. Mom was safe. She wasn’t confused, afraid or anxious. Her body wasn’t stiff and rigid because of a Parkinsonian freeze. She was beyond pain, beyond fear and I felt at peace.

This is not always how I feel about having a dead mother. The range of emotions I am experiencing on account of this loss are different than any of the others preceding it. Sadness. Relief. A little conflicted about the relief. Relaxed in a way I haven’t been in years. A little conflicted about that.

I am happy she got to see me finally marry the right guy, graduate from library school at 55, even if she slept through a good deal of the ceremony (lucky Mom, right?), share some of my life in Milwaukee and give me the most incredible gift of all – the absolute trust that I would have her back as she navigated the terrible and solitary torture of a slow, agonizing slide into helplessness and utter dependence.

For a woman who associated being dependent with being neglected, marginalized and abused – for valid reasons – this required an unprecedented leap of faith, on two fronts.

 

A little context – on two fronts

Mom’s upbringing, combined with the circumstances of my birth, had not laid the groundwork for dependence with dignity or mother/daughter compatibility.

She’d been a surprise.

Her parents were excited about another son to help with the planting, harvesting, milking and other farm chores. Instead, they got a fourth daughter. She was two weeks old when her sister Bessie suggested calling her ‘Arlene’ with an ‘I.’ (Her birth certificate reads “Baby Chernoff.”)

Mom grew up poor, Jewish, left-handed and unwanted on a farm during the Depression. A doctor told her parents, immigrants who hadn’t gone past sixth grade, that she shouldn’t be allowed to read outside of school because of her poor eyesight. The only toy she ever had was a doll her brother took apart. She once told me that when she really wanted to set her mother off, she’d walk around the house singing “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”

Her incredible tenacity in surviving her first year at Syracuse University with so little preparation for college life, eventually figuring it out (in part, after the dean in whose office she was crying told her to start doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle every Sunday) and going on to graduate and build a life in New York is remarkable.

 

A brief digression

I will now break from this eulogy to present a brief episode of “Irlene Chernoff: Life in New York.”

Scene: Girl’s night out. Syracuse Alumni Lois (tall) and Irlene (not so tall) enter the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to attend a talk by Eleanor Roosevelt.

They stroll across the lobby to the elevator and press the call button. The elevator arrives. They step in. The elevator is occupied by two women, one tall and one not-so tall.

The tall one is Eleanor Roosevelt.

The not-so tall one is Dorothy Parker.

Brief Silence. Furtive staring.

Lois: “Irlene. I never realized how short you are.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: “Good things come in small packages.”

Dorothy Parker: “So does poison.”

End Scene

 

Two-front context – continued

Then, a 50’s-era miracle happened. After having all but cemented her place in the family as the cool aunt and successful old maid career woman, Mom snagged the hottest bachelor in Utica. Being “Mrs. Rabbi Waldman,” in the words of my friend Debra, was her favorite job ever.

Here’s Mom, describing Dad in a letter turning down a job offer in New York in April 1958, because she’s getting married:

“…he is everything I ever dreamed of in a man. He is warm, sensitive, human, strong and the most understanding man I ever met; in addition to being liberal, of diversified interests and professionally a rabbi …”

By the time I came along, Mom’s older siblings had all reproduced. Used to being bossed around by the four elders, none known for being shy about their opinions, she was nervous in the way of any first-time mom. Unfortunately for both of us, I was born by emergency C-section two weeks after my due date, and because of Mom’s reaction to anaesthesia, by the time she was fully awake and ready to be the Best Mother Ever, I was a week old and had bonded with Dad.

Things were different 17 months later when Debby came along, and thus, the family rectangle (Amy/Dad, Debby/Mom) was established. It worked well until 1974, when Dad died.

A seismic shift

Until about 2005, Mom and I did not have the easiest relationship. Sometimes that happens with mothers and daughters, and if the daughter is lucky – which I was – she gets to a place where anger, sadness and resentment are replaced by gratitude for (in my case) the care she does give, and for a great husband and in-laws, supportive friends and the ability to have built different relationships with my own daughters.

One by-product of Parkinson’s disease was that – to paraphrase Mom – she stopped seeing everything she didn’t like about herself in me and started seeing me. Our subsequent relationship was deeper and more satisfying for its having happened long after I’d had enough therapy and done enough interior work to understand that parent-offspring compatibility is an add-on, rather than part of the standard package.

Nothing compares with what it feels like – after almost 50 years – to suddenly have a mother who goes out of her way to tell you you’re terrific and you feel it it so much that you could spend the rest of your life lying on your back and rolling around in it.

Even if that had never happened, and I was standing here, I’d still be grateful for everything Mom gave me, because once you know that nothing you do will please someone, it gives you the freedom to not worry about displeasing them.

Which, like the love you can roll around in, is also a gift.

And as the daughter who ended up being Mom’s Primary Person on her Grand Exit Tour of Planet Earth, it was my job to make sure she faced some unpleasant stuff in the service of making sure that her Grand Exit went the way she wanted.

Son of seismic shift –  the nursing home version

It would not be an overstatement to say that Mom’s Exit Plan did not involve a slow agonizing slide into helplessness in a Milwaukee nursing home. She had ordered up a serving of being “carried out of here feet-first,’ “here” being the condo she’d bought on Cape Cod in 1982.

I have vivid memories of visiting nursing homes with 50-something Mom. We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Near-comatose people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sat in wheelchairs in the halls or rows in common rooms in front of a TV, some aware of us, some staring at nothing. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation on the same theme.

“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”

I didn’t shoot Mom, and I didn’t give her pills. But there were so many times, especially over the past two years, when I wondered why she was still alive. I went from being angry all the time to “she’s warm and I can hug her.”

And I came to rely on a group of people I had already grown to love and respect – the holy women (and occasional man) who cared for Mom and the rest of the people in the Helen Bader Unit with relentless devotion.

They helped Mom through these past brutal years, but they also helped Debby and me. It was a team effort in a game that ended with Mom’s death. And now that it’s over, I’m gonna tell you two things. First, we won. Second, we were able to because of three other things.

The most important – Thing One, if you will – was Mom. It was her decision to move into the nursing home. I’m not saying it was easy, and I’m not saying it was pretty. Debby was freaked out about her spending $10,000 a month on 24-hour care on top of rent for her assisted living apartment. I was slightly less freaked out but knew it wasn’t sustainable. That four months, though, gave Mom the time she needed to wrap her head around what she realized needed to happen. It was her idea to tour the Home; she chose Bader.

I have seen – and continue to see – new people coming in who didn’t choose. Some are angry, and what’s hard is made harder, both for them and for the staff who care for them. It is a stark contrast and a constant reminder of the remarkable courage my mother displayed in making her own decision to move to a memory care unit.

I also know that part of the reason she was able to make that courageous choice was because she knew – Thing Two – she could count on me. By then, we were far enough down the road that, given the choice to stay and help or have me do it, she jetted off to California to hang with her sisters, allowing me to set her room up in a way that it could serve multiple functions (seating and dining facilities for six) and favorite pieces from every room of her former home(s).

The “as happy as possible under the circumstances” ending

Bragging about your childrens’ achivements – the albums, the concerts, the book deals, the degrees, the awards, the jobs – that’s easy.

Entrusting your own well-being to their care is a whole different level of affirmation.

I did it as right as I could, and I think, for the most part, I got it pretty right. But I got it right because she helped me get it right. I got it right because she was honest enough and courageous enough to face her own death, and when she wasn’t, she borrowed my courage and my love for her and we got through it together. And when I wasn’t courageous enough to face her decline, I had spent enough time at the nursing home to be on a first-name basis with the people who were caring for Mom, and they helped me. That’s Thing Three.

If your mother lives in a nursing home, it’s a nursing home. But your mother lives there, so it’s also your mother’s house. When you come around more, your mother might not get more attention and more care than the people whose families don’t come around, but I know this – she gets better care. Because as good as those caregivers are, no one has time to rummage through your mom’s drawers and discover the several-sizes-too-small bra that belongs to the lady across the hall. Also, they are going to have your mom’s back like nobody’s business if you show up, because you’re going to see what they do and how to make your mom’s life and their lives as easy as possible, given the circumstances.

So this isn’t really as much a eulogy as it is a message, and kind of a directive from us. Mom’s death was beautful, and it was beautiful because I never stopped telling her, right up to the end, that this was her old age and eventual death and that she was in charge. And I never stopped believing it.

In truth, I started pushing her to talk about what she wanted and what we should do long before she was ready.

But because of – or maybe in spite of it – Mom and I were able to have all the hard conversations, and even find some light moments in the midst of them. We planned her funeral and this memorial service together, and the comfort of knowing what she wanted and being able to make it happen has brought me the kind of comfort that only a supportive mom can give.

Suicide as clickbait is stigma in action, starring XO Jane & Amanda Lauren Kass

So many other things I’d rather be writing about today (eg: my new puppy or Argo, the coolest road-worthy amphibious Canadian export ever). Instead, I’m writing a cautionary tale about the hazards of being good at other peoples’ lives.

There’s hardly anything easier. After all, who doesn’t know better than someone who hasn’t dealt directly with an issue exactly how best to deal with it, right?

Outside Experts, an Inside View

Back in 1990, when my ex and I split, the good news was that I had a full-time job. The bad news was that my title was “Mom” and the highest-level full-time job I’d had (and left years before) was in a bookstore.

Nonetheless, I waived child support and, after 18 months of receiving the maintenance I’d been promised for three years, took a tiny buyout. I had no job and little in the way of prospects. From my family’s point of view, I’d lost the lone coconut-flake sized-shred of sense I’d ever possessed.

20120103flyingclassresized.jpg
This is about as sensible as I get.

Decades later, after I’d lost track of how many times my mother, sister, aunts and bossy cousin (the men of the one-up generation were all dead by the mid-1980s) had leaned on me to “take that bastard to court,” Mom was still harping about what an idiot I’d been.

There were several reasons I opted out of chasing my ex around for money that I knew he’d never give me. There are tons of ways to shelter assets when you have your own business. He knew all the ones that existed (and several that probably didn’t). That was a big one.

My biggest and realest, though, to was become someone who didn’t have to. I had three daughters looking at me. I had to show them that you could make what you wanted to happen happen in life. Even when things get scary, as long as you don’t give up. Chasing my ex through the court system for what those women thought I was “owed” would have meant squandering the time and energy required to reach my goal.

My_Babies_Cropped.jpg
Why giving up was not an option.

What I didn’t know back then was this: That time and energy also consumed the awareness that it even needed explaining. Only now, as I write this, do I realize that some important friends along the way – who still mean the world to me – understood without any explanations. Their faith, belief and support made it possible for me to keep going in those moments when I wasn’t sure I could.

Gratitude aside, my main point here is how easy, when looking from the outside, it is for someone to judge another person’s life, choices and outcomes.

 

When Honesty is the Cruelest Policy

Which brings me to Amanda Lauren Kass, whose essay “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” was published May 19th by XOJane. It’s a division of Time, Inc. that pays $50 for personal essays. (Writers get more when a post goes viral. The lack of a link is intentional.)

DSCN3637.JPG
This is in memory of Leah and her sister.

“Leah,” Kass’ former friend, died by suicide a few years after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Leah’s sister, a high school classmate of Kass, died of cancer at 19. You can read Kass’ account of Leah’s spiral here if you’d like. (XOjane took the piece down and put an apology in its place after a few days of leaving it up (you know, hits = $). (The hyperlink in this blog is to an archived page on the wayback machine.)

Or I can save you the trouble by riffing off another Time, Inc. publication, specifically “People,” for which I used to review books. At one point, we had to write “Bottom Lines,” one-sentence summations of our reviews. Here’s my Bottom Line-inspired summary of Kass’ essay.

“’Leah’s’ life looked hard and inconvenient so I fired her, made fun of her, judged her parents for not doing more – and her decision to die by suicide was totally the right one!”

Wiser and better heads than mine have written responses addressing Ms. Kass’ character and possible motivations for writing what she did, and the multiple ways of living a full and meaningful life with or without a mental health diagnosis.

 

Families suffer when the Ignorantatti go unchallenged

What I haven’t seen anyone write about is where Leah’s parents were in all this and why they weren’t more involved or helpful as their daughter spiraled deeper and deeper into what appears – based on Ms. Kass’s description – to have been depression and psychosis.

Ms. Kass calls them out in the story, and is (unsurprisingly) cruel and judgmental.

As a Family Educator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness since 2006, I have spent countless hours with family members who are terrified for their children, siblings, parents and friends. They’re also just plain terrified. Which is why they sign up for NAMI’s Family-to-Family class.

In three hour increments over 12 weeks, F2F provides information on what I have come to refer to as “the Big 7” (schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder). It also touches on post-traumatic stress disorder and how it and the other mental health conditions affect the daily lives of people living with them.

F2F also gives family members the information they need to take care of themselves,  ways they can effectively advocate for their ill family member or friend and a safe space. It’s powerful to see what happens to people when they get to tell their stories in a setting where the responses are nods of understanding instead of horrified stares. My favorite thing about teaching that course is watching people come in singly or in pairs and leave in groups.

NAMI-Walkresized.jpg
The NAMI Walk at our lakefront. Nationally, these happen all over the country. Every year there are more people and more dogs. (That’s me & Matey on the right. The lump in my pocket is a container of dog treats)

Ms. Kass’ bald cruelty is not unusual. That she wrote and published it might be, but for anyone wondering about stigma and mental illness, that essay is Exhibits A-F. It’s also a textbook example of the reason we in NAMI describe these illnesses as “no casserole.”

Leah’s parents can probably speak to this way more eloquently than I can, but I bet that when her sister had cancer, the community rallied around the family. I bet they brought meals, provided emotional support and anything else needed. Doctors were forthcoming with information about what was happening and kept the family in the loop regarding their daughter’s progress and disease course, even after she was 18.

Leah’s disease course was very different, and I’d lay money that the same people who helped when it was cancer scattered like vampires at dawn when Leah got sick. Because of HIPA (Health Information Privacy Act), her parents probably got no information about what was happening with her. Because they didn’t know, they weren’t able to find out about a diagnosis, what it meant, what medication she might need and whether or not she was taking it. They had no power to do anything other than watch her spiral. The only thing that would have made a difference was Leah signing a release form authorizing her parents to receive information. Which, based on my experience with other F2F parents, is extremely rare. Most people with psychotic illness tend to act out against the people closest to them and who know them best. It also tends to onset in early adulthood, just as people are striking out on their own and striving to be independent. Call it tragic, call it a confluence of clusterfuckery. It’s that and then some.

When I read Ms. Kass’ essay, it was Leah’s parents I thought of; Leah’s parents for whom I ached. I’m sure that piece pulled the scab right off the open wound that is their daughters’ deaths.

Ms. Kass recently got married. One day, she may hold a newborn in her arms. She and her husband will look into their baby’s face and imagine the firsts. They will want to give their child everything. They will wonder who and what this little person will grow to be.

On that day, I hope Amanda Kass remembers Leah, and her sister, and their parents.

Me&DadCroppedOptimized.jpg
The baby grew up to be me. My dad, a rabbi who was beloved by his family and his congregation , died by suicide when I was 14. Its likely he had undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.   Stigma prevented him from getting the help that might have saved him. It also prevented my mother from feeling that she could be honest with my sister and me about what happened, and about our own family medical history. I was 25 & married with a child when I went hunting for the truth, because my daughter deserved a better answer than “I don’t know,” or “It was an accident,” when she got old enough to notice she was down a grandpa.

New Business, Writer’s Block and Preventing Newborn Ignorance, One Baby at a Time

 

CabbagePatchBaby&DodaDaddyBlog.jpg
My grandson and his aunt, who was so amazing as a caregiver to her sister that for a second I kicked myself for not hiring her when I had kids. Then I remembered why I hadn’t….

I will confess to not being terribly distressed to slam the door on 2015. Between the job layoff, sending my best non-human  friend Tuki to the Rabbit Field in the Sky and my mother on a slow cruise to Dementia Island, it’s been – and continues to be – interesting times.

Still, there have been bright spots. I’ve got a fledgling dissertation and thesis-writing business, and recently signed an agreement I can’t talk about to do some writing-related work that looks to be fascinating and fulfilling. And I’m pushing myself to write chapters 6 through 13 of my book, which means dredging up things I’d rather leave in the personal history sewer. The good part is that I’ll be able to throw a good number of them back there. The bad part is I won’t know which ones until I look.

Also, three weeks ago I became a grandmother. It’s not something I’d ever imagined. Which wasn’t about vanity or thinking my offspring wouldn’t be fit parents. It was about watching my friends who couldn’t have or didn’t want kids being made miserable by parents and others who were pressuring them about where the babies were.

I had kids because I wanted them. Not everybody wants them, and I had no clue about where my offspring – or their prospective partners – would fall on that spectrum. So I never really thought much about being someone’s Bubby.

But here I am, with a  wee grandson. We’ve spent a little time together, and I’m getting to know him. He’s not doing much other than the usual top four newborn things (sleeping, eating, pooping and crying), but he’s starting to add a fifth thing, staring, to his repertoire. That means he’s getting more interested in things, and that makes him more interesting.

My chief duty so far has been making sure his mother and other caregivers are fed. (My first instinct in any crisis or celebration is to start catering.) But now that he’s starting to get curious, I’m trying to answer the questions he’s not yet able to ask.

So I’m giving him tours around his house, explaining what things are (“This is a stove where food gets cooked. The top gets very hot and you don’t want to touch it then.” “These things in frames are artwork. Art is very important and good for your soul.”) and telling him about different things (“President Obama is trying to make it so assault rifles aren’t so available, which is good news.”) going on in the world.

There’s nothing sadder than a newborn who isn’t up on current events, after all.

 

 

 

Me & Books (with a preface about Flying Erasers and other dangers of education)

I don’t remember life without books.

I'm the one with the books.
I’m the one with the books.

According to my mother, I wore out five copies of “Pat the Bunny” before learning to read – which I did before starting kindergarten.

This did not endear me to Mrs. Ferris, my kindergarten teacher (“Kindergarteners aren’t supposed to read”). It especially did not endear me to my first-grade teacher, Helen Zoeckler.

I spent many an unhappy hour crying in Mrs. Zoeckler’s classroom, sometimes during school hours (making me <not> very popular with my classmates</not>) and sometimes when she would keep me after school, forcing me to repeatedly write words I already knew how to spell correctly. She did not define “crocodile tears,” a term she used derisively whenever I cried. (I didn’t know the word derisively then either, but all props to Mrs. Z for her brilliant illustration of the concept.) When my right-hand pointer finger was severed in the middle of my first grade year (I was right-handed), she moved my desk directly next to hers, facing my classmates, and made me write with my left for three months.

Helen’s true gifts – she would have made a great dominatrix or prison warden – were completely squandered on a generation of traumatized first graders. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that she was unmoved (or maybe even perversely aroused, but I’m not going there) by the misery of six-year-olds.

Dorothy MacDonald’s classroom was the next stop on my educational journey. My presence there afforded Dorothy an opportunity to sharpen her throwing skills.

Because her teaching and my learning styles were not exactly compatible, I found a better way to learn. This involved the artful placement of interesting reading material (mostly biographies, but pretty much any of the chapter books in our school library) in my lap, out of Dorothy’s view. She’d be droning on about something like math (which was not my friend) or spelling (which I rocked), and notice I’d tuned her out. Aiming to capture my attention and the respect she felt I owed her, she’d lob erasers at me. You can probably guess how that worked out – although at least she got some gratification via the appreciative laughter of my classmates.

I have no idea what became of those lovely ladies. In the nightmare closet of my imagination, I see them, hunched over a cauldron as a fire burns beneath it, cackling as they watch imaginary children roast for having had the audacity to learn to read without first suffering their <sarcastic font>loving</sarcastic font> ministrations.

In the end, all that early and under-desk reading paid off and I grew up to be, among other things, a book critic. I’ve written reviews for big-name and not-so-big-name publications. And that has put – and kept me – on publishers’ mailing lists, even though I took a break to go off and get my MLIS degree. (That is another story for another time, but it had nothing to do with my love of books.) Books still just show up in the mail. Also, I have plenty of amazing writer pals (including the kid sitting next to me in that photo – she’s my sister) and now that I’m done with my library degree, I’m building my very own pile of paper with words on it. I may share some of that here as things progress.

Getting back to that whole reviewing thing, though – expect some thoughts and opinions on books you may want to either check out yourself or acquire for someone who may like them.

Just remember to watch out for flying erasers.

Weddings

So, today my piece about my daughters’ weddings came out, and people who have read it have had very kind things to say. I wrote – and meant – that I have never been in a hurry to see my children get married and reproduce. Most of that has to do with them, and respect for their life choices. I got married and had babies because I wanted to. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for everybody, and that includes the everybodys I schlepped around inside of me for nine (give or take) months.

Here’s what I didn’t say. I didn’t say that as long as you’ve got kids who are single and dating, or even kids who are shacking up and not engaged, you can still lie to yourself at some level about being a young mom of teenagers. But when someone you schlepped around inside of you tells you they’re engaged, it’s game over on the denial front. At least it was for me.

Being put on notice that I’d be adding “mother-in-law” to my personal resume was a bit of a jolt.

It wasn’t bad exactly – I love both my newly-acquired children and did pretty much from the moment I met them. But their presence – and titles – did give me something to chew on. Which wasn’t terrible. It was just reality. And the reality was – and is – that I am not young anymore. Which is not because of them. I’d be getting older whether or not I’d had kids and whether or not they were getting married. But being young wasn’t as much fun as now, at least it wasn’t for me. Now is definitely better. Which might be why I felt young enough to be slightly shocked about being old enough to be the mother of age-appropriate brides.

Becoming somebody’s mother-in-law is definitely one of those defining moments on life’s yardstick. And it compares favorably to some other defining moments, among them no longer getting carded when you buy liquor, having to get a baseline colonoscopy and being called “Ma’am” instead of “Miss” by service industry professionals.

For starters, there were parties and presents. And now, I get Mom perks from people who never gave me a moment’s worry as children or a single grey hair as teenagers. Which makes me feel kind of….loved. And being loved makes me feel….young.

Thanks, kids!