On Friday, Mr. Henderson and I lost our friend Cletus, and then on Monday, we lost an awesome and funny woman we call Bargie. Bargie is sister to Jean Erdman Campbell (whom Bargie called “Johnny” – all four sisters had silly nicknames for each other) and sister-in-law to Joseph Campbell. She will be buried here:
These are photos from Christmas in Hawaii.
Funny, the topic today was going to be loss anyway, so now there’s just more of it. But when you read today’s interview, and when you think of your own losses, I think you’ll agree that the flip-side of this emotion is affection. We miss people because we care about them and because they matter. And loss also reminds us to be grateful for our friends who are still here and to not leave unfinished business with those relationships we still have time to improve.
Today’s interview is a gift from my friend and LitPark regular, Aurelio O’Brien. You might want to put the kettle on about now because this post is a little long, but it’s also worth it because it shows off what I always say is the best of LitPark – and that would be the community that hangs out in the comments section. So here’s Aurelio and some folks who should be familiar to you….
The November 13th Question of the Week was: “Is your mom proud of you? Do you let her read your work? Does she even know you write?”
This question sparked many interesting responses from LitPark writers, and the discussion continued and expanded beyond November 13th. Susan shared her own experiences with her mom. She also expressed interest in hearing some more from those of us who lost our mothers (or fathers) and how that has influenced our writing, so Noria, Carolyn, Grant, Betsy, Jim, Shelley, and I each put down some of our personal reflections.
My father’s kidneys failed when I was several months old. My first trip to the ER with a ruptured eardrum was when I was three. I spent much of my childhood in doctor’s offices and hospitals (conveniently, my ear doctor’s office was just across the hall from the hemodialysis center). We were bound by illness – his kidneys, my ears, so similarly shaped. Once we went to see a healer together, a man in Oregon named Dr. Hill. Dr. Hill put his hands on my ears (I had severe hearing loss from the constant infections). For five days, my father’s kidneys functioned again. He could pee. And for two weeks everything was so loud!
In all, my father had three kidney transplants and lived until he was fifty-nine. He died shortly after I began working on HUMAN ODDITIES, a collection of stories about the body gone awry. I’ve always felt a sort of kinship with Flannery O’Connor, not just in terms of our freakish subject matter, but because of her experience of her father’s death from lupus, which she would also die of.
My writing didn’t have real urgency until I figured out what my fundamental crisis was: the body afflicted. In her essay “On Being Ill” Virginia Woolf remarks how strange it is “that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
My father said that his body was his greatest teacher. That’s been true for me, too.
Although my mother didn’t die young according to the calendar, I believe her spirit died early in her life. Disappointments, heartbreak, and self-condemnation sucked the life right out of her before I was born. She knew how to love, though. I never doubted that she loved me.
She’s been gone for three years now. I sat with her every day in the hospital during the two months that cancer baffled her doctors. She had been my mother for 45 years, but in those final days she became my friend, sharing secrets like girlfriends, admitting the disappointments, heartbreak, and self-condemnation she’d carried for decades. Her bravery in the face of death put a new face on the picture of her I keep in my heart.
Almost everything I wrote about the mother in my first novel, CLOUD 8, was the literal truth about my actual mother. She died when I was 19. It was a slow death involving varying degrees of dementia.
My mother and I had always been particularly close – trading books (hard-boiled detective stuff, mostly) playing scrabble – before and throughout her illness. When things got particularly bad, I was the one making her tea and helping her to the bathroom.
At one point toward the end, I remember, she wanted me to write her life story. I already had my ambitions of being a writer. She knew that, of course. The next Raymond Chandler.
I sat at her bedside the dutiful son with pen and legal pad, but little of what she said by then was coherent – or maybe I was only a poor transcriber. I waited for some detail to grab me, some storyline to evolve – she repeated the same few facts over again; disjointed tidbits about a sickly childhood, leaving school by the 6th grade, not being taught to swim because her mother feared drowning. I had heard it all before in some form or another, but wrote a few words down to remind me of it later.
But later, she died and I lost the notes. My first book then, was like a chance to reclaim some of those lost notes, as well as some happier memories. She made cardboard wings for my sister and me when we were kids. That’s in the book too.
And my second book, which I had thought would be about something else entirely, still ends up with the protagonist in the arms of a long lost mother – though now, admittedly, she is portrayed by a gorilla, which should not be seen as a negative reflection of my mother, who was not remotely gorilla-like.
I was in my thirties when my mom died at 63 after a few years struggle with lung cancer. As an opera singer, she had been a militant non-smoker, as well as taking incredibly good care of her health overall. Her death had much to do with my writing on several accounts. One that I always say I’d give back, is that it was the single biggest loss I’ve ever experienced, and there’s no doubt that my writing has considerably more depth because of it, and not just simply in the stories I’ve written specifically about losing her.
Many people related to me had the unfortunate luck, within just a few years of this time, in addition to my mom, my dad and stepdad, to come down with several varieties of cancer (plus a stroke and some Parkinson’s for good measure) – dad and stepdad are alive and well, fortunately, but all of this just highlights the need to connect and to cherish my (pretty awesome now, have to say) life while I’ve got it. It just informs my worldview in a completely different way – not a morbid one at all, but certainly a more complex, melancholy, bittersweet one.
The other is that it really did hit me like a lighting bolt that life was (sometimes) short, and that in terms of writing, which I’d been doing since I was eight but not with any great effort to put it out in the world – it was time for me to get on it, and I made a decision to take a year off after she died, finish the book I was working on, and get an agent. (I did that and finished and sold my first collection as well.)
My mom was an incredibly complex character. Everything that the words “opera singer” imply and then some. She got a masters degree in social work in her 50s and also became a reiki master. She battled depression her whole life, I’m sure, which manifested in all kinds of ways. We got along well, much of the time, fought at other times. Lots of mixed messages – she was an artist, but basically discouraged me from being one – I might also have become a singer myself. Part of it was that she had struggled and didn’t want me to, part of it was, to me, just a fearful outlook that’s been hard for me to shake until the years including her illness and after. Now – for me, any struggles are just part of the deal I’m willing to take.
I must direct you to “Year-at-a-Glance” and “Christina” in WHEN THE MESSENGER IS HOT and – well, pick a story in ALL THIS HEAVENLY GLORY, and she’s probably in there too, and there’s a nonfiction piece in an anthology coming out next year called Altared – my mom was a definite product of her generation (when I saw The Hours, Julianne Moore absolutely crushed me – I feel sure my mother had felt an similar dissatisfaction with what was expected of her – and she ultimately did choose a different life for herself, but there were costs, I believe, her marriage to my dad among them), a master seamstress etc, and sewed a dress for me 15 years prior that I actually had updated and wore to my wedding (several years after she died). I mention it because, well, that’s my mom. She gives me stories and a wedding dress from the beyond.
Looking back, my mother’s life seems not fully realized. I’m not sure she’d agree with my assessment, though. Maybe.
She left school at thirteen (eighth grade), to help support her family, she explained later. This was about 1927. No doubt her father thought education beyond that was wasted on a girl. She played violin her last year of school in the high school orchestra. She went from that to working full-time at the local pencil factory in small town Illinois. She worked in factories until, in her early twenties, she married my father, who felt it reflected badly on him if his wife worked. He worked for the post office, delivering mail. She stayed home and raised two sons and a daughter.
My mother loved books. There were always books in the house, books she’d bought, second-hand books she’d picked up, and books borrowed from the library. She read Pearl Buck, James Michener, and Readers Digest condensations of the popular novels. In time, I think she felt shame over not having a high school education. She was well read for a small town woman of her day with a better-developed vocabulary than mine is today. Her friends were the ladies of her Methodist circle. If she were alive today, she’d be in book clubs, I think. She’s not, though. Cancer took her many years ago.
The cancer arrived when I was in high school. At least I think that’s true. We kids were so protected from knowing such serious things that I can’t connect it to other events, to a particular school year or sports season, proms or girlfriends. Grandparents died, not parents. I remember the bandages after the mastectomy, the burnt skin on upper chest and neck from radiation treatments, and afterwards the scars that sometimes showed at her neckline, the weakness on one side from chest muscles surgically taken with the breast. She had to ask for help carrying the heavier grocery bags into the house. She rearranged her kitchen, unable to reach top shelves anymore.
Recovered, she looked for her first job since marrying. I don’t know what discussions she and my father had. Their life together was hidden from us. She applied at the town library, where she had used up so many library cards. Without a diploma, she didn’t qualify as assistant librarian. But she could be assistant to the assistant librarian, and that became her part-time job. And she loved working among all those books and being among the people in town.
I left town for college, graduated in engineering, visited home when I could, joined the Navy two days ahead of the draft, and married a Rhode Island girl. We settled in New England after my military service.
The cancer came back when I was in my early thirties. She wasn’t feeling well during our trip to Illinois that summer. She didn’t name the beast, though, and I was deeply involved in the turbulence of my marriage. I hardly noticed.
That fall she went to the hospital a couple times. There was fluid in her chest to be drained, she said. Nothing to worry about. We planned to drive out for a visit over Thanksgiving, if she felt up to company. Sometime in October my father phoned from the hospital and put Mom on the phone. Long distance phone calls were rare extravagances in our family. I remember thinking how unlike Dad, calling like this. I talked to Mom for a few minutes. She sounded very weak. She talked about procedures the doctors were considering, about her discomfort in the hospital bed, how she hoped to be home soon. Then she asked if I could come see her. I remember thinking she must be confused. “I’ll see you over Thanksgiving,” I said. “It’s only a few weeks.”
“I don’t know if I’ll make it,” she said. I thought she meant she didn’t know if she’d be home from the hospital by then. It was only later that night that what she must have meant dawned on me. And it is the greatest regret of my life that I didn’t go see her the next day, or the day after that.
She died in that hospital a week later, my father and sister at her bedside. I’ve always felt that I owed her so much more as a son than I ever gave her.
I tried to write a longhand novel a couple years after that, and a typed one after that. And when I started writing short-shorts fifteen years ago, one of the first was “The Little Violinist,” a narrative based on my father’s telling of first seeing my mother, how she swayed as she played violin in the high school orchestra, how she walked with long, proud strides along the railroad tracks, walked to work in the pencil factory.
The story, “Flights,” which appeared first in and then in my short story collection is very much about her and my father and the desire that some vestige of them be remembered.
There are times when I feel as though, by being a writer, I’m repaying some cosmic debt for shortcomings as a son, that I’m living another version of her life in her stead, one she might have lived, had she been born in other times, under other circumstances. She had the inclinations of a writer – the love of books, of language, of a story well-told. I don’t know that the thought ever crossed her mind, though, don’t know if she considered it possible. There is much about her that I can never know. But I do know that she’s the reason I’m a writer.[Someone needs to give Shelley a book deal so I can put the photo here!] Shelley Marlow:
My relationship with my father was complicated. As a teen, I asked for a typewriter for a birthday present. My parents never gave me one. I always thought it was because they didn’t want me to write about situations that they were not able to process. Also, they wanted me to be an artist. My father was a self-taught artist. While I was growing up, he worked in his tuxedo store until 8 at night. So I probably didn’t see him much all week, only on Sundays.
He died when I was an adult. We healed a lot about our relationship when he was dying. One gift he left was all about working ceaselessly until a project is completed. He also taught me to see beauty in everything, especially trees. I still have a few small pieces of particularly fragrant wood he’d collected for carving.
My mother grew up on a small farm in South Dakota. I visited there only once. I was about six. I remember that it was flat and dusty, the mosquitoes traveled in clouds, and that my hunched-back old grandma had a mustache and smelled of mothballs. Her old, weathered house had come from a Sears catalog.
Mom was born and raised there, but she was brave – when she was 18 she left the farm and moved to NYC all on her own. This act of courage had two motivations: first, to get out of South Dakota, and second, to avoid the only two single men in the area she would have been doomed to marry.
While out walking the streets of Manhattan in search of a job, she peered through a large picture window. Someone inside saw her and asked her in, then inquired if she needed a job. Just like that! It was a gym. My mother had never exercised a day in her life, but the farm work and her genes had given her an ideal figure. She became the receptionist who sat in that same picture window of the gym, signing people up.
She met my dad in NYC; he was in the army at the time and briefly stationed there. They married and moved to Utah for dad’s GI education, then to California.
Even away from South Dakota, farming was in my mother’s blood. She wanted to raise children, so she raised a flock of them. Six of us in all. (Two more step-kids came after her passing.) She was a devoted mother; a neighbor once wryly commented that my mom was “the only woman they’d ever met with six only children.”
Mom was definitely homespun, but surprisingly progressive. She made everything from scratch: I remember egg noodles drying on the backs of kitchen chairs, she made all my sister’s clothes on a little black portable Singer, and no one could bake a better pie crust (I think she used lard with just a daub of bacon fat, maybe???) But she loved 50’s modern furniture (cutting-edge at the time), art, music, museums of any kind, and marveled at new technology.
She insisted all of her kids were brilliant. I was too young at the time to be embarrassed by this public proclamation.
She died of cancer when I was seven.
I was pondering what part of me is like my mother, or what main influence she left me with; it would have to be her enthusiasm for life. She was an extremely positive person. Mom was interested in everybody and everything, and I know this influences my writing in its general tone and the way I approach my characters.
Maybe after reading today’s post, some of you have letters to write or phone calls to make. Well…? xo