G r i e f I s A P l a c e
a memoir excerpt
In loving memory of Michael, Winnie, Jack, Fannie, and Steven …and my pal Jim, who joined me in a place called Grief.
How Grief Works
No one sleeps.
People wander the streets
in their under-
wear. No one cares.
to name their children.
Children are left
to be raised by wolves.
pills in dusty breast pockets.
Lockets of darkness,
black as the waters
over the horizon
to come destroy us.
Beneath the buzz of a broken fluorescent light the doctor formed a circle with the thumb and forefinger of each hand. "About four or five inches in diameter," he explained: the size of my mother's abdominal aortic aneurysm. It could burst at any minute and she would be dead. He was amazed that she wasn’t dead already. Her only hope was immediate surgery to replace her aorta with one made of Goretex. The odds were not good that she would survive it. If she did, she might lose a leg, some or all kidney function, and maybe even lose some other stuff too while they were at it. There were only two doctors in New York City who were capable of doing the surgery. Luckily, one of them worked in the hospital just a few blocks from my mother's apartment in Brooklyn. That doctor, it turned out, didn't accept Medicaid patients and my mother was a Medicaid patient. But he took one look at her sonogram and knew that if he sent her away she would die. He told us to keep our mouths shut about the Medicaid and helped push her through Admissions. The only time he could operate was at midnight when he was all finished with all his other surgeries. If she lasted that long.
With his words, that doctor single-handedly created the second Great Divide in my life: before my mother’s slow, suffocating descent into death, and after. The first Great Divide had happened when I was nine years old and my parents had gotten divorced. I didn’t really understand how these events were related until after my mother died. I had been living on Planet Sorrow for a very long time, a place where the gravity was more than a normal human being could bear, where sorrow nipped at my heels and my legs were full of sand.
I had just moved out of Brooklyn, to Westchester County, the month before. For the next six months I fought my way through every day knowing my mom was in a hell-hole of a hospital back in Brooklyn, unable to speak to me on the phone because she had a tube in her throat. She was terrified and in pain. Every day some other horror would unfold: pneumonia, drug reactions and infections, all delaying her ability to leave the hospital. She would lie alone for hours on end because the nurses were overworked and responded to the loudest patients first. When my mother rang her buzzer for the nurse, they called over the intercom, "Can I help you?" even though they knew she had a tube in her throat and couldn't answer them! She and I were stuck in a Hitchcockian nightmare together.
Seven years earlier, on July fourth, 1986, my older brother Michael had died suddenly of a heart attack. He was thirty three at the time. Because he had been obese all his life and smoked cigarettes we all used to admonish him that he would die young. And yet, when someone thirty-three drops dead, it's still sudden and unexpected: like an anvil falling on a cartoon character out of nowhere. Grieving for Michael was all done after the fact. My mother's dying took longer, which meant instead of an anvil hitting me on the head and crushing me, it was strapped to my back for two long years.
My struggle not to collapse under this weight or retreat into sickness myself, is the essence of this memoir. Survival alone would not be enough. Simultaneously, I was starting a computer consultancy that could earn real money and help my family finally move out of a roach infested apartment on a highway in Brooklyn and start a better life in Westchester. I was still dreaming of being a professional writer. And, I was trying to separate from my mother after a lifetime of feeling responsible for her. How was I ever going to do any of that with an anvil strapped to my back?
Before "A woman is her mother.
1929-1993 That's the main thing."
My Mother's Story
She was born Winifred Simon on September 26, 1929. Her brother, Stanley, was only eighteen months older. Within two years, their father Max died, leaving their mother, Fannie to support the family. She moved back in with her mother who had been widowed decades earlier. It was Fannie’s mother, Rose, who stayed home while Fannie went to work in the factory.
They were so poor that friends, neighbors and relatives told Fannie that she should put her children in an orphanage. She refused. Winnie was a beautiful child who looked like Shirley Temple. Pictures of her at age four show a cherubic little girl with thick banana curls. She loved to dance, sing (off key) and perform. She was smart and had a quick tongue. As she got older it was obvious she had a talent for design and color. Still, she dropped out of high school, went to work, and gave her mother her entire paycheck.
Fannie had her own problems. She worked full-time and brought home piecework in order to pay off the mortgage on her mother’s small house in Brooklyn. Her three other siblings did nothing to assist her and her kids, and didn’t even contribute to the upkeep of their mother. All that fell on Fannie, and she did the best she could. The problem wasn’t that she didn’t have time for Winnie, but that Fannie wasn’t as smart, talented or insightful as her own child. She was also much more selfish, hiding things from Winnie instead of sharing them.
Winnie once told me that when she was sixteen she discovered a bar of Cashmere Bouquet soap wrapped in wax paper in Fannie’s drawer. Smelling it, she realized that the soap was responsible for her mother’s sweet fragrance. And in recounting the story to me years later, Winnie cried about it. “Can you imagine not sharing something like that with your teenaged daughter?” No, I couldn’t. Because Winnie had always shared everything she owned with me, regardless of how valuable it was to her.
So, Fannie had a selfish streak. And, as was common in those days, she was more concerned about her son’s future than her daughter’s. Because she was deaf, Fannie would sometimes need help when dealing with “The Relief Office.” She wouldn’t dream of taking Stanley out of school to help her, though. She always took Winnie. Back then, Winnie didn’t think about it. She adored her brother and always wanted to hang around him. He was a handsome, funny, popular kid and she was proud to be his sister. But Stanley didn’t feel the same way about her.
To Stan, Winnie was the pesky little sister he couldn’t shake. The more he rejected her, the harder she tried. She would deliberately tease and annoy him in retribution for his rejection. When Winnie reached puberty early, most of the guys on the block (many of whom were Stan’s friends) were suddenly interested in her. The whole thing made Stan uncomfortable. The only adult male in his life was Fannie’s brother, Fred, who belittled Stanley’s artistic talent and goaded him into flunking out of art school. (He had gotten in on a scholarship.) At the age of seventeen Stan left home and joined the Merchant Marines.
When Winnie starting dating my father, Jack, Stan didn’t approve. Unlike Stan and his street-wise buddies (with names like “Blackie”) Jack was soft-spoken and gentle. To Stan he seemed like a “Sissy.” During all the years Jack and Winnie were married Stan was civil to my father but never liked him. He was suspicious of educated people in general and, I’ve often wondered to what extent Stan felt stung by his sister’s choice of a man so different from him. Of course, once Jack left Winnie, Stan felt vindicated and wasn’t exactly quiet about it. This didn’t help his relationship with my mother much. Until the very day she died, Winnie wanted Stan to love her the way she loved him. One of her last sentences was, “I love you, Stanley.” (He was not there to hear it.)
Winnie at seventeen loved how different Jack was from her regular milieu of loud-mouthed tough guys. “The boy with the curly hair” was soft-spoken, clean-cut, never cursed or was vulgar, and never drank. After the army he had a variety of jobs and then went to college on the G.I. Bill and became a teacher. He came right home from work every day, ate a meal, and then went out to a second and even third job. He was asleep every night by ten. Unlike Winnie’s brother and the guys she grew up with, Jack was considered an “intellectual.” He read books. He liked to talk about issues and ideas. He could read music, play an instrument and sing. He had a kind heart and believed in helping others. But he had his weaknesses, too. He had blind spots that made it impossible for him to see the consequences of some of his actions. He had been a sickly child and so had been spoiled by his mother’s attention. He expected his wife to dote on him as his mother had and he became petulant when she didn’t.
In nineteen sixty-four my father had an affair that lead to the end of his marriage to my mother. But first he put her through nine months of hell while he and his lover tried to manipulate Winnie to instigate the divorce. A different woman might have been suspicious very early on, but she was naïve. Even when she got an anonymous phone call telling her about her husband, she refused to believe it. Eventually, my father told her he needed to move out of the house because he needed time alone. Winnie demanded to know how long he intended to be “gone.” He wasn’t sure. By that time she was so confused, hurt and fed up that she told him if he left he couldn’t come back. He moved out anyway.
Winnie’s mother Fannie helped see her through the divorce, helped raise her kids and even contributed financially. When we kids were in high school Fannie welcomed all our friends and fed them homemade lasagna (that she pronounced “lasagan”). She baked weird shaped cookies that she hid in coffee cans and then forgot about for months on end. Fannie had next to nothing of her own, no widow's pension (she had buried two husbands before she was even forty-five), no savings. So, she needed my mom as much as my mom needed her. The problem was that living with her mother was destroying Winnie. They had been living together for a very long time. In fact, Winnie had slept in the same bed with her mother for nineteen years and only stopped when she moved out to get married. Fannie had always leaned on Winnie, treating her more as her friend than her daughter. It would be years and years later, when Winnie was in her sixties and Fannie in her eighties, that Winnie finally expressed, “I’m tired of being her mother.” But by then it was too late. Winnie couldn’t extricate herself from her relationship with her mother unless she put Fannie in a “Home,” which she refused to do. She said she would rather “die” than send her mother away. And that's exactly what she did.