Picture four young children in the woods, seated around a fireplace at twilight. Marshmallows ready, but only a pile of damp wood in front of them. The lone adult is having trouble – she’s never lit a fire on her own. Finally, out of desperation fueled by the kids’ rising impatience, she retrieves a canister of white gasoline from under the picnic table, pours it liberally over the assembled branches and logs, and drops a match. THWUMP as the air rushes in, then a fireball rises fifteen, twenty feet into the air and threatens the leafy canopy over the site. The children scatter from their chairs and dance gleefully around the conflagration, oblivious to the terror on the adult’s face. “Don’t tell anybody about this,” she says.
Of course we’ve told. My brother and I happily shared the story again just days ago with Carlton, a hospital nurse, as our mother lay on the edge of consciousness. The side of her mouth crooked up and her eyes opened a bit. “Making fun of mom again,” she murmured. She’d asked for her children a few nights before, and we’d come. It was the first time Brian and I had been together in four years, and the stories and jokes bounced raucously around the room. “Can’t you two ever get along?” she slurred, mistaking our goofy energy for the fighting we’d grown out of long ago.
Our mother, Susan Albers, was a teenager in the early 1960s, and that era’s music shaped her worldview. Elvis, The Beatles, anything Motown (The Rolling Stones were on the edgy side, for her.) She attended nursing school in Gloversville, NY and won an award for nursing student of the year. She earned an RN and worked in Labor and Delivery at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Utica, NY. Photos reveal a stunningly pretty woman, with a confident allure. She’d been pursued by many, but chose poorly. She married our father, a bad boy her mother didn’t approve of, when he returned from Vietnam. They settled into lower middle class life; it was everything she’d wanted and expected.
I was born in 1969, just after Altamont signaled the end of the 60s. Nixon was President. Brian arrived in 1971, and our sister Megan surprised everyone in 1975. (How that could have been a surprise is a mystery to me – our parents obviously liked sex, a lot. They made plenty of noise, frequently, and were asked to leave at least one hotel I know of.) Our mother worked 3-11:30 at a nursing home. Her musical taste devolved a bit in the 70s – she was the founding demographic for adult contemporary radio, bastion of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, Carpenters, Air Supply, and the like. When I was in fourth grade, she and my father liked to go hear my teacher, Jerry Geschwind, play with his band. They requested their favorite song, Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, and danced.
When my father walked out the door (he went for either bread or milk, the history has gotten fuzzy), he left our mother with me at sixteen, Brian at fourteen, and Megan, who was ten. It was a devastating shock, the end of her world. Our mother’s incapacitating grief was terrible to witness – she rarely emerged from her bedroom for the next six months. During that time, I was a reluctant confidant, learning things a child doesn’t want to know about his parents. It damaged our relationship to the point where I remained in Fairport when she moved back to Utica with my siblings.
Ten years later, she met Robert Blanchard: Canadian, farmer, seaman, carpenter. Their relationship was a minor scandal in the family – they’d met at the marina in Clayton, NY, where she’d been visiting her sister. One night, she didn’t return to her sister’s boat. Susan and Robert were married in a small ceremony on February 17, 1996. Megan was the only one of us invited (I found out later.) The newlyweds cruised from Clayton to Florida on their boat, eventually settling in Jensen Beach.
Bob was the great romance of my mother’s life, a blessing she never expected. About ten years ago, I started calling her every other day or so. “How are you today?” “Pretty good. Bob and I had great sex last night.” Too much information in most parent/child relationships, but it was normal for us by then.
She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually became so bad she stopped working earlier this year. Then she was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, and scheduled for surgery in June. There were complications during the operation, and the surgery wasn’t completed. The past nine months have brought increasing agony and hospitalizations. I visited for a week in November, and helped her transition to a rehab hospital. Our hope was that she’d become strong enough to have the operation that had been cancelled in June, but it wasn’t to be. She graduated from rehab, went home, and things got worse again.
Through everything, Bob stayed by her side, constantly tender and concerned. His care epitomized every aspect of “for better or for worse,” and never faltered. He worked at night on his carpentry jobs, so he wouldn’t have to leave her during the day. That kind of devotion is precious and rare. My mother knew it, and treasured his love: almost every time we talked, she said “I don’t know what I’d do without Bob.”
We got the dreaded call on Sunday night. I flew down Monday and with my brother helped Bob transition her to hospice care. That meant heavier drugs, and no more tests. (Doctors still aren’t sure what was wrong – not cancer or any other label; it was a mystery infection that prevented the spinal surgery and wreaked so much havoc.) She faded from consciousness on Wednesday afternoon, face relaxing, finally relieved of the pain that had been excruciating and constant for so long.
Hospice arrived to transport her to their facility, and I had to leave for the airport. (Brian stayed.) Bob stopped me as I walked out. “This is the ring I gave your mother for our tenth anniversary. She wanted Sarah to have it. She loves Sarah so much.” Tears streaked his cheeks, and it was all I could do to accept the ring and not collapse right there. I returned my rental car and as I rode the shuttle back to the terminal, everything finally crashed down.
I shared this quote from an old journal when my father died, just nineteen months ago: “You know you’ve grown up when you stop looking for your parents in the audience.” Now my other parent is gone. Before I flew to be with my mother in November, I attended a performance of The Belle of Amherst, which included the following line: “Hold your parents tenderly, for the world will seem a strange and lonely place when they’re gone.” Two days ago, an elderly hospice nurse embraced me, after gently washing my mother. “You only have one mother in this life. We’re here to love you, too, during this time.”
Final thoughts. My mother was 69 when she died. Here’s an imaginary conversation: “69 – wow. How appropriate.” “I haven’t been able to do a 69 in years. At least I outlived your father.” We had our troubles, but I finally figured out how to love my mother the way she wanted to be loved – telephone calls every other day weren’t that difficult. Last November, I promised if she worked on her therapy and got better, we’d take another trip to Cape Cod. “That sounds good. I can’t wait.” Well, now she’s better. I’m going to keep that promise.