Today I found out that my mother died the way she lived--alone, among strangers in a place she was in the process of going to or from. We just don't know the answers right now, only that she died on February 10th in Placerville, California, a place we'd never lived. No one knew she had children and other family members to notify. We don't even know where she ended up, if she was buried, cremated, or what caused her death.
We found out by accident. My sister had taken on the chore of trying to keep track of her, trying to follow a woman from destination to destination that not even she knew she was heading for. She just ran, from one bus to another, from one hospital, nursing home, public housing to another. She would stay long enough for her social security check to be deposited and then she would talk whatever caretaker she perceived as the most malleable into letting her have "her" money, even though my sister told them never to give her money, that she would take it and disappear, run from some past that was always tapping her on the shoulder forcing her to run from whatever demons haunted her.
Always it was the same story. She refused to believe the doctors who told her she was too ill to live the way she was living. She began to accuse my sister of stealing from her, of total strangers stealing her clothes, her money, her belongings. Yes, she belonged locked up, but she was a woman who always knew the limits of her rights. She knew that no matter how ill she was, how crazy she was, if she didn't want to be locked up there wasn't a damn thing anyone could do about it. So she lived without an address and went from cold climates in winter coats to the desert and then to cold climates wearing only summer clothes. My sister would get phone calls from hotels she'd checked herself into and told the desk my sister would pay. She would get calls from hospitals where she'd been taken after falling and hurting herself. She would get calls from nursing homes saying she had once again escaped.
My sister last heard from her at the beginning of February. She had once again taken off and was on her way to some place in California. And then all communication ended. She had disappeared and no one knew where she was. My sister suspected she had died just as my sister feared she would die, alone in some strange place among strangers. But no matter where we searched, nothing came up. You can't find someone who doesn't want to be found.
Unless they die and then their lives are reduced to a simple one line public record. Today my brother typed her social security number in the death index and there she was and none of us knew how. She died eight days before her 87th birthday.
It all sounds so clean written down in black and white on the computer screen. There's nothing there about the damage war did to her, the many times she almost died, the hunger she suffered. There was nothing there about having her appendix taken out during the war with nothing to blunt the pain except a bottle of whiskey. There was barely any food, no medicine, and people were dying all around her at the hands of the Nazis, the Fascists, every single occupying army that came through town.
There was nothing there about her first love and how she went home and told her mom she had fallen in love and finally there was something to look forward to. Until my grandmother dashed that dream and told her that she couldn't marry a local boy, that she had to find an American and get the family out of the living hell their lives had become. She was ordered to give up love and find a ticket to America and she did. Or I should say we did because I was born there in the aftermath of war, in the broken dreams and bodies of the worst evil humanity can imagine. I almost died the first three weeks because five years of near starvation made her breast milk poisonous to me. And there was very little to give me to eat in its place. Six months after my birth I weighed just a few pounds more than my birth weight. But I survived just as she survived and all the awesomely strong women in my family survived.
But it came with a heavy cost. In the lines on the screen, there was nothing about the woman who alienated her children to the point where we literally ran from her and never went back. I spent most of my life afraid of her, afraid of her demons that filled the room. She drank heavily the first few years we came to America. My earliest memories of her were the smell of vodka mixed with mouth wash. I know she quit drinking a few years later, but the meanness that replaced the alcohol made me long for the sweet scent of listerine scented vodka. My brother and sister were born after she tried to leave her past behind and make a life for us in America.
But it was a difficult life. The man she married was an abusive gambler who beat her and then left us with nothing as he gambled away the rare paychecks he managed to earn. She worked several jobs to support us and it was never enough. He always came back and beat the money she earned out of her until she gave it to him and we went back to living on whatever we could scrounge. We lived in cars, in cheap hotel rooms, or on a bus going from one town to another. There wasn't any welfare or food stamps. You begged, borrowed, stole or you died. Life had become what she thought she had left behind.
I last saw her in 1979. It had been about three years since the last time and it ended badly with the police coming to help me get away. I never went back. Periodically she would find out where I was and send me letters telling me she drank when I was two years old because I was a really bad kid and drove her to it, or that her husband never hit her, that he never hit me, that I imagined it all, that it was all in my head, that the scars on my body were from my clumsiness, my lack of grace, my inability to walk without falling down and having some expensive accident like a broken arm or leg. Or I would get letters saying he beat me because I was bad and it was my fault, that if I had been a nicer kid he would not have ever hit me, that he would have stayed home with us and life would have been grand and wonderful. I stopped reading the letters after a while as they became as painful as the beatings.
My brother stopped seeing her when she told him he imagined all the beatings from his father, that he was a good man who would never abuse his children. It was too much for him just as it was too much for me. But our sister was stronger. She was the only one who one day decided she'd had enough of being beat and delivered a powerful kick to him that assured he would never lay another hand on her again. I'd always admired my sister for that moment. She was about 11 years old and gained my lifelong respect that day.
And because my brother and I were too wounded emotionally to deal with her, my sister took on the task of keeping track of our mother. It became a part of her life, the good daughter who took care of her mother. But even she didn't have skin thick enough to deal with the hatred and mean-spirited crap she received in thanks. She bought her a phone, replenished the card every month so she could call anytime, and for the last year only talked to her on the phone,mostly because the only time she could see her was if she was in a hospital for a few days. That's where my cousin found her and managed to get her to talk into a recorder and share some of the least horrifying memories of the war years. An after a couple hours of taping, she was once again gone, denying she was sick, denying she was old, and off to who the hell knew where.
We laughed about it but seriously, it had little humor to it when you think about it. I've always known I could never survive what she and those of her generation survived at the hands of the madmen, the cruel beasts that passed for humanity for most of her early life. It is one thing to outlive everyone you know from old age, and quite another to outlive them because they weren't strong enough to escape from the Nazis and Fascists. In spite of our rough childhoods, the poverty, the pain, none of us kids ever had to watch those we loved die at the hands of monsters. In our hearts we know we were good kids because those of us who had parents who suffered through that knew intuitively that we could never be bad kids, we could never add to their suffering. We were children of survivors and we never forgot it.
But it turned us into pacifists. It made us adamantly anti-war. It made us hate authority and totalitarianism with a passion that consumed our lives. I often wonder what my mother would have been like without war and the glimpses I get of laughter, of softness, of brief glimpses when she allowed herself to forget always made me long for it to be true, for her to turn into a mother who didn't hate, who didn't condemn, who didn't see the world as a hateful and ugly place waiting to kill the spirit of anyone weak enough to resist it.
The hardest decision I made in my life was to stay away from her. It felt unnatural at the time and in moments of despair I sometimes wonder if I could have helped her become more human. But then I come to my senses and realize that for some people the damage is just too deep and when they go down, they take you with them. I wanted to live and getting away from her was the only way I knew to do it. I don't regret the choice I made. I grew into a better, stronger person because of it. But I also know there's damaged parts of me that won't heal. I know that my brother is a damaged soul as I am a damaged soul. I know my sister has her deep wounds. But what we share is that spirit of survival. Just as war couldn't kill her, she couldn't kill us even though she tried. Maybe she reallly did believe if she killed us we would no longer suffer.She didn't drown us in the bathtub, but it was close enough and I have to take a deep breath sometimes and take in the love that surrounds me in order to remind myself I made the right decision.
I think we all feel that way about her. I no longer live in fear of her finding me, of hurting me, of trying to destroy my life. I can live openly now knowing she won't show up on my doorstep with some crazed idea of people out to get us or attack those I love simply because love in her damaged soul, was a weakness that would one day kill me. I think what we want now is closure and we can't have that until we find out how she died, how it ended, where she was, what her final moments were. I suspect a stroke that left her unable to speak and have someone call my sister. Or maybe she just died knowing that she finally succeeded in escaping for the last time. I wouldn't be surprised if her last words were simply "fuck all of you."
As I told a good friend this evening, grief is a strange thing. You don't mourn for what you lost but for what you never had. I think that describes me perfectly tonight as I write this. As I dug out this photograph I see a woman I never knew. Yet, she gave birth to me. She is in me. And maybe the real reason I'm still alive is because she was strong enough to give up love so I could survive. I want to believe that and maybe one day I will. I know the saying she is now at peace is so trite, but it's true. For a woman like her who went through what she went through, only death can bring peace. I am grateful she found it at last.