Monday, May 12, 2014

My Mother Is Dead

For the last five years of my mother’s life, I would share with people that the Alzheimer’s had already taken my mother; that the woman who birthed and raised me had already passed. It was, to my mind, a most dramatic example of the buddha’s core teaching of anatta or “not-self.” With the erasure of her memory, it was all too painfully obvious that she was truly gone. Of course, this was true all along; the woman who would make my favorite Italian specialties when I’d visit my folks in Florida, during the 17 years they lived there after living their whole lives in New York, was not the same woman who had wiped my ass, broke my skull, taught me how to dance, shamed me more than once and generally been there for me through thick and thin. And I, of course wasn’t the same boy or young man who had experienced this woman as his mother.

But Alzheimer’s made it starkly real: my mother was dead.

While the mother who had raised me was long gone, as long as she had her memories that we could share, there was the persistence of the evolving process of our relationship. With the fading of memory, and the loss of her ability to retain from one moment to the next who I was, there was no real way for the intimacy of relationship. I could be her care-giver, but I was no longer her son. Those who romanticize “living in the moment,” haven’t really thought it through: it’s why I’m so critical of the modern reduction of the buddhist practice of satipatthana to just “bare attention” to the present moment. With such a reduction of attention, what is lost is what is most real and important in human experience: relationship. We see what’s present, but we don’t make the connections to what in the past led to what is present; we fail to see how what is in the present will determine the future. Real mindfulness requires memory and it is memory that allows for the fullness of relationship and the understanding of context. All that was gone. I had my memories, but true relationship requires the mutual remembrance and recognition that was no longer possible to share with my mother.

My mother was dead.

The woman who had been an Arthur Murray dance instructor, and who taught me to Lindy, Mambo, Foxtrot and Cha-Cha; the woman who ignited my passion for music with her stories of hanging out with Count Basie, and who would debate with me as to who was a better drummer, Ginger Baker or Buddy Rich, and who sang while washing the dishes sounding a bit like Sarah Vaughn, and sometimes singing along to records by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington; the woman who also turned me on to Hank Williams, Charley Pride and Jimmie Rodgers as well as Stravinsky, Debussy, Vivaldi, and the operas of Giuseppe Verdi; the woman who would be knitting in my bedroom listening to Frank Zappa’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich when I returned home from school; the woman who tolerated the many bands I had, sometimes making more noise than anything resembling the music she had shared with me and yet never complaining.


The woman who was such an amazing cook that three different people offered to back her in opening a restaurant if she only gave the word but who wasn’t interested in turning her love of cooking into a business; though she would volunteer for every church event, cooking up a storm; or filling in for the chef at the Boys’ Club Camp where I was the Corral Hand, making breakfast for 140 kids so the cook could go home to be with his ailing mother. The woman who taught me to appreciate good wine and whiskey, and then joked that I had “champagne taste and a beer budget,” when I was making $15 per music review while living in the East Village, New York City. A woman who never questioned the strange and wonderful people I’d bring home, but instead made sure they got a solid meal.

The woman who taught me how to read before I was in Kindergarten, whose passion for books continues in my life, and now in my 3-year old daughter whose library continues to grow almost weekly.  The woman who turned me on to science, especially biology and who did all she could to support and encourage my interest, and then just as fully supported my sudden turn to philosophy and literature after my sister died when I was sixteen.

My mother is dead.

I’d thought I’d done my grieving throughout the five years Alzheimer’s progressively claimed her mind and took her away from me, my father, and my daughters.  And despite having felt like I’d lost my mother when Alzheimer’s took her mind, as the first Mother’s Day approached since her death this past February, I became conscious of a strange feeling; a void. It was like becoming aware of a blind spot: you don’t know it’s there because you don’t see it and only when you bring your attention to it do you see what is missing. The hole in one’s vision is finally seen but what you are seeing is an absence. When I finally looked into this feeling, I could see it was the space left by my mother’s absence. A deeper absence than was present for the five years before her death. With a suddenness that surprised me, the words from Alban Berg’s Wozzek sprung up in my mind’s ear:

Du! Dein Mutter ist tot.”

And then, the other night, my three-year old daughter asked to play one of her favorite cds on her mini-cd player, the one she "inherited," along with the cds, from my mother. As she was drawing with her colored pencils, "La Donna E Mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto played and I saw how a naturalist form of karma is playing out here in my home. I asked Giovanna if she remembered how she came to have the cd player and the cds: "I got them from Old Grandma!" And with that, she gave me a smile that was all I needed to understand that my mother's life continues in the memories of those who loved her.


  1. Thank you Frank. My mother is dead too. It was my first Mother's day without my mom and though she suffered from dementia and debilitating pain, she and I always retained relationship. I look for my mom everywhere and through a veil of missing her, I find her…in the delight of seeing the hummingbirds come back and in the sprouting rhubarb. Her absence is most profound when I feel for my anchor when the big emotional shifts of life tug me around…..and then with a lot of bobbing about, I find her wise counsel already tucked in my pocket…. Records of our mothers.

  2. My mom has been gone 31 years. I always know exactly because she died when my daughter was born. And yet, anytime I am with my sister we find ourselves saying "Mommy would have loved this" over and over as we continue to do things and visit places that, in fact, we love because she set us on the path of loving and finding special value in these events and places. We gravitate to gardens and theaters and delicate objects as a flower turns its face to the sun.

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  4. Frank, I hear you. My mother was on death's doorstep for years before her body finally gave up. She was in and out of hospitals for surgeries that we never knew if she's make it through or live through the collapsed lungs that happened after almost each one. She was living on liquid morphine and any other prescriptions she could get for the last couple of years, hardly present with her mind while her body wasted away. For all intents and purposes for me, as a teenager, she was gone. And I dealt over and over with the very real possibility of her death for years. And prepared for it. And left my home at 17 to not be staring her imminent death and her drug abuse in the face every day. But when she did die (of an overdose or a heart attack, or both?) I was sideswiped in a way I was not prepared for. For so many years we were building up to this place of her body finally not being here and that had happened now and it still felt raw and heavy and incomprehensible that she was here the moment before and now she wasn't. I was 20, my son was 9 months old. I just turned 40 the other day and realized I've just hit the mark where I have lived as long with her gone as I have with her alive. And now each year more will create a life lived longer without my mother than with her. It disturbs me that my memories have waned, that it's hard to really remember the sound of her voice. I don't think about her for days or even weeks at a time. She is mostly absent for me except when I get hits of her loss, or when I talk to my grandmother (who's still alive and has lived through 2 of her 3 daughter's deaths) or when I reminisce with my sister. My son has no memories of her and 3 of my 4 children have never met her. I have lived my whole adult life as a mother with no mother and with a fleeting grasp on the memories that keep me connected to her. I do have rare dreams that she appears in though, when I feel her presence that I am grateful for, yet these have only happened a few times in 20 years. In was moved by your piece and wanted to share and this is what came out. Lots of love to you! Also, funny, we used to call my grandmother's mother 'The Old Grandma' :)