My mom died on Saturday. Strange thing.
With no memorial planned and her remains donated to science, I thought I’d write a bit.
I read an article a couple of months back about Carl Sagan and his thoughts on death. When asked by his daughter if he’d ever want to see his deceased parents again, he said that he had no reason to support the idea that there is an afterlife.
“It can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority…Anything that is real can stand up to scrutiny”.
My mom moved back and forth in her life towards the church, then away from it and toward it again, but she never pushed it on me, and always encouraged my own intellectual inquiry and intellectual honesty, so for that I have to thank her. Two days after her passing, I started on a doctorate.
I don’t think it’s fully hit me yet, the permanence of this. I stood in the shower on Saturday night just to relax, the ambient noise drowning out every thing else, and stood there just looking at my hands. “This is what’s left of her”, I thought. “This is her contribution to the world. Besides her remains, the only thing left of her is me, and of course my brother. I am evidence of her existence. I am literally half of her.”
Do I want to see her again? Alive, no. For anyone who knows me I’ve never been a fan of religious doctrine, of believing in something that is not true. She lived and she died. Just like everyone is born, everyone has to die, and she did that thing. I will see her again, but only in photographs and in my minds eye.
I have never been a fan of elevating those who have left us, to pretend that they are something they are not. Just because they’re gone, it doesn’t change the reality of who they were, and the effect that they had on us. So I want to be honest about her, to be a Speaker for the Dead.
From what I knew of my mother, she suffered from depression almost all of her life. She was born in Toronto Ontario to British Immigrants, my grandparents, a dysfunctional couple who were not my most favorite people in the world. The earliest memory I have is of my grandmother guilt-tripping my mom and making her cry, and little Stoo walking over to hug her because I knew that’s what she needed. My namesake, Stuart -> Steward is the first thing I remember about myself. I think I was 3.
My mom was told that she was a mistake, a fact her parents told her, but seemingly not with a positive spin. She wanted to go to art school in Toronto as a teenager and always told me she had a great opportunity, but her parents denied her, took her out of school and put her to work, without even allowing her to finish high school. Whenever I was growing up, I remember her mentioning her regrets about not being able to go to art school. I encouraged her as best I could, but while some would have risen up and done it anyway, I never saw her draw or paint, besides little doodles on notes left on the kitchen table. I never really liked my grandparents for this reason.
My mothers life was her family and her devotion to her children, primarily. The unconditional love that was not afforded to her, she gave to us and that became her source of self-worth. In my teenage years, I began to notice that my mother’s reaction to being upset at me when I was bad was to guilt-trip me, just as her mother did to her. Learned behaviors perpetuate and harm others. This is what I learned and I began to understand and foster the idea in my own head that we don’t have to repeat the mistakes of our parents, or their parents before them.
As years went on, my mom joined the Church, but the interest seemed fleeting, two years here and there, then gone. I think it was more of a social outlet than anything, a place to belong because people tend to get cut off from community after moving around and looking after the kids.
In 2003 she got very sick with a bacterial infection called Clostridium Difficile Colitis, one of those super bugs you hear about. After rounds upon rounds of antibiotics, her immune system was shot and she was quarantined in the hospital. At some point during her stay, oxygen to her brain was cut off, causing ever so minor brain damage. After she got healthy again, this manifested in the form of what I used to call ‘absent-mindedness’. She’s repeat herself, need to leave notes for herself and other things, all the while laughing at herself and being incredibly jovial about it all. The doctor said that her short term memory had been damaged, but this obviously was the beginning of dementia, whether due to brain damage, or just natural progression, I’ll never know.
Many people have what I would call a devotion to self, to not let the actions of others affect their own self image, personal goals or other aspects of their life. I can safely say that my mom’s self-devotion was not strong and healthy. She didn’t consider herself a priority. As I grew up, I took after my father, being fiercely independent, making mistakes and learning from them, and being very cognoscente that we are not bound by the same demons as our parents. When my brother was arrested and sent to prison in 2008, my mother fell apart and this was the beginning of her decline. I don’t think she could reconcile the position my brother was in, with her own desire to have an independent life, separate from her children, especially my brother. As he went down, she went down with him.
The next part is where it gets difficult for me, and the point at which I learned the last lesson that my mother taught me.
I will always remember my mother as a lighthearted and happy person, bringing British wit and zaniness to any situation, but in her own classic subdued way. She read historical novels about the monarchy, she taught me how to write a resumé and how to formulate my ideas in the written form, and helped me whenever I needed it, whether it was slipping $20 in my pocket while my dad wasn’t looking, or telling me that my girlfriend at the time was welcome at dinner whenever she wanted. She was also her parents daughter, so when she got upset, it was guilt-trip time, and when I was injured in a car accident, she made my girlfriend feel unwelcome in helping take care of me, vestiges of her own mother’s need to stir the pot for no reason.
As she began to fall apart emotionally in late 2008, I brought her crosswords to do to keep her brain active, I encouraged her to go on walks, and as I was studying in Australia at the time, upon a visit home I even threatened to give up my own ambitions if she didn’t start taking care of herself. It had no effect, the strong antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds she was on, combined with an unwillingness to speak to a counsellor about what she was experiencing told me that she’d rather do the easy thing than the hard thing. That sounds harsh, and I can’t blame her at all for that because she had grown up being told that her own strength, her desires and that her decisions were not valid and powerful. So she gave up and regressed, spending most days crying, sleeping and slowly slipping away.
The above account does not mention dementia at all, but I know that played the largest role in her decline. The speed of the decline is what always gets me, and I know everyone’s timeline of progression is unique. From fully articulate to unable to form a sentence or walk in 3.5 years is faster than most cases I’ve read about, so it’s hard not for me to make the link between lack of self-care and the rapidity of the decline.
She was not a fighter. This was the lesson I learned from my mother, as an inverse example of sorts: When things get difficult, always put yourself first. Lean on others for support, because you can’t shoulder heavy weights by yourself. Always do your best to help others, but not at the cost to your own well-being. Fight, and when you fail and lose, get up and try again. If you can’t get up, have the humility to ask others for a hand.
This is quite a negative document because death is a negative thing, and I knew it was coming for the last 7 years. I was not shocked when the news came, I was not that sad, but I know it’ll hit me in the coming days. I’ve just noticed that I’m not sharing many of the positive. Of course there was the positive, the happy, the fun, and all those memories crammed into my brain. But this isn’t about painting a pretty picture like we do on online to feel better about ourselves, while lying about the reality of our lives, it’s about being honest about who my mom really was in these last few years.
My mother did the best she could to break the chains that she carried around, and the weight of them were visible my entire life. Writing this, I can see the self-inflicted scars on my own arms from years past, evidence that self-esteem and emotional fortitude are things that every person struggles with.
Besides that last lesson, the most lasting impression my mother gave me was just to be aware that everyone struggles. I wouldn’t go so far as to tout Buddhist doctrine and say ‘Life is suffering’, but when people are being an asshole for no reason, when someone cuts in line, when your friend snaps at you, we really have no understanding of what their life is actually like. It’s up to others to share, and up to others to ask for help, but it’s up to us just be aware of it all and listen if people want to speak.
She was a fantastic person. Loving, encouraging, supportive, funny, witty, and all the things that I choose to keep in my head and don’t share. At this point, all I can think about is a line from the 2011 film, the Muppets.
“Is there more I could have said? Now they’re only pictures in my head”.
Of course she was flawed like we all are, but beautiful in that lack of perfection. She was my mom. My mum:)
Thank you so very much for my life. Now go be starstuff:)