Audrey Mendelsohn lived out the final couple of years of her life in a thick fog of dementia in one of those old folks’ depositories with an incongruously cheerful name and meticulous landscaping, in Gurnee, Illinois, a state I suspect she’d never visited while sentient. When I visited her there for the first time after not seeing her for six years (during which she’d essentially ceased to be herself), I exploded in tears. In my profound foolishness, I’d always imagined I’d have a chance to apologize for how awfully I’d treated her during her last years in California.
There was never a question that my mother adored me. Nor was there ever any question that, the meagerness of my accomplishments notwithstanding, she was hugely proud of me. But when my father died, I lost both of them — her because it suddenly dawned on me how she’d made me her mouthpiece for her ever-growing contempt for him. Thinking it would make her and me closer, she’d always encouraged me to share her low opinion of him, and I was overcome with shame when I realized how avidly I’d done so.
I’d realized in the last months of my dad’s life how my mother had always wanted me to be weak. We would pick my dad up at the convalescent hospital to which she’d banished him (because if she “allowed” him to come home after the stroke that left him unable to walk, the house would inevitably catch fire, and she’d be unable to pull him to safety) and drive somewhere for a little outing. When I’d get his wheelchair out of the trunk, she’d frantically try to persuade me not to try to do it without help. Reflexively thinking myself unequal to every physical task, imagining myself always to require the intervention of someone stronger, I’d been regarded throughout my early life as a hopeless wuss, and I blamed her. Oh, did I blame her.
I visited her regularly in her last months in California, and she was always delighted to see me, even when I put my back into being as sarcastic and disdainful as possible — to treating her, in other words, exactly as she’d always treated my dad. I shall take to the grave the shame of the way I treated the two people in the world who loved me most.
So there I was with my mother in northernmost Illinois in the early autumn of 2007, weeping prodigiously at the realization that I’d lost my chance to apologize, when a very shrill fire alarm went off in the convalescent hospital. A voice on the PA system said it was a malfunction, and that there wasn’t really a fire, but the alarm couldn’t be placated. I could feel my mother tense; she, the most fearful woman on earth, remained enough of herself to experience panic on some very primal level. And still the alarm kept shrieking. And still. And still.
I could leave her alone in her panic while I ran through the place, trying to ascertain why no one was turning the goddamned thing off. Or I could hold a pillow over her face until she had never again to panic.