My mother died last March, a couple of weeks shy of 96, after a bitter (occasionally bittersweet) 5-year bout of Alzheimer's dementia. I wrote about her long demise in two essays on this website, the first almost upbeat and the second a cynical take on her situation which I'd like to take back if I could.
Mom was ready to go, and I was more than ready for her to go, as were all the people who remembered her as she once was: a strong woman who was both ahead of her time and—in other respects—lagging behind it. After her death, we sat shiva in our apartment and I divided what little was left of her estate to her rightful heirs.
And, in the waking hours of my daily life, that was pretty much all she wrote. It is mainly in my dreams now where my mother still lives large.
Last night, for example, I dreamed that a writer friend and I were on vacation in the mountains of upstate New York, staying with a mutual friend—a literary critic with the kind of wit that masks praise in clever put-downs and unleashes kindness primarily to water down the venom. Not coincidentally, that more or less describes my mother in her prime.
This dream must have taken place in the golden age before cellphones, as the only means of communication in the area was a red, rotary phone that rested on a table by the side of a narrow, winding road outside our friend's rural cottage.
In the middle of the night, I heard it ringing, and I knew instinctively that the incoming call was for me. I rushed outside (fully dressed, for a change) and ran breathlessly to the side of the road and picked up the phone.
It was my mother, calling from my ancestral home on Long Island. She was worried about me, but wasn't calling to berate me for not checking in. She just wanted to make sure that her boy was okay.
"I'm sorry, Mom," I stammered, feeling ashamed for not having called her in several days. "I was going to call you tomorrow."
That was a lie.
"So, how are you? How's Dad? (My old man passed away in 2005.) I miss you both."
That was not a lie. It was probably one of the truest things I've said in months, asleep or awake.
"We miss you, too, Son," my mother said. "When will you be coming home?"
I told her I'd be returning soon and began telling her all about my trip, until the line went dead, and I woke up with a start.
And it occurred to me almost immediately upon waking that only days before, engrossed in a "Twilight Zone" New Year's marathon, I'd watched the episode where Billy Mumy talks to his dead grandmother on a toy phone that granny had given him for his birthday. Only selfish, evil granny is encouraging little Billy to commit suicide so the two of them can be together once again.
I'd seen this episode maybe a half-dozen times, but this was the first time I remember recognizing it as some really sick shit.
Whereas, my mother, for all her human frailties, was not calling me on my dream phone to beckon me to her world beyond-beyond. I understood on the call that the home to which she referred was not her new permanent home, nor was it my old Long Island split-level.
Rather, it was a home that exists only in my heart. The mother of my dream was mom at her mothering best; the one who encouraged me as a child to be strong and independent, to be secure and whole in my own skin, like she was, or at least how she always wanted to be. I wish that my mother had spoken to me like this a little more often, but that's venom under the bridge.
It's also no coincidence that I summoned her back at a time when I'm feeling almost unbearably vulnerable. But that's a presidential election under the bridge.
I look forward over the next four years to the two of us having more such conversations, on old, rotary phones in the dead of night. My mother, blissful in her eternal home, and me searching for some bliss in the here and now.