Twenty-five years ago today, August 12, 1994, Mom was lying in a hospital bed in the room we call “the sunroom” in our home because it has eight windows, most facing east and a couple on the south and a window and glass door on the north side, which looks out onto my garden. I wanted Mom to be able to look out onto flowers, which she had tended as long as I could remember.
A family of gardeners
Both my parents helped to create a beautiful garden, first in the house in which I’d grown up on Chicago’s West Side and again after we moved to the north side in 1966. It was August and the bright yellow black-eyed Susans, hot pink phlox, the beginnings of golden rod, and the fading of the red bee balm were mixed together with tea roses in the sun and hosta and astilbe in the shadier places. Mom knew all these plants, and would feel at home peering out the window.
Mom had been diagnosed with peritoneal cancer (doctors said it was a form of ovarian cancer) the year before, after repeatedly going to the doctor with pain in what was becoming an ever-increasingly distended belly (Why am I getting so fat? she often said the previous several months.) Any doctor who knows what they’re doing should know that a distended belly is a sign of ascites, the fluid that gathers when cancer cells spread to the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum).
The cells can irritate the peritoneum and cause fluid to build up. But her doctor sent her for every possible test except cancer! So critical months went by before she almost passed out, just walking to the corner mailbox a year earlier, summer 1993, and finally checked into the hospital. The nurses there extracted nine liters of fluid from her abdomen! The cancer had metastasized.
My family had just moved into our new home a year before, after gutting the place, and it still lacked window treatments in the sunroom and several rooms hadn’t been decorated. The sunroom, with no furniture, was the perfect location for a hospital bed. But there were no window treatments and at night the room would be like a lit stage, with no privacy.
The Family Medical Leave Act, Feb. 1993
The year before, President Clinton had signed into law the Family Medical Leave Act ,] which required covered employers to provide employees with job-protect and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons. My brother, Bill, was able to take advantage of this act and flew from Seattle to Chicago to help with Mom’s last days.
Window treatments in the works
Bill had taught himself to sew years earlier, and had made a sleeping bag and all sorts of other practical items for his outdoor life. We went to Calico Corners, picked out some reasonable fabric, and Bill got to work. Within two days, we had eight simple panels of fabric we scrunched onto a pressure rod. Voila! Windows covered!
The nitty-gritty of hospice care
Mom had come directly to my home after being in the hospital for several weeks. The cancer had spread to her gut and was totally obstructing her bowels. There was nowhere for the food to go. The oncologist said she would feel more “normal” if she were could eat just a little of simple things and suggested inserting a stomach pump into her abdomen so that any food in the stomach could be pumped out. We had to monitor the machine and empty it.
We were instructed to massage her legs a couple times a day, to keep the blood from pooling in her feet, as her circulation was bad. We also had to give her a shot directly into her abdomen a couple times a day. Hospice provided us with morphine patches to apply if her pain got bad. She arrived on August 2nd, much skinnier than she’d ever been, but in good spirits, and still plenty feisty.
Mom’s concern about her “record” in the afterlife
One story brother Bill and I love to tell is about a car accident that occurred on Thursday, August 9th, 1994. Bill and I were sitting at the dining room table, creating lists to post of what we needed to do each day, when we heard a loud crash and crunching metal outside, right where Mom’s car, a pale blue Oldsmobile Cutless Ciera, was parked. (She adored that car, and it was the one in which my older son learned to drive eight years later.) Bill and I rushed outside, ready to engage with whoever could have been so careless!
A sobbing teenager
Instead we melted when confronted with a sobbing sixteen-year-old girl, who had become distracted while searching for something that had fallen on the floor. In a few seconds her car had crossed from heading east to hit Mom’s car, parked facing west on the opposite side of the street! Luckily no one was hurt.
We brought her and her boyfriend into the house so she could call her parents, and we called the police to file an accident report. We reassured the girl all would be ok, as the police took down the information. They needed some papers from my mother.
We went into the sunroom. “Mom, a young girl accidentally crashed into your car, and she’s really sorry about it.”
“Well, she should be!” Mom retorted. “My beautiful little blue Olds!”
“All will be fine, Mom, but the police need to see your drivers’ license and registration.”
Mom was indignant. “Well!” she announced, her eyes blazing, “I hope this won’t go on my record!” Bill and I exchanged glances. It was too much. She was on her deathbed and concerned about her record!
Less than three days later, on Sunday morning, August 12th, she just slipped away, but not before my older brother, Paul, was able to get to Chicago to see her for one last time. She was a young 76 years old. (Seeming younger all the time).
Together, Bill, Paul, and I planned the wake and funeral. Leaving nothing to chance, Mom had already told us she wanted to be buried in a lovely fuchsia chiffon dress. It looked lovely on her body, but of course, I knew that her remains in the casket were no longer my mom.
I wondered at where all that energy and ambition, fury, love, and sense of duty had gone? It had to be powering the stars–or certainly will be one day.
The puzzle that was Mom
My relationship with my mom wasn’t always as I would have liked, but mothers and daughters often find their bonds twisted and pulled by the dualities of what one generation expects and from which another wants to be free. There was so much I hadn’t understood about her behavior and what had fractured her and Dad’s relationship.
After she died, my brothers and I scoured our former home, separating trash from treasure, and in the attic we found our gold–thousands of pages of letters, diaries, photos and so much more. Years later, when I had time to read through everything, I learned so much more about the person she’d been, beginning with the diary she started in 1927 at the age of ten.
Life’s hard blows
I saw her childhood unfold, her unreasonable mother, the tragedy of losing their home during the Great Depression, her entries of friendship and searching for who she was, and best of all, her delightful entries of falling in love with my Dad.
Then there were the 13 years of Dad’s travel and his insistence on a rooming house, of the strain her mentally ill mother put on her and Dad’s marriage and the unkindness and animus of Dad’s parents toward her, of her and Dad’s determination to continue to nurture their tenants and buildings as our community exploded in the racial unrest and riots of the 1960s.
She had been a happy young woman and wife, loyal, determined, and fiercely determined to do what she felt was right.
But as time went on, she became bitter and angry with everyone in the family, especially Dad and me. She felt Dad treated her like a “workhorse.” This was partially true, but her furious rants changed nothing, and we all retreated. Reading her diary entries of this time is particularly painful for me, against whom a healthy serving of ire was dished up. I felt both sad and angry at her self-centered view of life.
To see two sides of my mom, even as a six-month old, check out Cute, Coy, Fierce, and Strong
Mom’s out of the fray of this life, but her spirit and energy must be somewhere, electritying the universe, lighting the night sky.
Thank you for reading.
Redlined tells a first-hand story about a West Side Chicago family’s personal struggles and dreams intersecting with the racial upheavals of the 1960s.