Friends, I need to write something very personal and sad right now. Some of it will include things about my family and my age that I usually try to be vague about, but fuck it. I’m really only writing this to get it out of my system, so if you didn’t come here to be bummed out or to read my fuckin diaries, that’s perfectly all right. I recommend instead this review from last year of STEELE JUSTICE starring Martin Kove.
But the thing is my mom died Monday morning. It wasn’t sudden, and yet, of course, it kinda seemed like it was. This has been a trying half decade for me. After my dad’s Alzheimer’s was severe enough that he had to be moved into a facility, but before he passed away, Mom tripped and hit her head. Just a normal clumsy accident, didn’t think much of it, but the raccoon eyes that developed the next day helped convince her she should get checked for a concussion. The damage from the fall wasn’t severe, but there was something else they noticed: a brain tumor. A huge one. The surgeon who would soon remove it described it as “the mother of all tumors” and “the size of a grapefruit.”
He was one of the most immediately impressive people I’ve ever met. He looked us in the eye and very confidently told us that he thought he could do this, explained his qualifications, but also very matter of factly told us of the possibility she could die. But if they didn’t remove it, she would definitely die. There seemed to be no bullshit about him. It made me feel better.
When they estimated how long it had to have been growing there, I did the math in my head, and thought wow, when we were watching RETURN OF THE JEDI, this thing was already there, and we never knew it. They theorized that it even explained some things about her life. The sometimes crippling depression that had led her to stop working might have been triggered by pressure on her brain. Removing it might even give her a new outlook on life.
I was there with her when they prepared her for the surgery. It had all come upon us so fast, and I worried I wouldn’t see her alive again. I told myself not to use the word “goodbye” when they rolled her off, but I slipped. She waved and said, “See ya later!” like she didn’t have a care in the world. It still makes me smile.
I’ll spare you the chapters that could be written about the experience of waiting for something like that, not knowing the cause of delays, eventually being taken into a private room and being almost sure that this means they’re about to tell you the bad news. I will say that there’s something very powerful and life-affirming about the community that forms in these waiting rooms, the other friends and family and nuns you see camping out, passing the time, worrying, grieving, in a similar situation, but maybe earlier or farther along on their journey. I remember hearing someone whose relative had had the same surgery as my mom, but now they were back with some complications. I hoped that wouldn’t be us.
And at first it wasn’t. The recovery was long and grueling, but it seemed like she was coming back to her old self. She’d been a nurse, and it was at times galling how at home she felt in dramatic health scares. As our dad’s caretaker she’d tell us every detail of the medicines he took, the possibilities for the disease to advance or slow down, the experimental drugs, the study they would do on his brain after he died. As a patient she’d remember the names and departments of every doctor and nurse, quiz the med techs about the drugs they were giving her, recount for us what she’d learned. Until she couldn’t. She was the head of the family, really, and it was hard to watch her gradually become helpless, and realize that it was happening.
But that took some time. She was actually able to go home and live on her own for while. She was weak on the left side, and had left neglect, which I have learned is a thing where your brain doesn’t remember to look left. You’re not incapable of seeing, but it’s very hard to teach yourself to do it. So obviously she couldn’t drive and had some trouble getting around without a walker. Still, the fact that they could take this giant thing out of her head, leaving an empty space that needed to fill in, and that she could still be capable of so much, was incredible. Most of the stress was about getting her to appointments and therapists. She worked very hard to be approved to cook again. We worried about her, but she seemed to know what she was doing.
But there were problems, and before long a seizure brought me with her to an emergency room for what turned into a long series of problems and moves between hospitals and departments and rehab facilities. She eventually agreed to assisted living, and we found a great place, but then she had falls and had to go back to rehab and eventually it was clear she wouldn’t walk again, couldn’t feed herself, couldn’t even sit up in bed.
And somewhere in the middle of that she got diagnosed with breast cancer. We had no idea how we were going to get her to the radiation treatments, or how she would be able to take them. They decided she was too weak; treating her would be more dangerous than not treating her. She told us she had decided she didn’t want to keep fighting, she just wanted to be as comfortable as she could and appreciate what life she had left. She went on hospice. But for a while she would forget, and ask when her surgery was.
There are a few traumatic images that I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my brain. One is the first time I saw my dad in the memory ward. His eyes looked distant, and he was pacing up and down a hall. That’s pretty much all he did for his last years. He not only didn’t recognize me, he couldn’t even focus his eyes on me. He was somewhere else.
The rest of them are from my mom. Nobody should have to witness some of the things I saw her go through. And I won’t forget the feeling of helplessness of one of the many nights I spent with her in the emergency room waiting for someone to see her. Any time a hospital employee walked by you’d hear people begging them for help, and they’d calmly explain that they weren’t the doctor. Through the curtains I didn’t want to stare at the guy with the mangled, infected foot that he believed had spiders in it, so I could only watch the staff behind the desk. Accustomed to this level of hellish stress, they don’t even notice it, and they’re playfully joking around with each other like a normal job. My mom kept screaming and convulsing and I was convinced she was going to fall off of her bed. Eventually it broke me and I ranted at my brother. They don’t help anybody, they don’t care, she’s going to hurt herself and nobody will help us. But she was screaming so much that other patients started to yell for her to shut up, which seemed to finally get her some help.
It’s a little embarrassing to say, but I’m sure you won’t be surprised, that I started thinking of the corny song from FIRST BLOOD as my theme song. The lyrics much more clearly apply to Rambo’s situation than to mine, but I just kept thinking of that line, “It’s a long road, and it’s hard as hell…”
One of my constant fears is that I’ve passed my expiration date, that it’s too late to figure out how to live my life just as a writer. So the time before and after the day job, and especially the days off, are a precious commodity to fit in all the work on reviews and books along with, you know, normal human life and relationships. So selfishly these many long nights and days sitting in hospital rooms felt like they were crushing my dreams. And it was clear that she liked being in the hospital. As a person with terrible insurance, I try to avoid going to the doctor as long as possible. She would try to go for anything. At least once they made her leave before she wanted. They took good care of her and she liked the food and she liked that we all came to see her. But we had lives to live. It was burning us out.
So honestly it was a relief when she was on hospice and at least I didn’t have to worry about the next text or phone call, or about figuring out which hospital she’s at now and how I should get there and what room she’ll be in. That she’ll just be in her little apartment at all times, with nice people looking out for her. Whatever happens, it can’t get worse.
But of course I felt guilty for thinking that.
At this point they weren’t even sure what was wrong with her anymore. She was too weak to walk, she was having hallucinations about bees, about car accidents, she wasn’t making much sense, and they never figured out why. We just tried to be there and keep her as happy as you can be in that situation. At the beginning of the year it was believed she was getting close. The hospice arranged to have a harpist come into her room and play for her. It was moving and even heavier than it sounds because friends and loved ones were in chairs facing her bed like it was a recital. The harpist asked for requests and I didn’t know anything that would be appropriate but I thought man, I wish I could assume she knew “Maggot Brain.” That would be amazing on harp.
By this point, I thought, I was as okay as I was gonna be about the knowledge that my mother would die soon. But then her sister would come in, or her best friend from college, or her work friend who I got to know on a hugging basis in the emergency room, and then I would start to see this tragedy through their eyes. I kept thinking that even though she was my mom, some of them had known her longer than I had.
There was an incredibly heavy day when my sister and I went to visit, and Mom’s church group came in to pray for her. Neither of us are religious, but we thought it was nice and agreed to take part, not realizing that these were going to be the prayers you say for someone right before they die, to send them off to Heaven. Not the last rites, but something like that. And then they started singing for her and she didn’t even seem conscious but suddenly this high pitch comes out of her, a note. “Aaaaaaaaaaaa” and then we realize she’s singing “Amazing Grace.” She still knew the words, at least some of them, and could sing better than I could.
One of the church ladies wanted to bring it up on her phone so we could sing along, and the first version that came up was by Judy Collins. And they had no idea, but my mom had been a huge fan of Judy Collins when we were growing up. She’d go see her whenever there was a tour. I don’t remember her going to any other concerts. When I was a little older I’d complain when she played the records. I said I hated them. She’d tease me that when I was a baby I would cry and the only way she could make me smile was to play Judy Collins. And anyway she had this song about a pearl handled gun, because Nancy Reagan slept with a pearl handled gun under her pillow, it was against guns and I was against guns so I should like it.
Years later I went into a Borders and a CD signing was going on. I looked at the woman behind the table and I knew her – for a second I thought she was a relative. And then of course I realized it was Judy Collins. I only knew her from seeing those record covers so much as a kid so I felt like she was my aunt or something.
I always wondered why the people in the movies were into Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin but my mom was listening to Judy Collins. I think she was kind of a weirdo, kind of a nerd. She made her own clothes. Her friend told me that in college she drove them crazy by studying while they were on the bus just going to the movies or something. I don’t think she ever tried to be cool. But she had her eccentricities. She loved Halloween. She was an early adopter of the buying-full-sized-bars-at-Costco technique. But many kids were too scared to approach the house because of the tombstones, the strobe lights, the sound effects records, and especially the witch makeup.
She didn’t like horror movies though, and gave me shit about it. ROSEMARY’S BABY was the only one she liked. And maybe THE SIXTH SENSE later. I always argued that my horror movies weren’t as morbid as her true crime TV movies and Ann Rule Ted Bundy books. When I was older she bought me the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET dvd box set as a Christmas gift, and I couldn’t believe it. I almost didn’t get rid of it when I upgraded to blu ray because it meant so much to me that it came from her.
She was a dyed in the wool Democrat. She loved to give my dad shit about voting for Reagan the first time. In the ’90s she loved Hillary Clinton. She saw her as someone who defied society’s limitations for women, who spoke her mind, who stood up to slander, who fought for health care (as a nurse this was huge to her), who pissed off all the worst, most sexist assholes. That attachment seemed to fade a little by the time Clinton was the Democratic nominee, but I never found out why. Mom was still herself during the election and followed what was going on. I always thought I was more cynical and more radical than she was, but I remember asking her if she was excited that she was going to get to see a woman president. She wasn’t as sure about it as I was.
After the harp and the “Amazing Grace” and everybody trying to get emotionally prepared, nothing happened. Mom seemed to get better, worse, better, worse. We got used to it. She laid in bed with MSNBC on all day, though she could no longer comprehend it. She showed occasional interest in the Mariners or the Seahawks, but didn’t really follow the games. It was hard to talk to her about much other than what she’d had for breakfast or lunch, but she usually thought she hadn’t eaten yet. On a more talkative day she would tell us about some visit that she obviously imagined, or deny a visit that we knew had happened. But often you couldn’t really talk to her except to tell her hello and I love you, which she usually knew how to respond to. I am ashamed to say, and I will always regret, that my visits got fewer and farther between. I had heard many updates but hadn’t seen her in a few weeks when I heard on Sunday night that, once again, they thought she might be getting ready to transition. There was no specific thing, but the hospice nurse felt from experience that it could be a matter of days or a week. I was scheduled to work in the morning so I would go see her after work, unless I heard that things were dire. Instead I woke up to a 5:40 am text that things were serious, got there in a half an hour, and, you know. Found her.
Before all this I would’ve thought that that would be one of the worst things to ever happen, to go into a room not knowing if a loved one was alive, looking at them, not knowing for sure, finding that they weren’t. But I’m almost as calm about that part as my mom would’ve been. This stuff grinds you down. You learn to be cavalier about it, even make jokes. Most of the time I feel like I’ve accepted my dad’s death three years ago. Then, out of the blue, somebody says something that reminds me of something that reminds me of something else that makes me think “I used to have a dad. Now I don’t.” That’s how my brain always formulates it. And now I have to update that one.
The family sat with the body for hours, crying, telling stories, laughing. It’s weird but this is my fourth time in five years – two grandparents and two parents. It’s surprising what you can get used to. Some of the staff came in to offer their condolences and tell us that they loved our mom. One was a young music therapist with an acoustic guitar tattooed on her wrist. She told us that she’d been working with our mom in recent days, singing with her. She said that Mom had been talking about Judy Collins, and a baby bouncing up and down.
“That was me!” I said. “I was the baby!” I couldn’t believe it. It gives me comfort to know that she had been thinking about me, even if she didn’t remember it was me. Just some baby. That’s good enough.
When I started writing this self indulgent thing yesterday I figured I might end up deleting most of it and just posting a little something nice about Mom. But the person I love most in this world told me that we don’t talk enough about grieving in this society, and in particular men don’t always talk about their feelings, and also we who enjoy talking about tough guy movies may be especially guilty of this, and maybe it’s helpful to people who are going through something like this or have gone through something like this or might go through something like this to hear from someone else. So I’m taking that advice.
I still feel a little guilty for dwelling so much on the horrors here. What I want to say is that this has been hell for all of us, and I would do it again for my mom.
Let me tell you one of the things I got from her. There were times growing up that she didn’t get what I was going through, didn’t like the way I was dressing or whatever. As an adult I never felt like I could explain to her what I was working on, that it wasn’t something she had the context to understand. She had all of my books and I’m pretty sure she never read a word of them and I don’t know that she should’ve. But what was important to her was that as a little kid I liked to write stories, so she pushed me to do it and she tried to get me the better teachers and she always advocated for me. When I was older she didn’t understand why I wouldn’t try to get a job at a newspaper or something, why that wouldn’t be fulfilling for me, but that’s okay. As a kid she let me believe that I could be a writer or an artist when I grew up. She didn’t let the difficulty of paying the bills get in the way. And I’m grateful for that.
I’ve written before about action movies as a bonding ritual between fathers and their sons or daughters, and my specific feelings about my dad as related to DIE HARD. I could say that in some sense my dad gave me my love of action movies. But it was my mom who gave me the ability, the will, the purpose of communicating those feelings creatively. So I hope that as I continue to express myself it will be some kind of tribute to both of them, the love they had for me and the sacrifices they made. And I hope I can be worthy of that.
Pop culture was never as important for my parents as for me. There’s not even a specific movie I associate with my mom other than THE FUGITIVE, and that’s only because we went to see it right after she’d been laid off from a job she’d worked for decades, so during one of the hospital scenes she started crying. I don’t really know how to pay tribute to her in the medium of movie review like I did for my dad. But she always said her favorite actress was Meryl Streep. I’m not even sure which movies made her feel that way. It looks like I’ve only reviewed three Streep movies, and I know Mom never saw any of these, but I love them all:
Also here’s my review of LADY BIRD, another movie she never saw, but that reminded me of her.
I miss you Mom. Thanks for everything.
p.s. For obvious reasons I may be slow with the reviews for a bit, but writing is therapeutic for me so we’ll get things going again soon enough. When you see what dumb bullshit movie I review next please be aware that it was in the works for the Summer of ’98 series and was not what I thought would make the best statement about this juncture in my life. Also remember that I truly love and appreciate you all and I’m extremely grateful that you care enough to read any of this (or the STEELE JUSTICE review).
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.