Departing Gifts

I didn’t want to start it like this, but sometimes we can’t control how things need to happen.

My mother died 33 years ago, when she was 57 and I was 30. She had been an alcoholic most of my life, at least from the time my first major memories began at five. She probably had reason to drink, with her many unfulfilled dreams, along with an extensive family history of alcohol problems. She died, and the way it happened and how I found out about it are both bizarre and miraculous events that have shaped my life.

She had been working as a psychiatric technician at Norwalk Mental Hospital. Although she was a drunk, she was brilliant, and a lot of the time she could function enough to get by and even excel at her duties. The other times, well, the other times, she just couldn’t. This was one of her more refined jobs. In her late forties she went back to school to become a psychiatric technician.

Way before I was born she worked, supporting the family and putting my father through chiropractic school. She developed her own medical perspective in the process, which seemed her natural path. She worked in clerical positions in her most recent past and in the way past she had been a waitress. She was good at this work that enabled her to raise a family and maintain her drinking habit, almost successfully.

Oh, I just thought of this now. As a psych tech she worked at the same hospital where my father was interred for psychosis, some twenty-five years prior. Way back when, he received those deadening shock treatments, leaving him a mere she’ll of his prior self. Know this, I never knew him well, as he had his first psychotic break when my mother was pregnant with me. However, I did see the glaring difference after the ECT.

Of course, my father died over 15 years beforehand, but it is weird that this was where his mind completely died and the incident occurred that paved my mother’s path to death.

Anyway, she was working at Norwalk Hospital when she was 57 and I was 30. A patient attacked her and ruined her already bad from childhood knee. She went on worker’s compensation disability and the free time, with the exacerbated childhood injury, pulled her delicate balance between function and dysfunction straight to hell. She had all the time in the world now to drink, and no responsibilities to keep her demons at bay.

My sister, Diane, who lived in Orange County, was closest to her in Fullerton and would keep an eye on her. Mom lived with a woman as a companion of sorts. She rented a room in this woman’s condo and looked after her a bit, going out to lunch and running errands with her occasionally.

Everyone loved my mother, no matter the drinking, no matter the lapses, no matter the failures. She was loved, and this woman she lived with was one of her many supporters. People kept track of her, where she was and what she was doing. You know alcoholics tend to distance people, but she was the opposite.  People glommed on to her, people cared about her. This was probably because she cared so much about people, never a judge or critical force in her interactions. She just didn’t have mean in her world, and If she did, it was for herself rather than others.

Not that my sister or brother, David, and I talked with her when she was drinking. I don’t know how we figured this out, but we knew how to deal with alcoholics. She wasn’t the only one in our family who had this problem, so I guess it became second nature to us. That and her many, many stints in rehab, although failed, gave us insight into her disease.

I remember one time when mom was in the dumps. I was about 21 or so, married to my first husband, Joe. She and I lived about a mile apart in Santa Monica, CA. Joe and I had a hand gun and she called me one day saying she wanted to kill herself. I wasn’t alarmed or anything when she asked me to bring the gun over, so she could shoot herself. I told her, “No, If you want to kill yourself with my gun, you have to come and get it. Also, you need to swear you will kill yourself at the beach or somewhere no one needs to clean it up.”

I didn’t want blood spattered all over the walls of her or anyone else’s house, a constant reminder of her last act. A promise was required or I wouldn’t give her the gun. She dropped the subject and we never spoke of it again. I felt proud of myself for not getting sucked in to her drama. That’s another thing we learned in her rehab. Of course, it never seemed to help her, but we were blessed with new knowledge every time she graduated, only to return for remedial work at another time.

After the knee injury and her escalated drinking, we kept tabs on her, but we didn’t speak to her. It just happened on Mother’s Day in 1985 neither Diane, David or I called her. That was May 12th, a Sunday, of course. We didn’t decide together not to call or see her, we just didn’t. All of us were parents, my daughter Sheila, five days shy of her 15th birthday is the oldest grandchild.

It’s not like we didn’t know it was Mother’s Day. We just knew she was drinking and it was best to avoid her and give her a little punishment. I say that on my part, not really knowing what was on my sibling’s minds. You know, when faced with an ongoing problem I just need to hold back a bit sometimes, be it punishment or relief to the intended.

Monday morning my mother’s roommate called Diane telling her mom didn’t come home the night before, wondering if she was with Diane?  She didn’t know where she was, and after checking in with David and me, Diane decided to go out looking for her.

Diane knew her current favorite haunts and habits and began the search. Mom didn’t like to go to bars, couldn’t be bothered with that scene. When she was going to drink she drove to a local market, parked her car towards the outside of the lot, and meandered in to get her king-sized bottles of vodka. She could sit in her car for hours or days, however long it took to do the deed and get her fill.

No one pestered her, and she didn’t need to drink and drive. No arrests for being drunk and disorderly. No tickets for parking your car on the street.  No one to bother or judge you, either. Easy in and easy out. I think she had one DUI on her record for all those years and I only had to bail her out of jail one time for being drunk in public. That was the first and only time I saw the inside of a jail, thank God. I’m sure she could have had more misdeeds that I was unaware of, and she was truly entitled to, but none that I know of at least.

Mom wasn’t at any of her regular haunts, but Diane continued searching. She reported to me and David regularly throughout the day, and by nightfall we were getting quite concerned. This wasn’t like her to not tell anyone where she was if it was for an extended period, especially her roommate. We reported her missing to the police and checked the local hospitals.

She had some lapses in the past where she hurt herself while drunk. One time she fell and hit her head on a coffee, table, waking the next day with a subdural hematoma. She was walking around, driving and working at the hospital with one side of her face sagging and talking with slurred speech for days when one of her friends insisted she go to the hospital.

She was touch and go for a while, but this was something a stent in her skull cured with no lingering traces of disability. The doctors were amazed after draining the fluid from her skull her brain moved right back into position with no damage.

Of course, by nightfall this day after our not calling her on Mother’s Day and her still missing, guilt was grasping at my psyche, inching its way into a lifelong death grip. Thank goodness I was going to my therapy group that night.

Norin, my current and last husband, knew how concerned and distracted I had been all day. Let’s see, I was 30 and had been in therapy for 6 years by then, so I was operating in “treated” mode, knowing how to function by compartmentalizing my worry. Shit, I’d been through all this stuff before, many times. I knew I could do it.

But underneath, I had a big, big worry niggling at my mind that all was not right with the world. No one fucks with my mother. No matter all we had been through with her and how many times, no one fucks with my mother. I could cry about it now, the fear I felt that something was terribly wrong.

That night in the therapy group I let other people start and finally I was able to talk about my mother missing. I no sooner started talking about her and my fears when I had the most profoundly beautiful feeling. I felt her essence pass through me, that’s the best way I can describe it. I felt her soul inside me, love combining our core, and it was glorious.

I started to cry, the intensity of our combined energies bringing tears of joy. I knew she was here to say goodbye and I was touched she thought of me, grateful I was able to receive her message and the sense of “knowing” of her.

Everyone in the group was shocked, probably most disbelieving. Not Norin, he knew me and knew what I can receive. When we met we “knew” each other, too. On a rooftop garden on December 8, 1978 we knew were meant for each other, kindred spirits. My mother had another seven years to live before she and I had that same experience of each other. As I think of it now, we were always connected, but it took this last time for me to really experience her, to “know” her.

When we got home that night I called Diane and told her what happened. Diane and I had been estranged for a few years at this time. Well, this was 1985 and Diane and I hadn’t really spoken since 1981 or so. Thankfully, grief extends beyond all boundaries. This was when the reality of my mother’s visit settled in, she was gone.

That sadness is as indescribable as the joy I felt earlier. There are not many feelings I haven’t had. Elation, joy, euphoria, sadness, pity, sorrow, giddiness, happiness (such a meager word for the experience), grace, willfulness, stubbornness, rebelliousness (I followed mom in that trait), what else is there?

However, sadness to that degree is devastating, beyond dread. A hollow weight in your heart, a hole scored in the soul. Knowing you must get up in the morning and not knowing how to get out of bed.

I knew she was gone, but there was no proof. What do you do without proof? I wondered if the vision and experience I had was real. “Was that real or something I just made up?” I questioned. Thankfully, others were present when she came to say good bye, confirming my sanity.

Diane and the police kept up the search, finding nothing. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday (feels almost like the Godfather) the days went on with no word of what happened to my mother. Searching, questioning, worry continued the rest of the week, and the joy of “knowing” faded .

The following Sunday morning a young girl was walking outside the 200 plus unit condominium complex where my mother lived with her roommate. Uncovered parking spaces surrounded this gigantic complex, cars in the hot sun. No one would know if someone parked their car in a different spot or where it would be.

This young girl saw the steamed windows of that dark blue 1967 Pontiac my mother drove and parked at markets in Orange County. No one except her roommate knew she was missing from the condo in the complex and no one from her favorite spot in the market parking lot noticed she wasn’t there, waiting to get the next bottle.

This little girl investigated the steamed-up windows, wondering what had happened in that car, when she saw a being splayed out on the front seat. I’m saying “being” because I’m pretty sure after a week in a hot car in Fullerton amid late Spring heat the woman who was my mother was unrecognizable form.

I am thankful the windows were steamed up. Thankful this girl didn’t see the whole grueling mess. I know I couldn’t have taken it… After her autopsy, when the report came out, Norin wouldn’t let me see it. I did glance at something that said maggots, but I couldn’t go further. He knew if I did I would never get it out of my mind.

Norin did report that her blood alcohol level was over the top, even after being dead a week in a hot car. Oh well, she was never one for moderation in life. I remember she would sometimes say “Everything in moderation,” but she never perfected that talent.

Technically, she died of a heart attack. That’s how we all die, isn’t it? Your heart stops beating. I question whether she died of alcohol poisoning? Could she have had some to drink and the alcohol continued to ferment after she died? Probably not, but to alleviate some of my throat clenching guilt for not calling her on Mother’s Day, I hope she had the heart attack before the alcohol killed her.

My sadness came out most while driving on the freeway. I would come into awareness while driving and not know where I was. Did I pass my exit or was I yet to come upon it? I just kept driving. It didn’t really matter where I was, I knew I could always get home, I just couldn’t get back into my mind. It’s a path that is sometimes hard to find no matter how sober, insightful, or “knowing” you proclaim to be.

You know, mourning takes a couple years, at least. For me it’s taken these 30 plus years. I don’t know that I want to ever get over that. Why should I? I still feel her, and I really began connecting with her again after she was gone for around 10 years.

These 33 years later I’m not rattled with those feelings, but it did take hold for quite a few years… Some time, indeed. With mourning comes acceptance. I was able to realize my mother, although nurturing most of my life, she was never able to perform a lot of the motherly functions I wanted. I was resentful for a while until I finally accepted who she was and what she was capable of, and what she chose.  Those choices were not a reflection of her love for me, I know that now.

One of her favorite sayings was “It’s good for your development.” We would say “Mom, we don’t have food.” or “When can I get my own bra because the one I share with my sisters is too big on me?” She would answer with that statement. I think it must have been good for our development because I’ve got all these great experiences to share, and after  years of searching, I’ve become the person I always knew was inside me. Well, almost, because there is always more!

So, that’s how it happened. The ways in which it defined my life are twofold. First, I have always seen myself as a spiritual being, always connected somewhere, but I wasn’t sure where. After my mother’s visit when she died, I knew I had the ability to connect somehow with the other side.  I was frightened of that at first, but realized I didn’t need to strive to have a connection with my mother.  She always knows where and who I am, she is part of me.

Second, I trust myself and my experiences in this life and the afterlife.  Although I’m scared some of the time, I don’t need to be.  I’m comfortable with the being I am becoming and I want to share my experiences so we all know none of us are alone.  We are loved.


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