Chapter 4: The Long Goodbye

As many of you know, I have been a little preoccupied with my Mother lately.

I’m going to be a little kinder this time…

We have finally reached the point where my sister and I are needing to transition my mother to Assisted Living due to Alzheimer’s Disease/Vascular Dementia.

Being a lifelong Republican who worshipped Ronald Reagan, she’s probably almost satisfied that she has the same disease that ultimately did him in.

This is a very strange time for me.  I won’t pretend or be dishonest.  My mother is a difficult woman.  We have had our issues, but she is my mother and we will do the right thing to be sure she is as safe and comfortable as possible during these final years.

What I find most disturbing about seeing someone at the end of their life is looking at what they missed.  But I realize I can’t force my values or judgements on her or view her life too much through my own lenses. She is a product of a different era and had her own wishes and desires and probably was as happy as she could be given her expectations.

It’s the lowered expectations that disturb me.

When I watch “Mad Men” and see Don Draper and his family- at least in season one- I see our family, but in a much better neighborhood.  I was always struck by how limited the options were for women in the 1960′s– and that is when she was in her prime.

I am grateful for one thing.  I knew her four years longer than my sister.  I knew her when she was still young and vivacious.  Something happened in the late 1960′s and she became a different woman.  I think it was the fact that she was not equipped to deal with change.

My mother was born in 1932 and lived in Danville, Virginia her entire life.  She was raised to be get a “Mrs Degree” and she did.  She had no education after high school and devoted her 20′s and 30′s to building my father’s career.  When he died in the early 1980′s, she was lost.  She tried religion, she tried following politics, but she never really found herself after she was no longer Mrs. H. B. Michaels.  She had never really built her own identity or developed her own interests, so she had nothing to fall back on.

I also saw her and her friends from the 1960′s when I read “The Help.”   I saw so many women, when I was little, who had no purpose and nothing to do, so they became obsessed with trivialities.   I saw a little of Hilly and a lot of Elizabeth as representing my mother.  If you looked in the medicine chest of every woman in Temple Terrace in the 1960′s you found two new wonder drugs:  Birth Control pills and Valium.  They were on the cusp of freedom and change, but didn’t know how to deal with it.  Many of these women didn’t even get dressed until it was time for their husbands to come home for dinner.  If the husbands didn’t spend too much time at Earl’s Bar and Grill and forget dinner…

My mother could be wonderful at times.  She had my father build a stage in our backyard and organized plays with the neighborhood children.  I think that’s where my love of theatre my have begun.  She loved MGM Musicals and, as a child, I watched them with her.  That was also probably the first thing that screwed up my early perception of life.  It ain’t no MGM Musical, but I’m not sure she ever had that realization.  She wanted things to be simple, clean and beautiful.  She couldn’t deal when it wasn’t.

She did go back to work after my sister was born.  Before I was born, she had been a receptionist at Dan River Mills.  When she went back to work in her early 30′s, someone younger and prettier had that job.  So she went to work at Hilton Hall with hundreds of other women who were smarter than their male bosses.

She was president of every Club she over joined.  If she had had the education, direction and self-confidence that would come with the Woman’s Movement, she would have had a different life.  But she didn’t.  She never could cook or run a house, but she knew she was supposed to do so.  I don’t think she ever recovered from not being able to fill the role she thought she was supposed to fill and didn’t realize she should have tried something else.  She went to college, briefly, in her ’50′s, but she didn’t have the self-confidence to keep it up.

She became a master at denial.  I don’t know exactly what went wrong around 1969, but I have my suspicions.  The world was changing and she was frightened.  She did not know what to do, so she ignored it and demonized any change.  My father remodeled our house instead of buying her a new house.  She never recovered from that.  She started gaining weight.  She and my father began to behave more like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, than Ozzie and Harriett.  Anyone within earshot knows this…

But she kept up appearances and dove deeper into denial.  When my father became ill with cancer, I think it was almost a relief to her.  She got to take care of him, deal with doctors and insurance companies and had a purpose for the first time in years.  Like I said, when he died, she was lost.  She didn’t have a self to fall back on.  She was used to being someone’s wife or someone’s mother and had never found herself.  She was not one for a Jill Clayburgh “Unmarried Woman” reinvention.  She didn’t have the skill set.

I think I may, unknowingly, have been saying goodbye since 1969.

Frankly, she never dealt well with me once I told her I was gay.  Her first reaction was that people would talk and what would her friends say.  Then she worried it would ruin my career.  Then she told me I was going to hell, so I did the same to her.  I would not speak to her for more than 6 months.  Then she tried to work it out.  I give her credit for that.  But we were never close again.

I had moved on, but she couldn’t.  I loved the way the world had changed and embraced it.  She was always stuck in Danville, Virginia as it had been in about 1960.  I think that was the last time she was comfortable with the world.

So, it may be a blessing that she is moving to the place where she lives in the past.  She was never comfortable in the present and she feared the future.

And we’ll try to continue to say goodbye with as much grace as we can muster.

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