Why Didn’t My Mom Save Herself?

Photo Credit: guille pozzi via Unsplash

I imagine her.

She’s trying to navigate the living room filled with assorted junk, bags of garbage and unopened packages from QVC. She’s trying to be careful, but her shaky legs don’t cooperate. She steadies her gait with her cane as she heads for the couch.

It’s waiting for her in the middle of the room, a bought but never assembled blender with its sharp pointy blades sticking out. My mother doesn’t see it. Maybe she doesn’t have her glasses on. Either way, she steps and slices her right foot open to the bone.

I imagine she felt a shock of adrenalin, then a searing pain that’s enough to make her nearly faint. She grabs a roll of paper towels and makes it to the couch where she wraps her foot with them. Her phone is right next to her where the police would later find it. She doesn’t use it. She doesn’t call 911 or a neighbor or anybody.

I don’t know how much time passes.

She loses so much blood that her body has a stroke. The police won’t be able to tell me later whether she died from the assault on her brain or the blood loss. They estimate she stayed lifeless in the apartment for three days before the building manager used his key to open her door. She never asked for help.

I don’t know if she didn’t want to be a burden. Maybe she didn’t want anyone to see the condition of her apartment. By the time I arrive, the building manager has removed the couch and a large chunk of carpet. I’m grateful for that, but I’m still shocked at what he leaves behind. I see my mother’s loneliness, her isolation, her sadness. She lived in a prison where the walls kept getting higher every day. There’s not an empty or clean spot anywhere I look.

My mother and I weren’t close at the time of her death. I don’t know if we ever were. She crossed every boundary I set to protect myself from her. I swore I was different from her while knowing the whole time we were the same. In the few years before her death, she’d call my daughter to chat, and I’d run scared from the room so I didn’t have to say anything. I couldn’t trust her with anything about my personal life. She gossiped. She manipulated and made me feel guilty. She messed with my emotions. For the sake of my mental health, I had to limit contact to minimize the damage she could do.

My husband and I cleaned her apartment with the help of a few of my mom’s friends.

“I knew you right away,” one of them said. “You are the spitting image of your mother.”

I smiled at the compliment even though it stung. I didn’t want to be like my mother even in appearance, but the mirror told the truth.

My mother’s whole life was in that apartment. There were boxes stacked high in the bedroom of framed pictures of our family, her as a baby, me as a baby and her grandchildren. It took hours climbing over the rest of the mess to get to them. It made me sad for her. She had boxes filled with images of the people she loved, but she couldn’t get to them in the hoard. It made her loneliness more palpable, easier to understand.

Looking through her papers for the ones we needed to settle her affairs, I found a letter recently dated from the building manager. He threatened to evict her if she didn’t clean up her apartment. I imagine her stress level at the thought of having to move. She’d lived there for almost fifteen years. There was no way she could have cleaned up that mess by herself even if she could bring herself to throw anything away. Could that be why she didn’t call for help with her injury? Was she afraid the landlord would look at her apartment and see she’d made no progress? Was the thought of it so overwhelming she chose death instead?

Her kitchen was unusable. Dishes and silverware overflowed the sink. There wasn’t an inch of empty counter space. I’m not sure how my mother made meals for herself. I wish I would have visited her more, maybe helped her clean so she could eat and use her bathroom and walk around in her own apartment. I felt guilty for the ignorance of not knowing or concerning myself whether my mother was okay. Worst of all, I never asked. She was well aware that my unresolved anger towards her slanted my focus, but she never complained to me about her life. Maybe she thought I wouldn’t care. I’d like to think I would have helped her, but I never gave her the chance.

I left my mother’s apartment that day with a heavy heart. It hurt to think of her living in squalor, unable to take care of her basic needs. It made me wish things were different. What if I’d been the kind of daughter she could have called when she cut herself? I imagine myself flying to her home in Missouri before it happened, cleaning up her place while she cleared her head and relaxed. It would have been so simple to do. Why didn’t I ask about her? Why was I carrying around so much resentment for so many years? She wasn’t a monster. She was a human being who gave me life. Wasn’t that worth something?

I have the feeling of losing something precious and irreplaceable. Why wasn’t there all the time in the world to reconcile with her? I imagine that often, reuniting and coming to terms with the past, being the women we were instead of the mother and child we struggled with. I hate that it’s too late. I resent that our time in the world together was limited. We were supposed to make up. She was supposed to come to my home and visit with my children and maybe even move in so we could help her in her older years.

It hurts that she didn’t want to save herself. It hurts that I didn’t save her. I hope she’s at peace now, out of physical pain and away from the struggles of her mind. I hope she knows how much I loved her and how sorry I am for keeping her at a distance. I’ve been an orphan my whole life, but I wonder now how much of that was my choosing? My heart was too hard. I’ll honor her now by keeping it soft and flexible and full of love.

When I look in the mirror these days and see my mother, I smile. I imagine she can see me.

My mother and I in 1971