Mama Taught Me How to Jitterbug
“Swing them hips, baby girl! Pretend you’ve got ants in your pants! Dance with me!”
Perhaps that was the problem in a nutshell: I wanted a mother like the other little girls had, one that cleaned house, cooked supper, not one that had to work at a factory or turned up the music loud enough to entice my feet into rhythm. I wanted a mother who decidedly did not tell me, “Pretend you’ve got ants in your pants!”
Yes, she taught me the jitterbug and she taught me how to help her die.
Mama wasn’t a “career gal” by choice. God knows that after my father died she tried to find a willing man to take over the reins. Her dream man would earn the money, mow the lawn, throw hot dogs and hamburger patties on a grill sometimes and control her life. Ah, the other half of the nutshell: my mother was a Southern Belle, the antithesis of every strong female virtue that I valued when I grew up.
Of course she eventually did find the man of her dreams; several of them, in fact. Most of them she married but she obeyed all of them and insisted that I, and two brothers that followed, do the same, without question. Being the good daughter that loved her mother beyond all fault, I did as I was told, even when it was grossly unfair.
My mother was a self-imposed “delicate” life form. She leaned on men to fulfill her every need and behaved as if she was totally helpless to take care of herself and she played it to the hilt.
I was a little girl the first time I remember my mother pulling her routine on me. It was because she was truly, honestly, too weak and flimsy to take care of herself so she leaned on a four-year-old, instead.
“Honey, wake up. C’mon, wake up and get out of that bed. There’s a bad storm coming and Mommy’s scared. Get up, sugar. I need you to sit with me.” As the pattern would reveal itself through the years, if I dared to fall asleep on the couch she would scold me, berating me for being a bad daughter, for not caring about my mommy, for not protecting her.
If one of my “daddies” was in residence, my mother would whine to him about the storm, the intruder, the heat, etc. The only reason I ever welcomed the presence of one of her men was that she left me alone, not forcing her fears onto my young shoulders.
Eventually we all grow older and less attractive which may have been the reason my mother ended up alone save for the good daughter. The two sons had come to detest the characteristics that had drawn their father to our mother, crying foul whenever I tried to get them to visit her more often, extolling on their own virtuous roles as husbands and fathers that were too entrenched to allow them the time and money to travel.
“Oh, and by the way, tell Mom I love her.”
As it always happens, time continued to march on. Fast forward 40 years to find Mama man-less, sick and coughing up blood. Even though she’s scared, Mama is in Nirvana. She’s happy while they were running tests. All those gorgeous doctors, interns and orderlies! I think it was the one time in her life when she knew that no matter what, they couldn’t leave her.
The doctor didn’t mince words. “I’m sorry to tell you that it’s lung cancer. I think with aggressive treatment…”
Welcome home, Southern Belle!
Mama cried and I held her as she bemoaned her fate in life. I didn’t blame her; I would’ve been mad, terrified, too. I knew, though, that I had to help her back to reality, force her to understand that she had to give it a shot.
“You can fight this, Mama. We can fight it. I’ll help you in every way possible. YOU can do this, really you can. Help me to help you live.”
Her acquiescence was grudging, at best.
She went through weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. The two tumors they’d found during an endoscopic examination had greatly diminished in size. The oncologist told me that after her body had rested for a couple of weeks she could start the next series of radiation. He told me he believed her cancer was 98% curable and he felt Mama could live another five to ten years.
He told her that her only job was to eat, drink and rest, but she couldn’t even do that.
The first time she had to be admitted to the hospital was due to this very fact. She’d stopped eating and drank very little fluid. She was so dehydrated that her oncologist said, “She looks like a potato chip, as if she would break if you touched her.” I felt it was my fault she was failing. I mean, hadn’t she always made it clear that it was my job to take care of her?
I don’t know what type of dementia wraps itself around this type of human suffering but she had loads of it. Most of the time she didn’t know any of us and she was afraid. Because she’d developed a bed sore at the base of her spine, I’d turn her at least every two hours. Each time I touched her she would start crying. “Please Ma’am, don’t hurt me. Mama, where are you Mama?” It’s heartbreaking when your own mother thinks you’re a stranger that wants to hurt her.
And then there are the times she does know us, especially me, who she seems to take great pleasure in tearing apart. She calls me horrid names, bitch, whore, demon, spawn of hell…all the old standards. She gleefully grins at the hospital staff and tells them what a low-life, substandard piece of dog crap I am, not worthy of scraping off her shoe. These tirades bruise my heart and make me weep after she passes out from attempting yet another physical attack on me or anyone else near enough for her to reach.
Family and friends tell me to let it go, to ignore the words that decay my spirit, that she “wasn’t in her right mind”, that she “didn’t mean it, you know she didn’t”. At first I try, desperately, to cling to those sentiments, to fully believe my own mother didn’t mean to hurt me. Surely no mother would ever do that to her child, her first-born, the only one that took care of her and seemed to give a damn about her. But then again, my mother had never been your average maternal figure, had she?
It’s when I forced myself to notice that her barbs are specific, that it isn’t just demented rambling on her part, that she is picking very specific events from my life and personality to lambast. I finally got it.
In her defense, I believe my mother tried to be the best mother she could be. She would tend to me when I was ill, when my feelings were hurt she would sit me down and put her arms around me, but she’d always been jealous of me. I know that sounds pompous, but it was a fact that was pointed out by my brothers. And she didn’t wear her jealousy well or try to hide it from other members of my family.
Whenever I was given a raise at work, Mama would call my brothers and tell them in a snide tone of voice that their sister (she never called me her daughter at these times) had climbed another ladder step in her “career”. My mother constantly told me that my job and independence were going to cause my husband to divorce me, so whenever I got a promotion it was further proof that I was headstrong, didn’t listen to her and justly deserved to be left in the dust by my poor, downtrodden husband.
All of this became trivial when Mama was admitted to the Hospice unit of the hospital. As terrible as it sounds, my mother seemed to actually be happy now that she was the center of attention. Oh, that sounds cold, I know, but I was the witness to her conspiratorial proclamations that everyone had to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, the very second she wanted. After all, she was dying, and she was going to enjoy it if it killed her.
“I’ll die if I stop eating and drinking, right?”
“Uh yeah, that’s true, Mama. That’s why you have an IV going. If you’d try to eat, maybe take a sip of water fairly often…”
I was shocked when she ripped the IV needle from her arm.
“What are you doing?”
“What are you talking about-no more?”
“It means no more. No more forcing me to eat, no more pouring water down my throat, no more treatment. It’s finished.”
This wasn’t one of her rambling tirades; this was the real thing, baby. I leaned closer to her, staring into her eyes as I looked for the transient lunacy. Nope, she was lucid. Then I got scared.
Oh please, don’t do this, Mama. Surely just giving me life doesn’t mean I have to stand between you and the rest of the family, fighting to obey your wishes.
I am so furious that I want to go to her bed, place my hands on her shoulders and shake her fragile body until she breaks. She doesn’t have to die. She has lung cancer but she’s not dying from that. She’s dying because she’s too weak to live and that angers me. I want to puke at the Southern Belle Syndrome that has been my mother’s lifelong persona.
“As you know, Mama, if you don’t eat or drink…”
“I die. Yes, I know exactly what I’m saying and that’s exactly what I mean.”
“So that’s it, you just give up? You’re tired, you’re irritated, you’re whatever it is that you are and you’ve made the decision to just die.”
“Stop saying that! I want you to be fully conscious of what you’re asking me to do.”
“Not asking; telling you.”
“This is suicide, Mama.”
“I want to go Home. Why is this so hard to understand, baby girl?”
“It’s not hard to understand, it’s hard to accept.”
“Then you might want to start working on that.” She closed her eyes and drifted into an exhausted slumber.
So I worked on it in my own mind, then I went to tell the nurse my mother wanted to die.
As hard as it’s been, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. During Mama’s increasingly frequent flights into lunacy we talked to Grandma and swapped gossip with aunts, all of whom had set up housekeeping in celestial homes years earlier.
As the clock winds down and Mama grows restless, I begin to sing songs she sang to me when I was little. Later I graduate to her favorite old southern gospel. For some reason it seems appropriate.
Other than breaking records for the ten-foot dash to the bathroom I’ve been sitting as close to her bed as possible, stroking her arm. Between “A Walk in the Garden” and “The Old Rugged Cross” I tell her it’s okay to leave.
She takes a breath and there’s silence. Then a shorter breath and a longer silence. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that all that’s left now is silence.
Smiling through my tears I envision Mama jitterbugging down streets of gold.
“Swing them hips, baby girl!”
I lay my head on the protruding bones at her breast. I lifted her hand, kissed the palm and the past is forgiven.