S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “The Long Good-Bye,” Park eulogizes his 101-year-old mom who recently passed.
I just learned from my brother Ben that our mother has died. It was hardly a shock, given that she was 101 years old, but what did surprise me is how hard she went. Generally people who’ve had as long and healthy a life as she did slip away quietly. Her sister Ida was like that: at 95 she told her family she had a stomach ache, went to her room to lay down and was gone ten minutes later.
But I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy with mom. (Nothing ever was.) For openers … what was gonna kill her? She’d never been sick and her internal organs and immune system were still so vibrant I called her “The Joshua Tree.” (She was here before us, she’ll be here after we’re gone.)
Even as she’d long craved the mercy of death.
“I’ve been here a century!” she’d exclaim. “I’ve seen enough!”
The two of us riffed for years on how I could off her and get away with it. It was mostly wishful thinking, but there was an element of seriousness there. After I put my dog down a couple years ago I gave her a call.
“I’m sorry for your loss, son,” she said. “I know you loved that mutt.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but it’s all right: Hobo had a great life. It’s you I was thinking of, actually.”
“Well, the vet prepared two kill shots and only used one. So when Hobo was gone I asked if I could take the other syringe with me.”
“What’d she say?”
“She asked me why and I said I wanted to use it on my mother.”
“And not only did she turn me down flat, she threatened to call the cops!”
“Oh, Wilson,” mom sighed. “Good try … I guess.”
We could joke like that because, as we both agreed, we weren’t very close. Oh, she was my mother and I was her son, so we loved each other, but I sensed from a very young age that she didn’t like me much. This bothered me at first, of course, but I quickly became fatalistic about it. (My father championing me as he did helped.) Mom and I had radically different ideas of how life worked and the older I became the worse it got until, after third grade, she stopped going to my parent/teacher conferences altogether. She said she couldn’t stand teachers talking about me “that way,” by which she meant truthfully.
It threatened her “willful ignorance” stance: like much of her generation she believed what she wanted to believe and thought you could make bad things go away by ignoring them.
Instead she woke every morning to find me still there. The trouble began before I was born, when she gained fifty pounds during the pregnancy (“Only ten for each of your brothers” as she liked to remind me), and when I finally popped out I was a thirteen-pound, twenty-two-inch porker.
Ouch! I’m sickened even admitting that … I’d have resented me, too. Which is a crucial reason mom and I got along as well as we did, and why we were still feeling out our truce when she died, i.e. I knew I was a pain in the ass, I knew I wasn’t like my brothers. How could I not, when friends, teachers, principals and coaches reminded me of it daily?
And I was proud of it: I preferred being alone, anyway, so alienation worked in my favor. There were many parents who’d appreciate such an introspective kid but mom wasn’t one of them. She’d say the right thing, for instance, when she looked at a cartoon I’d drawn or another adult complimented me about something, but a fool could see her heart wasn’t in it. She’d have been more impressed if I’d developed a hook shot or pitched a shutout.
As she grudgingly admitted later: “You were just such a weird artist type.”
It was all about tradition and appearances with her. This made our clashes inevitable, and we shared two signature moments in my childhood. The first was when Disneyland opened in 1956. I was nine years old and my parents took my three brothers and I there on vacation. Walt Disney used to walk the grounds then, and my mother drew him aside, told him I was a cartoonist, too. When Walt bent down, suggested I might like to work for him someday, I thanked him but said I’d rather be a bum.
My mother was horrified; nothing aggravated her like my lack of drive and ambition, the way I treated life as a playground. That was the incident she fixated on later (given what it forbade), while mine came when I was sent home from fifth grade for drawing nude villagers on the cover of my book report. It was standard fare for me, but the school was only a block from our house, so when I walked into the kitchen and showed mom what I’d done she shook her head and stared at me for the longest time. Finally reached out, laid her hands on my shoulders.
This wasn’t good: we were WASPS … social distancing was protocol.
“Wilson,” she said, “have you ever seen me do a puzzle? I mean a crossword, a picture puzzle, anything like that?”
I thought about it for a minute. “Well, no,” I said, “I guess I haven’t.”
“Do you know why?”
“Becaussse … you don’t like puzzles?”
There it was: how many kids get the template on a platter like that? And don’t get me wrong: like any son I spent years vying for my mother’s approval, I just had zero hope of achieving it. I’ve long maintained, in fact, that no one knew less about me than she did.
I spent years vying for my mother’s approval, I just had zero hope of achieving it. I’ve long maintained, in fact, that no one knew less about me than she did.
Which is odd for someone who was such a character herself. Her main claim to fame was being a direct descendant of the Swedish shipping magnate William Matson (her father was his first son), and she attributed all her best qualities to his lineage, when in fact she owed everything to the grandparents on her mother’s side, Bill and Tillie Murphy, who came straight from County Cork. (He was still selling real estate and smoking cigars at 96.)
You don’t get a sense of humor like hers from a Swede: my mother was pure Irish bullshitter. When she was 93 and broke her hip I went to visit her with my friend Felice. She was doing a thirty-day rehab at a home in Hillsborough, California.
Felice had never met her before, but she’d heard the stories. When we arrived the director of the facility led us into the living room. Mom was sitting in a Lazy Boy with her feet up, and after the director left she beckoned me closer.
“Rest home, my ass,” she muttered. “Rest room is more like it!”
She was dressed like she always was, as if she were meeting the President for tea later. (A high school friend describes her as “the mother who ironed in high heels.”) Even as she’d never had a job and been a pauper for decades, living on the largesse of my youngest brother. (I chipped in four hundred a month in my pot-growing days, only to have her tell me later: “Oh please, you never gave me a dime.”)
She remembered what she wanted to remember and retained her wits till the end.
“Mom,” I said that day, “this place looks nice to me.”
I watched, stunned, as this obsessively neat woman reached into her purse, drew out a broiled rib-eye steak. It wasn’t even wrapped in a napkin. Hell, it still had the A-1 Sauce on it. Was this it? Had she finally gone ’round the bend?
“Look at this piece of meat!” she cursed, waving it in the air. “Look at what they feed me here!”
“Say,” I said, “you think I could have that for my dog?”
“Oh God, no,” she said, squashing it back in her purse. “It’s evidence!”
Then she told me her bags were packed and she wanted me to break her out of there.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she confided. “You’re the perfect son for this … it’s right up your alley.”
I managed to talk her out of it, but Felice grabbed my arm when we left afterwards.
“And you wonder where you get your sense of humor?” she laughed. “That was you in a wig!”
I didn’t wonder, actually. I adored my father but he was an amiable screwup in business, so when he lost his fortune and we spent years below the poverty line in Portland it was my mother’s indomitable good humor that kept us afloat. She was, in many ways that counted, as Herculean as her immune system, and her pride was boundless.
Brother Ben and I went to her Yuba City rest home to pick her up for her 100th birthday celebration, and when it was time to leave she rose slowly from an armchair. This was a century-old human, much less my mother, so I reached out to help her.
She looked at my outstretched hand and froze. Peered at it like I was fondling a turd there.
“What are you doing!?” she exclaimed. “Since when do I need help?”
And then, of course, there were the hormones, the ones she never lost. (Even at the end I could tell how handsome a male doctor was by her mood afterwards: this was a woman who really liked men.) When female friends of mine were suffering terrible cramps and night sweats in their 50s I asked mom about her own menopause experience.
“Ahhh,” she said, “I had a headache once.”
Horny at 100: imagine how frustrating that was. How do I know this creepy fact? She told me. Repeatedly. (If she’d tried it with my brothers they’d have run for the hills, but she figured she could say anything to a guy like me.)
Horny at 100: imagine how frustrating that was. How do I know this creepy fact? She told me. Repeatedly.
She wasn’t getting any in the rest homes, of course, as most of the men from her generation had died of cigarettes, so she set her sights on the 50-year-old contractor who headed up the remodel of her apartment building. He was a Mormon husband and father who—once we moved her to the rest home—visited every Saturday. He was there to convert her, to sell her on the merits of the Angel Moroni, but mom? She thought that was all a ruse, that what he really wanted was to get into her pants.
“Ohhh, I’d love to get him in the rack,” she told me. “I’d give him the ride of his life.”
Growing up we thought my father was the horn dog; then he died and mom humped four old-timers to death in ten years.
“But I never brought them home,” she assured me later, in a vague stab at decorum. “And we only had sex on their couches.”
“Couches!?” I gulped, cringing.
“Of course! Do it in the bedroom and they think you’re serious.”
So that’s what I did for her and my family. I don’t have any money or kids, and I didn’t make the world a better place like my brothers, but I was my ancient mother’s confessor. (It’s why we were closer than ever at the end, as she’d finally found a use for me. “Who else would listen to this stuff?” she’d snicker.)
But imagine growing up with someone who was—for all intents and purposes—invulnerable. Four active boys (well, she made me go outside), all of them runny-nosed and feverish over the years … and she never caught any of it.
Good luck convincing her you were sick: she didn’t even know what it was.
And yet, when I came down with spinal meningitis in the Fall of ’57, the only case in San Mateo County at the time, it was mom who saved my life. She recognized the telltale blotches on my neck (said she’d seen it in a book somewhere) and rushed me to the hospital.
In the months that followed (as I contracted encephalitis next, an unheard of double whammy), every time I came out of a coma my mother would be sitting beside my bed in a surgical mask. (Just as she never missed a basketball game my brothers and I played.) She was a rock that way. We both knew my brain was being roasted but she passed it off as a flu bug. This was her “Christian Scientist” approach, the explanation that makes immortals feel even better about themselves, i.e. they owe their health to mental toughness.
And it worked: she never went into agreement with the diseases so I didn’t, either. It was the same when I came home from grade school after having my ass kicked in fights. She’d look at the blood on my face and shirt and laugh.
“Stick to cartoons, kid,” she’d say.
She and my father raised men, not boys. The me that survived my lunatic 20s and 30s, who stared down madness in the d.t.’s and countless brushes with death, who could spin a yarn and leave them laughing … that was the Joshua Tree in me, and I’m eternally grateful.
We had our battles, sure, but I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else for a mother. In the end she gave up on her body dying and grew a second head. It began as a small, boil-like protuberance on the back of her scalp, erupted into an angry, swollen tumor over the course of the next year. It was presumed to be cancer, but when lab tests proved inconclusive the only solution was no solution at all because of her age, i.e. surgery.
The last time I spoke to her was the first time she seemed confused. She’d been falling more and more frequently (even with a walker) and her speech was slurred.
“Good news, Wilson!” she said. “I’ve found you a wife!”
I’d been telling her that was the last thing I needed for decades but it didn’t matter, she was Old School, she couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be alone.
“Yeah,” she said, “you’ll be a happy pappy now, son.”
I e-mailed Ben, said that her thinking she’d found a woman who’d marry me was proof of dementia. When she had another spill later that day she was rushed to the hospital. Ben and his wife couldn’t see her because of the Boomer Remover pandemic, but the doctor told him that every time someone approached her bed she’d “start throwing punches!”
The diagnosis was blood on the brain (either as a result of the tumor or the tumbles or both), and after being placed in hospice and given large doses of morphine her mighty engine finally wore down.
When I visited her last summer we spent a couple hours together. As I stood to leave she looked up at me.
“It’ll be you, won’t it?” she asked.
“Me what?” I said.
“Who writes my eulogy.”
“Oh yeah … count on it.”
She muttered beneath her breath, shook her head.
“I guess there’s no use asking you to leave the sex out,” she said.
Maybe she knew me better than I thought.