My biggest fear my whole life was that my mom would die. If she got a cold and lay down on the sofa for a nap, I’d check every few minutes to see if she was breathing. Once, when we’d spent the day at the beach and she had fallen into a deep sleep under the hot sun, the tide came sliding under her lithe little body, tugging her out to sea inches at a time. The ebb and flow made her look dead. Her mouth hung open, her body swished and swayed in the wet sand.
I stood in the sand over her while two thoughts battled in my head: What if I try to wake her and she really is dead? And: If she is alive and I don’t wake her, will she be swept away? Which would be worse for me to live with? My mom was my everything. Was I her everything, too? I was always afraid to ask because what would I do if I found out I wasn’t?
Life with my mother was one of awe and fear. I wrote a memoir about this awe and fear.
Then she died.
She died eleven months to the day after my memoir was published. As it did that day on the beach when I watched her being pulled out to sea, something tugs at my conscience. Would she still be alive if I had never written my story?
My memoir students often ask if they should write their story while others are still alive. In the past, I’ve always responded with what my mentors said to me: “We are all entitled to our perspective. Let others write their own story if they disagree with yours.” But finding myself in this crisis of conscience, I’ve started to regret my pat answer.
Every story has an antagonist, and my mom could be called the antagonist in my memoir. She was also my hero. I wanted nothing more than to be like her, to be near her, to have her acknowledge that I was the daughter she always loved and wanted. This was the Voice of Innocence.
In my memoir, Mom’s negligence compounded my fear that she would one day be gone for good. But as a girl, I never blamed her. When I was seven and my parents left me in the vestibule of a pub in London while they went in for a drink with friends, I waited. When they returned, tipsy and jovial, and I told my mom I’d been “ascared,” she corrected my vocabulary. It didn’t matter to me that she had made me wait—she had returned happy. If my mom was happy, I was happy. I assumed it was my job to make her happy—a Sisyphean task.
Of course, there were books before my memoir. The very first book I ever wrote was a picture book of all the places we had lived. My second was a spiral notebook with Snoopy on the cover that I filled with short stories and gave my brother for Christmas when I was twelve. When I first started writing seriously, my mom was writing, too. I don’t know who started first. Could have been she was writing and I wanted to be like her. Or, it could have been the other way around.
My mom began writing a book while I was taking my first creative writing class. She wanted me to be her editor. She would send me packets of work each week and I would critique them. Her story was about a little girl who was cute and sweet and lived in Nigeria, Peru, and Bolivia—sort of a Shirley Temple lives my life. My critiques suggested she was making the little girl’s life too perfect.
“Too much treacle,” I told Mom. After a few back and forths, I began to realize my mom was just engaging me, not really revising from my editorial advice.
In my frustration, I told her I thought she was done. She agreed. She said she was going to publish it. By this point, I already knew publishing wasn’t that quick and easy.
When she told people about her book, she said, “I’m writing Amy’s life story.”
I corrected her: “You’re writing your version of my life story.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “You edited it. If you didn’t agree with what it said, you should have said something.”
This may have been our first bone of contention. The second was when she paid what we called back then a “vanity press” to publish it. You can still order her book on Amazon.
Still, when my first novel was published by a New York publishing house, my mother was beyond happy and proud. She didn’t realize I had a character in the novel I had modeled on her. The character was a narcissist and when her daughter-in-law became famous, she said, “Now I’m a star-in-law.”
My mom was certain my novel would be a blockbuster. When I gave her a copy, she told me, “Now I’m a bestseller-by-proxy.”
Yep, I thought, I drew that character authentically.
My book tour took me to the town in Texas where my parents lived. My mom talked the bookstore into letting her set up a card table so she could sign her books while I signed mine. I still don’t know what to think or feel about that. Horror? Pity? Anger? Annoyance? I think the last is as far as I went. I was used to her.
My memoir, like my mother’s book, is also about a little girl who lived in Nigeria, Peru, and Bolivia. I didn’t expect my mom to read it. She was 85 and had declared herself blind about two years before. She had always been an avid reader, so my assumption was foolish, but I also told myself that I had written nothing untruthful and nothing bad about her—I had made it clear she was doing the best she could under the circumstances. In the meantime, she ordered it, downloaded it on her Kindle, blew up the type to 24 point, and told me she couldn’t wait to read it.
A week later, the first phone call came. She told me how much I got all the details right. How everything about Nigeria was so spot on. How did I remember all of that so well? I swooned with pride.
“I did love those salty dogs,” she said, smacking her lips. “Grapefruit and vodka.” I smiled, remembering the scene I’d written in which she’s drinking in the bathroom while putting on her makeup before a party.
A few more days went by and she called again. Her tone had changed.
“Did you really think I was so mean? I had malaria. I thought I was going to die.” That’s what the book was about, I told her, how I was so afraid. How, when she had one perfectly manicured foot in the grave, I feared I would end up all alone in a faraway land. My much older brother and sister had been sent to boarding school in Switzerland and my dad worked on the Niger Delta most of the time. At home, it was just me and my mom on what I thought was her deathbed.
“It wasn’t my fault you were alone,” she said. “Your dad went to the bush despite my telling him not to.”
“I don’t blame you, Mom. I am just explaining my version of the story. It’s how I remember feeling. I was afraid to be without any family at seven years old in Nigeria.” I wanted to say “ascared.”
The subsequent phone calls were pretty much the same: I had it all wrong. My memory was distorted. I couldn’t possibly remember her that way. Eventually, I just responded, “Get to the end. It has a happy ending.”
From my perspective, she was the one with the distorted memory because her adult life was so rich with travel and adventures. She had maids and shopped and later had a career and three children who were relatively sane. Her husband was in love with her.
Mom was angry, and a part of me feels she had every right to be. On the other hand, I wrote about her as I remembered her when I was a child—beautiful, with great taste and sophistication, throwing fabulous parties, decorating stylish houses, and being a talented piccolo player. She left me outside pubs, but she taught me how to make myself happy by being resilient and independent.
At one point, she called to tell me that her best friend had read the book and explained to her what I’d intended.
“I know that you were afraid I didn’t love you.” Mom spoke matter-of-factly. “I want you to know that I love you, that I have always loved you, and I always will love you.” She spoke in a list. I knew she loved me, on her terms. She always said, “I love you,” when we said goodbye on any phone call or when we said good night during my visits. She was the best mother she could be.
“I will always be there,” she said on the phone, as though this was a given. “In fact,” she said, with a hint of sarcasm, “I will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
I laughed, a little “ascared.”
I was hosting a dinner party when my mother’s care manager called. Calmly and succinctly, she told me that my mother had choked, that she had received the Heimlich to no avail, that the EMTs had arrived and had done a mouth sweep. They found nothing. Now they needed to know if they should continue resuscitating.
“They need to know,” she said. “She has had no heartbeat for four minutes. Do you want them to continue?”
This is what I know about my mother: she never wanted to be left alive on machines; she never wanted tubes and a long drawn out hospital stay. She talked about this often and had made it clear that she did not want to be resuscitated if it meant she wouldn’t really be living but only breathing. When she fell and broke her hip, she wouldn’t leave the house once she was ambulatory again until the bruises on her face had healed.
“They need to know,” the care manager repeated. I had left my guests and wandered into the bedroom. I stared out the window at the street lights. “They can’t get a pulse,” she continued.
It felt exactly like the moment when Mom was lying on the beach and the ocean was trying to take her. The ebb and the flow, is she alive or is she dead?
“Should they continue to resuscitate?”
“No,” I said. Then I heard my father, in the background, screaming, “Don’t stop! Keep going!”
“Wait!” I said into the phone. “What happens if they take the next steps to resuscitate her? Is it painful? Is it unlikely they will be successful? What will happen?” I couldn’t let her go. I knew they were waiting. I knew every second counted. But I couldn’t give the say-so just like that.
“They will take her to the hospital and break open her rib cage to revive her,” the care manager said. “But she has been with no pulse for over four minutes. Yes, it’s painful. It’s a very long recovery, if she survives.” She was an RN and was trained for this. I was not.
Or maybe I was.
“OK,” I said, “they can stop.”
No matter how I look at it, I can’t help but think I killed my mother. But that phone call is not the murder weapon. No, it is my memoir. Would she have started drinking more if I hadn’t published my story? Would she have stayed with just a glass of wine at dinner instead of four, getting blotto every night?
Mom had always been a heavy drinker. During one of my visits home, she placed a cookie sheet of raisins on the kitchen counter, smothered them in gin, then forbade me to eat any because they were for her arthritis. Her cleverness and my denial meant I was in my thirties before her tricks stopped fooling me.
She had gotten so bad at one point that half-gallon bottles of vodka overflowed in the large trash cans in the garage, waiting for the recycling truck every two weeks. My husband has many anecdotes of my drunken mom that he likes to recount. There was the morning that she asked him, “When you’re done with the breakfast dishes, will you pour me another scotch?” Or, the Thanksgiving when none of us would fix her another drink, so she had the four-year-old retrieve the bottle of Tito’s vodka.
A couple of years ago, my sister had a big talk with Mom and she cut way back. As in: She started to drink white wine instead. She might get a little tipsy, but she wasn’t the sloshy drunk she had been. She was doing pretty well with cutting back, at least until my memoir came out.
After that, she became angry and bitter. More acerbic than she’d been in a long time. She was meaner to my dad than ever. The night she died, she told him she “despised” him. She could sting like a wasp and walk away as if she hadn’t done anything you hadn’t deserved.
“Choking” is the cause of death on the death certificate. But the EMTs found no evidence of blockage. Nonetheless, they said, her lungs were full to the point they could not intubate.
On top of the drinking, Mom had a chronic lung infection. Heavy dosing of antibiotics had seemed to keep it at bay. She was feeling better, and the blood clots in her lungs had shrunk. But alcohol counteracts antibiotics and weakens your immune system. Her lung infection started getting worse. The caregivers pleaded with her to quit drinking. They asked my siblings and me to intervene. My mom sent us a letter saying she would not quit drinking because it was the only thing in her life that made her happy.
It could be assumed her antibiotics quit working, the blood clots burst, and this had caused the hands in the air, the gasping, and the passing out, all of which my father witnessed.
After Mom died, my siblings and I cleaned out her bedroom. I opened her Kindle and found my memoir in her library. Of course, the first place I looked was the line that showed how far along she was: 71%.
She never got to the happy ending.
I found an email she had written the week before she died that read, “I can’t believe Amy would do this to me. I have had the most miserable life.”
I can’t know what my mother’s childhood was really like, but from her stories over the years, I gleaned that she had a father who was verbally and physically abusive, a “rummy” for a mother, and seven brothers and sisters who ran around completely unsupervised on the family farm. My mom milked cows before school and was also the May Fete Queen, complete with tiara and train.
Sometimes she would imply “horrible things” happened. She never said what they were, not in any explicit way. She’d just say, “You don’t know what I have had to go through.” When I was a kid and she’d say this, I would envision her locked in the basement (they didn’t have a basement) and made to eat nails. Or, I’d imagine some sort of Silence of the Lambs trauma from slaughtering pigs or ringing the necks of chickens. I couldn’t fathom what it was that she’d had to “go through.” What had she endured that was too horrific to say out loud or write about?
She is dead now, and I can write freely about her life, I suppose. On her computer was a twelve-page, single-spaced “story” she had left for me. It was dated a month before and titled “The Truth.” She wrote in third person about a character called “Dumb Girl,” who very much resembled Mom except for the “Dumb” moniker. Nothing makes me sadder than to think this story was her truth. It opened with a scene in which a fellow not unlike my father (“Sly Guy”) didn’t compliment her on her wedding trousseau, and ended with her retirement to Texas with Sly Guy after 65 years of marriage. She couldn’t leave him because she needed the health insurance. No drama, just 65 years of disillusionment. Others disappointing her.
Should I have waited to write my version of my life until she died?
That seems the most logical response—to wait until someone dies before writing about them. But she wrote my story from her perspective. I didn’t write my memoir out of revenge, or at least that’s not how it feels. It feels more like I wrote it out of freedom—she’d written about me, why shouldn’t I write about her? The difference is that she wrote her version of my life. I wrote my version of my life.
My perspective of her as an unhappy mother was not what she had wanted me, much less the world, to see. I wanted her to be happy, and she wanted me to see her that way.
My memoir had a happy ending, which my mother never read: she loved me the only way she knew how and I was glad she was my mother, for without her, or maybe because of her, I would have never learned to be happy on my own.
Still, no matter how I look at it, my mother died because of me. Being afraid she would die is one thing; being responsible in some way, no matter how small or large, is another. Even that day on the beach, when she was probably passed out drunk, what if I hadn’t been hovering over her? Did I save her life then? Did I keep watch my whole life? And when I quit keeping watch, did exactly what I had feared actually happen?
When I wrote my memoir, I needed to write that particular story. If I had waited, the memories would have been tainted with distance. I would not have uncovered what my family meant to me at that time of writing—just as my mom needed to write the story of a little girl who was cute and sweet and never “ascared.” And, I am sad to say, she needed to write “Dumb Girl.” We both wrote our versions in the space and time the stories came to us.
My memoir is my story. It’s not how my mother would tell it, and not how my brother or sister would tell it. It is not about my mother. It’s about me. All I know for sure is that I wrote about what happened exactly as I remembered it at the time my pen drew ink on the page. Even if I tried to write that memoir now after she’s dead, I’d still be telling how unhappy she was. Just as I’ve done here. Just as she has always done as well.
My mother will haunt me for the rest of my life—and this makes me happy because she will always be there for me. But it wasn’t my memoir that killed her. It was her truth that did.