“Can’t you do something with your hair?”
It was the first thing my mother said to me when I came to visit her at Sloan Kettering the summer she died. She was in a private room on a VIP floor, a room large enough to contain a couch and coffee table, decorated to look like a hotel suite, at some astronomic daily rate. (Although my mother liked to think of herself as an unpampered woman who had remained unaffected by her husband’s affluence—the sort of person whom salespeople in the neighborhood mistook for the housekeeper rather than the mistress of the house, with a car and driver at her disposal—it was clear that anything less than the finest in accommodations would have angered her.) You would think her illness, the palpable imminence of death, would throw her off her footing, her compulsive fault-finding. Who cared what my hair looked like? Wasn’t the point our being together in the time that was still available to us?
Then again, my mother hadn’t really liked my hair since it had inexplicably changed texture in the years after I became pregnant with Zoë, slowly becoming curlier and less silky, inclining toward outright frizziness during the high humidity of summer. Unlike most women I knew, I had never mastered the art of styling it on my own with either a blow dryer or some other handy appliance, like a curling or flat iron; as a result I wore it in its natural air-dried state, shaping it with the help of some pricey glop into what I hoped would be taken for an artfully mussed nonstyle. My hair—my youthful hair—had been one of the few things about me that my mother had seen fit to unequivocally admire. It had hung shiny and straight, “like a curtain,” as she used to say, and when I was about five or six she had stopped having it hacked off and it was allowed to grow to shoulder-length. (My opinion was not consulted on these matters.) Jane—the Dutch-born cleaning woman my mother had blithely hired to look after my siblings and me shortly before I was born, and the scourge of my childhood—would glumly and harshly brush my hair into pigtails and sometimes, for Shabbos or other special occasions, tie ribbons around them.
I arrived at my mother’s hospital room laden with videos and books, the latest Philip Roth and a recently translated novel about Parisian life under the Nazis, Suite Française, written by Irène Némirovsky, a French Jew whose conversion to Catholicism and high literary standing couldn’t save her from the death camps. Although my mother had always been a rapt reader of contemporary fiction, including the kind of light fare she referred to as “shmerkers” (either a Germanism or a linguistic invention of her own, like the term “Artfremd,” which she insisted was a word Hitler had used about the Jews, attesting to their essential alienness, that I could never find any trace of), it was the videos she was really interested in. In between her hospital stays, as her illness had progressed and she felt ever weaker, my mother had taken to sitting at home in a pale leather Barcalounger-type chair in the room that adjoined hers—what used to be known as the “girls’ room”—and settling into hours of watching films, sometimes two back-to-back.
It was there that I watched Don’t Look Now with her one evening. She was wearing one of her long velour robes and white leather slippers, although she always got dressed during the day, and there was a glass of tea by her side. She smelled faintly of Vitabath; during my childhood she had favored a delicate perfume called Antilope by Weil—a scent that I associated, somewhat incongruously, with wildlife. Don’t Look Now was one of my favorite movies; it is about a married couple who are grieving the accidental death of their daughter and take a trip to Venice, where they encounter two sisters, one of whom is a psychic.
Rewatching it for the first time in more than two decades, I was as shaken by its eerie, half-erotic and half-violent atmosphere as I had been years earlier. My mother looked deeply absorbed and I wondered what she thought of the extended sex scene with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, the uncut version that seemed so real because it reputedly had not been a case of two actors pretending to have sex but actually having it. My mother had always prided herself on being sexually unshockable; I remember a conversation about masturbation we had had a few years before she got sick, and how surprised I had been with her ease in talking about the subject. How was it possible that I, born in freewheeling America, was more sexually inhibited than my Old World, European mother?
I sat next to her and occasionally put my hand on her freckled one, but otherwise there was just the chuffing sound of the air conditioner and the faint hum of the city behind closed windows. I wondered how lonely my mother felt now that her end was in sight; her loneliness was something I had often wondered about over the years, stuck as she was with my unexpressive father. Although she was capable of icy coldness, she also could be thrillingly, unexpectedly warm. I especially liked her rare hugs, the way she’d hold her arms out and clasp me to her chest when I arrived at her apartment for a visit, as though I had just returned from the Peloponnesian Wars. There was so much I still wanted to say to my mother, so much I hadn’t yet said (“I never felt you really loved me”) or hadn’t said often enough for maximal effect (“I wish you’d been a better mother”)—my hope always being that she would finally take in these dark truths and apologize for the gravity of her failings, after which a magical reconciliation would take place. We’d fall into each other’s arms weeping and I’d finally understand that I was a beloved daughter, after all. My lifelong melancholy would be cured, the endless bewilderment—why had her strange indifference continued on into the next generation, making her the least doting of grandmothers?—would finally be undone.
My mother, however, was intent on inhabiting whatever drama was unfolding on the TV screen before us and clearly not willing to engage on a Wordsworthian, thoughts-too-deep-for-tears level of conversation. Admittedly, it was a form of connection, sitting there with her in silent contemplation of a film, but it also made me realize ever more acutely that time was running out and that there was a limit to how much intimacy she wanted in the time that was left. I think she felt safe from harm, cocooned from the reality of dying and all the feelings it stirred up in her—more anger than sorrow, for sure—as long as she could escape into a movie.
It was frightening at moments how angry she seemed, as though she alone in the universe had been selected to die. It was almost as though she felt that, once again, her children had been given an unfair advantage; once it had been the endowment of money, now it was the endowment of life itself. I think she also felt unjustly cheated out of the new beginning she had been given in the wake of my father’s death seven years earlier. She was enjoying herself without him, like a retirement she had earned after many years of working, and she had been looking forward to more years of the same. Watching her come more fully into her own had made me wonder about her marriage and the compromises it had required. One of my mother’s closest friends insisted that my parents had been deeply in love—to the exclusion of everyone else, including their children. Still, I remembered her telling me in passing that she had once sought out the help of a therapist, but stopped going after one or two consultations; she thought that if she had continued to see him she would have left her marriage. She said it in her usual no-big-deal way, but I was struck by the seismic implications of the anecdote.
My mother had always prided herself on her stoicism, on the lack of fuss with which she met discomfort and pain. This attribute was a legacy from her childhood days, when she went on long hikes during the summer in the German countryside with her brothers and beloved father and never complained of growing tired. I remember that once, years earlier, in the course of helping my sister Debra move a cabinet, the cabinet had fallen on her, leaving an enormous and disfiguring bruise on her nose. I suspected that her nose was broken, but although she mentioned that it hurt, she never consulted a doctor about it.
It became evident that my mother had planned to approach the matter of her impending death in a similar vein. We learned that she had made some sort of pact with her internist, a palliative care expert, stipulating that she was not to be kept alive through chemotherapy and experimental drugs if she was diagnosed with a fatal condition. (Disconcertingly, this internist was the same person who she believed had overlooked the first shadow of her cancer several years earlier.) This resolution did not hold up, however, when the reality of being mortally ill hit her. In the end she opted to try as many treatments as were available, switching from Mount Sinai Hospital, where her doctor was based, to Sloan Kettering to take advantage of the latest medical care. All the while, she continued to maintain a tight and increasingly irritable control over her household and daily arrangements, snapping at the housekeeper and writing out menus for Friday night dinner and Shabbos lunch in an ever fainter hand.
On one rare occasion in the hospital when she seemed inclined to reflect on things, my mother told me that no one ever wanted to discuss the reality of dying with her. She referred to a close friend whose visits she resented precisely because this friend wanted to talk about her own ailments—her heart trouble and fading vision—rather than focus on the issue at hand, which was my mother, dying. I decided to take the bull by the horns and asked my mother how she conceived of death. She answered immediately—it was clearly something she had given long thought to—that death was like the year 1918, which was the year before she was born.
Her answer took me by surprise, the chilly clean slate of it, the implicit acceptance of self-extinction. The world before one’s birth was clearly similar to the world after one’s death in this single respect, if no other: it presupposed one’s nonexistence, was supremely unruffled by it. The consideration of my mother’s inconsequence to the universe at large, to any but her immediate family, made me feel terribly sad. How could such a powerful figure wash up on the same final shore as everyone else? It was like watching King Lear staggering across the heath, reduced to rags and rage. I wanted to protect my mother from an awareness of her own cosmological insignificance, she who had cast such a looming shadow over me and my siblings, but I realized it was too late and I’m not sure, in any case, if this poignant and self-evident truth bothered her as much as it disturbed me.
Although she was a fairly advanced narcissist, with all the self-centeredness that went with that kind of personality, she was also uncannily unsentimental—not given to massaging certain kinds of painful facts, about herself or her children. I thought of T. S. Eliot’s famous comment about humankind not being able to bear very much reality and was struck how it didn’t apply to my mother, for better and worse. For all her adherence to religious observance, for instance, she wasn’t one to feign piety, not even at the end, when many deracinated Jews become more spiritually inclined, for safekeeping in the hereafter. My mother didn’t want to be visited by a rabbi in her last days, nor did I ever see her pick up a book of Tehillim, the liturgical psalms that the sick and dying often turn to for consolation. When I asked her why she had remained Orthodox when she so clearly wasn’t a believer, she answered simply and unapologetically: “For the order.” The one exception to this clarity was my father, whom I was convinced she saw through a lens smeared with Vaseline, the better to blur the uglier angles.
I try to prepare myself, to think of my mother as dead, buried in a plain pine coffin in keeping with the Orthodox tradition, and the very effort feels like an assault, leaving me wobbly on my legs. I can’t imagine myself, much less the world, without her. I think of Marcel Proust, who briefly considered killing himself after his beloved Maman died. In the truest sense, I have never left her, and it is hard to believe I won’t be rewarded for my loyalty with her eternal (if inconstant) presence. It is all but inconceivable that I will be left to grapple with my life alone, without her to delineate its contours. The desolation of this prospect is overwhelming and I try to counter it with other scenarios—the possibility that I might feel a sense of relief, for instance, or liberation. Ours is a relationship stippled with as much hatred as love, after all, setting the tone that went on to mark many of my relationships with men, so surely there will be some psychological gain to be wrested from her death.
Or so I tell myself. Why, then, do I have such a difficult time imagining myself as anything but hobbled by grief? Has nothing changed in all the years that have passed since I wrote my transparently autobiographical novel about her effect on me, in which I observed: “Without my mother, who will cut up the world into bite-size pieces for me?” Or, going back a decade earlier, to the poem I wrote about her in my college writing class, called “The Uncut Cord”: “ You’ve got me covered / like bark on a tree: / You have got me covered / head to toe. / Everything I do / speaks of you.” I had given her my best perceptions, my best lines.
How is it that I was able to recognize the situation—the dire psychological entanglement of it, like a mother-daughter amour fou—and yet do so little about it, despite that recognition, and despite the intervention of an army of psychiatrists? Could it all come down to the fact that my mother was so blazingly powerful and everyone else so weak? The odds, if nothing else, dictated that someone among the professionals whose offices I frequented with my harrowing narrative would have stepped forward, flexed his or her muscles, and proved a worthy adversary. I have no doubt that most of them tried, in their way. But nothing took. I didn’t want a parental stand-in or substitute, I wanted my mother, in all her elusive and mercurial glory.
Excerpted from This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Daphne Merkin. All rights reserved.
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