Photo: Mom tuning her guitar in an empty apartment. Kilgore, TX, 1972

Written by Michael Blankenburg

Published January 21, 2013

A Memoir Project Prologue: Journey Proud

She would have described herself as looking like death warmed over and not missed the irony. If she could have spoken. If she were able. I leaned over and stroked her hair which had gone straight and limp. She’d have hated that it wasn’t fixed and colored, that it was now streaked grey and white. The only other thing I could think to do was rub lotion on her feet. It gave us both some relief. Her feet were dry and coarse, her knobby toes starting to curl under. That’s one of the signs they say. She didn’t have much time left.

Walking the halls was a nightmarish assault on the senses: disinfectant and ammonia, pungent urine and wafting pockets of bowel movements; the low, guttural moans; raspy, labored breathing; patients repeating the same words or phrases over and over—No-no-no-no-no-no and When are they coming, when are they coming, when are they coming. Even when you leave, the smell of the place lingered, clung to your nose hairs. It was with you in the long car ride, it was with you at home. I couldn’t bear it. This couldn’t be my life now, that couldn’t be my mother in Room 3.

Months earlier, after learning she had stage iv lung cancer, my mother asked me to read a book to her about a guy who’d glimpsed the afterlife. He’d momentarily died after a car accident and claimed to have seen heaven. So I sat reading the book aloud, both of us waiting to get to the part where the accident occurs and the good stuff happens.

“Geez, it’s been like forty pages. Wanna skip ahead?” I asked.

“Be my guest. I don’t have all the time in the world, ya know.” We both gave a soft laugh. There she is, that’s my mom. When I finally got to the accident and his vision of the afterlife, it’s pretty much all cliché: pearly gates, verdant gardens, white angels with gossamer wings, and present are all the loved ones who’ve passed before. This wasn’t far from what the bosomy nurse’s aide in Good Shepherd Hospital had offered (between closed-mouth snaps of gum popping) as her own brand of comfort: “If it’s yo time, honey, Jesus gonna come down on his big white hoss wid angels on eithuh side of ‘em tuh take ya home tuh glawry.” Mom had nodded and held a weak smile. But I knew there was doubt.

“Is that all he’s got? Huh. Well I’m for one disappointed,” she interjected, her eyes clear and full of disbelief. This time she wasn’t seduced by the easy answer to what lay beyond the physical world. I was relieved. To me, this means she’s still with it, she’s still here.

My mother’s sensibility had always been a study in contrasts: a hard worker and go-getter in the office, but often sickly and sedentary at home (many weekends it was mama in the bedroom with the door closed); a wild-eyed dreamer and adventurer, but trips outside state lines were infrequent and she hated being left behind; a good ole Southern Baptist who quoted scripture when reprimanding her two young boys, yet a free-spirited infidel when pursuing her own means of recreation. Do as I say, not as I do. And when it came to me, the contradiction was no different: Honey, I’m so proud of you… but you could do so much better, be so much more.

With three failed back surgeries in her last nine years the constant need for pain medication was considerable. From one fog to the next she drifted. Brief windows into her lucid self gave me a slim hope for the future. A slim hope for the mom who was quick-witted and playful, who favored a liberal spirituality over organized religion, who listened and loved unconditionally. But it never lasted. Inevitably, she’d recede into the murky waters and resort to mind-numbing cable TV and the incessant scribblings of random lists or scripture on her coffee-stained steno pad. God would give her peace. And if he didn’t, the pills would.

Her whole life had been a fight against addiction. Not long after graduating high school, Dell Rose was married and pregnant with her first child, my brother Danny. Throughout both pregnancies she took ill and was bedridden most of the last trimester. From there, it was diet pills, sleeping pills, energy pills, muscle relaxants, water pills, and anxiety pills. The list of prescriptions grew and grew and grew. MichaelWaaaaaaayne! Get mama her purse and find me my pills! Having a bout of flu and a chronic cough she’d once advised, “Baby, get one-a-my cramp pills. That’ll knock you out!” At the time, I never gave the pill-popping a second thought. That was the norm. That was just mom. And besides, they were there to make her well. It was the drinking that scared me. That’s when she turned into someone else.

If she was wanting to soften the edges through self-medication, what exactly were those edges? She’d hoped to attend Baylor University and maybe become a teacher she had told me after I’d changed my major from accounting to education. But Papaw, whose own formal schooling had ended after third grade, put his foot down: “Now why the got-damn hell you wanna ways’time ‘n money like dat? You need tuh git murrid and start a fam-leh.” I think my mother would have been a great teacher—creative, fun, eccentric. Occasionally her stories—and in particular her letters—found their way into my classroom. “Your mother sounds amazing” or “She’s such a good writer,” my students would say. And I felt the rare sense of pride. Would she have been a teacher? An artist? A writer? Maybe these were the sharp edges she worked so desperately to soften.

Nevertheless, she managed to play the guitar and tambourine, to watercolor and sketch, to love a spontaneous adventure and downright pure silliness. One scene involved her pretending to be first maid to Nanda who, claiming an English ancestry and intermittent accent, was typecast as the Queen of England. I was designated head butler, Charles. We drove around town running errands, mom wearing pink sock booties (the kind with the white rubber grippers) on her hands in lieu of gloves and Nanda riding shotgun, assuming her role with dignified righteousness. Despite her second billing, there was little doubt as to who was the real star of the show: “Oooooh, Chawls, deah, could you be so kind as to fetch me my…” mom would repeat in an awful British accent, waving a dismissive bootied hand in the air. Chawls was also in charge of the bulky black tape recorder which documented our comic hijinks to knee-slapping enjoyment of the players after the show. I relished the theatricality of it all but as I grew older, these forays into whimsy turned dark and desperate.

posing 2x
Mom soon after marrying my dad. El Campo, TX, Fall 1959 (photo developed in 1961)

Long before the days of hospitals and hospice, it was solace in a six-pack and chain-smoking. Even up to her last days before the nursing home, she’d have a cigarette in one hand and an oxygen mask in the other. And as far back as I can remember, there was always an illness, a condition, a surgery, some thing in need of pharmaceutical attention. How many times had we come running or hovered at her bedside or given mama her time to rest. I neither recognized nor understood these patterns until seeing her lying there in the single hospital bed small, frail, curled into an S. I’d only known the paradoxical mother who could be outgoing and reclusive, loving and spiteful, fun and scary. Never knowing which one I’d get.

I wish I could have been the pure-of-heart, selfless, loving son throughout her dying. But I wasn’t. I was angry and resentful of the feeling that her illness was the final trump card of manipulation and guilt. She had us exactly where she wanted us, a captive audience who now must shake our angry fists at a God who’d struck down our poor, selfless, innocent mother. Only I shook my fist at her. It’d been forty years of yes ma’am-ing, placating, walking the plank of her precarious mood swings and never having the courage to contradict or confront, to say No or state my own declaration of independence: I’m not you.

From the time we were in high school she’d begun the preparations: “Enjoy these days, boys, because soon you’ll be forced to think of someone else other than yourselves. Soon you’ll have to take care of me.” But wasn’t that what we’d been doing all along? Wasn’t it enough? She was still in her early forties, relatively strong and vibrant. “When I’m dead and gone, you don’t want to have any regrets about not being there for your mom, not taking care of her. I’m the only mother you’ll ever have, you know: Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long…” We’d heard the speech umpteen times. And now, nearing sixty, her prophesy had come true.

Perhaps more than anything else, my brother and I shared the strange dark world our mother orbited. We were the only ones who’d lived through it, understood its bizarre landscape. It had become our language. Though united as survivors, our roles were vastly different—he the fixer-upper, the impatient mover and shaker to troubleshoot, to solve the physical dilemmas; me the emotional caretaker, appeasing, and keeping things calm at all costs. In this way, we were perfectly complementary. Brotherly bookends for our psychologically capricious mother.

After her terminal diagnosis, I remember thinking when bringing her home from the hospital that everything was going to be different, that this would bring her—us—to enlightenment and understanding. I remember thinking that all the petty grievances in our little family would suddenly melt away. Nothing but light and love holding us together. But that’s not what happened. Mom was still demanding and self-absorbed. Danny still hovered with anxious impatience, wanting desperately to help, to fix things and get on with it. I still played the role of doting son but was aloof, keeping a safe distance from feeling anything, forgetting how much real beauty and laughter there had once been, that there were happier days.

Me, Mom and Danny in front of our new Mustang II. Kilgore, TX, 1978.

On a spring afternoon in 1978 we’re speeding down the highway in our steely blue Mustang II, heading for Lake Striker to eat fried catfish. It’s a spontaneous weekend excursion for just mom and me. Windows rolled down. Air thick with honeysuckle. And the hot Texas wind whipping through our hair. Fleetwood Mac blasts from the 8-track while we slap our thighs to the rhythm, singing at the top of our lungs:

I don’t want to know the reasons why
Love keeps right on walking down the line
I don’t want to stand between you and love
Honey, I just want you to feel fine…

“Hey, ya know what it means to be journey-proud?” she hollers over the music.

“No, what?” I holler back.

“This is it, baby. This is it!”