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Mom

Yesterday afternoon, Friday, February 22nd, 2019, Patricia Ann Gauthier, Pat to her friends and loved ones, Mom to me and my sister, and Mémé to my two daughters, died. She was 68 years old, two weeks away from 69. I was there, holding her hand, at the end. My father had just come in from bringing a much-despised aunt home and my younger sister, Tracy, had stepped out for something. The nurses came in to do something and Dad and I stepped out into the hallway. They came out and let us know that we should go back in. The end was arriving. I texted Tracy and Mom died before Tracy got there. That was Mom. Wait for her Sweetie, my Dad, and save Tracy from seeing what she wouldn’t want to see. And me? Well, she knew I’d be there. I’d been there all day. I acted as her voice, sometimes pissing people off, but that’s all right. I’m used to it. She’s gone and, in the end, well, I hope I did good.

Death is ugly. In the movies, someone lies on their bed, says something dramatic, and fades away, as though they are sleeping. I’m sure there are deaths like that. Not this one. My mother was gone, for all intents and purposes, Thursday morning. She never really responded to me, though I was told that she could hear me and even responded in her own way at that point, and I’ll hold onto that, and feel bad about that, and everything else. You know, the regular human emotions. Mom made me her healthcare proxy because she knew I could, and would, make the decisions she wanted. I have to say, that when it was left up to me, the last few days went mostly well. There were hiccups, yes, because death is ugly, but she was a force of nature, and I had to learn to be at times.

Death is ugly not just in what happens as a person dies (Mom would appreciate that the writer in me found the process fascinating and logged it all–it’s my curse, my cross to bear) but in how the survivors behave around death. Grief and anger are the ugliness of these. I know I have alienated family members, and I’m all right with that. First, I haven’t seen most of them for a decade or so, so I was already somewhat alienated; and second, I called out bullshit and while I could’ve (should’ve?) handled it better, my mother was dying. Another time a family member that my mother did not want to be there forced herself in, getting to my father, who actually brought her there (see the “much-despised aunt” from above) and then needed to bring her fat ass home. She actually had the gall to ask if he’d stop for bread for her! I gave her the cold-shoulder almost the entire time she was there, and not subtly, either. When she came to a place where Dad, my sister, and I were standing, I walked away, down the hall and out of sight. She is a relation by marriage. She was Dad’s sister-in-law, married to his brother, who died two years ago. She hated me growing up. Mom didn’t want her there. Neither did I. The decision was made when I wasn’t around.

Mom was the first person to encourage my talents. She loved art and storytelling. She was a daydreamer. She was so smart and had wanted so badly to go to college when she was a girl, but was told by a guidance counselor in 9th grade (back then, junior high was 7th, 8th, and 9th grades) that she was a welfare brat and would never be able to afford college, that she should take the business track at high school. My mother could be stubborn, but sometimes she could bend too far, too. Instead of telling the guidance counselor to get stuffed, she followed his advice. When I first went to college in 1995, she was more excited than I was. When I left at the end of 1997 for the birth of my first daughter, she was devastated. She never told me that, but I knew. When I went back in 2003 and earned my B.A. in 2005, she was very happy. I was the first college graduate in the family. When I got my Master’s last spring, she was so proud. By then, though, she was sick. Sicker than we knew, I guess. Still, she got to see me get my Master’s.

That’s what I use to help me through this right now. She was proud of me. She had copies of my books that she would haul out and show whoever came over. More than once in the last few years I grinned and felt strange as my mother introduced me to nurses as her son, the teacher and writer. “He had a story in a book with Stephen King!” she would say, with a smile on her face. I know she’d tell them about how my students generally tend to love me as a teacher, and she thrilled in stories I would relate when I’d drive her to Boston for her first round of cancer back in 2016. Some students made a video thank-you for me that I showed her and she cried tears of pride during it.

She was proud of my girls. Courtney, who will be 21 in April and is in art school in Boston, and G, who is six and in kindergarten, were both very important to her. She loved them with a radiance that burned like a sun. Courtney was living my mother’s dream, going to art school in the hopes of doing art professionally. G was the little granddaughter she loved to talk to and hear stories about. She had such hopes for G, and knew she would go on to great things. We’ll see, but I think she may be right.

Mom was proud of me for my second marriage. She loved Pamela, and knew Pamela could put up with my crap but wouldn’t take it, kind of like Mom.

My parents hardly ever fought, and certainly didn’t shout or swear at each other. I never saw them do this. Neither of my girls are as fortunate with their father, but Mom and Dad loved each other with a love that was unreal. They had nothing in common, but they loved each other ridiculously. Together 45/46 years, and they were still gaga for each other. Yeah, they got on each other’s nerves, but their love was truly something.

Mom could be a pain in the ass. She knew how to push buttons and sometimes, I suspect, did so somewhat happily. We weren’t as close when I was an adult as when I was growing up, and part of that was her ability to push my buttons. Others saw it, too, so I know it’s not paranoia, but at the end, I tried to be there as much as possible, calling as often as I could. Mom could be frustrating in her stubbornness, something we’ll be dealing with for the foreseeable future, as we go through her things and find hidden food, unopened items from a variety of sources. She could be a child sometimes, during the last decade. She had no filter, never did. That could be fun. When I was growing up, she at least had tact most of the time. But she ran us around. A quote of hers was, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It was funny and said in jest, but I always felt she really meant it. She would say what came to her head, and was born before political correctness was really a thing. She said things that would make your jaw drop, but there was never really any malice in it. As my older girl, Courtney, would say, “Oh, Mémé.”

Mom was funny. She loved dirty jokes. She told us all to watch out when we stepped off the sidewalk because we might step on her mind. I learned of things at a young age that most kids don’t learn until high school amongst friends, because of her humor. She let me watch R-rated movies at nine because she knew I was sneaking up after everyone was in bed and watching them on HBO and Cinemax, anyway. It’s because of her that I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street at nine. She trusted me.

We would sometimes lie in her bed and talk for hours. When I was bullied in school, she would listen and give advice. When I was sad, she would listen and tell me stories. She told me lots of stories of her youth. It wasn’t a particularly happy one, but she told me stories that weren’t terrible. She would listen as I talked about anything, even if she wasn’t interested. We would have good talks. I could always go to her when I was a kid.

When I was an adult, I found out she’d been sexually abused by a stepfather when she was in her teens. It helped fit some of the puzzle pieces together. She never really did get the mental health help she should have, despite my suggestions that she do so. Mom had a pretty crappy life until 1973. Her mother and father weren’t happy. Her father left the family and started a new one. Mom’s older sister was a ne’er do well with a terrible disposition. Mom’s younger brother was the typical hellion, a regular Dennis the Menace. His name was Billy. My grandmother would have two more daughters, one born nine years after Mom, and the last, Donna, was born with Down Syndrome and severe mental retardation. My grandmother was an alcoholic. My older aunt got pregnant and left the family as soon as she could. Mom raised Billy and the two younger girls. When Mom was 17, two weeks before Billy’s 12th birthday, he died unexpectedly from a brain tumor. Her last words to him were, “Oh, don’t be stupid.” She carried that with her to the end. She vowed to name her first boy after him. That’s where I get my name from. Sometime during this, as she had to call various bars to find her mother, as she had to get a secretarial job in high school, as he became addicted to cigarettes and food–and spending–she was molested by the stepfather.

In 1973, she met Dad. His friends told him he should go talk to the blonde at the bar. He went to a blonde, not the right one. Their relationship ended yesterday with her death. Dad turned Mom’s life around. She told me once that she could’ve been on a very bad path before meeting Dad. He saved her. Divorced and untrusting, he was wary to remarry. But in 1974, they eloped to New Hampshire.

There’s so much more I could write about Mom. She always had sayings and colloquialisms, most of which I’ve forgotten, but she had them all. She had a chip on her shoulder to anyone who she thought tried to be better than her. She loved dancing and music, oh, did she love dancing and music. She could dance! When she began suffering from chronic pain around 2005, not being able to dance hurt her so much. She was in too much pain to dance at my wedding to Pamela in 2009, and it hurt her so much. It hurt all of us, because we knew she’d be out there all day if she could’ve. She loved movies and reading and drawing and art and cooking and jokes and animals and her family and….

And she’s gone now. Her suffering and pain are gone. I still can hardly believe it. I don’t want to believe it. I wait for her to tell us that the last ten years was all part of some crazy, ill-conceived joke. But she wouldn’t. She didn’t like practical jokes.

G asked me if Mémé went to heaven. She learned about heaven at daycare. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I stole a Bruce Springsteen line and told her that Mémé’s heaven is in our hearts. I told her that Mémé will always be in our hearts and minds, we’ll always remember her. For me, she will be constant. I will always wonder if I’m making her proud. I know I’ll fall short, but I also know she’ll always be proud of me.

Mom knew she was dying Wednesday night. She said her goodbyes. Her and I laughed and cried, and we hugged and kissed, and I held her hand, and she yelled at me when I rubbed it too hard (my Dad, too), and she said that she was afraid of going to sleep because she might not wake up. Dad and I told her not to be afraid, that she needed her sleep. I don’t know if Dad’s advice was simple advice, but mine wasn’t. I wanted her to know that I was all right if she needed sleep, for the night or eternally. I wanted her to know that we loved her and that we’d be all right. I wanted her to know that while I wasn’t always there, I would always be there.

My universe lost a bright, bright star. A star that shined brighter than many stars. I feel a little lost, now, but that’s normal, I guess. I hope she knew I tried my best, I always tried my best. Yeah, she knew. I am going to miss that woman.

Mom & I after her cancer surgery in 2016. The day she went home, 21 December 2016. She had Star Wars on TV because I was coming.
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Death, or A Weird Few Months

In the last two or three months, three people I’ve known have died, and I found out about a death of someone else I knew from back in 2012. It’s odd.

The first death that blipped on my radar screen was a guy I went to elementary and junior high schools with. We weren’t close friends, but we were in many of the same classes and we’d talked and hung out with the same people (when I was invited to hang out with anyone). Another former classmate had been tagged in an elementary school class picture, one of the years I wasn’t in their class, and a discussion with a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a loooonnng time started. Being nosy, I read through the discussion to find out that this guy died in 2012. Not just died, but committed suicide. I still remember him, small, blonde hair, blue eyes, and always kidding around and laughing. Now he’s gone. Weird.

Then a former co-worker from my school died. He retired last year and had been sick on-and-off in his last year or so at work. I’d known him since I was 14, when I was a student at the school. Nice guy. Not unexpected since he was an older guy, but sad.

Two weeks passed and another former co-worker, one who worked at a bookstore with me, died of cancer. He’d been fighting the good fight for a while now, but it was still very sad, considering he was in his early-50s.

And last week, a woman I’ve known since high school died unexpectedly. She was a friend-of-a-friend in high school, and a family member to my ex-wife afterward. I last saw her about two years ago when my daughter still bowled. She was a year younger than me.

And I already wrote about my dying uncle.

I know at a certain age, death becomes more prevalent, but isn’t 36 (almost 37) too young? I don’t know. But it’s got me a little freaked out. And I’m ready for this trend to end now.

Celebrity Death & Decorum, or How Social Media Has Made People Angry Over the Wrong Crap

Saturday night my wife was about to go to bed when Courtney, my teenage daughter, said as she scrolled Twitter, “Do you know who Paul Walker is?”

Pamela and I looked at each other. “He’s from those Fast and Furious movies,” Pamela said.

“Yeah, well, he died in ‘a fiery car crash,'” Courtney said.

My wife and I both said, basically, “Oh no! That’s sad!”

That was about the extent of it. After she went to bed, I went on the iPad and was scrolling through my Facebook feed and Twitter feed. The news about Mr. Walker’s death was still pretty fresh but I already saw something unsettling. Someone (I don’t remember who) had posted to Facebook something alone the lines of: “150,000 people died today, but we’re all fixated on one celebrity.”

Over the course of the past two days, I’ve seen similar kinds of posts. A lot of them. On Facebook. On Twitter. I’m sure there are others out there.

Why?

It’s a lot like the essay I wrote about people liking to go out of their way to inform all the fans of a particular TV show, movie series, or game that they don’t watch it, but it’s uglier. Much uglier.

Unlike, say, Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton or Snookie or any other reality TV star, Mr. Walker actually worked his ass off to achieve what fame he received, and it’s not as though he was out partying when his death happened. Yes, it appears he was in a speeding vehicle, but he had just finished a fundraiser for Philippine relief. Oh, and he had a history of helping those who’d been hit hard by disaster.

In other words, Mr. Walker did something that made a lot of people happy, and helped a lot of people, and now he was being mourned.

Now, before I’m accused of being a superfan of his, I’ll state that I’ve never seen the Fast and Furious movies (though Pamela and I were talking about them just that morning) and I honestly had to double check what his name was before I began writing this. I know only as much as I’ve read about or have seen on TV in the last couple of days.

The thing that annoys me is the flippant dismissal over the man’s death. Yes, he was a celebrity. Yes, he was a star of a series of popcorn action flicks. But he was also the father to a 15-year-old daughter. Like I am. He was 40 years old—four years older than I (and my wife’s age). He organized help for those who needed it. And he’d worked for most of his life to achieve what fame he had, and compared to most movie stars, he wasn’t necessarily the biggest name. Consider the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had more screentime in the recent Fast & Furious trailers and commercials than he did, even though Johnson had only done a couple of them.

That’s not to say that all the other people who died Saturday shouldn’t be mourned because they absolutely should. They all have families and friends and touched lives for the better. Unfortunately for them, they weren’t in one of the most successful franchises of the last decade or so. They were known outside of their local places or by those close to them. Mr. Walker was.

Instead of bitching about the public mourning of fans, and the media’s attraction to the story (which, let’s face it, is a huge piece of irony and is grisly, two things modern news loves), let’s use Mr. Walker’s death as a symbol to all those who died that day. His death becomes the face of those regular people who died that day, no less tragic, no less sad.

In other words, with all the silliness out there in the world, the racism and sexism, the growing socioeconomic chasm, the bigotry and hatred, let’s focus our energy on fixing those things instead of making people who lost someone they cared about in some way, whether it’s because they knew him or it was because they loved his movies, feel bad about their public mourning and the news outlets reporting of it.

What He Said: A Tribute to Roger Ebert

I came home Thursday from a particularly long day at work. After unloading the baby from her carseat, I changed, washed my hands, and sat on the floor with her. She was playing on her playmat and I checked my email and quickly scanned Facebook when I saw someone had posted, R.I.P. Roger Ebert.

My heart sank. Quickly, I went to Twitter. Only yesterday the news had been that his cancer had returned, could he really be—

He was.

Being with the baby helped stop me from crying, but it was a near-miss. I know I’m not the only one writing something about him in the days after the news hit, but I need to say something.

I didn’t realize how much Mr. Ebert meant to me until a few years ago. He’d written a memoir and news had hit that he’d gotten his voice back via a new computer program. He was on Oprah and we got to hear his voice for the first time in a while. I began crying because it was then that I realized how much Roger Ebert had impacted my life. I’m still discovering it to this day.

I come from a lower-middle class, blue collar family. My mother loves movies and our talks about movies were good, though basic, mostly pertaining to how good the plot was, the scenes that surprised us (or didn’t), and maybe a talk about a specific actor. Don’t get me wrong, it was more than “I liked it/It sucked”, but…different than what I saw on TV. It was watching Siskel & Ebert as a boy, and then as a teenager, where I began to learn even more about movies and ways to talk about them. They also taught me the art of argument. I saw these two men who were clearly friends get into heated discussions about whatever movie they were reviewing but remain friends. It also opened a dialogue up about movies that I didn’t normally get. Their reviews of Woody Allen movies, of movies that were smaller or more serious than the typical fair I watched, made me interested in more. As I became older, I found it was Ebert’s views I most typically agreed with.

In the early-1990s, the local newspaper began running Roger Ebert’s reviews and I read them weekly. Of course, I didn’t always agree, just like the TV show (it’s funny how almost every remembrance of Ebert states that the person didn’t always agree with him…can it be avoided when talking about a critic?) but I found that when I agreed, I did so whole-heartedly.

When Gene Siskel died in 1998/1999, the news came as a shock and I was saddened, but I admitted to myself that Ebert was my favorite of the two. Still, I missed the banter. Siskel’s TV replacement, Richard Roeper, never really meshed for me. He was too…slick? Young? I don’t know. Too something.

(Roger Ebert would have the word for that, I think as I type.)

When the news hit about Ebert’s own tongue cancer, and then how it had spread to his jaw, I was devastated for him, and for us. He was a person who loved to talk, you could sense that on his show and you saw that every time he gave an interview. I get the feeling that he was a walking encyclopedia who would’ve been great to talk to at any given time. The world needed a voice like his.

But he hadn’t been silenced, oh no. He began writing even more. Already a really good writer, in recent years, Mr. Ebert became a great writer. I’m sure he’d argue that. Of course he would, he seemed to love to argue. But I feel that’s true. He was among the the first people I followed when I joined Twitter. His reviews got even better. And his essays…spectacular. He wrote about things he felt strongly about, from movies and technology in movies to politics to why videogames can never be art. He was controversial and seemed tireless.

His wife, Chaz, wrote Friday that Mr. Ebert died, “No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition.”

Roger Ebert taught me a lot in my formative years, and I never realized it until recently. He also taught me a lot as an adult, and for that I am grateful.

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