Early Christmas morning last year, which happened to be my father’s sixtieth birthday, I was studying for my medical boards in Montreal when my mother called. I found the phone hidden under my placemat on the kitchen table.
“Hi, Mom,” I said when I heard her voice.
“Joelene, your father died yesterday,” my mother said. “He was on his way to that fishing trip—the one he’d been talking about going on for years.” Her voice was stoic, cold, and detached. She could have been calling to tell me about the new neighbor who’d moved in across the street the week before.
“What?” I asked, stunned. “Why do you sound so nonchalant? Where is he now? Why didn’t you call me right away? Why did you wait an entire day?” I looked at my watch, which happened to be my father’s old one.
I wondered if my mother was having one of her annual, delusional moments around the holidays. She had those because it was the same time of year when both of her horses had died five years earlier. She got emotional during those times and couldn’t speak or talk rationally. Her horses meant everything to her. Sometimes my father and I had spoken about how my mother cared and loved horses more than she loved us.
And there was another thing that made her emotional at unexpected times that went back to her early married days. Two days before my parents’ first anniversary, my mom’s mother, who lived with them, didn’t come down to breakfast one morning. On most days she was the first one in the kitchen, and the smell of eggs or burnt toast permeated the small two-story, cottage-style home. On that day just before my parents’ first anniversary, my mother came inside after picking flowers in her garden and looked at the kitchen clock.
“Ed,” she said to my father, who was sitting at the table reading the daily newspaper, “look at the time. Hasn’t my mother come downstairs yet? It’s nearly lunchtime.”
“No,” he answered, “as a matter of fact, I haven’t seen her. I hope she’s all right.”
“Well, have you gone upstairs to check?”
“No, actually, I haven’t.” They quickly glanced at each other and then ran up the creaky wooden stairs to her room and gently knocked on the door. There was no answer. My mother pushed open the door to see her mom sleeping in one of two single beds on the far side of the room. The sheer white curtains swayed beside the open window. On the bedside table was a book by Graham Greene, After the Affair, and a pair of reading glasses. Beside the book was an empty bottle of prescription pills lying on its side. My grandmother was on her back with her eyes tightly shut, covered up by her Scandinavian blanket.
“Mom, it’s time to get up,” my mother said.
There was no answer.
“Mom, it’s nearly noon. You never sleep this late,” she said emphatically.
My grandmother lay stiff. My mother yelled, and my father, on the other side of the bed, reached over to touch her forehead.
“She’s ice-cold,” he said.
“Ed, she’s not responding. Call an ambulance!”
My father flew out of the room and raced down the hall to make the call. Within moments, a slew of emergency vehicles pulled up outside the front door. Soon ambulance sirens stirred the ordinarily quiet residential neighborhood, and vehicles were parked in front of the house, facing in different directions. Flashing lights and police sirens permeated the air. A police officer flung open his car door and dashed up to the house. Three firefighters followed him, and before long, strangers invaded my parents’ once-quiet home.
Uniformed paramedics, with blue short-sleeve shirts rolled up, exposing their bulging muscles, made their way up the two stairs to our front door. They brushed by the dying rhododendron bushes on either side of the steps and pushed through the screen door.
The last thing my mother remembered was the ambulance doors being slammed shut behind her on her way to the hospital, while she sat beside her unresponsive mother. She recalled holding her mother’s cold hand and feeling numb during the entire ride to the hospital.
An hour later, she phoned my father from the hospital. “She’s officially been declared dead,” she told him in a monotone and then hung up the phone.
My mother never spoke about my grandmother’s death. She brushed it off as a heart attack, but years later when I was going through some miscellaneous papers my mother kept in her safe-deposit box at the bank, I found my grandmother’s death certificate. On the line where it said, “Cause of death,” the doctor had written, “poisoning by barbiturates and other drugs: suicide.”
“Mom, are you serious or playing games with me?” I yelled into the phone. “This is nothing to joke about. Are you hanging around with those losers from the Laundromat again? You’re starting to make up stories just like they do.”
I already knew not to always take my mother seriously. She had never officially been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but if she were my patient, that would have been an easy diagnosis for me to make. It was impossible to know who’d be waking up in the morning—the sweet mom or the evil mother.
Her strangest times were on Monday mornings when she’d climb into her old light-blue Valiant and drive to the Laundromat nestled in a wooded area a few hundred feet from the street. From her car trunk, she’d pull out a green garbage bag jammed with dirty clothes and moist towels that had been hanging on our towel racks. She’d open the Laundromat door to be greeted by the neighborhood weirdos. Some neighbors used children’s toys to keep the little ones busy, and some read old magazines tossed on the windowsill. My mother preferred hearing the stories of the other customers than sitting and reading a magazine. The background music was the sound of swooshing water from the washing machines and the smell of fabric softener from the dryers. She didn’t talk to my father or me nearly as much as she spoke to those Laundromat patrons.
Each week I detected a pattern of peculiar phone calls, usually a few hours after she met with the local housewives at the Laundromat. During one of my visits to my parents’ house, she asked me to join her, and it astonished me to see how proud she was of her hangout. What I saw were a bunch of perverts who got a thrill out of seeing everyone’s underwear flung into metal rolling baskets, as they puffed their cigarettes while displaying toothless smiles.
At the time of my mother’s phone call about my father’s death, I’d been working as a reporter for a local newspaper, writing a daily medical column and knowledgeable about many medical conditions. After minimal research, I took on the air of an expert.
My brother, Peter, who was four years older than I was, may as well have been dead. For the past ten years he’d been living in a mental institution, on the other side of town. My mother told me that he’d inherited a rare form of schizophrenia from a distant aunt who lived in Israel. I never met her but knew that the only thing she was capable of was making needlepoint wall hangings which she sold in the local shops. So, when it came to family emergencies like this one, my brother was not someone I could ever turn to.
My relationship with my dad had been my saving grace. He supported and encouraged all my endeavors and had enough room in his heart to love me unconditionally. For my thirteenth birthday, he took me to lunch at our favorite restaurant, Horn & Hardart, the diner-style automated restaurant of the sixties. We sat for hours nibbling on lamb chops, mashed potatoes, and mixed canned vegetables. By the time our savory, runny cherry pie arrived, we were in the midst of our first deep discussion.
“It seems as if you’re unhappy with Mom,” I told him after he’d spent half an hour complaining about all the bizarre things she’d done, like everyday horseback riding, and then collecting old aluminum cans on the street and tossing them into her trunk to recycle.
“Why don’t you leave her? My friend Jane’s father did that a couple of months ago. He was miserable before he left. Now, he’s happy living in an apartment by himself.”
“I can’t. I just can’t. Your grandmother would never forgive me. I promised to take care of your mother until my last day.”
“But she makes you miserable. You’re both so different. You’re so cheerful, and she brings you down, Dad.”
“Well, that’s why I work such long hours, dear. A few times when I threatened to find my own apartment, she told me that she’d kill herself, just like her mother. I could never live with the guilt.”
“I don’t blame you, Dad, but I’m really worried about your health and happiness,” I said.
“Honey, you’ll learn in life that sometimes we don’t do things necessarily because we want to, but we do them because we have to.”
After ending the call with my mother, I sat there wondering how to determine the whereabouts of my father. Those moments at Horn & Hardart swept through my mind. I wanted to be back in that booth with him talking about my boyfriends, school, and all the bizarre things my mother did. But now I was alone, and there was no one to call to ask if my mother was immersed in her storytelling mood.
My dad was the only one who understood everything. For years, my mom had cut off all ties with her family. They didn’t want anything to do with her, and vice versa. She had a way of saying things that irritated people, making them never want to call again. Her horse was more important to her than her family, and evidence of that went back to my childhood.
Once when I was about six years old, my mother took me to the local library, one of my favorite outings with her. We sat reading together in the kids’ section, and I thought it was cool that my mother sat beside me in the little chairs, her hips sometimes getting stuck when she tried to get up. After about ten minutes, she lost her concentration and said that she needed to go to the bathroom. Within a few moments, I heard her voice from the public telephones beside the restrooms.
“Joe, can you put my horse out into the corral to get some fresh air? Anytime this morning will do. . . What do you mean he fell? How could that happen? Did you call the vet?” she asked in an angry tone.
From where I was sitting, I heard her slam the phone down, and everyone turned their heads to look. My mother charged toward the glass door leading to the parking lot, passing me by, and muttering, “It’s awful, absolutely awful, how these horses grab your heart.”
After a few minutes of reading one of my favorite poetry books, I stood up and looked around. I was the only kid in the kids’ section; in the distance, some adults were flipping through magazines in the periodical section. Was I being abandoned? What’s going on? I wondered, feeling panicky. When the librarian announced that the library would be closing in fifteen minutes, I asked her if I could call home. Just as I was about to pick up the phone, my mother walked through the front door of the library.
From my Montreal apartment, I phoned my travel agent. Six hours later, I landed at New York’s Kennedy Airport, moments from my parents’ home. I knocked on the one-story house surrounded by a broken, white picket fence. There was no answer. I put my nose to the cold glass window and spotted their calico cat, Pixie, the one they’d rescued from an animal shelter. She walked toward me with her tail standing as erect as the Eiffel Tower. She then stopped and turned around, glancing toward the living room, as if she were waiting for someone to step forward, but nobody appeared.
A neighbor on the other side of the broken picket fence, which my mother had erected to keep the kids out (she detested children), popped her face over the top and asked if I was okay.
“Not really. I’m trying to get inside my mother’s house. I’m worried because she phoned and told me that my father had died.”
The woman gave me a half sympathetic look, but I couldn’t tell if it was for my mother or my father. My mom had mentioned that she’d had arguments with this neighbor about her kids running around my parents’ backyard, but all the children had done was accidentally toss a ball over the fence, so they jumped over the fence to fetch it.
The woman said, “I have an extra key for your parents’ house. Sometimes my husband feeds the cat when they go away. Would you like me to get it?”
“Do you, really? Yes. That would be great.”
I entered the house through the side door and stepped into the cold glass-enclosed room, barely large enough to hold the round garden table and four chairs that my parents had bought at a garage sale. The cat’s bowl and a small animal bed were tucked in the corner.
For me, the focus of that room was the Tiffany lamp centered on the ceiling above the table. I loved that lamp so much; it had survived my hippie years growing up in the sixties and elicited a flow of memories. This lamp reminded me of many of my adolescent experiences of boyfriends, sex and drug addictions. The lamp had aged well, but the blue-and-yellow glass fixture had lost its luster over the past ten years.
I walked up the carpeted stairs leading to the small kitchen with its beige linoleum floor and pineapple tiles on the wall. Dustballs lined the perimeter of the room. I saw that things hadn’t changed since I’d moved out.
With a welcoming purr, the cat rubbed against my leg. I bent down to touch her, and she hissed at me—the same sort of contradictory messages I often received from my mother. Like the time I’d washed her car and then made her dinner. She never said thank you and the next day she punished me for not putting out the garbage. Where was the reward for being good?
Only when we reflect on our childhoods can we see and understand them more clearly, but it’s hard to reflect while we are living through life experiences. I now see how contradictory her behavior was and how not only was she unable to train her horse but also she was unable to train me. It would have involved too much consistency and keen observational skills. Thus, I was forced to look to other adults for messages of approval.
I tiptoed toward my parents’ bedroom. The cat stepped in front of me, and because I’m the type of person who reads a message in everything, I wondered if she was trying to tell me not to proceed. Or was she asking me to follow her into the room that my mother insisted she share with the one guest who decided to visit once a year? I do believe that there’s a message in everything and that if we paid attention, we would see that life is full of metaphors. The fact that my mother never paid attention amplified my need to do so.
As my uncertainty and fear escalated, I stopped and waited for the cat’s directives, wondering what lay behind those closed doors. The cat led me to the bathroom, where a bowl of water sat beside the electric heater. The cat thought the water was for her, but my mother’s placement of the water was to bring humidity into the air during the East Coast’s dry winter months.
“Just a bowl of water adds so much to a room’s humidity,” my mother used to tell me. Her random comments drove me crazy, but as I grew older, they became tidbits of wisdom to carry with me. While her teachings were interesting, the flip side was that her teaching methods also involved ridicule. She’d give me these types of random teachings and a few days later, for example, she would put a water bowl down and ask me why she was doing it.
Sometimes, I didn’t recall why, she’d say in a condescending tone, “Don’t you remember what I told you last time?” She’d sometimes do this in front of strangers and I’d feel embarrassed. Growing older, I realized that I made similar helpful gestures like filling a bowl of water for humidity or putting mothballs in the winter clothing closets, but I refrained from drilling and embarrassing my own children.
I knocked on my parents’ door. No answer. I tiptoed across the floor, and the dust balls in the corners made me sneeze. On my mother’s vanity sat a large bottle of Evian water, the only liquid she put on her face other than a dab of Revlon moisturizer. She’d heard somewhere that the French water was great for preserving the skin.
My mother was lying beneath the Scandinavian blanket, which she used to cover me when I conked out on the sofa at night. She was sleeping on her side on one of the twin mattresses that had been pushed together. Even though electric blankets have been associated with certain types of cancer, and my mother was a health nut, she still favored using those types of blankets. She said they were cheaper than turning on the gas heat. So, it was common for us to fall asleep at night cuddled up under our covers, with our cold red noses sticking out.
My father’s clock radio blared a call-in talk show about how a fatty diet can predispose people to heart disease. The dust coating on his bedside clock made me sneeze again. Everything on my father’s side of the bed was untouched, and I wondered how long it had been that way. When my mother heard my footsteps, she made some raspy sounds.
“Mom,” I said, tapping her shoulder, “I’m here. It’s time to get up.”
“Dearest,” she said, quickly lifting up her head, “when did you arrive? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? I would have picked you up from the airport.”
“Oh, it was too early in the morning. I know how you love sleeping in.”
I glanced at her bedside table and spotted a black-and-white photograph of my grandmother, the one who’d committed suicide before I was born. Even though we’d never had the chance to meet, I felt close to her because my parents often spoke about her. She was the one who’d chosen my father for my mother.
She must have been a smart lady, I thought.
My dad was now probably gone. I knew one thing for sure—if he was dead, I would never wear black like my mother did. My father abhorred black. He preferred lively colors.
I glanced at my mother’s hands poking out of the cream-colored sheets. They were covered in blood.
“Mom, what happened? Why are you all bloody?” I asked anxiously, grabbing her hands and scrutinizing them for clues.
“What’s bloody?” she said, lifting her head in a half stupor.
“Your hands. What happened?” I asked while shaking both her shoulders and feeling that she had done something horrible.
“Oh, don’t worry about me, dear. I thought I cleaned it all up.” With a writer’s imagination, I suspected the worst. Has she killed my father? She seemed so distant on the phone—maybe this was why. Where did she put his body?
“I took a glass out of the kitchen cabinet, and it shattered in my hand,” she said.
“You’re lucky you weren’t hurt and need stitches. Are you all right? What a mess! Let me go to the bathroom and get something to clean you up with.”
And then I said on my way to the bathroom, trying to sound calm, “So, tell me, what’s the story with Dad, where is he now?”
“Your daddy? Did something happen to him?” she asked, rolling her head back and forth along the pillow.
“Mom, you called me. You said that he died. Don’t you remember calling me?”
“I called you to say what?”
I felt as if I were speaking to the wrong person. Her answers were inappropriate, and I wondered how long she’d been in that state. I still had no idea where my father was. My mother seemed to be losing her mind. I stepped out of the room and looked up her doctor’s number on the little phone book next to my mother’s bed.
When he answered, I said, “Dr. Clark. Listen, this is Joelene Forrester. I just flew in from Montreal and found my mother lying in bed, almost catatonic. When is the last time you saw her?”
“It’s been quite a while, although the last time she came in for a visit, I must admit I was quite worried.”
“What were you worried about? Why didn’t you call me?”
“She was sort of losing her memory, and at the time, I thought it might have been connected to postmenopausal symptoms. Some women begin to lose their memory around that time. Perhaps I should have followed up because I also noticed that she’d made some inappropriate comments and laughed at things that weren’t funny.”
Dr. Clark had been our family doctor for more than thirty years, and surely he knew everything there was to know.
“What brings you to town, anyway?” he inquired.
“Didn’t you hear? My mother phoned me yesterday morning to say that my father had died. You know how much I loved my dad, and I caught the next plane out of Montreal.”
“Your father died? That’s news to me.” He sounded somewhat shocked.
“What? You’re our family doctor, and you didn’t hear that he died in a plane crash?”
“I heard nothing. When did this happen?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I don’t know where he is.”
“You have your hands full, young lady. I tell you what. Why don’t I pay your mother a house visit, and you get on the phone and try to track down the whereabouts of your father.”
I ended the call and then phoned my mother’s best friend, Elaine, who she used to go horseback riding with. Elaine was my age, in her mid-thirties, but since she’d adopted her sister’s kids after their parents died in a car accident, she hardly had time to be with my mother.
“Elaine, it’s Joelene, Marcia’s daughter.”
“Joelene, what are you doing in town? What a surprise to hear from you!”
“Well, my mother phoned yesterday saying that my father had died. How could I not be here?”
“What? Your father died? That’s news to me. But of course, we haven’t really been in touch lately. I’ve had so much going on. What happened? Is there something I can do?”
“Sure. Please help me find out about my father. I’m not sure if my mother was telling me the entire truth. She sometimes gets weird on me. I feel so disconnected from her life, but you know how close I was with my father.”
“Yes. I remember that. Wait a minute. Have you tried calling their family doctor? She’s always been quite close with him.”
“Yes. He had no clue either.”
“That’s so strange. What about Geraldine, her supervisor at work? Wouldn’t she think to call her to say that she couldn’t come into work?”
“That’s a great idea. I’ll call you back in a minute.”
I hung up and flipped back and forth through my mother’s phone book. For a moment I couldn’t remember the name of the company she worked for. I stopped and took some deep breaths, like I’d learned to do in my Tuesday-night yoga class. I closed my eyes and then gently opened them.
Yes. B.J.’s Construction. That’s where she was hired not too long ago as a receptionist. I’ll call there.
“Hello. This is Joelene Forrester. I’m Marcia’s daughter. Is she there?”
“No,” a woman identifying herself as Geraldine, said. “She hasn’t been here in a couple of days.”
“Do you have any idea where she is?”
“She called to ask for the week off. Sick days,” Geraldine said.
“Did she tell you anything more than that?”
“No. Just that she wasn’t feeling well.”
“Did she say anything about her husband dying?”
“No, not to me. One minute. Let me ask my boss.”
I stood there pacing, hoping that I was getting closer to important information.
Geraldine got back on the line.
“No. He doesn’t know anything either. He said she sounded frantic on the phone. He was going to give her a few days, and then he said he’d call her.”
I hung up the phone and stared at the numbers on the phone, not knowing what to do next. Within a moment, the phone rang. Would this be the phone call that gave me the bad news?
“Hello. I’m looking for Marcia.”
“Who’s calling, please?” I said.
“It’s a personal call. Is this Marcia?”
“No. It’s not. It’s her daughter. Can I help you?”
“Not really. It’s a personal call.”
“She’s not well now. I’m taking all her calls. Are you sure I can’t help you?”
“She’s not well?”
“No, she’s not.”
“In fact, that’s what I wanted to talk to her about. This is Dr. Voyant. I’m her psychiatrist, and we’ve just received her bloodwork results.”
“Is there something she needs to know?” I asked.
“Yes, but I don’t know if I should be telling you. You know that’s a violation of the privacy act.”
“But I’m her daughter, and if it’ll help her, I need to know. She’s a mess right now. You must tell me. I’m not only her daughter, but I’m also a medical student and will understand what you tell me.”
“Okay. The bloodwork showed that she has a severe thyroid problem. Her TSH is very high. She needs medication immediately. Her thyroid isn’t functioning properly.”
Could there be anything else going on now in my life? I thought wryly.
“Listen,” I told the doctor, “why don’t you phone the prescription into the pharmacy on Main Street, and I’ll pick it up by noon. I need to leave this phone line open, but I do appreciate your call, and I promise to call you back.”
I hung up the phone and held the receiver. Still with my hand on the phone, the phone rang again.
“I’m looking for Joelene Forrester,” said a stern male voice.
“This is she.”
“Are you the daughter of Marcia Forrester?”
“This is Harvey, your father’s boss at work.”
My eyes remained fixed on the number two on the phone. That was my father’s favorite number.
“Has anyone called you yet about your father?”
“No. Why? Do you know something?”
“Well, I’m sorry to be the one to break the news to you.” He hesitated, and I froze. “Your father died yesterday of a heart attack. He was in the store closing up, counting money in cash register number one, when one of the salesgirls called me at home to say that he’d fallen to the ground. They immediately called an ambulance, and he was rushed to the hospital. He was pronounced dead on arrival. We haven’t been able to reach your mother. Her answering machine hasn’t been picking up.”
“She’s not well. I can’t get into it now. Where’s my father now? I must see him.”
“He’s at the Maple Street Funeral Home. Do you want me to meet you there in half an hour?”
The sky opened up at my father’s funeral, as I watched his oak coffin being lowered into the ground. In the Jewish tradition, the deceased must be buried within twenty-four hours in a simple pine coffin. The Jewish faith doesn’t permit viewing the body of the deceased, so my only image of my dad was from a few months ago at his sixtieth birthday party.
Through my ocean of tears, the mourners tossed shovel loads of dirt onto my father’s coffin, another Jewish custom. My cousin Barbara was holding me from behind. As a child, she’d been like a sister to me. She squeezed me so hard that I thought my circulation would be cut off. I almost wanted that to happen. I loved my father so much. I felt like jumping into the grave with him.
“Joelene,” she said as we walked back to the hearse, “I’m so sorry about this. I know how much you loved your father, and he was such a good person. But look at it this way. He’s resting peacefully, and he went quickly, not like my mother, who took five years to finally die from cancer. It was tortuous for all of us to watch. I know it’s hard, but you must look at the good side.”
“But he was so young,” I said. “Only sixty years old. It’s not fair,” I said, dabbing at my eyes with my last tissue.
After the funeral, everyone drove to my parents’ house. We sat around sharing stories about my father as we balanced small plates of cake and cookies on our laps. Dr. Clark sat down beside me and told me that my mother hadn’t been stable enough to be present for her husband’s funeral.
“She’s on suicide watch,” he told me.
By four o’clock, everyone had gone home, and I sat in the living room on the same beige velour sofa where, as a little girl, I’d cuddled with my father. The hospital called to say that my mother was doing much better and that she had asked to knit a sweater for her granddaughter. How interesting! As far as I knew, she had no grandchildren, unless, of course, she’d dreamed that I was pregnant, but that would be weird because she didn’t really like kids.
I dozed off on the sofa and ended up sleeping six hours, until I was torn out of sleep by the cat, meowing for food. I sat up and reflected on my dream. Part of me wanted to flop back down on the sofa and relive all its surreal details, yet another part of me sat for a moment wondering if dreams ever come true. While I loved children and I would have loved to name my son after my father, Ed, I didn’t know, given my family history, if it would be responsible to bring a child into the world.
In life we sometimes do things because we think it’s what we should do, rather than what we want to do. That’s one of the reasons my father stuck with my mother until the very end, but if I were to create my dream to live by, it would be to find a man as wonderful as my dad and have many children in his honor.