A few weeks ago I was on a pleasant summer afternoon bike ride when, seemingly out of nowhere, a stiff wind sprang up and the sky turned an ominous shade of charcoal gray.
I was heading south on my favorite bike path; the wide, shallow river that borders my city was to my right. The wind, coming from the south, began sketching jagged ripples on the surface of the water and blowing through the trees on the islands in the river, exposing the silvery backs of their leaves. A drenching rainstorm seemed just minutes away.
To my left was the mix of residential and office buildings that front the river. As I pedaled along, I looked to see which might be the best haven in the approaching storm. I thought about whether to stop and seek shelter or try to sprint the three miles home before the heavens opened. I also thought about my mother.
This sudden darkness on a summer day was just the sort of circumstance my mother had spent much of my life—from my childhood to shortly before she died decades later—warning me about. Her view seemed to be that terrible things not only could happen, it was more than likely that they would happen. I spent most of my life rebelling against her worried outlook, only to find that, as I grew older, I had unconsciously made it my own.
My mother had good reason to be wary of what life had to offer. When she was 8, she stood with her father on the banks of the Connecticut River in Vermont and watched as a huge flood washed away the recreation center and dance pavilion my grandfather had operated on an island in the river. She turned 10 three weeks before the 1929 stock market crash; in the years that followed, the Great Depression hollowed out the revenues of the elegant men’s clothing store her father owned and, by extension, her family’s finances.
She was 22 when the United States entered World War II, and she was 25 and serving with the American Red Cross in western Canada when the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II. Even someone less sensitive than my acutely sensitive mother could not have escaped unscathed from such a sobering sequence of events.
And yet, before she married and had children, my mother seemed the embodiment of a carefree, cockeyed optimist. After attending a junior college in Manhattan, she moved back to her Vermont hometown and found work as a legal secretary. As soon as she had saved enough money, she bought a one-way train ticket to San Francisco and at age 21 headed west with just $100 in her pocket. When she told me this story, I was astonished; I asked her in awe, “Weren’t you scared?” She replied with a shrug and said, nonchalantly, “I knew I could always get a job.”
After living in San Francisco, Los Angeles and then Manhattan again (with time out for that Red Cross posting in Canada), my mother met my father on a blind date, married him just a few months later (See Optimist, Cockeyed), and then settled down to have two children—my brother and me—and raise us in suburban Pennsylvania.
Perhaps it was motherhood that changed my mother’s outlook on life.
As I think back, I realize that her concerns for her children were not suffocating: We learned to swim, we rode bikes, took horseback riding lessons (me), went to summer camp (my brother) and in myriad other ways had what could only be described as normal childhoods. But certain activities and events seemed to trigger my mother’s sense of foreboding, transforming her into a bundle of nerves.
A family car trip, with my father driving, was one. On our annual summer jaunts to New England to see the relatives, my mother would sit tensely in the passenger seat, alert for impending doom on the highway, and occasionally jam her foot to the floor as if a phantom brake pedal could slow down the car and avert disaster. My father, who drove hundreds of miles a year for his job as a salesman and never had a serious accident, was for the most part unfazed by my mother’s distress. But his response was more to tune her out than to pat her arm and say soothingly, “There, there, M.K.”
(The level of tension in the car on these long trips might explain why, when we arrived in the Vermont and Massachusetts towns where our relatives lived, my parents would always stop first at a liquor store before proceeding to our destination. In this way, they had close at hand the ingredients for the relaxing cocktails they would invariably have with our hosts shortly after we pulled up to their house and said our hellos.)
My mother also hated thunderstorms, so much so that she would move away from the windows and sit anxiously in the middle of the room, smoking a cigarette, until they passed. This fear made some sense to me. Family lore had it that, one summer night when my father was out of town on business, my mother, my brother and I—then maybe ages 4 and 2—were watching television in our suburban ranch house during a thunderstorm. Without warning, a sphere of ball lightning came down the chimney, rolled across the floor, made for the television and then evaporated before our eyes. It was a terrifying experience for my mother, and it led her to spend the rest of her life turning off televisions and lamps whenever thunderstorms were in the vicinity.
I sometimes wonder if my mother’s pervasive anxiety contributed to my decision to flee my hometown at my first opportunity—college—and stay away for decades, returning only for periodic visits. Certainly it was one reason I made it a habit to share few details of my life with her. “You don’t give up much,” she said to me a few years before she died. She did not express this as a criticism; it was merely a statement of fact, and I did not dispute it. But I heard a faint note of wistfulness in her voice, as if she wished I could have been more open with her.
I don’t think I ever confessed to my mother that I kept mum about my life because I didn’t want to set off the firm alarms in her head. I never thought she would be able to change, so such a confession seemed pointless—even cruel. But my mother, who had a sly wit, was on occasion able to laugh at herself and her preoccupation with the dark side of life. On one of my visits home, she and I were heading out the door of the lovely apartment she had rented, decorated and moved to after my father died; she was anxious about something and expressed her concern. As I had countless times in the past, I said, in what I hoped was a patient, soothing voice, “Don’t worry about that now, Mom.” She listened to me, paused for a second, and then replied, “All right. I’ll schedule it for worry later.”
Given the all-encompassing scope of my mother’s anxiety, it seems sadly ironic that she was unable to defy the laws of medicine and anticipate two of the greatest calamities in her life: my father’s death after a stroke in 1983 and her own diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease 15 years later.
Knowing of my mother’s tendency to anticipate the worst, I was profoundly moved when, shortly after her diagnosis, she was sitting in her favorite chair in her living room and she mused, “There are worse things to have.” I was on a visit home at the time; her diagnosis had unleashed rivers of concern and anxiety in my own mind, and I remember thinking, but not saying, “Like what?” But I could guess what her thoughts might have been. My mother’s beloved older sister had died 26 years earlier of cancer. My father’s stroke had been massive, and he had lingered for six weeks before succumbing to pneumonia. Perhaps in her mind, Parkinson’s was a preferable fate.
Four years after my mother’s diagnosis, I ended my own wanderings and moved back home to help take care of her. By this time, her illness had forced her to give up her beautiful apartment; she lived first in two small but nicely appointed rooms in an assisted-living complex and then moved to an even smaller, shared room in a nursing home. She lived for six more years in the nursing home, becoming gradually more disabled by her disease. I visited her nearly every week, and I never once heard her complain about her condition or worry about what lay ahead for her. I was humbled by her stoicism and her ability to retain her dignity and her courage in the face of the relentless assault of Parkinson’s on her body and her mind.
During these years, my mother continued to worry about me: that I was working too hard at my job, that I was doing too much for her, that I had given up my life and moved back home on her behalf. When I would stay late at the nursing home on my weekly Sunday visits, she would insist that I call her when I got home, to let her know that I had safely made the 30-minute drive in the dark.
In these last years of her life, I no longer rebelled against my mother’s anxiety. Instead, I joined her in it. Just as her worry had always been directed outward, toward my brother and me, so mine was directed toward her. With each new indignity she suffered, with every fresh turn she took for the worse, my concern for her grew. Characteristically, I tried to hide my worries from her, but it was like trying to kid a kidder: She knew what I was up to.
In one of our evening phone calls a few months before she died, as I was politely inquiring about her day in the faint hope of finding out how she really was, my mother finally uttered words that I never in my life expected her to say. “Stop worrying about me, darling,” she said. “It doesn’t do a bit of good.”
Needless to say, I didn’t follow her advice; I continued to worry about her until she drew her last breath. But I have not forgotten what she said. And now, when I catch myself going back to my apartment to check the stove for the third time or spinning loops of worry about my family and my friends, I occasionally stop and remember my mother’s words. Her worst-case-scenario outlook on life is too deeply ingrained in me to vanish all at once, like a sphere of ball lightning. But her eleventh-hour conversion to the school of taking life as it comes may be worth emulating. It’s not all the way to cockeyed optimism, but it’s a start.
Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper
Storm Clouds Photo Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper
Lightning Photo By AgencjaAIAC Via Wikimedia Commons