October 21, 2019
As I’m eating a salad, my sister calls. “Mom hasn’t been eating or drinking,” she says. “Her breathing is labored, even with oxygen.” Anna is with our ninety-six-year-old mother in a nursing home in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Anna is crying.
“Would you like to speak to her?” my sister asks.
“Sure,” I reply.
Anna puts the phone up to Mom’s ear, and I tell her: “Mom, I love you very much. I think everything will be fine with you. I’m so happy to speak to you.”
I hear my mother grunt faintly.
“She was listening to you,” Anna says, surprised.
Though I didn’t say so explicitly, my intention was to help my mother move on to the Next World, if that is her fate.
Two hours later Anna calls and says, “She’s gone.”
I often feel that I can contact the dead soon after their passing. Whether this is higher intuition or pure imagination, I don’t know. Today I sense my mother dancing with joy.
While I meditate late at night, I cry one or two tears. I’m not sad; I’m just slightly weeping.
Today I feel a literal dislocation, like when the GPS stops working in your car and you must stop to ask directions.
While lying in bed in the morning, I compose this poem:
Mother The moon has not died, the sun has not perished, the sky still fills the space overhead. But my mother is gone, mother is gone, down, down into the earth.
I didn’t want to write a poem about my mother’s death — I don’t believe in exploiting personal tragedy — but this poem came to me, so I wrote it down. When I sent it out in a message to my friends, many of them said it was beautiful. My friend Sander cried reading it. I still don’t feel exactly that I wrote the poem — more like I felt it pouring into my mind and refused not to write it.
As we drive to the funeral home, it’s raining. This is what’s known in literature as the “pathetic fallacy” — the idea that the weather mirrors human emotions. If I were writing this as a novel, I’d have to take out the rain. It would be too melodramatic.
A funeral parlor is such a bizarre place: a series of big, fake, empty living rooms that no one lives in, leading to the final room with its posed corpse.
My mother lies on a bier in an orange hospital gown partly covered with a blanket, looking alive. When my sister and I talk to each other, we lower our voices, as if fearful of waking her up.
She is not embalmed, just frozen. When I kiss her, she is cold as baloney. I sense her spirit very close, possibly directly overhead. Her spirit is gleeful.
I don’t have a terribly emotional temperament. Recently a friend of mine said about her life, “I’m so tired of all the drama!” I thought about this for a moment. My life has essentially no drama, I realized. It’s a comedy.
But a mother’s death, even at ninety-six, is dramatic. It feels like a murder.
My parents were both in college throughout my youth. My mother began taking classes at the City College of New York (which was still free then) when I was five years old. She graduated when I was fourteen, then continued on to graduate school. Meanwhile my father was getting his PhD at Yeshiva University. My parents would put me to bed early so they could concentrate on their homework.
When I was still fourteen, my mother started working as a kindergarten teacher. I became a “latchkey kid,” letting myself in the door after school, running to the television, and turning it on to disrupt the creepy silence of the apartment. As I recall, the show was Adventures of Superman.
Perhaps I’m writing this journal for people like me, who reach the age of sixty-six without having lost a parent.
I feel like a tenant who has been thrown out on the street for nonpayment of rent; like the marshals have just jettisoned all my possessions, and now I’m standing on the sidewalk with nowhere to go, surrounded by chairs, carpets, lamps — blinking up at the sunlight.
Visiting my dad in Brooklyn, I see Joseph, my father’s home health aide. He is from Uganda. “I heard that you saw your mother after she died,” he says.
“Yes, we went to the funeral parlor.”
“How did she look?”
“The same as she usually looks.”
“She wasn’t black?”
“I’ve never seen a dead white person. I heard that they turn black!”
He laughs, and I laugh, too. (I had heard this before from a Jamaican friend — actually that Jews, in particular, turn black at death.)
My mother is not an easy person to idealize. In my own sardonic prose can be found a shadow of her ambivalent mind. One of her comments about me, which she made repeatedly, was “Michael is famous for being famous.” (My real name is Michael Gorelick.)
My mother was an illegitimate child — as people used to say — born into the Pennsylvania Dutch community of 1923. She was fond of boasting that she was the oldest of forty-one cousins. Her mother gave birth to her at the age of seventeen and abandoned her. The family story is that Mom was given to a childless aunt, who apparently didn’t want her either and attempted to drown her in a rain barrel. My mother was somehow rescued and deposited with her grandparents, who raised her. Her grandfather, a nearly deaf blacksmith, brought her every Sunday to the Mennonite church, where the minister threatened her — and everyone else in the room — with eternal damnation.
This was the world my mother grew up in. No wonder she didn’t smother me with affection.
I used to say that my mother was a Mennonite, but later I realized this was untrue. The Mennonites have a rule that children should join the Church upon coming of age — usually around thirteen or fourteen. My mother never chose to enter the Church. Instead, once she was old enough, she began working in an RCA factory and joined the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union. She married my father, who was a Communist. Mom chose the hope of an earthly paradise over the promise of a heavenly one.
Kaddish is the only prayer in the Jewish liturgy that’s in Aramaic, the spoken language of first-century Israel. It’s an ecstatic prayer about prayer, what poets call a “list poem,” with a charging rhythm. It appears several times in a typical religious service, the last time as a prayer for the dead, at which point it is enunciated slowly and precisely. Everyone who has lost a loved one stands and recites Kaddish. The prayer represents, I suppose, the urge to praise God even in the midst of pain. Here’s an excerpt:
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be the Divine, beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
Kaddish never mentions death.
“A lot of non-Jews admire the practice of sitting shiva,” my friend Marnie told me. Though my father and I are not terribly religious, we are following an almost Orthodox version of this ritual. It’s a simple practice: You stay in your house, cover the mirrors, let your fingernails and toenails grow, and receive guests for seven days. The visitors bring food, which is traditionally round (such as bagels or a tuna casserole in a circular dish), representing the cycle of life, death, and new birth. There are no special prayers, though religious Jews pray three times a day anyway. (Actually the men pray three times daily; women aren’t required to.)
Lots of people have visited us: from close comrades to distant acquaintances. Each person has a slightly different mood. Some treat shiva purely as a party. Some have a mournful air. Some look deeply into your eyes, and you can see that they have suffered, too. This is the higher purpose of suffering: to inspire deep-eyed compassion. It’s one of those truisms that is actually true.
Joy Walker, who taught with my mother at PS 113 in Harlem, told a couple of stories about how Mom handled adversity. One took place on a payday, when Joy and my mother were walking to the subway after school. Some local thugs, realizing the two women were carrying their paychecks, circled them. Mom went up to one, held out her purse, and shouted, “Take it!” The guy was so stunned, he let them go.
The other occurred while Joy and Mom were on the subway. Some boys lightly tapped them with a magazine. At first the women thought it was accidental, but the kids did it again, at which point Mom stood up and shouted, “Your mother’s going to die of cancer!” — which so unsettled the teens that they ran off.
Both of these stories are about women outwitting male power.
The first anecdote is notable because it recalls a traumatic incident from my youth: Soon after my mother started teaching, also on a payday, she was mugged coming home from school. The assailant grabbed her purse, but Mom refused to let go. He dragged her across the schoolyard, eventually prying the bag away from her — but Mom still held the two purse straps.
That’s a good description of my mother: a woman who wouldn’t let go. She took Valium for a year after that.
I haven’t been out of the house much for days, but today I went to synagogue. Autumn sun was shining on the trees of Prospect Park, especially the maples, which displayed carnival reds and oranges. A woman in a tiger costume knelt beside her young son, who wore an identical costume. She took his picture with her phone. This is the weekend before Halloween, I suddenly realized.
Later I saw a father dressed as a shark.
I was fond of referring to my parents as “eternal.” It seemed they would never die. And of course there was a possibility — because of life’s uncertainty — that I would expire before them and never have to confront their mortality.
I have many old friends — I am still in touch with several I knew in kindergarten — but there are only two people I have known my entire life, and one of them has now disappeared.
Some residents of Park Slope, Brooklyn, put books they’ve finished reading on their stoops for anyone to take. Today I found a novel called Foreign Affairs, by “#1 New York Times–Bestselling Author” Stuart Woods. I’d say it’s written at a fifth-grade level. Here’s a sample:
“How is sunny Rome?”
“Sunny. I need you to order me a new briefcase from the guy who made the one I have. I’d like it identical, but an inch deeper.”
“All right. I don’t know how long that will take.”
“Let’s get him started.”
That’s Stone Barrington — billionaire playboy, lawyer, and hotel mogul — speaking to his secretary, Joan.
Foreign Affairs is just what I need right now. It distracts me and doesn’t require many brain cells to read. (I tried reading real literature but couldn’t focus.) I wonder if I’d enjoy being a swashbuckling lawyer who’s constantly calling his secretary on another continent for assistance. It seems like a spectacularly pointless life.
I don’t remember my mother ever hugging me. Almost every time I walked into the house, throughout my entire life, she would give a fake start and say, “A ghost!” It was some sort of private joke. I am a person whose mother pretended he was a phantom.
Though my father aspired to be a writer when he was young, I believe my literary impulses come from my mother. Every time I visited Mom in her nursing home, I would read to her from Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen. She couldn’t really follow the plot, but she enjoyed the subtleties of the prose. One time she said, “This is good to listen to, because the sentences are enjoying themselves so much.”
For the last four or five years of her life, Mom was less and less in touch with reality. People call it dementia, but in her case it seemed more an unleashing of the imagination. She had the persistent fantasy that she was working in a nursery school (perhaps an unconscious pun on “nursing home”). A year ago she said to me, “I’m thinking of quitting my job in the nursery.”
“That’s perfectly fine with me,” I told her. “You’re not supporting me anymore. You can quit anytime you like.” She understood that this was a joke and smiled ruefully.
It’s possible that her “dementia” was a kind of ruse. One time she asked me, “Who are you?”
“I’m your son,” I replied.
“I thought so,” my mother said with a contented smile.
Once, she pointed in front of me and said, “Who is that man?”
“I’m sorry,” I answered. “He is invisible to me. I lack the spiritual capacity to see him.”
I visited her while my sister was away in California, and Mom told me that she was preparing to rob a bank.
“Be careful,” I counseled.
A week before she died, Anna asked her, “How’s it going?”
“I’m having a wild time,” Mom reported. “Don’t you see all these men?”
Quite possibly my mother was having a mental orgy.
Suddenly I have a full-blown toothache. It began as a dull discomfort, then became a sharp pain every time I bite down on anything solid — even a grape. Now it hurts so much I can’t sleep — partly from worry.
In a way it’s a blessing. The pain of loss is abstract and intermittent, but the pain of a rotten molar is vivid and unceasing. The way a bad parent says to a fretting child, “I’ll give you something to cry about,” the gods have replaced my anxiety about becoming motherless with a rather absurd physical crisis. I have the urge to pull the tooth myself — not that I know how. What if I can’t reach my dentist? What if he looks at it and finds nothing — as the dentist yesterday did? These are my sleep-robbing thoughts.
My tooth hurts so much, I take an aspirin for the first time in thirty-seven years. Aspirin is really helpful. It lessens the amount of pain without clouding my mind. (I didn’t expect an essay on my mother’s death to include a commercial for aspirin, but there it is.)
Every part of you will die except your name. My mother’s name still exists, the same as ever: Helen Lois Gorelick.
Judaism is generally annoying — a series of tedious, repetitive, and useless prayers — until someone dies. Then it suddenly seems as brilliant as an astrophysicist. Even the yahrzeit candle, a tall cylinder designed to burn for seven days, is profound. At the synagogue the prayers are infinitely consoling. My ancestors have been singing these God-praises for three thousand years. They will continue when I am a cold corpse on a table, as my mother was on Monday. Does God listen? Who knows. What’s important is to keep these praises going until God answers or emphatically rejects them.
This morning I called Transcend Dental — that’s the actual name of the dental practice I go to in Woodstock — and received an appointment for today. As soon as the dentist agreed to see me, my tooth began to hurt less.
Now I’m rushing to catch the bus. As the bus driver takes my ticket, he says, “I’m so sorry to hear about your mother.”
“How do you know about that?” I ask.
“Your wife told me.”
“You know my wife?”
“Yeah, I do aikido with her.”
“She never mentioned you, I don’t think.”
“She throws me on the ground all the time. She’s very tough! You’d better be careful around her.”
“Believe me, I am,” I say.
I’m a little angry at Western medicine. If doctors could keep my mother alive to the age of ninety-six, why couldn’t they sustain her another thirty years until I’m ninety-six? Then maybe I wouldn’t care if she passed on.
I’m halfway through Foreign Affairs. Besides being a capitalist with vast wealth, Stone Barrington is best friends with the New York City police commissioner, Dino Bacchetti. Plus he has connections in the CIA, and even to the president herself. (The chief executive, a woman named Kate, calls Stone and asks, “How can I help?”) After a while I began to side with Stone’s nemesis, the small-time Mafia extortionist Leo Casselli. He’s certainly the underdog.
Everything else that I have known for sixty-six years — the law of gravity, the behavior of light, the sound of wind — remains true. Only one anchor of my worldview has evaporated.
I’m going to a Halloween party tonight. What should my costume be? Maybe Death himself, with a skull head, a long black robe, and a scythe.
In Foreign Affairs Stone Barrington’s girlfriend, Hedy, is kidnapped by the wicked Leo Casselli. Hedy secretes a cell phone in her vagina, but when she removes it and makes a call, the signal is too weak to be traced. Ultimately Hedy escapes from the room where she’s imprisoned and finds another cell phone, but she doesn’t know the password and can’t use it.
I am like Hedy: lost and untraceable. Of course, Hedy will eventually be rescued by the indefatigable Stone Barrington. Who will save me?
Grief is recurrent, like malaria. You feel that you’ve recovered; then you slide back into the cheerless abyss.
Is it possible to cry half a tear? If so, I cried half a tear today.
How to describe what I’m going through? It’s like breaking up with your girlfriend, if your girlfriend had also given birth to you.
Today I feel like a jack-o’-lantern whose light has gone out — or, at least, dimmed considerably. I am depressed, or maybe just sad. But when I walk outside, into the wind pouring down from Mount Tremper, pulling at the milkweed pods and the last few chicory flowers, my mood lightens. I imagine my mother riding the wind like a little sprite, laughing.
Sadness has a dimension, like length, width, and depth. A particular sadness can be miles and miles long.
Thank you for your note on my mother’s death.
It leaves a small but nagging hole in your life when your mother dies. Anyway, that is how it has affected me. Luckily, I suppose, my mother had a long period of gradual withdrawal from the world. By the time she left, she occupied a tiny corner of it — but she was wonderfully popular in her nursing home, for her stoic friendliness and tart humor. I think her absolute antiracism was a great benefit to her. The West Indian women who labored around her knew that she respected them.
Today I miss my mother. To be honest, I miss the security of having her in the world, protecting me from nameless demons — the same ones who lived under my bed when I was five.
I hope to see you soon.
This is the day of my mother’s memorial service at Union Temple, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. Here is the speech I wrote to deliver today:
I ran naked through Washington Square Park in 1955, thanks to my mother. She believed that two-year-olds should be unencumbered by the artificial restraints of American garments.
When I was sick as a kid, she rubbed my chest with Vicks VapoRub, made me Campbell’s chicken-noodle soup and toast, and served me flat Coca-Cola. She was a believer in the curative powers of uncarbonated Coke. When Anna and I were kids, she sang us this song:
Baby elephant lullaby, Baby elephant, don’t you cry. Hush-a-bye, my little one, Soon you’ll weigh half a ton.
It’s a tune I’ve never heard anywhere else. This lullaby was the start of my lifetime love affair with the absurd.
Her whole life, my mother had an instinct for justice. Maybe it came from being born out of wedlock in Pennsylvania Dutchland in 1923. She was, by birth, sensitive to the hypocrisy of supposedly religious people.
Mom hated the church of her childhood, with its terrifying sermons about the sufferings of hell, but she loved Reform Judaism, which is essentially social activism redefined as a religion. It is fitting that we are in a temple right now.
I feel that I must discuss my mother’s admiration of the American Communist Party. Yes, they revered Joseph Stalin, who had certain limitations as a spiritual leader. But Stalin would’ve been Stalin whether or not twenty thousand Americans venerated him. What did the Communist Party actually do? Mostly it had two goals: to combat racial injustice and to build labor unions. Theodore Dreiser, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson — these were not fools, and they were all members of the Party. We red-diaper babies (children of American Communists) have nothing to be ashamed of. According to the FBI, my mother did not join the Party, but she loved communism. To her it was high praise to say, “He’s just like a Communist,” as she once remarked of New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman.
My mother taught me to dress like a Pennsylvania Dutchman, a practice I have continued to this day. What does this mean? To wear a long-sleeve shirt even in summer, and an undershirt to soak up the sweat. Usually the shirt is a somber color. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but my mother bought me long-sleeve shirts until I was in my fifties — and would have continued, except that my father told her one day, “Michael is old enough to buy his own shirts,” which was completely untrue.
Mom was my first literary agent, mimeographing copies of my depressive poems in junior high school and liberally handing them out to all my relatives. She went to City College in the 1960s and learned about Bob Dylan from young students who played acoustic guitars. I became a Dylan fan because of her.
I once saw an art show at Exit Art in Soho in which an artist presented the collection of paintings her parents had hung on their walls. An art collection is a kind of self-portrait, and my mother’s collection was wide-ranging, coloristic, and jubilant — though she and my father slept under a tragic cityscape by Maurice Utrillo throughout my childhood.
My mother quietly surrounded herself with first-rate art, a fine carnival-glass collection, and antique furniture — all on a budget of approximately zero. Her favorite artist was Velázquez, who is, in fact, the best artist. She studied art at the Communist-run Workers School on 23rd Street, and the two surviving paintings she made are solid, heartfelt, and bold.
Mom never had too much time to dust the apartment, and, to this day, when I’m in a spotlessly clean house, I experience existential dread.
One reason I have utopian tendencies is that I grew up in the Dyckman Houses, a middle-income housing project run by the City of New York. Nowadays we would call it “multicultural” or “diverse,” but the term in the 1960s was “racially integrated.” Almost all the residents were Irish Catholic, Jewish, or African American. One kid, whom we all called Louie Longlegs, later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The youth of the Dyckman Houses played together in respectful harmony, except for the inevitable competition involved in playing punchball and ring-a-levio. (If you need those terms defined, please speak to me afterward.) It was the most successful social experiment I have ever participated in, and it could not have succeeded without people like Helen Lois Gorelick. As I wrote in her obituary, “She hated racism and cats.”
Woody Guthrie composed a song in 1940 that describes my mother:
There once was a union maid, she never was afraid Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid. She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called, And when the Legion boys come ’round She always stood her ground: “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union. Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.”
My mother had a strong life force. The same power that drives the wind and rain, the rice and barley, flowed through her. She cheated death a number of times. She survived cancer and diverticulitis. Now her life force returns to the great source of life.
January 13, 2020
Looking through an old file, I find these notes:
Conversation with My Mother
We are sitting together at the kitchen table. I look up.
“I’m still here,” my mother says. “But someday I won’t be.”
“And then what?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe you’ll go to Communist heaven.”
“Oh, no, that would be boring!”
“You could listen to Pete Seeger.”
“Is he there?”
“I thought so.”
What my mother desperately needed was affirmation. She was always talking about how many credits she had in graduate school — thirty credits above a master’s degree. She wanted others to salute her achievement. She began her education in a one-room schoolhouse and became a sophisticated, educated woman.
I wish I could have given her that validation. Maybe a son can’t do that for a mother.
This is my first Mother’s Day without my mother. I feel so much less guilt! I don’t have to hate myself for calling her too late in the day, or not talking long enough, or not sending a card. For the first time I can love Mom without self-accusation — and perhaps she can likewise love me.
When I was little, my mother read to me, and deep inside me she is still reading Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel as I stare at the pictures in delight.
I’ve received a check for $37,745.47 from the United Federation of Teachers, my mother’s union: a death benefit. I deposit the check in the Ulster Savings Bank here in Phoenicia, and, as I walk home, I feel my mother floating above me, pleased with my new riches. She and I converse:
Me: Mom, thanks for all this money. I appreciate it.
Mom: I didn’t really do anything to earn it.
Me: Well, you died.
Mom: That’s true. But I had to do that anyway.
Me: Nonetheless it’s not that easy.
Mom: Yes, it wasn’t easy. But I’m glad I did it.
Mom: I’m much better off. I’m in line to be reborn in about twenty-eight days.
Me: They tell you how soon?
Mom: Yes, it’s all very organized. I know a whole bunch of people here.
Me: Oh, yeah, that makes sense. How are they doing?
Mom: Everyone’s great! The food isn’t that good.
Me: Well, good food is a rarity everywhere.
Mom: I suppose.
The Pennsylvania Dutch eat mustard on cheese. Today I have a slice of Jarlsberg slathered with mustard, in honor of Mom.
Words and music to “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie, WGP/TRO. Copyright © 1961, 1963 by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & Ludlow Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.