Excerpt from my unpublished memoir, Madawaska Road [many of the names have been changed, including my own]
In 1967, you’d never know my mother had blood cancer. I certainly didn’t. I would have been thirteen and not giving a second thought to how my mother was feeling. One thing I did know though from early on was that she had a temper. She was a pistol, a fire-cracker, a wild-cat, but she did not threaten violence in the thunderously barbaric style of my father’s “I’m going to take my belt off to you.” My mother’s temper was more the simmering variety, and if she couldn’t get you to do what she wanted by subtle manipulation, she had a way of crossing you off her list that stung far worse than a whipping.
It was during that time that my sister Toni came home for spring break of her freshman year at the University of Tennessee to be a cherry blossom princess (a dubious honor that my parents had also arranged for my other sister Gwen), and Toni announced that she had eloped with a boy from upstate New York. She was eighteen, the second oldest after Gwen, who was twenty. My brother Sean was sixteen, three years older than I. This variation in the 2-years-between-babies pattern is probably why my mother told me from time to time, “You were not an accident.”
Later that spring, probably in May when the college term was over, Toni and her new husband, Ray, were passing through on their way to wherever they were going, and my mother invited a number of my parents’ friends to a party to celebrate the marriage. It was on a Saturday afternoon--perhaps it was to start at two o’clock. My mother had spent all morning and the day before preparing a ham, potato salad, a pyramid of cold shrimp with several dipping sauces and a beautiful dessert, my favorite, one that she only made for company, an ice cream bomb surrounded by lady fingers and covered with fresh strawberries.
My father wore charcoal dress slacks and a Madras blazer over a yellow shirt. My mother wore a rose pink suit she had sewn, and shiny black high heels with silver buckles at the toes. I put on a dusky blue chambray sundress that made me feel skinny and pretty and white flats that had little daisies all over them. Toni went through my closet and selected for herself a Mexican embroidered peasant blouse, a denim skirt and a pair of blue rubber thongs. Ray sat on the family room couch smoking a cigarette, kind of hunched over with his elbows on his knees, still wearing the same clothes from the day before, a stretched-out black pocket tee-shirt with faded, torn blue jeans, and moccasins.
With his long shaggy black hair and thick black mustache, I actually thought he was good-looking, but my parents deemed him disreputable. When we were all reassembled in the family room my father asked my mother in a booming voice, “Are Mel and Barbara going to be able to make it?” and she replied that they certainly were. Then he remarked on Toni’s outfit and asked me if that blouse she wore wasn’t one of mine. I said that it was and Toni sat down next to Ray and told him it would be a good idea if he changed his shirt at least.
“You have time for a shower if you are quick about it, Ray,” my father offered.
“I’m not going to take a shower,” Ray mumbled.
“You will change into clean clothes,” my mother said. It wasn’t a question.
“No,” he replied, and grumbled a few choice words under his breath to Toni.
“I think you should put on a clean shirt and a pair of slacks, Ray,” my father told him.
“These are the only clothes I brought,” Ray said.
My father got up and said to my mother, “Sean probably left some things.” Then he turned to Toni and said, “Why don’t you take Ray up to your brother’s room and see what you can find.”
“Daddy, no,” Toni said. “Ray’s not going to wear Sean’s clothes.”
My father sat back down and there was a very long silence. I started to feel sick to my stomach, more from hunger than nerves, but that gave way to morbid excitement when my mother abruptly turned, nearly knocking over a ladder-back chair as she marched into the kitchen. The next thing we heard was her bright, social telephone voice. “Hi Betty -- This is Thelma. I’m so glad I was able to reach you. We’ve had to cancel the party. No-no, everything’s fine, something just came up. Yes, we will certainly let you know when we reschedule.”
This went on for some time as we waited in tense silence in the family room. My father sat oddly upright in his easy chair, anything but relaxed, as if he could hear the ticking bomb and was doing a mental countdown. Toni was next to Ray on the couch, but huddled up against the arm and side table so that Ray had to lean across her and aim for the ashtray every time he flicked his cigarette.
I was next to the sliding glass doors that looked out over the patio, which was completely littered with crab apples, thronging with yellow jacket hornets. My mother’s scent of Arpège preceded her into the room. She had taken off her high heels and was in her stocking feet as she strode up to Ray, seared him with her eyes and presented him with a stinging and shocking reprimand I will never forget: “I don’t care if you run around naked with your penis on fire. You are not going to meet my friends.”
The last time I saw my mother outside of the hospital was when she and my father dropped me off at camp in June of 1970. She had just turned fifty; I was sixteen. It was drizzling and the sky was darkening. I said goodbye, and got out of the car with my guitar, my duffle, and my sleeping bag. My father had already gone to the main house to tell the camp director my mother was very ill. I doubt he came right out and said she was dying, nobody did, at least to my recollection. I remember how her profile appeared through the fogged up window, how we waved to each other as if I were simply taking a walk around the block. Then I made my way across the wet grass and into the woods to my platform tent.
I was a second-year counselor-in-training at a camp for rich kids, worlds away from the Girl Scout camps I had attended, but working for free was the only way I could be there and I enjoyed four very memorable summers at Camp Rim Rock. Family friends knew the director, and that’s how I got in.
Every night at bedtime, I would sit on the wooden steps of my platform tent, play my guitar and sing to the campers in my unit. One of my favorite songs was “Judgment Day” from a Peter, Paul and Mary album that I had. The opening words were: “Everybody’s gonna to pray on the very last day.” Although I knew all the lyrics and sang them heartily, I never considered their meaning. I just liked the tune and the guitar riff.
One night several weeks in, a tiny voice piped up from one of the tents, I remember the child, her name was Betty, and she was very petite and quite cute with chin-length black hair. “Hayley,” she said. “Could you not sing that anymore, it scares me.”
“Oh, okay,” I said with surprise. Then I felt guilty. What was I doing singing a song about death to a bunch of eight year-olds? From then on I sang nice songs, like: “I’m in Love With a Big Blue Frog,” and “If I Had Wings,” and for awhile I felt bad about singing “Judgment Day” and a little stupid that it hadn’t occurred to me that it was inappropriate for children, but Betty was just happy not to have to hear it anymore, and when her parents came to pick her up, as they were saying goodbye, her father handed her a dollar bill which she proudly gave to me.
One Saturday night at the end of July I was helping the campers churn peppermint candy ice cream on a picnic table. It was a tall wooden churn with a hand crank. The children took turns cranking and I kept adding ice chips to the rock salt that was packed into the space between the wooden churn and the metal canister that contained the ice cream. The camp director’s wife, a wonderful Austrian woman named Hilde, came over beside me and said she’d take over with the ice cream churn because my father was on the phone. I left abruptly as if I’d been dismissed, yet I walked reluctantly across the tennis courts and past the chicken yard toward the main house. I was unable to quicken my steps even when I saw the rooster jut out from behind his little hut, because I didn’t want to pick up the telephone and hear my father’s voice. I knew why he was calling. There was only one phone at camp, and no one called unless it was an emergency.
I wore my usual attire of cut-off jeans and tee-shirt, my hands and arms sticky with ice cream, my bare feet in Keds shuffling through the dirt at the edge of the grassy lawn past the chicken coop and the free-roaming chickens. The nervous cramps in my stomach were so bad I had to stop and lean over for just a second but it was enough to rile up the rooster. He ran up behind me and brutally pecked the back of my bare calf leaving a bloody gouge. This made me cry out, not so much from pain as from surprise. No one saw or heard as far as I could tell. There wasn’t a soul around. I opened the screen door and stepped inside the dimly lit hallway. The black phone, off the hook, was on top of a chest of drawers.
I picked it up. “Dad?”
“Hayley.” His voice was tired, flat, and defeated. “I’m coming in the morning to bring you home. I’ll be there about ten. Please be ready.”
It was a Saturday night, the last week of July. On Sunday morning, while everyone else gathered at a place called Inspiration Point, I pulled clothes out of my duffle. I rescued a pair of brown cut-off cords from the very bottom of the bag, that hadn’t been worn all summer so they were clean, though still a bit damp and smelly. I put on the brand new red v-neck I had just gotten in the mail from my friend, Tracy, who was in London. She’d also sent a Leonard Cohen album. I picked that up, too, to bring home.
It was too early to go wait on the stone wall but I didn’t know what else to do. I sat on the edge of my cot and listened to the songs filtering through the trees from Inspiration Point. I wanted so much to be up there on that grassy knoll with everyone else. For it to just be an ordinary Sunday. I couldn’t exactly hear their voices but I recognized the song and sang along.
“Peace I ask of thee, oh, river, peace, peace, peace. When I learn to live serenely, cares will cease. From the hills I gather courage, visions of the days to be. Strength to lead and faith to follow, all are given unto me. Peace I ask of thee oh river, peace, peace, peace.”
It was a cool morning. The bugs hadn’t come out yet. When I heard the sudden dispersal of campers, I hurried to gather my things, the record, the book I was reading, and also my journal. I didn’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone. Not even my friend, Debbie, an older counselor, who had offered to wait with me.
I went to the far end of the stone wall that surrounded the main house and sat in a spot beside a large oak tree that mostly hid me from view. It was at the end of the drive so I would see my father’s car when it pulled in. The stones were hard and cold beneath my thighs and I had to keep shifting my weight against the discomfort. I knocked my journal off the wall and when I retrieved it, the note from Tracy fell out, the one that said, “I’m sorry about your mother, but pray for her?”
I felt ashamed and humiliated all over again. Pray for her was what my father scrawled on the hastily-written letters he’d sent me that summer and writing it to Tracy had been automatic. Just like throwing salt over your shoulder for good luck, or saying “bread and butter” when you walk on either side of a telephone pole. Yet Tracy had never heard me say anything like that before and it must have seemed like a ludicrous request coming from me.
When the brown station wagon turned into the gravel drive, I sat up straight and still, focusing on the approaching car so intently, my vision blurred. I thought, please don’t let it be true, please. My father seemed to be moving too slowly yet I didn’t want him to arrive. He rounded the curve beside the archery field, driving on the grass a little as if the sun was in his eyes, but the sky was overcast. For just an instant as he pulled to a stop I felt a fleeting sense of joy at the sight of two people in the front seat. I was just foolish enough to think it was my mother there beside him, and my heart filled with hope, but of course it was not, it was a family friend, Mr. E., who accompanied my father.
Two hours later we arrived at our barren deserted house where my father had lived alone the past two months. I heard him on the telephone to my brother who had a summer beach job in Rhode Island, and learned that while my brother agreed to come home, he insisted on bringing his girl friend with him and my father was upset about that. Then there was an even worse phone call to my sisters who were somewhere up north at a music festival. Apparently they were refusing to leave because I well remember my father’s plaintive cry, “Damn it! Your mother is dying you have to come home.” I was ashamed of them and sorry for him but it was a familiar feeling that had been deep-seated.
During my mother’s final days, the doctors tried everything they could think of, they removed her spleen, gave her multiple spinal taps. They wanted to try giving her platelets from our blood because there had been some possible success at that time with platelet donations from siblings, but my mother was an only child. Toni, Sean and I all agreed but Gwen refused, screaming in the hallway outside the lab, “I’m not going to let them take my blood like a bunch of vampires!”
I was directed to a big chair with an IV pole on either side. A pint of blood was drawn from each if us and put into a special machine that separated the red cells, white cells and platelets. The platelets were given to my mother. My sister Toni claims that her platelets had worked and our mother might have lived if they had tried that earlier. But I think this is an example of Toni’s omnipotent complex.
There are two things I remember quite clearly from those last days at the hospital. We were standing around my mother’s bed when my father asked, “Thelma, do you love us?” and after awhile a voice that didn’t sound like hers said, “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.” I hated his dumb needy question and I didn’t like her answer. I wanted to slap my father. Why do you have to be such a baby? And to my mother I might have cried, you didn’t answer the question, do you love us?
The second memory that stays with me to this day was when I was walking around the grounds with Toni and I asked her if she believed in God. She said, “If I do it’s only to say, fuck you.” I was afraid for us then, as if we’d be struck down at any moment for such blasphemy.
A nurse came to get us and said it was time. I stayed in the doorway as everyone else found a spot around the bed. My mother’s breathing was loud and then it stopped. Nobody moved. Almost immediately my mother sighed a great huge sigh, and I gasped hopefully.
The nurse said, “That’s only the death rattle, that’s normal.”
I froze there in the doorway as I watched my father hug the nurse. I had to get out of there. I ran down the hall to the end where several stained upholstered chairs had been haphazardly abandoned. The floor was strewn with newspapers and a few paper cups. I leaned against the window and looked out over the parking lot and the neighborhood beyond. Lights were on in the houses so it must have been late. I longed to be one of those people inside one of those houses, not myself alone and terrified in the stinky abandoned hospital hallway. I rested my forehead on my folded arms and whispered, “I can’t believe you did it.”
A nurse strode up the hallway behind me, asking, “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said, but I certainly was not.
She came closer and touched my arm. “Don’t feel too bad. This morning we lost a 35 year-old mother of three.”
I straightened up and turned to face her, stunned.
Here I am (middle, holding the photographs) at Camp Rim Rock in 1972. Photo by Ginny Padgette.