Saturday, June 27, 2009

My Dead Mom and the Savages

As I sit here in the living room, writing this, my kids (he’s 4 years old, she’s 3) are in here with me, playing. I’ve been sitting with my back to the computer, watching them play “baby”. The one whose turn it is to be “the baby” talks in a cutesie high-pitched voice, while the other “feeds” the baby, puts him/her to bed, or gives hugs & kisses. I wish my mom were here, to see her grandchildren. She died 4 years and one marriage before my son was born. She would have loved him, because he looks and acts like me (neurotic Type-A control freak), and would have loved my little girl as the daughter she always wanted--but never had.

I watched a movie last night about a brother and sister who go through the same thing that I went through with my mom in the late 90s. “The Savages”, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney, and Philip Bosco (having two Phils on the set must have been confusing), is about the siblings’ sudden confrontation with their father’s declining health, along with their unresolved anger at the abuse that they suffered at his hands, as children. Laura Linney—who should have gotten 2008’s best actress* Oscar—plays Wendy, the film’s protagonist. Hoffman does a superb job playing a middle-aged college professor who career and status aren’t quite as stellar as he had expected, and his star power must have filled seats in the theater; but Linney’s portrayal of a pill-popping forty-ish spinster whose career and love life are a disaster steals the show. Philip Bosco does such a good job playing an unshaven, senile old bastard that I repeatedly had to remind myself that he’s only an actor playing a part.

Another aspect of the film that I appreciated was that the people, houses, cars, and hospitals looked like the real world, not the Hollywood version, where cops and plumbers live in gorgeous 3 bedroom houses with designer furniture, and immaculate lawns.

I hope my kids don’t have to go through what the fictional Savages go through, or what I went through, with my mother. Like the Savages, I came home from work one day, and discovered that my life had irrevocably changed. I arrived at the apartment in San Pedro that we had occupied for twenty years, and found her on the bathroom floor, her legs twisted underneath her; a tooth missing; blood on her face. Somewhere between the time that I called her from the hospital where I worked, to when I got home, the left half of her brain had spontaneously exploded in a massive stroke. In the hospital, the various medicines and blood transfusions they pumped into her couldn’t stop the internal bleeding. Each day’s follow-up head CT showed more and more of her brain being shoved aside by a high-pressure pool of blood. The fact that I worked in radiology, and knew what I was looking at on her scans made it worse. I envy patients and their family members who agreeably nod while a doctor shows them the tumor on their MRI, having no idea what he’s pointing at. Whoever said “ignorance is bliss” had no idea how right he was.

My life turned into a grand tour of hospitals and convalescent homes of L.A. County. During the day I worked in various hospitals, then visited mom in whatever institution she was currently residing in. For the first 6 months, she never uttered a word, or acknowledged me. After that, it took a year before she worked her way up to 11 words that she could pronounce: all of them in Hungarian, and only understood by me. Not only did the stroke completely and permanently paralyze her right side, it washed away 25 years of hard-won English learned not in college or night school, but at work, immersed in the WASP culture of her strange new world.

Despite my crowning of Laura Linney as the star of “The Savages”, I empathized with Hoffman’s character Jon, the exasperated brother who sees past the cheerful names and well-manicured lawns of the various convalescent homes that they assess. The world-view and interpretation of events is split in an emotional ying and yang between the brother and sister. Viewers may assign Wendy the feminine role of the one who wants to talk, grieve, and experience emotions, while her brother Jon is rational, clear-minded, and plans for the future. This may be true to some degree, but an oversimplified retreat into stereotypes would be tantamount to intellectual laziness. Jon—the sibling who has it all together—is in just as bad shape emotionally as his sister, he just keeps denying it.

In my mother’s case I was both Jon and Wendy: trying to make rational decisions about her fate one day, sobbing the next. The one thing nobody prepared me for was the delayed reaction. Shortly after mom’s funeral I marveled at how well I had weathered the end phase of her life, and was glad to be able to move on. Six months later, it came out of its hiding place, and slapped me violently. At work while starting an i.v. on a patient, or while sitting in class in my Masters program, I would suddenly break down, sobbing. I was mystified. The sudden attacks of melancholy would arrive from no-where, punch me in the nose, and leave me in a crumpled heap. My wife at the time graduated from college, and found a steady job. After she repeated her refusal to ever have children, and her mother reminded me that I still wasn’t good enough for her daughter, I realized that I no longer had someone to support and take care of, and it was time for me to fly away.

The final shot in “The Savages” shows one of the characters with a newly acquired dog. That’s what I did, too. I guess that’s how it works.

*Repeat after me: actress, not actor. Waitress, not waiter. I still call them "stewardess" on the plane, and have never been scolded & "corrected" by the airline employees for speaking proper English.

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