Funny and die: a Mother’s Day tale

Although not generally known as a funny person, my mother did contribute the occasional pun or witticism to family conversations. She even made some clever nonverbal contributions, like the time when we kids were playing a card game and she stood behind one of us helpfully humming “We Three Kings.” She was never so hilarious, however, as on her deathbed.

During her last few days of delirium, I transcribed a collection of what seemed at the time to be very funny remarks. Now I wonder if we laughed so hard just to distract ourselves from the unpleasantness of being about to lose our mom. These are some of the comments I considered worth preserving:

I don’t want to burnish something just to have to drop it.

Behold, behold, behave, behold, behold.

I’m going to make sure that Tillie gets the remnants of this thing.

Just remember that you have certain legal rights.

The last one shouldn’t have struck us as humorous, coming from a lawyer. I guess it was because these were all unprovoked comments, spoken to no one in particular, that we found them so amusing. For the last week or so she didn’t interact with, or even recognize, most people.

One exception occurred just a couple of days before she died. By that time the three of us were taking turns staying overnight in her room. Luckily there was no other occupant assigned to the second bed, so we could catch a few winks there between nurse visits. Late one night, when I thought she had no idea who was in the room with her, I was surprised to hear her call my name.

“Yes?” I said.

“Have you looked at yourself in the last 24 hours?”

“Uhhh, yes.”

“What do you think?”

“I think I look OK . . . Do you think there’s something wrong with how I look?”

She gave an exasperated sigh and asked, “Do you have any common sense at all?”

“I think I do.”

“Well, you’re certainly exhibiting a lack of it.”

At the time, I saw this exchange as yet another product of her failing, disoriented mind (albeit one that included a conversation partner) and added it to the list. Only months later did I start to find the dialog disturbing. The tone and content were just too similar to some of the conversations that I’d had with my younger, healthier mother, and in the three years before her death I definitely felt that I wasn’t exhibiting much common sense.

Which brings me to the deathbed exclamation that we probably laughed at the hardest: “Stop knocking me up!”

We assumed that this was pure nonsense, until we thought about it for about a second. After all, this was the woman who suffered from severe postpartum depression (lasting for six months after I, the second child, was born). This was the woman whose career was put on hold for years while she stayed home with three small children (though it wasn’t so much the staying home as having to take us all out that really seemed to annoy her). And when we were all finally out of diapers and my father commented in dismay, “We have no babies!” she was quick to reassure him that this was perfectly OK.

Aside from the times when we needed reprimanding, her usual attitude toward us was one of inattention and (mostly benign) neglect. We would joke about how you could get her to agree to anything while she was reading the newspaper. (“Mom, can we get a pony?” “Mm-hmm.”) When I was 8, a family friend had a baby, and I watched in astonishment as my mother played with and showed affection to this other child. I had certainly never received that kind of loving attention.

It isn’t a stretch to assume that she always resented at least two of us, and that she blamed our father for subjecting her to repeated bouts of pregnancy. She really should have nipped us nippers in the bud, as I did when I found myself knocked up a second and third time. (I actually would have been happy to keep at least one of those embryos, but their father insisted otherwise.) Had she stopped after the first child, her life might have been even more accomplished and fulfilling than it eventually was. She should have at least skipped the middle child, who, despite having a low burden of motherhood herself, never amounted to much.

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