My Mother’s Death

The death of my mother is a foregone conclusion.

It pains me to write these words.

I want to take them back because I fear that what I say will become true.

It’s the way I am, and I have felt that way since 1968 when my father died on the kitchen floor before me.

Helpless to help him as he lay dying, my mind congealed in a strange way and imagined that my actions and thoughts had extraordinary powers.

It became part of my persona.

Touching rituals, arranging furniture a certain way would stave off disaster.

As would prayers to God that were structured a certain way.

There were times I couldn’t leave the house or fly on a jet unless the furniture was arranged a certain way.

I was obsessed with symmetry and balance.

Why, the jet would surely crash if I didn’t touch the doorknob so many times when leaving the house.

You probably think now that I was a full blown psycho, and you would be right that my OCD did get in the way of my life.

But I did manage to control it, although I can revive it at any time of my choosing.

You see, it will always be part of me.

It is who I am.

It began when my father died.

It is a terrifying event to be left alone.

It is a terrifying event to be left with one parent to care for you.

A child subconsciously understands this. And so the child asks: What will happen to me if mom dies?

It is a terrifying question to confront.

And a child lives with that question his or her entire life, for death or abandonment is a life defining event for a child.

As an adult you may form an opinion about death; as a child death forms an opinion about you, and twists your mind in the process.

And so it is.

And here we are.

And here I am, flying back to Pennsylvania to visit Mom, maybe for the last time.

She is slowly dying now, barely conscious.

I know I will cry when I see her as I did the other day on the telephone when my sister allowed me to see her though videoconference.

I told her she didn’t have to hang on for my account, that if she wanted to pass on that would be okay, that she wouldn’t be alone. I told her that she would be back in Smyrna again with her Aunt Mary and her Uncle Norman and her cousins.

I was sobbing.

I thanked her for helping me through medical school.

She still had her wits about her though. She seemed to laugh and ask if I thought she would go to heaven or hell.

Of course I answered heaven. What kind of son do you think I am?

Our mothers are truly, as Abe Lincoln stated, our guardian angels.

They give us life, and they are the first people to give us nourishment.

They are the only people who are truly in our corner throughout our lives.

No matter how badly we may treat them, they are always in our corner.

Like most children I said a lot of stupid, mean things to my mother over 67 years and I’d take every one of them back if I could.

But I can’t; they happened.

In spite of all that my mother supported me through college, medical school and residency when few others would.

How did I get through that abuse in my training?

I could always call my mom. Sometimes I would fall asleep while she was talking. Being on call every third night gives a new definition to being tired. And so when she would call, I’d lay on the floor with the handset balanced on the side of my face. I was too tired to hold it.

A few days later she might call and say: Well, I was talking and you didn’t respond, so I assumed you fell asleep.

When I was in medical school, she worked at Woolco to earn a few extra bucks to help me out. She also suffered through a second marriage that was less than ideal.

But she sucked it up.

Whoever said that life was supposed to be a bowl of cherries, she would say. She bemoaned young people who wanted everything in life delivered on a silver platter.

She believed that to do work was to do honor.

She also believed in the truth.

When I was young I asked her to lie for me regarding some incident in junior high.

She got after me and told me she wasn’t going to lie for me.

Those are the values that she imparted to me.

Sadly, those values didn’t translate well in medical school and residency where duplicity, mendacity and Machiavellianism reigns supreme.

In medical school when you tell a professor you don’t know something he grades you down.

Those misguided machos weren’t smart enough to know that all knowledge begins with admitting that you don’t know and that admitting that you don’t know is a sign of strength not weakness.

Do you want to know why so many doctors at the Mecca are jerks?

Because they didn’t have my mother for a mother who would have taught them to be down to earth and honest.

My mother was not an elitist, nor a person who put on airs.

She didn’t care for William Shakespeare.

Thank you, mother. I thought I was alone. I d-e-s-p-i-s-e William Shakespeare.

What a clever-talking phony he was. And is.

It’s no wonder the “Wine and Brie” elites love him.

Surely my mother saw right through Shakespeare and many of these other British blowhards that are crammed down our throats in high school and college.

Indeed, Shakespeare wouldn’t survive if he weren’t mandated. Okay, okay, I’m being unfair. He had one good play, maybe two. I think you know what I mean.

Shakespeare is the playwright of the elites because they know we don’t enjoy nor understand 16th century Elizabethan English. Shakespeare is maintained not for the benefit of the people but for the benefit of the elites. They use Shakespeare to intimidate us and to justify their tyrannical rule.

Ironically if you search Mom’s ancestry she came from a few of those elites back in the old country. And, believe it or not, I was able to run her family history back a thousand years. But in modern times, her heritage was of common folk.

Mom’s tastes were more in line with the regular man and woman. She loved pulp fiction, and she loved to read biographies.

Movies were a big part of her life also.

Mom gave me my love and appreciation for film.

Turner Classic Movies was constantly playing even as she aged and could no longer see the actors.

She had many favorite actors, of course, but her favorite among favorites I would say was John Wayne.

When I visited her over Labor Day, we watched True Grit together.

It is still a wonderful movie, and John Wayne is terrific.

In this movie Wayne exhibits the strength, honesty and humor that make him still today the quintessential American.

He embodies everything that America has been and should be, and it is these qualities that my mother and many other Americans value.

My mother was born Frances Ann Davis in 1925 on a farm in Smyrna, Delaware.

Who is born on a farm anymore?

When my mom was born Calvin Coolidge was President.

Calvin Coolidge!

Mom’s dad was an itinerant farmer. Her mother died when Mom was nine. Her dad unable to care for her, sent her to live with her cousins, Alma, Norma and their parents Norman and Mary Coleman.

To suddenly lose both parents was devastating to my mom’s confidence but not her willingness to carry on.

A favorite saying of hers was: It is what it is.

She had a sign in her bedroom at the retirement home to remind her.

She had to please others to survive, and her new mother was a strict authoritarian who didn’t approve of wild living, swearing, or alcohol (unlike her father her Aunt Mary would note). Nevertheless their home gave my mom the stability her life required.

She must have been a little wild though. One time she told me that she dated a boy who was in the Civil Air Patrol.

He took me up, she told me.

When was this, I asked. Were you in high school?

I guess, she responded.

I was starting to shit a brick. It must have been 1941. How reliable and safe could aircraft possibly have been in 1941?

Was this a biplane, I continued. Was this something that Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic in?

Flashes of Orville and Wilbur flying their contraption at Kitty Hawk danced through my mind.

And you got up in this thing, I exclaimed, my voice rising.

Sure, she calmly replied with no regrets.

That’s how my mother was – oddly adventurous within a lifetime of conformity.

She was a good person, always putting others before herself, always thinking of others.

She had to.

I didn’t understand that when I was young. Kids rarely understand their parents and why they are the way they are.

There’s much of a parent’s lifetime that precedes our entrance upon the stage of life.

After my dad died in August of 68, our family suffered. I cried every day for a year, and my mom was there when I cried.

She had to make tough choices with few people there to help her. How long would the money hold out? What would happen next? How would the bills get paid?

My mom was an RN but had not worked as a nurse for decades. These were the 50s and 60s where moms stayed at home.

My dad was a research doctor at Smith, Kline and French in Philadelphia. He attended Ursinus College for his undergraduate studies, then completed medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s where he met Mom.

After a brief stint in the Army, they traveled to Madison, Wisconsin where Dad was a young professor.

I was born in 1954, and after four years we moved back to the Philadelphia area where I grew up.

Dad died in 1968. He was overweight and he smoked.

My mother never stopped thinking about him. He was always with her. She didn’t need to be reminded of that.

But life takes strange turns and curves.

It is what it is.

Ultimately my mom met Don who had recently divorced from his first wife. He had two sons and a daughter.

When Mom remarried, Donnie and Stevie, my step-brothers, came to live with Mom, me and my sisters, Mary and Barbara. Linda, my stepsister, lived with her mom.

I didn’t like the fact that our family had to accommodate so much when Mom remarried.

It seemed like there were two sets of rules, one for our side of the newly combined family, and another for the other side.

Maybe Donnie and Stevie felt the same way.

Nevertheless, I held that against her. I thought she went too far. And there’s no doubt it contributed to my personality and drive to ensure that there was an equitable distribution of privileges in this world.

Her remarriage intensified my hatred of elitism and elite institutions precisely because elites do set up a separate set of rules to favor themselves.

If I despised overrated, over-celebrated, and over-privileged mother fuckers (Mom didn’t approve of swearing) like William Shakespeare (and his admirers and benefactors) before, my loathing was now on hyperdrive.

Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, my mother did not share my feelings of disgust for elitists or elite institutions.

Sure, Mom knew they were crooks, but oddly never fixated on where she stood in life as opposed to them – the people who are talked about.

She proudly embraced being one of the little people. It didn’t bother her as much as it bothered me.

I detested the so-called big shots and their phony Ivy League pedigrees. While my mother loved celebrities, and news personalities like Anderson Cooper (St. Anderson to my mother), I came to despise them as the elitist, duplicitous frauds they are.

My mother adored the kind of people who made her life difficult in her golden years.

Yes, that’s right. The Greatest Generation got sold down the river by the people they admired and respected.

I tried convincing her of that, to no avail.

I was always brutally honest with Mom. I said to her once: Mom, listen to me, FDR (Harvard)and Stimson (Secretary of War, a phony Harvard graduate) provoked the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor, they knew the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, and Stimson was relieved that they attacked Pearl Harbor, and he wrote so in his diary.

When I told her that, she looked at me in total disbelief and screamed: Whaaaaat? Whaaaaat? Where do you read this stuff?

I laughed out loud because I always enjoyed bursting her Frank Capra bubble.

It’s on the Internet, Mom, I replied.

I also burst her Anderson Cooper bubble.

Mom had told me many years ago, before I even knew who Anderson Cooper was, that nobody would hire Anderson, that he’d had a hard time getting a job. This was the bullshit Horatio Alger story that was pumped out by the MSM for human consumption.

Well, it only took me less than thirty minutes of scouring the Internet to discover that Anderson Cooper was the son of Gloria Vanderbilt and that he had attended Yale.

I told Mom that, and added: And nobody would hire him? I don’t believe that for a second. Did he apply at McDonald’s?

My arguments fell on deaf ears.

No one was going to knock FDR and St. Anderson off their pedestals.

Clearly my mom was on the left, and so we had many a political argument.

Of course I won.

Here’s an example.

Mom hated Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy, although I don’t know why. Both did a hell of a lot to empower women which was a big issue for Mom.

Anyway, one day we got into an argument over Joe McCarthy. I think I called him a great American (he was by the way) just to get a rise out of her, and she called Joe McCarthy a drunk. Well, having been born in Wisconsin (thanks to Mom), I felt obliged to defend him. So I waited another year and then goaded her into attacking Joe McCarthy again.

Again she called Joe McCarthy a drunk, and then like a tiger in waiting, I responded with “the” checkmate move: You mean like Spencer Tracy?

Ah, St. Spencer, another one Mom’s heroes.

Well, what could she say?

I can’t remember what she said, but I can tell you what she told me when I was six years old.

I had gotten into an argument with her over something stupid, I can’t even remember anymore, but whatever I said, I must have won the argument.

So she looks at me and says: Touché.

If my mom was wrong she was courageous enough to admit it. She didn’t dig in her heels.

But I was only six. So I said to her: What’s that supposed to mean? Is that one of your Smyrna words. Is that they say in Smyrna?

She’d laugh when I’d say that. My mom used a lot of old-fashioned words that nobody else used. Or she’d use a lot of aphorisms.

She’d say to me: You had ample time to do your chores. And I would say: what does that mean: ample? Is that one of your Smyrna words.

Or she would say: there’s no use crying over spilt milk. And I would respond: Is that what they say in Smyrna?

Please don’t interpret this as an attack on Smyrna. It’s a lovely little town in Delaware that makes Mayberry look like Kensington Avenue (a scary place).

Mom was lucky to have been born there. It’s what America used to be. But the world was changing, and so were the attitudes.

Mom was of the Greatest Generation. I was a Baby Boomer.

GGs never talked back to their parents unless they didn’t want to live.

BBs were a little different.

GGs obeyed their parents and did as they were told.

BBs rebelled.

I was an aggressive child.

My mom told me that when I was a toddler I would push other little children down.

She said to me one day, after I had performed a theatric rant over something minor: You have a chip on your shoulder.

What’s that mean, I asked. Again, I must have been six or seven, or else I wouldn’t have needed to ask. Is that a Smyrna saying?

I was as tough on my mother as she was on me.

I’d like to think she expected me to be.

She was never offended by my insults or reprimands.

One time, when I was much older, we were out eating and I was pontificating about politics when she started to voice a counter-opinion.

As she started to talk, I held out my hand and said: What’s this?

She stopped and said: We’ll, I was just thinking that …

I cut her off and said: I’m not looking for a conversation here, or any of this devil’s advocate stuff. I’ll do the thinking around here.

Of course she knew I was speaking in jest.

Most people I know don’t understand that.

Sure, I’m opinionated, and sure I’m a prima donna (most if not all doctors are), but I’ve also learned to listen to other people even though I may not like it.

I employ that modus operandi for the patients in my practice.

I have to.

Patients may not know diddly about anatomy and physiology, but they do know their body.

And if I get something wrong my patients tell me.

And I listen to what they are saying because I have gotten it wrong in the past.

Everything you see on television about doctors and the George S. Patton role model that is lauded and promoted there is wrong.

There are no super-doctors. It’s a myth promoted by the non-thinking dopes in media, academia and government.

Ego and medicine don’t mix.

Pomposity is for bullshitting, not for patient care.

My mother taught me that. In fact she taught me everything that made my practice successful.

Our parents are our first teachers, our primary teachers and our lifelong teachers.

Soon Mom will no longer be with me.

I will be cut adrift, and I will miss her.

Every Sunday, I would call and we would talk about her life, my life and that of my sisters.

If we couldn’t think of anything to talk about, I’d check the Internet for something to talk about.

Or we might just sit there in silence thousands of miles apart, separated by distance but not by heart.

I loved my mom dearly.

Maybe I didn’t show it in the traditional way, but I loved her. And she loved me too even when I would needle her.

I can tell you right now something my mom knows that you do not. You better never, ever, ever did I love you Bess, bring up a story or an event with me unless you are damn well prepared to answer questions.

My mom would forget that quirk of mine sometimes, and she’d say: “Barbara (my sister) broke her foot.” And then I’d say: Well, how did that happen? Where did it happen? Why did it happen? And what was she doing? And what bones did she break? And where is she going to get it fixed? And which foot is it? And can she drive?

I needed to know. And I needed to know E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

Stop, Mom would say.

She’d tell me that people didn’t care about the details like the way I did.

This is true.

Mom was content to converse for the sake of conversing not for grilling people to death.

I was different, and I think she understood that something had changed in me after my father had died.

Certainly she could see that I had become a little angrier, maybe a bit nuttier, and lonelier.

I’m sure she could see that I was never going to get married. She understood acutely that the world is not often kind and that there are unfixable things in life.

It is what it is, she would say.

Still she accepted me and loved me the way I was.

That’s what mothers do.

And for that I will always be grateful.

I’ll never forget her, and every Sunday I will take an hour of my day and spend it with her, just her and me.


Archer Crosley

Copyright 2021 Archer Crosley All Rights Reserved

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