Death of a 'Birthday Queen' . . . and Perhaps a Farewell

Hey, ah, Gerry, I don’t know if you are, mmm, there. This is Dr. Chaudhury. Hello. Uh Hello. Anybody, Gerry? OK Let me try back. (Recorded on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2004, 3:35 a.m.)

There are a handful of events that demarcate my life story, as I've come to understand it. Death, that stalking horse of us all, has forged virtually all of them. Take, for example, the passing of my mom, on February 25, 2004.

Above, a link to the recording of the voice mail message left by my mom's gerontologist at 3:35 a.m. to inform me that my mother died that morning. (SoundCloud, 13 secs). Below that is a transcript. The embedded image is a scan of the diary entry I wrote after my Mom's death.

Here I think it is useful to note that I have, or should I say had, two mothers, My first mother is named Mary Louise -- I’ve long taken to calling her Mère, French for mother. Seven days after she gave birth to me in a Manhattan hospital, she relinquished me for adoption. She said decades later when I found her that she loved me. That’s why, or so it always seemed in the inverted world of adoption, she relinquished me. 

I was baptized in that hospital’s chapel by strangers, handled lovingly, I’m sure, and was handed to a “boarding mother” to wean me. I learned from notes the adoption agency recorded later that this woman grew very fond of me, and that she was upset when she returned me. I like to imagine I liked her too but I have no memories of her. Still, it seems reasonable that I was uneasy when she handed me to new caretakers after six months in her arms. Those caretakers became my parents.

They -- the woman I’ve called Mom since that day and my adoptive father -- brought me back to their three-bedroom home in New Hyde Park, in the suburbs of Long Island.

My Mom, named Evelyn, turned 84 on Dec. 11, 2003. (I relish the use of “my” here -- we all need to have, or possess, our mothers, I’ve realized for some time now.) Two days later, shortly after awakening, she fell in the bathroom, after either stumbling over a throw rug or passing out. She was never sure which. In the fall, she broke her wrist. An ambulance took her to the emergency room, where she lay atop a gurney waiting for an available room.

Photo below: Leading the festivities, Mom, in red, joins in a rendition of "Happy Birthday" with, left to right, Grandma Eva (Belinski), "Jerry Boy" (holding Duchess), sister Patty and Patty's sister Joan, circa 1966.

Over the next 10 weeks, my Mom moved inexorably, imperceptibly, to her death. She entered that final chapter of her life as a fragile woman, with osteoporosis and emphysema, reserved yet friendly, with a gentle and caring manner. I took to calling her as I pored through memories “birthday queen,” as she orchestrated the birthday celebrations of each and every family member by baking and carrying a candle-strewn birthday cake as we struck up the “Happy Birthday” song. She was always sober on those occasions, and I’m grateful for that, too. 

As I write from the remove of 15 years, I find myself wondering now just how remarkable were these family birthday rites for my adoptive sister, Laura, and I. Years earlier, in a rare intimate, emotion-laden conversation I asked my Mom if she ever thought of my first mother before I announced I found her. She paused a beat, then, both us full of sadness and love, told me, “On your birthday, always on your birthday.”

My mom, through most of my childhood and for decades beyond, had been a binge drinker. When she over-imbibed on those unnerving days, once or twice a week, every few weeks, she was no longer voluble. Her face would curl into a half-smile, and she’d try to hide from her embarrassment and our scrutiny in the bathroom or in my parents’ bedroom.

One thing we know is that alcohol didn’t play a role in Mom’s fall, at least not a direct one. She never drank early in the morning, in my experience, as she typically used the cover offered by social events to drink. As well, by the time of her fall she had stopped abusing alcohol for many years, though she wasn’t abstemious by any means.

At the tender age of 8 or 9, when I was told I was adopted, I came to hate myself, for I couldn't stop Mom's drinking and blamed myself. Each time I found my mom intoxicated at home after arriving from school, I felt abandoned anew, and these seemingly countless episodes triggered what I long have described as rage, which I internalized. On the other hand, Laura, brought home four years before me, as a teen acted out her rage by rebelling, often and loudly. In a common-enough dynamic in adoptive families, I became the ‘good’ adoptee, she the ‘bad.’

Despite the frequent childhood turmoil, Mom and Dad ultimately succeeded in making the family house a real home. I somehow found enough footing amid the emotional craters to navigate, to create a functioning life amid my periodic panic attacks and rebuffed queries and the myths my Dad spun about the circumstances of my birth, and that of Laura. 

Above, a family photo, taken in April 2003, at Mom and Dad's home in Garden City, taken via a timer. From left to right, my niece Kim's son Robert, my nephew, Joseph; Dad; Mom; Kim's husband, Phil, Kim's son Kevin; Kim; and me. Missing is my sister Laura, who had died 13 or so years earlier.

Laura, on the other hand, drew her life as a succession of crises, as well as panic syndrome, that drove her to seek relief with Valium. She died from a heart attack at age 40. But there is absolutely no denying that my parents created a safe harbor for us, drawing in Laura, myself and later Laura’s son and daughter, along with their two grandchildren. My Dad was a successful executive in the brewing industry, charismatic, and generous to family, friends and colleagues. My parents were extraordinary in many ways, and we loved them despite all our collective imperfections.

So when Mom’s health failed after her fall, my Dad, Kim, nephew Joseph and myself lined up to assist. By mid-January, five weeks later, my Mom stopped speaking to us. She ceased hydrating and eating about that time as well, something we hadn’t noticed, as she was, in her later years a parsimonious eater. On Feb. 19, finding her listless on the couch, an ambulance returned her to Winthrop, where all in my family have gone to die. In the hospital, in what became her final days, she breathed with the aid of a CPAP machine, adding yet another hindrance to communicating with her.

I felt the weight of inevitability as never before as we discussed options with the staff: Feed her through her stomach tube in a dramatic bid to reverse her gradual emaciation or simply wait for her to fade to black. She didn’t betray any suffering, or perhaps she was inured, but we understood there was no quality of life for her. We decided to do nothing but continue to visit, and pray.

On the night of Feb. 24th, two days before my birthday, Kim, my niece, Dad and I visited Mom in the hospital. We brought a bouquet of tulips and roses, presenting the optimism I wanted to convey for all life, if not for hers just then.

To my amazement, Mom greeted us, or so it seemed. She smiled through her mask and her pupils were fully open and beckoned us. I was agog -- her warm, even adamant welcome lifted my spirits, and I wondered if we were on the cusp of a miracle? Was my mom’s clear greeting the beginning of her recovery? I couldn’t think of any other reason for her sudden responsiveness.

Right, my Mom, circa 1999.

We departed after about 30 minutes to return to my parents’ house in high spirits. I dropped off my Dad there, and continued on to my apartment in Astoria and fell asleep alongside my felines Finn and Deirdre. Then I was startled full awake by a phone call at 3:35 a.m. By the time I got to the phone, Mom’s gerontologist, Dr. Chaudhury, had left a message. He called back minutes later, telling me that my Mom had passed.

I called Dad and then drove straight to the hospital. A male nurse greeted me when I reached her floor and told me she had died an hour or two earlier, alone, slipping away from all of us without even a whimper or a goodbye. I was reminded then how my Mom, with a house full of company, seemed to always sit in an armchair in the corner of the living room, never on the couch where we could include her in the intimacy of shared seating. I never asked her why she preferred to sit by herself, which I realize now was in fact more convenient to the kitchen, where she held forth, but I felt she had created a boundary, whether consciously or not, and this saddened me. It still does.

When I arrived, the hospital room was still, as I went to Mom's bedside. I noticed that a newscast was on the TV screen above her bed, the sound muted. Another patient in the room was asleep, with a family member. Under the dim overhead lighting, I eyed the flowers in the vase by her bedside. I recalled a scene in “Little Women,” when the Irish maid strewed rose petals over Beth’s death bed, a gesture I found affecting. I removed the yellow and pink petals and placed them about the bed, paused, and wordlessly departed. Down the stairs, with the sun finally pouring in, I reached the street and recorded my feelings and observations on m... (SoundCloud, 2:53) I realized then, too, that it was Ash Wednesday. I never did get to church that day.

Photo below: Mom and I celebrating my birthday, circa 2000. The inclusion of this half-eaten cake suggests the photo was an afterthought.

In the intervening days, weeks and months, I was given time to ponder: Was it her impending death that animated my Mom the night before? Though words eluded her, her demeanor seemed to suggest she was at peace and moving through to the next chapter, whatever that may be. And she wanted us to know. Ger

Related diary excerpts:

“78 Harrison St.        fri,, 12/19/03

… Mom says that she has green eyes. I never seemed to have noticed, and find that quite strange as I know Amy has blue eyes, Susan brown, Christine blue, Mere green and so on. 1215 am”

"20-67 38th Street        wed, 2/25/04

“I strewed yellow and pink rose pedals (sic) around Mom, near her head and shoulders and on the thin blanket that covered her. It was a surreal, but strangely beautiful sight, and I placed the crucifix I made from palm on the chest, just above the sheets.  . . .” 

Related media:

* Video Presentation of This Story at MINY Toastmasters, May 15, 2019 (YouTube, 8:45)

* 'Birthday Boy': Seeking Patrick O'Connor

* 'I Am Dreaming of Home'

Once Upon a Time, Maureen O'Hara Might Have Been My Mom

Views: 219

Tags: Death, Family History, Memoirs

Comment by Janet L Lloyd on September 29, 2019 at 9:44am

Ger, what an amazing mom you had!  Thank you for sharing your story.  

Comment by Patrick Francis Deady on September 30, 2019 at 2:37pm

Lots in there, Ger.   Thank you.

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