Life In War Time

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Mom’s life began with a war. As a girl she listened to Luftwaffe planes flying overhead and heard the muffled explosions of bombs hitting English soil, English buildings. Her family had a gas mask (yes, one) and sometimes they spent evenings in the Underground to escape when bombs came too close. Later she would proudly show her children the family gas mask and shards of shrapnel from the Battle of Britain in World War II. About 10 years later she met and married an American serviceman stationed there. The two moved to the US and started a family.

One war ended and another began. In this war called marriage, gas masks were not needed, and shrapnel came in all varieties: physical in the form of punches, blows, and shoves; mental in the form of a psyche tortured by mental illness; and emotional in the damage inflicted by a husband on his wife and their children. Mom’s marriage was a fifty year war with occasional armistices, plenty of guerrilla warfare, and even a happy time or two. Many wives would have left a husband as abusive, mean, and downright nasty as Mom’s husband. Many mothers would have protected their children. Mom did neither.

Mom’s second war lasted fifty years. It was a terrible marriage she could not improve because Mom’s husband was beyond Mom’s control. At times Mom became bitter, at times she took it out on her kids. Mostly she tried to manage her husband’s behavior by managing the behavior of us children. So when we misbehaved Dad’s bad behavior was our fault.

But it wasn’t our fault when he heard voices in the bedroom closet taunting him, and took up a fighting stance and yelled at the voices to come out of the closet. I saw this as a young boy and I really thought there was someone bad in the closet. I felt proud of Dad being so brave and tough.

The voices continued until Dad was worn out, and gave in to the voices telling him to hurt himself. So he slashed his neck and wrists with a razor blade in the family bathroom when I was five. Mom went into shock, numbly walking over to the neighbor’s house to ask for a bandaid.

I remember asking Dad about the razor marks on his neck and wrists, scars that lasted his entire life in mute testimony to the voices that haunted and tormented him. “Oh, I broke up a fight between a cat and some dogs,” he told me.

Our family cycled around Dad’s mental illness. The VA (Veteran’s Administration) doctor prescribed anti-psychotic medications like Thorazine and Mellaril to control Dad’s symptoms. The side effects were brutal and Dad went off the medications, then went sick and crazy. Terror and violence – physical, mental, and emotional – reigned until the neighbors called the cops, and they cornered Dad inside our house. With an officer on each arm and each leg, the king of our castle was carried out cursing and swearing.

It was probably interesting theater for our neighbors, but for Dad’s family? We children were humiliated and deeply confused not just by Dad’s behavior, but by Mom’s response to her crazy husband. Mom always acted like nothing was wrong. She never mentioned Dad’s illness to us, never tried to explain it, never responded when we tried to talk to her about it. We learned to respond like Mom did. We didn’t talk about it, even to each other, and certainly not to our friends.

So the normal for our family was that one day Dad was gone and Mom didn’t explain why. Then one day, without warning, Dad was back again, smiling and laughing, back on his medications and having a respite from the voices and paranoia. No explanations, no apologies, no love.

When Dad finally died, Mom seemed to enjoy living by herself. She had her friends, her children, and her grandchildren. Mom turned out to be a devoted and loving grandmother. My children were devoted to Mom, and she to them. The topic of Dad never came up. He was never mentioned anywhere, by anyone. Ever.

The last fifteen years of Mom’s life was not a war. No bombs falling. No violent, wildly inappropriate behavior to battle by ignoring. No family secrets to keep under lock and key. The last two years of Mom’s life she often appeared even joyful. I had never seen her like that in my life. There was a lightness of being, a happiness, a joviality, especially when she was with my wife and children that for me was rather disorienting.

Mom was also devoted to my (second) wife. And she was devoted to Mom. They were both immigrants to the US, they both loved me, and they both loved my (our) children. In a short time they became inseparable. I had always wanted Mom to be happy when I was growing up. Now she was.

My wife and our children visited Mom for Mother’s Day 2019. It was odd we weren’t able to reach her by phone. It was odder when she didn’t answer the door. Eventually I took off an exterior window frame and entered her home. We found Mom in the bathtub, half alive, with dried blood on her mouth. I covered her nakedness with her bathrobe. Later we surmised that she took a bath the night before Mother’s Day, but slipped after draining the tub and trying to exit. She was not wearing her Life Alert bracelet. Later I found it in the kitchen. Mom spent the entire night in the bathtub. After the ambulance got Mom to the emergency room at St. John’s her heart stopped. The doctor broke some of Mom’s ribs bringing her back.

Mom ended up intubated in the ICU. She had double pneumonia, a urinary tract infection, failing kidneys, and a heart with constricted arteries. Mom’s children and grandchildren and family members gathered at her bedside. We were able to kiss Mom’s cheeks and convey our love to her. She was awake and aware of her surroundings and what we were saying.

Shortly after this Mom was taken off life support. To the surprise of the ghoulish ICU staff, Mom didn’t die right away. She fell asleep for the next three days, and died in her sleep almost a week after being found on Mother’s Day.

As for Mom and I, I was told I was her favorite. And it wasn’t just because I gave her seven grandchildren. I was her oldest child, and her only son, and that seemed to give me a pride of place, at least with Mom. When I was younger she got me soldier sets of famous battles: the Alamo, the American Civil War, cowboys and Indians, and so on. She took the trouble of setting the soldiers up on the floor by the Christmas tree. It was the sort of extra touch a young boy found thrilling to behold on Christmas morning. Was mom trying to make a point about life being war? Probably not, and it would have been lost on me at that age anyway.

I grew up vowing to be the opposite of my own Father in everything. I would have a career, a good marriage, I would be a loving husband and father, all the things my own dad was not. By and large I succeeded, although my first marriage foundered on the rocks of my first wife’s mental health difficulties. And I had a lucky break when the schizophrenia gene passed me by.

It was hard to forgive mom for not protecting her children from her husband. Like the time he forced my younger sister to eat food out of a pet bowl on the floor because he didn’t like the way she chewed her food. It was hard to forgive her not telling us the truth about things in our family, like how it wasn’t our fault that Dad acted crazy. I never talked to Mom about this, so I guess I learned not to talk about family matters just the way she did. I needed her to be more than she was, and resented her when she failed.

Perhaps my children will reach a similar verdict about me. But for now, Mom’s wars have ended. There were many unfair things that happened to her, and an accidental death during the happiest period of her life seems more proof of that. It confirms what I had already learned early on: life isn’t fair and God doesn’t care. Mom, wherever you are, I hope you are resting in peace time.

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