I was staring up at the sun in Indianapolis when I got the phone call.
We were outside the Omni Severen Hotel in Indianapolis, wrapping up our trip to GenCon. Three generous bell hops were trying to shove all of our gear back into my truck. I sat in my wheelchair alongside my friends, staring up through a pair of weird-looking 3D-like cardboard glasses and watched the sun disappear in the sky. Then, the phone rang.
“It’s not good,” my dad said, “your mom’s not doing too well. When are you coming home?”
My friends turned to me. They could tell by the look on my face what was going on. They put the glasses away and got to packing up the car even faster.
“I’m on my way, Dad,” I said, “hold on. I’ll be home soon.”
We drove eighteen hours, only stopping really twice for bare essentials. We made it back to New Jersey by 6AM. I slept for two hours, then headed to the hospital. By the time I got there, my mother was dead. She was 68 years old.
It’s a hard thing, when you’re an adult and a parent gets sick. Because you think you’re an adult, up until that moment. You pay taxes, you do your laundry, you do all the things you think you’re supposed to do to prove you’re an adult. You might even be married and have kids of your own (though I do not). But the moment a parent becomes ill, really ill, and you’re facing the possibility that you might lose them forever, things change. And suddenly you’re regressing in weird ways, saying things, thinking about things, from your childhood, remembering all those things that were important but that you didn’t realize were important until much, much later.
On the drive home from Indiana, I put my headphones on and listened to music from years ago. And I remembered the oddest things:
Sitting in the kitchen with my mother, talking politics – railing really – while she patiently listened to me go ballistic over something or another.
Talking about Harry Potter with her and getting her a butterbeer in Harry Potter World in Universal Studios.
Holding up our first kitten, which she didn’t want, and watching her face go from staunch, stubborn NO to “fine, but you’re cleaning up after it.” That cat and my mom had a love/hate relationship since 2001. Now I wonder who’s going to fight over bed space with Kita or who’s going to chase her off the kitchen chairs.
I remember sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, in her small apartment, with my mother and grandmother, and listening to them complain and gossip and joke. They had such a tight relationship and I remember wanting to be let in on that when I was old enough. I didn’t realize then, but I was part of that bond, the third part of that maiden-mother-crone as old as time (though my grandmother would box my ears to hear me call her a crone). We sat in the kitchen before the Sabbath and made babka cake and listened to Yiddish music on the radio while the breeze came in from a late Brooklyn afternoon.
I remember playing make believe with my mother when I was a girl. I wasn’t very good with other kids, so my mom would play make believe with me for hours. I would pester her until we’d take my toys and tell stories about them. Those stories evolved over the years, getting more intricate, interlaced with adventure themes and plots I picked up from TV. I don’t remember when we stopped, but it was around the time I started writing. My mother helped me learn to tell stories.
But mostly, I remember one of the most important stories of my life. And it’s so innocuous to most people, I’m sure, but it is the day my mom saved my life.
It’s no secret from all the posts I’ve made that I’m bipolar, and I’ve suffered from severe depression since I was twelve years old. My parents suffered with me, in their own way, dealing with a daughter who was radically off the charts emotionally, struggling to find the right medications, the right therapists, struggling to help me through bullying and suicide attempts, and the every day of life. I never made it easy on my folks, and there were bitter fights, stubborn attritions, and long days of defeated sleep where staying alive was all I could manage.
This went on into my twenties. I’d come out of the malaise, then fall back into it, unable to keep up momentum, eaten by things inside my own head until I couldn’t get out of bed. I just about dropped out of high school, but got my GED and went to college. Fought my way through a few years of school, had to leave because it wasn’t working. Opened a business, fell out of that too. And in that time, when everything was falling apart, when the business had failed and I felt lost, I just took to my bed, as they used to call it. I was just about done fighting. Frankly, I wanted to die.
It was early summer, and my mother came home from work to find me still in bed at five PM. We only had one air conditioner working in the apartment, so I was sleeping on a mattress dragged into my parents’ bedroom. I had the blankets up over my head, my back to the room. And my mother came in and kind of blew a gasket. She’d watched me lying there for so long, had tried coaxing and cajoling and supporting. So, down came the tough love.
My mother sat on the edge of her bed and laid down some hard facts. She said I was lucky because I had a situation where I could lie in bed all day and be depressed. She said that adults had to get up and fight, even when they were depressed, to make money, to pay the bills, to put a roof over their heads and food in their mouths. If they had a family, they had to fight doubly hard, because they had others to take care of and couldn’t let them down. Moreover, she told me the most terrifying thing a twenty-something-year-old who’d never been out on their own could hear: I’m not going to be around forever, and what are you going to do then?
I was twenty-two years old, and my mother scared the shit out of me.
She left the room after laying it all out on the line. I was twenty-two and I’d been fairly spoiled. I lived at home so I didn’t have to pay rent. My tuition was taken care of, my meals, my bills. I was able to piss it all away with my depression because I had two parents who loved me. And without them, I’d be dead. I barely knew how to do the bare necessities of life, like laundry, or cooking a meal. I had never been out on my own, never lived anywhere else. I was a child still in all but age. And I needed to grow the hell up. I lay there in the air conditioning, listening to it cycle, and really thought about my life.
By the end of the summer, I’d petitioned to go back into college. I’d been on academic probation when I left because of poor grades and rampant non-attendance. When I sat down to convince my parents to help me go back to school, I promised them I’d be off probation in two semesters. By the end of the second semester, I was up to a 3.5 GPA thanks to some savvy retaking of classes and enrolled in a summer abroad program in London. When I left for England the next year, I wished my parents a good summer, left a fairly standard Orthodox Jewish girl. I came back with dyed bright red hair, two ear piercings, new stompy Doc Martins, and a brand new leather jacket from Camden. I brought them souveniers from Paris I’d bought with money I couldn’t afford and was talking about getting my first tattoo. I was in teenage rebellion in my twenties, and for the first time in my life, I started to feel like I knew I could have a life.
My mother gave me that. And I’m not sure I ever told her. She saved my life that day, with the most innocuous of conversations. All it took was me listening to wisdom born of years fighting depression herself, quietly, when no one was looking, because she was a mother and had others to take care of all her life. That was my mother. The woman who taught me to tell stories. The woman who pushed me out of bed and gave me the strength to stand up and stop feeling sorry for myself.
That was twelve years ago. And now, my mother is gone.
I got home from GenCon after that eighteen-hour drive. I was fried. We dropped off everything in my apartment. My friend May promised to be back at 9 AM to grab me and take me to the hospital, even though she’d been in that same eighteen-hour car drag. I tallied up all the things I needed to take to stay in Manhattan. I sent a message to my boss. I slept for two hours.
When I woke up, my roommate Craig was helping me put clothing in a bag when I asked him for my black dress. Because somewhere, deep down, I knew things weren’t going to go well. On the phone, my dad said we had days, maybe a week. But I knew we didn’t have that long at all.
My mother started getting sick at the beginning of the summer. She had breathing problems, fainting, weakness. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on. She was hospitalized twice, and the diagnosis always came down the same: she had anxiety, nothing more. They didn’t order more tests. They sent her home, even when her breathing got worse. By the time they thought to test her for more, only when her liver enzymes were terrible, it was far too late. Just before the July 4th weekend, my mom ended up in the hospital again, and within a few days, she was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She never stabilized enough for the doctors to get a handle on the cancer’s progress, didn’t get a chance to do chemo or radiation or any other treatment. Within six weeks, the cancer spread to her liver, stomach, spine, lungs, and finally her kidneys. Within six weeks, she was dead.
She passed on while I was on my way to the hospital, sipping a cold coffee to stay awake and riding over the GWB, talking about god knows what to keep my mind off the fact that I was suddenly a little girl again, and all I wanted was to hug my mother.
Let me tell you about my mother.
My mother grew up the eldest daughter of two stubborn, tough, unsinkable people, two survivors of the Holocaust who came together to rebuild their lives in America after the devastation they saw. My grandmother Nora had survived Auschwitz to join her surviving relatives in New York, while my grandfather Zev let behind Romania and a previous family who perished by the Nazis. They rebuilt a life together, opening up a sandwich shop in Brooklyn, getting up in the wee hours to make food for the commuter crowds. They also brought up my mother Esther, and my uncle, Mitch.
My mother told me stories about living in those days, how different it was. She grew up going to religious school, working with my grandmother in the mornings and evenings in the store to prepare food and help out with the business. She took on a lot of those responsibilities after my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. He died late in her teens. She always used to say he would have loved me because he was a take-no-shit kind of guy. I always wish I could have met him.
My mother overcame a hell of a lot. When she was twelve, she broke her hip in a swimming accident and was in traction for over a year. This was in the 1950’s so you can imagine the kind of hell that had to be. The injury never fully healed and when she was newly married in her late twenties to my dad, a car ran her off the road while she was driving. She slammed into a metal fence and reinjured that hip badly. It never truly got better and my mother lived in constant pain all her life, which got worse and worse as arthritis ate the hip socket away. Still, she never took painkillers stronger than over-the-counter and went to work all the way into her early sixties. She cooked food, did laundry, went shopping, went on vacation, went to synagogue, all on a leg screaming at her in pain, on a hip socket being eaten out from under her.
My mother was an Orthodox Jewish woman. She grew up very religious, in a devout family. She was a model of what a mother should be in the eyes of the community: she got married, she brought up a daughter, she kept a good kosher home. My mother was also a rebel in her own way. When she was a teenager, she challenged the religious community authorities by refusing to be told who she could hang out with, what she could do, based on her gender. She wore her hair up in the modern secular style, listened to rock music, loved to watch hunky TV stars, and kept their trading cards in a box to show me when I was older. I didn’t know who Doctor Kildare was, but apparently, he was the Doctor McDreamy of the 60s. She went to see Elvis. She dated military guys and air force guys (sometimes at the same time!) and got contact highs in the back of cars. She smoked cigarettes and remembered the hot summer when the Son of Sam scared half of Brooklyn to death. She wanted to be a neonatal nurse and take care of babies.
Life got in the way. When my grandfather died, my mom had to forgo going to college to help the family keep the house and business. She took a regular ol’ job she didn’t really like, and kept taking those regular ol’ jobs until she got a city job. Good, steady employment, great benefits, ready to work forever until retirement. The kind of steady work so many people look for if you want to settle down, start a family, be a paper pusher. That wasn’t my mother. Not really. But she did it so she could do what people thought was stable, secure. She got married, she settled down. She never became a nurse, but she took care of one kid, me.
She also faced a huge challenge in having children. Back when people were just starting to make strides in fertility treatments, she went to the wall to try and get pregnant. And when it didn’t work out, she challenged the discomfort many Jews in our community and many of her family members had about converting a child into the faith by adopting me. When I was eleven, she took out adoption papers and a journal she wrote during the year it took her to go through the adoption process. “Other people just get their children,” she said, “but we chose you.”
And when I came home, angry at some injustice pointed my way for being a woman in the community – being told I couldn’t hang out with boys because it was immodest, or being told watching TV wasn’t allowed, or being reported to the principal for hanging out with non-Jewish friends on my weekends – my mother told me stories about how she’d stand up the same way when she was a girl. And how my grandfather would tell off the rabbis of the synagogue, telling them he trusted his daughter’s judgment. When the principal of my school called my mother on a nigh regular basis about my behavior, about where I was seen or who I was with, she repeated the same thing: Yes, I know where my daughter was. Yes, I know who she was with. I’m not worried about her reputation. I trust my daughter’s judgment.
My mother and me, peas in a pod. She poured her life into helping me overcome, helping me grow. I was adopted, and yet if you laid two baby pictures of us side by side, we looked exactly alike. I look like a strange match between my parents: my father’s height and stature, my mother’s build, an odd conglomerate which has nothing to do with genetics and just a little bit of providence. Where my mom was small but fierce, I’m the war build, the tall build, the Valkyrie edition.
And I owe it all to her.
I made it to the hospital an hour too late. She passed away at 10:23 AM while I was in traffic. When I arrived, I didn’t know where to go, only what the room number was. There was no one around to greet me, so I headed to the curtained off bed area. Only things were way too quiet. There were no machines on, nobody moving around. I was tired, but there was a little voice in my head going off, telling me something was wrong.
A nurse saw me and raced to go get my mother’s nurse. I didn’t realize it then, but they were trying to head me off before I discovered out the truth. The nurse took me by the wheelchair and took me to my father down the hall, in a small room with lots of windows. There was a rabbi there, a chaplain, sitting with my father, who calmly told me we’d both just missed her.
We sat for hours, working out arrangements. A Jewish funeral has to happen immediately, so there was that to plan, and seven days of mourning called the shiva. By the time we got off the phone with people, it was nearly four in the afternoon. We collected my mother’s things and left for Brooklyn. On the way out of the hotel, a flock of kids walked by me, holding ice cream. One of the boys broke away and said, “God bless you miss, you have a great day” and just bounced off. He had to be no more than ten. And that’s about when I started crying.
I got my shit back in order long enough to get in the car. Before long, my dad and I were trading stories about my mother as we navigated Manhattan traffic. And I kept reminding him when he teared up to keep an eye on the road. “Hold it together,” I said, “at least for a little while longer. New York traffic isn’t very forgiving.”
Then I was in a hotel in Brooklyn, with a mural of trees and birds painted on the walls. My dad went back to the house to plan for the shiva. And I was alone.
I thought about Indiana and GenCon. I thought about how I’d spoken to my mother before I left. I’d offered to stay home and not go to GenCon at all. I’d canceled everything else, all the larps I’d planned for the summer, so I could be close to home and see her. I still didn’t get out to the hospital enough, but I knew being far away was unacceptable. Still, GenCon is work, and she wouldn’t hear of it. When I saw her last, I brought her Harry Potter books (one of her favorites) and she got to read The Cursed Child before the end.
While at GenCon, I accepted the IGDN Award for Best Setting for the Warbirds anthology. I was the only one of the team at the ceremony, so I went up, flustered, unprepared. I know I babbled quite a bit, but I remember saying distinctly that this award for my part went to my mother and grandmother, for whom I wrote my larp Keeping the Candles Lit. And when I climbed up on the stage at the Ennie Awards to help receive the Silver Ennie for Best Supplement for 7th Sea: Pirate Nations, I kept thinking about my mother and how she taught me how to tell stories. I thought: this is for her.
When I got off the stage and back to my hotel room, I took a picture of both awards together and sent her a text. I said: I won these at GenCon this weekend, and they’re both for you. I wouldn’t be here if not for you. I love you and will speak to you soon.
That was on Friday night. I don’t know if my mother ever saw the texts. By then she was already so ill, she might not have seen her phone. I never got a message back. But I can hope she saw them. My mother never gamed a day in her life but she bought all the games I wrote and told everyone who would listen about what I did, even if she didn’t get it entirely. “My daughter writes games,” she’d tell people, “she’s a game designer.” I could hear the pride in her voice, and I remembered the years where I’d lay in bed, unable to get up, and the conversation that saved my life.
I am who I am because of my mother.
And today, I’m going to her funeral.
In about an hour, the taxi will come. It will take me to my dad’s house – because that’s what it is now, not my house or my mother’s but my dad’s house – and we’ll get in a black stretch. We’ll go to a funeral home, the same one where we said goodbye to my grandmother. I’ll see relatives I haven’t seen in a very long time. I’ll try to say the right things. And we’ll go to the graveyard and we’ll say goodbye to my mother.
I woke up early this morning, and I could have sworn I heard her voice. I found a picture on Facebook from our vacation to San Diego, all those years ago. She was out in the sun by the waterfront and we were shopping, and she was complaining about how I didn’t need another stuffed animal. Later that day we went out on a boat on the water, and she had to lead me by the hands along the dock because I’m petrified of the ocean. She patiently coaxed me, like a skittish horse, not letting me look at the water on either side. She walked backward, despite the pain in her leg, until I got on the boat. Then she handed me a beer to help calm down and we enjoyed a day out in the harbor, rocking on the sea.
My mother and I didn’t always get along. And racing back from GenCon, I swore to myself I’d tell her how sorry I was for everything I’d ever done wrong, all the horrid things I said when I was young and angry, and when I was older and bitter, and all the times I was just a damn fool. We fought bitterly all our lives, and I didn’t tell her it was because she and I were so alike, so very much alike it makes me embarrassed. And I promised myself I’d apologize for every little thing I’d done because all of it didn’t matter anymore.
I’d tell her that a long time ago, she looked at me when I was being an asshole about something, and sarcastically said, “I’m going to give you the best blessing and curse I can. I hope you have five kids just like you.” And I remember my grandmother joking that it was funny because she’d said the same thing to my mother, all those years ago.
If I’d had the chance, I’d tell her now I wish I’d only have one daughter so she could be like me. Because it would mean I could pass down to her all the parts of me that came from her. Because someone had to carry on all those stories, and all that backbone, and all that rebellious strength she gave me. I didn’t want it to end with me because my mother’s legacy deserves to live on. I didn’t want a kid who was just like me. I wanted one who was just like her.
I never got to say all those things because I didn’t make it to the hospital on time. But maybe today, at the graveside, I’ll get the chance. And maybe that will be okay too.