Jean was a traditional mom. Born 98 years ago in a small town in Nebraska, she was never one to buck convention. When she married her high school sweetheart, she converted to Catholicism to please her husband, and proceeded to churn out babies. I was the last of seven.
My mother did what all mothers did back then. She stayed home and took care of the house, entertained, corralled children, planted petunias in the springtime, and cooked massive amounts of food. She loved to play bridge and read. She was the center of a whirlpool of activity, keeping everything in control.
And then her world collapsed. When she and my father couldn’t understand why two of the older children couldn’t gain weight and kept getting lung infections, they took our family doctor’s advice, loaded up the kids in the car and drove to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. After a few tests, the doctors gave them the news that every parent dreads. Their children were sick, very sick. They had a genetic illness that was going to kill them at some point, definitely before they reached adulthood.
I wasn’t born yet. I have no idea if they understood the risk of having more children after this devastating news, but I do know that my father was a devout Catholic, and birth control was not an option. So when I arrived on the scene, I was tested immediately and sure enough, now they had three children with a fatal diagnosis.
Shortly after I arrived on the scene, Jean had what was termed a ‘nervous breakdown.’ I can’t say I blame her. As a mother myself now, I know that if I was told my kids were going to die before me, I would lose it too.
Now, suddenly, my mother was not so traditional after all. Instead, she spent much of her time in psychiatrists’ offices, in mental hospitals, on a plethora of anti-psychotic medicines, anti-anxiety medicines, anti-depressant medicines. The kitchen cabinet was overflowing with bottles of different colored pills with weird sounding names. Dad assumed the role of pill dispenser, and I would look on, not understanding why my mommy was so sad. Sometimes she would disappear for an entire day to receive a treatment they told me was ‘shock therapy.’ Then I saw the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and wanted to throw up. Other times she would disappear for a few days at a time, and neighbors would bring casseroles for us to eat. I would continue to just look on, not understanding why mommy was so sad.
Much of the time, when Dad was at work and the older kids were at school, I would sit with my mom as she cried and cried. I didn’t know what to say. But I definitely knew that I could not leave her. So I would just sit with her. Sometimes, when she could not stop, she would call Dad and he would drive home from work, dole out some pills, and we would all go to lunch at the Country Club. I’d order my standard French Dip and coke. Mom would try to hide her red eyes and regain composure, because it was not acceptable to lose it in front of friends at the Club. She would be feeling the effects of the pills by then and looking rather dazed. Dad would have a cocktail, a few hours earlier than usual.
I’m pretty certain that my mother would have given anything to live a traditional life, with traditionally healthy children, owning a traditional home in a traditional small midwestern town. Much, much later in her life, when medications were better and there was an accurate diagnosis of her condition, I got to see what could have been the mother of my childhood. A beautiful soul, with unending curiosity, and a warm, generous smile; a woman who loved her children so much that the love crushed her spirit.