God is a Murderer
About eleven months since we moved my mother to California to live with us,
I wake at dawn from queasy dreams where I'm sliding down steep slimy banks of
mucky pools or flying in a crowded flimsy airplane being pulled to earth by
heavy gravity or searching for lost kittens in a dank primeval forest. The morning
light is gray and hopeless; I hear my mother's feet outside shuffling like the
Swamp Thing across the driveway to get her morning paper. Her presence pulls
umbilically at my gut. I gulp a Valium and burrow under the blankets, my body
stiff with fear and fatigue, head throbbing from too much wine the night before.
Though the room is still, I can feel acceleration in my stomach, my bed a rollercoaster
car just cresting and starting its plunge, but the acceleration is not of motion,
it's of time, warp-speeding me into my own old age and decrepitude. The thoughts
that seethe around in my brain are pornographically mortal. They shock even
Whoever said love is stronger than death was full of malarkey. There's no contest. Death is a Sumo wrestler, and it slams love to the mat every time. When my mother's husband died twelve years ago, her own life was pretty much sucked out of her, though she still walks and talks. I loved Mike, too. Let me give you some advice: Unless you have deep religious faith (I have none at all) or objective detachment bordering on the abnormal, don't read the autopsy report of someone you loved. I peeked at a few pages of Mike's, and regret it. There are no euphemisms there. Bone saws and steel buckets will remind you just how strong death really is. And death's warm-up act, Alzheimer's, is no less a brute. You'll never be the same once it's paid you a visit -- believe me. Just a short time ago, I was ignorant. I'd heard stories, of course, but like winning the lottery or going to prison or being abducted by aliens, you just can't know how it is until you've lived it. Now I know. Alzheimer's is death in slow motion, and it has the ability to kill love while the person you love still breathes.
My mother was always my favorite person. And a lot of other people's, too.
Hip, cool, brilliant, funny, sane. A writer. My ultimate confidante and sympa-thizer.
Not like the other mothers. My friends always came to my house to escape their
regular boring (or crazy) parents. I have a picture of me and a bunch of teenaged
friends one summer in the mid-60s cavorting in the backyard of the house in
Connecticut, my mother sitting in our midst in a canvas chair, slim elegant
blue-jeaned legs crossed, laughing. We're all free and easy, horsing around,
performing for her. She's in her early forties, beautiful, probably a year or
so away from meeting Mike.
She was born in 1922. The first shadows fell around 1997 with blanks in her short-term retention and disquietingly uncharacteristic lapses in judgment. It's plain to us now that she struggled to hide it for a couple of years. She's graduated to delusions and disorientation and now some long-term memory loss, too. My mother's been severely, profoundly, depressed since Mike's death, and I believe that this was the cause of her mental deterioration. I don't have hard, irrefutable clinical evidence that this is so-it's just what I know. I believe protracted despair weakened her, changed the physical structure of her brain, made her vulnerable to the disease. Chronic sorrow is a parasite. It eats your strength, appropriates your will, moves like toxic sludge through every system of the mind and body. And my theory is not so farfetched. Everyone knows that depression compromises the immune system. Look at the statistics on cancer survival and mental health. How often do we hear about couples dying within weeks or days of each other? Alzheimer's is still a mystery, but they're slowly finding things out. Recent research points to an autoimmune disorder-an inflammation of the brain. So there it is. I think grief literally burned out the circuits of my mother's brain. And it did it in a sly, self-serving way that points to itself as the culprit: It robbed her of her wit, intellect, judgment and competence, but it made sure its own pathways were sturdy and intact. She forgot everything, but she didn't forget her grief. It stayed vital, grew stronger, gathered momentum. If I'm completely wrong, and my mother was going to lose her memory even if Mike hadn't died, her illness would not have taken the form that it did, fueled by heartache and vodka, shaped by desolation. None of this would have happened.
But Mike did die. And it did happen.
In mid-November 1989, late in the afternoon, my mother and brother and I filed
into the Intensive Care Unit of a major San Diego hospital. We stood in awe
around Mike's bed. He was just coming out of the anesthesia after a major and
radical six-hour operation where they'd opened up his chest and put him on a
heart-lung machine. This had not been bypass surgery or anything else we've
all heard of. This was such a rare, specialized and risky procedure that only
two hospitals in the country performed it. I'd never seen an I.C.U. before.
It was a temple of mystery with its hushed atmosphere, brilliant lights and
stupefyingly sophisticated technology, Mike's bed the altar where human sacrifices
were offered to a perverse deity with a jaded appetite. Mike struggled to focus.
He grasped at our hands. My mother kissed him and spoke in his ear. He'd made
it. All of us, Mike included, thought that if he died it would be on the table.
But he'd come through and opened his eyes. He was out of danger.
Wrong. He was fully conscious for eleven days, during which he went from believing he'd made it to knowing he wouldn't. To knowing he'd be leaving my mother a widow at age sixty-seven. Unable to talk because of the respirator down his throat. On the day of his death, I had a genuine psychic premonition, something I'm not prone to at all. I heard my mother's voice just before the phone rang.
Mike was husband Number Three, twelve years younger than she, the love of her life. When they got together in 1966, he was thirty-two and she was forty-four. He was fifty-five when he died. Real heartbreak is another of those things you have to experience to fully appreciate. His death broke my heart, and it shredded my mother's. Just about everyone in the town where they lived was devastated. The mentally-slow woman who sorted cans and bottles at the local market threw an armload of cans onto the floor when someone told her Mike had died. Her face crumpled, and she cried, right there in the store. "That nice Mr. Harwood," she said. Hundreds of people came to his memorial service and tore their hair. I'd never seen anything like it. And we, his family and friends, weren't the only ones who lost. The world lost, too. Michael Harwood was an important environmental activist and author getting ready to write his magnum opus. He had a mountain of research and notes all ready to go. My mother held on to those files and books and papers for years, as if maybe, just maybe, they could lure Mike back from the dead
Mike was about as different from my mother's first two husbands as the first two husbands were different from each other. Husband Number Two, Tim Durant, my first stepfather, was a dashing, charming prick who ran with a glamorous crowd, including the likes of John Huston, Jose Ferrèr and Charlie Chaplin. She married him on Huston's estate in County Kildare in 1954. I have a newspaper clipping from the Irish Times, a photograph of Huston kissing her at the wedding (link), Durant in full formal fox-hunting attire, grinning, nobly handsome, my mother young and gorgeous and deliriously happy.
Deliriously happy is what the marriage emphatically turned out not to be. She told us once that a few minutes after that picture was taken, Durant was up on his thoroughbred, about to gallop off to the ta-ra of the hunting horn, when he leaned down and said to his new bride: Let's keep in touch.
Uh-oh, she thought. And she was right.
But Durant was not entirely without redeeming qualities. He's the guy who bought
the house she still lived in-for seven grand in 1955, cheap even then. Plus
he provided her with the terrific pen name of Mary Durant and a great fictional
character: She laid him bare like a frog on the dissection tray, disguising
him as Hoyt Bentley in her 1963 masterpiece, Quartet in Farewell Time.
And my father? He wasn't a prick at all. He was a handsome Irishman (link), tall and strapping with curly black hair, a scholar and a quiet genius, a New York City boy who'd never driven a car when they met. But she wasn't ever really in love with him...never mind. I am, as they say, getting ahead of myself.
In my mother's journal from the year before we brought her to California, there was a single entry:
Notes, April 18--Tom's birthday, far away in the Golden West. And again,
I repeat my cry--if only the U.S.A. weren't so damned BIG!!! No easy visit with
Tom or Ellie--$1000s for plane fare--@$/#**?!!& This written as I await
Andre and Liz and the Murphys for dinner. Loneliness is the vicious symptom.
Still smoking cigarettes--my only companions. Still too many martinis before
supper--one is enough--three is dangerous--And am sick of my sea-sick stomach--STOP--ENOUGH--What
Almost a decade after Mike's death, the tall old gray house was saturated with
melancholy. It just about oozed from the walls. My mother had done pretty well
in the first few years. She'd come out of her crushing grief enough to take
a job as curator of the local historical museum. Her friends were fantastic.
They took her out, invited her to parties, came to parties at her house. And
they didn't just do it at the beginning and then drift away. If only every widowed
person could be surrounded as she was by attentive, loyal friends, ranging in
age from their twenties to their eighties, some of whom my mother had known
since long before Mike. A few men-some of them suitors from the distant past-tried
to court my mother, but they might as well have tried to woo the moon out of
the sky. They were up against the memory of Mike, an impossible act to follow,
and she would have none of it. When she speaks of her loneliness in her journal,
it's not the classic widow's loneliness, the days and nights in front of the
television, the silent telephone. Hardly. It's specific: It's loneliness for
When I tell people who never knew Mike what a great guy he was, and how my mother never got over his death, and how no man could ever take his place, they sometimes say that probably she romanticized him in her memory. But she didn't. He really was that great. It happens sometimes, a fluke of nature, the same way someone's born every once in a while who's evil, vile and rotten through and through. He was kind, loving, compassionate, funny, brilliant, wise, generous and sweet. He was hardworking, prolific, responsible, reliable, honest, a passionate environmentalist with a huge social conscience. He was sunny, cheerful and optimistic. He loved to cook, was really good at it, and cleaned up the kitchen afterwards. He sang and played the guitar. He did the laundry. He was a fine dancer. He was a fantastic listener. He was utterly faithful, cuddly and loads of fun. He and my mother were always cracking jokes, laughing helplessly. If only he'd had a serious defect or two, a bad habit or a dark dirty secret, even a small one. But he didn't. As far as I could see, he was virtually a man without fault. He did, however, have a fatal physical flaw. He was born with it, and it was what eventually killed him before his time.
For such a man to die seemed like a malicious blow from the universe. That's how my mother took it. She wasn't just heartbroken-she was furious. People found out quickly that they'd better put a lid on trying to offer spiritual comfort, unless they wanted to draw back the proverbial bloody stump. That kind of talk only cranked up her rage. "Mike's looking down on you and laughing," said one well-meaning person, "because he knows you'll be together again some day." "Baloney," my mother snapped. Or the woman who obviously didn't know her very well, whose ears are probably still smarting: "It's God's will," she said. This was in some public place-the post office, the food store, right after Mike's death. My mother whirled and struck like a snake.
"Then God is a murderer," she spat.
My mother's anger had always been dangerous and colorful, in the tradition
of smart people with quick tongues. She could slice and dice an opponent with
the best of them. I remember being a little kid watching her chew out a cab
driver in Manhattan after he'd tried to overcharge her. She ended a withering
blast of words with "You jerk!" and slammed the door shut in the guy's
face while he sat there speechless. A few years after Mike's death, her temper
grown perilously short, she scared off a young out-of-town couple who'd challenged
her when her car door touched theirs in the parking lot in front of the food
store. The encounter ended with them locking their doors and peeling out in
a big hurry.
My mother always thought that since she was so much older than Mike she'd die first. But she has Methuselah genes on both sides of her family, and might have outlived him even if he hadn't died young. It was her sheer physical toughness that kept her shattered heart beating and her arms and legs moving despite grief that might have killed someone else.
So, with time and a little help from her friends, she rallied. For a good while. She even wrote another book, a colorful history of the town's local Lake Waramaug (Indian chiefs, boot-leggers, whorehouses, renegades, aristocrats, violinmakers, and so forth). Nobody could write history like my mother. As a fiction writer, she had a powerful gift for character development. When she wrote about real people from another time, she used that same gift, sniffing out the most bizarre and fascinating aspects of their adventures and misadventures like a detective. My mother and Mike coauthored On The Road With John James Audubon, considered one of the definitive works on the great artist-naturalist. They traced Audubon's travels all over the country, from the Florida Keys to Labrador to the Mississippi, and kept diaries and notes as they went. For a year and a half year they camped and cooked over fires and had a ball. My mother said it was the absolute best time of both their lives. There are three voices in the book: Audubon's, Mike's, and my mother's. It's a superb triple counterpoint: Audubon the flamboyant artist and explorer, writing in his diary in the early 1800s when the continent was a shaggy wilderness, and then, more than a century and a half later, Mike the environmentalist and journalist and my mother the narrative historian and keen social observer, in all the places Audubon visited, some of which had scarcely changed and others of which were unrecognizable. The personalities of Audubon, his long-suffering wife, the entrepreneurs and scalawags Audubon encountered in his travels and those my mother and Mike encountered in theirs come to vivid life under my mother's pen.
She and the Waramaug project were a perfect match: This had been her territory since childhood. For the two years she worked on the book she was passionately occupied racing around the lake taking pictures, interviewing old-timers, searching through diaries, letters and newspaper archives all the way back to the 1700s. At home, drafts and photos and papers covered every surface in the kitchen and dining room and her ancient black upright manual typewriter shook the house. Just like the old days.
The book turned out to be a little gem, its sales far surpassing the expectations of the preservation committee that commissioned her for the job. Word got out, and people who didn't know Lake Waramaug from Lake Wobegone were snapping it up from the shelves of the bookstore. Yes. She came back for a while, heroically. But Mike was everywhere in the house long after he was gone. The place was riddled with snares and booby traps. In the basement, their camping gear from the Audubon travels languished, including cooking utensils and spices, as if maybe my mother and Mike might jump in the car and take off on an adventure at any moment. Moldering bags of flour, remnants of his bread-baking, sat in a barrel in the kitchen four and five years after his death. On the wall by the phone, numbers in his handwriting. He could have come back to life at any time and walked into his study and sat right back down at his computer and gone to work. My mother lifted a cushion off a chair about seven years after he died, found his pocketknife and burst into tears. Soon after that, she discovered two loaves of his bread in the bottom of the deep freeze in the basement. Whenever I called her on the phone, I could always hear the strain of grief in her voice when she said hello. It never eased the way everyone said it would. It just got worse.
My brother, Tom, and I had thought she should leave the house as soon as she could after Mike's death, that a change of scenery was desperately needed. She'd been alone and lonely in that house before-after Durant and pre-Mike. Then Mike was in her life for twenty-three years. Now, incredibly, she was alone in that house again. Sometimes she agreed that she should leave, sometimes she didn't. She said it was true that there were doleful memories in abundance, but that there were happy memories, too. In any case, she'd been there since 1955. It was a three-story house packed from attic to basement. The prospect of emptying the place and moving was huge, daunting, and even though she herself eventually decided it was time to go and started tackling closets and drawers and boxes, an actual move kept getting put off another year, and another and another.
She was willing to leave that house, but she didn't want to leave the town. Not yet. She wanted to find another place there, maybe a condo. She wanted to stay for as long as she could in the green hills of Connecticut, with her friends, the people who had known Mike. She always said that: I want to be around the people who knew Mike. She wanted to stay where her life was. Until she got too old, she always said. The Waramaug book turned out to be her last hurrah. She finished it in 1996, but not without a struggle in the home stretch. In retrospect, we see that the beast already had its first tentative hooks in her.
A few years ago, my mother called me in California to tell me she'd won a
Ford Taurus in a sweepstakes. She said her plan was to take the cash value instead
and give half the money to me and half to my brother. I got all excited. My
mother's always been generous, always ready to share, never any strings. Always
on our side.
There was no Ford Taurus, though. My mother, the laser-eyed editor and incomparable wordsmith, had been fooled by the tricky language on the "award" notice. Soon after, Tom, who lives in Colorado, got a call from my mother's bank. This might be none of our business, they said, but we thought you should know: Your mother has taken out two cashier's checks recently, one last week for five grand, and just today, another for three, both made out to the same party.
Everyone knows each other in her little town. Tommy called the local post office, reaching them a few minutes before the day's mail went out. The postmaster did what could have cost him his job -- fished through the bin and found the envelope with my mother's name and return address on it. It was going to a P.O. Box in Montreal. Inside was the check for three thousand dollars. My brother talked to my mother. Some really nice woman had called her from Canada, told her she'd won fifty thousand dollars in a sweepstakes. All she had to do was pay the taxes on it first. With cashier's checks. There was a time when my mother, one of the sharpest people I've ever known, would have eaten such flim-flam artists for lunch and picked her teeth with their bones.
The first check, the one for five grand, was lost forever. She cried and berated
herself. She said she was going to divide the fifty thousand between the three
It's not the money, Mom, my brother said to her gently, kindly. And that was a wonderful impulse. But something's seriously wrong here. Do you remember when I was there a few months ago, and I took the phone out of your hand because you were starting to give some total stranger your checking account number?
No, she said. I don't remember.
There had been other portents in the last year or so. I'd shoved them aside.
My mother's invincibility was a cornerstone of my life. There had been a sad
little episode that we put together from bits and pieces: She'd driven to Maine
to visit an old friend (who was slipping himself -- he'd recently passed through
town writing bad checks), got mixed up asking directions at a toll booth, got
mad, tried to back up, rammed the car behind her. And now her friends were calling
Tommy and me, telling us things weren't right at all, that she was confused,
bursting into tears in public, forgetting the way to peoples' houses where she'd
been going for decades, denting up her car, repeating questions five times during
a phone conversation, then calling up and asking the same questions again, drinking
too much, sliding back into obsessively mourning Mike, selling valuable things
in her house to crooks, bouncing from doctor to doctor with a mysterious chronic
stomach upset that seemed to have no physical cause. The only thing that settled
her stomach, she told us, was her evening vodka martini.
My brother hadn't shoved anything aside, though. He was adamant. She's only going to get worse, he said. We can't just sit and wait for disaster. We have to preempt it. We have to get her out. Now. One more winter alone there and something really bad will happen. I would never have had the spine to make such a decision, but he did. It looks to me like Alzheimer's, he said.
He may as well have suggested elephantiasis. Not possible, I said. Not her.
All our ancient relatives kept their marbles right up to the end. She's just
-- I don't know, depressed or something. It must be all the prescription drugs
she's taking. For her chronic upset stomach, for insomnia, for depression. But
it couldn't be
That might have been the first time I ever spoke the word in some context other than cracking jokes about public figures.
But then I remembered another small, uneasy moment I'd relegated to some locked trunk in a corner of my mind, and experienced a nasty and prescient little squirt of adrenaline recollecting it: My mother, on a recent visit to California, standing in front of my house looking at my car, a peculiar baffled, scared expression around her eyes.
Where's my car? she said.
Her car, of course, was nearly three thousand miles away, in Connecticut.