Postscript: Another Purgative Life

I wasn’t planning on another post today, but it occurred to me that it would have been my mother’s 81st birthday today. Since a short homage to her would be the perfect postscript to yesterday’s post about leading a purgative life, here it is.

When my mom was in the middle of probably her 100th life crisis she went to see an astrologer. At that time, she and her third alcoholic husband were having severe financial difficulties and she was recovering from a nervous breakdown.

Unfortunately the astrologer was not much help. Something about Pluto (the planet of destruction, apparently) being in her first, fourth and seventh houses, which meant something bad was likely to happen to her health, her home, and possibly her husband.

Disclaimer: I personally do not take astrology seriously, I have never had my chart done, and my interest has never gone beyond reading Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs way back in high school.

That being said, not long after the astrologer’s chart reading, whether you want to believe it or not, Pluto started its work.

First House The House of self, ego, persona, natural disposition and tendencies, self-interest, general outlook and physical body.

She had a brain aneurysm two weeks before my first son was born. She survived the aneurysm, but the surgery to repair that and two others in her brain resulted in a post-surgical stroke. She was disoriented and paralyzed on her left side, leaving her unable to walk, use her left arm, or be rational in any sense. She thought she saw General Omar Bradley walking the halls, and she thought her roommate was her long-deceased mother.  She was to stay in that mental and physical state for well over a year.

Seventh House The House of marriage. partnerships, contracts, lawsuits, opposition, dealings with others/the public, and known opponents.

A few months after the aneurysm occurred, while I was trying to get used to my own transition to motherhood, I got a call from my mother’s husband. “I found your mother’s will,” he said. “There’s nothing for me in it, so I’m leaving the key under the mat and taking off. I just wanted you to know.” That was decent of him I guess. He really didn’t have to tell me what a jerk he was about to be.

Fourth House The House of home, environment, domestic affairs, parents, the father, property, results of undertakings, and general condition at the end of life.

At this point, my mother’s health had stripped her of mobility and reason, and her husband had left her in the lurch. So with a grim prognosis from her doctor, my uncle and I sold her condominium and stored all of her belongings in his barn. Her antiques that had been passed down from her parents and great-grandparents, her personal documents, her clothes, the knick-knacks she loved and displayed throughout the house—all were stored in my uncle’s barn, in hopes that she would come back to us in body and spirit and we could pick up where she left off.

Then there was the next call. At this point my son was about a year old. It was from my uncle this time. “There’s been a fire. We believe an arsonist burned down the barn. There’s nothing left of your mother’s things. I’ll send you $1,000 of the insurance money.” All that my mother had to her name were the few items I had taken with me when we left the condo the day of the sale.

Several months later, thanks to the observations of a very dear friend, we took my mother to Gaylord Rehabilitation Hospital in order to have her re-evaluated. It seems that her brain had been slowly rewiring itself, but no one noticed because the nursing home she was in had her on so many drugs that who could tell whether her mental state was organic or induced by the cocktail of drugs in her system. The rehab ordered her meds be cut back.

What happened next was right out of the movie Awakenings. Two weeks later, she started asking me hard questions, like, “Where’s Spike?” And, “What happened to my fur coat?” And, “When am I going home?” I had to tell her the story about the astrologer’s fulfilled prophecy; that she had indeed lost her health, her home, and her husband. On the positive side, she had come back to us–for the most part. 

I don’t know what she thought in her heart of hearts that day, but she lived the rest of her life, which turned out to be another 18 years, in perfect peace and serenity. She was always cheerful. She struck up conversations with everyone she met whether at a party or a bus stop, cracking jokes and breaking walls of silence and isolation everywhere. She told bawdy jokes. She stayed out of other people’s business other than to connect with them on any level she could. One day, when she was en route to my home in New Jersey on Amtrak, she called me to say that she had gotten off by mistake in Newark, and she was wandering around, lost. “Oh my God, Mom!” I cried. “Get back to the train station and wait for me! Find a policeman!” “It’s OK,” she said. “I’m talking to a nice man named Charlie.” She arrived at my home safe and sound.

I truly believe that her rebirth out of the mental and physical quagmire in which she had lived prior to the aneurysm as well its culmination in total destruction of her former life was some kind of spiritual awakening.

Mom, 1972, before Pluto hit

Mom, 1972, before Pluto hit

Mom, 1989, center with her family, after Pluto hit

Mom, 1989, center with her family, after Pluto hit



The night she died, her hospital roommate, whom she had only met a couple of days prior, sobbed for her, crying, “She was such a wonderful person.”  This woman who happened to cross paths with my mom, probably didn’t even know her name, but she knew her.

After the funeral, my brothers and I went to her nursing home and packed up one bag of clothes to give to Goodwill and a solitary carton of her personal belongings. No need for fighting with my siblings over diamond rings or Chippendale chairs. No need to spend weekends sorting through stuff no one wanted. No need to worry about how much the government would take in estate tax.

Instead, my inheritance was much larger. One of the last things my mother gave me was a magazine that she had salvaged from somewhere. Inside was an article with advice on how to find serenity every day:

  • Take a time out from the world
  • Treat all people with dignity
  • Drop worry
  • Avoid self-pity

Winds up that’s how Mom lived.   Her life taught me a valuable lesson—that deep peace and ability to love is not necessarily contingent upon health, physical surroundings, or other attachments. Her own involuntary purgation of what most people consider to be mandates for a happy life gave her and those she touched blessings of a different kind.

Happy birthday, Mom.


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