IF ONLY WE KNEW HOW TO TALK ABOUT DEATH IN THE U.S. IN THE LATE 1960’S

By Lynn Davidman

PROMPT — If only ...

MY MOTHER’S ILLNESS


When my mother became ill (which for me, started in late August of my 8th year of grade school, when I had just come home from summer camp), my parents indirectly informed me she was unwell. I heard my father say, “And that was heart surgery, heart.” Then they discussed picking up X-rays at the hospital.


When I asked what they were talking about, my dad said mom was “sick.” I asked, “Sick with what?” a question that remained unanswered until a few years later, after I saw her oncologist at a family bar mitzvah who told me it was some rare form of bone marrow cancer.


Before my mother went to the hospital, she took me into the basement to show me how to do the laundry. I said, “I don’t want to learn how to do the laundry,” sensing there was an unspoken message in this lesson. “I am going to the hospital and you will do the laundry for your father and brothers.”


“You can do the laundry when you get home,” I told her.


She insisted I learn. I was so upset about having to do the laundry, and all I implicitly understood that to mean, that I—accidentally—put bleach in a colored wash and I ruined my older brother’s khaki shirt and pants. They were all spotted with lighter shades. I felt bad, but also did not care. After all, it was not my job to do.


When my mother went to the hospital for surgery at the start of the school year, my brothers and I stayed at Uncle Ruby and Aunt Phyllis’ house, where we had cousins who were roughly our age.


On the second day my mother was in the hospital—we kids were not taken to visit her in that first week—I had told a friend of mine at school, Sari, that my mother had cancer. I did not know that for sure, but I had figured out this was one serious illness no one named, so it stood to reason this was why my mother had surgery.


The next morning, my aunt Phyllis took me aside during breakfast and talked to me in a low voice. She asked, “Why did you tell Sari Miller your mom has breast cancer?” I heatedly replied that I had not said she had breast cancer, I had only said she has cancer.


“Why did you say your mom has cancer?” she continued.


I said stubbornly, “Because she does.”


Phyllis told me authoritatively that my mom did not have cancer “At all. She had thoracic surgery.”


Wondering what that meant, I went to the school library that day and opened the Merriam Webster dictionary, where I learned that thoracic refers to the chest. That became obvious the first time I saw my mom in the hospital. She had a long scar from the base of her neck all the way down to the bottom of her breasts. At that moment, in this awful conversation, I knew my aunt had not answered my question. Instead, she had lied to me. I felt even more awkward and ignorant than I had the day before.


After my mom came home from the hospital, I expected her to get well soon and start taking care of us again. But that was not to be. First, my older brother Pinny learned to cook the Friday night chicken and brisket meat. Over a bit of time, he taught me, too, and we were responsible for cooking the Shabbat meals. Instead, she spent most of the next six months in her bedroom, coughing in a hacking, phlegmy sound that scared me. I could not figure out why, if she did not have cancer, she stayed in bed for so long. I was mystified. I had never heard of an illness that would knock someone out for six months (September to March) until she died.


I remember how powerfully the lack of discussion and conversation about my mother’s death had shaped my first appointment with Ida, the woman who became my therapist when I was a graduate student in Boston. The first time I saw her, I gave her an overview of my life until that moment. In one brief sentence I mentioned my mom had died when I was 13. She replied, “That is a very tough age to lose a mother.”


I breezily replied, “It would be hard at any age,” thus denying and refusing to discuss a major tragedy, a biographical disruption, that had changed my life ever since.


It took me years of working with her until I was ready to talk about my mother’s death.


I remember the precise moment in which she died. From the time of her surgery, in September 1967, through her death, in March 1968, we never spoke about her illness. My younger brother Mark and I were totally unprepared for her death. I remember I was upstairs when my father shouted up, “Pinny! Come downstairs! Mommy is dead!”


I remember running down the stairs and I shrieked. I had an earlier friend who told me that when she learned of her father’s death, she screamed out loud. This was the only way I knew to respond. My father and brother paused to look at me.


My mother’s death changed the entire course of my life. Within a few years of her death, my father disowned and disinherited me, because I no longer followed the dictates he insisted upon: The laws of Orthodox Judaism.


 

Lynn Davidman is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Modern Jewish Studies at the University of Kansas, where she taught for ten years after teaching at Brown University for seventeen years. Her books were about major biographical disruptions in her own life. Her first book, Tradition in a Rootless World (University of California Press, 1990) won a national award. Lynn is also the author of Motherloss, a book she wrote to help her integrate her mother’s premature death when she was just thirteen, an event that ultimately led to her being disowned and disinherited by her father. Sadly, her brothers did not think to share anything with her when he died. Lynn's most recent book was titled Becoming Un-Orthodox, a book about her own life journey. She has also published over two dozen articles in various venues. Lynn writes from Philadelphia, PA.