On the Friday morning before she suffered a stroke, a catastrophic one that would not kill her straight off but lead to nine months of agony, her own and our entire family's, before grace finally arrived to slow and then stop the beating of her heart -- on that Friday morning in September, my mother and I argued.
It was an argument ostensibly about my upcoming vacation. On the phone with me she'd wondered why I never invited her on my trips with my husband and children. "Well," I hesitated, wanting to be diplomatic, "it would be odd for my husband, no? To have his mother-in-law along on his vacation?"
"I don't know," she snapped. "Your grandmother always came with us on our vacations."
"Right, Mom," I sighed. "But that was different, wasn't it? That was you, Mum [my grandmother], Daniel [my brother], and I. There was no husband, no father."
"I guess," she sulked, and said nothing further, except, "I have to go now."
My mother, married for all of five minutes, never learned much about the accommodations husbands and wives must make for each other. She never learned much about marriage in general, and she certainly did not learn about the ways, often tricky, sometimes downright unpleasant, that a marriage is sustained over the long haul.
Yet my mother's and my disagreement hadn't been about marriage, or vacations, and I knew it. She was really telling me that she was lonely and depressed. I also knew that. But I had never been able to help her climb out of her sadness, much as I'd tried. She would come to visit me and end up angry about something insignificant, finally insisting that she needed to go home -- immediately and with no regard for anyone else's schedule. Or I would go to visit her and end up spending all my time alone, because she found it excruciating to socialize, even with me, her daughter. Or perhaps I should amend that: her depression found it excruciating to socialize.
She refused to consider therapy, psychosocial or even pharmacological. "Those pills will cloud my brain, Sarah," she'd say. Unspoken but understood was that my mother's brain, it was exceptional. I countered by asking her what good such an exceptional brain was doing her while she lay in bed sleeping seventeen hours out of every twenty-four.
No, I did not say that. But I thought it, and I did argue strenuously in support of antidepressants.
She never did take them.
For quite a few years after she died, I replayed our final pre-stroke conversation, willing it to end differently, better. Because sometime during the weekend after our argument, she had a stroke, and no one knew it until Monday morning when her housekeeper showed up. Had I not been so frustrated by our telephone conversation, I would have called her on Saturday, and again on Sunday, and not hearing an answer I might have grown concerned and asked my brother to check on her.
Instead, I remember feeling just so tired of fighting with her. I remember deciding to take the weekend off from her long-standing unhappiness and my futile cheerleading efforts.
It was the wrong weekend to take off, although only with hindsight could I know it.
Things happened as they happened. If I did feel sorrow about how everything unfolded, about my role in it, I do not now.
I spent my entire life - yes, even including my childhood - up until 2009 trying to keep my mother alive. Today I choose to believe that without me, she would not have lived nearly as long as she did.
It's a reframing that benefits me, as it should. Because it is the truth, and as it's wont to do, it has set me free. I have won a victory: I did not save my mother, but I have saved myself.