January 22, 2020

My parents on their wedding day

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday,I don’t know. The famous first line of Camus’ The Stranger was the first thing that popped into my head when I got the long expected and long dreaded call from my father this morning that my mother had passed away quietly sometime in the night. The employees of the care home found her this morning when they made their early rounds. The woman that was my mother has actually been gone for some time, robbed bit by bit of memory, personality, speech and emotion by the relentless process of her underlying disease, a hereditary dementia of the Picks type which has been part of all our lives for thirteen long years. I’m still not sure what to feel. Sadness that she is gone. Relief that she no longer suffers, trapped in a body and brain that could no longer do her bidding. Heartache for my father who finds himself truly alone for the first time in sixty five years. All of them at once.

We don’t do funereal death rituals in my family. Quiet cremation and a later memorial service that can be planned around everyone’s busy lives. My brother and sister in Seattle have all of the details of the business of death handled on their end so there’s really no role for me at the moment. I think in part they want to spare me as I’ve had to deal with all those myriad details in my own life far more often than I would like. I’ll keep tabs on my father and, if I think he needs my presence, I’ll go out early next week for a day or two. In the meantime, I’m soldiering on with work and Cabaret performances giving my life structure.

Who was my mother? Alison Beatrix Saunders Duxbury was the elder daughter of a British South African colonial from an upper middle class social climbing family who emigrated to this country in the 1930s to join the faculty at what would become UCSF school of medicine. Here in the new world, her father set about climbing the academic ladder eventually becoming dean and chancellor. Her mother was an earthy practical Scot from Edinburugh with a steely resolve that got her through medical school in the 1920s, practically unheard of for women, and then became the quiet power behind her husband’s rise in California. My mother rarely discussed her San Francisco girlhood and adolesence. Her father wanted his daughters to marry into the existing power structure (her schoolmate Dianne Greenberg was always held up to her as an example. Miss Greenberg eventually became more famous under her married name of Feinstein). My mother had other ideas, throwing over the young doctor that was picked for her for the oceanography student of no particular family who became my father.

My mother was one of the last generation before the onset of feminism and women’s liberation, taught from infancy to subsume herself to the needs of husband and family. She was brilliant, could easily have had a scientific career the equal of my father’s but decided her children were more important than a PhD, was a devoted stay at home mom during our early childhood and then, when she got the last of us into school, went back to work and had an impressive community college teaching career for several decades. She wordsmithed the textbook she wrote with my father that went through eight editions and funded their comfortable retirement. She quietly and competently ran every organization that came her way from the community club, to the girl scouts, the cub scouts, the PTA, and ended up helping to found the high school from which my sister graduated. She taught me far more than any teacher I ever had in school. More than anyone else, she was the one who taught me how to write clearly, cogently, but with a bit of a flair for the esoteric.

I am very much my mother’s child, my brother was very much my father’s child and my sister always marched to her own drummer and laughed at all of us and our foibles. As I sit here and reflect on my mother, hundreds of moments and images collide from all phases of her life. Her grabbing me and running down the road at a campground in Banff when I was four becuase a bear was invading the tent next door. A major fight she had with Steve when we were all stressed out about the collapse of my career at UC Davis. Her coming to Birmingham to see the first musical I had directed in decades, Kiss Me Kate and getting to meet my theater family. Her beaming at my graduation from medical school. Walking with her along a mountain trail on one of our many day hikes in the Cascades discussing the books I was reading in high school. Even long after I had left Seattle, we would get together over cups of tea on my rare visits back and discuss all sorts of things, always picking up where we had left off. And I always knew that my parents would have my back no matter what.

And now her watch is ended and I am now, and shall always be, eternally grateful, that she was my mother.

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