(Re)Collection #21: Sara Smile
Updated: Mar 31
My mom's name is Sarah. She was many things: a success story, a survivor, a stubborn, dedicated and opinionated advocate, and an excellent provider. These very positive qualities stand in stark contrast to her dark side. Like in all of us, there is good and bad. My mom had a tough life, and, in many ways, she was extraordinarily angry. Her torrential outbursts of rage and resentment were usually preceded by moments of great generosity. That was her way. Give and then take away.
This type of behavior drove a very large wedge in our relationship once my father died and my sister disappeared. She focused all of that familial love and expectation on me. I was not prepared or able to ever give her what she needed and perhaps she deserved. I was a kid struggling to make sense of a world I had very little control over. In retrospect, I am guessing she felt much the same way.
There is a song that I like by Soundgarden called Fell On Black Days. Well, my mom would fall on black weeks. She would fixate on something that she felt I was doing terribly wrong, then she would fly off the handle. She would blame me for the ills of the world. I was the problem. Then she would lock herself in her room for a week in the dark. She would go to work, come home and go right to her room and not talk to me.
This bi-polar behavior frightened me. I distanced myself from her so she couldn't hurt me. I would roam the neighborhood and city on my skateboard and then on my bike. I didn't want to be home. I didn't want to invite friends over. I spent a lot of time at friends' houses. Our family friends would generously take me on vacation with them. They looked out for me and sheltered me. They were very gracious to have done that for both my mom and me. They didn't have to.
As soon as I graduated college, I resolved to save up a thousand dollars and move somewhere far away. I chose Chicago. My girlfriend moved there, so I seized on that as my way out and away from the madness.
That was January 1989. I saw her sporadically over the next decade and a half. In retrospect, we warred with one another in inarticulate and pathetic ways. We would not speak for a year or two at a time. Saying sorry was not her strong suit. I was the one who gave in and apologized. Perhaps I shouldn't have. I guess there was no right answer. What is for certain is that we wasted many good years stumbling around in this darkness. It sucked.
My sister's relationship with my mom was far worse. The good times were exceedingly rare. If they did happen, they fell back out swiftly. They are two people who hated to say sorry and rarely did.
Fast forward to the Summer of 2009. My mom calls me and tells me she wants to move to Chicago and live with my wife and me. I was shocked. It shouldn't have been. She had stopped talking to all of her old friends without so much as an explanation. Her one and only remaining friend at the time told me she had been having fainting spells and seizures for a year or so.
My mom knew that her days were numbered, and she was reaching out to me as her life raft. My wife and I discussed it. We decided to find a condo for her very close to our house so we could keep an eye on her.
We found one in Andersonville. We sold her condo and moved her out here. My mom helped pack a little, but we handled everything. I drove her out in her car in October of 2009, and we began the next and final chapter of her life together. I was in charge of all communication with doctors, nurses, insurance and hospital administrators. My wife did her taxes and handled her remaining financial affairs.
For her part, my sister made a rare visit to see my mom in 2012. She witnessed first hand the declining condition our mom was in. It was unnerving. She wrote me a letter shortly after she left and told me she wasn't going to communicate with my mom anymore. She was done with it. My sister was locked up in 2013. She was in prison when my mom passed away.
The story of the end of her life is a familiar tale. I will spare you the details, but a lot of it was grim. Late night hospital visits, strokes, 24 hour nursing care, assisted living, Alzheimer's care then hospice. She died on November 8, 2015.
Thankfully, I had time to come to terms with our troubled relationship slowly over the course of the 6 years she was in Chicago. She never spoke to me about why she tormented me and my sister. She never asked me my side of the story. She slowly went silent. The strokes rendered her largely unable to speak. Or she just decided that she didn't have the right words for what she wanted to say anymore. Her only signal to me that she felt bad was that she cried quietly nearly every time I came to visit her. I visited a lot.
Our ritual was the same over the 3 years she was in nursing care at Norwood Crossing. I would come over after work and on the weekend. I would get her out of bed and dressed. She would use her walker (then her wheelchair). We would wander the halls of the building, go watch movies in the common room or walk in the neighborhood. Norwood Park is a very nice, almost suburban Chicago northwest side neighborhood.
There are lots of trees, well groomed lawns, flowers, parks and playgrounds. I would push her along and tell her about my day, what was happening at work, what was going on with my wife. She would listen. She said next to nothing. I knew she was listening. On some days, I would tell her why I did what I did over the years. It was like an interview, but I was asking then answering all the questions. She stared straight ahead as I pushed her along.
On many days, I would bring along my phone and play songs for her. Or we would listen to the radio. Sara Smile by Hall & Oates became a favorite. For obvious reasons. I first started playing it for her to remind her of her past life. My mom was devotee of Lite Rock. In D.C., the station she listened to was called Wash FM. It was the soundtrack to nearly every car ride from the age of 7 to 14. Ambrosia, Bread, Seals and Crofts, Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, John Denver, Journey, Steve Perry, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Firefall and on and on.
I can vividly recall lying on the red vinyl back seat of our 1978 Ford Fairmont station wagon. It is dark. Either night or very early morning. I look up through the window at the passing tree branches, street lamps, clouds and blue-black sky as the radio bathes me in a steady stream of adult melancholy. I didn't hate it. I didn't love it. It just was. Why were adults so sad?
Hall & Oates are now a favorite of mine. I have all their records on vinyl. And Sara Smile is a groovy, slow jam. It served as a fitting homage to my mom and me--a break up song. It somehow captures the non-romantic nature of a single mother and son's relationship. It makes me sad just thinking about it.
In the last year of her life, our walk and talks were filled more with music and less with talk. Can you come to a mutual understanding with a loved one without speaking a word? Can you resolve what once were insurmountable problems without conversations?
I think we may have. The only words she would speak were those of the chorus to Sara Smile. Her ragged voice croaking out the lyrics. But she sang. I would join her. It was touching to hear her tell herself to smile. I don't think that was lost on her even in her semi-out-of-it state. I knew it was a special thing. For that brief moment, we were in unison. It was a small victory.
Won't you smile a while for me, Sara