Like Someone Drifting Away on a Black Sea
My mother died Sunday night.
It was expected, the inevitable conclusion to a decade-plus slide into night thanks to the Alzheimer’s that had stolen her mind, and then her health. I wrote about her in a column a few years ago, how little by little the disease had stolen who she was. I wrote about my mother fueling my love of books, her infinite patience in taking me to bookstores and letting me browse the shelves as long as I wanted.
Her condition had been in steady decline over the last few years, like steps leading down into darkness. Moments of lucidity dwindled and eventually disappeared. Relatively robust physical health gave way to frailty and incontinence. Just before Christmas, her health took a serious downturn, and the end seemed to be drawing closer. She slid a little further each day. First she couldn’t walk anymore, then she couldn’t swallow solid food. In the last days, she slept all the time, except for brief stretches.
Sunday night, she expired peacefully in my brother’s house. Expected, and yet when the news arrived late on Sunday, it was still like an icy dagger shoved into my heart. I sat in my office, surrounded by the mementos and the work of my career, and wept, knowing that I never would have become a writer without my mother’s support. By the end, of course, my mother didn’t know I was a writer. By the end, my mother didn’t know I was her son.
Part of me feels guilty for thinking of my mother’s death as a relief. But there it is. I’m relieved that she’s no longer suffering. I’m relieved that she was spared being put in a facility, that she was with family right to the end. Alzheimer’s steals a person’s life little by little, like someone drifting away on a black sea, ever more distant, until they’re gone. It’s a cruel disease, robbing its victims first of their memories, and then of their identities. Everything that makes them them is eventually gone, leaving little more than motor functions.
It is tragic… and yet there’s a strange kindness for the victim. After a point in the disease’s progress, my mother didn’t know what was happening to her. She lived, very literally, in the moment. There was no yesterday, no tomorrow. There was only now, and we all did our best to make her comfortable and happy in the now.
Last week, when it became apparent the end was close, my wife asked me if I wanted to go see my mother a last time and say my goodbyes, even though she wouldn’t be aware, or probably even awake. I said no.
I’d long since made my peace with my mother’s fate. The essential essence of my mother was gone a few years ago. What remained was a brittle, fragile body, not much more than 80 pounds. The shape of her skull was easily visible under her thin, pale skin, framed by a spray of white hair. Her once-vibrant blue eyes — I got my eyes from her — were dull and unfocused. She was a husk.
She wouldn’t know me, or my wife, or her grandchildren. At best, we’d be strangers in the room, if she was even aware we were there. I didn’t want that to be a lasting memory of my mother. A visual mind is a blessing for writing comics. But in times like this, it can be a curse.
It’s a harsh irony that all you have left of an Alzheimer’s victim is the memories of what they used to be like. My daughter and younger son have little recollection of my mother as she once was. By far, their impressions of her are those of a doddering old woman, out of her mind and sometimes unpleasant to be around. That makes me even sadder than the reality of my mother’s passing.
Neither of them ever knew my father. He passed away before they were born. My father’s been gone almost 18 years now, a lingering death from pancreatic cancer. My oldest son was an infant then, just able to crawl on the end of my father’s bed, cooing happily, blissfully unaware that he would never really know his grandfather. My father would point at my son, and say, “There’s my replacement, right there.”
My father’s body failed him, but his mind remained strong to the end. He made the startlingly brave decision to stop the chemo, and accept his end. For my mother, it was the opposite: a slow and heartbreaking descent that lasted a dozen years.
When my father died, I was on an exclusive contract at DC Comics. I could not have asked for more understanding or kindness. Flowers were sent to the funeral, a huge fruit basket sent to my house. My editors told me to take as much time away as I needed, that the work was secondary.
But I found that what I needed was to get back to work. Writing helped me do something, it gave my mind a place to go. It’s been much the same this week. Scripts needed to be written, artists needed pages in front of them. Life goes on, and a big part of my life is making up stories. So that’s what I’m doing. It’s the best way I can think of to honor my mother. I am who I am because of her, and because of my father. I do what I do because of them.
Monday morning, I told my youngest son that his grandmother — “Grammy” — had passed away late the previous night. He burst into tears, and the immediacy of his reaction startled me.
My youngest has no memories of his grandmother when she wasn’t suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s. When she stayed with us, he was the one who most often, and always undeservedly, received the sharp side of her tongue. The disease often progresses through a stage in which its victims become suspicious and disagreeable, even delusional. Somehow, it got into my mother’s head that my son was a poorly behaved little boy, though he’s actually anything but.
Their interactions were so uncharacteristic. My mother never had a bad word to say about anyone. My youngest is the most empathetic and sensitive of our three children. He was still too young to grasp why his grandmother snapped at him for no reason, and his feelings would bruise easily. It had troubled me for quite a while that my son likely would remember his grandmother as a mean and even frightening woman.
But when I told him she was gone, we sat on his bed and he cried into my chest. His tears made my shirt damp, and I wrapped my arms around him. On his bed, I noticed that he’d slept on a “Star Wars” pillowcase that night. My mother had given me that pillowcase in 1977, when that film had such a profound effect on me, and made me want to tell stories. All these years later, the pillowcase is still in good shape, Luke with his lightsaber above his head, Vader’s helmet looming in the deep blue sky. I held my son a little tighter, and I started crying too.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Witchblade” and the graphic novel series “Ravine” for Top Cow, “The Protectors” for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.