The shrill ring of the telephone came at 4:30 a.m., a few days after Christmas.
“There’s something wrong with Dad,” my younger sister said. “Meet us at the emergency room.”
I’ll never forget my mother’s stricken face as the doctor broke the news: my father had “expired” from a heart attack. He was 66 years old. My God, I thought. What are we going to do? What’s my mother going to do?
At 58, my mother wasn’t at all prepared to be a widow. My father had always been incredibly healthy, and they’d just begun to talk about retiring and traveling together.
As for us kids, I was 30, my sister Dianne was 27, and my brother Chris was 25. Only months before, Dianne had gotten married to her husband, Bill, and Chris had just moved into his own place. I’d been on my own for a few years, but lived nearby and visited my parents often. We were all making our way in the world, but we knew Mom and Dad would be there to bail us out if needed. In an instant, that all changed. Looking at my mother’s face, I knew one thing for certain: childhood was over. We kids were adults now, and we were going to have to look after my mother.
Taking seriously my new role as a dutiful, grown-up daughter, I stayed with my mother in her empty house. She couldn’t bear the thought of spending those first nights alone. I expected her to behave like a wounded bird for a while, but each morning, after drying my own tears, I’d make my way to the kitchen only to find her already sitting there, dressed and ready for the day.
“Good morning, Honey,” she’d say brightly. “I made some coffee. Do you want some?”
My mother had always been a classy dresser, and now she was even more so. Her hair and nails stayed groomed. Her figure stayed slim. And after about three weeks, she sent me back to my own apartment.
“You have your own life to live,” she insisted when I offered to stay longer. “I can manage now. Life has to go on.”
My mother returned to her teaching job, socialized with friends, and smiled whenever possible. She made it look easy, despite the grief I knew she felt.
She and my father had always gone for walks on Saturday mornings, and I’d often joined them. Now my mother and I continued that ritual alone.
“Your father loved it here,” she’d say wistfully as we strolled around their favorite lake filled with bobbing sailboats. Its peacefulness was in direct contrast to the pain we both felt. But whenever I tried to put our sorrow into words, my mother would chide me.
“Your father wouldn’t want us to be sad,” she’d say. And we’d walk on.
I became concerned that my mother was bottling up her grief.
“I don’t like burdening others with my troubles,” she said when I brought it up.
“How about seeing a therapist?” I suggested.
Absolutely out of the question!
Finally, I persuaded her to join a bereavement support group, but I soon realized she was attending solely for my sake.
Not that any of this should have been a surprise. My mother had always been a strong, determined woman. In fact, my siblings and I had once bought her a T-shirt that read, “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
“You got that right,” she’d chortled as she put it on.
I remember her wearing that T-shirt with pride. We kids dared not mess with her. No drinking, drugs, or teenage pregnancies for us! Mom would never have tolerated any such thing. So why I thought she’d suddenly go soft when grief came calling, I don’t know.
Two difficult years passed. Then Dianne gave birth to Bobby, whom she named after my father. Our spirits lifted as we welcomed the newest member of our family. But a year after Bobby’s birth, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although we were scared, the prognosis was good. For Mom, the hardest part was losing her hair from chemotherapy. Nevertheless, she managed to find two stylish, flattering wigs and joked that caring for them was easier than caring for real hair.
It was around this time that she began to change.
I blame it on her oncologist. He was taken aback when Mom had told him that she lived with my sister and her family, who’d moved in just before her diagnosis.
“But what do you do about your paramours?” he asked.
My mother got a kick out of this. “Can you imagine that he said that? It’s never occurred to me to worry about paramours.”
“Well, maybe you should,” I ventured.
Next thing I knew, Dianne was on the phone. “Are you ready for this?” she whispered. “Mom bought leather pants, and she got a Victoria’s Secret credit card.”
This was a startling departure. My mother had always dressed stylishly, but never in sexy clothes. Next, she professed a new fondness for gin gimlets, best enjoyed at upscale bars. While enjoying a drink or two, she and her friend Nancy would banter with their fellow patrons and burst into the uproarious laughter that soon became their trademark.
One time, I accompanied Mom to one of her new haunts, where her favorite bartender smiled and greeted her by name. She jovially introduced the bartender to me as “Fill It to the Rim Kim.” I was amused, but also alarmed.
My mother laughed when I expressed my concern. “Oh, come on. You need to loosen up. Life is short.”
I should loosen up? That was a new one. She’d always been so strict. Now she was changing the rules? And change the rules she did.
I sometimes accompanied Mom and Nancy on their outings. One night, we struck up a conversation with some men at a bar who were my age. I was as yet unattached and felt shy, so Mom and Nancy did the flirting. After a while, Mom and Nancy left. I stayed a bit longer, but sparks were no longer flying.
“Good night,” one of the young men said as I left. He smiled and winked. “Tell your mother I’ll be here tomorrow.”
At that moment, I realized Mom was putting me to shame. While her Saturday nights were spent at restaurants and bars, I was likelier to be found at a bookstore café, meeting a friend for tea. If I did go someplace more exciting, I dressed conservatively.
“Your mother’s blouse is cut lower than yours,” my friend Terri said one night, giggling. Oops!
I could sit at a bar all night and no stranger would ever send me a drink. My mother got sent drinks wherever she went. This was getting embarrassing.
I had no choice but to step up my game. So I got rid of my old, dowdy clothes, joined a gym, and dropped 15 pounds. But Mom still always seemed one step ahead of me.
“I have a new personal trainer, and he is so cute,” she gushed one day. “He’s about your age. I told him I have a single daughter, and I gave him your card.”
I told my mother I could find my own dates, thank you, but that didn’t stop her from trying. I finally joined Match.com just so she wouldn’t say, “Why? What else have you got to do?” every time I asked her not to play matchmaker.
I sometimes think I’d have settled into old-maid status without a second thought if it weren’t for Mom. But her shenanigans put a crimp in my aging process. I couldn’t just let my looks go, stay in, and get a cat—not while she was out there having a grand time and looking so darned sexy. It was downright annoying sometimes, but New Mom was here to stay.
It’s now been more than 10 years since New Mom first made her appearance. And I’m happy to report that, at 74, she’s still going strong. In fact, she recently took me to a Pink Floyd tribute concert. Beforehand, we stopped at a bar, where somebody promptly sent us two kamikaze shots. I couldn’t help but laugh as we drank up.
Later, at the concert, New Mom looked over and beamed at me. “Isn’t this wonderful?”
“Yes! It’s . . . psychedelic!” I shouted over the screaming guitars. And through the strobe lights and purple haze, we smiled as we rocked on.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz
Carolyn A. Bailey, PsyD, is a licensed mental health counselor with more than ten years of professional experience.