As My Mother Lay DyingPosted by Jim Newman on October 4th, 2012 – 1 Comment – Posted in Personal Stories, Uncategorized
Post by Jim Newman
As my mother lay dying, Joyce Enith Watkins Newman, I wondered when she would be dead. I had flown in to Tulsa in time to marvel at a small cadre of staff and my sister standing watch over her. At what point would they grimace, sigh, or exhale heavily and leave the room? She already had the appearance of a mummy, though tanned and with loose skin, but her mouth hung open, agape, and not a muscle moved on her face. I imagined her in Maya society where they would prop her up in the corner of the room, perfume her, and let her desiccate over the years. I had just read on the plane Christopher Hitchen’s Mortality and his words were fresh on my mind. For my young years I echoed Nietzsche’s tripe what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger but it was all bullshit. What doesn’t kill you can cripple you for life. We can pretend this facile positive thinking into banal platitudes of we’ll get better, stronger even but the world is full of people scarred permanently from their toils and battles and they need comfort and not remonstration that somehow they were not being good enough if they weren’t better or stronger.
What they waited for was her breathing. Though I can’t imagine the discomfort of having dry mouth and not being able to choke up some saliva, her system so filled with morphine only head dreams occurred. We all counted the breaths to see if she was experiencing apnea, no breathing. More like small gasps than breaths.
Cruel or not my reaction was that she was already dead and we were waiting for some final symbol when it would be proper to say she died. I knew the staff from a previous close call and we bantered, uttered black humor, and spoke caring love, all in all waiting. At one point she stopped for 10 seconds. Try not breathing for 10 seconds—one one-thousand, two one-thousand… It doesn’t seem long until you do it and then you have to marvel at swimmers, divers, magicians, and yogis that train to not breathe for several minutes.
They remarked she’d had been waiting for me and she could hear me. She wasn’t going to die until I got there. Favored fucking son until the very end. What about my sister Joan Elizabeth Thiese Barner? A long painful favorance that ran in the Watkins family. After the 10-breath apnea they decided to go out for a cigarette. I had no fucking idea whether she could hear me or whether they were right that she had waited for me but the least I could do was talk to her. To no reaction other than gasps, I relayed her life to her. She had had been a great mother. She had taught me how to cook, sew, change a car tire, be good to others, think for myself, and have integrity. She had had an affair at Interlochen (she had been there 1944, 1946, 1948, and 1949) with a Warner Brothers Cartoonist (Warren Foster of “I tawtt I taw a puddy tat” fame) from whom she had gotten a fine daughter—but her Dakota Business College family told her she could either have an abortion, go live on the farm, or go to Europe). She chose Europe. She had become an accomplished musician and thespian, able to play the piano, the accordion, the French horn, run radio, and play virtually any instrument that followed the Greek physics of modes and octaves. She used to let me pound away in the percussive room at Del Mar College until the New Dean responded to some bitch student who thought I was too loud.
I would sit under the piano as she gave classes, reading my books, or falling asleep until I could go home. Or sit in her office waiting for class to be over. I thanked her for letting me take her silver spoons out into the garden and dig in the dirt and not yell at me but only sigh. She never understood my physics but insisted that all music and physics were as intertwined as star-crossed lover’s legs entangled. She bought me books when there was no money.
She looked like Ava Gardner and one of the best movie scenes is when she (Ava) speaks of loving to be bare foot and having her feet in the dirt. Mother loved her summers at the Tower City Farm and spoke of the Big Blacks, the Percherons–I was named after their Teamster Frank James Cowen. She had a love of men that got her in trouble and I learned about pornography from books sent to her by a famous Slovic musicologist who in the end (two years) would not leave his wife. All of this, many years after she had married a Doctor, Nathan Allen Newman, in Switzerland, where they both schooled and divorced. He was unable to leave his Long Island Jewish family to stay in Europe and support a gentile pianist as she would not become orthodox; he swore he would be atheist but after a visit home renounced. I never met him but while I have no paternal history (other than Simon Newman and Anna Popowitz—though supposedly I have a half sister Terry Newman) I was also spared the conflict of being torn between familes, as she refused support and visitation.
I am sure my love and loyalty towards women is because women my heroes both at home and as I knew them in history. Who could not love Rhea, the earth mother from whom all life came and not have an equal distaste for Chronos whose reason for existence was destruction even if only disguised as governance. Mother used to laugh that if women ruled the world there could be no war as what mother could send her son to die. Yet she was quick to say hell hath no fury like a woman protecting her children.
She tried to have an affair with Bill Barber the National Hall of Fame Aerobatics pilot. I was destroyed as he was my boss and hero but though I then had a superficial morality of monogamy I learned that sexuality is strong and I soon saw many families having various levels of successful sexuality and not. Mother insisted that all people have sex before marriage so they would know if they were compatible. When I read Emma Goldman I immediately saw in her my mother who danced during the revolution. Life could not be so serious as to deny laughter and the pleasures of the body and every woman should know how to masturbate without guilt.
My mother was sometimes harsh to my older sister who had a natural voice and natural perfect pitch but whose boundless talent was balanced by a lack of motivation to succeed beyond the daily pleasures of good conversation and a glass of wine in the back yard. Liz could hear a song and repeat all of it instantly. Mom wished for greatness in her daughter unfairly. But what King does not wish for their son to carry the line when they go? I too chaffed at the facile, ingenuous, and ant-intellectual aspects of the university—the fake art of competing artists spilling their brains out in competition for material goods, or high points in conversation. She let me have my polarity. By day loving the work of the blue-collar worker, the farmer, the mechanic, the welder, the naturalist, and by night pouring through the philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and physicists. She let me tan sheep skins in the bath tub, render deer lard on the stove, make methane from dog shit in the garden shed, and rebuild engines on the carpet in the basement. What more could a curious boy seek? Money for tools and education would have been nice. I was relieved to hear Dan Dennett call himself an autodidact and I thank Fred Hagen for affirming my ideas as being good questions.
Fred was on the board that insisted the U of U hire my mother as part of equal opportunity. She soon excelled past the installed brotherhood of rooster males and pecked hens, at least in student responses.
At one point we thought to homestead in Canada on free land. But it was time for me to leave home and not have a mother as a wife. She finally had an early nervous breakdown and took an early retirement to western Mass. She would end up marrying someone, Ron Rutstein, 30 years younger than her and live off the grid for 14 years, raising goats and trying to keep her head together. I was older than my step dad. He would later leave as mother got more angry with life; something to which I agreed and thought cowardly but it was just too much in age difference. Support would have been nice.
Some of our finest times were trips in the deserts and mountains and she often related her story of climbing the jungfraujoch. She introduced me to the works of Ed Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and Earth First and Stewart Udall and it was with her that I learned some of my best times were when I was lost. I met Neil Armstrong, Bob Hoover, and helped the Golden Knights roll their chutes one air show. Later when we saw Segovia again he had the largest yet softest hand I’d met. The room was filled with a cloud of smoke from protege’s but he was looking at her. I got to meet a lot of famous folks and the coolest thing was they liked me, when in school and extended family I was the weird one. She gave me audience to truly great people who saw me as valuable when at home I was just the wacko smart argumentative kid. She gave me sanity and viability by introducing me to great people who weren’t afraid of boundaries. I always wondered if Victor Erma was pissed that I got his machine gun given to me by his mother. Perhaps he would have had some use for it as inspiration in his studies of plasma physics at Caltech. There used to be a time in the US when we valued and cloistered talent–and it leaked to the middle and lower class–everybody elevated. Now we seek banality, excellence be damned, and now it’s about passive income and being stupid at parties. Smart women act dumb and smart guys separate. I miss smart women and difficult men. Mother had a way of bringing them together. She didn’t party often but when she did it was memorable to me. It was the socratic method with no holds barred to come up with something new. It was intellectual jazz.
Years before, in Lausanne, Switzerland she won a piano prize and received her Certificat d’etudes (June 1952) and her Diplome Normales (February 1955) but what women without a man succeeds in concert piano in the 50’s, hell they only called it piano pedagogy as women weren’t professional pianists. She studied mainly with Juliette De Crousaz. She went to Siena and took Theory from Segovia while he bounced my sister on his lap. She was taught by Guido Agosti and Hans Haug. She performed Bach’s B-flat minor Prelude and Fugue for Nadia Boulanger in 1958–I was born in 1957. All while dragging two children around. There was no money, no benefactor, no man who could withstand the intensity of her passion. She did have an affair with Robert Oft Klintenberg, an adventurer of Scandinavian nobility who swore when she said no to him that he would prove his worth and return. What the hell was a woman from Fargo North Dakota doing in Europe trying to be a concert pianist?
After 12 years in Switzerland, the money and talent gave out. She was good but she would have to have been the greatest. There are plenty of musicians who work at their craft rather then letting it flow but for an unsupported woman she had no chance. Music was becoming Stravinsky and polytonalic ilk she reviled.
Once back, her high school sweetheart returned to the Lakes for a vacation and mom’s face melted in a glow of past love and to the terror of everyone had an affair for a few nights which she justified by saying that he had been her first love, never resolved. But it never would have lasted. She needed more strength than American Scandinavian uprightness and woodsy good looks. She was elected to Phi Kappa Phi in 1978. Won first prize for a research paper from Mu Phi Epsilon Musicological Society in 1974. In 1966 she won the Concerto Concert prize at MSU playing Beethoven’s Third, where she got her Masters with a 4.0 while teaching 10 credits of French. She won a scholarship at the Conservatoire in 1955. And won the Faculty prize for interpretation at the Conservatoire in 1952. How on earth could she be happy in the states. She always longed for her life in Europe. American TV humor annoyed her as it depicted women as idiots and men as buffoons, put down after put down. Where was the sublimity in that?
Her facility for languages annoyed the hell out of me. I had a hard time with learning them though I took Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, and of course French as I was born in Switzerland. But she would empathize with native speakers wherever we went and it was amazing to see not only her inflection but her mannerism and her body language adapt to the country of inclusion.
She hated the movie the Dead Poet’s Society, all relating and no content. How could one think of excelling before becoming competent in the basics? As if the puking of a young though depressed man could balance the eloquence of a tenured and tempered maturity. How on earth could a pianist play well if they couldn’t put their stool in the proper position so the arms had the greatest biophysical advantage? Yet, she took her Intro-to-music classes from dull speeches of 40 to several hundred where crowds of students surrounded her after class. She started a cross-disciplinary Arts and Revolution class whose premise was that art predicted and instigated social change. She played in a rock band and participated in an international symposium on rock music (Rock and Ritual) within musicology in Germany. Her Dissertation was on the Tragi die Lyric of Jean Baptiste de Lully in the court of Louis the XIV, the Sun King. She finished her dissertation so quickly they put her name on a plaque on a building somewhere on the Ann Arbor campus. I saw the First Earth day there along with my first bra burning, draft card burning, and my first view of a mummy–not so far from the near corpse I was seeing now.
She held women’s meetings and fought to have child care at universities so female professors could better raise their families and teach. Her post graduate students were able to breast feed in class and she took that right to the dean of the department. She insisted that women had a more valuable birth if they resisted pain killers but acknowledged the need for better child care and nursing formulas so mothers could return to work sooner. She insisted that men raise the toilet seat and clean up their piss just as she cleaned up her menstrual blood. She taught me to cuss. First in French, then in English. She hated my grandfather when he once came and whipped my horse because it was hard to train.
She never forced me to church. We went a few times and I was antagonistic. It was such obvious, modernist, superstitious, misogynist, slave-based mythology (even to a 9 year old) and not my science, nature, and philosophy that transcended all religions to seek the truths beneath them all. But she knew well the elevation of good words, good music, good images, and good thoughts as esthetics of tradition, her tradition. Christmas was always music and the only lyrics I know are Christmas songs. We visited nursing homes and sang. She insisted that education and peace were the only viable means of improving mankind. No sane mother would send their child to war. No cultural relativism violated the absolute duty to alleviate the sound of a woman raped anywhere.
I thanked her for teaching me to love women as equals and with dignity even when porn queens and pop celebrities; she thought prostitution should be legal and Lysistrata the most astute political Greek comedy. If men could use force against women then women needed to use what means they had until equality was reached.
I tried to convey all of this in a few short moments so that she might be distracted from the rot within.
The cadre of staff and my sister returned and we watched and waited. As we talked, an aid noticed with me the breathing stopped. We counted the seconds and decided at 50 that was it and whatever she had been was no more but lived on in each of us in its own way. We watched her face turn gray and I kissed her one last time.
I was once interrogated by a kindly but sternly religious Grandmother-in-law, unsure of my moral worth or should I say turpitude, as to my religion. I said I didn’t believe in metaphysics, apparitions, and mythologies in themselves but in how people used them. I saw them as ripples along with the truths we sent to sea. The ripples my mother sent out reached across the world and I see them still, drifting along the water.
Jim Newman, bright and well