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Jewish Journal

No Compassion?

by Arthur J. Magida

May 6, 2004 | 8:00 pm

The day my mother was transferred from a nursing home to a hospice, I raced from Baltimore to northeastern Pennsylvania. This 80-mph excursion into death -- my mother's death -- might rescue me from whatever boredom and tedium had enveloped me, but it would also plunge me into a realm where I didn't necessarily relish going. But go I went. For you see, there was no choice.

Arriving at the hospice, I finally found my mother's room, then paused briefly in the doorway, not quite ready to enter. After a few minutes, I caught my mother's eye. With a finger curved from years of arthritis, she motioned me toward her. Approaching her bed, I bent down. I didn't want to miss what might be her final words, words of wisdom or longing or regret or love, words that could rival the most poignant deathbed scene of the most melodramatic (or the most cornball) film. Indeed, this could be a true moment of reconciliation, of empathy, of demolishing the walls of distance and reserve that had risen between us over the years -- walls that belied all the enviable myths and fables about mothers and sons, stories that I knew were true (at some level) because I saw, occasionally, mothers and sons getting along as mothers and sons were intended to.

As I stooped at her bedside, I saw her summon her strength. I waited, and then came her last verdict of me.

"You have no compassion," she rasped out, syllable by syllable, wagging her bent finger more or less in my direction. "All you care about is the money."

That was the last I heard from her. Shutting her eyes, she slid into a coma. It was late afternoon. Hours later, I finally shooed my nephews out of the room, sat down next to my mother and delivered a two-hour monologue about our relationship and the pain of her parting words:

"You have no compassion" -- This from a woman who saw me as an interloper and a destroyer: my birth had caused such damage to her interior that she couldn't resume sex with my father until she had an operation 12 years later.

"You have no compassion" -- This from a woman who saw me as so distant, so aloof, so inscrutable that we couldn't talk to each other until I was about 8 because of my severe speech impediment. After I'd gone through years of speech therapy, she finally didn't have to ask a cousin who lived near us to run over and "translate" my babble to her.

"You have no compassion" -- This from a woman who had a hard time relating to my love of books and literature and ideas and always proclaimed, a bit too defensively, "I didn't go to college, but you don't need a college education to be smart."

"You have no compassion" -- This from a woman who elevated self-sacrifice to an art, self-effacement to a talent and scolding to a craft. That finger with which she motioned me to her bedside was no aberration. Throughout my life, when that finger pointed at me, I knew I was in trouble.

My mother was not in the same league as writer Mary Gordon. In fact, she probably never read anything by Gordon. But the same apprehension that gripped Gordon when her doctor told her she was having a boy probably gripped my mother for many years after giving birth to me: "Oh my God! What am I supposed to do with one of them?"

The problem is that I wasn't just "one of them." I was damaged, I had damaged her, and the breach between us was so wide and so antipodean that countenancing even the possibility of abridging it was almost the same as risking what might happen if we didn't try. Either way, there was the probability of two strangers staring across an abyss. The gap between us was as corrosive and daunting as it was frightening, which may be why it had become permanent.

From Oedipus onward, all of us have seen moms through prisms that are as inaccurate as they are sometimes hopeful and dreamy: A king marries his mother and stabs his eyes out in shame; Harriet bakes brownies every damn day for Ricky and David (and, of course, for her husband, Ozzie), and everything's right with the world or, at least, at 522 Sycamore Road in idyllic Hilldale.

But enough of Oedipus' mother/wife. And enough of Harriet, famed chef of Sycamore Road. There are real-life moms and real-life problems and swirling around us are real "headwinds of darkness" -- Sophocles' words about Oedipus which, I pray, is all we have in common with that cursed son/husband.

"You have no compassion!" -- It might be true. I hope not. I've lived my life with respect for others, volunteering for good causes and working for a few years at slave labor wages for a major public interest group. I also tried to have compassion for my mother. Maybe what's most important now is not whether she was right or wrong, but the impulse that chose her particular parting words.

By mustering whatever compassion I truly have -- compassion that I prefer to believe my mother didn't know about -- I can suggest that she was really trying to help me by deflating whatever myths I might harbor about mothers and sons: Begone, Harriet of Sycamore! Away with thee, June Cleaver! But I honestly don't think that was her intention: Even she wasn't that compassionate. No, I think she was a very angry woman -- angry, literally, to the end. I also believe that I just happened to get in her way. And that was most unfortunate, for both of us.

Arthur Magida's latest book, "The Rabbi and the Hit Man," has just been released in paperback by HarperCollins. He is the University of Baltimore's writer in residence.

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