When her only friend Peggy died a few years ago, my mother reported the death to her middle-aged children in a grave voice and quickly moved on. She shed no tears, undertook no sentimental journey through Peggy’s life, offered no comment on her friend as a person or the impact she’d had on others. They’d been friends since college, through the tragic death of Peggy’s first husband when they were still in their twenties, Peggy’s disappointment at never having kids, Peggy’s struggles with severe depression, and the deaths and births and milestones and intimacies of each other’s long lives. Mother is glad to replay a specific Peggy memory if you ask, but she indulges in no grieving.
Like a lot of people with Aspergers Syndrome, my mother has strong emotions that she doesn’t always control well. These emotions emanate from her fears and needs; they aren’t about other people. Throughout her life my mother’s reaction to the deaths of people she is close to, including her husband, has consistently been flat, as though their deaths are no more consequential than a bad weather report for someone else’s town. As though there is nothing more to feel or think or say or record when your mother dies than this, my then-63-year-old mother’s diary entry on May 10, 1994:
“Anne and I went to the Carter Center. Saw WWII exhibit. Most fascinating was Eva Braun’s snapshot album w/ informal shots of Hitler & friends at Berchtesgarten (sp?). Also actual surrender papers. Then had lunch on the lovely patio overlooking a pond. A nice breezy day in the 70s. Went up to school to see dress rehearsal of John’s [grandson’s] program. There was a partial eclipse of the sun & all the leaf shadows on the ground were lunar shaped!
Then got home & found that Mother had fallen – fractured skull & bleeding into brain.
She died at 5:32 p.m.”
This diary includes Mother’s daily records of the temperature and weather conditions in Atlanta, descriptions of sunsets and birds, complete menus of meals she especially liked, lists of Christmas gifts she received, notes of her pleasure at seeing yellow leaves against red cars and red leaves against yellow cars, transcriptions of the unusual names of people she didn’t know and their descendants from the obituaries, interesting crossword puzzle clues and coincidences between crossword clues and Jeopardy questions or newspaper references, details on her activities, and her reflections about herself.
But she has no more to say about her mother’s sudden death or her long life other than a list a few days later of sympathy cards she had received and some comments about the things she wanted other people to bring her from her mother’s belongings.
The year before, when her mother-in-law died after several terrible months of suffering from cancer, Mother’s diary entries were:
“Stella died, but shortly before midnight on the 6th.
“Services at cemetery. Very good to see how many people came out. Terribly hot. High today was 99 – the highest since I’ve been here.”
Later there is a list of things she received from her mother-in-law’s house. In her end-of-year summary in the diary, she includes: “Two biggest life changing events – death of Stella and getting distance glasses.” At least she mentioned Grandma first.
When I had a miscarriage of my first pregnancy two months after Mother moved to Atlanta, her diary entry for July 22 was this: “Sarah had miscarriage today.” Two days later she wrote half a page about celebrity baby names and a dream she’d had, and a few days after that she copied an entire page of notes about the married names and occupations of women who were in her class at Grinnell College, which she attended for only her freshman year. And eight days later, she summarized the month with this: “July wrap-up: Still more settled than end of June. Bookcases finally up end of month.”
You might think I’d be used to the shallowness she shows about other people’s deaths. But it’s only been in the last dozen years or so that I’ve come to better understand how her brain works. I used to think her excessive worrying and occasional meltdowns showed her to be a very emotional person. I didn’t want to see that the emotion and distress are only about herself.
Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.