Thinking of Mom


Margaret Gehardt Linton - sitting at her front porch earlier this month

As I write this, my mom’s in the hospital… unconscious… unlikely to awaken. She’s definitely alive… but it’s also unlikely, even in the fortuitous case where she revives that she’ll be herself… she likely has brain damage, likely severe, likely debilitating.

So I’ve been thinking that I should write about her. 

I just finished Dan Savage’s book The Commitment, which is really well-written, and includes some of his interactions with his mom… which brought tears to my eyes. Additionally, his story (not from that book, but from This American Life) of his mother’s death (video at bottom of this earlier post) is touching, clever and well composed. This blog post isn’t that… it’s sort of my very rough first draft, not so polished and composed and wonderful as Savage’s pieces. I haven’t thought so much about how to write about mom just yet. I figure it’s important to start writing things down… to remember and to hold on to…

Mom… formally Marge… Margaret Gerhardt Linton, born October 23rd 1937 as Margaret Eunice Gerhardt… fell last week. Her fall happened on Thursday July 21st 2011 in her Tustin home where I and my brothers and sisters grew up. She fell near the single step that connects the garage and the house. She was discovered by her gardener. She was rushed to the hospital. Her condition worsened. She had hit her head and blood was bleeding into her brain, damaging the brain and causing it to swell. On Friday morning, physicians operated and took out a piece of her skull, to relieve pressure on the brain.

I visited her on Friday. With her head shaved, she eerily resembled my uncle Bill, her brother. She’s been unconscious since… and we, her four now-adult kids, are watching and waiting and worrying and looking at where we go from here.

I live about a one-hour train ride plus 20-minute bike ride from her. I confess that I get caught up in my life and frequently go a month or two without spending any time with her. I am going to tell a little about when I most recently received the gift of unexpectedly spending time with her.

My friend Rex and I recently took an all-day train-bike trip, which I wrote about here. It was on Thursday May 17th. We had planned to put our bikes on-board Amtrak, but we were passed up by two trains that were too full to accommodate our bicycles. At San Juan Capistrano, with daylight waning, we decided to call our sisters (both living nearby) and see if they could drive down and pick us up. (At the time, I was pretty pissed at Amtrak for their lack of bicycle facilities… but I would later come to see it as a gift… the lack of bike space got me to spend some good time with mom.)

My sister Liz came and got me and suggested that I crash at mom’s that night. I called mom, who worried that she didn’t have food for my dinner that night (despite the fact that mom’s fridge and cupboards are generally over-stuffed) but welcomed me to come spend the night.

I had planned to take off first thing Friday morning, when there would be plenty of bike capacity on inbound commuter trains heading for downtown Los Angeles.

Mom’s been having a gradually increasing number of health problems for a few years now. Often conversations with her revolved around medical concerns, appointments, medicines, side effects, aches, pains. After a hospitalization (for digestive problems due to a sort-of-cyst-type obstruction in her digestive tract), it became apparent to us kids that mom was less and less able to live independently in her 2-story suburban Tustin home. It’s the home she and my father (who would soon separate and divorce) bought new in the late 1960s. We, especially my sister, suggested that she sell the house and move to a smaller place, with fewer maintenance hassles… but she was reluctant to move away… so she remained in the big empty house where she lived for nearly 50 years.

The latest health development, in the past month or so, was gout, causing her feet to swell… causing problems for walking and even driving.

That Thursday night when Liz dropped me off at mom’s, mom was frustratedly trying to use Tivo to record a television program. Liz helped her with it… though it was clear to me that mom was a in difficult somewhat frazzled place… not quite her usually very together self.

Mom needed help to go to the hospital lab on Friday morning, so we planned for me to drive her there first thing, then I’d be on my way. We went to the lab at U.C. Irvine Medical Center. (She worked at the library there for many years; I worked there, too, though in the laboratory, for a 5-year stint in the 1980’s.) She got her tests done, while I waited and read. We drove home, and she wanted to take a nap… I laid down and read and slept, too.

When we both rose, a little before noon,  I suggested that we take a short walk. She had a lot of excuses, but I weathered them, and she consented to walking to the nearby corner and back… which we did together.

She wanted me to go and pick up lunch for her… I convinced her that we should go to lunch and eat together. I was stuck by how strong her impulse was to not leave the house unless she was presentable – made up, dressed up. My mom really didn’t want to go eat at a restaurant unless she felt like her appearance was up to spec. I find it odd how strong that impulse is for women. I think it becomes ingrained due to the impulse to find and connect with a mate. But it just seemed incongruous that a 74-year old who’s been single-divorced for all my adult life, and never really dated post-divorce, would have such a strong desire to primp her appearance. Especially given what a casual dresser I am… Seems clear that there’s some strong reproductive and gender expectations at work here…

I wore her down, didn’t take no for an answer… and we went out for lunch at Rutabegorz, in downtown Tustin, across from Tustin Presbyterian Church, which was a really important part of our lives when I was in Junior High and High School. Mom used to volunteer to teach Sunday school there, before becoming somewhat disillusioned about church (in part because someone had told her that the ideal Sunday school teacher they were looking for was a husband-wife team… despite the fact that my mom was an awesome popular teacher there.)

On the way home, we bought some bark chips to start to address a portion of her front yard that had become overgrown a while ago. She had had the area cleared completely, and weeds were coming up. She’d been wanting me to come up with a landscaping plan that would be inexpensive and low maintenance and would get her homeowners association off her back. I suggested starting small – weeding, mulching for now – and later figuring out what next steps made sense.

We weeded and spread much on a portion of her yard. The chips didn’t go as far as I thought they would… but I think she was happy to see some small incremental process. She told me that she thought that she could sit and do some weeding over the next few days. As we finished up, I took the cell phone photo that’s at the top of this post.

I biked off to catch the train back to L.A.  She was in good spirits.

I got a call from her the next day. She sounded a lot more upbeat and together than she had the previous couple days. It was actually a really short conversation… in contrast to a lot of my calls with her in recent years… where she would often meander at length. It was really short. She just called to let me know that she was doing well. She’d walked to the corner again that morning… and that she’d been really happy to see me.

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6 Responses to “Thinking of Mom”

  1. Britni Brault Says:

    Thank you for sharing, praying for your mom and all of your family. We love Tom and Liz and the kids and we can’t imagine what you all are going through.

  2. Rebecca Gleason Says:

    A beautiful letter about your Mom, Joe.I have some very fond memories of my Aunt as a child and I treasure them also! My prayers are with your mom, Matt, Fletcher, Liz and you. Take care. Becky Hand Gleason

  3. Anna Says:

    It was good to read about Aunt Margie. It’s important to remember the lives our loved ones lead. I can’t say I’d blame her for not wanting to leave that house. It’s one of my favorites too.

  4. Emily Lawrence Mendoza Says:

    I just wanted to let you know that Tears are coming to my eyes I read this, because I have so many fond memories of the adventures we had with you guys at that house and I can understand why she wouldn’t want to move. I remember going on long walks to park; games of kerplunk; you drawing us; making cookies; looking at/being injured by the cacti collection; playing king of the mountain on the water bed; standing on our tip toes next to the downstairs bedroom doorframe trying so see if we’d match any of mat’s height marks; feeling like giant when you and matt would swing us in the air; lizzy trying to teach me to swim at the pool by placing plastic charms underwater on the steps; and so many other cherished parts of my childhood. I want to thank you all so much for those memories. It saddens me that my grandmother was/is so stubborn and insecure, because I’m sure that had she been nice to your mom, they could both benefit greatly from sisterly support as they cope with their bodies giving them some similar challenges.

  5. Cathy Lovejoy Says:

    Lovely… brought back many of my own memories of Marge.

  6. Matt Linton Says:

    I am glad that Liz urged you to stay with mom. That meant a great deal to her and yourself.

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