We’re all full of shit. Or maybe that’s the wrong phrase. I was going to say inherently selfish but I’m not sure that’s the right one either. Perhaps self-centered is what I’m trying to say.
We all like to pretend we’re super important, that we have SO. MANY. BIG. IMPORTANT. THINGS. ALWAYS. GOING. ON. No time for anything. Or for other people.
And then, sometimes, we’re just downright lazy. Or insensitive. And maybe I should stop saying “we.” I’m talking about myself. These are things that I know I do and, quite frankly, to often.
Yesterday, Tuesday, at around 3 in the afternoon, I got an e-mail from my brother. It was a forwarded message, one that he had receive from Nicole, the daughter of our childhood babysitter. Her mother, it said, was “gone.” Her name was Mary Odell. She was 66 (you can read more about her background here).
Mary joined our family when I was about eight years old. Maybe even earlier. It’s hard to remember exactly when. What I do know is that she was with us for many, many years, formative and important ones, about ten of them I think. She watched me—and my younger brother, my only other sibling—grow up. Played a role in that process. A large one. There were the countless trips to swim lessons at the JCC and to various youth sports practices and games. Dinners cooked, talks had, moments shared.
Mary is the person who taught me how to drive and then, when my dump-of-a-car broke down, deal with mechanics. She’s the one who was there for me at home every day when, as a seventh grader, I fractured my femur skiing and was forced to miss six weeks of school. She’s the one who introduced me to Oldies, which were always coming out of the speakers in the car. She loved Elvis.
My mom has always worked crazy hours—walking through the front door at 10 p.m. is an early night for her—and while no one could ever replace her in my life, it was Mary who helped fill some of the void that those endless office hours left. It feels a bit weird to label someone as a second mother, but that’s what Mary was in our family.
I use the word was on purpose, and it’s here where I let Mary down. That’s not even a strong enough phrase. I failed as a human being. And in doing so I’m afraid that I might have helped allow a woman who once cared for me as if I was her own child live out her finals days, and then, this week, die, alone.
We never “retired” Mary from our family. Even when my brother and I were in high school my family kept her on. We knew she needed the money (she had been a widow for years and, while she had four kids, her relationship with each of them was, well, interesting, Also, none of them were in a position where they could financially support her.). More importantly, Mary was family. Our household wasn’t complete without her.
Then there was the stroke. It occurred while she was driving my brother somewhere. I was about 17 at the time. Mary never was a healthy woman; she smoked like Don Draper and had a soft spot for fried foods and chocolate. The stroke left her unable to speak clearly and she could no longer walk. That was about eight years ago. She never fully recovered. And we—or I—never treated her as part of the family, or with the respect and care that family should be treated with, again.
She got an apartment in downtown New Rochelle and lived there with an aid. I think I saw the place maybe five times. Maybe.
I was always busy, always had something that I needed do. Never mind that I went to college in New York and could have easily paid a monthly visit, or that I’m back in New Rochelle about twice a month. For some reason, though, I never made the effort, never even picked up the phone. I made a choice—that sleeping late was more important, and that working out was more important, and that watching a football game was more important. Yeah, I can try to rationalize, say things like, She never answered the phone few times I did try calling and stuff like that, but deep down, well, I know that’s a load of bull.
I got to see Mary one last time before she died. Earlier in the week we had been told she wasn’t doing too well and so we ran over to the facility that she was in. As we walked into her dark room, plastered with ugly beige wallpaper and devoid of fresh air, we were greeted with one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen.
That’s the smile I could have been bringing to Mary’s face for years. If only I put in a little more effort, if only I had had a wakeup call other than her death. I’m not sure why that’s how it seems too often go—that we remember people and share our true feelings about them only after they died. What I am sure about is that it’s not right. We can do better, we should do better.
I should do better. Mary deserved to hear how much she meant to my family before died. I’m not sure she ever did. I’d like to think she knew, but you just don’t know.
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The picture above is of me (in the Jordan jersey), my brother and Mary. I think I’m eight-years-old there. Every year Mary would bring us to her house and take picture of us in front of her Christmas tree. Like I said, we were family to her.