December 16, 2019. St. Paul, Minnesota
Maurie Jo is 11 years older than I am. We have the same father, different mothers. Our father was charismatic, handsome, a war hero, and cut a dashing figure in Bismark, North Dakota. He also liked to drink, and in the privacy of home he was not always such a kind or generous man. His wives – he was married twice – did not wear sunglasses to be stylish. They wore them to cover their black eyes. His first wife left him when it got too bad, and then he left North Dakota, moved to Libya, met and married my mother, fathered two more children, and then died when I was three.
We would visit North Dakota and see my brother Michael and sister Maurie Jo every summer, but after our father’s death the family was torn apart.
I never saw Maurie Jo again until yesterday. The marks our father left were huge, and nearly 60 years later we are all still haunted by him. He’s been at the center of my fears as long as I can remember.
These pictures were taken in the hospice facility in St Paul Minnesota. Maurie Jo is dying. She is 70 now. Her 71st birthday is in February, and it is extremely unlikely she’ll make it to 71. It’s not so likely she’ll last until Christmas, and so I am here in St Paul Minnesota to meet my family again after all these years, and to say goodbye to my older sister. It’s doubtful she knows who I am. Alzheimers has taken what remained of her after a hard, hard life that has included 44 years on methadone maintenance, a long list of abusive partners including an ex husband who served prison time for murder, and some prison time herself. Of her exes Michael says “There wasn’t one who didn’t beat her, stab her, or shoot her”.
Mexicans believe in ghosts. I can read all the Juan Rulfo there is ( there’s not much) and never really understand it, but I know this: Maureen’s story is full of ghosts. Our entire family is a ghost story.
Americans believe in ghosts as malevolent spirits that need to be banished. Ghosts come out at Halloween and in horror movies. They are not something white people want to deal with, just as we don’t want to deal with the dying, or with death itself. It scares us, so we avoid it.
“Your pictures rob her of dignity” someone white says, because to them there is no dignity in aging, and especially not in dying. To me, dignity is almost all Maureen has left.
I looked at her profile, the long elegant nose, the thick grey hair parted on the side, the cheekbones and the jaw and I was reminded of a photo I’d seen of an elderly Georgia O’Keefe. Michael and I looked at O’Keefe photos online. He agreed.
“Americans associate privacy with dignity”, Myriam says
The only way I feel like I can look at this is through non white eyes. Through Mexican eyes, specifically, because white culture doesn’t have the tools for this. I listen to Myriam and try to see things the way she does.
Listen to how us white folks speak. “Maureen has passed” people will say. No one will be comfortable with the word dead.
I have had my own discomfort with the idea of death. Maybe discomfort isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s better described as low key existential panic. This was especially true in the last few years of my Hepatitis C, a time during which there was a constant nagging conviction that time was close to running out, that while the likelihood of me dying at that specific moment was slim, it wasn’t but a few years away, and maybe I should just kill myself then and there, before age and sickness took me. That thought was a constant, a hum in the background, sort of like a refrigerator, something that you didn’t really hear unless you stop and listen for it, and then there it is, surprisingly loud and clear.
Of her exes Michael says “There wasn’t one who didn’t beat her, stab her, or shoot her”
Maureen and I shared the same father, and different mothers. Our father beat both of his wives – Maureen and Michael’s mother, and mine.
Maureen is my half sister, eleven years older than I. I have a full sister, a year and a half younger, and another half sister, five years younger. My younger half sister is from my mother’s second marriage.
My mother was married twice. Both her husbands beat her. Maureen was abused by almost every romantic partner she ever had. Of her exes Michael says “There wasn’t one who didn’t beat her, stab her, or shoot her.” My full sister was sexually molested by two different men before she entered high school. I don’t know that she’s ever had any male romantic partners. My youngest sister has been beaten and or sexually abused by at least five men.
According to RAINN, one in three women in America will experience domestic violence, and one in four will be raped or sexually assaulted. In my family, the statistics are higher. Every single one of them has been sexually assaulted, and the only one who has not been the victim of domestic violence has never been in a romantic relationship.
It’s not just a handful of men running amok beating and raping all the women in the world, either. In my family, four women were abused by at least fourteen men. It’s everywhere. Rape and violence against women are as American as apple pie, and possibly more common.
I hadn’t seen Michael since our father died when I was about 3 and he was about 13. We’ve traded messages over the years, but only recently with any frequency.
Our family has always been full of dark secrets, and our father seemed to be at the center of them. I’ve been dealing with his ghost my entire life. He was a handsome, charismatic war hero. Not as many people knew of his habit of beating his wives, and if they did, no one was talking.
That’s dirty laundry stuff. Personal. Nobody’s business outside of the family. This and male solidarity are why so many women still suffer abuse. Woman battering is distasteful, and people look the other way.
My father has not been a Mexican ghost. He doesn’t move about the house at night making his presence known. He is not there to be personally interacted with. Haunting is a psychological phenomenon that often provides a context for social problem solving. A person faced with a social problem is given intellectual tools by the psychological phenomenon of a haunting, enabling them to parse out elements of the problem and locate the solution internally. This is particularly the case in the context of the haunted house. A Mexican haunted house, that is, because white ghosts are like white people: they are distant. They don’t get involved. They pass, and go to Jesus.
My father’s ghost just sort of loomed from afar. He manifested himself just about everywhere. People knew him and talked about him. I was always being compared to him and falling short.
He haunted Maureen, too. She never recovered. And all these years after he’s a big part of my conversations with Michael.
Abuse is about control. In the fifty-seven years since his death, he’s exercised a lot of control over his four children.
Preston is my nephew, Maureen’s only child. His father Gerry was Maureen’s husband. They married young, Maurie-Jo a pregnant teenager. Preston’s in his 50’s now, struggling with addiction, like his mother did, and like her two brothers did. I’ve been sober for 23 years. Michael about the same. It never took with Maureen, which is why she was on methadone until the day she died.
Preston says “You travel a lot. Mom never traveled. If you take some of her ashes maybe she can finally travel with you.”
“She never saw the mountains,” Michael says. “She never saw the ocean”.
In fact, after moving to Minnesota from North Dakota, she only left the state twice. Once was for a trip to New York on a check kiting spree orchestrated by some Minnesotan gangsters. The other was to the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth as a result of that trip to New York.
And Preston’s dad Gerry? He was a drugstore cowboy, a junkie and a hapless criminal whose life of crime would be comical if it didn’t include a murder. Gerry found sobriety in prison, and also God. He was released a few years ago, and died soon after.
Yes, Maureen can travel with me. Myriam and I will take her to Mexico. She should go somewhere warm.
My first night in St. Paul Minnesota, staying a Days Inn that advertises itself as a gun-free zone, I took a walk to get some food. There was a Denny’s about half a mile down the road. My server was a guy named Jeff, with a rat-tail. I haven’t seen a rat tail since about 1980, when I had one.
At the booth next to me were a youngish couple. I’m not sure how long they’ve been a couple, or what kind of couple they are. My guess is they teamed up earlier in the day. Neither have bathed in a while. They smelled stale. She looked older, and street worn. He talked about the last place he was kicked out of, which sounds like it was earlier that day. His story did not interest her.
They were homeless. They were also pretty low on funds. One of the waitresses at Denny’s covered their meal. I think they were both junkies.
Minnesota must be a rough place to be homeless. It was about 0 degrees outside, which means it would need to get a lot warmer before it reached freezing. I didn’t think to bring a scarf with me, so my face was exposed to the wind on the walk home. My face went numb. It felt like it was going to fall off.
I think Maureen will like Mexico.
The second floor of Maureen’s facility was a lock down floor. I believe it’s called a “memory wing”. It was kept locked down so that people didn’t wander off.
The patients there seemed mostly abandoned. Maureen was the only person who had regular company. Her roommate, Judith, had moved up to St Paul from Nevada, to be closer to her daughter. Her daughter was supposed to visit the week before, but couldn’t, because one of her kids was sick.
It sounded like it had been a while since Judith’s daughter had visited. Perhaps a year.
Judith hated the facility. She was on the waiting list for a bed at the VA. She’d been on the waiting list for two years. She hoped that a bed would open any day. She hoped that her daughter would visit that weekend. She would moan and call for the nurse throughout the day. The nurses were busy and knew that Judith only wanted some attention. The facility was understaffed, and the staff was probably underpaid.
Jesus was one of the younger patients, maybe in his 50s. He could walk. Maybe at one point Jesus could speak English, but he could only speak Spanish now. He had a pad of paper and crayons and drew pictures of things and used those pictures to try to teach the staff Spanish.
Everybody loved Jesus.
Everybody loved Maureen, too, because she never asked for anything. By that point, she couldn’t. She could no longer communicate. When she arrived, Maureen could still talk. The Alzheimers had robbed her of the ability to remember much of anything, but she still maintained her independence, as much independence as you can maintain when you can’t remember anything and are in diapers.
She called all the women Missy.
When I arrived she hadn’t eaten in a week.
Every day she seemed more frail, even though her frailty the day before had seemed impossible.
A hospice worker came by for music therapy. She played guitar and sang some gentle folk songs. Maureen seemed to have withdrawn into a place deep, deep inside herself. Still, it seems the music calmed her, or perhaps just her weakness did. The mild agitation of the days before was gone.
Michael was going to stop by before work, and then leave work early to drive me to the airport. Instead, he decided to stay.
A minister came by. He talked to Maureen, and prayed over her. His intention was to pray with her, but Maureen was not capable of praying with anyone. He asked us what we knew of her spiritual beliefs.
The minister knew his twelve step stuff and seemed to focus on prayers found in the Big Book of AA. These prayers are familiar to me as a sober person, and to Michael, but Maureen never found sobriety, although I’m told she tried a few times.
Her breathing had grown so shallow it would disappear altogether. Michael and the minister and I would pause, holding our own breath, watching carefully to make sure she was still alive. Her breath would flutter after thirty seconds or so. She’d do a little gasp and then settle back into shallow breathing. We would feel oddly relieved that she was still “with us” even though that last breath could come at any moment.
The last breath came two days later, early in the morning of December 21.