I have been asked, many times, why I went to live in Africa and after stumbling over the answer, equally as many times, I came up with a few quick sound bites. These ranged from wisecracking about being on the lam from the IRS to tossing off lines like, "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Or I might say that the opportunity arose and I took it. "Why Africa?" "Why not?" I had been there a few times before, had a few friends in Kenya, and what better place? If pressed really hard for more details, I might have mumbled something about recently going through a very bad time. But I wanted it to sound as if this all occurred in a moment of pure whimsy: that I simply packed my bags one summer morning, grabbed my pith helmet, and hopped the first available flight for Africa.
My main objective, with all these answers, was to steer the conversation, as quickly as possible, away from the complicated and far more painful truth.
I did not know, when I lit out for Africa in 1987, that I was running away from home. I actually believed that I was off on a lark. A grand adventure. But I know now that I was running away from my family, running from all that had just happened, and away from what was looming ahead. And I was running away from what I feared was surely my destiny: ending up as my mother had.
My mother was a very wealthy, beautiful, charming, and accomplished woman who led a privileged and quite glamorous life. She had a large family, several homes, social position, numerous husbands, and friends who truly cared about her. She was also desperately unhappy. Her depression was probably clinical, it had surfaced many times before, and she had tried, on several occasions, to take her own life. But when she was diagnosed as having Lymphoma, it never occurred to me that she might view this as a very dramatic, and yet totally respectable, way out.
I didn't read the sign posts correctly. Maybe I should have made the connection between her previous desire to end her life and how she would deal with having cancer. I should have seen a rather exceptional woman who, after four husbands had come and gone, would still accept nothing but the opinion of some man as a reflection of her worth. I should have known that after having five children, in rapid succession, she had spent the rest of her life living out someone elses idea of what a "good mother" should be. I certainly should have seen that her money brought her countless material things, but little real happiness. But I did not. I never connected those dots. She was my mother and I loved her. I didn't see the woman she really was until almost the end.
Before she became ill it was also not clear to me that her relationship with her children was as precarious and potentially explosive as it was, either. Granted we had always had to actively vie for our mother's affection. There were five of us, after all, and her attentions were in short supply. We all learned at a young age that the best way to get Mother's attention was to land in some kind of trouble. It needn't be big trouble, just more than the other four were currently in. But I was too close to that to see where it might, one day, lead.
There was also the complex issue of her considerable wealth. We certainly enjoyed the benefits of growing up as we did; there were summer camps and fancy cars, private schools and trips to Europe. As we got older, however, money came to mean power to our mother, but to us it had come to represent love. Hers. It could be handed out in prodigious amounts, if you were in Mother's good graces, but it could also be cut off just as swiftly. We all rose and fell from those graces with considerable regularity, but, up until then, there had always been another day. We knew our number would come up again.
For most of my younger years, my little halo was securely in place. But once I decided to be less of a carbon copy of my mother, the more disfavor I found myself in. Much of what I did, beyond my nineteenth birthday, was not as my mother would have had it. She dismissed the career in dance, and later the theatre, that I pursued, by simply ignoring its existence. The dissolution of my two marriages, one at twenty -one and the next at twenty -seven, was further proof of my shortcomings. Although it seems to me that going through two husbands before the age of thirty was following quite closely in her footsteps, it didnt win me any points.
As far as my son, Jake, was concerned, the fact that he was the brightest star in her personal heaven apparently had nothing to do with how I was raising him. I never understood how he turned out to be such a great little fellow, if I was making such a mess of things. But my mother disapproved of almost everything I did with him and our relationship had been stormy and hurtful for many years.
Then she got cancer.
My ending up as her "significant caretaker" came about by default. Within mere weeks of hearing that she had Lymphoma, we received the next bit of numbing news: her husband of that decade, Step Dad Number Three, an artist with less serious talent than club house affability and a nose for a good opportunity, had bolted for the nearest exit. He was out the door and into the waiting arms of a woman my age before the second syllable of the word "cancer" had been pronounced. Not only was this a shattering blow to my mother, but it left the job of emotional support system unfilled. My younger sister, Christina, had been killed in a car accident in 1976 and my three brothers felt, and not without some justification, (the first diagnosis of her disease was not fatal) that Mother was making more of her illness than was absolutely necessary. That left me.
But I signed on not because I was faced with the prospect of becoming the companion of someone who always flew first class and ate in five star restaurants, but by the much more tantalizing possibility of intimacy.
During the three years that she was ill, I felt as if I had finally slid into love's home plate. There was a new light in my mother's eyes that appeared the minute she saw my face. The more time I spent with her, ultimately shelving my life in New York to be with her full time, the higher my star rose. I recognized how far this was from the many years that had gone before, and how circumstantial. I was neither a different nor a better person, but she thought I was. That feeling was not totally convincing, but it had been a long time coming and I wanted to hold on to it for as long as I could.
It is every childs worst nightmare that something terrible might happen to its mother, and by the spring of 1986, something terrible was happening to mine. She was dying. All through her illness, I had honestly believed that if I tried hard enough, if I could just infuse her with even a small part of the abundant energy I have always had, she would live. But she didnt want to live. This was not the face she showed the world at large, outwardly she was fighting the good fight. But I knew how utterly despairing she was. It wasn't the cancer that was killing her; it was her inability to find any reason to go on living.
In April of that year, after surgery, chemotherapy and other more unconventional methods had failed, Mother attempted the last thing available: radiation. She was already weak from a recent surgery and the chances of this new regime making her more so were great, but she was determined. After only two treatments, something simply blew apart. I had just returned to New York from her home in South Carolina when I got the call to come right back. By the time I arrived there, she had slipped into a coma and I was told she would not live through the night. It had been my promise, one that she had extracted from me countless times, that she would die in her own bed, free of the tangle of tubes and drips, and that I would not let her die alone. Nor would I allow her to suffer.
I took her home.
She could no longer communicate with me, but I chose to believe that she knew I was there and taking care of her. The doctors had told me that it was impossible to tell how much pain she was suffering, and increasing the dosage of morphine would further depress her breathing. But I could not sit there, knowing that she might be in the pain that she so feared and that I had promised to protect her from. It was a terrible choice, but I sent the doctors away and hired private nurses. I told them to do whatever was necessary to make sure my mother was comfortable.
And then I just sat by her bed, listening to her breathe, listening to her struggle to let go, and I waited. I changed her diapers and I talked to her. I told her that I loved her and I held her hand. And I waited. I knew she was not going to regain consciousness, and I tried to encourage her to go where I believed Tina would be waiting for her.
"It's okay. You can let go now."
On the fourth night, when she finally stopped breathing, the ensuing silence was stunning. I had never been that close to death before, and as hoarse and grating as the sound of those last days had been, that stillness was far worse.
Then there was her funeral. And then they read her Will.
Mother had divided her considerable Estate into four very unequal pieces with me, the current favorite, receiving the largest piece. She had gone even further to insure that I could not, after her death, divide my portion more equally among the four of us: she had put it into an irrevocable trust.
No one misunderstood her message. To our mother, I was the one who had taken care of her for three years, my brothers had not. They had their reasons, I am sure, but their lack of attention to her during her illness had hurt her deeply. This was her way of getting even. Although this news was not unexpected, it was, as far as my brothers were concerned, totally unacceptable. They instituted a lawsuit to overturn her Will with me as the target. I was accused of "undue influence."
I sympathized with the enormous punch to the gut that had just landed on each of them, but I did not support their decision to go through with this. A protracted legal battle with my own brothers was the last thing I needed, and I knew they would not win. Not only had I never asked her to do any such thing, but everyone knew that our mother only did what she wanted to do.
But it didnt matter what I felt, it was her Estates legal obligation to defend her Will. I could not change that even if I had wanted to. Nonetheless, the months after her death were filled with bitter and acrimonious phone calls, tears, letters, shouting matches and horrible accusations, on all sides. But they were going to proceed.
There was no question of my fighting, I was going to flee. As soon as I knew this lawsuit was going ahead, I made plans to get as far away as possible. From this terrible confrontation with my brothers and, even then, from my mother. She was still there, pulling me into a situation I didn't want to be in. Forcing me, in some strange way, to stand in for her. To support her decisions. To be like her. I did not want to do it. I had just spent three years hearing how miserable much of her life had been and I had seen how sadly it had ended. Would I end up, when I was dying, with nothing but money, four ex-husbands and a badly broken spirit? Would I never know my own worth except in the eyes of some man? Any man? Would I, one day, be unable to find even one good reason to live? That terrified me more than the idea of battling my own brothers in court.
Of course, none of this came to me in clear, linear or even rational thought. It was all just a reaction. I felt, somewhere deep down in my gut, that if my mother had gone right, I should go left.
And so with all the lawyers jockeying for position and everyones teeth bared, I set about clearing the decks to leave. One significant financial problem that had to be sorted out first was finding the money for Jake's tuition. Mother had always paid for his private schooling and had provided for this in her Will. But when a Will is contested, all assets are frozen until it is settled. Nothing can be disbursed. Not the money for Jake's tuition, not this great "inheritance" I was to receive, should anything be left after the lawyers were through, nothing. I couldn't have it, I couldn't borrow against it, and I couldn't get an advance.
And so I went down to the wholesale jewelry district in New York City and, after several humiliating hours of having my mothers things pawed over and scrutinized, I sold her diamond watch and a large pearl brooch. I felt like a pregnant hooker raising money for an abortion and I cried all the way home on the bus. But I had a large check in my wallet that was posted to Jake's school the next morning.
Then, on the twenty sixth of July, 1987, I turned my back on my life as it was and boarded that British Air flight for Nairobi. I was sick at heart and scared senseless, but I was also somehow hopeful. I was finally starting to look forward and, even better than that, I was going back to Africa.