Late spring, 1982.
Thoughts on losing my mind, my mother writes, in pencil, her familiar joyous rounded vowels sprawling and yawing a bit on the page of the tiny green notebook.
It’s early spring of 1982 in Kingston, an Ontario city known for its university and its penitentiary. Rose has been installed in an apartment there for three months, working for my brother, her second son John, on his documentary about a life-prisoner who was redeemed by yoga, and by the love of a woman prison visitor.
Our mother's official title is researcher, but it’s she who is the connector, who can connect with anyone, from gay men and breast cancer patients – John’s previous documentaries – to lifers; win their trust, their agreement to be filmed.
Through late winter, she trundled each day into the maximum-security pen for meetings and pre-interviews, wearing her signature winter outfit: black mink coat – bought, after extensive research, strictly for its superior lightness and warmth, never status – and men’s green Eddie Bauer sneakers.
Once, I came to visit, and went inside with her. The guards lit up when they saw her coming. Everyone, from cleaners in the hall to men behind bars, gave her a shout-out. “Hey, Rose! – Rose, g’morning! – Yo, Rose!”
This day in Kingston, the day she makes the notebook entry, she must be thinking of logging, of facing down the terror by recording, the gaps and glitches newly festering in her words, she who has lived by words, loved them, created them, written and spoken and sung them all her life.
There are no entries after that short headline. Its five words survive alone, sloping and dimming on the page, a page I only find long afterward.
At this point, she hasn’t yet spoken of it to me, or to John.
A few weeks later, we're in a Toronto hospital, taken there by her increasingly jangled speech, episodes of double vision during the driving lessons she insists on continuing.
A goodlooking young neurology resident is putting her through some basic cognitive tests. His manner is smooth, disdainful, bored. He calls her dear. We can see her seething.
When he dangles his wristwatch in front of her, with “Do you know what this is, dear?” – she finally busts out. “Don’t you talk to me like that!”
His face darkens, he cuts the examination as short as possible, strides away. I follow him into the hall, to placate him. “This is so terrible for her, losing her speech, she’s a writer, she’s a film-maker,” I plead.
“Well,” he says with cold joy, “she won’t be making any more films.”
And you, two-bit dictator-sawbones, will never have made any, I think, longing to spit burning venom in his face. But you must placate doctors. Especially in the hospital. In the hospital, they are the directors, this is their film set, they are the determiners of fates. Like the old showbiz joke, where ur-director of biblical epics Cecil B. DeMille, refused entry to Heaven, tells the Almighty: Listen, bub; I made You, and by heaven, I can break You.
Back home, in her terror, our mother reaches out to her faraway teeny-bit-more-favourite elder son; to Peter, her soulmate when he was growing up, her co-extrovert who never rolled his eyes at her effusions, the only one of us children who could offer tenderness, put his arms around her, soothe her terrors at the ailments that kept battering.
Since our father's death, almost seven years earlier, communication has been jagged, infrequent. His manner, his relationship with her and with us, has turned more and more hostile and bruising.
Her reach-out now is not just because she can't quench her longing for him, and her fears about his wellbeing. This time, this appeal, will surely get through to him, to the sweet old-Peter, to loving tender Peterboy. She will make one more try, in the conviction that her love can still free that Peterboy from the dungeon of bitterness imprisoning him since the dazzling comet of his youth darkened and plummeted to earth, long hence.
She calls him in California, where he lives. Dreaming, still, of rekindled stardom.
When his wife answers the phone. "Let me speak to Peter," Rose sobs into the phone.
"No," says his wife, and hangs up.
A few minutes later, Peter calls back.
When she hears his voice, “Peter,” our mother says, weeping, “something terrible is happening to me.”
"Don't you dare," he cuts her off, "don't you ever dare not say hello to my wife."
She puts down the phone. Turns her face to the wall of his hatred.
“If I die,” she says to the rest of us, “I don’t want you to tell him. Let him hear it from strangers.”
There is one more set of letters, one never sent, the other never seen.
One she dictates to me to send him, saying he has turned into a bum, has forever lost her respect, she will never have anything to do with his bitch of a wife...It's never sent. The transcription in fading pencil is still in some drawer, somewhere.
One more letter arrives from him. A tightly packed page of carefully turned paragraphs. She's always used illness to manipulate, only one of her Nazi tactics for so-called mothering...he no longer considers her his mother, but if she is prepared to acknowledge her monstrousness, he may agree to see her one day...
She never sees it. A little over a month later, battling to the end in increasingly inchoate anguish as the tumour eats its fill of her brain, she is dead.
One of the tsunami of sympathy cards is from Kingston. “To Rose, a great lady.” With a dozen signatures from the Seven-Plus Club. The Kingston Penitentiary lifers.
In the old-country monochromes, among the corseted women, the men holding rigid for the photographer, there is a point of unposed life, the eyes of one little girl. Bright brown eyes, I know them to be, eyes alive with fun. Die wilde Rosl. Wild Rosie. She needed a lot of slapping down, and she got it.
Life, and love, can make you, and by heaven, can break you. Even you, Rosie. Even you. But not obliterate you. Never that.