The killer scene for me in the season premiere of Mad Men last Sunday night was when the great John Slattery as Roger Sterling, upon hearing of the death of the guy who had shined his shoes for many years, finally breaks down and weeps inconsolably for his own mother, who had just died at the ripe old age of 91.
I had played a similar scene (far less handsomely) a few years ago.
I never cried for my mother, who died of breast cancer at the ridiculously young age of 51. It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other; it was that I loved her too much and buried those immense feelings along with her ravaged body.
I remember opening up the lid of her casket at the funeral and looking at her Kabuki-made-up face, pleading with myself to let it all go — just cry already! — but the faucet was shut tight. So I did the next best thing and daubed a drop of spit near my eyes so I at least looked like a semi-human being who had just suffered a terrible loss.
How could I be such a cold, unfeeling bastard, I asked myself at the time. But in my heart, I knew that wasn't true. A part of me also died that day and even 30 years later, I still struggle with her loss.
(MORE: Living With My Mom's Death)
It’s funny. I can go for months without even thinking about my mother. When she was alive, I couldn’t go a day without hearing her voice. I adored her and she adored me. I lived to please her, then she went and died.
I avoided facing her death because I had always been too scared of the pain. So I put it on the side (my therapist called it “isolation of feelings”) and vowed never to look at it again. I became the Michael Jordan of not looking at things.
I never made it past denial in the Kübler-Ross five fun stages of grief. I wasn’t shocked. I didn’t get angry. Depression was already there. I bargained, back then, with whoever was selling me drugs. And I accepted nothing. I created a whole new stage instead: running away. And I ran right into the arms of my girlfriend, who would become my wife and then my mother. Or was it the other way around?
I lived like a fugitive from myself for the next three decades, putting painful things aside, not facing what was going on in the moment, not taking full responsibility for my actions, continuing on a fool’s errand of trying to make the woman in my life happy. I had perfected this Pavlovian routine with my mom, becoming the person I thought she wanted me to be and then repeated it by becoming the person I thought my wife wanted, which, of course, turned out to be exactly who she didn’t want. In the process, I got lost.
For me, the purest expression of this loss of self, other than various scenes in just about every episode of Mad Men, is buried in a Spielberg movie called Hook, a crappy remake of Peter Pan. There’s a scene where the Lost Boys are questioning if the grown-up standing before them could’ve ever been the great Pan. This cute, little kid cautiously walks over to Robin Williams, removes his glasses, looks deeply into his eyes and after a few seconds says, “There he is!”
And there I was – right after I had divorced and moved to Brooklyn two years ago, sitting in my empty new apartment. I was busy unpacking boxes and underneath a pile of old magazines, came across a yellowed envelope marked “Old Pics.” There were Polaroids of my brother, sister and me in a swimming pool when we were little kids, a few from my bar mitzvah and one I hadn’t remembered existed.
It was a close-up of my mom and me. I was in my 20s and had long, greasy hair and a bushy Grizzly Adams-like beard. She had gigantic, bug-like glasses and was wearing an ill-fitting wig barely hiding the fallout from her first go-round with chemo. And we were both laughing like maniacs, as if we had just heard the funniest joke in the world.
As I stared into these happy faces from the past, I began to sob uncontrollably. The faucet was now wide open. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was crying about – her death, my failed marriage, being alone for the first time in a long time, who knows? – but it felt good just the same.
There’s an old saying that goes something like “Those who love you will make you cry.” Truer words were never spoken, but sometimes, as Roger Sterling and I discovered, it just takes longer than you think.