The summer of 2012 was Martha’s last summer. But before the end came another death: that of my mother.
Martha at eighteen with her bags packed for Columbia, on August 26, 2012, the night before she moved there
That summer, my mother got gravely ill. On Sunday, July 1, 2012, Martha and I flew down to Florida for what we knew might be her grandmother’s last days. When we entered her hospital room, my mother was foggy but recognized us, her eyes fixing on Martha. “What a beautiful girl!” my mother exclaimed.
By then my parents resided in an assisted living facility, with no room for guests. So that night Martha and I spent our first and only night together without her mother in a hotel. In a room somewhere in New Port Richey, she lay on her bed and I lay across from her on my bed, and we looked at each other and talked. She wore a knee-length black skirt and looked young and attractive. And I felt vaguely titillated—as if this were cool and racy, and kind of wrong. We talked about her mother as if she were an outsider. Nothing physical happened between us—it didn’t have to. Our affair was always intellectual. We had connected through books and ideas, Heart of Darkness, Wuthering Heights, Shakespeare, Berlioz, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Nietzsche, . We mated with our minds.
Fortunately, we were there for a reason—my mother’s last days—and that helped keep the evening honest. We went to sleep in our separate beds without further reference to the oddity of the situation.
The next day my mother got in an ambulance to ride to a hospice, and again she recognized me. She sat up in the ambulance, saw me standing outside, and said, “Mijo!”—Spanish for my son. It was the last time she ever recognized me.
For the next few days, my mother lay in a hospice bed, no longer being treated for her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and the multiple organ failure she was suffering, receiving only morphine for the pain and Ativan for anxiety. She was unconscious most of the time. My father was there all the time, groaning and moaning in grief, and my sister and her older son part of the time. My father and sister were both atheists, but since Martha and I were now Catholics and my mother was too, we sneaked in a priest and he did the last rites while my other relatives were out of the room.
Martha and I sat vigil with my father until Wednesday. Then, since we didn’t know how long my mother would linger, Martha flew back to New York, in her first and only solo plane flight. I stayed. My atheist father made the first motions I had ever seen toward religion, talking with me about it and even praying at my invitation. But it didn’t take. His view that my mother’s suffering was incompatible with God’s existence kept him an atheist. At his request, I presented him with six solutions to the problem of evil, and he dismissed them all, without argument.
Like Martha, I too was thinking it was time to leave. On Sunday, July 8, I was in my hotel room making a plane reservation when my father called and told me that my mother had died. I was sorry I had missed her death.
Melinda and Martha both flew down for the funeral, held on the following Wednesday. At my instigation, it was a Catholic funeral, presided over by a Catholic priest. At the funeral, Martha recorded in her diary that, for the first time in a long time, she felt the presence of Aleksei, her dead Russian prince. “It is the sweet kiss of rain after a drought, the taste of food after a fast, the flood of light into a room of darkness….Only in death our love goes on, and at the moment I cannot love you any more than I do….For months, nay, for exactly two years I have been living without you. You took all of my love, but with withering trust I wrenched it away, and in so doing ripped open the vein of lifeblood leading to my heart.”
She called Aleksei “my other soul” and blamed her “mercenary demons” for driving him out of her heart. She said “even as I hated you I never stopped loving you.” “Blinded to my flaws, you perpetually accepted me, your prodigal wife….So have faith, darling, for though the suicidal spirit no longer stirs within me, still I know that one day I will be with you in paradise.”
Friday they interred my mother’s ashes in a stainless steel, box-shaped urn in a niche in a columbarium. The next day Melinda, Martha, and I flew home.
I wasn’t able to grieve much for my mother while I was in Florida, because, at least since adolescence, I have always felt tense around my father and sister and they both got on my nerves while my mother lay dying and while she made her transition to the columbarium. Now that I was home, I had a new obstacle to grief. Martha didn’t want me to grieve openly because it made her cry that she was not perfect at grieving. Martha hated doing anything less than perfectly. So I tried to grieve quietly, without Martha noticing, but it wasn’t easy. I never really got a chance to mourn for my mother, because in just one month I would suffer an even greater—a geometrically greater—loss.
On long summer nights in our upstairs office I often heard Martha typing at her laptop or saw her watching ballet on YouTube. Her love for ballet had extended right from her early childhood to her late teens. Melinda bought her a subscription to the American Ballet Theatre, which Martha sometimes used to go into Manhattan to see ballet live.
Another cultural object that stayed in Martha’s life from early childhood to the end was Melanie’s Mall. The fanciful mall playset full of little blonde Melanies resided in front of the fireplace all those years. Even in her last year Martha sometimes sat in front of it, staring at the stores, rolling a die or spinning a dreidel to determine the fates of the Melanies in elaborate stories of jealousy and torture that she worked out in her mind.
Meanwhile, I reread Lolita. I had avoided it from Martha’s birth to her eighteenth birthday because it wouldn’t have been entertaining to read about pedophilia while I had a little girl at home. But now Martha was an adult, and I thought of Stevie as my nymphet. I started with a new psychiatrist, Dr. Sanders, who recommended I see less of Stevie. Psychiatrists had always hated my amours. Milstein had tried to get me not to be friends with Mary Ann. Martha’s doctors were the same with her love for Aleksei. Psychiatrists are enforcers of the prevailing moral code that dictates whom you should and shouldn’t love.
When I went to church, I felt guilty, knowing God must object to my passion for Stevie. God, like psychiatrists, hated illicit desire. And Martha knew God objected to Aleksei. Martha and I were both lovers whose desires were policed by psychiatrists and God.
Nevertheless, Stevie continued to obsess me. I rated each day by this rubric:
A. We have a full conversation.
B. We see each other and perhaps acknowledge each other without a full conversation.
C. I see her but she doesn’t see me.
D. I don’t see her.
A days were wonderful, B days less so but tolerable. C days depressed me. D days abjectly depressed me. Stevie was my sex kitten. I had never been so erotically turned on by any woman in my life. I didn’t love her more than any other woman, but was more aroused than by any other woman.
While I obsessed over my physical love object Stevie, Martha obsessed over her spiritual love object Aleksei. She did so even though he seemed to have disappeared from her life. On August 7, she wrote in her diary, “My love for Aleksei has died completely, and with it has died the possibility of meaning apart from God….our embrace has been lost in the black hole that is God. All the information in the universe will be swallowed there.”
In those days, Martha felt like Winston Smith at the end of 1984. He and his lover Julia betrayed each other under pressure from Big Brother, in accord with the song that ran,
Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me—
At the end of the novel, Smith sits in the Chestnut Tree Café, bereft of Julia but loving Big Brother. Similarly, Martha liked to sit in a café in Dobbs Ferry, drinking the bitter iced coffee she drank a lot of that summer and that symbolized for her the madness that was all but gone. Big Brother had defeated Smith, and “our totalitarian father” God had defeated her. She had rebelled against God and he had won, and now she was praying to him again. “My life has become a battle between good and evil, and I am on the wrong side….I am through with love, and the only strong path left me is that afforded by bitterness.”
As Smith betrayed Julia, she had betrayed Aleksei in the name of God and normality. “Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold him and he sold me,” she wrote. “Damnation was intellectually my greatest fear, and pain was physically my greatest fear, and together these fears ripped me from the arms of my lover. My miracle has been granted me. I have a chance at salvation, for the one man capable of taking God’s place in my soul has become as nothing to me.”
She wanted to love Aleksei, but could not. “He has become for me what he was for everyone else all along. He is, for the first time ever, a mere historical figure, devoid of present meaning and unable to wreak changes in a living woman’s life….God, is this what I have come to? You have dragged me to hell without even granting me the satisfaction of death….Even in death our love was supposed to go on, but this is God’s world, and he will not forgive his beloved for loving.”
She felt that she could make the transition from Aleksei to God—but not quite yet. “God could be mine, if only I would break my stony heart a little more and thus let him in. The coffee I drink to fuel my miserable consciousness grows not less but more bitter with every sip I take. Yes, I am crashing. Yes, the flame that burned within me has gone out. Yes, this flame was the mark of mania, and yes, its extinction represents a victory for health and safety. Should not health and safety come first? Was that not what my father told me when I was young enough to accept that comforting tenet?....God is my greatest enemy, but it must not remain this way. I must destroy the enmity I have built up between us. After all, I no longer possess a human man to love. Only God remains. Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me. And after you betray the one you love, you cannot love him anymore. It is not possible. Well, my prophecy has come true. If I return from exile, I will run into God’s embrace, and abandon all hope of a greater life than what he can offer. There will be victory, and though it will be wrought by Christ and not by me, still it will represent the greatest miracle of my life. I will love God.”
The only taste she still had of Aleksei was in the Eucharist, where he was not supposed to be at all, but only Christ. Yet she tasted Aleksei there. By virtue of her forbidden love, she compared herself to gay people. But whereas homosexuality is accepted in many liberal circles, “my brand of romantic necrophilia had only one proponent.”
“God, how I despise you,” she wrote. “His law is the only law, his game the only game, and his love the only permitted love….But not until you have tortured me past my breaking point will I come to love you.”
Thinking ahead to the physical love she knew her parents and others would expect of her, she wrote to Aleksei, “I want nothing to do with the union of two living bodies and souls through marriage and sex. When another man fucks me, I want to offer it to you. I am too proud to love normally. I want them to be nothing but bodies to me, human toys to lead me to you, my ultimate toy and tool. You are only the means by which I betray God.”
She wrote angrily about the way society excluded her views—which at that point included an interest in being anorexic—just because they were mad. “It is holy when a Muslim fasts during Ramadan, but when a girl starves herself so that she might become skinny, she is mentally ill. This is part of the double standard of delusion and faith. If enough people believe it, it is a religion, but if only one person holds it to be true, it is a delusion.”
Again she began to write of death, this time moved by what she saw as the imminent victory of God over the madness she treasured. On August 15, she wrote, “Sometimes I deliberately step closer to my grave. The entire universe is my enemy. The storied divide between heaven and earth means nothing to me. I am gravely flawed by the standards of both worlds. The prophecy has come true. My beloved has been annihilated from my heart, and although all else remains more or less as it was, the universe has turned to a mighty stranger. When love goes, it is gone, but I know where it goes. It is swallowed up by God just as information is annihilated by a black hole. There is a reason for the information loss paradox, and his name is God. Ultimately all the glories of the world will be destroyed, and only his glory will remain.”
She was, perhaps, still thinking that she might meet a man to love, but only the right kind of man. “I want a man who is a worthy target for my heretical love.”
On August 17, she wrote, “I am sick and sad. Not a one of my friends has it in her to comfort me. Minoo, my last hope, caught the train to heaven and has no more business helping a heretic like me….But although I am lost, I do not want to be found.”
On that same day, August 17, I started my vacation—ten days to relax at home with Martha until she started college on August 27. I didn’t understand the struggle going on inside her. She had to choose between love of Aleksei and herself on one side, and love of God and his creation on the other. To a sane person the choice would be easy, she wrote, but to her it wasn’t. She preferred the bitter taste of arugula and iced coffee, which she associated with her madness, to moments of contentment with family and friends. “Either life is boring and good, or it is unhappy and bad. Only the latter comes with the potential for greatness or excitement.”
On Tuesday, August 21, Melinda and I drove Martha to her first gynecologist exam, at which she got a prescription for the Pill. It is remarkable to think about now—that just six days before her death, Martha was thinking of the possibility that she would meet a boy at Columbia, and that she might have sex with him recreationally while avoiding getting pregnant. This was something Martha thought she might want, enough to get a prescription for birth control. Melinda and I approved of this, encouraged her. Anything to get her away from Aleksei, the ghost lover who still threatened her life.
After Martha got her prescription for the Pill, we all ate at the smoothie shop, her favorite place for a childhood drink. It was the last time we ever ate there with Martha.
Wednesday, August 22, was our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Melinda and I saw the musical Bring It On on Broadway, which I liked mainly for the young women in skimpy cheerleader outfits. Then we met Martha outside the theater and ate at Virgil’s, a Cajun restaurant on Forty-Fourth Street. She wore a bright red sequined top, a stunning change from her once all-black wardrobe that made me think she was really over Aleksei. The next day, we took Martha shopping for school supplies at Bed, Bath & Beyond, then ate at Super Buffet, a favorite Chinese restaurant.
On Sunday, August 26, Martha went to Mass with us. We thought it was her last Mass before she started college; we didn’t know it was her last Mass ever. We posed for pictures afterward in the church. In her diary that day, she wrote, “Last line: As she let the Host dissolve in her mouth, her troubled thoughts scattered in the face of the divine mercy.” Was this one of her fictional fragments? A real experience at church? An ironic statement? I don’t know.
That evening Melinda served Martha’s favorite meal, spaghetti and meatballs. Martha packed, including in her luggage a new Monopoly game she hoped to play with the new friends she would make at Columbia. We took pictures of her smiling among her bags.
On Monday, August 27, 2012, at 6:00 a.m., we left the house for Columbia. At 6:30 a.m., we arrived at the university and dropped Martha off. Students cheered under a mass of blue balloons as our car drove up College Walk. From seven to eight, we moved her into her room, a single, 1403 Jay. I kissed her twice with our special method hug and kiss—then I hugged her an extra time. She seemed calm and wanted us to leave rather than linger around campus for parent events. Even so, we hung around for a little while without Martha on Hartley lawn, eating bagels with cream cheese and drinking orange juice and coffee. Then we drove home.
Afterward Melinda and I were sad, feeling the “empty nest syndrome” we had heard about. It is ironic now to think about that. We had no idea what sadness was—how pitifully minor our “empty nest” woe was compared to the devastation we were about to suffer.
Two Barnard students who were acting as counselors at Orientation and who later attended Martha’s wake told us that Martha flagged them down on campus around 7:45 p.m. They sat with her on the Low Library steps until about 8:30 as the sun went down. Martha told them how distressed she felt, how overwhelmed. They told her they felt that way when they first arrived.
At 9:00 p.m., Martha called us at home. Melinda and I listened on separate extensions. Martha told us that earlier that day she’d taken the Number One train to Times Square. There she’d twice sought out (but not boarded) the A train with a plan to go to the George Washington Bridge and jump off. She got as far as the A platform but stopped both times because she knew we loved her.
We discussed what she was feeling. She didn’t want to be fake happy among all the happy kids. She felt trapped and isolated. She wished classes would just start. And Aleksei was back. She was feeling his presence again, and her love for him.
We tried to calm her. I suggested that I drive down and spend the night in her room. I had to go back to work the next morning, but Melinda could take over for me. Melinda was not an early riser and didn’t like that idea. We ended up not doing this.
We talked about Martha walking herself into the ER at St. Luke’s Hospital across the street. But we didn’t have her do this either. We feared she would get hospitalized and miss Orientation and maybe the start of classes.
Near the end of the call, Martha said she felt that mental illness was better than health. She wanted to be mentally ill, have an eating disorder, especially anorexia. I had a moment of insight that her desire for unhealthiness was a sign of a different final vocabulary from my desire for health. (Final vocabulary was a term of that Martha recognized, a term that meant the set of words beyond which there is no appeal.) I told her this, and she appreciated that I had that much respect for her viewpoint.
We pressed her to call us if her feelings got worse. Then, about 10:00 p.m., we said goodbye. We had long been in the habit of saying “I love you” when we said goodbye, just in case we never spoke again. So I am confident our last words to each other were “I love you.”
Between the end of the call and 11:00 p.m., it occurred to me that I should call 911 and have an ambulance sent to take Martha to the ER. I decided not to do it because I was afraid of embarrassing Martha and causing a big, unnecessary fuss.
I prayed, “Lord, please care for Martha.” And Melinda and I went to bed. It was the last time we ever fell asleep thinking Martha was alive.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.