My mother died yesterday morning, June 18, 2012 at 8:10 a.m. The world was unworthy of her. Please read this tribute I wrote yesterday evening, and please feel free to share, re-post, or copy-paste this tribute elsewhere if you are so moved. I want everyone to know what kind of a woman my mother was. I want everyone to know she existed. I want everyone to know what she was up against.
In Memoriam, Ann Conley, Jan. 14, 1942 – Jun. 18, 2012
My mother was raised at knifepoint — or might as well have been. My mother’s mother once chased my mother through the house with a butcher knife. My mother hid under a neighbor’s porch until her mother’s psychotic episode passed.
My mother also saw her father “bloody the walls with” her mother.
The rest of my mother’s 70 years as a physically manifested human were an epic war against the demons that forever and ever laughed in her beautiful child face.
She wasted little time. At age 18 my mother escaped from Upstate New York to New York City and held secreterial jobs throughout the 1960s, back when they were still called secreteries. My mother’s favorite companies to work for were advertising agencies.
She drank a lot. Married a lot. Four husbands, all told. Had a son and a daughter in Connecticut with her first husband. She didn’t believe herself fit to raise them, so she abandoned that family when her son was 12 and her daughter was 8. That ate at her forever.
Later my mother married an engineer — brilliant by all accounts — and they drank and rode motorcycles together.
In 1976 my mother had a vision. She saw the ghosts of her dead relatives, including her mother and grandmother, as well as Jesus and maybe the Virgin Mary. I’m not sure about the details. The ghosts asked my mother whether she wanted to live or die. My mother chose life, and never had the desire to touch alcohol again.
She moved to Michigan and joined A.A., which became her religion and her family. There she found her purpose: helping drunks get sober and stay sober, or, barring that, giving them her time and support and physically sheltering them from harm. A.A. gave her a sense of belonging, the feeling that she was needed, and a made-in-America theology that she could accept. It also gave her her third husband, and that man became my father in 1980.
My mother and father moved to Upstate New York. The two of them loved madly and argued terribly. In 1981 my mother kidnapped me to Minnesota and disappeared under an assumed name. Her stated reason was always that she was afraid of my father, although even she admitted he had never harmed her in any way. As far as the little girl inside her knew, everyone my mother ever met had a butcher knife for her, and wanted to bloody the walls with her.
Starting with a junker of a car, one hundred dollars, and an ornamental feeding spoon, my mother cobbled together a vast Minnesotan support system for the two of us over the years. She navigated the social services for single mothers, established A.A. connections, and eventually cultivated friend circles throughout the Twin Cities metro area.
That A.A. club was my family and my church. Angels helping angels rise up from rock bottom. I attended A.A. meetings with my mother until I was 11, old enough to stay home by myself. My mother’s various boyfriends — half of whom were of the hippie persuasion, the other half military and law enforcement — all served as male role models for me. I believe she chose each one based on what she thought I needed at the time, rather than what she wanted.
Realizing she needed to expand her social horizons, and wanting to help the world as much as she could, my mother ran for local office on an environmental platform of saving some trees from being cut down. She was active in the parent organizations in the schools. She designed the t-shirt mascot (Tigers) for one of my two middle schools. Her drawing style was graceful. Delicate. Angelic. I never saw a more darkly expressive roll of toilet paper than when she drew one in black chalk for an art class she took in 1992.
The arts were not optional in our household. They were a mandatory part of daily life, just like breathing. We freely sang and whistled along to classical music, classic rock, and classic country. Legend has it her opera singing was the best in the state back when she was in high school. She could also play piano, which I saw her do on a number of occasions, whenever we would together happen upon a piano.
She took me to choir practice and band practice. She once spent all her savings on a euphonium (a kind of smallish tuba) for me so I could pursue my own musical path.
We laughed ourselves to the floor over Bill Cosby tapes, which we would play over and over on a vintage stereo system.
When I was 6, she woke me up before dawn and led me down the hallway to stand on the balcony and watch aurora borealis, the northern lights. They flashed all the colors of the rainbow. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she whispered. The awe in her voice made me realize I was witnessing a special kind of magic: the kind that anyone can watch but not everyone deems important.
For my mother, love was about helping each other to see such wondrous things. But love was also guardianship and blind, reckless self-sacrifice. Once, a couple of older boys were ganging up on me on the basketball blacktop across the street from one of the apartment buildings she raised me in. Mom saw this from our kitchen window on the third floor and strolled out to the scene, lazily swinging my aluminum baseball bat in one hand and grinning maniacally. She took one boy by the ear, placed the bat gently but firmly against his skull, and intoned into his ear softly and clearly through clenched teeth, “I’m not afraid to go to jail for my son.”
Sometimes the battle and the beauty fused into one thing. In 1996, my mother and I went to see a performance of Man of La Mancha with Robert Goulet as the title role at the Ordway in St. Paul. The final scene featured Don Quixote on his death bed, accosted mercilessly by knights in blinding platinum armor, all bearing giant gilded mirrors instead of shields, advancing on the old man, white lights screaming off the surfaces everywhere and showing Don Quixote his weaknesses and the futility of his valiance.
I broke down crying ten minutes after my mother and I left the theater. I didn’t know why I was crying. I would find out later.
I saw my mother spontaneously relive and act out her childhood violence on at least two occasions, once in 1988 and once in 1997. She threw her body against walls and cried out in pain and begged whoever was doing it to stop it. I was powerless to help; I could only watch. She referred to these episodes as flashbacks or “remembrances”.
We always loved each other very much — she was all I really had, and I was all she really had — but we often argued just as fiercely as she and my father had argued so many years earlier. I had yet to meet that father.
When I turned 18, my mother moved back to Upstate New York to try to reconnect with her family. On Father’s Day in the year 2000, I received a letter from my mother, included in which was my father’s current phone number, which unbeknownst to me she had kept track of for the entirety of the previous two decades. She suggested that I might like to give my father a call. And so I did. He and I really hit it off. When I first visited him that summer in 2000, my mother drove to join me at the house where he and my step-mother lived. My father and mother made ammends.
My mother had some success in her effort to reconnect with her own family, but her mind and body were already deteriorating. Don’t ask what was wrong, exactly; I gave up trying to keep track of it all a long time ago. Administrative records in my possession show a woman desperately seeking solutions to the monsters that wanted to claw her to pieces from the inside out. She waged full-scale conflagration on them, trying every drug known to psychiatry, and every physical therapy that might have helped her failing body to recover or at least plateau.
My mother stayed active in A.A., continuing to find some solace in helping others, at least as far as they wanted to be helped, which was, more often than not, very little. And yet she continued as long as she was physically and mentally able to do so. And she kept up her belief in a higher power.
She spent her final months in a nursing home here in New Hampshire. This morning, the torture device that was her mind and body could no longer hold her. The beautiful, innocent, precious, perfect little girl that had held onto life by her fingernails for seventy years finally slipped free.
The tenacious woman that saved the lives of countless people through her A.A. work has completed her mission impossible. The mother who infused my heart with an aurora borealis has finally risen up and flown away.
Fly, Mom. This world was never worthy of you. Fly.
(Written by Will Conley and originally posted publicly on Facebook.)