Excerpted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life by Michael Moore
I was lost.
I had paused for perhaps too long to inspect the statues in the hallways and the Rotunda, bronzed and marbled renditions of an odd assortment of great and not-so-great Americans: Will Rogers, Daniel Webster, George Washington, Robert La Follette, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Brigham Young, Andrew Jackson.
And then there was the statue of Zachariah Chandler. Not well-known outside the state of Michigan (and not well-known there, either), he was a four-term United States senator representing the Great Lakes state in the mid-nineteenth century. Historians who feel a kinship with the Confederacy credit him with starting the Civil War. On February 11, 1861, two months before the rebels fired on Fort Sumter, Chandler gave an inflammatory speech on the Senate floor where he threw down the gauntlet and called for some “bloodletting,” to purge the nation of its proslavery sentiments. In other words, once we kill a few of these slave owners, they’ll get the message that slavery is over. The South took this as an unofficial declaration of war and they continued to prepare for the bloodletting they would initiate.
Chandler is also credited with being a founder of the Republican Party. On July 6, 1854, he led the first effort in the nation to form a statewide antislavery party. He called upon all abolitionists to meet him under a giant oak tree in Jackson, Michigan — and six short years later they saw the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, win the White House.
By the age of eleven I was fascinated with history and politics. For this, along with those too-early reading lessons, I blamed my mother. Her father (my grandfather) was a leader of the Republican Party in our town of Davison during the early half of the twentieth century. Being an immigrant from Canada, Dr. William J. Wall brought with him a Canadian common sense and a keen interest in the “goings-on” of government. He also believed that books and music were necessary companions in the pursuit of happiness.
Born and raised on a farm between Sarnia and London, Ontario, “Will” was one of eleven children. Reaching adulthood, he obtained his own small farm next to his brother Chris’s farm, and together they tilled the soil by day and played the Irish fiddle by night. The Wall brothers and their fiddles became much in demand for the local dances and shindigs. Even during their midday break from farming, they would get together and play their fiddles.
Within time, Will, who was well regarded by those in the village, was asked if he would teach at the one-room schoolhouse during the winter months. He accepted the offer and soon grew to like teaching so much that he ceded his farm to his brother.
After a few years of teaching, Will decided he wanted to be a doctor. The nearest medical school was across the St. Clair River in the state of Michigan. In 1898, medical school took one year, as that was all the time needed to teach everything that was known then about healing the human body. After finishing medical school in Saginaw, he traveled through Michigan’s “thumb” and happened upon a village called Elba, about thirteen miles east of Flint. He liked the people of Michigan and he liked the Americans, and though he would remain proud of his Canadian roots, he saw America as a place full of curious, inventive, progressive people and ideas. He decided to settle in Elba.
In September 1901, Dr. Wall traveled back to Ontario to visit his family and, at the last minute, decided to take the train over to Buffalo to see the much-anticipated Pan-American Exposition. This Exposition, with its City of Light, was the talk of the nation, as it would be one of the first times such a large area would be lit up with electric lights. There were fascinating exhibits on display, including the first X-ray machine and numerous other turn-of-the-century inventions, that filled the crowds with wonder and excitement. There was even a ride simulating the “First Trip to the Moon.”
The Exposition also provided a chance for Dr. Wall to see a president of the United States. And it was there, at four in the afternoon, on September 6, 1901, as my Grandpa Wall waited to get a glimpse of President William McKinley, that a shot rang out in the Temple of Music. An anarchist from Detroit (by way of Alpena, Michigan), Leon Czolgosz, fired two bullets in the ribs and abdomen of President McKinley. McKinley’s security guard would later admit (in an early and tragic case of racial profiling) that he had been distracted by keeping his eye on the large black man standing behind Czolgosz. It was that large black man, James Parker, who actually stopped Czolgosz from firing any further shots when he knocked him to the ground.
My grandfather, being a doctor, tried to get through the mob that had descended on the Temple from the fairgrounds when the shots rang out. An ambulance was there within minutes, and though Will announced he was a doctor and could help, they had already placed the president in the ambulance and were rushing him off to the temporary hospital that was part of the Exposition. Although there were electric lights located all around the fair, no one had thought to place any in the emergency room at the makeshift hospital. The surgeons had to operate on the president by having nurses hold metal trays in the direction of the windows in order to bounce enough light onto the president’s wounds. Unable to locate one of the bullets, the doctors decided to sew McKinley back up.
Remarkably, as is often the case after an operation, President McKinley recovered rapidly and seemed in good spirits. He was transferred to the home of the Exposition’s president so he could recuperate. But within six days, McKinley was dead of gangrene and a build-up of fluid. In spite of the Exposition’s heralding of new inventions like the electric vacuum sweeper, the wireless telegraph, ketchup in a bottle, and the X-ray machine, there was not much known about infection and how to prevent it from spreading.
Dr. Wall returned to Michigan. The violence he had witnessed (no Canadian prime minister had ever been assassinated; this was the third killing of an American president within thirty-six years) did not deter him from becoming an American citizen. Like McKinley, he also became a Republican. He met his wife, my grandmother, when he stopped by her father’s store to see about renting some space to set up his doctor’s office. Martin Moore was happy to oblige, as Elba was in need of its own doctor. He invited Will over to the house for dinner, and when Will came in he saw Martin’s daughter, Bess, playing the piano. He asked if she could play along if he brought his fiddle over. She said yes. Within a couple years the two of them were married and moved to nearby Davison.
The walls of their home were lined with books instead of wallpaper. I’m not even sure if there were walls. A piano sat in their parlor, and Will’s doctor’s office was at the back of the house with its own entrance. By the 1920s, a large radio sat on the floor in the living room, and it was here that the Walls would listen to the music of Caruso and Rudy Vallee, news shows and baseball games and The Lone Ranger. As no pictures were provided, they had to invent the images in their heads. Doc Wall loved imagining the streets of New York, the lair of the Green Hornet, or the canyons through which the Lone Ranger and Tonto would ride. Across the street from the Wall house was the local cinema, where the main feature would change two or three times a week. The village doctor made sure he never missed one, and he would sit there always hoping that newborns would be kind enough to take their time until the closing credits.
My grandfather enjoyed being in the thick of politics, and the local Republicans would meet at his house to plan their campaigns. His youngest daughter, my mother, Veronica, was bitten by the political bug and it would never leave her. And thus it was in our garage in the fall of 1960 where I, as a freshly minted first grader, heard my mother and father have their first argument.
“President Eisenhower,” my mother said as she handed my dad a box of old clothes to store in the attic, “He won the war and, despite the fact he’s not campaigning for him, he does support Nixon. What more do you need than that?”
“Yes,” my dad responded, “I like Ike. But Kennedy—our first Catholic president!” That was enough for me. But not for my mom.
“He’s too young, he’s inexperienced—and he’s a Democrat!”
“That’s a plus! We Moores’ve been voting for Democrats since Roosevelt!”
Pshaw? Yes, she said “pshaw” a lot. And “ice box” (never “refrigerator”). And “grip” (instead of “suitcase”). The Bible on her shelf, from her mother’s side of the family, was from the 1840s. The complete volume of Shakespeare, also from the 1800s, was from her father. Her language and mannerisms were also from the nineteenth century. And clearly her view of the Republican Party was also lodged somewhere in a lost time. My dad was always fond of reminding her which party was in charge when the nation was sent reeling into the Great Depression. She would ignore such slights, as they were irrelevant to her. Her father, being the village doctor, was paid through the Depression with chickens and eggs and milk, not to mention a used sewing machine here or an oil change there. My dad, on the other hand, had memories of much more difficult times, and if there was one thing he was sure of, it was that he would be a Democrat ’til the day he died.
And so throughout September and October of 1960 I would listen to this back-and-forth parental sparring during the great Nixon vs. Kennedy presidential election. My sisters and I were with my dad (my youngest sister was only three and a half, so she just nodded when we told her to). I felt bad for my mom, as she was up against not only the four of us but also God — because the Catholic Church was the One True Church. The nuns and priests could barely contain their excitement that 170 years of anti-Catholic bigotry was about to end. We said daily prayers, held rosaries, conducted novenas, and did everything we could to implore the Almighty to put the Catholic in the White House. In the end, the value of Catholic prayer was proven to be quite powerful, and Kennedy “miraculously” became president. It would be another twenty years before my mother would finally toss the Republicans overboard. “My father would not recognize these Republicans!” she would say (and for that I have Ronald Reagan to thank).
My mother’s love of country, its government, and its political institutions was always evident. She saw it as part of her parental responsibility to school us in the values of a democratic republic, specifically this one: the United States of America.
When I finished fifth grade in the summer of 1965, she loaded my sisters and me into our Buick and drove us to our nation’s capital for our summer vacation. While the other kids in the neighborhood got to go “up north” or to Scout camp or to Tot Lot, we were forced to go see the original documents of the Founding Fathers, the first flag sewn by Betsy Ross, the plane that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. We took the FBI tour at the Department of Justice, we had our picture taken in front of the Iwo Jima statue, and we knelt and prayed in Arlington at the grave of our fallen Catholic president. We traipsed from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, climbed all 896 steps of the Washington Monument, and paid a visit to our congressman to shake his hand and let him know we’d be voters someday.
And it was while I was there, inside the Capitol building, that I found myself separated from my mother and sisters and our cousin Patricia. We were on our way to sit in the Senate gallery as the senators were debating a bill that would provide free health care for all the old people in America. But I got distracted by the statues and sharing the life of Zachariah Chandler with whomever would listen.
Eventually it dawned on me that I was all alone and on my own. My mother and sisters were nowhere in sight. I began to panic. Where did they go? Why did they leave me here? I may have thought I was a smart kid, but I had no idea where I was, where they were, or how I would find them. At age eleven, the Capitol Rotunda seemed like its own planet to me or, worse, a giant white marble vortex spinning madly and sucking everything into it. I tried to catch my breath and began walking quickly in whatever direction seemed like the way out.
I somehow ended up on the Senate side of the building and went down a staircase, looking frantically for any sign of my family. Realizing I was getting nowhere, I bolted through a pair of elevator doors just as they were closing.
Inside the elevator I began to cry. There was a lone man in the back corner, leaning against the railing, his face covered by the newspaper he was reading. He heard my sniffling and put the paper down to see what the commotion was all about.
As I had been properly schooled in all things political and Catholic, I instantly recognized this man. He was the junior senator from New York, Robert Francis Kennedy.
“What’s wrong, young man?” he said in a voice that was comforting enough to stop the tears. After all, no one had ever called me a young man before.
“I lost my mom,” I said sheepishly.
“Well, that can’t be good. Let’s see if we can find her.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Where are you from?”
“Michigan. Near Flint.”
“Oh, yes. My brother loved that Labor Day Parade. Big parade.”
The doors of the elevator opened, and he put his arm on my shoulder and escorted me to the nearest Capitol police officer.
“Seems this young man from Michigan . . .” He turned to me. “What’s your name, son?”
“Michael has lost his mother, and perhaps we can help him.”
“Yes, sir, Senator. We’ll take care of it.” The officer told the senator he’d handle the matter from here on so that the senator could proceed with his much more important duties.
“Well, I’ll stay here for a minute or two to make sure he’s OK.”
I stood there thinking how stupid did I have to be to get lost, and now I was holding up Bobby Kennedy and the business of the United States Senate so that everybody could go search for my mommy. Jeez-oh-pete, was I embarrassed.
“How old are you, Mike —can I call you Mike?” Kennedy asked.
“I’m eleven. This is my first time in the Capitol,” I offered, hoping to make myself seem less like an idiot.
“Well, you got your first ride in the Senate elevator. That almost makes you a senator!” The Irish in him had now kicked in, and he flashed that Kennedy grin. I smiled, too, and joined in.
“Hey, you never know!” I said, then wanted quickly to retract this wise-ass remark.
“Well, we got two good Democrats from Michigan already, Senators McNamara and —”
“— Hart!” I jumped in as if I were on a quiz show.
“You know your senators. Very good! And promising,” he added with a wink to the officer.
“We’ve got his mother,” a voice squawked across the police radio the cop was holding. “Stay there. She’s coming.”
“Well, it seems everything worked out OK,” proclaimed the senator from New York. “Good luck, young man — and never lose sight of your mother!”
And with that he was gone, before I even had a chance to thank him or wish him well or recite for him my favorite passages from his brother’s Inaugural Address.
Within minutes my mother and sisters and cousin arrived, and after a stern look and a word or two, we were off to sit in the Senate gallery and listen to ninety-eight men and two women debate the passage of a new law that would pay for the doctor bills of every single senior citizen, a radical idea to be sure. They called it “Medicare,” and the idea seemed to sit well with the doctor’s daughter in the gallery. Most senators also seemed to like the bill, though there were some who said it was the first step toward something called “socialism.” My sisters and I had no idea what that was; we just knew it was a bad word.
“This law will also help poor people,” our mother added, and although that wasn’t us, by the tenets of the Church it was considered a good thing, even if it did conflict with the principles of Mom’s Republican Party. The bill passed, and one senator proclaimed that the elderly would never have to worry again about going broke because of medical bills.
When we went back a few days later to sit in the House gallery, a new bill was up for discussion: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From watching the evening news and being taught to read the daily newspaper, I knew that “colored people” were being unfairly treated, even killed. A few months earlier, in March 1965, a white housewife from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, upset at what she had been seeing on the television regarding the savage treatment of black people, made an impromptu decision to head down to Selma, Alabama, to march with the Rev. Martin Luther King. I knew King to be the Negro man in charge of the civil rights movement, and in the town where I lived his name was rarely mentioned — and when it was, it usually had other words attached to it, none pleasant.
Mrs. Liuzzo, a mother of five children, was brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while volunteering as one of the drivers who ferried demonstrators back and forth to Selma. It was a shock to most of Michigan, and when I heard it being discussed by Jesse the barber, he informed those who were getting their hair cut that day that she was found with “some nigga boy” in the car — a married woman up to no good and “sticking her puss in where it don’t belong!” Jesse’s Barber Shop was the place you went for enlightenment in Davison, and the place was always full. Jesse was a short man with a short haircut, and there was always a pair of scissors or a long razor in his hand. This was problematic, as he wore thick-lensed glasses, the kind the legally blind wore, and it frightened me when I sat in his chair as he held court, the sharp instruments being used to make various punctuation points in the air.
For many nights after Mrs. Liuzzo’s murder I could not sleep, and when I did, I had dreams that it was my mother found dead in the car along the road in Alabama. I told my parents of this, and they suggested I give the news-watching a break, but I continued to tune in to Walter Cronkite each night.
It was confusing for me and my sisters, sitting in the House gallery, listening to men talking about how “it isn’t the federal government’s business” who gets to vote.
“Why don’t they want people to vote?” I asked my mother.
“Some people don’t want some people to vote,” she said, trying to protect me from the fact that even United States senators could think like the men who killed Viola Liuzzo.
The next day we took an overly long and punishingly hot car ride to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. This historic site, located about two hours southwest of Washington, deep in the state of Virginia, took us into the beginnings of the “real South,” as our mother called it. The tour through Monticello was mostly unmemorable, except for the too-short doorways that indicated people two hundred years ago were not that tall, and the glaring omission of any mention of Jefferson’s slaves.
On the way back to D.C. we pulled off the highway for gas and for a trip to the rest room. I walked with my mother around to the back of the station, where there were two doors. One was marked WHITE and the other COLORED (though it looked like someone had tried to scrape that last word off, unsuccessfully). I stood and stared at these signs, and although I knew what it meant, I wanted to hear my mother’s explanation of it.
“What is this?” I asked.
She looked at the signs and was silent for a moment.
“You know what it is,” she said curtly. “Just go in there and do your business and get out.” I went into the “Colored” bathroom and she went into the “Whites.” When we came out, she led me back to the car.
“Get in there and stay with your sisters.”
She then headed into the gas station with the kind of walk we three kids knew meant that heads would roll. We cranked our heads out the windows, hoping to hear what she was saying to the man at the counter, but all that was available to us was the tight-lipped look on her face and the few motions she made with her index finger. He, too, made a few gestures, including a shrug of his shoulders. She came back outside to the car and got in and said nothing.
“What were you doing?” I asked.
“Just mind your business,” she said, cutting me off. “And lock your doors.” (This would be the only time in my life I would hear such a demand when in the vicinity of all white people.) We never learned what she said to the man, or what he told her, and years later I liked to think she had given him a piece of her mind for her children having to witness such immorality in the U.S.A. that she loved. He might have told her that they just hadn’t gotten around to taking it down yet, or had tried (the Civil Rights Act outlawing such things had passed twelve months earlier), or maybe he told her to get her nigger-loving ass out of there. Or maybe she was just complaining that the ladies’ room was out of toilet paper. I always meant to ask but didn’t. She was no Viola Liuzzo, and for that, I guess, I was thankful, as I liked my mother being alive.
The trip to D.C. to learn how our government worked was coming to a close, but our mother had scheduled a “part two” for our summer trip: we were going to New York City and to the New York World’s Fair! When she was eighteen, her parents took her to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and it was there she first saw inventions like the television and was given a glimpse of the “World of Tomorrow.” We would now get a glimpse into our future via this new Fair. Five hours later we arrived at our aunt’s house on Staten Island.
The New York World’s Fair of 1964–65 was a mind-bursting experience. Located on 646 acres in the borough of Queens, the Fair included over 140 pavilions and exhibits from all over the world. Most of it, for our young eyes, was a thrilling look at what the adults of that day thought the world would look like in the twenty-first century. The IBM pavilion introduced us to what computers could do for us, and while it was never proposed that we would ever own our own computers, it did spike the imagination and create an excitement for the bold world of the coming new millennium.
At the Pepsi pavilion we saw a very entertaining show called “It’s a Small World,” a precursor to the “We Are the World” vibe of the 1980s — though Pepsi was less concerned with African starvation than with beating Coke.
There was nothing that came close to the massive building sponsored by General Motors at the Fair. They called it Futurama, and with all of us being from the company’s hometown, we were quite proud to enter its doors. They put us in chairs —and suddenly those chairs began to move! They took us on a ride through the Future — flying cars, cities under the oceans, colonies on the moon, and happy people everywhere. It was a world at peace, where everyone had a nice job, and there was no poverty or pollution or anything that might upset us. That was cool. We went on the ride again, and this time I took notes. GM was making a very generous promise, and I wanted to be able to tell the boys back in the neighborhood about it.
Many states and countries also had their own pavilions. New York State had three towers from which you could see the tri-state area. The tallest one had a huge lobby with a million-dollar map of New York laid out with exotic tiles (and a star on the location of every Texaco gas station in the state). At the top of the tower was a revolving restaurant. The new state of Alaska had an exhibit, as did Wisconsin (free samples of cheese!), and the British, French, Canadians, and dozens of other countries were well represented.
But the longest lines were reserved for the Vatican City pavilion. For it was inside this edifice that the Pope had sent abroad, for the first time ever, a work of art from St. Peter’s Basilica. Yet this wasn’t just any piece of art. This was one of the most famous works of sculpture in the history of the world: the Pietà, by Michelangelo.
The Pietà depicted the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, holding the body of her dead son after he was taken down from the cross. It measured approximately six feet high and six feet wide and was only the third sculpture by a young and somewhat unknown twenty-four-year-old Michelangelo of Florence, Italy.
To view the Pietà you had to wait in a long line and, once inside, you were placed on a moving sidewalk where you could view the work at 1.2 miles per hour. No photography was allowed and silence and reverence were expected at all times.
On my pass by the Pietà I was frozen in amazement. I had never seen anything like it. Suddenly, all the exhibits depicting the future were a distant memory, because this piece of marble from four hundred years ago had me transfixed. The moving walkway sped by far too fast for me, and as I passed by I cranked my neck back as far as it would go, until the conveyor belt deposited me out of the room.
“I want to go back again!” I told my mom.
“Really? Um, OK. Girls, let’s get back in line.”
We got back in line, and within the hour, we were on the movable belt again.
This time I locked my eyes in slow motion and soaked up every inch of the Pietà. Here was Mary holding her only son — her dead son — but she wasn’t sad! Her face was young and smooth and . . . content. What could be a worse moment in anyone’s life, to lose one’s child? And to have it happen in such a violent, barbaric way — and you, the mother, were forced to watch the whole sickening ordeal? And yet, there was no sign of any violence in the Pietà, just a mother gazing down at her son as he slept in her arms. And that was what Jesus looked like — serenely asleep in her arms. No blood from the crown of thorns, no hole in his side from the Roman’s spear. It was as if he would wake up at any moment — and she knew it. There was death, but there was life.
I couldn’t take it much further than that — I mean, I was eleven! — but it was profound and it had my head spinning — and I wanted to see it again!
“No, we have to move on,” my mother responded to my pleas. My sisters, too, had had it with me, as they wanted to get back over to the more fun parts of the Fair.
“But I want to get a picture! We have to show Dad!”
That won the argument: something for Dad, back home, toiling away in the factory. And fortunately she hadn’t seen the No Photography signs. So back in we went for a third time, my mother with the 8mm home movie Bell & Howell, me with the Kodak Brownie in hand.
On the third pass — where we were chastised for the cameras (this disturbed my mother, who did not like to be told to do anything by anybody) — I was now completely focused on the face of the mother Mary. At one point I turned away to look at my mother’s face, and I decided that the resemblance was significant enough to warrant better treatment of her in the weeks to come.
Before exiting the Vatican City pavilion, I approached a bevy of monsignors in robes who stood near the Swiss Guards. I had two questions I wanted to ask. A friendly-looking, Irish-accented priest with a nose as red as Rudolph’s offered his assistance.
“There was some writing carved into Mary’s clothes,” I asked, innocently. “Do you know what it says?”
“It says MICHAEL. ANGELUS. BONAROTUS. FLORENTIN. FACIEBAT — ‘Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence Created This.’ He carved it in there because when he attended the unveiling of the sculpture he heard people in the crowd give credit to another famous sculptor at the time, saying ‘so-and-so must have made this!’ It upset him, so that night he came into St. Peter’s and carved that inscription across Mary’s sash. But when he came back the next day, he saw what that looked like, and he was ashamed and upset that he had defaced his own artwork because of his pride and vanity. He vowed at that moment, as his penance, never to sign another sculpture of his again. And he never did.”
I paused to take that in, and it seemed like a good lesson to hear.
My other question was a simpler one. “What does Pietà mean?”
“It’s Italian,” the priest said.
“It means ‘pity.’”
“I want to see where the Towers stood,” she said, and she wouldn’t let me talk her out of it. I did not want to take my mother down to lower Manhattan. I did not want this to be her last possible memory of the city she loved, a place that was so much a part of her imagination and memories and a lifelong source of joy for her whenever she stepped onto this island. That magical place was now still smoldering, the fires underground still burning, some ten weeks after the attack. It still felt and smelled of death, and the progress of combing through the 220 stories of twisted steel and pulverized concrete in search of the departed was painstakingly slow.
“I want to see it.”
Days before, I went out to LaGuardia Airport in our Volkswagen Beetle to pick up my parents who had flown in to be with us for the Thanksgiving weekend. As I stood behind the newly tightened airport security zone I could see the two of them coming up the aisle of the Northwest Airlines terminal. My mother had not been well, and her health was deteriorating as each month went by. Yet there she was, walking three paces ahead of my dad as if she were twenty years younger, the kind of lilt in her step that only New York could give her. She also spotted me long before my dad did and started waving enthusiastically. I waved back.
Whatever “slowing down” she had done back at home was not evident once she was firmly planted in Manhattan. No longer forced to take the ferry and the bus to get into the city from her sister’s house on Staten Island, she was now “sitting pretty,” as my dad would say, in our West Side apartment. He would walk into my condo building and, without fail, remark that I was “sure livin’ high on the hog!” This was beyond anything he could have imagined on the factory floor of AC Spark Plug, and while he enjoyed the amenities and the view of the city, he remained appropriately skeptical for a man of his means.
The night before Thanksgiving, my wife and I took them over to West Eighty-First Street and along Central Park West so they could see the balloons being inflated for the Macy’s Parade the next day. It was cold and we bundled them as best we could, and for a short time they enjoyed being with thousands of New Yorkers marveling at the deflated Snoopy and slightly inflated Bart Simpson lying on the ground (though they had no idea who the latter was). It was a peek behind Life After Flint — a trip to the Cannes Film Festival with a walk up the stairs of the Palais, a seat at the Emmy Awards next to Sid Caesar the night we won, a chance to have people like Rob Reiner tell them that “your son’s film has the impact of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — that alone being worth the price of admission if you’re a parent, slightly embarrassing if you’re the son.
But now my mother wanted to see Ground Zero, the site of the recent massacre of 2,752 people. I acquiesced and, thinking that Thanksgiving Day would find it the least crowded there, I loaded them in the Beetle and headed down the West Side Highway.
By mid-November of 2001, the authorities had opened up more streets in Tribeca to traffic, and it was possible to drive right up the perimeter of the World Trade Center’s former location. The place was every bit the disaster area it had been for the past two months, and smoke could still be seen wafting its way up from the ruins.
I slowed down so they could get a better look. I glanced over at my mother, who was sitting in the front seat with me. There were tears in her eyes, and I would have to go back to the death of her sister to recall such a look of sadness on her face. It was like her facial muscles had just collapsed on their own. She looked down, and then away, and then back again at the destruction. This was not the New York of Ed Sullivan or the Rainbow Room or giving your regards to Broadway.
This was the future not promised, her world of tomorrow, and I was sorry for her to see it.
I was sitting in the living room of our home in northern Michigan, planning which movie I was going to take the family to in the next half hour. The choice was between Men in Black II or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It was the Fourth of July weekend, 2002, and my sister Veronica had flown in from California with her kids to be with my wife and daughter and our parents. It was Saturday, early evening, and we had spent the day on the lake, taking the kids tubing, and giving Mom and Dad a spin on the boat. My mother hung on to her hat and laughed and admonished me to slow down as the kids on the inner tube shouted to go faster.
Afterward, before dinner, I sat with my mom in the Adirondack chairs on top of the small hill beside the lake. She rolled up her pants to get some sun on her legs and closed her eyes, and you could see it all felt good to her.
For the past three weeks I had taken off from work and come to Davison to hang out with them. I took them out for a wedding anniversary dinner, and we did driving tours of all their old haunts from their years of growing up in the Flint area. We visited the graves of all the ancestors, some with birthdates going back to the late 1700s. We planted flowers, we visited the free legal service provide by the UAW (they wanted to update their wills), and we went to a Tigers ball game in Detroit. It was, without a doubt, three of the best weeks I ever spent with them. Though my mother was fading in energy, she participated in everything. But I noticed her time in the bathroom seemed to be getting longer and longer. My dad complained about it, and I agreed we should take her to the doctor and get her checked out.
“Mike! Mike!!” It was my mother’s voice, but it wasn’t coming from inside the house where the rest of us were. It was coming from the back deck. I went out to see what she needed.
When I came out the door, it was clear she was very, very sick.
“I need to get to the bathroom —” She threw up at that moment, and what she threw up was pitch-black gunk. My dad, by then, had come outside to see what was the matter, and he and I helped her up and took her inside. My wife called the local hospital to see what they suggested.
“Pepto Bismol,” my wife said, relaying the message. This did not seem like a job for a pink liquid. My mother continued to throw up. “I think we should take her to the hospital,” I said. I did not want to call an ambulance as that would take a long time (the nearest one was at least eight miles away).
We walked her slowly out to my dad’s Ford, and my wife and sister made her comfortable in the back seat. I got behind the wheel and headed down our long driveway to the road. We lived deep in the middle of nowhere (in 2002, our road still wasn’t wired for cable TV).
As I reached the end of the driveway, I had a quick decision to make: Do I take her to the nearest hospital — or do I take her to the better hospital? The nearest hospital was in a small town twenty-three miles to the north. The better hospital, the best in northern Michigan, was in the opposite direction, forty-five miles away, twice the drive. So there was the dilemma. Your mother is seriously ill, you don’t know why, but it doesn’t look good. Do you get her help immediately or, if she’s much worse than even you realize, do you drive the longer distance and end up with a better array of doctors and facilities available?
What would you do? You’d get her to the quickest hospital, right? Right? That’s what I did. I chose the nearest hospital.
I got there in record time — less than twenty minutes — and we took her in, told them the problem, and they saw to her right away. There was only one doctor on duty, but it wasn’t long before he looked at her.
“It seems that her intestinal tract is blocked. We’re going to take some X-rays.” And, sure enough, the X-rays confirmed the doctor’s suspicions.
They gave her liquids that they said should help. It didn’t. They gave her an IV and they said that should do the trick. It didn’t. While waiting to see which procedure would get the expected results and then seeing no results, the clock had peeled away the hours; it was well past midnight.
“OK,” said the doctor finally. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to give her a series of four or five enemas and keep her overnight. This should work and she should be able to go home tomorrow.”
We went with her to the room they had given her and we stayed until they were ready to start the enema procedures. At that point the nurse suggested, “It’s almost three a.m. — why don’t you go get some sleep and come back in the morning?”
Our mother agreed. “Take your father home and let him get some rest. I’ll be fine. I’ll see you in the morning.”
For reasons we could never later explain to ourselves, we took her advice and, amazingly — shockingly — left her alone there in this tiny hospital. We went home and crashed quickly — and just as quickly we were awoken a few hours later.
“Is this Michael Moore?” said the voice on the phone. “This is Dr. Calkins, the surgeon here at the hospital. The enemas didn’t work on your mother, and she’s taken a turn. We need to operate. How soon can you be here?”
In less than twenty minutes we were there. Mom looked embarrassed and sorry to be putting everyone out for the trouble she was causing. “Did you get some sleep?” was all that was on her mind.
“Don’t worry about us,” I said. “How are you doing?”
“Well, nothing seems to be working. They want to operate,” she said with a weak voice.
I took the doctor aside and asked him to explain to me what was going on.
“Your mother’s intestines are shot,” he said matter-offactly. “We will more than likely need to take a piece of them out.”
“Are you sure that’s necessary?”
“If we don’t get in there, she could go into septic shock. The bacteria trapped in there may have already seeped through the lining of her intestine. This is a common procedure; I’ve done many of them. Shouldn’t take more than an hour or two. She should be fine.”
“Fine? How many of these did you say you have done?”
“I do one or two a year — and I’ve been doing this for thirty-some years. As it is now, I’m all you got ’cause I’m the only one here — and I think we should get going.”
We went back in the room and the nurse brought in some paperwork for my dad to sign. She then asked my mother to sign the consent form.
“Would you sign it for me, Frank?” she asked my dad.
He took the clipboard and signed it, slowly. We squeezed my mom’s hand and told her everything was going to be OK. She assured us everything was going to be OK. I fought hard not to cry. They took her away and we went to the lounge to wait for the hour or two.
Four hours later the surgeon had not come out, and a pall fell over the room. Whatever the news was, it wasn’t going to be good.
Finally, the doctor appeared.
“I think it went well,” he said. “She’s recovering fine now. We had to remove about a foot of her intestine. I’d say the chances for a full recovery are about 90 percent.”
Whew. You know how many times you’ve seen that doctor come through those doors — a thousand times — on TV shows and in the movies and it’s rarely good news. He explained to us that she will probably have to stay in the hospital for the better part of the week. He didn’t see any seepage through the intestinal lining and her vital signs were all good. In fact, we could see her within the hour as soon as she woke up.
We thanked the surgeon and, with a sense of relief, headed back to the intensive care unit. Well, there was no “unit” or ward at this hospital. They had a small ICU area with two rooms. That was fine, just fine. She was OK!
When we went into our mother’s room, she was hooked up to all the standard monitors and IV tubes, but she was awake and alert and very happy to see us.
“Here I am,” she said, stating the obvious. I liked hearing that: first person, present tense.
“Well, the doctor says you made it through with flying colors!” I said to her, as I pulled up a chair beside the bed. My sister and wife and father were equally upbeat in their assessments of her condition.
“You’re gonna be OK, Mom,” Veronica said, giving her a kiss on her forehead. “In fact, you look pretty chipper there!”
Our only concern until this point had been the effects of putting such an elderly person under sedation. We had known of friends with not-good stories of what happened to their parents when knocked out with anesthesia. Sometimes all their memory didn’t return, at least not right away. I decided to give her a pop quiz.
“Hey Mom —you know what day this is?”
“Sure,” she said, “it’s Sunday.”
“Where did you and Dad go on your honeymoon?”
“New York. Boston. Albany.” (I know. Albany. Don’t ask.)
And now for the Final Jeopardy question. This was a family that loved to go to the movies.
“Where did you first see High Noon?”
“Cheboygan, Michigan. Nineteen fifty-two!” she responded without missing a beat. Wow. Crisis averted, roll credits!
Everyone pulled up a chair, and we spent the next few hours talking about the good times and growing up and Dr. Wall and the time he was “blocked” just before her wedding and how he too had to go to the hospital and almost didn’t make it. Never had discussions about enemas been so heartening.
The doctor and nurses on call would occasionally come in to check on her, change the IV bags, inspect the area where the surgery took place. She would doze off now and then, her body wanting to restore itself after the shock of surgery.
By 9:00 p.m. it was decided that we would take shifts and stay with her for as long as she was going to be in the hospital. I offered to take the first shift until the morning. Veronica and my wife took Dad and the kids back to the house. I got comfortable with a book and my ever-present legal pad, sketching out the final fixes I wanted to make to my film before its release in the fall.
Every now and then my mother would wake up and we would talk.
“I’m very lucky to have the family I have,” she said.
“We’re very lucky to have you,” I told her, patting a lukewarm washcloth on her face like she would do for us, so many years ago.
“I’m thirsty,” she said. She was not allowed to have any food or liquids, not even water, during these first twenty-four hours. All we could do was to let her suck on a little Q-tip that had a tiny moist sponge on its head. I held one up to her lips, and she sucked on it with some desperation.
“I’m parched.” I smiled. No one said “parched” in this century or the last.
“Lemme do this,” I said, as I took another one and rubbed it around her lips. Like an infant looking for its mother’s nipple, she grabbed at the little stick with her mouth, her tongue, her teeth, wanting more, more.
“I think that’s all we can do for now, Mom. I’ll just sit here with you and we’ll do it again in a little bit.”
I sat in the chair next to her bed and got comfortable.
“Here,” she said, as she lifted her head off her pillows and tried to reach for one of them. “Take one of my pillows.”
I could not believe, in the state she was in, that she was worrying about me not having a pillow. And that even in her worst suffering, her instincts were still to be a mother, to look out for her son, to make sure he was OK, to allow him to fall asleep, to sleep peacefully and in comfort. On her pillow.
“That’s OK, Mom,” I said with a smile, trying to contain a laugh. “I don’t need a pillow. You keep it.” I arranged the pillow back in place, and her head now nestled in it comfortably.
“I love my kids. I have good children,” she said with a sweet, faint smile.
I put my hand on her face and gently combed her hair back with my fingers.
“We love you, too, Mom.” I felt lucky to have her as my mother.
A moment later the night nurse came in with an aide and said that she needed to give my mother some potassium in her medicine bag and change the top sheet of the bed. For my mother’s modesty and privacy, she suggested that maybe I could “just step out for a few minutes.” The nurse had hair fashioned into a long braid that extended down her back, the kind I guess you might see in a religious community. Her glasses were like something from the late seventies, and they framed a face that seemed frozen in time.
I left the room and went out in the hallway to wait. It wasn’t long before I heard sheer human panic.
“No —move her over. There! Stop! We’ve got a problem!”
I rushed back into the room to see my mother in what I later learned was a cardiac arrest. The nurse was panicked and confused and I suggested we get the doctor down here NOW.
“Yes, right.” She picked up the intercom phone and paged the lone doctor in the ER.
My mother was struggling to breathe — gasping, gasping, gasping, her eyes locked on to mine as if to say, Please help me!
“Everything’s going to be OK, Mom, hang in there!”
I turned to the nurse and demanded action. “We need the doctor in here now! Do I have to go get him?”
The doctor walked in and immediately saw what the problem was. “She needs to breathe! Where is the respirator?”
The little ICU at this small-town hospital did not have a respirator machine in the unit at that moment.
“Grab the portable!” the doctor shouted. The nurse went and got a small plastic device that she tore out of a plastic bag, then tried to insert it in my mother’s mouth. She had it upside down.
“Here, give it to me!” the doctor demanded. He took it from her, inserted it into my mother’s mouth, placing the tube squarely down her throat. “Here, pump it like this!”
Jesus, oh Jesus, what the fuck was going on? He was having to show a nurse how to bring air into a patient’s lungs? This was madness. I wanted to jump in, help, do something, do CPR, something, ANYTHING, please God this isn’t happening!
While the nurse pumped, the doctor told the aide to go down to the ER and get the hospital’s lone ventilator. He worked on my mother, gave her a shot of something, massaged something, and the only good news in this moment was that the heart monitor never went dead, never flatlined. The heart was still beating, there was oxygen getting into the blood.
I picked up my phone and called the house. My sister answered.
“I think you guys better get here now,” I said, trying to disguise my panic. “Something’s happened. Don’t kill yourself getting here. She’s alive. But struggling bad. Come now!”
The ventilator arrived with another nurse, and the doctor wasted no time jamming the hose straight down my mother’s throat. Her eyes were no longer on mine. They were open, frozen, looking straight up and seemingly unaware of what was happening to her. At that moment a bolt of lightning struck the hospital and it lit up the room. I had not noticed that for the past fifteen minutes a thunderstorm had rolled in and was now in full fury. Deafeningly close thunder exploded, and the lightning continued to flash into the unit. I looked at the clock: 12:45 a.m. For some reason, with all that was going on, it occurred to me that I was born at 12:45 (but in the p.m.). How did I know this? For every year of my adult life, no matter where I was, at exactly 12:45 p.m., my mother would call me to tell me this was the moment she gave birth to me. Now, here I was, crumbling inside, helpless and lost, feeble and useless and impotent in this most critical moment where I was responsible for giving her life, or at least saving it. The voice inside my head kept pounding: YOU made the wrong decision! Yes, I had chosen the closest hospital, not the better hospital where I was certain I would not be witnessing a Mack Sennett version of intensive care where the Keystone Cops finally find the only ventilator in the mop closet and wheel it out, asking each other if they know how this newfangled contraption works. I was sick, sick, and I wanted to throw up.
I went over by my mother’s side and put my hands on her. I whispered in her ear: “I’m here. You’re OK. This will be OK. Stay with me. Don’t leave me. Dad and Veronica are on the way!”
I bowed my head and said a prayer and asked God to please spare her, to not take her, to let her live. It was not her time! I asked him to take everything from me, everything I had, all my possessions, my career — anything — I would give it all up right now just so she could live. It was a crazy, illogical and unnecessary request. God — or nature or my mother herself — were going to decide if her body could carry on. But I meant it nonetheless, and I would be overjoyed if my offer were accepted.
My dad and sister and wife arrived, slightly shaken by what they said was the worst storm they’d ever driven through. They went to her side and spoke to her, and though there would be the occasional twitch in her eyes, there was no guarantee she could hear us.
Her heart beat through the night and into the morning. Our other sister, Anne, rushed to get on a red-eye from Sacramento and would soon arrive there to be with us. Each hour, our mother’s vital signs would stabilize, then go slightly downward. The night nurse with the long braid left without a word, and a new day nurse came in. She stopped when she saw me, and she didn’t try very hard to contain “that look” I’ve seen a thousand times from those who would rather not see me. Of course, the other nurses and doctors more than made up for her attitude, and they did their best to make my mother comfortable and to keep the rest of us calm. The doctor on duty admitted that if my mom were stable he’d like to move her to another hospital with facilities that might be better for her. But that kind of travel would be too dangerous at this point, he said. We would just have to play the cards we were dealt.
By two in the afternoon (now twenty-four hours since the surgery), her progress continued steadily downward. The blood pressure read 60 over 35. I called Jack Stanzler, a doctor and friend in Ann Arbor, to get some advice, and he in turn called a doctor friend of his in northern Michigan to see if there was anything he could do. Our mother’s eyes remained wide open with little or no movement. We all kept whispering encouraging things to her, hoping it would help.
I took a break for a moment and went out in the hall to the nurses’ station, where I encountered the not-so-happy to-see-me nurse. She looked straight at me, and with a tone of disgust that she didn’t even have the decency to hide, she uttered the following:
“Why don’t you just knock it off in there? Your mother is dead. And nobody’s got the guts to tell you that. She’s gone and nothing you’re doing is going to bring her back.” And then she walked away.
I thought I had suffocated. If I didn’t know better, it felt as if the nurse’s hand was now on my throat, choking the life out of me.
“Wait a minute!” I yelled, as I found my breath. “Who are you?! Why would you say such a thing? You’re sick. Sick!”
I broke down. The others in the room heard me, and my wife came out. Sobbing, I told her what the nurse just said.
“Your mother’s not dead. Those monitors don’t lie. I don’t know why she would say that. Come back in the room.”
Instead, I went to the phone and called the surgeon. I told him what just happened. He told me to ignore the nurse and that the doctor on duty was handling things and that was all that mattered. “And your mother is still alive.”
Over the next hour we all took turns spending a few private moments with my mother, saying the things that you would only say if it were just you and your dying mother in the room. Around 4:00 p.m. we all gathered in a circle around her bed, and each of us offered a prayer or a remembrance or a thank-you to this woman who brought us into the world and raised us and took care of us and encouraged us to embrace knowledge and goodness and kind-heartedness and to never back down if we thought that was what our conscience was demanding. No one could get through what they were saying without breaking down.
At thirty seconds after 4:30 p.m. on July 8, 2002, my mother left this world. There was a sharp, profound sorrow in the room, and too many tears to count. We cried for the better part of the next half hour, and one by one, after a long silence, we picked up our things to leave. I was the last in the room. I went over to my mother and held her. She was asleep, her eyes having been closed by the doctor. I kissed her on her head, and when I pulled back I noticed a long gray hair of hers on my shirt. I gently took the hair — the hair that to me was still alive, still full of her DNA, the twenty-three chromosomes that made her who she was, that helped to make me who I am, a piece of her (though it was just a simple strand of hair). I tucked the hair into my shirt pocket, looked at her one last time, and left.
To this day, that last strand of gray hair still sits in that same shirt pocket, folded up in a small bag in my old bedroom in the home I grew up in, hidden away, untouched, up on top of the bookshelf, next to a little plastic statue she gave me at the New York World’s Fair of Michelangelo’s Pietà.
November 9th, 2013
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