What My Mother Gave Me Before She Died
By Brad Meltzer
She’s the kind of woman who would say, "Ucch, what a depressing funeral." And so the obvious thing to say is that I want to celebrate my Mom. But what I really want to do is share my Mom. Not the person who was here the past few months. But the woman who was here the past 63 years.
In my case, my mother fought to have me. She tried for three years to get pregnant. And I think that struggle always left her feeling thankful for what she had. It is, to this moment, the only rational way to explain the neverending love she gave to me.
My very first interaction with my mother came before I was born - and as she used to relay the story - when I was in her stomach, she would put an ashtray on her belly, take a great drag on her cigarette, and then cheer me on as my sudden in utero kicks sent the cigarette ashes bouncing on her belly. Now think on this a moment: she’s smoking - while pregnant - and then relishing the moment as her tiny fetus - me - kicks wildly for his life. But when I look back on this, it’s blatantly clear just how differently the world looked through my Mom’s eyes. You should’ve heard the joy - true insane joy - in my mother’s voice as she proudly recounted how amazing it was to see me kick that ashtray on her belly. I always took away the lesson that we shouldn’t asphyxiate our unborn, but Teri Meltzer had a far different lesson - a maternal lesson - and all she could see in that dancing ashtray was that her child must be special.
Of course, my Mom quickly took a more protective stance when it came to my well being. And by that I don’t just mean that she stopped trying to inadvertently kill me. As I entered grade school, my father, who breathes baseball, signed me up for Little League. I lasted one year. But it wasn’t until a few months ago - as we were looking back on her life - that I finally found out just who saved me from year two. Stewie, don’t make him play if he doesn’t want to play. That was my Mom’s threat. Even back then, she knew me. And for all of childhood, she nurtured me, growing my little artsy side and always making sure that I could find my own adventure. And she fed it with one of the greatest seeds of imagination: television.
This will sound silly and trite, but in my mother’s honor, I’m not apologizing for it. One of my clearest memories of childhood is sitting at the side of my Mom’s bed - the side that faced the TV - and watching show after show with her. To be clear, TV wasn’t something that watched me - she didn’t put it on just so she could go do something else. My mother watched with me. Or rather, I watched with her. Old movies like Auntie Mame. And modern classics like Taxi, Soap, MASH and of course, our favorite for every Wednesday night, Dynasty. (Please, what else are you gonna do with a son who doesn’t play baseball?) Some mothers and sons never find anything they can truly share. But my Mon always treated me like an adult, always let me stay up late to watch the good stuff, and in those moments, she did one of the best things any parent can do: she shared what she loved with me. Of course, she also shared far too many copies of the Star and the Enquirer (which she would swear, always had the real news first).
When I was thirteen, my Mom faced the worst tragedy of her life. The death of her father - Jonas Benjamin’s namesake - Ben Rubin. My Poppy. My Poppy would do anything for my mother - come over the house at any hour for whatever it was we needed. That’s where my Mom got it from - but when he died - I remember at his funeral, my Mom screaming and yelling wildly because the funeral home had neglected to shave my grandfather, and my Mom wanted him to look just right. It was a fierceness and ferocity I never saw before - or again. It was a fierceness that my Mom saved for when someone messed with her family. And I know she put that one in me too.
But when I think of my Mom - more than anything else...more than anything - I think of the pure, immeasurable, almost crazy love she had for me. I remember the first time I gave her The Tenth Justice. It’s my first published novel. My first time ever putting real work out for anyone to see. I was terrified when she said she’d finished it. And then she looked right at me and said, "Bradley, I know I’m your mother, but I have to be honest with you. This book...is the greatest book of all time!"
When someone was recounting the story to me a few days ago, he called my mother the queen of hyperbole. But as I think about it, he had it wrong. Hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration. My mother never used hyperbole. My mother actually believed it. In her eyes, I really did write the greatest book of all time.
And in that book, I also wrote my mother - the mother in Tenth Justice was based on my Mom. But when my first editor was reading it, he sent back the comment that he didn’t think the mother and father in the book were realistic. He said they were too crazy. So I brought my parents to meet my editor. They came up to the editor’s office, and for the half hour or forty-five minutes, I sat there, silently, smiling, as my Mom and Dad talked this poor man’s face off. When they were done and had finally left the office, my editor turned to me and said, "Leave the parent scenes exactly as they are."
A few years ago, I went to the headquarters of Borders Books up in Ann Arbor. And when I was there the main buyer for Borders said to me, "Guess where your books sell more than anywhere else? Straight sales, not even per capita." So of course I said, "New York" - 8 million New Yorkers in one city.
"Washington, DC? I write about DC."
"Chicago, the flagship superstore?"
The number one place my books sell was the Boca Raton Borders, two miles from the furniture store where my mother worked. That means my mother single-handedly beat 8 million New Yorkers. Messing with the power of a Jewish mother is one thing, but never ever mess with the power that was Teri Meltzer.
Of course, what made my Mom my Mom was the fact that that love - that love that burned in her brighter than fifty suns - was there even when times were bad. When The First Counsel was published, USA Today gave me a ruthless review. It was the kind of review that just felt like a public humiliation. The headline was: Make First Your Last. But when my mother saw it, she said to me, "Don’t worry. No one reads that paper anyway." It’s the number one paper in the entire county! It’s the one paper everyone reads.
And when my publisher shut down and we went to find a new one, I was faced with one of the scariest moments of my career. My second novel had bombed and sold so much less than the first one, so if we wanted to move forward, we had to leave a guaranteed contract behind and hope that another publisher would take over the contract. This was terrifying to me, and I was wracked with fear, feeling like I was watching it all deteriorate. And I’ll never forget my Mom on the phone - she said to me, "I’d love you if you were a garbage man." It wasn’t anything she practiced...it was just her exact honest feelings at that moment. And to this day, EVERY day that I sit down to write these books, I say those words to myself - "I’d love you if you were a garbage man" - soaking in the purity and selflessness of that love, and the knowledge that - and I don’t care where she is - my mother is always there for me.
Let me be clear: all our strength, confidence, any success my sister and I have been blessed enough to receive, those were all watered and nurtured by the strength of the love that my mother showered on us. There is no coincidence that my sister and I both work for ourselves. From when I was born, my mother worked for herself, decorating and being creative. Now there’s a certain confidence - and an underlying insecurity - that goes along with being creative. Your job lives and dies on your taste...and on people believing in it. In every decision, you leap from that trapeze...you give your opinion...and you try to never think twice about if someone will catch you. To me, watching my Mom - you should’ve seen her decorating: That color? Gorgeous. That pillow? Awful. That couch? Horrible. Ucch. Terrible. Un-believable. Feh. Bleh. That looks like pulverized shit. I’d rather drink poison. When she came to Washington and I took her to the White House, she looked around at the décor. Unga Patchke. Overdone. It’s the White House! In everything she did, she rattled off her opinions as if they were absolute truths. In fact, a few months back, my Mom and I were arguing over some decorating detail in our new house. Now my mother is sick at this point. The cancer in her brain made it incredibly hard for her to speak, so most of the argument is her shaking her head and rolling her eyes. But as we’re going back and forth, I finally lose it and ask her if it just might be possible that I might have my own taste. And my mother, who hasn’t said much of anything in awhile, shouts: No. You. Can’t!
Maybe it was taste, maybe it was stubbornness, but I’ll always be thankful to my Mom for teaching me that you can believe in yourself like that.
For that reason, when I found out the last book had hit the top spot on the bestseller list, Cori already knew, so the first person I called was my mother. And of course my Mom starts hysterically crying. She’s so proud. And when I hear her crying, I of course start crying. And in the midst of this tear-fest, I say to her, where are you now? And through her sobs, she says to me, "I’m at Marshall’s."
Of course she’s at Marshall’s, still trying to buy irregular socks for two dollars. It was my mother’s greatest lesson: never ever ever ever change for anyone. And her second greatest lesson: that Marshall’s just may be the greatest store on earth.
And that leads me to the other great loves of my mother’s life. First, a word about her grandchildren, one of whom is sitting right here, making his Nana so proud. When my first child - my son Jonas - was born, my mother said to me, "Now you’ll understand how I love you."
She was right. And it was the first time I got to see life through my Mom’s eyes.
Now I know every grandparent loves their grandchildren. But not like my Mom loved mine. Of course she spoiled them, and let them eat bags of jelly beans, and watch endless TV. Of course she bought toy after toy - I opened her truck once and it was filled TO THE TOP with piles of Hot Wheels cars and toys and whatever she could find in the dollar store. Just in case. You never know. You never know what, Ma? If an orphanage is gonna show up? But my Mom would offer over and over to come babysit. We didn’t ask her. She’d call up and tell us we should go out to dinner. I said to her, "We just want to go for Chinese food." She said to me, "You can go to China for all I care." She just wanted to be there for her grandkids. For Jonas and Lila and of course Theo.
You see, my Mom knew how sick she was. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she plummeted so soon after Theo was born. In truth, I think my mother was supposed to die eight months ago, when she had that stroke. But she fought back. And learned how to walk and talk again. And started yet another chemo regimen that the doctor never really thought would work. It wasn’t the first time. When my mother was born, she had a disorder in her hips that was so bad, the doctors said she wouldn’t ever walk. But she walked.
She was far tougher than anyone ever expected. And so, after the experimental chemo, my mother got a near perfect four months of borrowed time, where she finally found her way to Paris and saw her namesake, Theo, be born. She fought for that moment. Even in her final days, when she showed barely any recognition, she would light up when Theo, Lila and Jonas entered that room.
And that leaves me with her truest love. The one I don’t think I ever fully appreciated. But when my Mom was at her lowest - when the September stroke had kicked her brain and we didn’t know if she’d ever come back to us - there was one thing she reacted to as she laid there in the hospital bed. Stewie. My father would enter the room and her eyes would open. She knew that voice. And not just because it’s such a ridiculous voice. My mother didn’t get to pick me and my sister. She was stuck with us. But she picked him. She picked my father. And for all the ups and downs they took, make no mistake, they loved each other with a fire and passion that every set of spouses should aspire to. You should always take pride, Dad, in the happiness you brought her.
In the end, my mother died the same way she lived. She laughed and smiled and enjoyed everything she could get from life. She belly-laughed when her brother and chief sidekick Uncle Richie entertained and distracted her from the sadness (which we all needed). And when she lay there, two days before her death, when her mother, Dottie, my Nanny, came in, she was basically motionless. But when my Nanny started singing some old kooky 1920s song, my mother, who barely could move, raised her hand high and rolled her eyes and gave that look of "Mom, what the hell’re you doin’?"
And in that moment, as we all laughed, my Mom, Teri Meltzer, was back:
- The woman who loved Marshall’s and the Enquirer as much as she loved the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay.
- The woman who, even at 63, has friends who are in their thirties and forties.
- Who used to hate every piece of modern art, because she would say, "I could do that."
- Who never grew up or grew old - never wished for "how things used to be" and instead always searched for the new style, the new thing (y’know how much Project Runway this woman watched? Even before it was popular). She had the mindset and taste of a thirty year old gay man who lives in the East Village, and just like him, she didn’t give a shit what you thought about her.
- She hated snobs, she hated phonies, she hated rich obnoxious asses who can only talk about what kind of car they drove, or jewelry they bought, or what big trip they recently took. And over the past year, as we’ve been calling doctors and nurses and secretaries, even the valets who park the cars, when I say my name, all they say is, "Oh, how’s your mother? She’s such a nice/funny/sweet/great-spirited lady." And as one receptionist reminded me, "Not everyone is nice like that." The truth about you is what people say behind your back. And I love my mother so much for that: From the Queen of England to the janitor in the bathroom, she’d treat you the same.
Over the past few months, as my mother was dying, she never complained. Truly. Never. Not to us. She was protective to the final moments. I’d ask if she was in pain, and she’d insist, "No." And when that lie was clearly a lie, this was just days ago, I looked at her in the bed and said, "How you doing?" She opened her eyes at my voice and smiled that Teri Meltzer smile and said, on her deathbed, "Fantastic."
And there we were. For the past six months, me and Bari and Cori and Will - all her children - were once again at her house, where the TV was once again on her side of the bed, and we were all once again watching her favorite shows. They weren’t sad nights. In fact, they were some of my favorite nights with my Mom - not because I love Dancing with the Stars or Top Chef or every other show Bravo TV has to offer - but because, when I sat there, I was nine years old again, safe and comforted by that neverending well of love I could feel from my Mom.
On that note, I want to thank all the people who have been there for her - this year, or any other. All the family and friends who laughed with her and shared stories with her...who sent cards and notes and flowers and sub sandwiches, who left messages and emails, and especially those who sent photos of your kids (I’m sure she’s bought presents for all of them)...and especially to those who drove and made their way to see her, then and now. All the doctors who were friends first and who got info and test results and whatever else she needed. And all the nurses and chemo ladies and strangers who spoke to her and made her feel like a person instead of a patient.
I don’t miss particular moments with my mother. I can always remember those moments. What I miss is my mother, and her reactions, and how she never hesitated to tell you who she hated or what she thought (even if it was a quick judgment), and most of all, how she loved me and my family with more love than one person should be able to muster.
She once said to me, "I’d saw off my own arm for you." Again, not an exaggeration. Just Teri Meltzer being Teri Meltzer.
That love my Mom gave me is my strength. It never. Ever. Wavered. It’s like the hum on an airplane, of the engine - it’s there and it never lets up and it never stops - and you get so used to it, it just becomes part of the ride. But you’d know the second it was gone. My mother’s love for us never stopped.
It was a constant.
It is the pillar that has carried me everywhere and holds me up right now. Her love is a gift that she gave me. And it is the part of her that I hope I, and my children, and all of you carry with you every time your child or grandchild shows you a picture they colored, every time you say thank you to the valet who parks your car, and damn well every time you drive past Marshall’s.
I miss you Mom. And I thank you. I thank you for teaching me how a parent is supposed to love their child. And I hope you know that, in that and so much else, you live on forever.