My mom died last Monday, of cancer.
Mom smoked most of her adult life, which led to COPD several years ago and lung cancer last autumn. She told only a handful of people about the cancer. She was optimistic that treatment would give her a few more years, and she didn’t want anyone fussing over her until it was absolutely necessary.
Treatment was hard and it sapped her energy. Then advancing osteoporosis led to debilitating fractures in several vertebrae, one after another over several months. There’s an outpatient procedure to treat that, but a couple weeks after each procedure another vertebra would fracture and she’d do it all over again. Mom needed a lot of help through all this, and it was up to my brother and me to provide it. This was a treadmill all of us wanted off, yet it lasted for months. Mom was frustrated that she couldn’t do much of anything, especially the simple things that brought joy to her life.
My brother and I grieve this huge loss, but we are also relieved that this is over.
Mom was born December 18, 1944, to George and Kathryn Frederick in South Bend, Indiana. She was the third of four children: Jack, Dick, Carole, and Dennis. The family lived in South Bend’s historic Chapin Park neighborhood for much of her childhood. This neighborhood of brick streets and large, older homes is near downtown and the St. Joseph River. Mom spent a lot of her childhood exploring the area around the river. She described herself as a tomboy who would climb a tree and then move from tree to tree for blocks, never needing to touch the ground. She also enjoyed going downtown during the formality of the 1950s, a time when a well-dressed woman would not be caught dead downtown without her gloves on.
George was an engineer at Bendix Corporation who designed brakes for trains and landing gears for airplanes. Kathryn was at times a homemaker and at other times worked in South Bend department stores. They enjoyed an upper-middle-class life. They were the first family in the neighborhood to get television, which Mom remembered happening 1948 or 1949. This was before South Bend had television stations. They aimed their antenna toward Chicago, where they’d pick up Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, Mom remembered distinctly. Neighborhood kids would fill the living room to watch. The Fredericks were also known far and wide for their annual open house the night of Christmas Eve, which was a proper bash. Her childhood wasn’t idyllic, however; as her father’s career took off, both of her parents increasingly drank too much. Their alcoholism led to dysfunction in the family.
Mom was a beautiful young woman who was pursued by several men during her teenage years. These men came from the upper-middle-class and upper-class world in which Mom’s family moved. But none of them lit Mom’s fire.
Jim Grey was born in the hills of West Virginia, from a family that lived from hand to mouth. Mom met him in about 1963, as she was finishing high school and after he had completed a tour of duty in the Navy. Mom fell hard and fast. They married in 1964, when Mom was just 19. Dad soon found a good job with Oliver Corporation, which made farm equipment. Mom worked as a secretary and a bookkeeper.
Mom became pregnant with me in late 1966. They needed to buy their first house, but they didn’t have money for a down payment. They came upon a large and growing family so desperate to leave a small starter house on South Bend’s south side that they let my parents assume their mortgage. I came in August of 1967, and my brother Rick followed in July of 1968.
We enjoyed living in that neighborhood the adults all called Rabbit Hill. Many young families lived there, and there were lots of children around. Mom stayed at home with Rick and me in those years, as was so common then. After we started school, we walked home for lunch most days. Mom created a warm and comfortable home for us, even though money remained tight on Dad’s wages.
In 1976 we moved to a larger home less than a mile away. The house on Erskine Blvd. is the one I consider to be “home,” as that’s where I spent my teenage years. Also, Mom and Dad lived there for 38 years. Well into my adult life I could always go home.
Mom did a lot to make our home as lovely as we could afford. She did most of the work painting the interior. She did most of the work landscaping the yard, including planting plenty of flowers. She and Dad bought antique furniture for the home, and bought art to hang on the walls. Much of the art they owned came from their friend Dean Porter, who was an artist and art professor at Notre Dame.
Mom was also heavily involved at our elementary school. She was recording secretary of the PTA; she was “room mother” each year, alternating between my class and Rick’s; and she was on the teams that put together special events like Balloon Day and an annual school fun fair.
As Rick and I entered our teenage years, Mom took a job as an aide at the elementary school. One reason she chose that job was because she could walk there — she didn’t drive. Another reason was that she would be home with her kids whenever we weren’t in school. After a few years Mom became an aide in the high school, which was also within walking distance. I’d see her around the hallways sometimes; a few times when I was about to be late to class I’d stop by her desk and she’d write me a pass. The teachers always arched an eyebrow at that, but then chuckled and let it pass.. Some time after I graduated, Mom became the attendance secretary and held that job for many years.
Mom’s job was especially important when Rick and I went off to college — I chose Rose-Hulman and he chose Notre Dame, the two most expensive schools in Indiana. We got a lot of need-based financial aid, and Rick and I borrowed money to pay a portion, but Mom and Dad funded the rest. Because Rick and I were one year apart, for three of those years they wrote large checks to both schools. Dad had risen in his career into manufacturing management, but even with that much improved salary, money remained tight.
After we were clear of college, Dad decided to leave manufacturing and go into business building bespoke wood furniture. He was a talented cabinetmaker who had been building pieces on the side for Notre Dame and several private clients, and he thought he would be able to make a real go of it. Mom was his business manager, keeping the books and handling all of the administrative tasks. Mom kept working at the high school, as well. I’m a fuzzy on the timing but I remember that she did finally quit that job after a new Principal didn’t treat her well and the pressure finally became too much. I’m pretty sure there was some period of time where Mom and Dad relied entirely on Dad’s income as a cabinetmaker.
Mom described those years as the closest and happiest of their marriage. She felt like they were fully partners, and it filled her with joy. But those were also mighty lean years. Dad hoped word of mouth would be enough to build his business, but it wasn’t, and Dad wasn’t much of a salesman. In the end, they threw in the towel and Dad went back to work in manufacturing.
While I was growing up, I always thought that there wasn’t enough money for us to own nice things, or to take vacations, or to go out to a restaurant nicer than McDonald’s once in a while. Yet money was there to send me on a once-in-a-lifetime exchange trip to Germany while I was in high school, and money was there to send Rick and I to expensive colleges. Money was there. Not much, but some, for sure. Through young-adult eyes I started to see that my father was just a tightwad — and that my mother very much wanted the occasional luxury. She would have loved to take a trip with Dad, even something as straightforward as a weekend in Chicago. She would have loved to enjoy a few nice possessions. I don’t think Mom expected or even wanted Dad to drown her in luxury. She understood that she married a man who came from nothing, made working-class wages, and by his nature lived frugally. But I could see she was disappointed.
I tried to fill that gap, at least a little. In those first post-college years, every summer I invited Mom to spend a week with me in my Terre Haute apartment. I took some time off work and we’d go play. I didn’t make much money so our excursions were humble. Once we went to see a jazz trio at a coffeehouse, and we enjoyed it so much we closed the joint. We shopped for antiques, something we both always enjoyed doing. She talked me into buying a very nice mahogany dresser at one shop. I drove her to the covered bridge at Bridgeton one year. Every year we drove Indianapolis for a day to enjoy some of what the big city offered, including a meal at as nice of a restaurant as I could afford. When I visited my parents in South Bend, I always took Mom shopping, something Dad not only wouldn’t do, but criticized as unnecessary. Once for Mom’s birthday I took a day off, drove to South Bend, and surprised Mom with a trip on the South Shore train to Chicago to spend the day in the Loop and visit Marshall Field’s. We had a lovely lunch there in their fanciest restaurant.
I did less of this after I married in 1994, and even less after my son Damion was born in 1997. My life was full of my own family. Mom was happy to be a grandma. She readily accepted Ross, my wife’s child from her previous marriage. Mom was indispensable when Damion and Garrett were born — she was with us in the delivery room, and spent the next week with us helping us care for our new little ones as my wife recovered from the birth.
I started to see that before I married, I had been doing things for Mom that I believed my father should have been doing. Now I had a wife of my own, and she deserved that time and energy.
Moreover, my marriage was troubled. I’ve written about it a lot on this site so I won’t rehash it here except to say that it consumed me. After that marriage ended, Mom said that she watched in fear as I shrank away and lost myself. I had become an empty shell, she said, and she missed me terribly. It was a long, slow climb back to myself.
As my life restabilized, my new home became the place where the Greys gathered. I worked hard to make excellent memories for us all there. Mom and Dad still lived in South Bend then, but came to Indianapolis several times a year, including a week every summer, to spend time with their grandsons. Christmas was always at my house, and I worked my butt off every year to make it a terrific time for everybody.
It’s funny how when you’re living a busy life of work and family, you lose track of your parents’ timeline. I don’t remember what year Dad retired. He had been plant manager for three companies over several years, and was terminated each time. At one of the companies he may have quit rather than be demoted. I can’t remember clearly the reasons Dad said each job ended, but in each case it sounded like he wasn’t treated equitably toward the end. He never reflected on what he might have done to contribute to his terminations, at least not to me. But after the third firing, he was thoroughly demoralized.
In the face of this uncertainty, Mom went back to work. She soon became a clerk in the St. Joseph County Probate Court. I don’t remember whether this was before or after Dad decided to retire. I do remember clearly, however, Mom telling me that he didn’t consult her about it at all. He just announced one day that he’d put in for Social Security and was retired.
Mom was beside herself, not just because he decided that unilaterally, but because it meant she had to work now to keep her and Dad afloat. Dad’s service in the Navy included the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which qualified him for Veterans Administration benefits, including health care. The way Mom talked about it, Dad didn’t even think about how Mom would cover her health care when he made his decision. “I guess you’ll have to take a job that offers health insurance,” he said.
I lost a great deal of respect for my father for this. I’m still angry with him for it. My father taught his sons that it was our responsibility to provide for our wives, and to protect them. Dad didn’t live up to his own values and left Mom not only to fend for herself, but to support him.
I guess it’s a consolation that Mom really loved her job in the Probate Court. She was a key player in the computerization of that court’s records. She said they were one of the very first courts in the state to do that. She was very skilled in the software, and helped not only the judges and magistrates use it, but also the attorneys, who could now file papers electronically from their offices.
Dad learned he had lung cancer in 2007. Because Dad got his health care through the VA, he made a lot of trips to the big VA hospital in Indianapolis. He developed macular degeneration; as it progressed, his sight grew worse and worse. He was still okay to drive, but he grew concerned about the frequent long trips to Indianapolis. Eventually Dad wanted to move to Indianapolis, in large part to be closer to his health care.
It was time for them to leave the house on Erskine Blvd. anyway, as they were starting to find it challenging to care for the property as they always had. But Mom never wanted to leave her home town. She always thought they’d buy a smaller house or maybe a condo there. But she could see that it was probably best for Dad to live in Indianapolis. Housing costs more here, so they wouldn’t be able to afford as much house. She spent well more than a year getting rid of more than three decades of accumulated stuff so they could downsize. She finished in 2014. Mom retired, they listed the house for sale, and they moved into a small condo in Indianapolis.
A strong upside to this move was that Mom and Dad could visit me and my sons a lot more often. We had a lot more great times in my little house. By this time I had met Margaret, and we were heading toward marriage. Margaret was frequently a part of our family gatherings. Her four children were sometimes a part of the story as well.
As Dad’s health slowly declined, I think Mom felt increasingly isolated. She missed South Bend for sure, and all of her friends there. And then Dad’s cancer metastasized. He needed more and more help with daily living and she found herself immersed in caring for him.
Dad’s vision had also deteriorated enough that he had to stop driving. This was a big deal to Dad, but a bigger deal to Mom because she didn’t drive.
In 1985, against Dad’s wishes, Mom went to driving school and got her driver’s license. But Dad refused to let her buy a car of her own, and his car had a manual transmission that she couldn’t drive. Dad’s next two cars had manual transmissions, too, and I feel sure that a main reason was that Mom couldn’t drive them. Mom eventually gave up on driving.
Margaret and I re-taught Mom how to drive. Mom struggled with confidence and fear behind the wheel, but became comfortable enough to drive to shopping and doctor’s offices near their home. She hated Dad’s car, which was surprisingly uncomfortable and bigger than Mom wanted anyway. So at age 72, we took Mom to buy her first car. She chose the smallest one on the lot, a little Nissan Versa Note.
Dad passed away early in 2018. Then at the end of 2019, Mom’s dog Abigail unexpectedly died. For the first time in her life, Mom lived entirely alone. It was something she never wanted.
My brother Rick stepped way up, providing a lot of companionship for Mom, taking her places and giving her new experiences. One thing in particular he showed Mom was the joy of walking into a very nice restaurant without a reservation, but taking seats at the bar and enjoying dinner and drinks there. Anytime I went out with Mom after that, even to the pub across the street from her home, she always wanted dinner at the bar.
I saw Mom as often as I could, but it wasn’t nearly as often as I wanted. I’ve written a lot here about how crazy life has been since Margaret and I married. It’s been one loss or crisis after another, and it’s taken an enormous amount of time and energy. Over the last five years, Mom has reached out to me many times imploring me to call or come by. Rick has even had to urge me to visit Mom more often.
The pandemic made this harder, of course. All her life, Mom wanted to visit Churchill Downs. For Christmas in 2019, our gift to her was a trip to that famous track in the spring. We even bought tickets. COVID scuttled the trip, of course.
There were good times. She got to see both Damion and Garrett graduate college. In the last few months at my previous employer, believe it or not I had very little to do — it’s one of the reasons I left — and I visited Mom many afternoons. The pandemic was still in full swing that autumn and winter and we still felt unsafe being in each others’ homes. I bought a powerful propane heater for her back patio and we sat out there in the radiant warmth drinking coffee. That worked until temperatures fell below freezing and that heater couldn’t keep up.
In those conversations I learned a lot about my parents’ relationship that I never knew. After Dad died, Mom processed her life and her marriage. Mom talked about a bunch of ways that Dad had treated her with contempt and cruelty all through their years together. I had often wondered why Mom didn’t assert herself more often to get her needs and wants met, but I learned just how unkind Dad could be when she did that. I caught rare, brief glimpses of such treatment as a kid, but not enough for me to connect any dots. I do remember one jaw-dropping incident that I witnessed in my 30s. But I had no idea just how often Dad treated Mom poorly.
It broke my heart for her. Mom lived her entire life for others, leading with her family. That’s not to say Mom didn’t have any faults. Her perfectionism left Dad believing he could never do tasks to meet her standard. Fear and anxiety consistently held her back from things she wanted to do and from getting her needs met. And in her later years, her politics went off the reservation to the right, making it hard to talk with her about current events. But Mom was a generous, loving person who worked tirelessly to care for the people she loved. She should have gotten as much in return.
Mom told me about her cancer last October. She said two tumors pressed against her esophagus, making them inoperable. She told me that this would be the end of her, but with chemo and radiation she hoped for a few more years yet. Even though it turned out she had less than one year left, knowing that it was the beginning of the end let me pre-process her death. All of my life I imagined her death would be a horrible event, and that I’d feel like the bottom fell out from under me. I adored my mother and always felt very close to her. She was the source of all things good in my childhood, and I loved her company as an adult. Yet when she died, I felt primarily relief that she was no longer in pain. I know I’m sad, but I’m not very much in touch with that yet. I’m going to miss her terribly.
Mom was 77.