Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

During one of our mall episodes, she wandered off while I was at the counter buying what she called, Yummies! When I returned to the bench, she was nowhere in sight. I looked left, I looked right, I panicked. Hundreds of people were there that day. I rushed from one face to another asking if they had seen a little old redhaired lady, about so high, wearing blue pants and a pink sweatshirt that said MARRY MONEY. An older man wearing a black beret and sporting a goatee said he would help me search. He said, Don’t worry, we’ll find her....

—Duff Brenna, in Murdering the Mom

Excerpts: Murdering the Mom

For Judge Jean Jacobucci, Brighton, Colorado
For the mom
Janice E. Miles

The Mom, Janice Miles, at 18

After youth & age, daydream and debris.
—Jack Marshall

…remember her… as she was.
—Jack Marshall

Chapter One

The mom was always looking for love. She had numerous lovers who came and went in her life, one night stands, a few days or weeks, maybe months. Some she even married. She was married six times. The longest marriage was with her fourth husband. They were together thirteen years before he died of cirrhosis in 1975, six weeks short of his 50th birthday. His name was George Miles. In looks, he resembled her third husband, Nick Pappas—tall, dark, heavily muscled. The two of them might have passed for brothers. Except that George Miles, a retired San Diego police officer, had, for the most part, conquered his dark side. Nick Pappas never conquered his dark side.

George Miles was a decent, supportive, loving husband, a source of strength, guidance and wisdom, which was exactly what the mom needed—someone to be her keeper. A rational man, a six-foot-two father figure, a man she couldn’t rule or fool. A man she would listen to because she not only loved him, she respected him. Which was something not new, but very rare in her life. Truth is: until George Miles came along, the mom was ambiguous about the male species, dubious, curiously schizophrenic. Cursing them. Adoring them. Cynical about them. Yet time after time converted.

She admired manliness, coveted it: Clark Gable/Charlton Heston types, the Victor Mature of Demetrius and the Gladiators, war heroes like John Wayne. She believed he won the battle of Iwo Jima, never knowing her idol had sat out the war “deferred.” She wanted men who were broad at the shoulder, narrow at the hip, strong, silent clichés. Admired them, wanted to be them, but in her heart of hearts they frightened her. She didn’t trust them. She used them, bullied them (if they let her), tried to morph them into the protectorate Daddies that would fill all the needs missing in her life since she was a child. She wanted a man who made her feel safe, secure, loved, cherished—adored. For those thirteen short years, George Miles played the part as if he were born for it. He was five years the mom’s junior, but she called him Daddy as she did all her husbands, all of them Daddy-Daddy. Her real daddy abandoned the family when she, little red-haired Janice, was only five. You don’t have to be Freud to understand why she needed to be saying Daddy all her life.

I was talking to a friend of hers (this was many years ago; he’s dead now—another Alzheimer’s victim) who had known her in her late-fifties. His name was Shelly. He told me that men called her The Black Widow. According to him, Black Widow fit because none of her many husbands (four at that time) had survived her. Shelly also said: Black Widow or not, Janice is riveting. He opined that she was the most charismatic woman he had ever met in his life. He recalled once when they were at a cocktail party, talking quietly in a corner, and for some reason (perhaps to add emphasis to something she was saying) Janice reached out and squeezed his forearm. Her touch was electric! he said. The hairs on my arm and the back of my neck stood up, he said. He was ready to fall on his knees and worship her. Janice still has that effect on men, he said.

Yes, once upon a time Janice had that effect on men. Six husbands came and went, but she was single when she died May 25, 1995, two days short of her 75th birthday.

At least three years prior to her death she had been showing signs of senility: losing her keys, losing her purse, unable to do her own banking or pass her driver’s test, dressing oddly (mismatched shoes, pants, skirt, blouses, lipstick askew, eyebrows above eyebrows, hair half-braided, ratty on one side, brushed flat on the other), forgetting where she parked the car when she went to the mall, unable to find her way around Prescott, a town she had lived in for twenty-five years. She couldn’t handle her job as head dietician at Yavapai Hospital and was forced to retire. She lived alone with her Shih Tzu (Ho Tep) and her Maltese (Rags) who went blind and pooped and peed all over the house, until he finally died of a heart attack. Janice kept living in her pre-manufactured home with some help from her youngest of two daughters, my half-sister Michele Renee, who lived close by and was able to drop in now and then to see how the old girl was managing. Gradually, things got worse and worse and finally at the point where the mom didn’t even know how to start her car or where the grocery store was, my sister called me in San Diego and said, You’re the son. You have to do something, Duffy.

Something? The last thing I wanted was to do something. I hadn’t been closely involved in her life since I was fifteen years old and had moved from her home in Colorado to Alaska, and later to Minnesota and ultimately southern California. I definitely didn’t want to get intimately involved now, making decisions for her, finding a home for her, taking her to doctors, being responsible for her well being. Just the thought of it raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels (180 over 100) and made me sick to my stomach. Put her in a retirement home, I told my sister. Or let’s pay daycare to help out. What do you say? She said it wouldn’t work. She said I had to come see for myself. The hell with that, I said. I got my own life to live.

But guilt moves in mysterious ways. Weeks later I found myself renting a U-Haul and moving the mom out of Prescott to Gateway, a retirement home in Poway, California, not far from where I was living at the time. I took Ho Tep home with me. He was the most lovable dog I’d ever had, but he lived only two more years. He had congestive heart failure and the last weeks of his life he could barely breathe. Digitalis didn’t do anything for him. When he wasn’t sleeping he was leaning against my leg panting as if he had just run a hundred yard dash. Finally, I had a vet put him to sleep. I wish to this day I could have done that for the mom, for my mother, for Janice E. Miles.

For the first month or so at Gateway, she wasn’t that bad at all. But her trajectory was still downhill. As she continued to deteriorate she became a sundowner wandering the streets aimlessly, going god knows where, unaware and therefore unable to articulate whatever hunger was driving her. Kindly strangers would bring her back; sometimes the police would find her. She needed far more supervision than Gateway could give her. They refused to be responsible. They told me to move her to a more secure facility, one licensed to deal with dementia. They gave me a month to find her a home. I hired a Mexican caretaker to get her up and showered and dressed and fed, clean her apartment, take her for walks. On Fridays I would take her out for lunch, always a hamburger with fries and salad, Pepsi Cola to wash it down. She would sit picking at her food, usually eat half of it and give the rest to Ho Tep sitting on her lap politely waiting to be fed this or that tidbit. The mom would eat her favorite parts of the salad with her fingers, the firm ends of romaine, picking them up one at a time, showing them to me and saying, These are the best part. These are gooood.

She started forgetting my name and the names of her daughters. Occasionally she wouldn’t even know Ho Tep’s name. After she lost her false teeth (theory was she flushed them down the toilet) she had to gum pureed meats, pureed vegetables, cream of wheat, Gerber’s peaches and apple sauce. She was wasting away, fiddling with her food, a bite or two and she was through. I bought her high potency vitamins and Ginkgo Biloba, putting them in a slotted container marked with each day of the week. I told her to take the pills with breakfast every morning. But of course she couldn’t remember to do that. The pill box was always full whenever I checked it.

Once, in a lucid moment, she asked me what was happening to her. What’s wrong with me? she said. I lied to her. Lots of people getting old get forgetful, I said. I told her she needed to take her vitamins. She needed to read, needed to work her mind like a muscle. She needed exercise. She needed to watch TV. Keep stimulating your mind, I said. She listened and then, as if realizing what it all meant, said, I wanna die! She moaned it over and over, I wanna die! I wanna die!

Soon enough. We all die soon enough, I told her.

When my sisters and I were growing up, the mom had frequently threatened to shoot herself. Or drive her car off a cliff. Or hang herself in the garage. Or cut her wrists in the bathtub. Or swallow sleeping pills. She said we had no idea what life had done to her, no idea what it was like to live with so much abuse and such black depressions. So when she told me she wanted to die, I wasn’t all that upset. Maybe I was seeing a way out for myself. No more being her daddy, her caregiver, her decision-maker. Whatever the reasons, I found myself, for the first time ever, actually agreeing death might be best for her and I said: Well, maybe it is time, Mom. I can probably get you enough pills to do the job.

She stood up, gawking at me, her toothless gums glistening. You want to murder me? I shook my head, told her I didn’t want to murder her, but if she really wanted to die, she should do it herself. It was her life after all. She cried out as if I had struck her. She yelled. She said, Who the hell are you to tell me to die? God will tell me when…not you! I’m no coward! She started beating my face with her fists. Shouting all the while: I’ll show you! I’ll show you! I grabbed the wrists of what had become an alien woman. Sat her down. Walked out. Unable to feel anything but bitterness, anger, revulsion. Did I ever love her? Did I ever love the mom? I mean purely? I must have. All little boys love their mothers, don’t they? Yes, but love changes—it evolves, the purity of it becoming perverse mixtures of love and adoration, hatred and jealousy, tenderness, passion, devotion, loathing. What was left of those tumultuous emotions? I couldn’t sort it out. I still can’t sort it out.

But what a complicated creature she was! And how strange she had become spiraling downward—down toward the decisive darkness. Fierce yet feeble, bent yet proud, emaciated, withered, yet mysteriously vital. What was going on in her mind? Was it mostly static, a television tuned to a dead channel, until something or someone pressed the on/off switch deep inside her?

Confronting me was definitely not the mom I had known for more than fifty years. This was a woman wounded by the life she had lived, a woman lugging her carcass through bewildering days and nomadic nights. A brittle-boned woman, sharp shoulders and elbows. Hammer-head knees. Eyes cataract filmy. In her youth those eyes had been alluring—luminous then, full of longing and expectation and a need to live life to its fullest. This once petite beauty, this magnet to men. Men she brought home, men she drank with, whored with, cast off. Found others. Which of them knew her or wanted her now, so far from the lovely thing she once was?

It’s brief, isn’t it, Janice? Poor wretch caught in the talons that catch all of us…if we live long enough. What’s it all about was a question she repeated over and over for as long as I had known her. Why am I here? What does God want me to do?

A month after Gateway gave me notice I took her to a place that had been recommended. It was a facility specializing in caring for women with dementia. The patients were housed in a four-bedroom, ranch-style house run by a woman who said she was a registered geriatric nurse. I didn’t check her credentials. Maybe I should have, but all I wanted at that point was to be rid of the mom. I needed someone to take charge and leave me out of it.

The place was nicer than I had expected. I had expected to see old people in hospital gowns roaming the halls with their backsides and age spots showing, metal walkers clumping. Here and there a creature mummified in bed. I expected to hear moans, groans, reedy voices crying out like frightened cats. But there was none of that. The patients were quiet. Everything was clean and bright.

And white. White furniture, white walls, white rug.

In the living room were a TV and a CD system. Three ghostly old ladies with white hair and wearing white terrycloth robes were sitting on a huge white sofa watching an episode of The Muppet Show. The TV was loud. It overwhelmed the classical music trickling from speakers in the ceiling. The old ladies were like lumps of white mold sinking into the white cushions. The mom was nervous that day, as if she knew I was more or less deserting her. I imagined her as a puff of white cotton vegetating with the others staring at the television, and I almost changed my mind.

But I had nowhere to take her. So I left her in the care of a stranger. I ran away.

I was working on the proofs of my second novel at that time. I was teaching classes at Cal-State San Marcos, where I was an associate professor. I was trying to keep up my routine of writing and reading, reading and writing, lecturing and grading, committee work, endless meetings that more often than not were senseless and time-consuming exercises in a common academic affliction—too many jabbering voices, too much logorrhea. The mom had always told me that a fool is known when he opens his mouth. She was generally referring to me, something stupid I had said. And she was almost always right: I was a fool for most of my early life. I’m still a fool probably. Writing this memoir may be foolish. But I’ll do it anyway. Follow it to wherever it goes.

It wants to go to the mom in the dementia home, the image of her unwashed hands and face, her sour smell, her slovenly pants and sweatshirt full of food stains, this once vain, immaculate woman who could no longer keep up appearances. I didn’t complain to the caretaker. She had her hands full with the others. I went once a week and gave the mom a bath, washed her hair, trimmed her filthy nails, scrubbed the often feces-grained rims of them. Dressed her in fresh clothes, always baggy pants held up by an elastic band, a sweatshirt that said JESUS IS COMING AND BOY IS HE PISSED or (my favorite) MARRY MONEY. She wore tennis shoes, the Velcro kind because she had forgotten how to tie laces, how to make bows. Actually, it wasn’t long before she couldn’t figure out the Velcro either. Maddening to see how something as simple as that baffled her.

After I had her cleaned up, I would take her to the mall, to Rocky Mountain Chocolate, where I bought her chocolate-covered cherries and Pepsi Cola. We would sit on the bench in front of a fountain. The water splashing. People passing. Mild Musak riding the air. Multifarious voices. Rustling clothes. The clicking of women in high heels. Giggling children. All so ordinary! So normal. But I knew they all had stories. I knew they could tell me a thing or two about sorrow about heartache about anger about hate. About love. About stepping up and doing what needs to be done when you’re called upon.

That’s what I wasn’t good at.

But if I could do it over, would I do it better? Probably not.

When she finished her treats, her mouth and fingers stained with chocolate and sticky Pepsi, I would wash her with Clean Wipes. And then take her back to the home. Get rid of her for a week. Sometimes two.

During one of our mall episodes, she wandered off while I was at the counter buying what she called, Yummies! When I returned to the bench, she was nowhere in sight. I looked left, I looked right, I panicked. Hundreds of people were there that day. I rushed from one face to another asking if they had seen a little old redhaired lady, about so high, wearing blue pants and a pink sweatshirt that said MARRY MONEY. An older man wearing a black beret and sporting a goatee said he would help me search. He said, Don’t worry, we’ll find her. He went one way, I went the other. Have you seen a little old redhaired lady? I kept asking, my voice rising with every encounter, until I was nearly shouting, Anyone seen a little old redhaired lady? Shoppers stopping. Turning away from the glittering windows. Staring at me as if I were an embarrassment, or possibly a threat. Some of them shrugging. Some of them shaking their heads. I went all the way to the last store, a Penny’s, rushing through it and turning back towards the Sear’s at the other end of the mall.

I was looking for someone from security when I finally saw the mom. The man helping me search had found her. He was leading her by the hand, she following docilely, like a child, a toddler. A look of pleasure, pure bliss on her face. Your mother? he asked me. I nodded my head and said, Can’t thank you enough, sir. He said he was glad to help. He said, We all need help sooner or later. She thought I was her husband. She called me Hud. And she asked where I’ve been. She said she wanted to go home now.

Hud was my father. Hud had been dead for fifty-one years at that time.

Home. I wanna go home, she would say whenever I came to visit. Home: the word a mantra, a meditation, a holy word. Home. I wanna go home. I always lied to her, told her she was home, that this was her home. Mine? she would say, looking at the walls the ceiling the furniture. Yes, yours, Mom. You own it. This is your place, this is where you live now. It puzzled her. Her eyes would narrow, her head twisting side to side while she tried to process what I was saying. Even in the depths of her tangled mind I doubt she ever really believed me. In any case, it didn’t much matter. Within a minute or two she would forget what I had said.

After the wandering episode, I never took the mom to the mall again. And, coldheartedly, saying I was preserving myself, I started visiting her less and less.

After that day of her disappearance and her latching on to a surrogate husband, calling him Hud, I began seriously worrying about losing my own mind. Is it genetic? Will I have it? Am I doomed? Someday will I no longer be me? Just a husk of what was Duff Brenna, a man who had once taught Shakespeare and could quote dozens of lines from his sonnets and plays, but now no longer able to do so. Perhaps no longer even knowing the great bard’s name, not him nor Tolstoy nor Dostoevsky nor Faulkner nor James Joyce nor…

The mom would look in the mirror and not know who that person was. Seems impossible. But it’s true.

If it could happen to her, it could happen to me.

In dread and defiance I typed out and memorized the first page of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I quoted it to myself as a kind of prayer before I fell asleep each night. It was (and is) my mental insurance. The way I see it, no one could quote: riverrun past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and environs, etc. etc. if he or she had dementia or Alzheimer’s. Right?

She lasted only another nine weeks in the crazy lady place before she had a stroke. The caretaker called and said I should call hospice. I drove to the home and found a hardly recognizable Janice curled on her bed. I tried to get her to respond to me, but all she would murmur was:




I sat by her all morning dripping water into her mouth through a straw and doing my best to comfort her, stroking her, telling her that everything was all right. She needed to rest. She needed to sleep.

Later, I called Carol Marie, my older sister living in Point Loma, and asked her if I could bring the mom to her house. She didn’t want that. I bullied her into it. I bathed the mom first, clipped her impossibly long toenails, put a fresh nightgown on her, wrapped her in a robe, carried her like a baby to my car. And drove her to Carol Marie’s, where I put her to bed in the guest room. By now she wasn’t moaning or mumbling or saying Home or anything.

Carol Marie and I fought about her that day, Carol Marie wanting to take her to hospice; I wanting to let her die in a home, even if it wasn’t her home. Carol Marie believed the mom could last for days, even weeks. I said she would be dead by tonight or tomorrow. My sister and I were mean to each other. The mom’s pitiful condition made both of us overly sensitive, frightened and, frankly, cowardly crazy. We yelled at each other. She pushed me. I pushed her. Backed her up until she fell on her rump. Terrible thing it can be, the family.

And there’s this about the decaying process of a loved one, where the brain implodes and all you’ve got to work with is a detached body scarcely familiar: it often brings out the worst in people. Caregivers, relatives, friends.

I told my sister that the mom was her problem now. Hurriedly, I drove back to my own house, stopping only to buy a bottle of vodka.

My sister called me the next morning and said the mom would be dead soon and I should come say goodbye to her. Her kidneys had shut down. She was barely breathing, making no other sound but the air going in and out through her mouth. You were right, Duffy, she said. Mom really is dying. Are you coming?

That afternoon around 12:30 I crawled onto the bed holding what was left of Janice E. Miles. Wrapping an arm around her neck, I held her close and placed my hand over her heart, catching its last feeble beat seconds after I told her not to be afraid, it was okay to go.

But the child inside me who was still her child didn’t wholly agree it was okay to go. With the last handful of breath expelled, the last light fading from her gray-green eyes, I broke down totally.

By the age of twelve or thirteen, I had trained myself never to cry. For decades I had not shed tears if I didn’t want to shed tears. I would shut down if anything emotional threatened my stoic façade. At the age of thirty, when I took a psychology course in college, I learned the term for what I had taught myself to do—disassociation: distancing the self. I was good at it and I know now that it helped me to survive what was to come as I grew from adolescence into manhood. I’m sure there were times I came across as a person who had little or no compassion for others. Cold, uncaring, certainly selfish. I wanted to be durable, tough, unemotional, fearless. I wanted to drown the hedonism trying to rise and rule me. Partly I was able, partly I was not. The mom’s death was one of those moments when I was unable to hold back my feelings. The tears rushed out of me as if from a ruptured pipe. Those tears caught me off guard. It was a torrent I couldn’t stop.

Looking backwards, I think those were the sobs of a bitter heart, a heart understanding that whatever connection we once had, however badly broken, this instant of the mom’s death would not mend us. Not mend anything. The split was infinite now.

I know, or think I know, what hardened me all those years ago, but I will never know what hardened her so much. I do believe it wasn’t really her fault. I’d tell her that if I could. I’d say, It wasn’t your fault, Mom. Really, I understand.

Fault or no fault, nothing will ever be made right between us. There will be no breakthrough, no meeting of the minds—never-never—no talk of love or forgiveness, no reconciliation of any sort. Gone. Too late now. All debts canceled between the mom and her children forever, their splintered, used up, worn out, mystifying mother who never knew them, or knew how to love them. The woman they are still trying to fathom seventeen years after witnessing her death. Her nada, nada. No more memories. No more suffering. No regrets. No longing. No passions. No fears. No more obsessive fevers of life controlling her. No more yearning for Daddy.

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