Determined Weeds

I’ve been blogging about my Weepy Memoir trilogy. These next few blogs will be my last riff on the trilogy. Probably. First, the following is an excerpt from Determined Weeds.


Mom was dying.

Her emphysema had grown worse, and she had congestive heart failure. She had fallen and broken a bone in her neck on Halloween. Now, it was the second week of November. Mom had been in the hospital for two weeks after being transitioned out of nursing care.

I learned of her fall through my Aunt Polly, who had sent me a text message. She wrote to tell me that my mother was very sick.

I was nearly 1,000 miles away in Pennsylvania. Mom was at Region’s Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I had sat with my mother at her deathbed numerous times throughout her life. Each time, her doctors informed me that my mother would not survive. I would sit with her. I would hold her hand and tell her how much I loved her.

In the past, Mom had always miraculously survived.

This time was different, though. I called the hospital after receiving Polly’s text. I was transferred to Mom’s room. She answered.

“I need to see my grandson, Sam. You need to come home.”

My second son, Samson, was born in August. That was one month after my wife Katie and I had moved to Pennsylvania. We left our home in Minnesota because I accepted a job with Penn State. Mom was unable to travel. We were planning to introduce her to her new grandchild when we returned for the holidays in December.

“Can you hold on for another month?” I asked her stupidly.

“I don’t think so, Sam.”

Mom put me on the phone with her doctor. He could not tell me how much time she had left.

“I’m flying home next week for a conference,” I told him. “Will she make it that long?”

“We can’t tell,” he said.

He put me back on the phone with Mom.

“I love you so much, Sammy,” she told me. “I’m so proud of you.”

I began to cry. I had wept for my mother so much during her life. I was surprised to find that there were any tears left.

“I love you too, Mom.”

Polly arranged for us to FaceTime with Mom the next night from the hospital. She called while we were finishing dinner.

Tubes were attached to Mom’s nose. She had white hair and distant eyes. I had seen her in this state before. Still, this time felt different.

“Can you see us, Mom?”

“Yes, Sammy.”

I showed her my oldest son, Solomon. He had food in his mouth. Solomon smiled when he saw my mother.

“Hi!” he said. This was one of the few words he knew.

“Hi, Solomon,” Mom said. “Grandma loves you.”

“I want to show you Samson, Mom.”

I brought the phone to Samson’s bassinet. I held it to his face. Samson smiled and giggled. Mom smiled too.

“He’s so beautiful, Sammy,” Mom said. “I am so proud of you.”

“He sure is,” Polly agreed.

Again, Mom told me that she loved me. Again, I told her that I loved her.
I was driving to campus the next morning. My phone rang. It was a nurse from Region’s Hospital in St. Paul.

“Your mother needs you to come right now,” she said.

I told the nurse that I was in Pennsylvania. I told her I would be returning next week for a conference. I told her that I could not afford to buy a ticket to come out immediately. I told her that my wife and two sons needed me in Pennsylvania.

“Okay. Your mother still wants you here.”

I was angry. How many times had I stopped everything in my life and raced to help my mother? What else could I do for her? I had given her everything I could. I had showed her Samson. She had spoken with Solomon.

I could not explain myself to the nurse. So I told her I was trying to figure out how to come back to Minneapolis.

“She keeps telling us that she wants to die,” the nurse told me. “We wanted to let you know.”

I laughed.

“She’s been saying that for years,” I told the nurse.

The nurse did not respond.

We hung up. I sat alone in my car. Campus was quiet. A storm was coming over the mountains, and the sky was gray. It was starting to rain.

I felt compelled to go to my mother, but what could I do? Katie had pink eye, Solomon was getting over an infection, and trying to get all of us to St. Paul would be an ordeal. I could not just leave on a whim. My family in Pennsylvania needed me.

I told Polly as much in a text later that morning. She responded to let me know that she understood.

Polly sent me another text message that afternoon. Mom was in pain. Polly wanted to know if it was okay to put my mother in comfort care. Mom would be given minimal oxygen and have only hours left.

I told Polly that it was okay with me.

I spent the rest of the day in my office on campus, waiting to hear the news that my mother was finally gone.

Mom had always been a gardener. She eliminated weeds with relentless determination. Weeds wreak havoc on the careful symmetry of human design. They fight for life, intent on imposing their will despite our obstinate objections.

I was the product of my mother’s willfulness. I was also its victim.

Should I race home to be with my mother? Should I stay in Pennsylvania to take care of my family? Should I return to Minnesota the next week as planned?

There was no right answer to those questions. There was no way for me to explain that there was no right answer, either.

Things were so complicated.

My soul was chaos as I waited for news about my mother.

Heavy clouds rolled in over the mountains as the afternoon turned into evening. A storm was coming, and wind howled against the building that housed my office on campus.

I braced for what was coming next, determined to make my way in an enormous, complicated universe.


Here’s the description for Determined Weeds: My mother lost her first three babies. The first was never named. The second, Jayson, was stillborn. Christa was four months premature. She lived one week before passing away in Mom’s arms. My sister Christie was born next. She was also four months premature. Despite assurances that she would not live, Christie left the hospital after an extended stay in an incubator. Christie was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, but she survived. Doctors told my mother that she should not try and have any more children. Despite their objections, Mom gave birth to me four years later. I was healthy. My father, a Jew for Jesus freak, named me Samuel. My Hebrew name was Sh’muel—this means “God Listens.” I was the answer to my parent’s prayers. Mom started drinking after I turned four. She was an alcoholic by the time I was seven. This was when my parents got a divorce. My father was awarded custody of my sister and me because Mom was destroying herself. Over twenty years after Mom left me, her second husband—my stepfather Jim—shot himself in the head. I tried to insert myself back into my mother’s life. I wanted to help this woman who had lived through so much trauma. Mom refused my help, choosing alcohol and pain pills instead of a relationship with her son. A mother’s love is a powerful force. Despite Mom’s determination, I loved her. In fact, Mom’s obstinacy was responsible for my birth. She was determined to have her own way. This was true when it came to creating life as well as destroying it. This book is a eulogy for my mother. It is the story of how I learned to take the good that was in her, separate it from the bad, and cope with her absence. This is a story of moving forward in an enormous, complicated universe.

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