February 2009

Anita’s Girl

When all is said and done for mothers and daughters, it is the love that remains

Bayer Sager

My mom, Anita Bayer, died on March 3, 2008, and I am only now beginning to step back into my life. She was 86—certainly a more than reasonable number of years for a person to live, but she was my mother, so there is no such thing as enough time. Even though I am grateful that she is no longer suffering, I still cannot really grasp the concept of my mother not being here anymore. She is the longest relationship in my life.

My mother was a true original. Anyone who ever met her remembered her, usually because she had said something so outrageous or inappropriate it was seared into memory for life. She was funny and bright, and she had little patience for people who didn’t grasp things quickly, which often resulted in behavior she regretted. And she was a champion, always, for family and friends in need.

Anita hadn’t planned on being a mother at 21—she got pregnant, and my dad married her. She was frightened being around a new baby and did not have the tools to be nurturing—which isn’t surprising, as there wasn’t much in her terribly dysfunctional childhood that would have prepared her. My mom was the invisible child, the last of four kids growing up with her own child-mother, Grandma Rose, who once referred to Anita as “her living abortion.”

For the first 18 years of my life, I grew up caught between an anxious, competitive woman-child who wanted my dad to love and focus on her and a father who was more comfortable focusing his affection on me. I was his baby, and that was the role my mom had hoped to play.

Those formative years were filled with anxiety, fear and the wish for happy parents who both loved me at the same time. I grew up in terrible conflict, because it was not safe to accept my dad’s love for fear it would enrage my mom, and the love I wanted from my mother was tinged with criticism (her attempts to make me better). My father died when I was 18, and my mother became more dependent on alcohol than ever, which only ignited her discontent and rage.

When I decided to become a songwriter, my mom was supportive but practical. She encouraged me to get a teaching degree in case my showbiz dreams did not come true. But I was lucky—they did. About the time I became successful, my mom committed to sobriety. She was happy for me but conflicted, and she began living more and more through my life. Sometimes it felt as though she had a giant straw attached to my veins: I wanted her to be happy, and I wanted to be happy, but I couldn’t seem to have both at the same time.

After a failed marriage in New York, I moved to Los Angeles but dutifully supported my mother in a lovely apartment on Central Park South. Three thousand miles seemed to be the amount of space I needed to begin to build a life on my own. Then she became ill. A very big smoker, she had a triple bypass in 1981. I would hear her bribe the nurses to get her “one” cigarette, tilting her oxygen mask to voice her request. It made me angry that she cared so little for herself to keep smoking, but that was my mom.

Once she recovered, my husband at the time, Burt Bacharach, and I flew home. I stopped smoking three weeks later; mom waited another 20-odd years. She smoked through lung cancer, chemo, radiation, cataracts and a knee replacement that resulted in a code blue. Then she decided to quit.

By then I was a successful songwriter. Mom appreciated the perks that went with having a daughter with bestselling records and having first Burt Bacharach and then my current husband, Bob Daly, as sons-in-law—like getting herself upgraded to business class on her trips to see us. Those trips were pleasant, until they weren’t. I would invariably fall back into the reactive role of Anita’s daughter. My mother used to say, “I’m staying until the fighting starts and Carole throws me out.”

After a seven-and-a-half-year remission, the cancer returned and spread to her liver. It was when her options in New York ran out—and Bob suggested we bring her to L.A. to live with us—that I had an epiphany. I finally realized mom wanted not just attention but my attention. And the more I gave it to her, the less she needed it from everyone else.

In the weeks and months that followed, there was no appointment to which I did not drive my mom—no chemotherapy, no scans, no checkups, no lunch when she felt up to it. I was basically at home for whatever she required, and that made her happy.

But she was still Anita. Once, halfway through her battle, I was wheeling her through the halls of St. John’s hospital for a blood transfusion when she said, “You know, all the years I sat at the desk at New York Hospital as a volunteer, directing people which way was which, most times sending them in the wrong direction, I would see a lot of people wheeling their mothers or fathers though the hospital. Well, I would think, That’s never going to be my Carole. She’ll send the money, which is very nice, but she’s not going to be wheeling me around. My God, I never thought I would see this.”

I was touched, but before I could speak, she followed up with, “Now, would you please get me an attendant to wheel me who knows what he’s doing before you kill me!”

In the last seven months of her life, I never once heard my mother ask, “Why me?” In, fact, she used to say, “Why not me?” She never felt sorry for herself, and when she wasn’t in a health crisis, she would tell me over and over how happy she was to be in our home and how wonderful her son-in-law and grandson were to her.

It makes me sad to relive this, but it pleases me to know she was mostly happy. She would tell me, “Who needs heaven? It’s right here with you.” She rarely lost her humor, unless she tapped in to her old anger, exaggerated by the steroids she needed. On my marriage to Bob, she told anyone who would listen that if we ever broke up, he would get joint custody of her!

She didn’t go out much after December, but she loved her gin rummy on Yahoo! Games. I got a kick out of telling our friend Terry Semel, then chairman of Yahoo!, that Mom had played 145,000 games of gin. It was when she stopped trying to get up and play online that I knew she was losing her fight to stay alive.

I now see that my mother didn’t know how to leave me. On the day before she died, she seemed cheerful. She was hungry, and although I was always policing what she ate, I decided to let her eat whatever she wanted—like giving that party we’d never gotten around to having.

Toward the very end, I was lying on her bed while she ate frozen yogurt, and out of the blue she asked, “Do you want to come with me?”

I knew exactly what she meant, and I said, quietly, “No, Mom, I can’t. Not now.”

“I know you have Bob and Christopher to care for,” she replied, then waited a few beats and said, more to herself than to me, “But how will we ever separate?”

Today, I am so grateful for that time. I learned what my mother wanted. There was hardly a day I did not tell her I loved her and she didn’t tell me the same. It wasn’t as if all those years ago didn’t happen, but they were part of the past, and our last days together became the memories I now cherish.

Mom loved sending emails as much as she loved gin rummy, and she continually emailed me, even though she was only two rooms away. She emailed me this not long before she died:

“I love you for all your depth. It is a deep, deep love I have for you. We are being given this extraordinary extra time. Most can never realize this time together. It is truly a gift from our Higher Power. Save this note and maybe when reading it back, you can feel I am near and saying these things to you. OK?”

Yes, Mom, it’s okay. And I did save it, and I do read it, even if I also know it by heart.

If I could send her an email today, it would say, “My heart is opening now. It needed to shut down after you died because I was afraid of being flooded with too many feelings. You occupied so much space inside of me. To me, you were always bigger than life. I still hear your voice—I know what you would say to me and how you would say it. You are still here, yet now the critical voice has softened and your courage and your big heart and, most of all, your authenticity, have moved to center stage. Thank you for allowing me to love you. And thank you for allowing me to discover the lovability beneath your booming voice. I am so proud to be your daughter. You will always live inside my heart. Take a bow, Mom.”

CAROLE BAYER SAGER is an award-winning songwriter (Oscar included) who pens classics for the biggies: Barbra, Frank, Celine, Aretha, Reba and more. Now she’s got a passion for painting.