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  • Writer's pictureAllan Shedlin

Understanding My Mother's Anguish

Updated: May 13

By Scott Beller

Daddying Editor

Mary and Buddy, circa late-1980s

I watched most of Brendan Fraser’s award-winning performance in The Whale through tears. His portrayal of Charlie, estranged father of Ellie and a man whose emotional pain had literally weighed him down to the point of debilitation and, ultimately, surrender, reminded me all too much of my own Mother’s struggles. While there certainly were differences in their specific situations, Charlie and my Mom both succumbed to the unfathomable weight they carried.

I don't think I'll ever see a more raw, emotional, or accurate depiction of the challenges my mother faced in the final years of her life. Watching Charlie's story unfold was almost as difficult for me as writing my mother's eulogy.

The slow, physical and mental downward spiral of Fraser’s character began after the tragic loss of his beloved partner Alan, my mother suffered a similar seismic event in late December 1997. That’s when my stepfather, Harry "Buddy" Barham, died in his sleep.

After 17 years living with my father, who was constantly critical of her appearance, my mother found Buddy in early fall of 1984. She left a trainwreck of a marriage that August and, just a few weeks later, met the love of her life at the scene of an actual car accident just down the street from the house, where she, my sister, and I had moved.

Mom and Buddy on a trip to Maine

For the next 13+ years, Mom was treated to the kind of love she’d been missing for too long. The kind that says, like Alan to Charlie, “Your appearance is irrelevant. I love you for you. I love you no matter what.”

I came home for the holidays and saw how devastated my mother was at my stepfather’s funeral. It was difficult to return to Dallas, where I’d moved for a job and, as a young 20-something, had yet to make any real connection after a few years. She was alone, out of work, and an hour’s drive from any family. With both my sister and I living out of state, I felt like she was without close support from the people who knew her best. Phone calls and occasional flights to DC weren’t going to cut it. I knew then that I would move back home.

My sister and I helped Mom move into a house in the same neighborhood where we grew up just south of DC. She returned to working in the county public school system she’d left a decade before and was close to her family. She had regained her support network. She had her kids and grandkids. She had dear friends and coworkers who appreciated her. She was no longer alone, but I know she still mourned the absence of my stepdad.

She wouldn’t come right out and say as much. But I could tell she had a painful yearning welling inside. Her eyes told me. Whenever I was about to leave her house, they asked “when will you be back?” Her hugs told me. When I’d yield, she still held on. For just that extra second.

Her coded words told me. When I said, “I love you,” she responded, “I love you more.” Every time. And, of course, that was true. All the love she had saved up for Buddy, the man she’d lost, had to go somewhere. My sister and I and our kids were the beneficiaries.

My Mom's capacity to love and care for others was boundless. She just wasn’t able to love herself. It was a disability conditioned into her since she was a child absorbing the physical and emotional abuse of the first man who was supposed make her feel loved: her father.

Without my stepdad around every day to tell and show her how much he loved her “no matter what” (and, yes, often that came in the form of cooking for her), the highs of seeing her kids, grandkids, and friends were only temporary.

Those in-between times when she was in her house all by herself had to be the hardest. As years went by, I could see a negative feedback loop developing. Bouts of depression made her less active and prone to eat for comfort. Eating the wrong things at the wrong times, led to more weight gain, which created more physical health issues that made her less active. Then she couldn’t keep up with her grandkids’ activities or family vacations. The highs she got from being active with her babies came fewer and farther between.

She was missing out on the very things that could sustain her and possibly pull her through the grief. This was her spiral.

I can’t say she ate in the same way or for the same reasons Fraser’s character does in The Whale, but I know over the last 20 years of her life, my Mom slowly but surely began neglecting her diet, reducing her activity, and ignoring her overall health. She developed Type-II diabetes. She had back issues. Her knees were in bad shape even before she gained more weight. She developed a bad bone spur on her heel that had to be operated on twice, which further curtailed her ability and desire to exercise.

My Mom's capacity to love and care for others was boundless. She just wasn’t able to love herself. It was a disability conditioned into her since she was a child absorbing the physical and emotional abuse of the first man who was supposed make her feel loved: her father.

Things seemed to accelerate after she retired and no longer had to be somewhere every day. She stopped tending to her yard. She started having her groceries delivered. She couldn’t come watch my daughters play soccer or perform during Tae Kwon Do belt ceremonies because she was unable to make it from the parking lot into the venues.

My sister and I recognized the decline. It was impossible not to. We often spoke to her about our concerns for her health, individually and together, in a way that let her know we wanted her to be able to do the things she loved most, which were traveling and spending time with her grandkids. At first, she would try to put our mind at ease by telling us she was fine and her doctors were giving her good reports. Sometimes, she would become defensive, insisting that her unhealthy weight gain was just “who I am” and wondering why we couldn’t just love her the way she was.

Like my stepdad did.

In the summer of 2019, my mom, the strongest woman I knew, fell in her house because she’d lost all strength in her legs. She was hospitalized and then sent to a temporary rehabilitation facility, where one “doctor” told her she might as well sell her house because she was never going home. And, by the way, she couldn’t stay there either because insurance would stop paying the bill after a few weeks.

The very real possibility of losing everything, including her freedom and her life, was eye-opening enough. But the initial treatment she received in temporary rehab was exactly the kind of unjust bullshit that would light a fire under Mary Alice Barham. My sister and I promised we would do everything we could to help find the right place for her to adequately rehab and literally get back on her feet.

After moving into a better, long-term facility and a few visits with healthcare providers and nutritionists who actually had my mom’s best interests and wellbeing at heart, we set a long, but defined path to her recovery. That path began with a physical therapy plan that would help her achieve two immediate objectives: 1) get in and out of bed, shower, and go to the bathroom unassisted; and 2) shed enough weight to qualify for the surgery she needed to repair a previously undiagnosed hip fracture. Eventually, we would be able to schedule LAP band surgery to help further reduce her weight and improve her ability to move on her own again.

A month later, after weeks of steady progress with diet and therapy, I got the call.