This is my mother Mary Louise Chapin, a graduate of Drew University and American University, a Political Science major who worked at the Moroccan Embassy in DC. She followed her Forester husband to Alaska with 6 kids in tow. She spoke French, she painted, she was a devoted wife and mother.
Why she chose this second life with us I don’t understand. Her world was very, very different after marrying my father. They travelled together to Maine, Utah, Wisconsin, Minnesota before settling in Alaska. All of the moves were his university & Forest Service opportunities.
My dad always said that he wanted to go where there were no sidewalks. He was a forester, a trapper, a hunter. He lived for the outdoors. She was a Methodist, an artist, the daughter of a teacher and an engineer. She grew up singing on local television shows.
She grew up in small town in the Berkshires as a Methodist, where she attended their local church each week. As the family moved she would scout out the local churches and find something akin to her upbringing. In Minnesota we lived in government housing on the Chippewa Indian Reservation, and she would drive out to Bemidji to attend a Lutheran church. In 1976 we moved to Petersburg, Alaska – a small fishing village on Mitkof Island, where she found a Lutheran congregation but it wasn’t a fit. A good friend shared her Baháʼí faith with us before we settled on the Assembly of God – I think mainly because of their song services. She missed being part of a congregation and she really loved to sing.
In 1980 we had moved back to the mainland and were living in Wasilla, Alaska when she began having vision problems and trouble walking. It took several months of progressively worsening symptoms for the doctors to diagnose her with Multiple Sclerosis. It was an aggressive, rapid onset. I was 12 at the time.
In 1981 she had two seizures, one while driving my younger brother to his cub scouts meeting. He was able to steer the car into a ditch to stop the car while she was seizing. She lost her license and was not able to drive after that. But her symptoms were getting worse anyway.
It was then that we started caring for my mom. We would help her bathe and dress. We would carry her up and down the stairs. We made meals and helped her eat when her hands were too shaky. There was a lot of talking, a lot of singing, a lot of calls to her family back home.
I think my dad was overwhelmed by everything. He was stressed at home, he was angry a lot. We had a list of chores and an expectation that it was all done when he came back. But he was mostly gone. He travelled an hour to work every day, and would leave a 4AM. He wouldn’t arrive home until 6PM most days. His weekends were spent away, outdoors.
So the older kids would get everyone up, dressed and fed and sent to school. Wanda – the pastor’s daughter from our local Assembly of God church – would come to be with mom when we went to school. And we’d come home and take care of mom again. Chores. Dinner. Homework.
At some point we started going to different churches again. Recommendations for faith healing drove us around a bit, with visits to churches where congregants faked seizures or played with snakes as they were (apparently) visited by the holy spirit. They would lay hands on my mother and claim that if she only renounced sin and truly accepted Jesus in her heart, she would be healed. A minister at one of the churches told me I had the patience of Job. I have never wanted to punch someone in the face more than that time.
Without a regular church, we turned to Jim and Tammy Faye on PTL, Jerry Falwell, and Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power from his Crystal Cathedral. My mom took a lot of pleasure calling their hotlines to talk about her troubles, and they always ended the calls with pleas for us to send money, to which she felt obliged. But we didn’t have any money. But you know, send $10 now and be blessed tenfold.
The only person who turned into a hero for me was Richard Simmons. My mom loved his show and would always want to watch and exercise with him, sitting in her wheelchair and enthusiastically pumping her arms. We heard on the radio that he was coming up to Anchorage, Alaska for an event. He was promoting his show the day before the event, and we were able to make ‘that’ call into the radio station. He talked to my mom and offered to come pick her up from Wasilla so that she could attend the event. The next day he sent out a limo from Anchorage to pick her up, and she was able to spend some time with him in his dressing room before the event. She was placed in front for the show, and she was absolutely thrilled. It was one of the absolute best memories that she had after her diagnosis. I was only 15 at the time, but it’s also one of my favorite memories of her. He earned a very special place for the kindness and generosity that he showed to her that will not be lost.
Most of her friends had disappeared after her diagnosis, and it was incredibly lonely and hard for her. She was enthusiastic to meet him and adored that day so much, and for me that meant a lot. He was genuine. He was exactly who he was, and he was that glimmer of light, of hope, of enthusiasm, when she so desperately needed something.
I remember social workers stopping by every now and then to check on us. There were always reports that we weren’t being taken care of. We were terrified of being split apart & placed in foster care. My dad would show them a freezer full of frozen game meat and say we weren’t hungry. We had cases of creamed corn, french-cut string beans, powdered milk from sales at the store. The case worker would talk to the kids separately, but we already knew what to say.
My older sister had been showing some signs of mental illness, and began experiencing full psychosis. My older brother and sister were constantly fighting. We didn’t know what it was at the time, but it was getting so difficult. There was no-one to talk to, we just had each other.
At one point I was walking home and saw my two little sisters running down the road crying. They said that my sister was killing my mom. We ran back to the house and found my sister poised with her fist up over my mother, who was on the dining room floor, bleeding and trying to protect herself.
I screamed “what are you doing!?!” and got between them. My older sister was enraged. She went upstairs, grabbed some things and left. It was the last time we would see her. She left the state and disappeared for a while. Years, actually.
I graduated in 1985. I took care of my mom and younger sisters, while my brothers would go out hunting and trapping with my dad. He called me “city boy”. It was years later that he told me an agreement with my mom about the first son being “his” and that I would be mom’s.
When my younger brother was born, he became my Dad’s second son. Those three did everything together. I was left out because I was Mary’s… the kid who would play violin, learn French, go to college. None of that happened. I took care of the family.
If a school note needed to be written, I would write it. If someone needed help with homework, I would be there. If a meal was cooked, it was generally me. I took care of mom, I took care of the kids.
On January 30, 1987 my mom was admitted to Our Lady of Compassion permanent care facility. My father was able to get a divorce processed that would protect his income so that she could move independently to receive care as a ward of the state.
She would live there until she passed in 2004. 17 years. I left Alaska in 1987 to run away from my family. My dad said that I would “come crawling back” when I left. My younger sisters stole the new clothes I had purchased for myself before my departure.
I only saw my mom once after that, to visit with my wife and newborn son. I wept like a baby when I saw her. She didn’t recognize us, but she held my son in her lap.
When she died, I wept again. It was of profound sadness. It was of relief. It was for shame in leaving her behind. I loved who she was, and I hated what happened to her. I didn’t know how to be a good son, a good brother. But I tried until I couldn’t any longer.
So, it’s bittersweet. Mother’s Day is a declaration of love but it’s also a remembrance. I look back and there is love, and sadness, and pain, and laughter. I wonder why she chose to make our family. Her life was on a path that could have gone so completely different.
Yet here we are, and here I am. I would have asked that things had gone differently for her, because her heart was kind and she was the sort of person that attracted others. She was a wonderful mom, and I miss her very much.