From WTP Vol. V #9
By Cynthia Close
It’s three o’clock and the low, late-winter-afternoon sun streams across my desk. I pick up the phone and dial. It’s the best time to reach Mom in her room, resting in her recliner, after lunch but before dinner. This had been a particularly bad week. Three calls from the assisted-living nurse telling me Mom had fallen again, the last one landing her in the ER for stitches to sew up the large gash on her forehead, a hole ripped in the paper-thin flesh. Her knees had been taped up in an earlier fall.
I tried talking to her to get a handle on what had transpired.
“Mom, how did this happen?”
“I needed to get your father’s briefcase out of my closet. It was heavier than I thought and it fell on me.”
“But Mom, there is no need to do that.”
“I’m packing up, gotta get outta here. I’m taking the black car back home.”
“But Mom, you don’t have a black car.”
“Of course I do, I can see it from my window. Don’t tell me what I have or don’t have. I dread talking to you. You nag me.”
The circuits in her brain are misfiring. The conduits are blocked. Fragments of thought are snagged and attach themselves to frayed memories of things that never were. As far as I knew no one in the family ever owned a black car.
“I’m going to my old apartment, it’s on the second floor right down the road from here.”
“Mom, your friend Jim bought your car and your house was sold two years ago.”
“Oh fer Christ sake!! You think you are so smart!! You’ve always thought you’re smarter than me! I know the rules. I can’t smoke in my room. It sets off alarms. They’ll cut my head off.”
She slams the phone down on some hard surface. The empty-echo sound vibrates against my ear. Her anger—no longer held in check—is ferocious. Hanging up on me had always been her preferred way of handling disagreements. So here we are, mother and daughter, caught in a fading moment in time, as far apart from each other as we’ve ever been, or more honestly, as we’ve always been.
Since I’d moved her into assisted living, I call her every afternoon, in part to make sure she is still alive, and in part out of guilt for not wanting to be there, with her, in south Florida. She would complain about the woman at her table who seemed “out of it, unable to carry on a conversation” and the lousy food, always the lousy food, no matter the weekly open meetings with the chef when the residents could make their dietary preferences known.
The move from her comfortable, south Florida house and pool to the pleasant but not ostentatious assisted-living complex had gone well at first. She had kept her car and even drove herself to her new apartment the day before the closing on her home was finalized. Next to smoking, driving was her most favorite thing in the world. She had learned to drive early on in her marriage. Her first car was a Kaiser; I don’t think they make them anymore, followed by a long list of other vehicles ending with her last car, the well-maintained—cream, not black—Buick LeSabre. She would rhapsodize about the joys of driving, usually followed by her inability to understand why I didn’t have a license and showed no interest in owning a car. Choosing to live in places with well-designed public transportation systems defined my priorities in that regard, making life in south Florida out of the question.
Back when she’d first moved into the complex, she needed a cane but was still able to navigate down the hall from her small, one-bedroom apartment to the communal dining room. When the cane no longer provided enough support, it was traded in for a four-wheeled walker, but Mom persisted in making it out to the parking lot, to her car. Folding up the walker herself, she’d slide behind the wheel and gleefully take off, most often to the bank drive-through to pick up some cash. Although the assisted-living staff provided computer training for residents, Mom was uninterested, so online banking was out of the question. Neither had she ever gotten the hang of using an ATM machine. She relied on her checkbook, making full use of her beautiful handwriting and perfect signature.
But the days when she had enough energy to get out to the parking lot became fewer and farther apart. One day she left the car parked in the sun too long and the interior roof lining melted and hung down, blocking the rear view. Mom could see the disabled car when she looked out her bedroom window, and we talked about selling it for three months before she finally agreed it was time. Her only means of escape then became the mini bus operated by the assisted-living community. Frequent doctor appointments were arranged as much for some sympathetic attention as anything else—what can a doctor say to a now ninety-year-old woman who has smoked for seventy-five years? If only Marlboro knew about her, they could prop her up on a horse with a lariat, a sly smile, and a resounding yahoo!
When I’d flown down from Vermont two years ago to help her move, I lugged a near-empty suitcase, on the outside chance Mom had stuff I would want to keep—family photos, the engraved Bibles from my grandmother, and perhaps other memorabilia that she may have overlooked. Leaving the plane, in the brief interval before entering the air-conditioned comfort of the airport terminal, I was assaulted by that unpleasant wall of hot, humid air, another reminder of why never in a million years could I live here, in south Florida.
My mother’s low-slung, mint-colored stucco house had looked the same as always, with its neat, well-manicured lawn and shrubs. A house that would soon have new owners and a new life. The front door was open and I walked inside. My eyes took a moment to adjust from the relentless noon sun to the dim quiet interior of a place that already felt vacated. The cool white tiles in the entryway were spotless.
I saw a tiny bent form in the kitchen. She lifted her head and shouted, “Who is it? Who’s there?” Then incredulous, as though in a state of shock, “Cynthia, is that you?” She didn’t recognize me at first. I walked towards her as she hobbled over with her cane. She appeared like a wounded bird, frail, but I sensed a driving will forcing her to put one foot in front of the other. We hugged each other and she started to cry. She felt like a small bag of bones in my arms. I was touched.
She said how grateful she was that I had come, and how much there was to do and how she could no longer manage alone. This rare moment of vulnerability was not to be repeated. She was a woman hardened not only to joy, but to sorrow.
I reassured her. She seemed to have everything quite under control. Whatever remained to prepare her house and herself for her move into the assisted-living place, I was sure I could manage in the few days I would be with her. In looking around, I was amazed at how much she had already accomplished on her own. She had piles of things loosely organized in each room. After being with her for a few hours, I realized the problem. She kept forgetting what was in the piles and constantly repeated tasks that had been completed moments earlier. This exhausted her. Her short-term memory extended about thirty minutes into the past and then it was as though someone hit the “delete” button, and she had to start all over again.
While I was there, I cooked her meals. She insisted on setting the table and clearing the dishes. It was stressful to watch her. Her curved spine positioned her head parallel to the floor. She was in obvious pain. It worried me as she fumbled with the large array of medications set out on the counter in their brown plastic containers.
“I know what I’m doing!” she snapped, when I questioned whether she had already taken the blue pain pill. She rearranged the dozen or so bottles for the third time that morning, claiming she remembered what she had taken and when, but nothing was written down, and I doubted she was capable of keeping track.
When she would ease herself into the softly-padded, pink-vinyl kitchen chair, it was usually to light up a cigarette. Still smoking at eighty-eight. The well-worn act of shaking a cigarette loose from the pack, tapping it on the table, pressing it to her lips as she clicked her lighter and deeply inhaled, obviously soothed her agitated soul.
The walk-in closet in the den had become the repository of all the flotsam and jetsam, the remains of a life that could not be sorted into a particular pile, things she could no longer account for, but were not yet disposable. Here I found the box with my dad’s ID tags from his days as a B-17 pilot in World War II, along with his high school yearbook. I flipped to the page where his handsome, smiling face, a face not yet marred by the war he was soon to throw himself into, looks out onto a world that still held promise. He had been the editor of that same yearbook, The Clarion; was voted most likely to succeed; headed, everyone had thought, to Dartmouth and a medical career. Instead, he flew twenty-five bombing missions over Germany, came home afflicted with spinal meningitis, married my mother, and became an auto mechanic with an alcohol problem.
Mom’s yearbook was on the bottom, underneath the personally engraved Bibles and hymn books (so strange these were kept, since I never knew my parents to be churchgoers). Hers was The Pioneer, from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, class of ’42. She was listed under the commercial program, not academic, and her aspirations were modest, to be a secretary (which she became after she graduated from Katherine Gibbs). Her handwriting was perhaps her greatest achievement. Every letter could have come from a “How To Write Cursive” handbook, while mine bordered on indecipherable. In college I paid people to type my papers and later embraced Microsoft Word. Mom never missed an opportunity to wonder how in the world I managed to get so far with such “God awful” handwriting. I often responded with the Jungian assertion that what shapes children are “the unlived lives of the parents,” something I read in my child psych textbook in college.
There were albums of faded family photos Dad had carefully labeled before he died, alongside shoeboxes of loose photos, some decades old with deckled edges, the most recent, from the early days of the Polaroid Instamatic. Mom said she had “no use” for any of this stuff. “This stuff” seemed to me to be the only items of real value that remained, evidence that there had been a family, a means to track lives lived. It all found a place in my suitcase.
Later on, we sorted her jewelry, some pieces I knew my granddaughters might value, but most everything else in the house was relatively new. Mom never believed in keeping things too long. Anything that began to show the effects of time would be tossed, so there was little to remind her, or me, of what had transpired in this family, which for her might have been a good thing.
The realtor stopped by to check on our progress, not out of neighborliness, as he had a vested interest in making sure Mom was cleared out by the closing. He whispered to me that we had sold this house “just in time,” suggesting Mom was not long for this world. While I tended to agree with him, it turned out she lasted far longer than either he nor I anticipated in that moment.
How do you account for a life?
Writing about my mother makes her seem more real than my experience of her. In my memories she exists as a shapeless form lingering on the periphery. I’m drawn to books about death, about losing a family member, written by some of my favorite writers: Joan Didion about the loss of her husband in Year of Magical Thinking, Calvin Trillin’s homage to his wife, in About Alice, and more recently, Cheryl Strayed in Wild. These authors wrote from a deep well of grief. It was their grief, the by-product of love lost, that infused their writing. Made it moving and inspirational. But how do you resolve a relationship fraught with ambivalence, interspersed with years of indifference and minimal contact? I’m told that your true feelings may surprise you when a parent, a mother, is finally gone.
That’s how the hospice nurse described her condition. The words defied meaning. How can you “die actively?” Isn’t death something that creeps up on you from behind and assaults you when you least expect it? Or perhaps it slips silently into your bed at night while you are asleep and you don’t get up, you don’t make it to breakfast the next morning when your wife calls for you, the smell of steaming coffee in the air, as it did with my grandfather. Or it settles on you like a fog as you rest happily in a chair next to the fireplace after a big family dinner, surrounded by your children and grandchildren, as it did with my ninety-four-year-old great-grandmother.
Mom had not been feeling well that Friday morning and asked to be taken to the hospital. It was the July-Fourth weekend. They were short-staffed so the assistant nurse called 911. The ambulance came and took her to the ER. I was called soon after. That was the rule. As her eldest and only daughter, I had Power of Attorney and was her medical proxy.
She was held in the ER for several hours while tests were conducted. I wasn’t told of her condition until the next day, Saturday, the Fourth of July. She had been admitted, was conscious, and they brought her the phone. A fearful voice I barely recognized begged, “I really need to get out of this place. You must speak to the right people. They held me in the basement and tortured me all night. They took my things. I have nothing here. I have to go home.”
The anxiety and panic in her voice could not be assuaged in a phone call.
I spoke to an oncologist. He said she had metastasized liver cancer. This crucial organ was riddled throughout with tumors of all sizes. It was not the site of the originating cancer. The implication was that it had spread from elsewhere, but the doctor demonstrated little desire to explore her body further to find the root, the source. It was as though we spoke in code. Our conversation was punctuated by what was left unsaid. He was the doctor. His role was to treat and cure. This patient was a ninety-one-year-old woman who had smoked herself through most of the last seventy-five years. Lung cancer was expected, but she miraculously had escaped emphysema, COPD, or any other breathing troubles. Lulled by these facts, I had begun to think she was invincible.
The doctor didn’t say “we won’t treat her,” and I didn’t say, “don’t treat her” but we both knew this was our mutually agreed course of non-action.
He asked me if I wanted to bring in hospice care.
Hospice. A place between living and dying. Time suspended, swinging back and forth propelled by a momentum that is finite.
I called my daughter, who’s a nurse. Our mixed emotions and mutually checkered relationship with her grandmother, my mother, became entwined in our discussion of what to do next. We slipped into variations of demonizing and defending, pushing and pulling at each other, accusing and then apologizing until my daughter’s long suppressed hurt became clear when she said, “Grandma never, ever, called me.”
That’s true. Although she herself was always pleased when either of us made the effort to call, my mother rarely (never, according to my daughter) reciprocated. If we happened to show up on my mother’s doorstep, we were welcomed in, but traveling out of her comfort zone, literally or figuratively, was not in Mom’s realm of possibility. She had never flown anywhere, and since I live in Vermont, and her granddaughter, husband, and two great granddaughters are in Montreal, getting there from the southern tip of Florida was for her an insurmountable challenge.
Not that we didn’t try to lure her into northern climes. Her resistance was entrenched. As a result she had only seen her first great-grandchild once, when the baby was eight months old. I had arranged for the whole family to fly to Florida as a Christmas gift, one of a long line of last-ditch efforts to create “family ties.” That great-grandchild was now a gangly thirteen year old. Her ten-year-old budding ballerina sister had never met the great-grandmother, who would only exist as a pretty, dark-haired woman in a modest, long-sleeved white gown beside her handsome, uniformed, army pilot husband in that 1944 wedding photograph.
How long can a person live when they are “actively dying?”
I tried to pull an answer from the various doctors and the hospice nurse who first dared to use the word “dying.” None would commit to anything concrete. “It could be days, or even weeks. We can’t accurately predict these things, so many variables, every case is different.” I pressed for an answer, something definitive. There was only ambiguity and doubt.
Each time I’d imagined, sometimes wished for my mother’s death, an anger deeply entrenched in a childhood that was not so terribly unlike many others of my generation, flooded my brain till all I could see and feel was hatred, a blind hatred that was perhaps unearned. I remembered how not long ago my mother had cried, one of the rare moments when she allowed herself to appear weak. We were discussing her own mother, my grandmother’s death. She and my dad had moved to Florida, leaving Grandma in a New York nursing home where she died alone. At the time, this event was glossed over. My parents seemed to have barely acknowledged her death, let alone her life, so when tears of regret rose in my mother’s eyes, it shocked me. The impact of that memory was not lost on me now.
The first flight I could get out of Burlington, Vermont, with connections to Sarasota/Bradenton was nearly a week away. Now I was filled with the contrary anxiety that Mom may die before I got there. But then, my daughter, with more departure options out of Montreal, called to inform me that she impulsively had booked a flight for the whole family, meaning she had to make last minute arrangements for someone to take over her shifts at the hospital. Now my granddaughters would encounter their dying great-grandmother for the first and last time. An odd feeling of elation carried me up; I was almost giddy with this news. Our tiny family, where independence reigned supreme and intimacy was sacrificed for the sake of not being a burden, had responded, like people respond when motivated by love and caring.
My granddaughters are fairly sophisticated world travelers, but they’d never been to Florida. Their plan was to fly into Tampa, rent a car, hit some of the famous white sand Florida Gulf Coast beaches on their way further south, to cushion their eventual, first but likely not last, confrontation with death. Mom had been transported from the ER back to her little apartment, accompanied by a hospice nurse. I informed the staff at the assisted-living complex about our family plans. This was a scenario that they had witnessed countless times. They were in the business of shepherding folks through their final days of decline, at least those folks who still had the financial means to relieve their relatives of the responsibility.
Knowing this visit was a unique moment of opportunity to pay homage to a being who had occupied a place in the world, regardless of the importance of that place, seemed to motivate all those previously anonymous caretakers with a fierce desire to keep my mother alive until we all arrived: the woman who changed the sheets on Mom’s bed and emptied the trash; the young man who assisted her in and out of the huge recliner where she spent most of her last days angled so that she could see the ever-present TV…they all reminded her of who was coming to visit, hoping she would continue breathing, a few more hours, a few more days.
Late Tuesday afternoon, July 6th, my phone rang. It was my daughter’s energized voice, words tumbling, almost breathless. They had arrived safely and Mom recognized her, calling her name, Erika, as soon as she appeared in the doorway. My cool, collected, ultimately competent daughter immediately started exercising her role as an experienced nurse. Coupled with the authority her position as the only granddaughter bestowed, I could envision her making sure everything was being done to make her grandmother as comfortable as possible. As Erika described the scene, euphoria enveloped the room, fueled in part by the presence of the extended family Mom had barely known. With the help of her tall, strong husband, she managed to hoist the fragile assemblage of bones out of the deep recess of the recliner into a wheelchair. In spite of protests of “don’t bother with me,” and “go to the beach and enjoy yourselves!” Erika proceeded to wheel her grandmother at breakneck speed, out the door and through the hallways, stopping briefly in the courtyard to visit with the resident cat, greeting and waving at friends and the staff as they whizzed by. It was a joyride. In the end, Erika laughingly said, “I think we exhausted her, but in a good way.”
They all spent a few hours each day over the next three days with Mom, though much of the time she remained asleep. They flew back to Montreal, and when I asked my granddaughters what they thought about their great-grandmother, they cheerily replied, “She looked good!” I did not press for details.
My flight was due to leave at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. It did not seem terribly long ago when I had last made this trip, but in fact three years had gone by since the closing on my mother’s house and the relative ease, in retrospect, of her transition into a smaller space. Literally and figuratively her limited circle had shrunk even further. Wanderlust was the title of the book I’d brought with me to read on the plane. It was about the history of walking, something I do a lot of and that Mom had tried to avoid at all cost. When walking, “One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” That initial line in the opening chapter succinctly summed up the very different relationship Mom and I had with the world and with living.
My connecting flight was on time. It was around noon when the cab driver picked me up in Sarasota. I gave him the address of Brookdale Assisted Living and asked him to take the shortest route. I explained, “My mother is dying.” I heard myself speaking. I felt estranged, disconnected from the words. It was true. The hospice nurse told me. It may have already happened. I had my cell phone, but would they think to call, those who might bear witness?
We turned into the circular drive. I had the fare in hand, gathered my suitcase, and ran up to the front entrance. A rising urgency bordered on panic as I leaned on the bell. The door opened and the neatly uniformed woman who answered seemed to know who I was and why I had come. Rushing past, I remembered Mom’s apartment at the end of the corridor, past the common area on the right.
Then I’m standing in her opened doorway.
The lights are dimmed. Soft music like they play in spas is on the radio next to Mom’s recliner. The TV is on FOX News. The sound is on mute. A pleasant-looking woman sitting next to the recliner gets up and whispers that she is a volunteer, sent by hospice, and scheduled to stay with my mother until 5 p.m., but since I’m here, “would it be okay if she left early?”
“Sure, sure.” The woman seems grateful and quickly leaves.
Mom is upright, her head resting slightly tilted against the cushioned chair back, but swathed in blankets. She’s nearly buried in the padded folds of the chair she has occupied for much of the past three years.
I look closely at the sunken body.
Her eyes flutter.
I lean in close, find her hand beneath the covers. “It’s me, Cynthia.”
The eyes don’t open. She doesn’t speak but she smiles in recognition, and I feel a gentle squeeze of my hand. A huge wave I can only describe as relief envelops me. My whole body relaxes.
I sit with her. Her breathing is fairly regular and she appears to be asleep. I say nothing but stroke her hand, and we remain this way. It could have been several hours, until Dick, an old friend of my parents, arrives to take me home with him. He and his wife graciously had offered me a place to stay.
The next day, Sunday, July 12th, LuAnn, Mom’s financial advisor, a woman I’ve known for years, was scheduled to pick me up. We were to go out for coffee to discuss some details regarding my mother’s accounts, but I wanted to go see Mom. LuAnn agreed so we headed right for Brookdale.
This time, the familiar recliner stood empty. The blinds in the little apartment were drawn tight against the glare of the morning sun. The messiness of the room, piles of used tissues, magazines, untouched cups of Ensure were now no longer in sight. The place was pristine.
I peeked into the bedroom. Mom was laid out flat, as if she were already gone. Fine grey hair circled her nearly bald head propped up on a pillow. Her eyes were not quite closed. Thin, limpid skin was drawn taut over her high cheekbones, then drooped and sagged into deep folds against her ears. Her mouth was open, ringed by shriveled lips. Her teeth had been removed. I’d never seen Mom without her teeth.
I pulled a chair up to the bedside, my back towards LuAnn, who discretely left the room. Mom’s bony shoulders were lightly covered with a gauzy, rosebud-printed nightgown. Her left arm rested outside the white, cotton blanket across her chest. I took hold of her hand. Even though speckled with age spots from years of baking in the Florida sun, it still seemed young. I held that hand gently, examining it, touching the rounded edges of her recently manicured nails with their pale-pink, opalescent sheen. This was one of her last extravagances. I could see and feel her powerful heart beating, thumping, relentlessly against the confines of her well-defined rib cage to the rhythm of “I won’t give up, I won’t give up, I can’t give up, I won’t give up, I won’t give up…”
The worst thing was the sound of her breathing. Fluid had started to build and accumulate in her lungs and it had nowhere to go. Every breath was accompanied by the deep gurgling sound of those bodily fluids rising ever higher, as though she were drowning, slowly, from the inside out. I thought of the struggle to live by those tortured by waterboarding.
I glanced at the time on my cell phone. 9:30 a.m. LuAnn came up behind me and asked if I wanted to get something to eat. I wasn’t hungry. I could not let go of my mother’s hand as long as it was still warm to the touch.
LuAnn excused herself with a few words of consolation and left.
Now I’m alone in this darkened room staring at her cavernous open mouth. The sound of an incoming tide emerges with every rise and fall of her chest. Her eyes are half slits. Her body flinches with a familiar shrug of the shoulders, one I remember seeing as a child. A desire to touch her face seems obscene—I’d never done that before. She was not the kind of woman who made herself available, accessible in that familiar way that family members do when they are intimate with each other.
I reached out and touched her. I stroked her cheek. I leaned in and kissed her. “I love you, Mom.” The words escaped as quickly as the tears cascaded uncontrolled, like an incantation: “I love you Mom, I love you Mom, I love you Mom…” to make up for all the times in all the years that these words were never said. I’d held them back not wanting to give her the pleasure of hearing them, not realizing how the seeds of that love had atrophied, dried, and shriveled up from lack of care. As I said the words, out loud, over and over, her mouth began to move. She must’ve heard me.
She was trying to speak. Only grunts escaped, whispered remnants, whiffs of love’s lost residue, as she battled to keep breathing. She struggled and seemed distressed. Her eyes fluttered beneath their lids. Her thin lips mouthed words with no sound. The gurgles kept coming and her heart kept beating, and I stroked her arm and shoulder and face. “It’s all okay, Mom, it’s alright, I’m here and I’m with you and I’m not leaving and it’s all okay, it will all be fine, don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid…” I felt strangely like a midwife as I stroked and chanted this meditation to ward off the ultimate fear, the fear we all carry with us from the day we are born, the fear we dread but know is coming. Instead of ushering a new life into this world, I was ushering an old life out of it, hopefully into the next. Or, into oblivion.
The awesome strength of that beating heart was staggering. When all her other organs had failed her, now I wished that it would stop, let her go, leave her be, let her rest.
Her body suddenly sagged.
Her shoulders lifted in a final shrug.
The rhythmic rise and fall of her chest slowed.
One more breath.
One more beat.
Then, nothing. Quiet.
Two o’clock Sunday afternoon July 12th my mother died. I called my daughter to confirm that the moment of her grandmother’s death was witnessed. Something she and I now shared. The conversation was brief.
Looking back at the bed, there was an inert body where my mother once was. It will have to be removed. Officially, this must all be recorded. It’s how we do things in the orderly world of the living. Tears were still running down my face as I walked down the corridor to inform the head nurse that Mom had died. Half stumbling, my way was blocked by a small entourage of wheelchairs propelled by white-haired women of various shapes and sizes. Their faces were twisted in sorrow. Some were crying as they approached me with arms outstretched. I kneeled down to look them in the eye, and they circled around me, telling me how much they loved my mother, what a great friend she was. I embraced each of them as we all sobbed together. In that dazzling moment, I realized my mother had had a life. While to me she had appeared emotionally removed, not physically present in her own body, a sphinx, unknowable and unknown even to herself, she was indeed known to others who cherished her.
Bearing witness to my mother’s death was the closest thing to love I’d ever experienced since the birth of my own daughter. When we are born, our mothers become the avatars of love. Love is the only thing strong enough to hold us together between these bookends that mark our lives. Perhaps it was there all along between my mother and me. It took her death to make me feel it.
Cynthia Close earned her MFA from Boston University, is the former dean of admissions for The Art Institute of Boston and founder of ARTWORKS Consulting.