Warm, soft air washes over me as I exit the airport. Sharp winter still grips New York, but Washington blooms. Armies of landscapers turn the dark, moist earth and plant islands of impatiens. Pink, fuchsia and white, my mother’s favorite colors. I catch the Metro to Glenmont, and my sister gives me a ride to my mother’s condo. The guards at the gate of Leisure World just wave us through without checking ID. My sister almost lives here.
The streets of the retirement complex wind round and round in semi-circles and slide up and down hills. We bank first right then left, then right again, dipping and climbing. My sister cries.
“I hate this place. Once she goes, I’m never coming back here.”
“Me neither. Thanks for the ride, sweetie.”
She drops me off and goes home. On the weekends, she tries for normal at her house and my brothers and I take over. Since the small army of 24-hour hospice workers arrived, there is less to do and more to feel.
I open the sliding door and sidle in. A flowered magnet holds the DNR order to the refrigerator. Next to the phone is an orange sign: “In Case of Emergency, Do Not Call 911.” I scan for normal bits: Mom’s glasses, her purse, and her car keys rest on the kitchen island, as always. She used to sidle out through the sliding door, singing out “I’m going.” And she went. She loved to go.
The med student hospice worker nods to me and continues to study in the living room; the TV blessedly silenced. I hear Tom, my younger brother, speaking in Mom’s room. I head toward the voice. The hallway has a mirrored linen closet at the end. I watch my bright blouse float down through the sea of beige carpet and white walls. Deep breath. Bank to the right.
Her hospital bed is right where Dad’s was. Images of that other awful time flash over into today. I will myself back to the present and recover. My parent’s maple bed is jammed into one corner. Tom sits on a rocker wedged between the hospital bed and a round table covered with medicine vials, a photo of Dad at twenty-one and her green rosary beads.
A poster board taped to the highboy says, “Today is Sunday. Your aide’s name is Indra.” Rectangles of paper with the other days of the week and the other aides’ names printed on them sit in a messy pile on the dresser. Loops of used scotch tape line up on the edge of the dresser ready to be recycled. I squeeze between the beds.
After a time, she registers that I’ve spoken and smiles. “Oh Liz, I didn’t know you were coming.”
“I didn’t know either.”
My kiss lands on the cliff that is her cheekbone. Gastric cancer leaves only translucent skin taut over jutting bone. She seems barely there. I see she is wearing two turbans, a white one over a black one. I look at Tom, he mouths, “she’s cold.”
The hospital bed heaves, and I hear hissing and sucking air. I jump back.
“Different parts of the bed inflate and deflate on a timer to give her skin a rest and prevent bedsores,” says my brother, the engineer.
“What’s up with the poster?”
My brother laughs and shrugs. “Mom, tell Liz about the poster.”
We wait while she gathers her words.
“I like to address the aides by their names, but I can’t remember them. So they made a poster.” In hospice, every wish is granted.
Someone rings the bell. It’s Father Genovese. He blows in all energy and wit.
“So Mim, how do you feel?”
“Soon, you’ll be working on your golf game for all eternity.”
A long pause.
“With my slice, it’ll take that long.”
Everyone laughs, and my heart twists at her humor. She’s still here.
Cassock rustling, he disappears.
How do I begin to tell her what she means to me? I plunge.
“Mom, you changed my life.” I said.
“Oh really?” She said after a bit.
“Yes, really.” I said.
“I came home from high school one day, and you were doing dishes in the old house. I told you I was going to sew costumes for the spring play. Without turning around from the sink, you said ‘Why don’t you go for the lead?’ And I did go for the lead, and I got the lead. You encouraged me.”
“I remember that,” she cries high and wondrous.
I lean down in my splashy shirt. She smells of Triple Care and Tide. I take her face in both my hands and murmur “I love you” over and over and over until I have covered her face with kisses. Tom’s tears drip off his jaw and mine soak into the collar of my mother’s flowered flannel nightgown. We are little again, four and two, crying like children as our mother floats above her bed.
Aunt Addie and my cousin Karen come to visit. To see my mother is to weep. Their tears touch off mine and Tom’s again. Tom and I cede our choice spots and stand sentry by the bedroom door until they leave. Then we are back on either side, each stroking an ashen hand until it is time to go.
I wade through the beds to the hallway, past Indra and the DNR, past the keys and the purse and the glasses, out the sliding door to my friend Cathy’s car. We are late, but Cathy speeds seamlessly and sure to the airport. It’s strangely exhilarating.
And so I thought I’d made a good ending with my mother.
And then she lived another week and a day.
The following Sunday morning, I sat on my couch in New York and called my sister’s cell.
“Call back on Mom’s house phone. John and Tom are here, and we’ll talk to you.”
“Maryrose, should I come?”
And my brothers and my sister grab different phones in my mother’s condo and convince me to stay in New York.
“You don’t need to see this,” Maryrose said.
“It’s pretty bad,” John said.
“She won’t know you’re here,” Tom said.
And now I am a child again and my brothers and sister are telling me what to do and protecting me from seeing things I won’t forget and raking my heart with guilt’s teeth. I fall gratefully into their good care. They bring me up to date.
“Friday, she dictated a grocery list,” John said. “Paper plates and paper cups. Cheerios, milk, cold cuts, coffee and English muffins. “Take twenties out of my wallet,” she said. She wants the house ready for guests after she dies. So whoever stays here won’t have to shop for food or wash dishes. To the end, she’s taking care of everybody.”
“Yesterday, Rose called,” my sister said. “I held the phone up to Mom’s ear. The last thing Mom said was ‘I love you, doll.’ She hasn’t spoken again.”
Her last words went to our cousin, Rose, whose mother died in childbirth, leaving her in the care of my grandparents and my fifteen-year-old mother. Rose was Mom’s first child, so it felt right that she was the last to hear ‘I love you.’
I have her rosary and her prayer book. She wore out the metal link between the beads and the crucifix. I sewed it back together with thread from her sewing kit. The binding on the prayer book gave up a long time ago. A blue rubber band does the job now. On top, in her beautiful Palmer penmanship, is a long list of people she prayed for daily.
I have the clothes she designed and had made during World War II. Classics all, they could be worn today. She tap danced right up to her final diagnosis, in high heels, of course. She practiced in the basement laundry room. Too shy to dance in front of family, she perfected her time step during the spin cycle. Dad took early retirement and for twelve years they wore matching fuchsia polo shirts, smiled freely, laughed often, played golf and visited friends. Dad’s final illness lasted two years, and she eased his fall. And then my brothers, my sister, my niece and I eased hers.
I do not think that there is golf in heaven, but if there is a place where love survives the dying, then my mother is there.
Elizabeth Singer is a writer and psychotherapist living and working in New York City. If you’d like to receive more of what she writes, please “like” her facebook page. You won’t miss a thing!