This is Chapter 14 of my memoir: “The Imperfect Logic of the Heart.” The book is available on Amazon. I am reprinting it here chapter by chapter. Just a few more to go.
After my Dad died my mom stayed active, played bridge and mahjong, went out to dinner with friends but eventually slowed down and no longer wanted to go anywhere. She needed some help with her “day to day,” whether she wanted to admit it or not. Since I was the last one standing in my core family, I was the obvious and only choice to help. My mother and Tamma became my daycare juggling act.
Mom was no longer driving and seldom left the condo, spending most of her time with crosswords and television. I knew she was not herself when the night manager called me to report she appeared in the lobby in the middle of the night half naked. I started my part time caregiver job by handling her financial issues and her mail. To help with fiscal sanity, it was clear her Grand Marquis had to go.
My mother reminded me they bought the Grand Marquis because of its bench seats:
“Only the Lincoln and Ford have the big bench seat. That way your father and I could fit three couples comfortably in the car.”
Clearly the dealership never mentioned that a burned out headlight for the car would cost $350 to replace, that the oversized beast averaged 12 miles a gallon and that its resale (salvage) value would never equal the unpaid associated secured debt. Although the car still drove level on the road, to the bank it was “upside down.”
I was now driving to mom’s condo in Weston at least twice a week. The condo was exactly 57miles each way ($22 in gas). One “This American Life” podcast and one quarter “Fresh Air podcast” away. With traffic you could add a few of Bach’s English Suites.
One of my first visits concerned the new microwave and oversized toaster oven I purchased to ease meal preparation for mom. I was cooking a weeks worth of meals that only needed reheating. In between these meals mom could make her beloved chicken pot pies or one of Stouffers other offerings. The $400 microwave I had purchased had many options but if you just wanted to keep it simple only three buttons at the bottom of the controls, all in a row, needed to be activated. Reset/Quick-Min/Start.
“Mom, you push the first one to clear it. The second one for the cook time. Push it once for each minute. And then just push start.”
“But what if I only need a ½ minute?”
“Just open the door early.”
After a lot of practice, she actually got it. I put tape over all the other controls so she would go directly to clear/reset. But there was a new problem. She was not strong enough to activate the buttons. Ever enterprising, I bought a giant toaster oven that had a simple twist on knob that was also a timer that turned the toaster oven off, solving the problem and avoiding the actual full size oven which had almost burned the condo down when it remained on for 10 + hours.
The “I Love Lucy” show could have been shot in my mother’s apartment. All that was missing was Fred and Ethel. The place was frozen in 1954. The walls were painted peach to better explore the color-TV phenomenon. The drop ceilings in the kitchen and bathrooms celebrated new plastic technology. The eclectic lamps were enormous. (You needed a crane to lift them). Her famous tchotchkes took two forms: those that were silver plated and those that were porcelain. The silver plated items would take an army of maids to polish properly. As to the pottery, if you have seen one “Balloon Lady” you have seen them all.
Jayne did reign on her throne. My mother at 91 still knew how to crack Dentyne gum and multi-task. The TV was on loud enough for the neighbors to enjoy and the “clicker” remote always stood ready. She wore her peignoir in the classic way (sans underwear) and rarely left the bed. Vanity on display, she made sure her shapely legs remained visible at all times. Wasn’t Lucy a dancer before she met Ricky?
Mother in her Ruth Gordon style once began:
“I know you think I’m stupid.”
“But I am. I can’t remember how to work anything. The truth is I don’t like food anymore except peanut butter.”
“OK Mom, so my truth is I only like pizza and black coffee and I am not even sure coffee is food.”
“But you can work a microwave.”
“You can knit.”
“I just feel awful that you have to come over here to feed me.”
“STOP BEING SO NICE TO ME! I was a shitty mother.”
“What are you talking about? He kisses her, “You were the hottest mom on our street. That counts too.”
Next to her bed was a hands free phone I had bought her with an alarm that sounded like an Eisenhower “duck and cover” air raid with a flashing light built in. My mother refused a hearing aid.
“Go ahead and get me one if you must, but the second you walk out the door it will be out of my ear.”
“Mom, get dressed and let’s go get dinner, go to the grocery store and the drug store. And we need to talk about getting you a little more help.”
“Okay, but I’m fine.”
“Humor me, mother.”
Her smile was not “full flash” anymore. Possibly because she had some teeth pulled and no longer liked her smile. To mom if it didn’t look good it wasn’t of value. More likely her smile left her because she was ill. In fact, she was in heart failure. But the doctor had said it was the good kind. Right side or left? I couldn’t remember. Was there really a good kind?
For mom the heart problem was merely a wardrobe issue. She had a belly for the first non-pregnant time in her life and worst of all her ankles were swollen. Refusing to associate this with a heart issue she was now dieting as a solution. Pork ribs with lots of barbecue sauce were still on her diet (as was all Chinese food and pepperoni pizza.) And then there was the issue of the nasty sore on her arm she considered unsightly. So long sleeves were required, even if it was 83 outside.
“I can’t understand why this thing won’t heal.”
“The doctor is lousy. I’ve been there three times and it just gets worse.”
I knew that it didn’t heal because it was not your everyday sore. At first I guessed the fair skin beauty had skin cancer. My guess was wrong. It was a “sea monster cancer” that had sought the surface for air. Probably she had lung cancer. But whatever the cancer’s name, it had now metastasized and consequently the sore. I talked to the oncologist. After a review of all the options, the sensible plan was to do nothing. Enjoy the ribs. Stay happy.
I watched her walk down the hall for our lunch and shopping trip.
“These damn shoes stick. I can’t find comfortable shoes. Nobody has my size 7.5 quad A. My arch is supreme.”
So was her ramrod posture.
“Mom, why not wear tennis shoes like everyone else?”
“I’m not like everyone else. I will drive.” She goes for the keys.
“You’re too busy on the phone or playing with the CD player. I’m scared to death driving with you.”
Like many seniors she can’t remember her last accident but many anonymous drivers have certainly been witness to accidents her driving has caused.
“Mom, how did I possibly get here without your help?” He won’t give the keys up.
“We’re just going a few blocks. I’ll drive. Besides your license has expired and you’re uninsured, not that any of that would stop you.”
“Fine, but go to Walgreens first. That’s where my real business is.”
When I walked with her the whole world slowed down. If I walked behind her she would stop and get distracted. If I walked ahead of her I was being rude. So it was kind of a buddy date walk into the drugstore directly to the cosmetics department. Why a woman 91 who rarely left her bed cared about anti-wrinkle cream was a mystery to me. But there we were considering product with adjectives like replenishing, restructuring, correction line repair, cellular, re-moisturizing, lift firming, all for only $150. And of course none of them would be effective even if she was much younger. She also wanted one with the most sun protection although she never left the house. Something called “FREEZE 24/7”.
“Can we eat Mom? Please! I’m hungry and I have a long ride home.”
Lunch at her favorite rib joint required parking temporarily in a wheel chair spot, without the proper credentials, getting Mom out of the car and walking her to the door and hoping to find a place for her to sit while I parked the Beast. This had to be done quickly so I didn’t get a ticket. Tamma once had decided if she parked her small foreign car in the space between two handicapped spaces that somehow that was okay and did not warrant a ticket. The $250 fine I paid for her was not a lessen to her but kept me ever diligent about respecting the few benefits afforded to the disabled.
After I watched her very slowly eat an entire slab of ribs but no salad or potato or drink a single sip of liquid she was ready to talk. She began:
“Okay, so what’s up?” She smiles at me and bats her eyelashes just for fun.
“Are you getting married again? Did you knock someone up?”
“I should never have told you that sex was great.”
“Mom, you’re 91! I am embarrassed.”
“Did I ever tell you how gentle your father was with me? You know he was very big and I was very small.”
“MOM…just stop now please! You need more help. We paid for home health care so please can we use it?”
“Sure. The last wonderful lady you had over for me probably stole the few valuable pieces of jewelry I still have.”
“We can’t prove that, mom. I thought you told me your ring just fell off.”
“I can tell you anything I want! You were always a little gullible.”
“Come on, you like Miss Jeannine. I am just going to ask her to come on the weekends now as well.”
“Fine,” she concedes. “She is my new black daughter.”
On the way out of the restaurant I get appreciative stares from the older women. Such a good son!
Ironically the Sunday Jeannine began her first weekend mother duty, she found mom on the floor with her head wedged between the nightstand and the frame of the bed. She was breathing but not responsive. Her job began and ended with a 911 call.
It had been two weeks since she was rushed to the Westin Florida Cleveland Clinic. After the 911 call I had raced there, and found her silent and paralyzed on the left side. A few days later, she could talk but sounded like she’d had a few. She could still not move her left side. This seemed to my mother a mere inconvenience.
“Just get me home.”
I knew that would not be possible. Even with home health care, she would need 24/7 attention. While I was pondering my lack of options a young Asian doctor entered. Curiously his name tag read “Dr. Samuel Cohen”. Noticing my reaction the young doctor began:
“Yup, it’s my name. Surprised?”
Stammering: “ Oh no. I guess….”
“Yeah. Well it’s worked well for me. “
“Now here’s the deal; rehab needs to start immediately if she is to get her functioning back.”
The doctor picks her up until she is standing next to him but supported by his arms and starts letting herself support her own weight.
“Ha. You are one hell of a dancer.” slurs Mom.
“Okay. You’re in good hands, mom, I’ve got to talk to someone. “Be right back.” I left her with the doctor.
Racing to the front desk, I assumed that a hospital that has valet parking must have some kind of a patient ombudsman. Finding her on the next floor down I started:
“Help!” “My 91 year old mom is here with a stroke and I don’t have a clue what happens next.”
Her name tag red “Ms. Rodriguez”.
Three months later, I would stand in this same room and argue with Annette, and my mother’s doctor whether mom should be transferred to hospice. By then I would be on a first name basis with Ms. Rodriguez. But that first meeting proved to be a font of information. A proper rehab place was selected aka nursing home and all the financial rules were explained, including how I might cleverly qualify for Medicaid if Medicare coverage ran out. This was followed by my mother’s transfer to a nursing home and then the inevitable return to the hospital. When my mom was in the nursing home, my respect for the caregivers was enormous. They took extra good care of mom knowing I would be visiting weekly. I took the time to learn their names and always thanked them.
When I got the call from the nursing home that she had taken “a turn for the worse,” I asked that they take her back to the Cleveland Clinic as opposed to the hospital across the street. They humored me and agreed. The Cleveland Clinic staff only knew that her vitals were very bad and that she did not have too much longer. The operative word to me was what is “longer?” A day? A few hours?
She was in room 709 looking less regal. She felt warm to my hug and she spoke to me only with her eyes.
“Mom, do you know where you are?”
Almost a whisper responds: “Hospital!”
“Yes, but we will get you out of her soon as we can.” I lied.
She seemed to be fading. Her skin was opaque, almost translucent.
Wasn’t there a movie where the character started to fade if you ceased to believe? A children’s story? I grabbed her again and said:
“I love you mom.”
Was that enough to keep her alive?
Did she respond? I wasn’t sure.
“I will be right back mom. I have to talk to someone.”
That talk began:
“Look Annette, I don’t care if they want the room or not, she is too sick to move to hospice. I’m not sure she will make it another night.”
“Her doctor thinks so Let me get her.” Annette has that very concerned professional look that probably was sincere.
The floor doctor appeared who was not discourteous but also not in the mood to counsel a 91 year old patient’s son.
He echoes Annette:
“I’m sorry, it’s time for hospice. We can’t do much more now.”
I respond: “You might be right but she is too sick to move. Come look at her.”
As we entered 709 and I approached the bed, I knew that she died while I was briefly out of the room. The form in the bed was no longer my mother. Her eyes were fixed open looking empty or maybe at the heaven I now wished existed. I tried to close her eyes. They do not close. I stared at the empty form. A life size doll without a battery. I hoped her soul had flown into me where I could protect it and safely pass it to my children and grandchildren.
As she had wished, I cremated her. I placed the notice in the paper, said the appropriate prayers and then was alone with only memories.
My brother, mother and father were now all dead.
I was the last one standing.
My mother would outlive Tamma by eight months.