A Morning Mind Essay
The last time I visited my mother was a cold snowy weekend in January. I’d seen her in November, when I’d come up for my sister’s funeral. Right after that my brother Bill took off on a trip to Europe he’d planned long before, so my mother had no immediate family in Pittsburgh except her 89 year old brother, who lived in a house that was often snowbound. Though she had a wonderful family of women taking care of her, it bothered me that she wasn’t seeing her own family. So I scheduled one of my weekend trips for January, arriving on Friday and leaving on Sunday.
I hadn’t picked the best weekend, as it turned out. Not only was the temperature hovering around zero, a heavy snowfall coming down, but the Steelers were playing their final playoff game at home on Sunday, on their way to the Super Bowl. The city was crowded and raucous, but I hoped to be out of there before the game began.
In past years, on a weekend visit, I’d seen my mother for both lunch and dinner, at least on Saturday. But by now, aged 94—she’d been at the assisted living facility for four years—she slept eighteen or twenty hours a day, often not awakening until after noon, so dinner was the only option. She had severe dementia, though she still seemed to know me; she was completely incontinent, wore adult diapers around the clock; she had gradually lost her hearing, so by now was stone deaf; and she seemed to be losing her ability to walk. We had taken her to my sister’s funeral in a wheelchair.
Why, a reasonable person might ask, would I come to Pittsburgh on a freezing snowy treacherous weekend, to see this woman?
I was trying to take care of my mother. Trying to do one last thing.
“Your mother is dead,” my Zen teacher told me, when I went to her with the central spiritual dilemma of my life, which I’d been agonizing over for months. I didn’t want my mother to die, or at least didn’t want to think of myself as wanting my mother to die. But I hated seeing her suffer. I hated seeing her go through things that she would never have wanted to endure (yet here she was going through them, bravely holding up). The only way this whole situation could end is if she died. But I didn’t want to want her to die.
“Your mother is dead,” my teacher told me. “The mother who raised you, and was so important to you in so many ways, isn’t here anymore. What you have to do for this woman who is left is try to make her comfortable, to see that she isn’t fearful. That’s the most you can do.”
Dead, in the opinion of my Zen teacher, was the woman who never wanted to be trouble for anyone, who never wanted 24 hour care (we put her in assisted living in the first place because she didn’t want anyone coming to her apartment), who never wanted someone bathing her, standing beside the shower to see that she got washed, who above all would have been horrified at the thought of being incontinent and wearing a diaper. Dead was the woman who wouldn’t have wanted any of that, and alive was this other woman who was bravely, gamely, going through it all, doing her best to live with it.
I hoped my teacher was right. I hoped the woman who would have found this whole life abhorrent was long gone.
My mother had a moment of lucidity when she first became incontinent, had spoken to my sister about it a couple of years before.
“I knew this was coming,” she said. “It’s what I’ve always been afraid of. Now I’m not going to be able to go out anymore.”
But she had dementia, so she didn’t remember she was incontinent.1 And she could go out, as long as she wore a diaper and it held up okay. A couple of years before, my wife and I had taken her to Florida for spring break, and when we left a restaurant noticed her chair was soaking wet. That was the first time we realized she was incontinent.
Her deafness was a phenomenon of the past year. Ever since my stepfather died, the summer before my mother turned 90, I had called her every day, just so she would hear my voice and have someone to talk to. But in the past year I’d had more and more trouble making myself heard. Her custom was to pick up the phone and put it to her left ear, which was her bad ear, so I’d yell, “Put the phone to your other ear! Mom! Put the phone to your other ear!” But of course she couldn’t hear me. Sometimes, also, she would pick up the cordless phone upside down, so she’d put the mouthpiece to her (bad) ear, and I’d hear her (very faintly) saying, Hello? Hello? “Turn the phone around, Mom!,” I’d yell. “Turn the phone around!”
After a while I bought a phone that amplified my voice, but before long even that didn’t work—the woman taking care of her would be able to hear my voice across the room, but my mother, with the phone to her ear, wouldn’t hear it at all—so reluctantly, after four years, I concluded that I could no longer talk to her every day. The only way to take care of her, to keep her aware of my existence, was to go see her, which I was already trying to do every few months. Now I determined to do it more often, especially now that my sister had died.
There is something horribly sad about all this. There’s also something hilariously funny. It depends on your point of view. I remember when I was in my thirties and would hear people talking about the difficulties of caring for their aging parents, I thought, Why do they keep talking about that? Do they have any idea how boring it is? Yet here I was talking about it all the time, to anyone who would listen.
There’s nothing funnier than an old person. Golden Girls. Sunshine Boys. King Lear was a great comic character, though Shakespeare decided to write that as a tragedy. Even funnier than an old person is a really old person, one who’s hardly there at all. I can hear somebody pitching it as a sitcom.
“There’s this guy, see. Even he isn’t a spring chicken, he’s got arthritis, he’s starting to forget things, he’s got a grandchild. But he’s trying to take care of his mother, and she is, get this, ninety-four. She’s got the hearing aids that don’t even work anymore, the adult diapers—Depends might come in as a sponsor—the wheelchair, she barely knows who this guy is anymore. He’s pushing her out of the old folks home to an Italian restaurant across the street, and the snow is coming down in a blizzard, she’s groaning about how cold she is, she has no idea where they’re going or why, and they finally get across the street, plowing through all this snow, and he gets to the front door of the restaurant and there’s a step. He didn’t remember there was a step . . .”
Actually, there was a day the summer before that I had to laugh about myself, even at the time. It was before she started sleeping eighteen hours, so I was still taking her out to lunch. But the night before, when I had taken her to that same neighborhood for dinner, I noticed that the deli across the street, where we had always gone for lunch, no longer existed. We went there because they had delicious homemade soup, and she didn’t want more than soup for lunch, because often she had finished breakfast just an hour or so before (though she didn’t remember).
I managed to find another deli, found a parking place nearby, which was a necessity, since my mother was still walking at that point as long as she could hold onto me, though she couldn’t walk far. I had gotten her into the deli (big sigh of relief) when I realized to my horror that you ordered at the counter, then the food was brought to your table. There was a long line at the counter. I’d have to take my mother to a table first, but she’d be sitting there alone, wouldn’t know where she was, wouldn’t know why she was there or who had brought her; God forbid she would get up and try to walk away.
At about the time I realized all that and decided to do it anyway, she said, “I think my pants are coming down.” I looked over and sure enough, her pants were way down and there for everybody to see—all the high school kids who had come to the deli for lunch—was my mother’s diaper. I pulled the pants up, they were a weird clingy material, tried to fasten them, but the hook was gone. So I held her pants up with one hand and let her hold onto my other arm, managed to get her to a table. Now I really hoped she wouldn’t get up and walk away.
We had gone through this ordeal for a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a pack of saltines. It was delicious soup. I had a Dr. Brown’s soda and my mother had iced tea (you wouldn’t believe how long it took her to tear open a package of sugar, pour it into the tea, do that again, then slowly stir the sugar in, while I wondered the whole time if the glass was about to go over. I guess this made up for all the times she watched me when I was a child.) I enjoyed the soup, but sat there wondering how we would get out of there.
We started out more or less the way we had arrived: she held onto my left arm, and with my right hand I held up her pants. That went well for a while (though it was no easy thing to open the door. I did that with my butt). By the time we crossed the street (drivers in both lanes saw my plight and stopped for us. Thank you, people of Squirrel Hill. Mahzel tov!), my mother’s posture had deteriorated, as it tended to do sometimes, so she was bent almost double. It looked as if I were holding her up with my left arm and hauling her ass along with my right. It almost looked as if I were abusing some poor elderly woman. Finally we made it across the street, and I somehow unlocked the car door and got it open (I didn’t do that with my butt), got her into the car, when I noticed she was missing a shoe. She didn’t seem to have noticed at all.
Had she only been wearing one shoe the whole time, or had it come off in the deli? Would she be all right while I ran over to the deli to find out? (I ignored the other questions that came to mind constantly, like What if I got run over by a car? What if I dropped dead of a heart attack? What would happen to her then? She didn’t even know where she lived.) I tried to tell her where I was going, though of course she couldn’t hear me (and wouldn’t remember if she had). But I had to see if I could find that shoe.
The waitress was standing there holding it.
It was moments like that when I wondered, honest to God, why was I even coming to Pittsburgh? Had this gone to a point where it had gotten ridiculous?
But I couldn’t stop coming. I had to do what I could for my mother, as long as she was around.
I know it isn’t funny to laugh at a woman in her condition. But I can tell you, as someone who knew her for 62 years, that my mother would have been laughing at this story louder than anyone, especially if I told it, because she loved to laugh at my stories. And it seems that laughing is as good as crying in this situation. It’s the same kind of relief. Tears pour from the eyes either way.
My old writing mentor Reynolds Price2, who also taught Milton, used to say that from the Christian point of view the history of the human race is a comedy, because it has a happy ending. You might have a horrible tragic life, die a dreadful death, but then you rise from the dead and live again in Christ, so—since works of art are classified by their ending—it’s a comedy. None of that terrible stuff that happened was important. You look back and it all seems trivial.
Eastern thought makes the same assertion, but in a different way. Life isn’t a comedy because it ends well, and you finally unite with your Creator; the truth is that you’re united with your Creator all along (as Christian mystics would probably say as well). That’s the reality of your existence. The dreadful things that seem to happen have no reality. You’re at one with everything; nothing is really happening, and there’s no beginning or end. Everything just is.
And yet we live our lives, and see them as real. My mother grew up as a girl on Lang Avenue in Pittsburgh, her father a pharmacist and her mother a homemaker. Her father—one of the sweetest and most serene people I ever met, at least when he was old—had grown up on a West Virginia farm and had a countrified side that my mother was always trying to escape, so somehow or other, at some point in her life, she became more of an authority on etiquette than Emily Post. If you ever wanted to know the appropriate thing to do in any situation (not necessarily the spontaneous thing, or the thing you wanted to do) you asked her. Her family also went through the Depression, which was unspeakably difficult. So it must have been a wonderful thing for her and for her whole family when she met and then married my father, the son of Pittsburgh’s first dermatologist and a young man on the way to medical school himself. My sister Sally was born in 1940.
That brief idyll was interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, after which my father enlisted and became a medic, serving eventually in the Philippines. My mother and Sally followed him all over the country during basic training, then moved back to the house she had grown up in and waited for his return. There must have been enormous anxiety in all that. But finally he did return; his father bought him a house, let him finish his training, and welcomed him into his practice. My brother Bill was born in 1946, I in 1948, Rusty in 1955.
What followed was an idyllic period as a postwar fifties housewife. We had a beautiful house, a comfortable life. There was a worm at the heart of it after my father discovered in 1959 that he had leukemia, and was given two to four years to live. But my parents kept that to themselves so as not to disturb his patients, and told almost no one. They didn’t tell Bill and me until six months before he died.
My father’s death on the first day of 1965 (he had lasted two years longer than the doctors thought) marked a new period. There was a grim sadness to her eyes that I hadn’t seen before, a determination to her jaw, as she set about raising the family on her own. I was soon off to college, and she didn’t urge me not to go. Rusty was nine when my father died, and she stayed in the old house until he was gone. I don’t mean to make the whole time sound grim; there were many hilarious moments (my family was good at hilarity). But there was something fundamentally missing from her life when she didn’t have a husband. She wanted to devote herself to a family, and to a man.
That is why the period that followed seems the least characteristic in her whole life, though she made the best of it. She sold the house, moved to a small apartment in Oakland, and lived among the old widows who filled the apartment buildings there. She worked as a receptionist for a doctor not far from her apartment. She made a group of women friends, most—though not all—single like herself. She developed a life on her own. When it came time for her to retire, we wondered if she’d have enough money.
Probably her best friend—one of the women who wasn’t single—was Kitty Edwards, whom she’d known for most of her life, at least as far back as when their sons were born two days apart in the same hospital (me and Kitty’s first, also named David). Kitty had successfully battled alcoholism, become a staunch member of AA in Pittsburgh, then was stricken with cancer. When she died, out of the blue, everyone seemed to realize at once that her widower was a perfect match for my mother. He may have realized it sooner than the rest of us. She married again in 1983, after eighteen years as a widow.
What followed was what I think of as the happiest years of her life. There were no money anxieties, no children to raise, just a burgeoning number of grandchildren (there were five children in the Edwards family, four in ours). They traveled all over this country and Europe, spent three months every year in Florida. She had a man to look after. Even at the age of 89, she still drove off in her little car to buy the groceries.
When Dick died of a stroke in 2006, after 22 years of marriage, she shored herself up to be a widow again. This time it was going to be harder. Most of her friends were dead.
I did push her across the street in her wheelchair on that cold snowy night in January. I’d decided that driving in Pittsburgh was just too treacherous that weekend, as was the prospect of getting her out of the car and into a wheelchair myself. In November I’d had my wife to help me.3 The assisted living facility was adjacent to a Marriott hotel, connected by a parking garage, so I could park the car there with no problem. And my former brother in law, my sister’s first husband, had told me that this Italian chef was one of the best in the area.
I had actually noticed the step. I had taken a walk earlier and scouted out the place, noticed that there was a step in the front. The garden entrance at the side had no step—it was the natural handicapped access—but the garden was shin deep in snow. So I called ahead of time, told them I’d be coming, and a strong waiter came to help us in the door, my mother in a full mink coat,4 a little beret, some brown kid gloves. Even so, she yelled “It’s cold!” when we shoved off through the door of her building; it was cold and windy and slushy and snowy. But we got her over there, and made it into one of the most wildly decorated restaurants I’d even seen, bric a brac all over the walls and on every available surface, two fireplaces roaring, Frank Sinatra playing on the soundtrack.5 It was shame she couldn’t hear.
The dinner went reasonably well. At Italian restaurants—we normally went to that one in Squirrel Hill—I ordered her penne with a simple sauce, so she wouldn’t have to deal with stringy pasta. I had them bring her a small salad, though it would take her twenty minutes to eat it. I had them bring Chianti in a small glass, so she could handle it easily. I shared tiramisu with her, which she loved. She ate more of that than she did of the pasta.
Whenever food arrived at the table, she seemed not to know what to do. I put her fork in position for her and show her. And in the middle of the meal, a bad smell arose. It wasn’t that she had an accident, exactly; she had on those diapers. But I realized that, if anyone had been sitting at the table next to us, they would have had to move. They wouldn’t have been able to enjoy their dinner. I wondered if I could keep bringing her to restaurants.
After my sister died, there was some discussion about whether or not to tell my mother. Bill thought we shouldn’t tell her, and that there was no need to take her to the funeral; she’d just keep asking where we were, what we were doing. We’d have to break the bad news over and over. He’d had to break bad news to her any number of times. No, your husband isn’t coming. He’s dead. Your parents aren’t coming. He’d been through a lot.
I—who hadn’t had to face those situations—thought she deserved the dignity of hearing that her daughter had died, even if she only knew for a moment. If I kept having to repeat it, I’d repeat it. I would take care of her at the funeral and the reception. I didn’t want to have this huge family gathering without her.
I’d spent considerable amounts of time asking myself how I would tell her. But I hadn’t counted on her hearing loss. Even on my last trip to see her, I’d been able to communicate with her if I sat by her good ear and spoke loudly. But her hearing had diminished since then. And I hadn’t realized—this seems really stupid—that I wouldn’t want to shout this news.
“You could write it on a pad,” the woman who stayed with her said. “Sometimes we write things on a pad.”
That seemed to be the best solution.
My mother had brightened when my wife and I came into the room. She always brightened when we came into the room.6 She thought we were there for something good.
We sat on either side of her. She still wore that bright happy smile.
I have bad news, I wrote on the pad. That was the first thing I’d intended to say.
I’d thought that I would then tell her how Sally had been diagnosed, how she didn’t want our mother to know, hoped we wouldn’t ever have to tell her. The doctor at first had been optimistic about how long Sally might live.
But I didn’t have time to go into all that. I didn’t want the suspense to build up. I didn’t know how much my mother could take in.
I wrote, Sally had cancer. She didn’t want you to know. She died last week.
When my mother read those words, she visibly slumped in her chair, didn’t look up from the pad. Her heart beat faster. Her whole torso caved in. Her face flushed.
Alma—as she told me later—was thinking the same thing I was. The news alone had killed her.
I touched my mother’s arm and spoke. “I’m sorry. We hoped we wouldn’t have to tell you.”
In a way, that was like saying, we hoped you would die first. That is what we hoped. But we hoped Sally would live much longer.
She couldn’t hear me anyway.
I took the pad and wrote, The funeral is tomorrow.
“What time?” she said.
I held up two fingers.
“I’ll have to try to sleep in,” she said.
Alma took the pad and wrote, The whole family will be there. My mother brightened at that.
By that time, we both agreed later, she had forgotten what we’d told her.
She did fine at the funeral. She had no idea why we were there, just knew that she was in church. More and more, she went with whatever was going on, didn’t question it. She certainly enjoyed the reception, with all the family around. Many people came up to her and said how terrible it was that Sally had died, and she nodded, smiled, but fortunately couldn’t hear them.
The next day, my son and his wife wanted to bring their two year old son August to visit her at the assisted living facility. August had briefly met his great grandmother at the funeral, but they wanted him to spend time with her. I told them there was no predicting how things would go, and they understood. This might be his only chance to see her.
It was one of those days. She was sitting in the red leather chair she had occupied ever since she moved into the place. If she was in the apartment, she was either in the red chair or in bed. The television was on, as it had been ever since we had hired those women to take care of her. She watched a steady diet of movies and sitcoms, or at least they did.
The problem that day was that she couldn’t sit up. She couldn’t hear, of course, probably didn’t know who these people were, though all the children in the family had a certain look when they were young, and August had it too. She probably had a vague understanding that this was one of her descendents. But she leaned way over in the chair, in a way that looked dreadfully uncomfortable, and I thought, Why do people live on like this when they can’t even sit up? What’s the point of going through this agony? It was stupid to ask questions that had no answer, but I did anyway. I wished there were something I could do for her, but there wasn’t.
I felt that way a lot. Almost constantly.
August circled her warily. He seemed simultaneously fascinated and slightly frightened. She looked right back at him, all bent over like that. Toward the end, when we said it was time to go, he gave her a funny little wave, toward the floor, not raising his hand, maybe because she was all bent over like that. It was as if he were waving to the floor. She waved back the same way.
That was the moment of recognition between those two distant generations. It seemed like enough.
My mother had a beautiful smile. Everyone remarked on it, people in the assisted living facility, the women who took care of her. Even in the most trying of circumstances, she tried to smile and make light of them, and as she got toward the end of her life, and her dementia became severe, she smiled at everything, often because she had no idea what was going on.
On her last Christmas, for instance, Sally had died, Bill was in Europe, Rusty in Colorado, and I had to help look after Alma’s parents for their celebration. So my mother went off to celebrate with the African American family who took care of her and—according to Lila—ate well and laughed a lot at dinner. That night she stayed in the guest room at one of Lila’s granddaughters, and though she had often balked and acted a little crazy when she’d had to stay at Sally’s in previous years, she did fine with it, sleeping as well there as anywhere.
I think that toward the end she never knew where she was, even when she was at home. She trusted it was the right place.
And on the day before she died, when Alma and I arrived at the hospice and stood at her bedside, she opened her eyes and tried to say hi, just the faintest trace of that radiant smile crossing her face.
I wonder if, once she knew her family was there, she figured she could go ahead and die.
We had come from Florida, the same place in Sarasota that she’d gone with my stepfather for 22 years. We hadn’t considered taking her, though we had done that so a year before; we knew she wasn’t in good enough shape. We’d wondered what it would be like to go without her. Everything we did would bring up memories of past trips. But those were good memories for the most part, and trips always stirred up such things. We figured we’d go and let the memories arise.
The trip seemed jinxed from the start. There was a mix-up with our rental car; we’d asked for a compact, and wound up with a huge gas guzzling SUV. On our way out for a walk on Sunday, Alma slipped on the stone steps and cut a deep gash in her arm, so we spent the morning at the emergency room.
But the most ominous thing was the news about my mother. We were scheduled to leave on Saturday, and on Friday my sister in law Vicki—a doctor herself—thought my mother should go to the emergency room, just because she didn’t look good. We thought about canceling our trip. But on Friday evening Vicki called to say my mother looked much better. Her cough was bronchitis, not pneumonia, and she didn’t have a fever. She had a small bladder infection as well. She’d been dehydrated and looked much better once she got on an IV. Vicki thought she’d probably go back to the assisted living facility the next day.
But as soon as we got to Florida the news got worse. Her body stopped taking in the fluids, bloating up so they had to stop the IV. She wasn’t getting any nourishment, because she wasn’t eating. At one point a nurse said she was actively dying, and would qualify for hospice. Alma and I decided to fly back to Durham—we had all the wrong clothes—and continue from there to Pittsburgh.
That little smile when we got there—and her attempt to speak—was the last moment of responsiveness we saw. We stayed for several hours that Wednesday afternoon, but my brother Rusty arrived after a while, and Alma and I dominated the bedside space, so we decided to leave and give him a chance. The next morning he went in early again, and we went with Vicki to start cleaning up the apartment.
By the time we arrived that afternoon, my mother had not responded all day, and her breathing was harsh and labored, painful to watch. She seemed to cling to life tenaciously, as her father had (he lived to be 89); she had a strong life force, which kept her going long past the time when she could function. Alma and I were there with my two brothers, and our Uncle Bob, my mother’s brother. Eventually her minister joined us. We had plenty of support.
At one point I had to step out to make a phone call to Vicki, and while I was out my mother hemorrhaged slightly, blood coming from her mouth. The hospice folks asked everyone to leave while they cleaned her up. By the time we got back her breathing was less harsh, somewhat slower.
The nurse told us she might have periods of apnea where she stopped breathing, then started again. After a while there seemed to be one such moment where the breathing had stopped, then she got a strange look on her face and hemorrhaged again, much more blood this time. Once again the hospice folks asked us to leave. I thought that might be the moment of death, but when we came back she was still breathing, much more slowly and peacefully. The nurse said the whole thing might happen again.
But it didn’t. Her breathing got slower and slower, then finally there was a long exhalation and she didn’t inhale again. Slowly, moment by moment, the color, and the life, passed out of her.
I had watched my stepfather die, so I had seen the process before. We dread people’s deaths, put them off any way we can. But the actual process seems completely natural. It’s a good thing, rather than a bad one, to see it.
My immediate reaction—which continued for some time—was relief. She had struggled for so long. Now she wouldn’t have to struggle.
My mother could be grouchy, though not often with me. Sometimes she got that way when she was tired and in pain. She could be petty and vindictive; there weren’t many people in the world whom she didn’t like, but when she felt that way, she didn’t change her mind. She could be mean and sarcastic. When Bill was young my father said to him, “Women are often suspicious of other women. Especially your mother.” So we had that opinion to consider.
Toward the end of her life, however, she showed an extraordinary sweetness, at least to me. After all those difficult years as a widow, she’d stumbled into something wonderful, and she knew it. Even once she became a widow for the second time, she knew she’d been lucky. And she went through the indignities of a slow death—the last four years of her life—with as much grace as she could.
I think I gave my mother her last drink. It was during that weekend in January, after that ill-fated trip to the Italian restaurant, during which she’d had some Chianti. I decided the next night to take her to my hotel room, in that hotel that was contiguous to the assisted living facility. I could get a takeout from Boston Market and have it in the room. The rooms in that Marriott were small suites, with a dining area and kitchenette; actually, they were mirror images of those in the assisted living facility. I could push her across the parking deck, which wasn’t as cold as out in the weather. I could get her out of the room she had to inhabit all the time, but not really go anywhere. She had enjoyed that in the past.
She seemed more tired that night than on Friday, and somewhat disheveled, though her caretaker thought we were going out. And as it turned out she was quite hungry; when I finally put the food out—I had cut the chicken into small pieces, and there was spinach and green beans as well, with a small piece of cornbread—she was so hungry that she picked the pieces up with her fingers and wolfed them down. The night before she hadn’t been sure how to use her fork, and on this night she skipped the fork altogether.
It was good to see her eat with hunger. But it was also jarring, I must admit, to see my mother, always the most fastidious of women, eating with her fingers. The chicken was one thing, but the spinach was another, and crumbs from everything—especially the cornbread—spilled down her front. People notice that older folks become like children, but we had gone back to the infant level here. This wasn’t two people having a meal. It was a hungry human being getting food down as fast as she could, paying no attention to who else was there.
For dessert there was apple pie, and I pointedly put her fork on the plate, but wished later I hadn’t done that, because she had so much trouble using it. I should have cut the pie into pieces and let her use her fingers.
But before all that, before I knew she was so hungry, probably before she knew—I’m not sure she could relate physical feelings to specific needs—we had a drink and watched the basketball game, just like in the old days. I drank beer and she drank VO and soda, her favorite drink. I’d bought a one shot bottle at the liquor store.
For many years the cocktail hour had been a ritual in her life. My father always had a drink when he came home from work, and for my stepfather it was the highlight of the day, especially if there were other people around. He loved that convivial ceremony of having a drink. Even after she’d moved into assisted living, the women who took care of her mixed her a drink and gave her some peanuts at the appropriate hour. I often had the feeling, when I sat with her, that she enjoyed that more than anything else she got. She didn’t need dinner, thank you very much. Just give her another drink and keep those peanuts coming.
For a while, actually, there seemed to be a problem with that. Before she had someone staying with her around the clock, she sometimes went out in the middle of the night, took down the bottle from the cabinet, and poured herself a stiff one. Her caretakers would find the bottle on the counter the next morning. Sometimes they thought some worker from the facility might be coming in to take a pop, and that did seem possible. Various people had keys, and there was thievery around the place. But my mother, the next day, would often sleep in late, and be a little groggy when she woke up. A thief would have probably had the good sense to put the bottle back. Her caretakers concluded she was the one who was drinking.
My mother in her whole life had never even remotely had what you could call a drinking problem. Not even close. She always had weak drinks, and held what she drank well. She never got up for a drink in the middle of the night. It seemed so unlike her.
When I told Alma’s father about it, a man in his late eighties, who was also starting to feel confined in his life, he said, “Good for her.”
Her caretakers wanted to hide the bottles, or put them where she couldn’t get them, but Sally, to her eternal credit, said no. Her mother was an adult. If she wanted a drink, she could have a drink.
She was a woman with dementia, of course. Was that drinking a product of her dementia, so that she stumbled into the kitchen in the middle of the night without knowing what she was doing, looked for something to drink and just took that bottle out of the cabinet because it was there? That didn’t seem likely, when she could so easily drink water.
Or was it instead a moment of clarity—she had those—when she realized she was in assisted living, realized she wasn’t ever going to get out (it could only get worse), understood there was nothing she could do about it, and went out to get a drink? Fuck this shit (words she would never have said). I need a hit of VO.
I know what Alma’s father would say.
As her general condition got worse, her caretakers stopped giving her that drink, both because it made her too sleepy for dinner and because a couple of her caretakers were so young they probably didn’t even know how to mix a drink. It didn’t matter.
So it occurred to me the other day (and this was the single fact that enabled me to look at all this again; until then I had been vaguely aware that I needed to write about my mother, but didn’t know where to start) that the small drink I gave her—I mixed it light—might have been the last drink she ever had. Her final cocktail hour.
We were watching the ball game. “This is Duke,” I said to her, the school where all three of her sons had gone. She looked at me. “This is Duke,” I said, louder—she had always enjoyed rooting for them—and she just looked at me. “This is Duke’s basketball team.” She looked back at the TV, which always seemed to be on those days, basketball or something else. She watched the silent flickering images on the screen, took another sip from her drink.
I only wish I’d brought some peanuts.
1 It’s like the old joke about the man who went to the doctor. “I have bad news,” the doctor said. “You have cancer, and you have Alzheimer’s.” “Well,” the patient said, “at least I don’t have cancer.”
2 He also died this year. My sister died in November, Reynolds in January, my mother in March. As a friend of mine once said when she was going through a difficult time: okay, it’s the law of impermanence, everything disappears. I get it. You can quit teaching now.
3 One of the factors of my mother’s “forgetting” was that she forgot how to do simple physical actions. She took liquid into her mouth and didn’t know what to do with it. The women who took care of her had a little sign that said, Swallow. We would stop the car somewhere, and I’d go around to get her out, and she would smile at me expectantly, but she didn’t know what to do with her body to get out of the car. When she entered her final crisis in March—it took her less than a week to die—the real problem, according to my sister in law, a retired doctor, was that my mother could no longer take in food. She had forgotten how to swallow.
4 Sorry, animal rights activists, but she was from an earlier generation, and I suspect it was a symbol of how far she’d come from Lang Avenue.
5 She and my father had seen him at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier in the early years. He remained her all time favorite singer.
6 The previous March, we had organized an elaborate trip to take her to Florida. Each of her children would stay for a week, giving her a full month, and her primary caretaker would come along, the matriarch of the caretaker family, Lila. When they arrived at the Sarasota airport, and my mother saw me, the way she suddenly brightened, and waved, made the whole trip worthwhile. It made everything worthwhile that I’d ever done for her.