My mom died a year ago today, and here’s what I wrote then:
Tonight, just for a second, I thought, “I should call Mom and tell her Howard Dean’s on Countdown tonight.” And then I remembered she wasn’t here anymore.
It was a rough year for her. Since last December, she had three ruptured vertebrae in her back, which required two different surgeries and a total of five weeks of rehab in a nursing home. She was never pain-free again. She had congestive heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, compromised kidney function from years of diuretic use, and a host of other problems.
And she was stubborn as hell. The day before she died, my sister was arguing with her, telling her to turn the air conditioning on during this crippling heat wave. “It makes it harder for your heart to pump,” my sister said.
“Oh, really?” Mom said. “That’s funny, because the nurse comes to check me twice a week and she says my heart is extraordinarily strong.” My sister shook her head; I rolled my eyes and laughed. That was my mother’s version of “Considering that you’re 86 and have congestive heart failure, you’re not doing too bad.”
My mother was, um, a tad prone to exaggeration. Whenever she wanted you to do something, she would make up a story about “a friend” that such-and-such had happened, and here’s what happened to them, and “they wanted you to know what they did.”
Sure, Mom. Anything you say. Usually, we let it go in one ear and out the other.
Marie was what they call “a pistol.” She thought everyone was in awe of her and wanted to be her friend. Maybe she was right, but she also thought this about the cleaning people in the nursing home and the random supermarket baggers. Who knows?
She used to tell us about when she went to college and majored in English; a few years ago, my sister found out she’d taken one night class. We never told her we knew.
We don’t know how many times she was engaged; she told me it was five times. My sister said she never heard that. Again, who knows?
Marie loved to read, and when I was a kid, I read all her books: Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, John O’Hara. (The nuns were upset with her for letting me. She told them if I was old enough to understand, I was old enough to read them. And if I didn’t understand, what was the big deal?) I got my love of words from her. She used to keep scratch pads with word games by the phone, and we all learned to play them.
She dragged us to every museum in the city, I think. And when I was a little older, about 11, she’d give me two quarters for the trolley, a packed lunch, a map and a dime for an emergency phone call, and send me downtown to visit the historical sites. (I was a little surprised later when I found out no one else’s mother ever allowed that.)
My mom also had a mean streak. She was very funny, but she would say all kinds of hurtful things to us, and as we got older, we just learned to roll our eyes and say to ourselves, “Oh, Marie.”
It got a lot worse after my father died. She was so used to having a chauffeur on call, she was furious with us any time she wanted us to leave work and drive her someplace – usually to her doctor’s office, two blocks away. “You know, I was telling the doctor they sent me to that I had to take a cab, and she was shocked,” she told us. “She said, ‘You carried them around, now it’s time for them to carry you.” (Another one of her imaginary parables.)
But about two months ago, we saw a change. She started thanking us for everything we did, and she was trying a lot harder to be self-sufficient. She stopped complaining, mostly. Because she started to get up and move around, we were now able to take her places again. She was, finally, a pleasure to be around.
On Sunday morning, my sister and I took her to the local pancake house. Then she asked if I could move the plants off her porch so she could turn on the air conditioning. So we went up to her condo, moved the plants and talked for a bit before we left. (That’s when she refused to turn on the AC.) I’d brought her some fudge from when I was on vacation, and I figured she’d dive into it as soon as we left.
My sister was upset during the drive home. “You’re so patient with her,” she said. “I don’t know how you do it. You know, she really should turn on the air-conditioning, the heat is bad for her.”
“Look, she’s always lived exactly how she wanted to live, and she’s going to die the same way,” I said. “One day her aide will come in and find her in bed after she dies in her sleep. I’ve already accepted that.”
Monday morning, we got the call. Her home health aide showed up, couldn’t get in and got the maintenance people to let her in, where she found Mom’s lifeless form curled up in bed. The air-conditioning, of course, was off.
So we all went over and waited until the funeral home people showed up to get her. My brother looked stunned; my sister was crying quietly. Like my dad, I don’t show emotion easily, so I was okay, I thought.
Until I found the fudge I’d brought her in the freezer, and saw she’d never touched it. That’s when, standing in her tiny kitchen, I began to cry. Just a little.