Monday, July 27, 2015

At My Mother's Deathbed

The leaves of the plum tree outside the window are
Liquid-like blood spatters when the sun plays
Behind them.
I can’t remember about photosynthesis, how it works
When the leaves aren’t green.

The pillowcase under her head is a stiff, bleached field of white
Sprayed with tiny pink flowers,
Not the one from yesterday, which was, as I recall,
Blue with yellow stripes.

Memory: she took me out of school—fourth grade?  fifth?—and
We rode an AC Transit bus to the city to buy clothes at
J. Magnin, and she told me
Red wasn’t my color.

Sitting on the window sill are
Two mismatched plastic water glasses—
One a quarter full of Ensure, the other of water—
Each with a maroon-handled metal spoon
Leaning against its rim.

On the dresser, a photograph of her and my one-year-old son, who wore
A blue shirt and red Oshkosh overalls,
Very much the fashion in 1986.

Her moaning is terrible until
I ask Kathleen to give her the morphine
Half an hour early.

Her watch, which she keeps checking, is
Large-faced, with a stretchy red band.
“Twenty-five dollars at CVS,” she often told me,
Even when she could no longer remember
My son’s name.

Another memory: she taught me to play mahjong
When I was nine, then waited for me to come home
So we could set up tiles on the table in front of
French doors that opened onto the fern garden. 
Winds, dragons, flowers.
Bam, crack, dot.
“Real players play it faster,” she
Liked to let me know.

She was born when Woodrow Wilson was president.

Her fingers look just like mine.

The moaning is terrible.  She is pulling at the sheet.
“We’ll call the nurse,” Kathleen says.

The painting on the wall is one she
Painted of our house in 1964.
In it, the green leaves of trees—
Whose conversion of light into chemical energy I
Through the window of my father’s study,
Pens and pencils bloom
In a squat, red pot.
She took a class through Adult Ed.  One class.

The red doesn’t mean anything.  It is just
What was,
The truth around us on
Those days. 
I thought writing it down would
Safeguard the details of grief,
The minutia of loss,
Would remind me how I felt, watching
The empty gaze,
The caving-in of skin over bone,
The arms vainly flailing,
The rattle-y slowing-down.

But it is already fading, all that.
And what I mainly remember is hopefully modeling the plaid dress 
In the tiny, mirrored room, 
And then my heart shriveling in my chest as she told me, authoritatively, that
I should try on something blue instead.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

First Thoughts on the Death of My Mother

She died.  My mother died.

It still feels weird to say.

She died Sunday, June twenty-first, at about 1:30 in the afternoon.  I wasn’t there, although I’d been with her every day for the past three weeks, but when I got the call, I went up and sat with her at the Board and Care before she was taken away.   I was afraid, kind of: I’d never seen a dead person before.  And she looked really dead.  Not herself.  Her mouth was open.  Her hand, when I held it, was icy, just as I thought and couldn’t quite believe it would be.

I sat with her again the next day, at the mortuary, with my ex-husband, who wanted to see her.  She looked better than the day before.  Actually, she looked quite beautiful.  My ex-husband and I had a lovely conversation for about twenty minutes, and afterward we both said we almost expected her to sit up and participate.

Everything around the death of someone close to you is surreal and odd.  Some of it is horrible and some of it isn’t.  Some of it makes you want to laugh, and then you feel ghoulish and heartless.  But, you know, feelings.  We get to have them.

I made all the arrangements on Monday.  On Thursday, I was driving to my early-morning spin class when I got a phone call from Marty, the mortician.  (Seriously.) 

“I’m calling to let you know that cremation is about to begin,” he intoned.

“Oh,” I said.  “Okay.”  Inside, I was like, What the fuck?   Now I have to think about this during hill surges?

Marty laughed.  “There’s no going back now!” he said, in a surreally gleeful way.

I think morticians don’t hear themselves, sometimes.

The service was nice.  Oddly nice.  My closest friends showed up even though most of them didn’t know my mother.   I saw some cousins I haven’t seen in a while.  I spoke and the rabbi said, “You done good” afterward, which was comforting, if purposely ungrammatical.  My daughter said she was proud of me.  Robert cried.  And then we had hors d’oeuvres in an oddly, surreally elegant room at a local hotel.

I have been sick since the night of the twenty-first: nothing too serious, just the sorts of things requiring doctor visits and medications that (I found out too late) interact adversely.   I Googled it and found a scientific explanation of how grief mucks around with the immune system.  It’s why people often die after their spouses of long standing have passed away.  They succumb to infections, their bacteria-killing neutrophils incapacitated.

I don’t feel as though I’m grieving.  I feel as though I’m getting on with things.  But my neutrophils know better.

People say that sitting with the dying can be beautiful.  I never understood that before, but I do now.  My mother and I had some moments—during her last hospital visit and in the Board and Care during that last week—that I will treasure for the rest of my life.  It was almost as though she was finally able take a machete to the plaques and tangles that had been gumming up her neurons for years.   I am grateful to have been there, to have seen what I saw and heard what I heard. 

I’m going to write about this more, but I think I’ve written all I can for the moment. 

Writing helps.  Eventually, writing always helps.  

Thursday, May 28, 2015


My mother--ninety-five and sinking ever more steadily into the abyss of dementia--is now living in a board-and-care facility, attended by caregivers whose native language is Hungarian (as is hers).  These people are devoted to their charges, kind beyond all expectation, gentle in the face of imminent death.  I am so relieved that our paths crossed, and that my mother can live out her life in such a lovely home.

I am learning that her decline precipitates a lot of chaos.  Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with Comcast, trying to cancel her account.  This should have been simple, but as any inhabitant of the modern era knows, it wasn't.  I had to fax proof of my power of attorney, and the company's fax machine was out of ink.  Hours.  Plus, I had to talk to a Comcast employee, which is just the sort of thing writers hate doing.  I mean, everyone hates doing it, but writers hate doing it more, because it involves 1) talking to someone who isn't very interesting and 2) not writing.  

Today I am supposed to cancel my mother's subscription to MagicJack, which has something to do with phones, and which she evidently signed herself up for and never used.  I figure this will take at least a month.

In the last few weeks, there have been three trips to the emergency room, two hospital admissions, and phone consultations with a variety of doctors.  There has been the misery of learning that my mother's apartment is unlivable--black mold in the kitchen, not her fault--and trying to coordinate repairs.  (Again, more phone conversations, more dolts.)  There is the matter of an  insurance-policy premium payment.  In the next week, I have to close out a bank account.  Everything is urgently needed, deadline-dependent, required ASAP.  


Of course, the non-chaotic parts of life go on, and these are wonderful, or at the very least, a welcome respite: pedaling to exhaustion in spin class, getting trounced by an old high-school buddy in Words with Friends, baking gluten-free beignets while listening to Frank Sinatra, texting someone far away, grabbing quick dinners with adult children.  Reading (most recently, The Gold Finch, All the Light We Cannot See, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: all excellent).  Fulfilling orders at my online store (

Best of all, I've started working on a new YA novel.  Because, as Flannery O'Connor said, "Not-writing is a good deal worse than writing."  And also, because it beats talking to Heather at Comcast (who was perfectly nice and who I hope doesn't read this).

Back to chaos, which, in this case, is really another word for distraction.  It is a way of focusing on small, meaningless tasks so that when you finally accomplish something--close an account, pay a bill--you feel a tiny, empowering surge of control, a sense that You Are Handling Things.  This is important.  It is nice to be reminded that some aspects of life are manageable, and that you are not always a dithering crazy person who was so addled talking to the palliative-care nurse outside the ER that you accidentally lost your purse and had to spend the entire weekend cancelling credit cards and now have no money and have to ask Robert to pay for gas.  

And it is nice to forget, if only momentarily, the big thing that is happening, that will make you ache with sadness for a long, long time, that will change everything.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Conversation with My Mother

I drove up to see my mother today.  She was happy to see me, demonstrative, affectionate.  She hugged me at the door and then again after she put on her shoes.  Her feet are almost inhuman: misshapen, crooked, all knobs and wayward bones.  She will be 95 next month.

I held her hand in the elevator, and then on the short walk to the car.  She was tippy, as though she was log-rolling.  When she lowered herself into the car, she was out of breath.  

I spend so much time examining her failing cognition that I forget to account for her body's slow decline.  

In the car, my mother seemed less interested in looking at pretty houses than usual.  She wanted me to tell her stories about her life.  She was especially anxious to hear about her marriage.  "Did we love each other?" she asked.  "Were we happy?"

(I have to manage my habitual honesty.  Long ago, I realized I would rather be authentic and true to myself than happy [although the older I get, the more I question this, because what the hell is so bad about being happy?].  But people with dementia don't need or appreciate truthfulness.  So I am learning to talk less and gloss over the undeniable.  I feel it as a slowing down, a gentling.  And also a kind of editing.  I look for what is true and can be said, leaving out what is true and hurtful.)

"Yes," I said.  "You were good friends."

"Was he happy here?"

"Here" is Piedmont, a beautiful town east of San Francisco.  I realize I don't know the answer.  My father was preoccupied with his surgery practice and his life away from home.  He died when I was 19, before I had any interest in finding out whether he considered himself happy.

"I think so," I said.

"I can barely remember him," Mom said.  "It's the strangest thing."

"He died a long time ago, Mom.  And you are pretty damn old."

She laughed.  "It's something, isn't it?"

Sometimes, it is like we are just talking.  

Then she asked "Did we live together?" and I felt the familiar presence of her illness--another passenger in the car, sitting in the back seat, noisily demanding that I turn up the radio or open a window--encroaching.

"Who?  You and Dad?"

"No.  You and me."

"Did we live together?  You and me?"

She nodded yes.  

My brain--which still works, which works almost without my awareness--began to assemble my answer, slow my tongue.  The way you tell your four-year-old about sex: just the facts, deliberately stated in a pleasant tone of voice.  Mildly.  Nothing that will cause shame or outrage.

"I lived with you from the time I was born until I was 18.  I'm your daughter.  We lived together for 18 years."

"Oh!"  she said, and then a moment later, "Oh!  Of course!"  

Then she said, haltingly, "I thought you and I were the same, in position to him."

I took a second.  Then I said, "No.  I was Dad's daughter.  You were his wife."

She nodded as if she understood.  But I'm not sure she did.  I'm not sure she ever did.  I think her husband's uncomplicated, total love for his daughter was a source of hurt and anger for her for nearly all of my life.  I think it colored everything that happened in our family.  It was in the air we breathed. Unstated, but there.  Undeniable.

"I am your daughter," I said.

She smiled.  "Oh, yes.  And I love you.  And you are wonderful.  A wonderful girl, to come and see me."

And then I stopped talking, because that seemed to be a pretty good time to end the conversation.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why I Haven't Been Writing (Until Today)

I haven’t written in forever.  It’s a horrible, horrible feeling.

My 94-year-old mother’s ongoing battle with dementia continues.  My brother (with whom I am newly and happily reconciled) and I are trying desperately to allow her to live out her life in her own home, with 24-hour care.  It’s expensive as hell.

For the first time in my adult life, I have to worry about money.   If I don’t proceed carefully, my brother and I will have to move my mother to some sort of facility.
This would make her so unhappy.

So writing—which is what I love, what I believe I was put on this earth to do—has had to take a backseat while I give all my attention to an e-commerce site I’ve started.  (More about that below.)

I know how lucky I am.  I have been able to write and publish middle-grade fiction for many years without worrying too much about money.  And the fact that even in a worst-case scenario, my mother will still be able to get good care in a nursing home makes me very fortunate indeed.

Lucky.  Very lucky.  I know.
But I’m angry anyway.  Maybe it’s not a reasonable thing to feel.  I’m not living in a hut or worrying about missiles obliterating the restaurant where I’m eating.  I’m not a kid sitting at the border of some country, begging to be let in.

Before starting—an online site that allows you to customize care packages for young adults living away from home—I was working on a short story about a little girl living in Cleveland in the 1920s.  The little girl was based on my mother, until I realized I wanted something to happen to her that didn’t actually happen to my mother.  (Note to aspiring writers: this is why you don’t use real people as characters in your books.)  I haven’t looked at the story in six months.

So today I’m doing what real writers do.  I’m getting up at 6:30 (two hours before spin class), tiptoeing through the house so I won’t wake Robert up,  squinting in the early golden light, shivering in my unheated office.  Writing.

If you are interested in buying unique, fun, interesting gifts for college kids, please visit my site:

Monday, May 12, 2014

On Beloved TV Shows and Endings and Memory

A funny thing happened recently.  In the space of two weeks, I realized that my certainty about the final episodes of two well-known TV series was in error.

Robert and I were talking about finales.  I maintained that in “The Wonder Years,” Kevin’s voice-over (Daniel Stern’s, actually) let us know that after high school, he and Winnie Cooper never saw each other again.

In fact, Kevin relates that he and Winnie wrote each other a letter a week for the next eight years.  And that when Winnie returns from Paris, where she has been studying art, Kevin meets her at the airport with his wife and eight-month-old son.  (This is all from Wikipedia, by the way.  It kind of rang a bell when I read it.)

Similarly, I was positive that Ross and Rachel didn’t end up together in the final episode of “Friends.”  Absolutely positive.

All this has me thinking about memory, which is much on my mind anyway, as my 94-year-old mother is succumbing to dementia.  And about stories, and about endings.

As writers, we pay a lot of attention to endings.  Some of us even start there.  (I don’t, but some of us do.)  If we are serious about our work, we go to great pains to craft an ending that makes logical sense and offers a satisfying conclusion to the story line without veering into sentimentality or “over-neatness.”  At the same time, we try to end things.  No leaving it up to the readers’ imaginations, a non-solution that in all but the rarest of instances smacks of creative cowardice.

I’m sure the writers of “The Wonder Years” and “Friends” spent a lot of time writing those endings.  But I made up my own anyway.

So what does this mean?  Are the endings over which writers pore unimportant?

Of course not.  Endings matter enormously.  But I look at my inclination to rewrite mentally the endings of beloved TV shows as indicative of 1) the fact that I tend toward the gloomy (notice that in both instances, I assumed the worst) and 2) the splendid “spells” the shows’ writers cast over the duration of both series’ runs.  Kevin and Winnie and Ross and Rachel lived in fully realized fictive worlds, so real to me that I felt I knew them as actual people.*  Re-imagining their stories’ conclusions speaks to the verisimilitude the writers created, itself the result of masterful writing (among other things).

(*Do other people talk about TV characters as though they are real people?  My best friend and I do it all the time.  Sometimes we will sheepishly acknowledge what we’re doing, just to reassure ourselves that we haven’t lost all touch with reality.  But then we keep on talking.)

My mother’s memory fades from week to week.  She no longer reliably remembers that she grew up in Cleveland, that she had a beloved brother who died young, that I was married to Brian, that I have a son and a daughter. 

When she was first diagnosed, I kept trying to remind her of things she forgot or swore she never knew at all.  Gradually, I have learned not to do this unless she asks me to. 

In forgetting almost everything, she is rewriting her own ending.

At this point, I think it is more painful for me than it is for her.

I think I need to stop forcing her to stick to the script.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Running and Writing: The Way of the World

I have been training for an upcoming race.  Just writing this sentence is surreal.

It is safe to say that for the first part of my life, I disdained sport and athletics.  I was a happy bookworm and had no interest in sweating or breathing hard.  I dreaded P.E. in high school and routinely irritated gym teachers by my refusal to participate in any meaningful way.  In college, I passed the mandatory swimming test and fulfilled my gym requirement by taking Modern Dance, which I very much enjoyed but which just barely qualified as exertion.

In my thirties, after I had children, I realized Something Had to Be Done, so I began working out regularly in a gym.  For the first time, I fell a little bit in love with exercise.  I learned how to lift weights, how to do proper crunches, how to lunge and squat.  I saw results.  I liked feeling fit and strong.
But still I avoided doing much cardio.

Now, some twenty years later, I have embraced it.  The reasons are health-related, unimportant to anyone but me.  It has taken me several years to realize that running and spin classes are some of the happiest hours of my day.  I sweat buckets.  I heave and pant.  And it feels great.

I decided to run San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers several months ago and have been running regularly, upping my distances, improving my splits.  I’ve got a sore tendon in my foot that may cause some problems, but I’m still hopeful that I will make the race.  I will report on it if I do.

This afternoon, I was thinking about how all of this relates to writing.  I imagined crafting some clever sentences about how the two efforts demand similar discipline and a similar approach to setbacks and disappointments.  But in thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that this is pretty self-evident.

Here’s the bottom line: serious exercise demands that you get off your ass and do it.  Every day.  Even when it’s raining.  Even when you would rather be watching Shahs of Sunset or having lunch at Gayle’s with a friend or buying new sunglasses.  Even when you are sad.  Even when dinner needs to get shopped for and made.  Even when there is no time in the day, not a second, that isn’t already accounted for.

Serious writing demands exactly the same thing, except you have to sit your ass down to do it.  And I would add that it must be done even when no one is paying you to do it, which is what you always assumed someone would do.

I wish there were another way.  I wish it were easy.  But there isn’t, and it’s not.