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.