I inherited Mom after Dad died. After a lifetime of exhorting me that all I needed to do was follow the instruction manual, dad didn’t leave me one. A series of small strokes, capped by a bigger one, left Mom confused, incontinent, and with limited mobility. Dad claimed he had to “work both ends of the street” to take care of Mom. Whether due to the strokes or the medications, Mom came to believe that her deceased sister, Madeleine, and their father, Frank, visited her on a regular basis. I not only inherited Mom, I got Madeleine and Frank too.
Frank flew the coop aeons ago to cruise the seven seas as a ship’s purser when Mom—named Fran after her father—was four years old and Madeleine, who had polio, was six. A poor-man’s version of Scrooge, Frank sent home 25 cents a week for each of the girls, but nothing for their mother, Beatrice. To support the girls, Beatrice and her widowed mother, Alice, worked 80 to 100 hour weeks as Irish washer women. They started washing and folding, but graduated in a few years to the riskier task of ironing.
While Beatrice and Alice toiled their inhumanly long hours, they shared a bed in a nearby rooming house. Meantime, for nearly seven years, Fran and Maddie lived with a succession of foster parents in Brooklyn. Mom complained that foster parents were required to provide them with one glass of fresh milk every day, but most watered it down. She had fond memories of only one, Mrs. Campbell, who didn’t. If they had time off, Beatrice and Alice saw the girls on occasional Sundays, and brought milk.
Mom’s delusions about visits by Frank and Madeline drove dad crazy. Exasperated, Dad, named Josh, repeatedly implored her, “Your father never visited you or did anything decent while he was alive. Why do you think he’d visit you now?” But everyone else knew that was precisely why she needed to imagine that he was finally coming to see her. Similarly, we knew she imagined her sister Madeleine was coming because they had huddled together for comfort during their years of foster care shuttling.
The last Christmas before Dad died, roughly a year after Mom’s delusions began, I asked her whether Frank and Madeleine were still paying her visits. She initially denied that they were. Later, while Dad was distracted in the kitchen, she whispered to me on the porch, “They really come all the time. Sometimes, I can’t get Madeline to leave she talks so damn much. But we can’t let your father know. He can’t handle it.”
The day before Valentine’s Day, Dad called and told me he planned to take Mom to a psychiatrist to get her drugs strong enough to “drive the devil out.” On Valentine’s Day, to celebrate their 60th Wedding Anniversary, Mom and Dad had a frill-free dinner out. Their usuals—dad’s pot roast with red cabbage and Mom’s garlicky shrimp scampi—had them both complaining of indigestion. Frank promised to come by but never showed up.
The day after, Dad tried to implement his plan to dispel Mom’s harmless delusions. However, as he hoisted Mom’s wheelchair into the trunk of the car, his heart gave out. Unable to walk or even yell for help, Mom stood frozen where Dad had taken the wheelchair from her. She watched him fall, drag himself upright again using his strong biceps, and then slowly slide on his back down the side of the car, ending up in sitting position. “Are you okay?” she later recalled asking him. “I’m okay,” he said. “Are you in pain?” she asked. “I feel no pain,” he said. As far as we know, “I feel no pain” were Dad’s last words as he died sitting up or, as he preferred to say, “bolt upright.”
After Dad died, we got Mom off most of her meds, including the anti-psychotics she never needed. She mostly returned to her normal, charming, even flirtatious self. We struggled with the prospect of surrendering her to the assisted living facility. Sight unseen, the unit manager, John, nearly rejected Mom’s application when he heard about her delusions. He mistakenly thought she hallucinated and was at risk of harming herself or others by interacting physically with her hallucinations. To satisfy his concerns, Mom was required to meet with John.
When John asked her about Frank’s and Madeline’s visits, Mom fired back, “Are you conniving to charge me for a triple?” Before he resumed breathing, Mom smiled coyly and in a voice barely louder than a whisper said, “They’re just my imaginary friends. Didn’t you ever have one?” John stammered, “Yes, but mine left when I was five.” Mom tilted her head to the right and asked, “Did you miss him when he left?” John said, “Actually, I still think about him sometimes.” Mom held out both of her hands, took his in hers, and said, “My dear, you have something to look forward to. He’ll come back again some day.” John, laughing, wiped away a tear, and called out to an aide, “Put Fran in the big single at the end of the hall. Move the extra sofa bed in there too.” As we wheeled Mom out, she winked at me with her right eye, feigned a bashful smile, and then winked with her left.
Mom’s biggest problem during her three years in captivity was food. She’d already lost about 20 pounds—roughly 15% of her body weight—in the year and a half prior to being taken captive. The doctor in charge admonished us, “Major weight loss in the elderly is predictive of premature mortality, so we want to try to fatten her up.” But Mom was a picky eater. Prickly would be more accurate. She’d once hurled a hot baked potato at a waiter when she’d asked for broiled and he served her baked.
Mom had no history of anorexic tendencies. When Mom and Dad married, Dad at 25 was a scrapping 115 pounds, whereas Mom at 22 was a lusty 143. Dad got off on calling her Crisco, hoping to elicit a quizzical “What for?” so he could smirk, “fat in the can.” Mom achieved her svelte form by laboring for four years at Brooklyn’s original Ebinger’s Bakery. While her official title was counter clerk, she surreptitiously had assumed responsibility for quality testing every product that emerged from Ebinger’s ovens. Then and now, she was in mode sipping a cup of steamy Maxwell House coffee while nibbling on a hunky slice of buttered crum cake. When they married, Mom’s face resembled a full moon in autumn. When she entered captivity, her face was drawn, but at least she had stopped sucking in her cheeks as if they were lemons, as one medication had caused her to do.
At most meals, the kitchen staff served Mom a can of Ensure, a nutritional supplement, and told her it was a “milk shake.” Mom watched with an eagle eye every time a can of Ensure was opened to ensure it wasn’t watered down. During the days after the Twin Towers were struck on 9/11, Mom asked me to bring over a 12-pack of Coca Cola. When I arrived and put the 12-pack on the table, she asked, “Is it alright if I drink all 12 cans at once?” I asked, “Why ever would you want to do that?” She opened both eyes wide, raising both her eyebrows, and announced, “They did say, we should be on extra high alert.”
Now and then, Mom reported that Dad snuck in during the night and left before sunrise. I never asked what they did together, though she probably would have told me. She sometimes claimed she was upset because Frank or Madeleine said they were coming and didn’t show up, or because Dad came to spend the night and left in the morning without saying goodbye. One morning, she called me in tears because Dad left her a red, long-stemmed rose on their cedar-lined hope chest.
When we broke her out, Mom could still be something of a live wire. As Mom sipped her final Mother’s Day coffee at a nearby brewpub, a young couple who were getting ready to leave dashed over. “We’ve been talking to each other and I just have to ask,” said a woman around 30, “are you the actress Maureen O’Sullivan?” Mom lifted her head majestically, batted her eyelashes, and asked, “How ever did you recognize me?” The young woman turned to her friend, “See, I told you!” Then she turned back to Mom, “The high cheekbones. They’re a dead giveaway.” Turning her head on a 45 degree angle, Mom shot back, “I hope not. I’d prefer they be a living giveaway.”
Seeing the young woman looked a tad embarrassed, Mom said, “Let me give you both a little kiss.” First she gave the young woman and then her friend a peck on the cheek. “You made our day,” said the young woman. “Oh, you made mine,” said Mom, “Thanks for noticing me.” Her high cheekbones glowed as she waved goodbye. NOTE: the real Maureen O’Sullivan had died three years before Mom’s willing act of mistaken identity.
Mom liked to flirt with a fame she only fantasized. Once, Mom went on the radio for a contest and sang, “You turn the tables on me” like Theresa Brewer and won a Bulova watch. During the second world war, when the men were away and the women held men’s jobs, Mom and “the girls” liked to go out on the town, and to get attention Mom claimed they were all Rockettes—dancing girls from Rockefeller Center.
My favorite story about Mom’s flirtations with fame involved an incident that occurred when my Mom and Dad were dating. They walked into a restaurant in their Brooklyn neighborhood, sat at the bar, and ordered lunch. Shortly afterward, a man wearing a blue suit sat down on Mom’s right and also ordered lunch. His was served pronto, while Mom and Dad still waited. Mom kept eyeing the man’s steak sandwich. After a while, he pushed it over a little so it was halfway between them. “I’ll split it witcha,” he said. Mom accepted the invitation. Together, they finished his steak sandwich, and he left shortly afterward.
Later, after Mom and Dad walked out of the restaurant, Dad threw up his hands and imploringly shouted, “Fran, do you know what you just did?” “I just ate half of a deliciously rare steak sandwich,” Mom answered, professing innocence. “But do you know who that was who you just shared a sandwich with?” Josh asked, still shouting. “Can’t tell you, never saw him before,” said Mom. “Well, go into any post office. That was Public Enemy Number Three!” Mom’s eyes brightened and she asked, “I wonder what Number One was eating for lunch?”
Mom’s stayed reasonably healthy for nearly three years until clobbered by a severe bilateral pneumonia that, undiagnosed, had turned into a systemic infection. Mom refused to be put on a ventilator and it looked like infection was going to take her. As a last resort, the doctor flooded her system with steroids, and Mom turned the corner. She claimed she actually died but “a lady dressed in blue with the sweetest face said hi to me, gave me a little wave, and sent me back. I guess my room wasn’t ready yet.” The next afternoon, sitting on the edge of her bed wearing only a Depends and a nightgown, Mom announced, “Get me my red shoes and hail us a cab, we’re going out on the town.” After she stabilized, the course of least resistance was to move her to the nursing home adjoining her old assisted living facility.
Mom not only returned to herself, she became more motivated than ever to re-learn how to walk so she would be able to walk for Dad when he returned from his long trip. She claimed she could hear a train whistle every evening—actually, so could I—and wondered whether that was Dad’s train. “Did Dad tell you what train he was coming in on?” she asked me one day. “No, he didn’t, and that’s not like him,” I said. “That’s funny, he didn’t tell me either. Maybe he wants to surprise me.” Another time, she said, “I think I saw my parents walking down the hallway together.” With a hope she’d kept under wraps, she then asked, “Do you think that they might finally get back together?”
One night, Mom told me that she knew her thinking was bizarrely distorted. Shaking her head, she put her hands down over her crotch to say she needed antibiotics. I asked that she be tested first thing in the morning. After twice testing the wrong mom, the nursing home finally tested the right Mom four days later. The promptly placed her on antibiotics to which she was known to be allergic, which also were the wrong kind to treat that type of infection. A few days later, when Mom started vomiting, they assumed she’d come down with the flu like many of the other residents. In reality, the untreated UTI had caused another systemic infection, which had cascaded into a massive heart attack. Our best guess is that Mom suffered her heart attack while watching Around the World in 80 Days in her room.
Unfortunately, they didn’t figure any of this out. Instead, they placed her on the flu regimen: a strict jello diet and hourly monitoring of vitals. They claimed Mom’s vitals were completely normal. On close inspection, I saw that no vitals were taken for one entire eight hour shift. On the third day of the flu regimen, my wife Ginger saw Mom’s respiration rate was double normal, even though her medical record alleged it was normal. We demanded immediate attention by the nursing home’s chief doctor. He showed up within 10 minutes, confirmed Ginger’s finding, and shipped Mom back to the ER of the hospital she left several weeks earlier. Within a couple of days, we were told Mom likely wouldn’t last the weekend because the damage to a heart that had been strong a week ago was too great.
Mom could never tell a joke. She tended to get to the punch line and lose track of how to bring the joke home. Dad claimed this was a skill she’d learned from Frank. One of our favorite family jokes was about a guy who calls his brother to say that the family dog died. The brother hearing this sad news says, “You need to prepare people better for such news. You should have said to me, ‘The dog’s on the roof and we can’t get him down,’ so when you finally told me a few days later that the dog died, I’d be prepared.” Time passes, and the first guy calls his brother and says, “Mom’s on the roof and we can’t get her down.” On Mom’s second day in the hospital, the nurse asked her their five standard questions to establish that patients are oriented to place and time. She said Mom got four of them right, but when asked the easiest question, “Where are you?” Mom’s answer was, “I’m on the roof.”
Mom finally got a punch line right!
Mom was telling us it was her time. Rather than send her back to the nursing home, on Valentine’s Day, we brought her home to die, knowing full well that the next day was the third anniversary of Josh’s death. We knew Mom likely would die of congestive heart failure. The day we brought her home, the area was hit by a monster snow storm—the biggest ever to hit the area—that came to be known the St. Valentine’s Day Blizzard. The entire area was immobilized for a week. Smaller storms perpetuated the stillness for two weeks more. It was as if the world stopped because Mom was preparing to die.
Four days after we brought Mom home, thinking her hour was near, we called the seminary four doors up and pled with a priest there to make his way through the waist-high, unplowed snow to give Mom the last rights. When he arrived a few hours later, Mom at first played possum and refused to look at him. As he prayed over her, she tried to push away his hands, then slowly turned over and, sleepy- eyed, said “and bibbidi-bobbidi-boo to you too.” Mom eventually acquiesced to the priest’s placing the sacred oils on her forehead.
On day six, Ginger came down in the morning to find Mom on the floor, her right cheek slightly bruised, but her spirits strong. Later that morning, even though our road had yet to be plowed, Mom’s hospital bed was finally delivered. Mid-afternoon, two hospice nurses managed to reach our house to meet Mom and brief us on how hospice would support our traveling with Mom to that paper-thin moment between life and death. As we were sitting in a circle in the kitchen, one of the nurses leaned over and asked me in an overly-compassionate whisper, “Is she aware of what we’re saying?” Mom, who was sitting to my left, leaned closer to me and whispered, “Why doesn’t she ask me? Isn’t she aware I’m sitting right here? And why are they all whispering?”
Mom usually woke early and was ready with questions when one of us walked into the alcove in the family room that we’d made her space. “Are you my mother?” she asked Ginger one morning. Another morning, she asked me, “Are you Josh?” In both cases, we put the question back to her: “You know who I am. Who am I?” In the first case, she unflinchingly said, “You’re my daughter-in-law, Ginger.” In the second case, she asked, “Are you my first-born son, Jim?”
Echoing what she heard on television, Mom repeatedly asked, “No school today?” or affirmed, “No school today!” with inflection sometimes on the “no,” but more often on “school” or “today.” She saw and heard nobody could get out or in. Schools were closed again. I also think she knew it was time to relinquish the fantasy she harbored for years but first voiced eight months earlier of going back to school at 84 to finish high school.
We stayed with Mom nearly around the clock. I stayed up long past midnight and passed the baton to Ginger around 3. We paid attention to her every word and want. She loved it when I put my cold hands on her forehead or behind her neck. She always smiled when one of us whispered “sleepy head” over and over into her ear. One day, she got to see a fox jumping through the snow. It pounced, but either what he was after got away, or wasn’t real—perhaps merely his own shadow. One day, I told Mom that Dad was waiting for her in Bermuda and would be meeting her on the dock with open arms. With wide open eyes, she asked, “How did you swing that?”
Around Day 8, intermittent doubts started pecking at us like angry black starlings. They cried out we were disposing of Mom because we were out of steam, not because she was supposed to die. Nearly two weeks had elapsed since we’d been told at the hospital that Mom wouldn’t last the weekend. I called and unexpectedly reached the doctor who had pronounced her near-dead. He re-affirmed Mom had no chance of survival and exhorted us to steel our wills to see her through the final days of hospice. Instantly, the starlings transformed into humming birds, but for the next week, they kept morphing back into angry, pecking starlings, who kept crying that we were killing Mom.
We paid particular attention to what Mom said. For me, it was important to be aware of whatever might become her last words. Dad’s last words were, “I feel no pain.” When I’d ask, “What’s on your mind?” Mom pointed to her painful leg or said “my pain.” One night, I asked, “How does your leg feel?” to which Mom responded, “it just does.” After another long day, out of a deep silence, she burst out with, “I don’t even know what ‘a hay’ is.” I thought about this and realized this outburst was preceded in her mind by the repeated thought, “I don’t give a hay.” She was expressing resignation, but also acknowledging she didn’t exactly know what she was resigning herself to.
On the night of day 15, it was clear that Mom was smothering due to congestive heart failure. It is monstrously difficult to watch someone you love die this way. Mom’s eyes said she wanted me to rescue her, that she wasn’t ready to go this way, at least not yet. I gave her medication to clear her lungs, called hospice, and told them I wanted to give her some morphine to help her breathe. They asked, “Are you sure? Can’t you just let her go?” and I firmly said, “I’m sure. No.” We sat her up, gave her a couple of drops of morphine, followed by a couple more drops 15 minutes later.
As the morphine was starting to have an effect, I gave Mom some Ativan to calm her, and flipped through the TV channels.
By chance, I landed on the scene in On Golden Pond in which Henry Fonda’s character talks about death with his grandson while they are fishing on the pond. As the rowboat crashed into a rock, Mom waved her arms frantically at the TV to get me to change the damn channel. I turned off the TV because that was easier. Mom’s breathing finally normalized.
By demonstrating with her hands, Mom asked Ginger to straighten her legs, which had been cramping for the past 10 days. Her normal reclining posture now was the fetal position. Using baby lotion, Ginger massaged Mom’s legs and gradually straightened them. A couple of hours past midnight, I went into the kitchen to get myself a bowl of cereal. Mom’s eyes asked me what I was eating. I told her I was “getting a down payment on breakfast.” Mom perked up and asked, “Is the coffee on?” That seemed like a fitting epitaph.
The next evening, Ginger and I took a breather, and left Mom with our children, who were in their early 20s. They had a good time together watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Mom laughed. She drank a coca cola with lots of ice. A good day.
After saying nothing on Day 17, around midnight, in fit of anxiety, Mom clasped and then pushed aside my hand, then announced, “I am finished.” Those too appropriately could have stood as her last words: the “I” that I am accustomed to being is now over, sort of like the last words spoken by Christ.
On the morning of Day 18, defying logic, Mom announced she was hungry, and asked for a glass of orange juice. We even fed her a coffee-flavored Ensure using a flex-straw. “You’re a baby bird,” I told her. Mom half smiled then gave us fish face, moving her lips like a minnow. Soon after, she submerged into a deep silence that lasted for the rest of the day. She stayed within that deep silence all the next day until late that night.
Sitting beside her, I lightly ran my fingers lightly over Mom’s face, neck, arms. Her face and hands were cold, but her neck and arms were warm. Leaning over, I held her and said, “I don’t know where you are. I know you need to be deep inside yourself. I just want you to know, we’re all here, and we all love you.”
I didn’t expect a response, but suddenly Mom’s eyes opened like shutters thrown open by a gust of wind. Her eyes were deep set, surrounded by gray. It looked as if she had returned again from the dead. She looked right up at me and said, “I am here. I love you.” Mom then shut her eyes for the last time.