How do you say goodbye?
How do you say goodbye to the lady with the brown freckles on her soft arms and the girlish giggle? To the woman who couldn’t receive a compliment on anything – her sweater, her necklace, her vase - without offering it to the person who paid the compliment? To the tomboyish American girl who loved popcorn, baseball, candy bars and dime store novels and couldn’t understand how she could have given birth to a strange little bohemian girl? My mother was a post-war Capricorn raising a free-to-be-you-and-me Aquarius: it was never all that easy between us but we did our best. I still think she was secretly proud of me.
My mother loved Lucy and Ethel; she loved Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, too. She wanted a nice house in the suburbs with pretty things in cabinets, a husband and two children, one of each, and guess what? She got them all.
Our priorities were always different, the stuff we wanted out of life. She craved order, predictability, and organization; I craved freedom, change, and movement. Despite the many ways in which we diverged, my mother’s imprint on me is still unmistakable: neither of us could avoid crying if someone near us is doing it and laughter comes as easily as tears, often in the same moment. I am her daughter.
My mom loved movies and we spent many Saturday afternoons at the Old Orchard Theatre watching matinees. When I was growing up, no one even considered a five-year-old’s potential emotional trauma, so we saw our share of disaster flicks: The Towering Inferno, Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Two-Minute Warning and so on. If something was on fire or collapsing with lots of casualties, if there was a hostage situation and Charlton Heston might make an appearance, we were there, in the middle of the row in the middle of the theater. (Weird little coincidence: Charlton Heston’s mother actually lived on our block.) My mother would get the largest popcorn available every time, eat approximately five handfuls of it and then have had enough; from my seat, I would be making mental notes of the most direct route if we needed to immediately evacuate a burning movie theater. Dash marks, arrows, cutting across rows, hurtling seats. Saturday afternoons in the movie theater left an imprint on me, too, apparently, as even today I am always scanning the room for the easiest two exits whenever I am in a confined public space.
My mother didn’t like to cook – we lived on frozen chicken Kiev and spaghetti with meat sauce most of the time – and our house was filled with junk food: Ruffles, Pringles, Oreos, Brach’s caramels, Fudgsicles, cans of Pepsi. We had a Drawer of Gum that was always stocked with Bubble Yum, Big League Chew, Bubblicious, Big Red (yuck) and more. Before there were liquor cabinets or unattended cigarette packages to loot, there was our famous gum drawer, and all the neighborhood kids worth telling took advantage of it with my mother’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of consent. The kids slinked around our house and yard like indiscreet alley cats.
Some images of my mother that will always stick with me, a choppy succession of snapshots like Polaroids or a crackly film in my mind: her lying on a lawn chair in the backyard reading Danielle Steel with a can of Tab and a tube of Bain de Soliel at her side in the summer. The one day she went to her hairdresser with black hair and came home with red hair. (She never went back to her natural dark hair: I was four or so and it was like I had a whole new mother all of the sudden.) Her charging up to the teenager from down the block who pushed me off my bike and slapping him across the face – oh, this was the talk of Romona Road for an afternoon. My brother, my mother and I watching a Frank Sinatra special while my father stomped around in a drunken rage about something or another. Her talking on the phone to her best friend, a half-smoked cigarette with a pink lipstick ring already stubbed out. My mother instinctively turning to the woman who was crying on the elevator at the medical building, a stranger to her, and saying, “Is something the matter? Can I help you?” Her eyes were welling up just at the thought of someone suffering. Years later, her watching the gaudy silliness of Let’s Make a Deal with a smile on her face from her room in our house.
My mother was the president of the PTA and the president of the sisterhood at our synagogue. She went to lots of weekend luncheons (what a grown-up word: luncheons) wearing frosted lipstick and special occasion necklaces and she gave speeches in her shiny dresses. She was also my brother’s Little League coach, and if I recall correctly, her coaching consisted entirely of her yelling “Hit it!” and “Run!” and the team kind of did that, but not very well. She just made sure that everyone got a chance. Whenever an overzealous father would start shouting and jabbing his fingers in the air because he didn’t like how she was coaching his son, my mother would stick out her jaw, turn her back on him, and get back to reminding the kids to hit and run. I would look up from my book or sketchpad or cloud-gazing and be secretly proud of her.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking through her photos and it’s impressive to me how many are of her in the center of a group of her girlfriends: out bowling, sitting around a table at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House, wearing matching sweaters at an event somewhere. Her girlfriends were a huge part of her life; she adored them. Also noteworthy is that she was almost always in the center of the group. I never thought of her as someone who craved attention or needed to be the focal point but it is clear that my mother was a bridge between people.
My mother never learned how to swim. She only started driving in her thirties and never learned how to parallel park: she could only park if she could pull in and pull right out of a spot. She could not catch or throw a ball. To say that my mother was uncoordinated sounds unkind but it’s true: she was klutzy at the cellular level. She was not the mother who would be putting barrettes and ribbons in my hair. Despite her lack of coordination, my mother still loved watching sports. One of the first signs that she was in the final stage of life, in fact, was when my husband tried to interest her in watching a Cubs game and she was indifferent. That was a sad, reverse milestone, so different from watching the milestones of a baby. A turning point all the same.
Getting to that…
My husband was the first of my boyfriends who my mother met that she actually liked. She had intuitive, gut reactions to people that bordered on the superstitious: those initial impressions almost always stuck, and it turns out that they were also almost always right. She liked my husband right away and did not mind that he was a tall, Nordic goy from Minnesota because those things meant that he was handy, like he’d been born with some internal WASP fix-it manual we Jews didn’t have. Upon meeting John, my mother almost immediately set him to changing light bulbs and fixing clocks and answering machines as if these little tasks were tests for a future son-in-law. Even John simply changing batteries for her was a fraught with positive implications about her daughter’s future. She also liked his smile, warmth and kindness; she wanted her daughter to have a different life. My mother’s instincts were right, because this man whom her daughter brought as her date to a wedding years before would also be the one who tucked her into bed every night when she couldn’t remember most things, the one dispensed her medications and made conversation with her every day. He was also the only one who never made her feel stupid.
Getting to that…
In her mid-fifties, not long after my father suddenly passed away, my mother started getting terrible headaches. She saw specialists but no one could help her and she became distressed, thinking that no one believed her. Concurrent with this, her hearing also became very bad. She stopped going out with friends because she couldn’t follow what they were saying and she also felt like everyone saw her as a pitiful widow no matter how people treated her. I tried to encourage her to see her friends but she dug her heels in: she was very stubborn once she set her mind to something. She withdrew from nearly all of her friends and made it abundantly clear that there would be no other option.
Her memory also started slipping. This woman who was so fastidious she once went to the library to locate a book they said hadn’t been returned (she was vindicated, her pristine record restored) started losing things and becoming careless. One day, she was blasé about having lost her wallet; she also started to leave dirty plates out, I’d find crumbled potato chips in her bed, clothes on the floor. This was not the mom I knew, someone who had something like an allergic reaction to disarray of any sort. How much it must have driven her mad when she was losing control of her mind, losing the peacefulness she found with being organized and having routines. I found four different address books of hers, each with my name and address written in it several times as though if she wrote it enough, she would be able to lock things into place, to regain order.
Alzheimer’s is a devastating process of saying goodbye to someone who is still here. Every time she could no longer do something she could do before, I grieved that loss of another bit of her, my mother. The mother I knew was blowing away bit by bit like a sand mandala on the beach. Years after the first signs of her memory loss and her developing dependency, she was finally in hospice at a nursing home. She could longer respond to me or anyone else. Her body was here, fed by tubes because she could no longer swallow, washed and massaged by gentle, kind people. She would inhale the most horrible raspy breath, making an “Unh...unh...unh...” sound on the exhale, but that was just her body. Her spirit – that sweet, freckled soul of hers who loved to make people laugh – had moved on. I would rub her shoulder and tell her that my grandparents were waiting for her.
For several years, my mother lived with us and my husband and I were the first line of defense between her and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. We dodged and averted and tumbled past this thing but, ultimately, we couldn’t outrun it. Alzheimer’s was inexhaustible, lurking everywhere, the ultimate boogie man. We gave it our best damn try, though. When my mother fell and broke her hip in late August, we finally gave up, feebly waving the white flag from the floor. Uncle. For years, we had cleaned her, dressed her, fed her, walked with her, reassured her, tried to reason with her, shopped for her and fought for her. We just couldn’t do it anymore. We were completely enervated.
During her time with us, we learned that “the red thing” referred to her purse (this was a security blanket to her and we buried it with her). She had to be tucked in at night by my husband, officially put to bed, or she would wander the house like a lost child. We learned that there was nothing that a bowl of popcorn or a sugar cookie couldn’t soothe. She would still occasionally show startling glimpses of the mother I once knew: that trilling giggle of hers, a determined look in her eyes, an insistence on helping us match up socks after laundry. The moments were fleeting and I clung to them with far too much unrealistic hope (“Maybe she’s getting better?”) but they were there.
(During her time with us, I also learned many things about myself but this is one thing that may actually be of use to someone else: when cleaning an adult’s behind, imagine it as the baby’s buttocks that it once was, as this makes everything much better. Not that long ago - in historic terms - my mother’s behind was adored and powdered and pampered by my beloved grandmother. This was her baby and this little butt was perfection. I am a mother, too, so I know how such things can be. One day I simply saw my mother’s backside through my grandmother’s eyes and it made all the difference.)
She fell and broke her hip, though, and the social worker at the hospital leveled with my husband and me, telling us that we’d done all we could do. In truth, we didn’t need much coaxing. The one thing that frightened my mother more than death was living in a nursing home. I honestly think she took a look around as she was recovering from her hip surgery, understood that she was in a nursing home, and made that final sovereign decision she could make, and that was to check out. Like us, she waved the white flag, too. She closed her eyes and retreated inward to continue the final stage of her journey alone. This was something she’d have to do on her own, something we all have to do on our own, and finally, the time was here.
The medications and night terrors and desertification of her mental landscape are not what I will hold on to, though. I will hold on to this: her flirtatious giggle, something she had with her until nearly the end. Her love of babies and children. Her pink nail polish. Her soft skin. Her generosity. The way she loved pretty things but was still profoundly non-materialistic about them. Her bizarre habit of sticking chewed bubble gum between the pages of whatever she was reading. The way she always had a compliment for the nurses at the doctor’s office. (The way they loved her.) Her childlike handwriting. Her gentle, squishy interior. The way she used to call me “Mar”: no one else has ever done this except for my Papa Nate. How she could never hold a grudge. How we might have an argument on the phone and I would stand there counting “Ten, nine, eight…” and she would call me to make up before I got to “three.” Her love for her parents, her siblings. Her deep devotion to my son, her grandchildren. Looking through her boxes of photographs, I found that she kept all the cards people sent her, everything from messy scribbles from her grandchildren to standard issue holiday greetings from her bank. This was my mother.
When we get old, when we become diminished, we are seen as how we are presently and that is a shame. All I wanted to do was tell people that they didn’t know this woman, how strong and tender and capable she once was. She told me a year or two ago when I was commenting on her good effort at taking care of herself that all she wanted was for me to be proud of her.
I am proud of you, Mom. I miss you every day and I know there will never be another like you.