(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
Mom always found a way.
Handicapped as she was, my mother faced a life of limitations. She just didn’t recognize them.
Obstacle? What obstacle? Show her a barrier and watch her barrel through; or, recalculating, she’ll take backroads around it. I suspect she was a defiant character even before the polio. After all, she’d been an equestrian rider and had urged many a horse over gates and stone walls.
Watch her get into the ocean. If the sand isn’t too soft, she can get herself to the shore’s edge on her crutches. Another very careful step puts her in ankle-deep water. Now, in one continuous motion, she twists at the waist and flings her crutches behind her onto the beach, then turns back and falls headlong into six inches of water. You must assume her nose isn’t broken because she is already swimming away. The disease left her without the musculature to raise her arms much above her head, so her stroke is weak; she cannot kick her legs, so her progress is slow. But she does move forward without any aid, and she is weightless in the salt water. Both are bliss.
See Mommy drive – only don’t ask me to explain how she does it. She refuses even to try out a handicap-equipped car. Her method involves crossing her legs and wedging an old cookbook ripped in half under the brake. I still don’t understand how this works, but she is a speed demon; a favorite game is testing how fast she can fly through a toll plaza and still hit the toll basket with her quarter.
Observe her driving from Connecticut to the United Nations where she works as a consultant. She wears a nice suit and silk blouse from Paris, and the little car is French – évidemment! – with an open sunroof and no airconditioning. The heat is merciless inside the vehicle. No matter: she has her own method of staying cool. She empties a bottle of water on her head. By the time she pulls her Renault Dauphine into the UN garage her hair and suit will be dry. She has a quick bite in the car before going up to the office. Lunch is in a repurposed yogurt container, one of many littering the car floor. Most are empty, smelling of meals past; the lids are caked in mold. The Dauphine reeks of banana peels and sour ferment. I call it “the scow.”
None of her UNESCO colleagues has any idea that this lovely, gracious, heroic lady travels in a rolling landfill. They don’t see her at home, typing her teaching plans and articles outdoors on the porch – topless. They don’t know that her unusual filing system consists of sticking papers and magazines in old purses and shopping bags piled on the floor around her desk where they are easy to reach. She remembers perfectly what each bag contains. It’s a method doomed to failure; the bags multiply over time, spreading to the walls. As her papers spill into other rooms, she loses track of what she put where.
She dismisses the housekeeper/cook who had labored in vain to dust the piles of papers. To Mom, this means she is finally free of live-in help, after twenty years of dependence on servants and no privacy. She doesn’t need help. Now, to keep the floors clean, she cruises the hall in her wheelchair with two feather dusters tied to the back. Dust collects anyway. My father keeps to his study with an air purifier.
In her sixties she decides to ride a horse again. She has it all figured out. She will ride sidesaddle, which, back when she was young and her legs were strong, she sometimes did for fun. On a sidesaddle the horsewoman hooks one leg over a pommel to stabilize her weight in the center. Mom wants to lash one knee to the pommel for extra security.
Judy Richter, a friend of mine with a horse farm, happens to own a sidesaddle. She can get my mother up in the saddle, but she is worried about the horse part. What will happen to Mom once the horse starts to move? Worse, if it spooks at something, Mom could lose her balance and fall, her leg still attached to the saddle, whereupon the horse gallops off, dragging my helpless mother around the ring like Ben-Hur.
Nonetheless, my compassionate friend is willing to try and fulfill Mom’s dream. To ensure a slow, calm ride Judy chooses her most-trusted, chillest horse and gives it a double dose of tranquilizer before Mom arrives. (Owners often tranquilize their steeds at horse shows so that crowds and sudden noises won’t faze the animals.)
The saddle goes on; the grooms lift my mother onto it. The horse stands passively, lids half-closed, as alert as a junkie. One back hoof is cocked, a sign that the horse is dozing. The men tie Mom’s leg to the pommel. Judy unclips the lead rope from the horse’s bridle and steps away. My mother straightens her back proudly, testing her stability, then takes the reins, clucking to the horse to move forward.
The horse wakes from its reverie. It doesn’t move. Judy gives it a light whack on its backside. The horse sinks to its front knees. We suddenly realize that it is preparing to roll over on its side with my mother tied on top. The thoroughly stoned animal has decided it would be more comfortable nodding out on the ground, unconscious of the rider crushed under its tonnage.
Judy frantically grabs the bridle and jerks the horse’s head up, hollering. Somewhere in its drugged-out brain the horse remembers to obey the smaller animal. It scrambles back on its feet; Mom lurches off balance and is caught by the grooms, who unlash her knee and pull her off.
Mom’s dream will stay dreamt, never to be realized. She of course wants to try again. Nobody offers to help.
She yearns, too, for her own helicopter to park in the backyard; too expensive, alas. Instead she waits for that rotary one-man flying machine – a sort of stool with a pinwheel – that futurists keep saying is just around the corner and soon everyone will have one. Mom will be the first to lift off. Because independence is the great thing. Dependence is the bitter end.
In her seventies she is diagnosed with a brain aneurism. The surgery will be precarious; she may not survive it. In case the worst happens, Mom and Dad say a tearful goodbye in her hospital room the night before the operation. They watch a beautiful sunset bloom outside the window. The color fades slowly; in silence they share this exquisite day’s end, the last of life’s wonders she may ever see.
My father shivers. The window, as usual, is open. Mom must perpetually have air, even the very cold air that flows into the room on this late autumn evening. There’s no use in anyone shutting the window; she will only throw it open again. The air, the sky, the weather – they are breath and freedom.
Dad leaves so I can go in; she wants to see me privately. It’s my turn to stand in the chilly breeze while she exacts a promise from me. She has assigned her medical proxy not to my father but to me. She doesn’t trust anyone else to keep this vow: that, if she survives but is incapacitated in some way, even if she cannot speak but can indicate her desires, I will make sure her will is done and no one else’s. She must have her way in everything that concerns her freedom. If that choice is taken away, then life as she values it is over. I must keep everyone, doctors and family, at bay while she goes her own way.
I promise to protect her independence.
The next morning, after reviewing more tests, the doctors decide the operation is too risky after all. They surmise the aneurysm has been there a long time; perhaps it will never burst. Since she has been living with it unawares until now, she might as well continue, if she can somehow manage to ignore it.
What aneurysm? Mom has no problem forging ahead heedlessly. She drives herself home.
In their seventies, my parents move to a retirement village. Mom installs an endless-current spa pool in their bedroom so she can continue swimming. It’s her lifeline, to keep the circulation flowing in her legs. My parents sleep in a cloud of chlorine, somewhat dissipated by the draft from the window Mom has insistently left open. She now has a snazzy red scooter to replace the wheelchair, and speeds contentedly around the building complex. Once in a while the battery wears out and she must be rescued.
As they enter their eighth decade, Dad starts mentioning that Mom is crazy. He says it good-naturedly, with a helpless shrug, and we the children nod in agreement. We take it to mean she’s eccentric and stubborn; she’s that brand of crazy. This is old news. When we were growing up, Dad would quite often shoot us a secret look behind Mom’s back and point to his head, twirling his finger. He decided long ago in their marriage not to take her seriously, a source of considerable hurt to her because it isolates her. He refuses to engage; instead he tunes her out, stepping aside to let her have her nutty way.
However, it now becomes apparent that the kind of crazy he means is something new. She doesn’t remember what you just told her. In fact, she’s indignant that no one saw fit to inform her of these things. How dare we claim otherwise? She would remember if we’d told her and she knows perfectly well that we didn’t. We tell our father everything, but not her. She feels ignored. Everyone is acting strange.
She’s tired, needs increasingly long naps. But the thrum of the pool’s self-cleaning mechanism in the bedroom keeps her awake. She takes to sleeping on the sofa in the living room. Her scooter rolls over bits of food on the carpet, the sink overflows with dirty dishes; she won’t let the housekeeping staff in anymore. She struggles to write the same article for the UNESCO magazine over and over, in a study piled with papers in plastic bags and purses. She collects her urine in repurposed yogurt containers because it’s too much trouble to transfer herself from scooter to toilet. The containers sometimes spill; often they’re shoved under the furniture and forgotten. The apartment now smells of chlorine and pee.
One winter night, after my father retires to the bed in the pool room, Mom goes to sleep in her usual spot, under a blanket on the sofa. Outside, a huge blizzard rages. Though she has left the windows closed for once, there is plenty of fresh air in the room because she forgot to close the front door and now the frigid wind has blown it wide. Snow hisses in, creating drifts on the carpet. Early the next morning, a maintenance man shoveling the walkway notices the open door. The temperature is freezing inside. He finds my mother fast asleep on the sofa with one leg sticking out from under the blanket. The leg is blue. When he touches it, the flesh is cold as ice.
|Mom: here but not here|
My mother cannot understand why all these hospital doctors are so alarmed. The leg she had exposed to the winter wind and snow while she slept seems fine to her. Since contracting polio when she was twenty-four, she doesn’t have much sensation in her legs anyway. She glances suspiciously at the director of the retirement village – what is that dragon-woman doing here in her hospital room?
The doctors explain that Mom’s leg had been frozen; they were able to thaw the leg, but she just missed requiring amputation. Oh pooh, she says, just release me.
The director tells her that a community van with a wheelchair will come soon to pick her up and take her back to the village. My father hurries to the apartment, taking advantage of Mom’s absence to let the housekeepers in. They clean the place as best they can. But my mother never shows up.
Instead, the van delivers her to the retirement facility’s dementia unit. Deaf to her objections, an aide steers her wheelchair inside; the door clanks shut behind her and locks.
Hysterical, she calls my father from her cell phone, but he is unable to bring her home. The director has blocked him. Though Dad is a law professor, when he originally signed the contract with the retirement village corporation he did not notice the clause that states they have the power to transfer clients into Alzheimer’s care whenever they see fit; the client has no part of that decision, and no recourse. The client has dementia, after all, and so cannot evaluate her state. Thus the managing director makes that call. And clearly my mother has crossed the line. Why, just recently a resident complained that my mother had peed on her scooter right in front of him, while they were talking, and then laughed it off. She’s unruly, contentious, disdains social norms. And now, with Mom’s latest, throwing a door open to a blizzard in her living room, clearly she is a danger to herself. It’s the director’s legal right to lock Mom up where she can’t wander at will.
At will. They have robbed her of it. She calls me in New York, weeping: why is she here? What has she done? She has no memory of her offense, and when I explain their position, she forgets it ten minutes later and I must answer her question all over again. She begs and pleads in a heartbreaking manner: please, get her out, please. They are controlling her.
Be patient, I say, it won’t be long. But you mustn’t make things worse for yourself. Don’t make a fuss, do whatever they say for a couple of days while we work on getting you home.
Nevertheless, even after Dad offers to hire round-the-clock supervisory care to keep Mom in line, the director still refuses to turn his wife over to him. Weeks go by as his attorney wrangles with the director, threatening a lawsuit and adverse publicity. At last an agreement is reached: Mom may go free if my parents pack up and leave the community immediately.
My father moves into a hotel room. My four siblings and I convene there for the crisis. My oldest brother gets busy scoping out other retirement places. Meanwhile, Mom is released. She emerges from the hell of airless incarceration, of having her wishes ignored, of being treated like a recalcitrant child. Where before she was eccentric and forgetful, in just a short time they have made her a lunatic. Her rage is scorching, it spatters on everyone in her vicinity. Out of my way! she snaps. Arms pumping on her chair wheels, racing so fast across the hotel lobby we have to chase after her, she flees us all. She doesn’t know where she’s going except away from everybody. She needs no help! Leave her alone! Where is the god damned pool? She wants to swim!
At last my parents are accepted in a new facility in Boston. The directors there are contrastingly nice. In spite of Mom’s dementia, they will allow her to stay in the assisted-living building with my dad as long as my parents like – to the end of their days, if need be. We hire caregivers for 24-hour shifts. My brother supervises the combining of three units into a spacious apartment, complete with a desk area for my mother to pile up her plastic bags and continue her work.
But she does not calm down. Her fury only increases at finding herself in a totally unfamiliar place. She hates the caregivers – they infuriate her by touching her, cooing, wanting to help her. She does not need help, even though she does. She bites anyone who tries to lift her into the shower. There is a local pool, but she refuses to let people help her in. She loses more muscle mass without that vital exercise. The scooter sits abandoned and she is now confined solely to the wheelchair, except at bedtime when the caregivers endure her yelling and thrashing as they stuff her into a hydraulic sling to lift her into bed.
Nailed on a cross of anger and depression, a thorned crown of confusion encircling her head, Mom fights on for freedom. Her physician prescribes anti-depressants and a strong anti-psychotic. She quiets down, stops resisting. Steeped in a pharmaceutical miasma, her memory shrivels further. When she speaks, she becomes lost in mid-sentence. When we visit, she tries to keep up her end of a chat with a few stock phrases, the most common being: “Not particularly.”
But she always recognizes us, her children, and her face lights up when we drop by. And every time, at the sight of her, I drown in guilt.
I did not keep my promise to her. Her existence has become everything she most dreaded: she is fettered and caged, at the mercy of her jailors, and her will is broken. Ten years before, I had vowed to ensure she could rule her life to the end, that her choices would prevail and her wants be heard and honored. But when the moment came to defend her, I found it impossible. When we made the pact, we had both imagined a stroke or some physical impairment might subject her to the will of others. We had not envisioned a mental catastrophe like dementia: that her mind might betray her, and when she insisted on her own way it would be the wrong way. That she would drive, as she did once, on a one-lane high-speed thruway transition road and suddenly come to a dead stop, pausing to figure out if she’d taken the right turn, ignoring all the cars screeching behind her. That her will, the very core of her personality, would become her enemy.
Dad parks her wheelchair in front of the TV most of the day, tuned to the Animal Planet channel. He has no idea if she’s interested in the doings onscreen because the drugs make her unintelligible. In any case, if she doesn’t like watching puppies and crocodiles and killer sharks, she cannot change the channel, turn away or leave the room of her own accord. Every four hours, the next meal is delivered and she is rolled to the dining table. Her arthritic hands are so gnarled she can’t hold a fork. She is fed by helpers, sometimes by me if I’m visiting.
She is aware, even through her stupor, that she is bored to death.
I am unaware, as I view her with sorrow and self-recrimination, that the day will arrive when I will get another chance to make good on my promise: to free her.
My father rarely leaves my mother’s side, planted in his recliner next to her wheelchair and reading the newspaper while she faces the TV. This would be a remarkable display of devotion except he doesn’t talk to her. He assumes, as others do, that her mind has retreated into gray mists and she is incapable of real conversation.
It’s true she cannot initiate a conversation, and if someone questions her, the response sputters into incoherence after a few words and she gives up, marooned in uncertainty. Thus she has little interchange except for hovering caretakers, strangers who want to know if she is ready for a snack into which her meds have been crushed, and when she replies her two default words “Not particularly,” they do whatever they want with her anyway. Being inert is one thing, but being ignored must carve a deep wound in her spirit, or so I imagine.
I’m told that Alzheimer’s patients sometimes respond to music from their youth. I buy a Best of Fred Astaire CD. She must have been a teenager when his star rose. I play “Cheek To Cheek,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Night and Day”…and suddenly she’s beaming with happiness, swaying her head. What else does she remember from those years? Excited, I drag out the scrapbook my grandmother kept for her, photos and mementos from babyhood to wedding.
|From the scrapbook: Mom and younger sister in Lake Forest with governess|
As I point to pictures of her childhood home in Lake Forest, Illinois, she becomes animated. “Yes…yes…” she flicks her tongue between her teeth, searching for more words. Photos of horses, report cards, debutante balls, trips to Europe. Everywhere she’s on the move: riding, diving, skiing, running with a basketball.
The next time I visit from New York, she has forgotten everything, so I can open the scrapbook and she will have the pleasure of recognition all over again. One day we come upon the letter from her headmistress commending her for her recitation of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “The Chambered Nautilus.” I’ve never read the poem; out of curiosity, I find it on the Internet. Reading the lines to her, when I reach “…Til thou at length are free/ Leaving thine outgrown shell…” I fight back tears as I realize the poem is about the soul leaving the shell of the physical world for the heavenly one. And then I look up to see that Mom’s lips are moving. She has been shaping the words as I was reading, and although I have stopped, she silently finishes the line: “…By life’s unresting sea.”
So she remembers this long-ago poem. She is reachable, more than I knew.
The scrapbook becomes a portal, a passage to communication. Once she is on sure territory, that small island in the brain where her youthful past still lives, she regains more words and longer thoughts. Even fragments of French surface, because she learned it in her childhood. We can hold a conversation now, though I must be careful to ask short, simple questions requiring only one- or two-word answers.
My parents have only been in the new retirement home for a couple of years when I get a call from their nurse-practitioner, who reports that for the past three days Mom has refused both food and liquids. She has stubbornly locked her jaw. Short of prying her mouth open by force or inserting a food peg, there is nothing to prevent my mother from starving to death. Since I hold the medical proxy, I must decide whether to take steps to prolong her life or to request hospice care.
Hospice, I reply without hesitation. Back when Mom’s mind was clear, she had been unequivocal: if she is dying, she wants no interference to keep her alive. But now that her mind is confused, does she really understand that her choice not to eat will result in her death? Does she intend it? I will have to find out somehow.
When I arrive in Boston, I find the hospice nurses setting up camp in Mom’s bedroom. My father is freaking out: “She’s committing suicide!” He can’t stop her; she has turned the tables and holds all the power now. Propped up in her hospital bed, Mom ignores him, her mouth clamped shut, treating him to her silence. Since she refused to ingest her meds, it seems her anger has returned. Her mind, too, is sharper.
When she spots me, she smiles. Everyone leaves the room so we can visit. I sit on the bed beside her and begin by chatting about family news, mentioning all five of her children’s names. She still knows us all and takes happiness from hearing about our lives. “Really?” she says, and, “I didn’t know that.” Her tongue taps around her dry mouth searching for moisture; after four days without water, there is not enough saliva anymore. She allows me to moisten the inside of her cheeks with a lemon-flavored swab the nurses provide me. There’s a cup of applesauce at her bedside. They still urge her to eat now and then, in case her resolve has weakened or she has forgotten why she’s resisting in the first place.
“Would you like some applesauce?” I ask. She shakes her head.
“I have to ask now, do you want to live?”
“Not particularly.” This phrase is meaningless; it’s what she always says when she doesn’t know what to say. Her eyes travel over me sadly. Maybe, now that I’m in her presence, she realizes she’ll be leaving her children behind. Maybe she will change course.
“You know, this is what your mother did. She made herself die on purpose.”
“She did?” This event belongs to the part of the past Mom doesn’t remember. Her elderly mother had a series of strokes. After each, she was confined to bed. Every time, by grit and persistence, Grandma recovered enough to go for walks. The last stroke, however, incapacitated her to the extent that she would never regain her feet.
“Yes, when she knew she’d never walk again. So she started to cough – deliberately. She knew if she kept it up she’d make herself sick. Day and night she coughed, until she got pneumonia, went to the hospital and died.”
“Well!” says my mother. “That worked out well.”
I’m staggered by this remark: a cogent sentence, complete with humor, as if the dementia has briefly lifted. My mother is back. I must press on, before the fog returns.
“Would you like some water?”
She shakes her head, pressing her lips together.
“Let me understand. You won’t eat, you won’t drink. You mean to die. You’re not in charge of your life, so you want to be in charge of your death.”
“Right!” She utters this one word with such venom that I know without a doubt she understands her choice and its consequences perfectly; she’s fed up with existing in a world that has piled up impediments until she is choked by life’s limitations. And now she is setting her jaw against further indignity.
Mom always finds a way. This time it is the way out.
“Then I’m going to let you do it.” I stand up to leave. “I’ll call everyone to come say goodbye to you.”
On the morning of the fifth day of her fast, when my siblings are due to arrive, Mom shocks the caregivers by uttering a full sentence requesting a shower. This one time she doesn’t fight them off, and when they dress her up afterwards she submits eagerly. By the time my sister and three brothers walk in, she is sitting up in bed, bright-eyed and overjoyed to see us all arrayed before her. She does not seem at all like a person who is busy dying. She even consents to drink a little juice when my elder brother holds the straw to her mouth.
In fact, my siblings wonder if this has been a false alarm and Mom is making a comeback. They want to encourage her. My sister brilliantly proposes throwing Mom a party. Mom has no awareness of dates so we’ll pretend it’s her 87th birthday, even though it’s still two days off. A cake is hastily procured and, when our mother wakes from her afternoon nap, it is to our happy faces and candles alight in chocolate frosting. “Happy birthday, dear Mom, happy birthday to you!”
She says little, but her delight glows. She sips more liquid, as well as, astoundingly, a small bite of cake. My brothers and sister each spend tender moments with her, and then one by one they disperse. They hope that their goodbyes are premature, that Mom has rallied.
But when the last of her children has left, she closes her eyes, and her mouth clamps shut, never to receive sustenance again.
I stay on, maintaining my vigil. The nurses give us privacy, instructing me how to administer morphine. Another day wears on. She drifts in and out of consciousness, and it is difficult to tell anymore if she is awake or not because she is so quiet. Sometimes she groans, whether from pain or a bad dream; sometimes her eyelids lift. I play the Fred Astaire CD again and again, alternating with The Messiah, which she also loved: sublime songs of birth and death and resurrection.
I believe that awareness is not dependent on the senses, and when people seem comatose they can still absorb thought and emotions from another person. They occupy a plane where communication is intuitive and vibrational. Whether I am wrong or right, whether she can hear me or not, I talk to my mother, or read to her from children’s books whose sentences are short and simple. Dad wanders in now and then, at a loss for words, and kisses her forehead.
On the sixth day, the doctor reports her vital signs are still quite good. She is still lashed to the saddle, holding firmly to life. After a week, I am yearning for my family; I decide to drive home the next morning, grab a quick overnight in New York before returning to her bedside. But, for the present, another day stretches before us. The nurses keep shutting the window against the January air; I keep opening it, on her behalf. As I turn back to the figure stretched out on the bed, I muse what a terrible burden her body has been for most of her existence, and now how heavy it must seem, and hard to slough.
I wish she could feel weightlessly light, as in salt water, and swim to freedom. An idea comes to me. I decide impulsively to try a guided meditation. “Mom, let’s go somewhere away from this bed.” No response, but no matter: I’m going to wing it.
I begin, “You’re on a beach, standing at the edge of the ocean. The water is clear and calm and warmed by the sun. You can feel the sand between your toes; the little waves tickle your ankles. You’re ready to swim. You wade out and let yourself slip into the water. It feels like silk on your skin and it holds you up because it’s salty. You make circling motions with your arms, pulling yourself slowly through the water. You start kicking your legs to go faster, because your body is whole and strong and you can swim as far and as long as you like, farther and farther from land. You’re no longer stuck in this room, you are completely free, you belong to the water and you are safe because the water will always hold you up.”
I pause, hearing her covers rustle. Her shoulders move a little. Then her hands shift on the sheet. The movement is slight but she is plainly tracing circles with her arms. The moment doesn’t last long, but I am certain now that she’s with me, gliding through water.
After she swims for a while, I take her riding. She walks into a wildflower meadow, where a bay horse is waiting. He’s so gentle that she doesn’t need a saddle or bridle. She finds a rock to stand on and pulls herself onto his back, which is broad and comfortable, and his coppery coat shines in the sunlight. She nudges his flank with her bare heels and he breaks into a lope as easy and restful as a porch swing. She can hold onto his black mane and he’ll go wherever she wishes.
My father knocks on the door; lunch is delivered in the next room.
After eating, I return to Mom’s bedside and we go on another trip. In this one she learns to fly. This requires no strength; she only has to will it. If she wants to lift off, she can, into the fresh air, to soar and swoop, and travel wherever she wishes.
Later, following dinner with Dad, there’s time to take one more trip with her.
It’s summer. She’s standing in grass, looking up at wispy clouds in the sky. One of them detaches from the rest and floats down to where she is. She lies down in its cool, dense vapor, and it bears her into the sky. “This time,” I caution her, “it’s important that you let go of your will and let the cloud have its way.”
The cloud carries her over all the splendors of the world below. At last she comes to Lake Forest and the house where she grew up. The cloud floats her to the front door. When she opens the door, stepping into the hall, she moves through the house and all the rooms she remembers. She can see her mother and father sitting in the parlor, the cook in the kitchen, and climbing the stairs she walks down the hall; the wood floor is so long and polished so smooth she used to have rollerskate races with her sister and two brothers up and down its length.
She ends up in the nursery where the governess is bustling around. “In the nursery is a fireplace. You float up the chimney, and you pop out on the roof, and there your cloud is waiting. Lie down and let it lift you back into the sky. The sun is setting, and the cloud reflects pink and gold and then mauve as the light dims and the stars come out in the twilight, and this is where your cloud stops. You lie on your back looking up at the sky turning to night. You are like the cloud, airy and light. You’re not sealed in this body anymore: you are among the stars and you’re perfectly, perfectly free.”
I end here, dazed as if jet-lagged from our travels, and wondering where all that impromptu narrative came from. It’s time to leave, a thirty-minute drive to the friend’s house where I’m staying. I lean down and whisper to my mother, “I have to go back to New York tomorrow but I’ll be back the next day, and the doctor says you’re strong enough to hang on. But if you decide not to, it’s okay. You’ll be gone but not gone. You’ll be here but not here. And we’ll be all right.” I kiss her goodbye.
In my friend’s guest room, I set my cell phone alarm for 6 a.m. so I can get an early start for the drive home. Hours later, I’m still sleeping off my exhaustion when I sink into this dream: I enter my mother’s sickroom at the retirement facility. It’s empty. Everything has been cleared out. I’m bewildered: why? It’s too soon for that. I look through the open door into the adjoining room. My mother’s mattress is on the floor and she’s sitting up in bed. She looks younger, about 40, blonde again, her hair no longer white. She grins, waving at me: I’m fine.
When I wake up, I’m surprised to find my bedroom full of daylight. Grabbing my phone, I see the time is 7:30. I’ve slept through my phone alarm and missed a call from the night nurse. I listen to her voicemail message: my mother has died.
The call came in a few hours before, around the time I was dreaming of finding Mom in the next room, sitting on her padded cloud, her wave and her smile. She has managed to die on the day of her real birthday.
She visits me twice again over the next two nights. In each dream she is younger. The last is brief, only a glimpse. She crosses a large vestibule, swinging her arms as she walks briskly and with purpose. She looks about 16, tanned and golden-haired in a bright lavender dress, incandescent, spirited, fresh. Her athletic stride carries her too fast for me to intercept her, and before I know it she has disappeared behind a screen and out of sight.
|Mom and I: facing the final swim together. Photo © Mariana Cook 2002||P|
(To be continued. The next post will be the last one in this long memoir.)