Friday, October 15, 2010

Grave Concerns

People in my circle don’t choose religious “She’s an angel strumming a harp in heaven” condolence cards so I get the “Sorry for your loss” model. This seems weird because my mother’s death last week is the anticlimax of a loss that’s stretched over five years. Maybe longer because memories fade and it is difficult for me to discern what I should attribute to the onset of dementia and what to the demons that plagued my mother for as long as I can remember. So, while I’m sad “loss” doesn’t really nail it.

I don’t kick up my heels in elated joy on the first Saturday that my weekly visit to the board and care doesn’t loom. Even though I am nearly incapacitated by the experience of seeing her, I know that the eventuality of not having to visit her will be bittersweet. It dawned on me about five years ago that due to her worsening dementia it was unsafe for my mother to continue to live on her own. It took a while to transition her to a facility. As I broke down her house I realized that I had, probably because I anticipated what a ginormous hassle it would be, ignored a lot of signs of her cognitive deterioration. I left her to falter there alone in the big house for longer than I should have.

Culling fifty years of stuff down to what she could take with her to the care facility was a huge undertaking. For the first few months she demanded to go home and retrieve possessions. I never told her that her beautiful custom 50s house was sold and covered with spray on-stucco, despite the buyer’s promise to restore it. I just said I’d bring whatever items she needed on my next visit, knowing that she’d forget. There was a hideous cheap leather coat that particularly stuck in her craw and I kept making excuses for not returning it to her. “Oh, it’s too nice to keep here, I’ll keep it safe for you at home.” “Your closet is so crowded, I’ll bring it when the weather cools down.” It had been sold for 50 cents at a garage sale. She stopped asking after her house and possessions after a while and settled in and enjoyed the constant company of her Mormon DOCTOR boyfriend with whom she haughtily held court at their designated table in the dining room.

The doctor’s family was pretty uptight and were concerned that they might be held liable should he crush her tiny body with his more than ample one while in the throes of carnal knowledge. She was barred from being in his room with the door closed. I arrived once and was taken aside by a nurse at the facility and advised that all scissors and clippers and other sharp objects had been confiscated from my mother’s room. The doctor’s eldest daughter Linda was a real control freak and called the doctor several times a day. My mother repeatedly put an end to this annoyance by cutting the telephone wires. She actually could have just removed the plug but she was pretty old school.

The days between her acclimation to the first facility and her deterioration to a stage too severe for the level of care offered, were perhaps the most content of my mother’s life. All of her bitterness and paranoia dissipated and there was a peaceful softness about her face. Sporting a bare midriff blouse and low rise hip-hugger jeans with just a tiny sliver of Depends popping alluringly above the waistband, she was glued to the doctor’s arm. She got three meals a day and two of them concluded with ice cream. There was a beautician on site who fixed her hair weekly. I took her out for lunch every Saturday and sometimes for a movie or a manicure. She had her ancient cat Sally for company when the staff ejected the doctor from her room. I cannot imagine how the life she lived for those two years could have been any more perfect for her. This too is a gift to me because the two years of “mom light” allowed for some revisionism and I found myself becoming more tender towards her. The golden age of mom ended when I arrived to visit and found her crumpled, abandoned and soaked in urine on a couch in the lobby while all of the other residents were seated in the dining room.

I found a board and care that specializes in Alzheimer’s and arrived on moving day to further pare down her possessions for the transition to an even smaller room. The old cat was wheezing and looking pretty funky. The board and care had reluctantly agreed to take on the kitty but I knew the wobbly hacking thing would not have been greeted with much enthusiasm. Himself made the thrift store run and on his way, he dropped Sally at the animal shelter. Her possessions and her cat had been the center of my mother’s existence and it still pains me to think of how it would have pained her to know how cavalierly I cast them away.

I dropped my mother at the board and care and arranged what was left of her possessions in her half of the bedroom. I had to return later to the large facility to pick up some prescriptions they’d neglected to give me and I saw the doctor, in his bib, eating alone at their table. For the first few weeks at the board and care my mom tried to leave with me when I went to go. The tiny Filipino ladies had to hold her back and she would scream. She called for my father from whom she’d been divorced over 40 years and for her brother, dead nearly a decade. She escaped twice, having figured out somehow a way to dismantle the alarm, and was found wandering the neighborhood. Eventually, and aided by strong psychotropic drugs, she settled in. It was not a happy queen of the prom experience like she had at the first institution but she was placid and well cared for during the final sad phase.

I lieu of sitting Shiva, I spend even more time on the couch trying to manipulate the t.v. with what the puppy Oprah has left us of the remote. I watch a documentary about Pablo Escobar's son who’s committed his life to apologizing to the children of men that his father had bumped off. My mother never killed anyone to my knowledge but I don't think my life expectancy makes it feasible to atone to everyone she ever slighted. Never in her life would she admit to being old enough to be a grandmother. Ironically, now that she is gone her legacy is redeemed by her grandchildren.

My mother had a stormy relationship with my sister Sheri, the older daughter who inherited her good looks and a brokenness that led to lives devoid of trust and intimacy. My sister died 11 years ago in Las Vegas. She suffered from multiple sclerosis and although advised by her physicians that hot weather exacerbated the disease, she moved there chasing down her husband who'd relocated for the purpose of terminating their relationship. Both were compulsive gamblers and he had cocaine taste on a crack budget. It was discovered that my sister, while staying at my mother’s, had opened a number of credit card accounts, via offers she retrieved from the mail, in my mother’s name. She managed, until moving to Vegas, to keep up with the minimum payments but after a few months of living and gambling in Sin City, things fell apart. My mother remembered that before her move to Vegas, even on days she could barely get out of bed, no matter what, my sister would plod out, gripping her walker, always to collect the mail. Despite my mother’s droll observation, she and my sister did not speak after the credit card episode.

My sister was deteriorating it was unbearable for me to think about her dying without having had some sort of contact with my mother. I flew to Vegas with my mom. Sheri lived in an enormous 1980s beige apartment development. Her husband had moved cross town to a girlfriend’s although he kept my sister believing that he lived a few doors down in the same complex.. Because my sister was bedridden she really had no use for any furniture and my brother-in-law subsequently denuded her apartment. There was a brand new shiny mobility scooter in the center of the living room that was delivered long after the window of its potential usefulness to her had closed. When we arrived Sheri was being attended to by a nurse. My mother and I sat to wait in two of the three folding chairs that graced a card table, the only other furniture in the room. The door to the bedroom was slightly ajar and through the crack my sister’s withered bone of a leg was hoisted and being sponged by her nurse. “I see her,” my mother gasped.

My sister and mother spoke a few times after that but when the nurse phoned me and said the time had come I flew to Vegas by myself. I held her hand as she died. Her husband arrived and I took him to dinner at Applebee’s and flew home, entrusting him to deal with the burial. My father and I not only paid the debts Sheri had rung up using credit cards in my mother’s name, we had also purchased a handicapped equipped van and facilitated round the clock private nursing for a number of years. I knew the husband, despite having sold the handicapped van, would be in no position to subsidize a funeral so I contacted a funeral home in Las Vegas and paid for a very modest burial as my brother-in-law was adamant that my she did not want to be cremated. My brother-in-law called and informed me that the payment I’d issued was ludicrously below what he apparently knew to be my sister’s expectations. He indicated that my sister’s fantasy funeral we run in the area of thirty thousand dollars. He called me a couple of choice named when I refused. My father said to tell him to just pay for it with my mother’s credit cards.

My sister’s burial was so modest that her grave, eleven years after her death, still bears only a temporary marker. I never felt flush enough to remedy this but I feel embarrassed that she has been commemorated only with a handwritten plastic tag for so long. There is a small balance remaining in my mother’s account, just enough to buy a simple headstone for her daughter. I’m spending a long time thinking about how to inscribe it. I like the thought of my mother’s final act of generosity but also this allows me to engage in something appropriately funeral-y, supplementary to lolling about braless on the couch, to mark the occasion.

The acknowledgement of my mother’s death has been low key and sweet. I have reached an age where my contemporary’s parents are pretty much dropping like flies so I appreciate the solidarity and perspective of my peers. The mail brings a couple of obviously obligatory condolence cards from relatives. These are people my age but I can still see a mother wagging a finger and demanding their slavish attention to proper etiquette. The notes follow Miss Post’s advice to begin by sharing a memory, “I had fun at her house when I was a child” and conclude by noting a positive attribute. One writer remembers my mother as being “gentle” an observation that it sends me into nearly spasmodic laughter.

Jimmy, the Thai mechanic has been told about my mom by the boys at the office. Jimmy’s English is a bit dicey and he insists, although we are the same age, on calling me “Mama.” He never met my mother but he sums it up, “Yeah, it’s sad but she was very old and in bad shape so you know it was for the best.” He is also an advocate of bargain cremation and thinks that additional funerary expense and ceremony are frivolous. Dead is dead. He adds that for all of us, eventually everything we fret about will be meaningless. “Live now,” he tells me. He always forgets to turn the service light off in the car,but of all the words proffered,his may be the most comforting.


Fionnchú said...

You ate at Applebees? With all the Vegas buffets around? I never fail to learn from your revelations.

May the service light remind us of both our obligations and our mortality. Our generation's version of a holy candle or a yartzeit light? Shabbat shalom.

harry said...

Yep, I think I'll go put on the interior light in the Prius tonight in Adele's honor. Candle burning in St. Hybrid.

And the light on not for you, but for her: what a dish she was. Pointy Janet Leigh bazooms, delicate wrists, sensual lips... I kinda always saw what Al musta gotten heated for. And a Dame in that vintage mid-century classless classy way. She was a rich character and gave you the panoply of neuroses you've forged into this art.

The greatest memorial for your mother is your artful and moving depiction of her, you, and the loving gap between.