Friday, October 8, 2010

When the Time Comes


Dad’s in Boise and Spuds seizes the opportunity to celebrate his 15th birthday with a meticulously planned soiree. Before attending to his shopping list we make our weekly visit to Grandma at the board and care. The week before she is propped in a wheelchair but now we are advised that she is now unable to sit erect and is confined to a hospice issued hospital bed. My stepmother has sent a box of Mom’s favorite See’s candy. My mother is engulfed by the big bed. She eats the chocolate dutifully as I press tiny pieces to her lips but her face is blank. I could be feeding her gruel or sawdust. Odd wayward long eyebrows and whiskers have sprouted and while my former mother would have been furious that I didn’t tweeze them for her, I don’t want to cause this shell of the mother any discomfort. She stares into space not even muttering in response to my attempts at conversation. I begin to tell Spuds again that I should never be left to languish like this. “Don’t let me…,” I start but he cuts me off, looking me in the eye. “I know.”

Priscilla, the attendant, lingers, trying to put a good spin on Mom’s condition. We leaf through an old album from the nightstand and Priscilla marvels at how beautiful my mother is and how fat I am in the old photos. When my mother is still ambulatory Priscilla tells me that while the other residents sit in recliners gazing at Turner Classic movies all day, my mother stands for hours and stares at herself in the mirror. I email myself a reminder to bring more albums the next time I visit. I know that my mother, now invulnerable even to dark chocolate, would be happy to have her beauty appreciated.

Spuds stands on a ladder and strings twinkly lights on the grapefruit tree and lines the driveway with luminarias. He also places a bicycle lock on the gate to bar entrance to the backyard, which resembles Tobacco Road. I am given specific menu instructions and several cleaning assignments although plastering and painting the gaping holes gnawed in the living room walls by the puppy Oprah is beyond my realm of possibility. Spuds settles for a batch of cupcakes and a trip to Alhambra for banh mi.

The seventeen year old and I make an ice run. After co-hosting parties with me for over twenty years now, Himself still becomes apoplectic at the thought of parting with 6 bucks for FROZEN WATER although he would object to our purchase of a dozen liters of Mexican sodas no less if we served them warm. We arrive at the liquor store and the seventeen year old advises me to just stay in the car and he takes care of the transaction and hauls 50 lbs of ice to the car cheerfully by himself. He even uses his own money and while the contents of his wallet emanate from mine, I dig the illusion.

The party is fairly placid. I chaperone loosely, occasionally looking through the window at the proceedings. Richard keeps me company. We watch The Bad and The Beautiful for the zillionth time and I am reminded about all the movies we watched together before I was married. I note to Spuds the local ordinance regarding amplified music after midnight and the stereo is turned off without argument. I wake to find that all of the clean up has been perfectly completed. Folding chairs have been returned to the garage. Decorations have been stowed and leftovers packaged and refrigerated. Feeling useless, I prepare an elaborate breakfast for the sleep overers and even offer carry-outs to two boys whose parents pick them up early. Spuds starts in on me about being weird and needy but shuts up about my pathetic stab at usefulness when I remind him about all the crap I bought for his party and how I will be the one who gets yelled at when Himself scours the trash for misplaced recyclables and finds the telltale wrappers.

The cell phone rings while I’m in heavy Monday morning traffic. I am in the habit of letting it ring to voice mail while I am driving, but I notice it is Ning, the owner of the board and care. She tells me that my mother is unresponsive. My mother suffers from severe dementia. Unresponsive? Duh. I tell her that I’ll be in the office shortly if she needs to reach me and that I won’t be available at all the following day. There is a silence on the line. I fumble with the phone. “I think she may be gone!” she finally blurts. She says she’s going to call the hospice. I call Richard and make my way to work.

Ning calls again when I arrive at the office. The hospice nurse arrives and my mother is pronounced dead. Richard is on his way to the board and care. I am immobilized at the office. I was trapped in a room with my dead father for an eternity while my stepmother wailed and kissed him from head to gangrenous toes. I do not require an audience with the body of my mother “Layne is very sensitive about things like this,” Richard says to account for my absence.

The hospice nurse is in a hurry to leave but is apparently prohibited from doing so until she is assured that arrangements have been made. I’d taken care of this for my dad but Richard, keeper of all records family and business, is at the board and care and I don’t know where he’s filed the receipt for my dad’s cremation. I google “Los Angeles cremation.” The first few listings are pertinent to pets but I scroll down and select a service for humans that actually has the price posted on its website. It feels crass to call any of the more coy establishments and demand, “How much?” I make the arrangements and opt to have the ashes scattered at sea because not only was this my mother’s wish, having accumulated the ashes of many dead pets over the years that I don’t know what to do with, I would be even more confounded about storing the ashes of my mother. I split my dad’s ashes with my stepmom and threw my half from the top of the Space Needle in his hometown Seattle but I can’t think of a particularly appropriate ash flinging locale for my mom. Even though the scattering at sea costs $10 more than having the cremains delivered by certified mail, I decide that this is that way to go.

Once again, Richard takes complete charge when I shut down although, ever Scottish, instead of leaving the box of See’s with the hospice people who’ve demonstrated so much kindness to my mother, he snatches it up along with the photos and albums. Five years ago Richard helped me pare down my mother’s belongings when we moved her from her huge home of nearly 50 years to single room at an eldercare facility. We further trimmed her possessions two years ago when we transitioned her from the large institution to her shared room at the board and care. At journey’s end there are a few photos and a closet representing a tiny portion of her former wardrobe which before had overflowed the closets of all three bedrooms on Fulton Avenue and a box of cheap costume jewelry. I advise the board and care people to box up the remains for charity.

Before the dementia hit full throttle, my mom used to torment me about her eminent death. The subtext was “you’re going to miss me a lot when I’m gone and you’ll be real sorry if you don’t revel in my company now.” She often gave me instructions about what to do when she died to which I would cut her off with “That will be the first time in my life that you won’t be able to tell me what to do.” I didn’t anticipate the onset of dementia which resulted in about five years of having a living mother who actually didn’t boss me around. Mom hasn’t attempted to wield authority with me for a long time now but it is surprising how the opinions of the person she was prior to the onset of dementia still resonate. I suspect she’d be pissed that I splurged the extra ten bucks to have her scattered at sea.

I am relieved now of running around to pick up sundries and Depends and prescriptions for my mother. This will be the first Saturday that I don’t have to make the dreaded visit to the board and care. I saw my mother every week and as her awareness of my presence decreased, the level of my own self pity at the obligation grew stratospheric. “I wish not to have to do this anymore,” I would say to myself, full knowing that my only possible source of relief would be her death.
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I find an envelope labeled in capital letters in thick Sharpie “To Be Opened When I Die.” The contents aren’t a big surprise. Her files were always heavy with what she construed as evidence of my father’s mistreatment of her and general lack of character. The final envelope contains legal papers reflecting my parents’ financial scufflings which continued for decades after their divorce. There are account numbers and phone numbers and insurance receipts and a Reader’s Digest article about not squandering your inheritance.

Two of my longtime employees were reared Catholic and I can tell they find it odd, as does the Filipino staff at the board and care, that my mother has been cremated. Period. No service. No wake. No viewing. No covered casseroles. My mother was not religious and was always circumspect about being Jewish. She never went to temple and we had a Christmas tree and Easter baskets. A Jewish friend is surprised that I am not sitting Shiva. I explain that my mother, if anything, was a self hating Jew who refused even to invite any of her friends to my Jewish wedding, lest her WASP cover be blown. My friend explains that sitting Shiva is intended to comfort the living more than memorialize the dead but it doesn’t seem like covering the mirrors and sitting for a week on boxes is going to make me feel any better..

At the bottom of the ominous envelope along with the documents and practical instruction is a tiny Jewish prayer book with a Post-it note affixed to it. “I said Kaddish for my mother from this book. Saved it for my children to use when the time comes.” My mom, it turns out, has the perfect send off as we flip through the old albums and marvel at her beauty. I will not seek the comfort of sitting Shiva. She would hate the covered mirrors. I will, now that the time has come, say the Kaddish for her although I will not miss bribing the kids to escort me to visit the frail vestige. I have missed the mother who used to be for a long time. I am surprised that the missing is no less acute at the end of the long road from mother to hollow vessel to ashes.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Well, what to add? You give her a graceful send-off and the eulogy she earns will likely be yours if not in bittersweet, candied content than in similarly byte-encapsulated form on whatever medium endures in our attenuated future.

Her body which she so loved, now a withered shell, her nine decade self now a carapace burnt and scattered to the sea, as your father to the air above Seattle and the depths off the dock of Port Angeles at Puget Sound.

We for now at least endure, and our children will one day open a letter or more likely unlock a file online. I wonder if then they will scroll back along these entries to find us talking here, living voices from the dead? Shabbat shalom, xxx me