“She’s on her way out.” So says the CNA charged with day care of my a-mother six days out of seven for the two-and-a-half years. She’s been in a state of decline for weeks; her death, when it comes, will likely be labeled a combination of broken hip/fall related trauma and old age. The fall, on Valentine’s Day night, accelerated an already stubborn and complicated situation.
Groceries in the trunk, about to head home and prepare another quarantine supper, my father calls from the privacy and distance of his office several towns from where the nurse tends his death-defying wife. He has a difficult time not crying.
“I don’t want this to happen, and I can’t make it stop. I just want to make it go away. I’m not ready for this… ” We speak for quite some time. The questions I feel compelled to ask are stuck in my throat.
When we speak an hour later, after a courtesy consultation with my partner to vet a seven-hour drive to Long Island to say goodbye to Her, my father has stopped crying (as much) and is quietly nibbling potato chips. I picture a field mouse holding a tender of something crisp. He is easily moved to tears and cries again when I tell him I’ll be there sometime mid-day tomorrow.
The choreography with my a-mother is one where the steps constantly changed and the tempo remained unrecognizable except after she’d had a few drinks. She’d lead, I’d follow and get in trouble for doing so. She’d never sit one out while I worked like a dog to master even one move; one gesture or flourish that would make her fall in love with me. I never got it right.
As she aged and grew more frail, more contrite, more vocal about what displeased her on any given day, I wondered about her exit. Would I feel relief or secret and inappropriate joy knowing she could no longer rake me through coals. But I’m not feeling any named emotion; only a constant static fry, a radio between stations, splintering my thoughts.
The conversation happened last Wednesday; I’d not heard my father cry since his own parents died. He has held us together for such a long time; the bowsprit of gentility and poise on a ship that, to the unseeing eye, was held hostage by an unstable and unpredictable first mate (my mother, his wife). She is good at her core; the alcohol and ‘nerve’ pills made her unlikeable, which makes not liking her nor wanting to be around her confusing for her children.
By Thursday morning, I was in NY, at her bedside.
A week later, she is bedridden and still hanging.
While I visited and helped care for her, to spell my father and the CNA, she had visions. During the night, she wrestled with anxiety about knowing she should not get behind the wheel, that she wasn’t able to drive – but keys were in the dash and she knew she needed to drive (she just should not). Another episode, she called out to no one in particular, “I need to speak with Mr. Dawson.” My father, in bed beside her asked, somewhat alarmed, “Which? Junior or Senior?” “Senior,” she said with confidence. “My father’s been dead for 40 years. Why do you need to speak with him?”
“I was hoping he might ask us to dinner. Because I haven’t got a red cent!!”
She had been a flight attendant for United. One of the few women making the first cross-country flights. On one, which became several, she met my paternal grandfather, an attorney who specialized in municipal bonds. He flew back and forth working on a variety of projects from a potential waterfront shipping area on the Columbia River to municipal housing in Seattle, Portland and elsewhere. After one flight landing, her flight crew was grounded and in need of housing. She phoned my not-yet grandfather seeking help finding an apartment. He sent his driver out to Idlewild (now JFK) and brought the young women to his estate in Mill Neck, Long Island. There, she met my father as a young adult. My grandfather has been gone a long time but they keep his name above the doors: Wood Dawson (formerly Wood, Dawson, Love & Sabatine, public bond specialists.)
At lunch on Friday, between halved green grapes and small tastes of jelly toast, she had a full conversation (albeit one-sided) with a little girl standing in the corner. The child had also been hanging around her bedside (Mom had chatted with her; I could hear down the hall). She could not describe the vision when asked but said the girl was nice, that she carried a small bouquet of yellow and purple flowers. During that same lunch, seated at the table and eyes open, she walked through a garden.
During the night, in bed in the dark, she asked aloud, “Who is Jennifer related to?”
The next morning as she slept, my father recounted this episode to me, barely able to speak from hurting. Words stuck in his throat.