The last time I saw my mother was the first Sunday in August. The final day of an impromptu stay with my parents, spurred the previous Wednesday by the most heartbreaking call from my father: she didn’t have much time; he wasn’t prepared of any of this; he wanted to stop this from happening… her aging and illness, the imminence of the end all suddenly real and terrifying. We have no control over any of it and that, I feel, is what scares us the most.
During that early August visit, Mom had been cajoled and gently nudged by me, my father, and the godsend day nurse, to dress and come to the dining table for meals or sit up a bit more in bed; we changed her and cleaned her, dressed her and kept her mind present, though she drifted easily into reveries and conversations with people we could not see. Several times, just me and my father, after the nurse left Friday evening, we saw her in the most undignified situations and tried our best to treat her with dignity, no shame nor admonishment, just acceptance and love. She had become helpless, frail in her abilities and child-like in her desires: to rest and nap, to sit quietly, to visit with ghosts or those calling to her, to nibble sugarless wintergreen mints. I kept asking, Are you comfortable? Do you feel safe? Yes.
In her sleep that weekend, which she wasn’t really doing at night, according to my father, she sat bolt upright in bed and spoke her side of conversations with people, family members, dead 40 years. She worried about tall rubber boots stuck on her feet. She fretted over getting behind the wheel of a car, saw the keys in the dashboard ignition but doubted whether she should drive, knew she should not be at the wheel… what was she going to do? She called out into the night, to no one in particular, “Who is Jennifer related to?” This, and other steps into the other-world she took, broke my father and he tried to explain how they had adopted me, but she was not able to follow the narrative she helped create.
My father reported she had not been eating much and drinking even less. I offered her what I had: slightly frozen green grapes defrosting from my car ride. She ate them most of that weekend, in sweet halves, with her bone and sinew fingers, one small serving at a time. It was as if she’d never had them before, the comfort and satiety clearly pleasing to her. More? Yes, please.
That weekend, I prepared our meals. Though she ate smaller and smaller, bites, really. Saturday morning, she woke and announced she asked that someone to brush her hair, and help her with Cherries in the Snow Revlon lipstick, and put on her favorite Hawaiian muumuu and come to the table. Over lunch she talked with a small girl in a lovely garden where the flowers were yellow and purple, and she spotted a dog slinking along the inside wall of the dining room heading toward the den. My father and I watched her carefully while she went away and visited another world from her chair. My father occasionally glanced at me across the table as if to say, Is this real? What is this?
In hindsight, so much of her lucid dreaming and pre-death hallucinations shared a central theme of going somewhere, visiting people from her past, taking a trip. It is not an uncommon phenomena but it can be unnerving if you’re not aware people prepare, or, perhaps it is the spirit, preparing to take flight.
She loved the Long Island tomatoes, buttered sweet corn on the cob and barbecued ribs that evening. After dinner, my father and I got her changed and back into bed. That was the last day she would be mobile. She would not leave the bed, again. Two weeks later, in a hospice bed at the edge of the den, she died quietly while the nurse sat near by at the dining room table.
Where do we begin?
It has not been two months since Mom made her exit. The aftermath of her illness and 24/7 detailed care left my father emotionally depleted and physically exhausted. He has begun to fall apart. I am hoping this is a temporary adjustment to his psyche and not an indication he is going to grieve himself into a grave. Within two weeks of her dying, he suffered a stroke that put him in the hospital for four days. Two weeks after that, he fell – at home, alone. Two weeks after that, this past Friday, he totaled his car running a red light he did not realize was red. There were two other cars involved but he was at fault, so he believes.
This weekend, the one approaching, is a celebration of her life. I’ve been referring to this in shorter form as ‘the memorial’ but the invitation says Celebration of Life. My father’s invitation list crested near 90 but the current pandemic shaved 50 percent of the potential guests and, guided by the NY State Department of Health, we held our headcount to just under 50, including a four-piece Dixieland jazz ensemble. They’ll open the event with a traditional New Orleans funeral march instrumental, and end the spoken portion with more uplifting, life-affirming music. The band was my idea. Originally, it was supposed to be a secret but with the incidents of late, I figured a surprise might result in confusion and no one needs any more of that this year. She would have liked it and she would have criticized my spending the money, equally. It was always a warped win/win, still is, even though she’s gone.
Over the last weeks, my father has mentioned several times he’d like me and then my sister to say something at the memorial, then he’ll speak. I have wracked my brain to come up with something loving and supportive and freely honest and sentimental but for all my trying I got nothing.
You can Google things like eulogy for a difficult relationship but the results lead to dating advice and break-up sites. You can look up eulogy for difficult mother but who’s to say her personality – and our differences – were not somehow my fault? May be I should look for eulogy BY a difficult child? There is absolutely nothing to be found for eulogy for my adoptive mother or eulogy by adult adoptee daughter.
Three weeks ago, my writing coach assigned me to write an essay called The Star, and make it about who that woman is giving that talk at that memorial. Write about how I see myself and who she is. I haven’t written that, yet, either. I can’t.
I don’t know what to say without sounding angry or hurt or abandoned – I am currently all three for a variety of reasons, though they don’t often float to the top for public gaze and ridicule. I can’t think of any cute or fun stories of my Mom and me, how we did things together or what she taught me that doesn’t somehow have chafe or scuffmarks or a scar. I know a lot, I am capable of a lot, and much of who I am – what I am able to do socially or technically – is because of her. I just don’t know how to separate the pain of what I went through learning these things from her from the person she was to everyone else, even to my closest family members. At some point, everyone has been mad at her, but at no point was anyone ever treated the way I was, so much of it behind closed doors or in private. So much shame for never measuring up, never being real enough. I will always be someone else’s baby.
Maybe I should read what other people have written in their cards and letters, and take that as my role: the reader of other’s sentiments and remembrances. People have genuinely loving and kind things to say and they did not wring themselves for a month looking for the right words or feelings.
I’m hoping mine show up.
Not for the first time in my life, regardless of whether they are related, I am, quite literally, at a loss for a mother and for words.