Now my mother is living alone with the TV as the oversized non-HD eyeball staring back at her one way. She has been living this way for nine years or so, since my father dug a hole to run electric to a house he built and died almost instantly from a heart attack. Now she lives a block away from her beloved beach and boardwalk but seldom sets foot off her block. She totters only to the 7-11 and only travels elsewhere when people take her to get groceries. Before, it was her fear of incontinence. Now it's incompetence.
Now, she has collapsed, without warning, alongside me as we walk back from sitting on a sunny bench and watching the people. She has folded like a Jacob's Ladder, a paper accordion that was still too heavy for me to catch, the partial plate of her dentures fluttering rigidly up and down in her mouth as she wheezed and gibbered. Now, I should have known: it was too hot for her polyester pants, her sweater, her thick socks. But she said she was comfortable. We feared that she now could not regulate her own body temperature, that she no longer knew what was too hot or too cold.
She passed out one more time before she collapsed for the last time. The spaces in between were upholstered with arguments and pleading, of that rising tide of helplessness when an older parent's stubbornness finally relents as convincing practice. No, I don't need anyone to come clean my apartment. I'm sorry that you now think I am disgusting. No, I won't go to the doctor. This weather is not like what we had when Dad was alive. If those girls on the beach go topless because they're allowed to now, there's no way I'm walking the boardwalk.
My brother and I had been doing the dry run of this for years, what we would do, how it would happen, how long we would wait. It was like the most pathetic military extraction where the hostage didn't want to be rescued, but you were under orders so you better make it happen, soldier. This was the one time I was thankful for Facebook; I was friends on there with a neighbor of Mom's that enabled me to check on her, which came in handy when her landline phone line went dead and no one could reach her and she was confused and convinced that her landlord paid her phone bill and you need come help your mom. Even though Mom forgot, her checkbook register was meticulous and complete. Mom was always just smart enough to avoid capture; she stopped cooking anything on the stove, stopped bathing in anything but the bathroom sink, stopped anything that would red flag her for a retirement villa that would drain every cent of the money left from the sale of the house that dad died trying to finish, her only nest egg. She managed to live almost entirely on her Social Security and bought all her groceries from the Dollar Tree. There was nothing we could do to stop her, or even put a block in her way.
Then, this March, she fell and no one was there to catch her. Again, my Mom's smart enough to keep a thick, yellowed address book in her bulky and crackled grandma purse, and so they found my brother's number in Florida, then mine. Once I moved up from New Orleans, I've always been about three hours away, so I met her at the hospital. You will need to bring clean clothes. You're mother hasn't been managing her self care. We tried to give her a bath, but she wasn't having it.
Mom is now in pincurls. She shuffles around with only paper underwear and a hospital gown. There are towels laid across everything she touches. She doesn't know how long she's been in the hospital, or why she's even there. In the movies, the doctor always talks to family, but no one really thought to update me on what was going on with mom. All I know is that they weren't going to release her with out an appointment for home health care, they wouldn't release her unless they could keep her lucid for several hours in a row. It took a while. They had her on stool softeners and were trying to get her to eat. For years all I've ever seen my mother in is warm light; in the sterile lights, her skin was gray for the first time, her white hair now the hue of oysters hollowed of their muscles.
I went back to her apartment and waited. I washed all of her linens, wiped down all of her counters, tried to scrub out all of the odor of a lonely woman who wanted only to be with her husband, wanted only to look backward, and couldn't care at all how much it hurt those of us who loved her and stood by her when she was being a colossal pain in the ass. I came back with Scrabble. We watched Law and Order reruns and I convinced her to eat half of her hamburger, all of her ice cream, most of her juice. We argued over the volume being too loud. Mom constantly puzzled over why her door could only be closed when I was in there with them; they moved her to a different hall from the first night because she kept wandering into other people's rooms. Now there is a nurse parked at a desk in the hall to interrupt dissent. Mom muses about the neighbor that goes naked pretty often, even though I'm sure no one wants to see his giblets.
The Scrabble game was pretty close, actually, and I didn't even try to let her win. They told us she would likely be released the next morning, so I hugged her goodnight, told her I loved her, and that I'd come get her tomorrow.
Tomorrow never came.
3am came instead. I slept so heavily, that I didn't hear her phone for a few rings, didn't hear that they had been trying to reach me for several hours. Your mom collapsed while going to the bathroom, and we couldn't revive her.
Through the expected crying and shock, even though this woman was 80 and even though she was going to fade on us as soon as she came home and realized that a nurse would come pestering every week until she lost her mind, I learned a few other things. We informed your mother that she had a heart condition that she would need surgery for, but she refused. That's why she was on stool softeners, and we think that's why she collapsed going to the bathroom. What an old friend who was in nursing school at the time would call commode and code.
My brother was planning to leave for Crete, where he recently bought a house, but was waiting for me and for mom, before leaving Florida. Together we pieced together a minor miracle: He managed to get a flight that arrived at BWI at noon that day and was with me in Ocean City by 2pm. Between 3am and 2pm, I busied myself. I ran to Target and bought trash bags and bins. Mom's apartment was furnished exclusively with whatever castoffs the landlord or myself provided, and there was no way anyone else was going to do this work, the work of piling up what little hoarding my mother could do in such a small space and finally throwing it away for good. She hadn't bought any new clothes in decades and would hang up every faded-to-purple promotional t-shirt or threadbare skirt like it was a precious object. Almost everything Mom owned was a relic of a former life, a rack of costumes from her life on the stage, now squelched with the mildew of neglect.
I remember when Henry Rollins talked about after his friend Joe Cole was murdered in the apartment they shared, about how he and his friends had to psyche themselves up to clean up so much blood. Nothing of this was like that, except that Mom was a membrane of that entire space, and now that she was gone, the hive had to be cleaned out for new life to thrive.
I didn't even want to go to the hospital until my brother was with me. They transported her to the funeral home where she would eventually be cremated, and the time before we got to her made her look even more gone. I just wanted to see it again. Only bigger.I wouldn't look, so my brother looked for me. The closest to gone I wanted in my head was the pale green gown and her tiny flat butt shuttling around her tiny room in fuzzy socks and a whisper that all she wanted was to go home. This was the same funeral home for dad, but this time there would be no funeral. There would only be a simple obituary and a handful of calls to similar women of a similar age that I couldn't recognize by name or voice.
And there would be an amazing, wonderful, and Godsend hilarious rep from the funeral home, who was also the mortician.
Does your mother have breast implants or a pacemaker? I love that your first go to was breast implants. Well, if she does we have to remove them beforehand because they'll explode in the cremation and pacemakers have radioactive materials... and oh my word, I'm laughing inside at the thought of this woman, self described as a perfect combination of John McCain and Dolly Parton (whaaaa?), either going after Mom's chest with a golf course hole maker or her essploding and supernova-ing into stars.
Official cause of death: aortic stenosis, a calcification of the aortic valve. Well, you know, we all start to get blood clots in our ankles in our 20s, and they just keep going up as we age. No shit!? Lady, I want to hire you as my full time food slapper. I almost feel bad that my brother took almost all of your Werther's Originals. Lastly, this funeral home gives you a cake as one of its services. When we come back in September to inter Mom's ashes into the plot she bought next to dad, we are so getting that cake. That's going to be a delicious cake, I have a feeling.
We cleaned and emptied, gathering up important papers or photos, a small metal box with all of Dad's things as well, and went out to lunch. The following morning we both had to head home, and we met the landlord who would inspect the unit, return my Mom's deposit to me, and leave us to the rest of our grief.
Forever is all of the nows we had with Mom and with Dad. And we were thankful for the nows we got and the ones we missed out on, the nows we were both scared and saddened to face, the nows that heart conditions rendered lost forever. Now, the forever we have is only what we do now, what we do with what was left to us.