Things That Need Repeating


Days of the week, if it’s night or day, reasons to get out of bed, reasons to go to bed, how to butter toast, the names of my children, my name, your name, your ex-husband’s name, the caregivers’ names, why to say hello to someone you’ve known for fifty years, when to laugh at a joke, where the bed is located in the room, what to do with a hairbrush, why there’s noise coming from the television, who the people are in the photos on the bedside table, where I live, where you live and why you live there, how to wash your hands, how to put on socks, how to cross a threshold from one room to the next, how to light a cigarette, how to get up from sitting, and how to take off your pants.

I thought about not telling my mother that after living together for more than 20 years, my husband and I were calling it quits.  Then I thought of telling her casually to see if she still understood familial connections, to see if she could feel my pain vibrating, radiating, imbedded in my bones. Maybe if she knew, she’d say something, anything, to assuage it.

I was visiting her at the place in West Hollywood and I remember we were sitting on the lawn chairs just outside her door. There was a kind of urban patio with a gazebo and some trash cans hidden behind withering plants. There was local chatter and  the noise of fast cars from Fairfax.

She was still smoking back then, so she lit one up and exhaled. She asked me for the third or fourth time that day if I’d been working. Yes, I assured her, I work every day. I’m a college professor.

She was always very excited by that idea. “Your father would be so proud,” she’d say, smiling on his behalf.  A few minutes later, she’d ask, “Are you working at all?”

“Still writing?”

Yes, I would nod.

“Terrific!” she’d say.

This all happened around the time she was sure she could see my son across a concrete parking lot. She was certain she could see him playing soccer “in those fields over there.”  Hallucinations became frequent. The TV was communicating with her about some fires and other disasters that “weren’t a volcano.” This took place shortly before the evil Russian psychiatrist put her on a drug that ruined everything.

But that’s for another time.

This was my window in which to tell her about the fracture in my life. So, I began explaining that my husband and I had grown apart. I think that was the phrase I used. That’s often code for we wanted to kill each other.  But it was, in our case, the truth. We had grown apart and decided to separate. We didn’t want it to happen, but it happened.

So, I said all that and then waited for her response.

Finally, Pat said, “So, he’s not around anymore.”

“No,” I said. “He’s moving on. We’re hoping to end up friends.  He still comes by to  see the kids. He’ll visit you.”

“Oh,” Pat said. “I’m sorry to hear that. And you can’t see a counselor or something?”

“No, no… We’re probably going to get divorced.”

She didn’t look too upset, more confused by this confession.

“You okay?” she asked, smoothing my hair.

“Sort of. Not really, mom.”

“Marriage is really something,” she said, as she pat me gently.

She reached to hug me and I could smell her maternal scent. It was the smell of my childhood, the smell of safe and of home.  I held back tears.

We’d left the door to her room open and the neighbor, who wore a bubblegum pink T-shirt and matching Gilligan’s Island-style hat, popped her head in. Each time I’d spoken with this neighbor she had announced some relationship she had with Flea and The Chili Peppers. Her daughter might’ve been married to Flea, or mothered a baby with one of them. It wasn’t clear.

“Dinner time!” the Bubblegum Lady yelled and kept walking towards the dining room.

“Ready to eat?” I asked my mom, feeling relieved to finally share my news.

By now she’d finished her cigarette and was about to hide the stub in the pocket of her jeans. “Sure,” she said. “The food here is the pits. Sure.”

“I can walk you down the hall, get you settled with your table mates and then I’ll go make dinner for the kids,” I said.

My mom nodded, and gave herself a dab of lipstick before I placed the bright green elastic bracelet with her room key on her wrist.

Then she turned to me with a familiar grin.  “Where’s your husband? The big guy? I haven’t seen him in a while.”


Mama’s Gone

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I was in the Burbank airport about to fly up to Berkeley for my daughter’s graduation when Judy called. She said softly, your mama’s gone.

It was hard to comprehend, even though I knew my mom had been inhabiting only a skeleton’s body, tapping her bone fingers against the wall and living as a faint pulse behind green eyes.

I want to talk about her body. I want to gain your sympathy for her and for me as the witness. I want to describe in detail what I endured, what she endured.  But I won’t. I’ll spare the reader because we will all get there one day, if we’re lucky enough to be elderly, and we might wish to keep as sacred the description of our own decrepitude.

After work on Thursday, when she was still here, they told me they might start her on morphine, which seemed long overdue.  I climbed into the small bed where she lived for more than 700 days. I will never know what thoughts she had, or how she dreamt or where she looked for words to fit the pictures in her troubled mind.

The lights were dimmed in her room,  and the oxygen machine, which made a whooshing Sci-fi sound, competed with the Mozart pieces from a classical station and, from the announcer’s voice on a TV game show. The sounds of the space between life and death.

Pat’s legs, the size of human arms, were folded, she was fixed irretrievably at a spot on the ceiling, with a then familiar vacant gaze.  I climbed into bed beside her,  like two girls do at a sleepover, and said my best good bye. I told her things I’d said before and things I’d never known how to say.  I knew it would be the last time I’d watch the rhythm of her breathing, nearly imperceptibly rising and falling, the last time I’d see her alive.

As I was leaving, the hospice nurse asked me by phone if I’d made arrangements for after my mom’s death. She warned that they would “take her to the county” if I didn’t have a plan. I made a plan.

Back to Friday.  I heard the words. I got into a Lyft, and went straight to the place. When I got there, Judy was sitting with Pat, who’d been dressed in a strange outfit of white cotton pants I’d never seen before and a velour zip up jacket. And even though I’d grown accustomed to the skeleton with green eyes and soft grey hair for a very long time, this was yet another person, who looked less like my mother than all the others. A veiny, blue- skinned impostor had snuck in and taken her place!

The irony was always that a glamorous acting photo, a headshot of Pat, hung over her bed like a campaign poster for her younger, vital, seductive self.  This was another me the everlasting me, it seemed to say. I stared up at the photo and down at the impostur and could not reconcile the two disparate selves.

I felt confused, and tired, mournful, brave and relieved. I felt nervous because I knew they were coming to take the body away in a minivan. And I felt relieved because the 12-year journey had come to its impossible, inevitable end.

And I kept thinking, this is the day your mother died. This is the day. This is the time, the day, the moment. This is the only truth of this moment. My experience of this day is as real as it will ever be.

Judy held me and brought me soup. And the caregivers cried a little. They’d gotten used to the feeding and bathing rituals and the shifting of body parts to avoid lacerations.  They talked about how kind Pat was. When she could still talk and move her lips, she thanked them and gave them kisses.

Even ancient Barbara, my mother’s roommate at the place, who still insists on coloring her hair, looked sad when she understood that my mom had died. “Will they change the sheets later?” she asked. The caregivers, Oleg and Nora, reassured her that they would. Barbara said she was sorry my mom had died but she knew that “she was very sick.”

Since 2006, I said. Twelve years.

I sat out on the porch with Judy, my forever friend. We’ve shared stories of divorces and break-ups, of work and art and of raising kids who are now in college, and of things that have no explanation. Emily, my best friend since childhood, called and we cried, remembering my mother as an elegant New Yorker, an actress, a beauty.  My brother called and we cried for the loss of both parents.  I don’t remember much else about whom I spoke to or why or what was said. I know Lauren and Judy made arrangements for my flight to Berkeley later that night.

Things were speeding up. It was like no other day could ever be and no day will ever be. It was the day my mother died.

We sat on the porch, Judy and I, looking at the landscaped gravel and cactus lawns that had replaced the older ones.  There were cars parked in a neat row, the neighbors walking their dogs. Some trees in bloom, hints of spring and renewal.

I’m so glad you’re here. It’s a gift, I told her. I wouldn’t be able to do this alone.

Twelve years had passed.  And I’d been in mourning or anxious about my mother’s care nearly every day.  My kids had grown up and started their own lives, I’d  gone to graduate school, gotten divorced after many years of marriage, taught hundreds of classes, written a book, directed a short form series, had a love affair with an artist,  had my heartbroken and survived,  lived in another city for half a year, and traveled to Ireland, Germany, Spain, Canada, and Colombia — while Pat lost her speech, her mobility, her coherence and her identity.

Sitting on the porch, Judy and I watched as a white minivan pulled up and two young men wearing white T-shirts and workmen’s pants got out. They had a stretcher and a bag with a zipper in the shape of a mummy.

Judy nodded and held my hand.

Mama’s gone. Mama’s gone. 





Year One: Slipping


She had gotten lost several times on the way back from the store to her apartment on Edenhurst. She needed help navigating the long hours of the untethered day, the elusive word, the confusing exchange with a neighbor, the streets  and houses that had no distinguishing features. It had been about nine months since we got the diagnosis from the toupeed neurologist, and she was still trying to disguise her losses. When asked if she returned calls from a friend’s aging mother who offered friendship, Pat said the new friend was “too busy,” and she “hadn’t heard from her in ages.”  When asked why she didn’t show up for a planned dinner at our house, she claimed “I might be coming down with something.”

I imagine that her day began around 10 AM with a soothing cigarette and a cup of chem flavored Nescafe. When I visited, I beelined for the kitchen, unplugged the coffee maker and checked the stove. She often had a pair of forgotten slices in the toaster—a crime I often commit. She’d have an open book on the sofa, where she smoked and watched the news, and an overflowing ashtray that revealed a thousand silent moments. She was getting thinner and looking slightly less glamorous than usual. I brought books from the Goodwill—Alice Munro, a thriller or two, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – to add to her shelf. At that point she could still do the act of reading. Not sure what she maintained, but at least a book could occupy her thoughts.

That first year we still talked about her condition as “memory problems,” the doctor’s label. We had no idea what was coming for her or what to do in anticipation. I suspect she started on the journey to madness after my father passed in 2002. They had been married and living together for close to 50 years when he died from diabetic complications.

They say that kind of loss is like losing a part of yourself and I now believe a lot of what they say. Though my parent’s relationship was highly volatile, Jack was the love of her life. When he died, she wept while changing the sheets, brushing her teeth, or pushing her grocery cart down the aisles.

My brother, who lived near my parents in Chapel Hill, tried to tell me that Pat, his stepmother, was starting on the path to memory loss in the months after our dad’s passing, but I didn’t believe him. I’d seen movies where people had dementia and it seemed so much more dramatic. This confusion she had was initially sly, nuanced, subtle. My mother’s forgetting was in keeping with her demeanor. But I did suspect something was wrong. The circuitry was breaking down. She was slipping.

Slipping into a new self and losing parts of the old one.

After my dad died, she lived alone in a townhouse in Chapel Hill, smoking in her sunroom, staying up late, and tending to her garden in the late afternoon, having occasional visits from friends, until we decided it was better for her to be close to me and her grandchildren. My brother and his wife packed her things and helped her move to Los Angeles.

Pat lived with us in L.A. for a month or so until we found her the place in nearby Atwater. It was railroad style and had a little garden in the back. The idea was that she could enjoy her plants, walk to stores and restaurants, attend a weekly AA meeting down the street, and make a small life for herself. That never happened.

We wrote out instructions on a white board, introduced her to older people, invited her to all the kids’ soccer games, got her coupons for the elder taxi service, stocked her house with food, and tried to help her assimilate into this strange metropolis. I remember a feeling of promise when we bought plants and soil. We thought gardening would be a kind of therapy as it once had been, but the bags sat slumped on a rusty backyard chair, looking like a sentence that never got finished.

With nowhere to be and no one to call on her, Pat’s life became confined to the TV room, which smelled of smoke, and of the same Chanel perfume I remember from my childhood. The scent mixed with bags of carmel candies, Snickers bars, and nuts, diet sodas and dry skin lotions.

Her solitude became an opponent, the sound of loneliness an ache. Undistracted by the thoughts and comforts of others, we transport. We feel things with immediacy or revisit the past with sorrow and elation, allowing it clarity and depth and intimacy.  We lose our sense of now and drift into then or when. I can’t imagine where she went on those countless days alone, or how she got there.

She had memorized the short, daily route to the gas station convenience store, more or less, and Mel, the jovial owner, kept an eye out for her. Once inside his shop, she picked out her things and he helped her decide which bill’s domination was appropriate to use when paying for cigarettes, hotdogs, and candy. He’d prompt her when she handed him a 20 instead of a 10. And he’d suggest she put the change inside her leather bag. When he could, he’d stand outside the store and watch her walk down the block and find her keys. He told me she said insisted she was moving back to New York City, even though she liked California and the kids.  She insisted she was going to buy a car, maybe a station wagon, and drive across to “see some friends” in New York.

One day she started walking home in the wrong direction, so Mel pretended she had forgotten something in the store and chased after her. He caught up with her and guided her to the front door. He reached in her bag that was filled with candies and slips of paper and loose change and aging lipsticks to search for the key.  She smiled at him, relieved he had found it. Mel waited while she got upstairs. He waited on the steps patiently, until he saw the light go on inside.


In and Out


The Medicare doctor won’t even prescribe cannabis, not that we need the doctor for that. No, she says, no Valium or Xanax, if it’s not indicated. She tells me this on the phone after her 15-minute monthly visit. She makes me feel like I have murky motives. Like I’m asking for the moon. I was hoping that in this endgame, the tiny, hazel-eyed skeleton, once known as my mother, might not have to suffer quite so much.

Doc was firm in her conviction. Definitely no morphine for the old gal, because, “she’s not actively dying.”

Dying looks like what?

Like a series of wounds.

Dying looks like shrinking.

Dying looks like empty.

Like restless. Like lonely.

Dying looks like never before seen bones that protrude from the shell.

Dying has no color or it looks whisper grey.

Dying looks like a struggle. It looks like in and out.

When I plead  for more happy drugs, sedatives, anything for my mother, the Medicare doctor has decided that “she’s not in constant pain.”

I disagree. “Oh, but she is. She’s in psychic pain,” I say.

“Perhaps,” the doctor says, waiting me out on the other end of the phone.

Would it be a problem if my mother became an addict in her last months or weeks of life?

I thought doctors were supposed to try to heal, or at least provide comfort for the living.

I guess that’s just not indicated.