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.