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.



Tiny Dancer

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When she lived at the first assisted living place in Hollywood, which we’ll call Twilight Village, she was known as “the dancer.” That’s not a surprise, because she’d been a dancer all her life, and she came alive on the dance floor. At Twilight, they played swing bands and Tom Jones and a little bit of Frank, and she moved around with some of the other ladies, or in the arms of a loveable married guy who no longer recognized his wife. Or she moved by herself, all hips and pointed toes.

One holiday season at The Village, she entertained the room with an Irish rhumba,  circling the floor in kitten heels. If there was a piano, or a tinny boom-box to accompany her,  she stepped rhythmically across the glued down carpet, waving her scarf provocatively at the caregivers, wishing she had a cigarette.

All the years of training in classes and at The High School of Performing Arts paid off when she became a June Taylor dancer, an Away-We-Go girl for The Jackie Gleason show in the 1950s. She wore leotards or ballgowns, fishnets or tight-fitting dresses. And dancers moved in unison, leaping and dipping and keeping the beat of the orchestra.

Pat was lean, with shoulders that held her coats and peplum-sleeved jackets. She claimed to have had a 21-inch waist when she was fit model for Evan Piccone and others on  Seventh Avenue. She said she owed her figure to all the dancing and a diet of scramble eggs, cigarettes, and coffee.

In Spain, she danced with the Spanish toreadors, and years later, after a few drinks, did the Jitterbug and the Lindy with my dad at parties, or in our New York living room.  At my 8th birthday party, she danced groovy-style to Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move…”, while her colorful bangles clinked against her cocktail glass.

A few months ago, at the Armenian-run board & care in Atwater, they say she danced  in her wheelchair. Don, who wears faded jeans and tells stories about his brushes with celebrities, sings weekly to the weary and misshapen older ladies. They say Don did an inspired version of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” and Pat came alive, as if she’d never been gone. They say she looked as happy as a young girl, nodding her head and tapping her fingers on the side of the chair. Sometimes, I want to believe what they say.

Surfmaid Gets Crowned

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Some things that happen in 1951:

The Rosenbergs are sentenced to death for espionage.

A dozen eggs cost  24 cents.

In May, The United States performs the first thermonuclear test as part of Operation Greenhouse. 

The first coast-to-coast telephone call is made in November.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is published by Little Brown.

I Love Lucy, one of the first scripted television shows using three cameras, debuts on CBS.

The term rock n’ roll  is coined by the disk jockey Alan Reed.

Seasoned labor activists and Marxists launch a radical vision for gay liberation by founding what they call a “homophile” organization.

A photographer spots my mother, 19, at a local beach in New York. He takes her picture and she is reluctantly entered into a beauty contest.

In 1951, Patricia L. is crowned Miss Surfmaid. Accompanied by her mother, Pat travels for the first time on an airplane to Spain. In her designer wardrobe and  jewels she tours Madrid and the countryside, crying at a bullfight, posing with a toreador. The press follows her, capturing the excitement, while she inhabits a Spanish alter-ego known as, Miss Playa de Nueva York.  

Cup of Tea



Before the diagnosis, I had started asking why. Why couldn’t she remember our intimate conversations?  Why wasn’t she listening?  Why did she believe the housekeeper had stolen her wedding ring?  Why couldn’t she remember the names of the grandchildren’s friends when she’d met them so many times? Why couldn’t she follow the conversation? Why was my address so difficult to retain?

After the diagnosis, I started asking what could be done. Was there a cure? Should she do more puzzles, learn a language, take longer walks, play more Scrabble?

I asked my high school boyfriend, now a prominent neurosurgeon, about the drugs and the treatment options. He was kind but firm. “There’s really nothing we can do,” he said. “It’s not worth trying all the drugs. My mother had it too.”

A study in the December 2016 Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging showed that drinking tea frequently is associated with a lower risk of dementia, especially for people who are genetically predisposed to the disease.

Researchers followed 957 older adults, average age 65, who were part of the Singapore Longitudinal Aging Study. Of these, 69% drank tea on a frequent basis. After a five-year period, the researchers found that the tea drinkers had a 50% lower risk of dementia. This is consistent with earlier findings that showed tea consumers scored higher on various cognitive tests.

So I went to Whole Foods and stocked up on tea. I told my mother, who was still living on her own in a one-bedroom apartment, that she should drink two cups a day of green tea or black tea or anything with antioxidants. I remember how she nodded, compliantly. She’d somehow lived on instant coffee with Sweet ‘n’ Low for decades. Now she would drink more tea, less coffee. She could do some crossword puzzles while drinking tea.

That day, I thought tea was the answer we’d been looking for.







Village Colleen

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The things we do, the things we are, what we want to be, what we fail at, what fails us, when we succeed, brilliant moments of glory, all our epiphanies, when the stars align, what we let go of.  She knows none of this.  Gone but still here.

At 19, she won the beauty contest, a highlight of her life.

At nine years old, from a Catholic family of seven, she discovered drama class with Helen Murphy at The Greenwich House in Greenwich Village. She went on to study at New York’s High School of Performing Arts, where her classmates included Sidney Lumet and Dom DeLuise. She took elocution lessons to lose her Lower East Side accent, she made the rounds as a model, taught herself to smoke, and started going up for commercials.

When I was in elementary school, she performed at The Actor’s Studio, at Playwright’s Horizons, The Manhattan Theatre Club, The Arc Theatre, and one (whose name escapes me) on the Bowery in a rendition of  Pericles in modern dress, at midnight.

I was a backstage kid, her only child. One summer, I ditched sleepaway camp in Lake Placid, NY to become her roommate at summer stock. That story is for another time.

I learned that acting was too tough for me.  Way too much rejection. That’s why I never pursued it. Not that I think I had the talent she had. It’s just that I  saw her crying when she didn’t get a callback. I saw her drinking when she didn’t get an audition.

She is, she was a beauty pageant winner and a troubled soul. Whenever I went to see her in a play — like when she played the caustic Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — my mother became a different person.

When she was in eighth grade and used to faint from the weight of early morning mass, the nuns wanted her to become one of them, a girl of the cloth. She said she considered it, but couldn’t make the commitment to God. At 26, the church informed her that she’d been ex-communicated by marrying my father, a handsome Jew.  The way they described it, she’d had a falling out with God.

I’ve always been sure there is something more than what we see or what we know. I’m sure because I don’t like the alternative. I’m certain there are things that are ineffable. Watch a baby being born, or a grey whale breaching toward the sky, or any mediocre purple sunset . It occurs to me that despite the church’s promise of God’s unending love, you can be in one minute, out the next. Any one of us could have a falling out with something greater.

Sometimes I think the torturous road my mother has been traveling, the loss of memory and with it the loss of identity, of place and time, of past and future, and of existence itself, is the cruelest one. A falling out with God.


The Meds


In the elevator, after leaving the neurologist’s office on Wilshire Boulevard, I look at the papers he has given her. She has an order for a brain scan and medication to be filled. The scrip says: Aricept.   For cognitive impairment.

“We’re going to stop by the pharmacy,” I tell my mother, who stands next to me in the crowded box.

“Okay,” Pat says. “I’ve got to have a cigarette. Do you have one?”

“No,” I remind her. “I don’t really smoke cigarettes. Check your bag.”

The elevator doors open to the lobby. My mother asks, “when are we seeing the doctor?”

I’m starting to learn that it’s futile and upsetting to to try to correct her sense of time, place, or reality. Presenting what was isn’t helpful. It all passes anyway.

“We’re going to see him soon,” I say. “Very soon.”

She smiles and asks, “Do you have a cigarette?”


Yellow Pencil, Brown Dog, Red Balloon

She sat with her dancer’s legs dangling off the examining table.  Where the hell are we?

Doctor’s office.

What doctor is this?

One that comes recommended.

Uh huh.

My mother always perked up, by that I mean she sat up straight, whenever a doctor entered the room.  This was no exception. Her body straightened and her smile grew. That theatrical voice she’d developed at the High School of Performing Arts in the late 1940s, welcomed him.

Hello, Doctor.

Elizabeth? The doctor read from the chart.

That’s her baptismal name, I explained.  Her name is Pat.

I’m yes, I’m Patricia, she confirmed.

The neurologist wore dark brown shoes and a lab coat, but what was most obvious about him was the slightly off-kilter toupee, which blanketed his forehead like an old school dust mop. He nodded his head often, but the toupee stayed in place.

So, what brings you here? he asked Pat, while writing on his clipboard.

My mother looked at me, the reluctant gatekeeper. The boss.

She’s gotten lost in the neighborhood a few times and she’s a bit confused about few things, I explained.

It’s a new place for me.

The doctor saw his opening.

So, where are we now?

Here. in the doctor’s office, my mother said with a laugh.

Good. But I meant where in the country?

My mother paused. It was a deadly pause that would only become more pronounced, more deadly as the years passed.

California! she belted, as the doctor scribbled. We’re in California.

Very good, the doctor said. Do you know your address?

This was not a good question.

Are you married? Widowed?

This made her pause, searching…

Yes, for 46 years to Jack.  Right, mom?

She nodded. Yes, my Jack. I was married. We married in New York.

The doctor grinned. I want you to remember these three things: a yellow pencil, a brown dog, a red balloon. Okay?


What year were you born?


Good, the doctor said.  So, who is the president?

The president… It’s…that guy

The guy you voted for, mom.


Very good, the doctor said. Can you remember the things I asked you to remember?

My mother smiled and looked at me. This was the big test. She always hated tests.

Three things, the doctor prompted her.  A dog…?

A dog…

What color doggy?

My mother shook her head. He’s… or…

A brown dog. Okay, what else?

She looked at me for the answer.

Was there a balloon?

Yes, she nodded, balloon.

Okay, the doctor said, writing in her chart.

Can you count backwards from 24…by 2

No.  Can you? She laughed nervously.

The doctor smiled. Are you feeling strong, anything bothering you, Patricia?

No, not really. I get dizzy when I get up too fast.

Okay, well, take it easy then.

This was my time to jump in. I had to say something about why we were there.

She got lost the other day for three hours on her way home from the store.

I was walking and the streets all look the same.

So you got a little confused? That’s understandable.

Is it? she asked.

My mother was starting to grow tired of the questioning.

Did you find your way home eventually? the doctor asked.

No, I interrupted, she didn’t. We had to pick her up on a street corner and take her

home.  She called us from a stranger’s cellphone.

That was smart, the doctor said. You thought about calling your daughter.

My mother grinned. Yeah, well, she said,  that’s what you have to do.

1. Fire Island

Konrad Fiedler Point O' Woods, an exclusive community on Fire Island. 7/8/2008
photo: Konrad Fiedler / New York Sun


Beautiful Lisa, the folk-singer mother’s helper whose bikini tops and cut-offs drove my father wild, rode me around Seaview on the bar of the bicycle, gaining speed, bubbling with laughter, as we navigated the bumpy path that led to the beach.  My long  sandy hair was knotted underneath in a secret hive that Lisa untangled with patience and a silver puzzle ring on her finger. My freckled legs dangled too close to the spokes — and one day my foot got churned up inside.

I remember my mother’s firing Lisa at the top of the dunes, a Winston dangling from her angry lips. “Pack up, that’s it,” she said to her, as she carried me down the long path to the dock and eventually to the ambulance boat that would take us to the clinic in Bayshore. I remember feeling bad for Lisa. Her cries and whispers to her own mother on the phone filled the upstairs of the big rental house.  It belonged to the writer Herman Wouk, and had oversized beds, fishing tackle, shutters at the windows, and sat a short walk from the edge of the ocean.

The other day, when I visited my mother in the board and care where she lives, I showed her my ankle and asked if she remembered what happened with Lisa and me and the bike. I pulled away the strap of my sandal and showed her the stringy scar that crossed zig-zagged across the bone. “Do you remember that summer in Fire Island?” I asked.

Do you remember the day you told me I’d have to start walking on my bad ankle or “I’d never walk again.” She had scared me with that one, but it worked. Soon enough, I was up on my feet, putting weight on my ankle.

I asked her if she remembered any of the summers on Fire Island, all the drinking and wife-swapping that she revealed when I’d been graduated from college and was asking questions about who my parents were.

She had said it was predatory out there. The husbands, who worked in the city,  took the train out to the island on Friday afternoon, leaving the wives and children in comfortable beach houses having fun. Pat said she got chased around by dad’s friends who’d had too much Scotch, or didn’t have sensual wives.  But she learned how to manage it.

I asked if she remembered swimming out too far one morning and being rescued by the lifeguard who was from Peru. Or how my day camp counselor got us off the trampoline to watch an early lunar landing. I wondered if she remembered the ocean itself,  or what it means to swim. Or  if she could recall Lisa’s face of anguish and remorse, or how fast that accident happened.

I rolled up my pant leg and asked her to look  again at my ankle. Instead, she looked at me, rocked in her chair, and tapped her fingers against the built-in plastic tray where her food is placed three times per day. Maybe she was trying to think of the word for no.