“Who will care for you if you have another stroke or fall?” I asked. “What do you want? Independent living? Assisted living? Your apartment? Moving in with one of us?” She didn’t answer.
Our then eighty-three-year-old mother was living in Duluth, Minnesota, in an apartment overlooking Lake Superior, alone, each child scheduled to call on a different day. Not on Sunday though. “Sunday,” my mother said, “I need a break.”
No matter how many times we asked, on phone calls or during visits, she didn’t answer. We didn’t have a plan, but we tried to limit the damage. My health-food sister in Santa Fe suggested green food for my mother’s stomach, because if the stomach works, everything does; my brother who liked electronic solutions wanted to buy her a new TV, but my mother said there wasn’t much to see. My frugal brother advised, “You can’t afford gifts to the mailman or treating your friends to lunch.” “It’s a small town,” my mother replied. “I have to.” I favored the pragmatic and bought her a yellow Italian spoon holder and a knife with a red rubber handle, the only one in her kitchen that actually cut. She frowned. What could be wrong with a good knife?
There was also the worry when my mother didn’t hear the phone or had turned off the ringer to take a nap or listen to the opera or was out for lunch and forgot to listen to her messages. When that happened, my Philadelphia brother called the building manager and asked him to check on her.
“Don’t bother him,” my mother ordered. “This building’s full of old people. He has enough to do with handling Elsie Jean two floors up and there are five others just as bad.”
The third time my brother called the manager, my mother said, “One of these days, I’m going to be dead and there won’t be anything he can do about it. You’ll just have to let me go.” I imagined a fall, my mother scrunched on the floor between the twin beds, grabbing at the worn bedspreads with her pale fists, dragging them on top of her, reaching for the unreachable Fall Alert button that had landed on her back, saying, “That’s it. I’m done.”
Several years before, my sister and I had scoured independent and assisted living facilities. My mother knew them all, had at least one friend in each, and we took her to the top three. She spent her time chatting with her friends while we read the facility brochures. That September day of walking through dark corridors had been redeemed by a late afternoon drive past maples with leaves of orange and crimson, to the local creamery where we plopped into an old leather booth and ordered hot fudge sundaes.
When we arrived back at her apartment, my mother said, “I want to stay where I am until I can’t. If something bad happens, you kids will have to figure it out.”
In the six years since, my mother had landed in St. Luke’s ER several times. When I woke at her apartment in the middle of the night, I listened for her breath to be sure she was alive. Nevertheless, she continued to manage on her own, in her apartment, cooking, making the bed, doing laundry, going to the hairdresser, seeing friends.
In May, the year she was eighty-nine, I visited from San Francisco after the snow and blizzards ended. As I walked down the hallway of the apartment building, my mother waited in the doorway to give me a hug. Stepping inside, I almost tripped on a small red rug, forty-five years of tatter curling up at both ends – an accident waiting to happen. I took a deep breath and tried to forget it.
“I don’t want you to trip and fall,” I said the next morning. “You have to ditch the rug. HMOs send rug-warning letters. Falls are the main cause of death in the elderly.’”
“They didn’t send me a letter,” my mother said. “I haven’t fallen yet and I like the rug. The rug is staying.”
“Instead of advice,” she continued, “what I want is peace and quiet and time to finish the second volume of Proust. I’d like some good meals out and a ride to the mall to get a bedspread to replace the one so worn that I turn it down to hide the threadbare spot.” My mother, my sister and I, even my brothers, had searched for three years for a bedspread that was warm, matched her curtains, and wasn’t too heavy for her to make the bed. That bedspread, I now knew, didn’t exist.
“Also, I’d like you to make fudge, fudge with five melted marshmallows.” She looked up from the couch and grinned – I knew that look – cunning, triumphant, satisfied.
The third night of my stay, my mother went to the bathroom for her shower at 12:30 a.m. I waited. I read a New Yorker. I ate ice cream. I saw the red knife resting in the Italian spoon holder. I looked at my watch. I brushed my teeth.
My mother loved the warm water and soap on her skin and the cleanness of her body after, but it was now one in the morning – she had to be exhausted. Just then, she opened the bathroom door letting in the light scent of her beloved Ivory soap. I looked at my watch. “Thirty minutes is too long for a hot shower,” I said. “You aren’t dirty and it zaps your energy. You’re tired enough as it is.”
“Old people smell,” she said as she put on her pajamas. After a few minutes, she said, “I want to talk to you after I brush my teeth and take my pills.”
I watched her shuffle to the kitchen in slippers that didn’t fit, another hazard; heard her soap the bowl I’d used and put it in the dishwasher; listened to her brush her teeth, water running the entire ten minutes. Just as I was about to scream, she went to the kitchen for her pills. Was she deliberately moving slowly? As if reading my mind, she said, “I’m slow. You’ll have to wait.”
Five minutes later she was back in the bedroom with her eye drops.
“I hate these damn drops,” she said as she sat down with a tissue in her left hand. “I hate them now and I hate them in the morning.”
“What do you want to talk about?” I asked.
She turned, slowly straightened up, and fixed her large brown eyes on me.
“I’m going to die.”
I started. My mother was frail, not one of those octogenarians who swam a mile every day and hiked in Tibet. Should I call my siblings? Go to the hospital? The car was outside, just a long hallway and the elevator to manage. I could call an ambulance . …
“Right now?” I asked.
My mother paused, stared at me, then laughed.
”No” she said, “I just couldn’t resist saying it.”
I laughed, too, although my laugh was shaky.
I did my stretching exercises quietly while she put in the eye drops. She lay down on her bed. I lay on mine, turned off the lamp and pulled up the covers. We said goodnight to each other.
I lay still, heart beating. She was paying me back for the nagging, the visits to dreary assisted living facilities, telling me to get a grip – one of these days she would die. The room was emphatically quiet. Not a leg or arm stirred from the other bed, not one breath exhaled. She was a great dramatist. I knew she was lying in that lumpy bed, grinning.
I started laughing.
“Shhh,” my mother said. “We’ll wake up the old lady on the other side of the wall.”
Author’s Comment: The story started after an interaction with my own mother, who has since died. I wanted to convey how weighty we who are not dying make our interactions with the very old. We tend to be solemn, anxious and fearful about their approaching end, but for them, our feelings may be onerous. Not every old person wants to concentrate on dying all the time. Some (perhaps many?) prefer to say, “Lighten up. People die.” Our attitudes are, I think, related to our desire to get something from the dying. However, comforting us isn’t necessarily how they want to spend their time. At the same time I wanted to convey how frustrating the old can be for the younger and that the decisions an old person makes look like stubbornness to those less old. How many times I have heard someone say, “My mother (or father) is so stubborn!” and I understand what they mean. As I look at the story now, I think it rests on another idea: although children believe it’s their right, a mother shouldn’t be expected, always and forever, to cater to her children.