“I'm not ready to hang up the tap shoes just yet.”
-Mom Fall 2017
It’s been a quite a ride these past two and a half years since my 90-year-old mother moved into The Jewish Home for the Aging.
Mom isn’t Jewish but she’s embraced the religion and culture in record speed, attended Friday night Shabbat, the high holy days, and her favorite, the Chanukah Celebration, claiming she was over the whole Christmas thing. “I look better in candlelight anyway,” she’d said after her first Chanukah.
My mother has loved the meals, her widowed table partner, Bernie, and her once-a-month treat - chicken liver.
This was the woman who feared leaving her home when her Parkinson’s became too much. She’d pleaded with us. “I don’t want to be at the end of a dark hallway. Forgotten to rot.”
“Hardly, Mom,” we’d assured her. “And, there are men where you are going to live now.”
That had done it. And she hasn’t looked back.
Mom has made friends in The Jewish Home. “These women are tough,” she’d said of the other women in her weekly group session. “They’re resilient, like me. Only they dress better.”
She’s had challenges, though. Estelle, her rival, who sat across from her at meals, constantly vied for Bernie’s attention. “Makes me nuts,” she’d told us. “Honing in on my boyfriend every chance she gets!”
She’s hated not being able to have money on her. “I’m not allowed to have any cash,” she’d complained, her jewel-embellished purse clutched tightly in her manicured hands.
“You don’t need it, Mom,” I’d told her. “It’s a precaution. Where would you spend it anyway?”
She’d balked when I refused to give her “just a twenty.” Mom had tried to get at my heartstrings. “But having cash makes me feel secure. Don’t you want your mother to feel secure?”
It didn’t take long for her to figure a way to get some money. “I won five dollars in Bingo today!” she’d bragged over the phone. “And, I’m playing again tomorrow. So there!”
My mother craved attention and had become obsessive with her call button. “Every little thing,” the nurses had told us at a quarterly meeting last spring. “Clearly, she needs to be in more activities.”
The nutritionist had spoken up earlier this year when Mom’s continued weight gain had concerned her. “Perhaps, we need to go a little light on the desserts, Marilyn,” she’d said.
“The ice cream’s my favorite, though.”
“I found a muffin in her drawer last week,” I’d confessed. “I think she stashes them.”
“Marilyn,” said the nutritionist, “we offer healthy snacks any time you want.”
“I’m not wild about those snacks.”
“Mom, are you taking food off poor Rose’s plate at meals?” my sister, April, had asked, referring to Mom’s seatmate on the right.
“Well, not all the time,” Mom’d lied. “She doesn’t care about the food, anyway. She lives on feathers and a piece of water.”
Then, Mom had leaned forward in her wheelchair to address the staff: “Listen, I’ve had to give up the booze, the cigarettes and the sex. Food’s all that’s left!”
Their wide eyes had looked left and right as if following a tennis ball before we all burst out laughing. “I get it,” said her social worker, nodding her head in amusement.
Then, there was the call I’d received from her physiatrist while I was at the airport waiting to board a flight.
My mouth had gone dry. My words had sounded like combed cotton. “Is everything alright?”
“Well, your mother’s an unusual lady,” he’d said, easy and calm. I’d immediately relaxed. They don’t have the psychiatrist call when a patient has a stroke or dies. At least, I didn’t think so.
“Has she been complaining to you about me?” I’d asked. “She constantly asks me if I love her, if I’m mad at her…Honestly, I don’t give her any reason to question…but, it’s Mom, she’s always been like that.” I’d found myself rushing the words, defensive. “Is she upset with me?”
“Nooo,” he’d said, stringing out his response. I’d sensed hesitation.
He’d explained that, sometimes with Parkinson’s, patients become obsessed.
“Obsessed,” I’d repeated, deadpan. “Yes, Mom gets obsessed about needing us to bring her certain things. One week it’s mouthwash. The next, its more false eyelashes…”
He’d lowered his comforting voice. “I’m speaking about an obsession with men.”
Oh, boy, I’d thought, my eyes fixed on a display of mini golden Oscar statues in the airport's Hudson kiosk.
“It’s interesting,” the doctor had said as if he was talking to himself. “Your mother is very specific about the culture of men she desires.”
I’d inhaled, prepared myself. Although, I was pretty sure that I knew what was coming.
“She desires either a ‘Philippino, an Israeli or a swarthy Italian.’”
I hadn’t known whether to burst out laughing or cry. “The Philipino is a new one on her list,” I’d told him.
Who got these calls about their eighty-nine year-old mother confined to a wheelchair?
“Doctor, I understand why you might think this is unusual, but Mom’s been like this all her life.” Dare I tell him that she sold her diamond ring after her divorce from her first husband, my father, to go to Italy to find a man?
“Yes, the social worker said that,” he’d replied. “But, well, recently, this obsession with finding a boyfriend has increased. And, it’s making her more anxious.”
We’d discussed what to do to make Mom less anxious and I had returned to the airport lounge, to my husband, Hank. I’d sighed into the chair next to him. “You won’t believe this latest one about mom.”
“I probably will,” he’d said, looking up from his laptop as I relayed the contents of the phone call.
“Heck,” he had smiled. “You should have asked him where he was seventy-four years ago when this obsession emerged!”
I laughed so loudly that couple sitting across the way looked up. I’d smiled back at them. If they only knew…
My mother (whom Hank says is a cross between Carol Channing and Phyllis Diller who thinks she’s Marilyn Monroe) now has seen her health decline further. Two months ago, she took a turn. The Parkinson’s, long held at bay, has reared its ugly head. It’s what we all expected but it’s weird when it happens. Somehow, Mom seemed invincible. She’s always found a way out.
The often-annoying multiple-times-a-day phone calls don’t come anymore. The tabloids lie in her room, unread, in a stack. Her make-up table - her “perch” next to her wheelchair, once a mess of make-up and lists, is now pristine, with only a holder for Q-tips and a bottle of perfume.
|Mom's table 2016|
Our quarterly meeting with her caregivers today was without her. I see it in the faces of the staff. It’s different now. No funny Marilyn stories. We are in a new normal, a decline that will not get better.
I look down at the place setting for Mom in the small room where we have had our meeting. In a half hour it will be lunchtime. With dignity, the Jewish Home has set the table beautifully for her and her new seatmate. She will be spoon-fed a pureed diet, complete with a personal menu printed out at her place setting.
My sister, April, and I go out to fetch her to spend some time before lunch. “Am I dying?” she asks with a laugh. “You’re both here at the same time.”
“No, Mom. Not yet.”
“How’re you feeling, Mom?” I ask.
“With my fingers, of course.”
“She’s still got it,” I whisper across to my sister.
“Oh, hell, ya,” April says. “This one’s not going down without a fight.”