waiting for mom to die
|My father was lucky. He died at home. He
had emphysema. He was on the tank. He
always said if he had to go on the tank
he would “take the commit” (i.e. to kill
yourself), a Mafia expression popularized in a
forties gangster film starring George Raft,
one of his favorites.
He qualified for hospice—not something you
are in a hurry to do—-and we added some
private care—Issac—a Jamaican, a large man
with an appetite to go with.
He was on the job for 3 days and I got a call
from my mother
“He’s eating me out of house and home!”
I said: “he’s got a tough job, it’s a small price
She: “I bought some Vernors for myself and
generic for him and he drank the vernors!”
“Does dad like him?”
2 days passed and I got a call from Issac.
He said: “Jack—your mother is driving me
I said: “She drives everybody crazy”.
We went over a few things and I implored
him to stay on.
My parents lived in Yucca Valley. I drove out
on the weekends, had been doing so for
years, but now that my father was dying
there was some light at the end of the
tunnel, Yucca Valley-wise. My father would
die and I would sell the house and move her
to Los Angeles
The last two years had been tough—brutal.
He spent more time in the hospital than at
home. Open a medical encyclopedia to any
page and he had something on that page:
emphysema, diabetes, congestive heart, high
blood pressure. His blood pressure was thru
the roof. He got gout and severe arthritis. His
hands looked like a German Expressionist
painting. My father played golf, it was the
one pleasure that remained and now-—no
more golf. That was the day he began to die.
I drove out and my father looked bad and my
mother looked worse. She was a basket
case. He was a handful when healthy but now
he was dying and she had a Jamaican living
under her roof she had to watch like a hawk
lest he give her the slip and throw down a
few quick bottles of the Vernors.
Also: money. You don’t want them to die but
they are dying, the quality of life is zero and
its costing money— $2400/month. That’s the
issue. It may sound small time but there it is.
The doctor had given him six months—plus or
minus--and my mothers preference was for
She said: “I asked Issac about it”.
“Yes. He said: ‘m’am—I’m not God’”.
I said: “maybe we should start a pool”.
It took two months. He died and was
cremated. I went out to make arrangements
and on the way over to the funeral home she
mentioned the seniors discount, like, could
we get one?
I started to laugh. I became hysterical.
“What so funny?”
“Mom—they are all seniors when they die!”
Life is strange. My father was the labor
intensive type. You could devote 24 hours a
day catering to his needs and still feel you
were falling a little short. The marriage—65
years worth—had been a war from day one.
But now that he was dead she had nothing to
do. It was six of one and a half dozen of the
There was another problem: her eyes. She
had macular degeneration. Its chronic—
incurable. I’ll give you a piece of advice: don’
t go blind. Its the big things—movies,
reading, museums—but also the little things:
pouring cream into your coffee, applying
lipstick, shopping for food.
One night I gave a call and we are talking
and she suddenly mutters a curse and says:
“I smacked my leg on the coffee table. I'm
bleeding like a pig!
I went out the next day and there she is with
the maimed leg and in the refrigerator is a
phenomenally curdled quart of half and half
and a loaf of green bread.
Now there was a long talk—make that a
I said: “I think you should move to LA”.
She said: “no”.
Me: “You’re too isolated here”.
I didn’t push it. My mother is Sicilian. Its like
arguing with a door.
Time passed--a year. At 85 your health has
only one way to go. She had the same as
my father: emphysema, congestive heart,
some kidney failure. Her morale was at zero
and she wasn’t eating. She had the appetite
of a bird, even when healthy and now she ate
less. She sat around the house, blind as a bat
and when she did decide to cook something
she was lucky not to burn the house down.
She went to the hospital—twice. It was the
same both times: dehydration/malnutrition.
One day, shopping at Wal-mart, without her
cane, she took a spill and broke her hip.
Back to the hospital for hip surgery and while
she was there I put the house up for sale. I
moved her to LA—to assisted living.
That is a turning point: when you are fresh
out of ideas and the options have been
exhausted, and you are exhausted, and
there is nothing left but to sell the house, the
furnishings, sorting through the memorabilia,
85 years worth, and moving your mother into
a room over at assisted living. It breaks your
She was there a month and said: “I hate this
It wasn’t a bad place. It was clean and I liked
the people in charge, two women who were
capable and devoted to the residents. The
help was excellent.
But—assisted living—a description only half
correct. A month before she had a house, a
beautiful house and a life, difficult but her
own. Now she lived in a room, confined to an
established routine and had all these people
on her hands, other assisted living types, the
good, the bad and the ugly.
My friends all asked the same question: has
she made friends?
No. You don’t make friends at 85. The friends
are behind you. Friendship, like most
enterprises in life, is a function of time. It
occurs when your enthusiasm for people
is fresh and you have the time to tend the
friendship and keep it strong. Now she was
old, the motivation was gone, there was no
energy and her interests had narrowed. There
were no interests. She was interested in
I loved my mother. She was a wonderful
woman—a saint. If there is a heaven she will
arrive pronto-—no questions asked. We had
some problems relationship-wise but that is
another story. I loved her and it bothered me
to see her live like this, with nothing to do
but sit, to sit, sit, sit and one day follows the
next and they are all the same-—endless and
without hope. Nietzsche said it: to die at the
right time. The right time is when you lose
A routine developed. I went over each
morning and took her for a walk around the
block. Sometimes we went for breakfast at a
My mother hated food. When was the last
time you heard of an Italian who hated food?
She liked three things: cigarettes, coffee,
bacon. These were the staples and they
worked wonders. She weighed 112 lbs her
entire life and it was iron.
My father loved to eat and what he most
loved was to visit a fancy restaurant, the
fancier the better, so he could sit there and
watch my mother stare at a $30 plate of
food like it was crawling with flies.
The food at assisted living wasn’t bad. It was
par for the course—old peoples food—baked,
boiled, steamed and creamed to within an
inch of its life—prepared with one thought in
mind: not to kill anyone.
From time to time I would get a call from
Miriam over at assisted living and it was
always the same story: “Your mother isnt
What could I say? She didn’t eat when she
was happy. Now she was 85, blind as a bat,
her morale was at zero and she wanted to
I took her to the deli for a corned beef
sandwich. She liked bacon and a good corned
beef sandwich. That was the way to keep her
alive: buy her a corned beef sandwich every
day for $8.95
Time passed. Her energy level was down.
The walks were getting shorter. First it was
around the block and then it was halfway
around the block and now she could barely
make it to the corner.
I took a trip—a vacation. I was gone three
weeks. I had a great time and when I
returned it was like I never left. I wont
bother with the details. She was sick, in a
terrible way, throwing up and instead of an
ambulance it was myself behind the wheel
driving to the hospital—Good Samaritan on
Wilshire and Witmer--downtown.
It was rush hour. Been on Alvarado St lately,
driving south during rush hour, and next to
you in the passenger seat is a vomiting
parent, 85 years old?
I have one hand on the steering wheel and
with the other I am wiping up vomit with a
towel I had the presence of mind to bring
She was at Good Sam a week, a long week,
even for her. You are never too old to be put
thru the ringer—test-wise. I went to see her
and she was more dead than alive--plugged
into the IV with more tubes inserted here
and there draining fluids into and out of, and
I thought of William Carlos Williams, poet
and physician, who said: we enter this world
and leave it the same way—a messy way.
Her face was a mask, of great distress and
unhappiness, and every day I went to see
her and her first words were always the
same: “Jack—you’ve got to get me out
The tests, $27,000 worth, that is correct,
served to verify what I already knew:
malnutrition/dehydration that served
to aggravate the chronic problems of
bronchitis, congestive heart, kidney failure,
etc, leading to some internal bleeding and bit
of dementia beginning to creep in.
I met with the doctor, a young guy, the
abrupt type and I had a question—a light at
the end of the tunnel type question. She was
85, ill and half blind, a bit of dementia
beginning to creep in and she wanted to die
but something inside her said no. What was
that thing? That was my question.
He looked at me, gathering my meaning and
when he spoke the tone was ambiguous. It
was intended either to give me hope or
He said: “They can go on this way for years”.
No story about an aging parent is complete
without a tour of the nursing home—skilled
care. There are no laughs to be had at
assisted living but its Disneyland compared to
skilled care. And don’t forget the checkbook.
Assisted living was $1500 a month for a
private room. Over at skilled care it’s a daily
rate, a nice touch, come August, December,
January, etc, and the rate is $140 for a
semi--diapers not included.
She was there for some physical therapy
following the hospital and they tied her to the
bed because she insisted on getting out of
bed and falling.
She said: “I’m tied up like an animal!”
Now a thought that occurred to me from time
to time occurred once more: someday—-and
sooner than you think-—this will be you.
Yesterday I went over for my usual visit—-to
assisted living. I spoke briefly to Miriam who
said: “She isnt eating”.
She was sitting outside. She had no teeth. Its
amazing how much older you look without
I said: “Where are your teeth?”.
She: “I forgot”.
I said: “You forgot your cane?”
This was a woman who, not too many years
previous, could rattle off the entire roster and
positions played of the 1974 Oakland
Athletics baseball team.
We sit for a bit. I don’t talk to my mother.
Its along story. I labor under the curse of the
only child. Ive spend a lifetime trying to
evade the relentless scrutiny of my mother, a
wonderful woman with energy to burn who
would have thrived amidst the chaos and
urgent demands of raising a large family. My
only demand was to be left alone. But
now that she is old and blind and otherwise
racked with various ailments the relationship
has lost some of its tension. I am considerate
and caring, even affectionate—85 years later.
We retrieved the teeth and cane and I took
her to the deli where she ordered the usual:
coffee, toasted bagel, side of bacon. She ate
1/2 of 1/2 the bagel and 1/2 of one piece the
bacon and pushed the plate away.
I said: “that’s it?”
“Yes. You eat it”.
“I thought you were hungry—‘starving’”.
She shook her head.
We took our little walk—to the corner. It was
tough going. I held her arm, guiding her
along. The bones in her arm make a sound—
a crinkly-crackly sound, the sound made by
squeezing an empty plastic soda bottle. Thats
why she broke her hip. She didn’t fall and
break the hip; the hip broke, causing her to
There is a building on the corner and growing
along side a mangled clump of hedge,
raggedy and strewn with litter, that has
sprung forth a flower, also on life support,
but there it is and every day my mother
stops to examine this wretched bloom,
bending towards it to unblur the focus and
she says, in a whispery voice so weakened
and eroded by age I would hardly recognize
it as her own: “What a beautiful flower”.
And that is my cue to say: “Yes, mom—it’s a