Relationships

The Quiet Last Days of My Mother's Life

After Ma's third stroke, I wondered if she was still there behind her closed eyelids. Turns out, she was.

Ma's first stroke hit on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when God is said to seal our fates in the Book of Life. Not that Ma observes the holiday. A Holocaust survivor who hid in the Ukrainian forest when other kids her age were attending first grade, she has an "I gave at the office" attitude toward religious practice.

She once told me she was shocked she'd made it to adulthood at all. Yet, here she is, still alive at 81, after her third stroke in a month. Even lying barely conscious in her Brooklyn hospital bed, her white hair strewn across the pillow, she's making the Angel of Death work for it.

I noticed early on that Ma was different than the other Eastern European mothers. She chain-smoked Winstons and preferred tight clothes that highlighted her petite frame and impressive cleavage. And she gambled. A lot. Poker, off-track-betting, the numbers game. You name it, she played it, re-creating the chaos of her years in the forest. Some days, our phone and electricity were cut off for lack of payment. When I was 11, Ma hosted a poker game in our living room that lasted 25 hours.

"This isn't normal," I screamed through the mushroom cloud of cigarette smoke that still filled the air after everyone left. "You have a problem!"

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"What?" Ma screamed back. "I'm not allowed to have a hobby!? Some people go to movies, I play cards. So?" My father, who both loved and feared her, stayed out of it.

It feels strange being with Ma in the hospital now, where her silence dominates the background din. Up until two days ago—when the third stroke hit—she was the one doing most of the talking. Except for her right hand, which seems to have a mind of its own, Ma rarely moves or opens her eyes. The hand constantly picks at the hospital sheets, stopping only to make swirls against the bed's safety rail with her right index finger. As a health psychologist, I know the picking can be a sign that the end is near, and I wonder if I'll ever hear her voice again.

The nurses have encouraged me to keep talking to her. They assure me that she can hear me, though they feel no obligation to back up that claim with any research. So, I talk, making sure not to upset her. Our arguments used to end with my suggesting she was irrational, and her countering that I was naïve, while she enjoined me to, "Eat a piece honey cake, Mamaleh"—a common pet name for daughters, meaning "little mother."

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I start with our Switzerland: old movies and Ma's only grandchildren—my sons, Max and Isaac. I talk about "Gilda," her favorite movie with Rita Hayworth. I tell her how much my boys love her. I remind her of the time I first became a mother, and how much I appreciated her traveling an hour and a half to Manhattan just to teach me how to calm a screaming baby.

"You said, 'You just make like this with the carriage, and bup, bup, bup, he's 'In Like Flint.'" Another favorite movie.

I mention the Italian guys in the pork store down the block have been asking after her; she always made them laugh. Like the time she challenged them to a cook-off to prove her chicken soup was superior to theirs. "Ha!" she later boasted to me. "Even that boychik, Martinez, admitted I won." She called them all "boychiks."

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Before this final stroke took away her ability to swallow, the only food Ma was willing to eat was the fried chicken Martinez prepared especially for her, even though it turned out his name isn't Martinez. It's Martino. Ma has long prided herself on not having to call people by their correct names. Gail, the daughter of her roommate in rehab, had happily answered to Maggie. Ebony, a home health attendant who used to take care of my parents, became Ebay.

I pass on regards from Ma's pharmacist, who's always begging her to stop putting my father's new medications into old pill bottles. She wants Ma to get better and come home soon. "So she can yell at you again!" I joke.

Except for a lovely détente when the boys were little, my relationship with Ma has usually been more like the pharmacist's than the boychiks'. I favor cold hard truths to entertaining stories. Ma thinks I'm a stick in the mud, or, as she liked to put it in Yiddish, "a Yekke putz." A point on which I couldn't completely disagree.

When I tire of feeling I'm talking to the air, I read a newspaper or another novel to which I can't commit. I skim through my Facebook feed, as if watching a movie set in a far-off land. Or, I just sit there, watching Ma's face, listening to the sound of her labored breaths, wondering if anyone's there behind her closed eyelids.

Finally, I get up to start the trek home. I try to hold her right hand, but it's closed in a fist except for the swirling index finger. I lean my face in close to her right ear.

"I have to go now, Ma," I say, gently. "I'll be back tomorrow."

There's a vague flutter behind her eyelids, so I wait. Slowly, the lids rise like creaky window shades, opening just enough to reveal the spark of her brown irises dominated by the black holes of her pupils. She looks like she's trying to force her lips to move one last time, but that seems like wishful thinking.

"I love you, Ma," I say, a resigned smile on my lips.

"I love you, too, Mamaleh."

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