The Caregiver Chronicles

The mother: still glamorous and flirty in her nineties. The daughter: loving but conflicted, convinced she’d been a lifelong disappointment. What happens when the two women say good-bye  

by Barbara Graham
irene graham and barbarah graham image
Irene Graham at her 95th birthday party with her daughter, Barbara Graham.
Photograph: Courtesy of Barbara Graham

“You don’t have to get all gussied up,” I told her. “He’s a hospice rabbi. He’s used to seeing people in their bathrobes.”

“I’m not people,” my mother said, propped up on the hospital bed that had just replaced the single bed in her apartment. “And I don’t parade around in a bathrobe when company comes.” Even now, at 95, impossibly frail and tethered to an oxygen tank, Irene looked glamorous in her blue silk nightie with the ivory lace trim.

“He’s not company,” I protested halfheartedly, though really there was no point in arguing. My mother, the former belle of Pittsburgh, would die before she let any man see her undressed without her “face” on.

Which is exactly what would happen, but we didn’t know that yet.

Two weeks earlier—before the buildup of fluid in her lungs started squeezing the breath out of her—Irene had called me on the phone sounding frantic. Hearing the wheezy panic in her voice, I panicked, too. Could this possibly be it? I wondered. After years of serial near-death experiences, could my mother—the woman who joked that she was too mean to die—be on the brink of disproving her point?

No, she was not. The lady had more important things on her mind than life and death.

“Barb, help me, please,” she implored over the phone. “I’m absolutely going out of my mind. You’ve got to tell me: the bronze silk or the leopard chiffon?”

The retirement home where she lived was holding its annual black-tie ball that night, and Irene was in knots over what to wear. Forget that she was wobbly on her feet, even with the walker. Forget that she had lung cancer. The lady was a coquette—adored by men, envied by women—a flirty knockout with a smart mouth. I counseled the leopard chiffon.

Irene’s cancer diagnosis had seemed to come out of nowhere two years earlier. She’d been admitted to the hospital for chronic, unremitting back pain when a routine chest X-ray revealed a few suspicious-looking spots on her right lung. The biopsy confirmed adenocarcinoma.

My mother, then 93, chose not to treat the disease—or think about it. The tumors were small, and she didn’t have a cough or any other symptoms. “I’m going to put it out of my mind,” she announced, taking the Scarlett O’Hara approach. “Then it won’t bother me.”

Other family members—doctors—were less optimistic. “Chances are, she won’t make it to 94,” her first cousin, a Boston internist, told me privately. This man, along with Irene’s nephew, a Pittsburgh doctor, was devoted to my mother. Both men had been making pilgrimages to her “deathbed” for years. They came rushing to her side after the emergency colostomy, the bleed on her brain, the hip fracture—and always left astonished by her ability to bounce back.

“I’m afraid this time it’s for real,” Jerry, the Boston cousin, predicted sadly.

“She doesn’t have long,” Ken, the Pittsburgh nephew, agreed.

They should have known better. This was my mother they were talking about.

A CT scan taken six months after the initial diagnosis revealed no change in the size of the tumors. Another scan taken six months after that was even more striking.

“I’ve never seen this before, and I’ll be damned if I can explain it,” the oncologist said. “The tumors appear to be shrinking.”

I was stunned. Boston and Pittsburgh were stunned. Irene seemed relieved, but not as surprised as the rest of us.

Most people—except for certain family members and service professionals trying to please her—found Irene charming.

First published in the April 2012 issue

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