“I finally know how my mother felt, and it’s wonderful,” Irene said, glowing, her paper-thin skin practically translucent. “Because tonight I feel that way, too.”
It occurred to me that this might be the first time in her life that my mother felt worthy. Good. Deserving of love, just for herself—not for her appearance, her zip code, her fine antiques, the rich and famous people she met, the five-star hotels she stayed in, her Chanel suit or any of the rest of it.
I’m pretty sure Irene knew there would be no 96th birthday fête. Still, she went right on as before: getting her hair done, complaining about the food at the retirement home, barking at the help for multiple offenses, agonizing over what to wear to the home’s annual gala. She called me for advice, and this time she actually took it. She went with the leopard chiffon.
The real clue that she knew she was dying came in the form of a card she gave me on Mother’s Day. On the front was a watercolor of children in old-fashioned bathing costumes splashing in the ocean. Inside, she wrote, “Happy Mother’s Day! I know why Clay has turned out to be such a wonderful person. You have been a great mother. I know this is true because you have been a good mother to me. I thank you for your caring and helping me in every way. Thank you, dear Mother.”
This was the first time my mother had addressed me as Mother without a soupçon of sarcasm. It made me wonder if she’d been expressing gratitude, in her backhanded, wisecracking style, all those other times. Or if somewhere along the way, her tone had shifted, and I simply hadn’t noticed.
Six weeks after the debilitating lung procedure—and two days after I’d asked the nurse if they were going to kick my mother out of home hospice care because she was doing so well—the phone rang early one evening. It was Irene, sounding scared. “Can you please come over and help me,” she said. “I can’t stand up.”
From that moment on, everything happened so fast. Stepped-up visits by the hospice team, delivery of the hospital bed, the start of morphine. Irene hated it all, except when Boston Jerry, Pittsburgh Ken and Gary, the hospice rabbi, appeared at her bedside.
My mother had met with Gary several times before, and she’d grown to rely on him to help soothe her restless, fearful mind. (Plus, Gary was young, handsome and Jewish, so she also liked flirting with him.) One day I sat in with the two of them for the first time. When Gary asked her what it was about me that she was most proud of, she paused. “Who she is,” she said finally. “Just. Who. She. Is.”
A dear friend once wrote, “You learn the world from your mother’s face.” That day I learned my goodness from my mother’s face. I told her that I loved her and that I would miss her. This time there was no holding back, no going through the motions, no saying the words I love you with half a heart.
Each day a little more of my mother disappeared. First her sight, then her hearing. She started reaching into space for things that weren’t there, and one afternoon she fell into my arms, weeping.
“I can’t see. I can’t hear. This is no way to live,” she sobbed as I held her and tried to comfort her. As if in that moment she really was my child and I was her mother.
Except, in point of fact, she was still my mother. Still Irene. Still the Belle of Pittsburgh. As soon as the tears had dried, she began fretting over what to wear the following morning when Rabbi Gary was due for his next visit.
“He’s a hospice rabbi,” I told her again. “You don’t need to worry about putting on makeup or getting dressed.”
But as long as she had a shred of consciousness left, my mother could not let herself go. What’s more, I think she secretly believed that if she had the wherewithal to pull herself together, she would be able to, if not outfox (in her case, outdress) death, then at least delay it.