My mom’s doctor orders a “prescription” for hospice to begin: end of life care for my mom and counseling for the family. We have a meeting with our assigned hospice team, a social worker and homecare nurse, at my dad’s kitchen table. David and I leave work early to be there with our dad. Another sister stays with Mom in the living room.
The social worker asks Dad, “When Virgie passes, do you want to work with a certain funeral home?”
“Horan’s. We’ve got that all worked out. We’ve got a condo up there.”
David and I start to laugh. “Mausoleum,” I say to the nurse and social worker. They laugh.
My dad giggles. “Mausoleum, right. We bought in a long time ago.”
I say, “Mom always said she was going to the museum when she dies.” We all laugh some more. I’ve just met these women, or I’d joke, “If you knew my mom, you’d know she belongs in a museum.”
The social worker says to my dad, “Which side of the building are you on?” This is what she does, the details of death and dying.
“Overlooking the cemetery. A real nice spot,” Dad says. “And our caskets are going to be placed head to head.”
She puts her outstretched hands together, finger tips to finger tips. “Oh, that’s sweet. Which level?”
“Top level,” he says. I remember now that my mom didn’t want to have dead bodies above her in her final resting spot, so my dad sprung for the top floor. This is how he showed her he loves her.
As the social worker gets up to leave, she says to my dad, “What was Virgie like before she got sick?”
He pauses for about five seconds, and then he says in his best Virgie voice, “Joe—you don’t need another beer.”
David and I laugh really hard and the nurse and social worker do too. Then the nurse says, “So Virgie was always in charge?”
“Oh yeah,” my dad says.
I tell them that my mom loved going places and her purse was ready whenever she got a call to go somewhere. She liked fishing and playing cards. She loved to laugh. She liked having her grandkids around as much as she could. She liked gambling and thrift sales. She never wanted to miss anything.
No one at the table knows that I’ve recently written her obituary. Virgie loved God and babies and old people (long before she was one). She liked flea markets and finding a bargain, or, better yet, getting something for free. She never saw anything as “junk,” and she was reusing, recycling, and saving long before it was called “going green.” She talked to everyone, and she made friends wherever she went. She had great patience with children, and above all else she believed in the power of prayer. She welcomed anyone who visited her home, and she often said goodbye with a sweet, “Nice seein’ ya.”
“Oh,” my dad says. “And she always wanted to go to the casino.” So according to him, my mom was a bossy gambler. That’s about right.
My mom can’t communicate anymore, but still I try to entertain her. I put her in the living room in her wheelchair while I wash her windows. It’s been a late spring, cold and snow holding on till mid-May. I have her in her turquoise blue sweater, the one I chose two Christmases ago to match her eyes. She watches me work from the middle of the room. I narrate while I spray and wipe.
“Joe made his own window wash. He’s pretty crafty.”
“Uh-Huh,” she says.
I fool myself into believing we still have conversations. She may or may not understand me, but I talk on and on.
My mom was what my dad called “a talker.” She feared silence, I think, or maybe as one of fifteen children she just always wanted to be heard. For most of my life I ignored her. What I wouldn’t give now to have a real conversation with her.
I joked to my sister that I never really talked to Dad till Mom got sick. How could I? She did enough talking for both of them. When any of his kids would call home, he’d talk for about ten seconds and then say, “Well, here’s your Ma” and hand off the phone as quickly as he could.
My dad hears his name from another room. “It’s ammonia and rubbing alcohol,” he yells to me.
“Good stuff,” I yell back. I’m wondering about the chemical interactions, but like a lot of my dad’s concoctions, if they didn’t kill anyone yet they probably weren’t going to.
I talk some more about the immediate gratification of window washing. “Look,” I say to my mom, “clear and beautiful.”
My dad comes in and sits in his easy chair. He sets a bowl on this belly and chews his oatmeal, leftover from my mom’s breakfast. I coaxed her into eating about two tablespoons, a big meal these days. I fibbed to my dad that she ate most of it. He found her bowl and most likely will finish it off.
Many Alzheimer’s patients starve to death. They refuse to eat or forget how to swallow, or forget even what food is. I have contemplated asking my dad to withhold food from my mom. Just let her slip away. She doesn’t want to eat and the near force-feeding means she will linger on longer.
As I wash another big window I say to my dad, “I always remember that you were seventy years old when you put these windows in by yourself.”
My dad smiles. “Virg yelled at me.”
“It was a big job for anyone but especially an older guy.”
He asks, “What date is on that window?”
I read his scraggly handwriting on the inside of the frame, “February 1996. You were seventy years old.”
“No!” he says.
“Dad, you were born in 1926, right?”
“Ya,” he says. “Seventy years old. Weiner helped me though. Virg yelled at us because we put a window in and she cleaned up after us and then I didn’t think it was quite right so we fixed it and made another mess. She said to us: what are you two guys doing to my floor!?”
He rarely talks of his memories of my mom. This one is prompted by a concrete object, one of the twenty or so windows that take him back to that week, some fifteen years ago now, when he and his friend Weiner transformed the house for my mom. Every project he did, I see now, said how much he loved my mom and wanted to please her.
When I arrive today I say to my mom, “Want a kiss?”
“I can’t even kiss right,” she says softly. I’m surprised she is making sense today. Her teeth aren’t in, so her mouth moves in an awkward pucker.
“I can help you,” I say. I do whatever I can to get her teeth in—tell whatever lies.
We sit in the living room after I have washed her face, brushed her hair and maneuvered her teeth into her mouth.
I put on her “Love Swings” CD. A song I know she likes comes on, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”
She smiles at me and cocks her head.
“Wanna dance?” I say.
She puts both hands on the arms of her wheel chair and takes her feet out of the foot braces.
“Come on,” I say. “I’ll dance with you.” I pull her up.
We can’t dance like we used to, holding hands and facing each other and each shaking our booty to whatever song is on the CD player, what I call radio because it’s easier to explain.
I hold her close to me and she wraps her arms around my waist, 1980’s high school slow-dance style. She’s so much smaller than me that her head fits perfectly against my chest, just under my chin. I hold her close and we sway. I recognize her familiar dance move, one she used for polkas or swing. Even when she stirred cake batter her butt moved the same way. When you got a move, you stick to it.
When the song ends I say, “One more?”
She nods into my chest. I can feel her heart beating against me, fast flutter of children or runners.
Throughout all of this one on one time with my mother—feeding her, dressing her, damn near cooing at her—I realize that this may be the first time in Mom’s life that she is the complete focus of anyone’s attention. As the eleventh of fifteen children, she could not have been babied for long.
She is 81 now and maybe for once in her life she is the center around which her loved ones’ worlds revolve. My sisters and sisters-in-law take turns with her; it’s not just me mothering our mother. I wish she was aware enough to recognize what a queen she has become.