Mom, 1938-2011



As my mom did the business of dying Friday night, I was in various places I wished I wasn’t. At a Joe’s Grill in Short Hills, NJ, swallowing a burger past a giant lump in my throat. Then sitting in Newark Airport’s dreaded Terminal A, staring up at a Samsung charging station and sweating from the weird heat in that place. And finally, on the plane, my head fighting my dry eyes for sleep. A plastic glass full of ice on the tray table. Two small bottles of Dewars on deck.

Around 4 pm, I had already received my first message that my 7:15 flight was not taking off on time. And the forty-five minute delay became an hour. And the hour became two. And two became three. And my head pounded with disbelief and I hoped they wouldn’t cancel the flight. Because I could tell by the tone of my sister’s voice on that last call with her that it was going to be soon. Since we knew there was no point going to the airport, C and I went to Joe’s first. And I didn’t look the way a guy should look eating a burger with provolone and mushrooms. Though the dijon mustard I dipped it in made the watery eyes seem sort of natural.

It was lonely and quiet in the airport. And I was the only one in the security line, so I took my time. And I used four trays and I spread out all my stuff between them. I used one tray just for my boots. At the gate, the food-vendor people were closing up their food-vending stores. And I sat in a row of chairs that I had all to myself. I didn’t feel like reading or listening to music. And I couldn’t smoke or drink. I couldn’t do anything but stare at the people and the blue light of the Samsung charging station and wait.

I found out later that about the time I was twisting off the cap of that second bottle of Dewars on the plane, she was drawing her last quiet breathes. When I got to the hospital around 2:30 in the morning, my sister told me that it had been very peaceful. She had opened her eyes, but she never tried to speak. I hope she saw wonderful, brilliant things in her morphine haze. She breathed harder for a bit, then softer, then nothing. Hearing is the last thing to go. So my sister spoke to her the entire time. And told her it was okay to let go. She said we would be okay without her.

When I got there, I sat with her alone for a while in the cold, dim room. There was still some warmth in her arms, even though the tips of her fingers had gone black. And I told her I was sorry I had missed it. I touched her face and her hands. I touched her feet. I touched her swollen belly, full of the stuff that infected and killed her.

For some reason, I want to remember what she looked like then. For a while I could. I could draw it up in my head, like a photograph. The way one eye wouldn’t quite close, the way her jaw seemed to clench. I could remember that dead expression she had and how it made me feel cold and empty. And how it seemed like any minute it would change back to something more familiar, more animated. But I can’t anymore. I can’t picture it. And I know it’s probably better that way. I know it’s probably better to picture her face when it was alive. When she was smiling.

I took this photo back in early January while she was in rehab after being in the hospital the first time. It was after she’d had the seizure, but before she’d started the radiation. I think this was probably the best point. She’s watching Honey run around the courtyard of the rehab facility, which is a nicer name for a nursing home. She liked Honey and Honey liked her.

Of course, if we had known then what we know now, that she would become so tired, that the thing that would kill her wasn’t even the tumor and it wasn’t even the radiation, that she was dangerously close to a perforated colon, I don’t think we would have done the radiation. It turns out she lived about as long doing the treatment as the doctors told us she would live without it. One to three months. But you don’t ever know then. When it’s then, you do what you think is best. You do the things that might get you time. Because there is only one time (that we know of) and so you do the things that will make it last without causing any more pain.

And so early last week, when we realized there would only be pain from now on. We did what we had to do. Which in terms of treatment, really meant “not doing.” Instead, we did the things that would make the pain stop. And we let go. And so did she.