My Mom passed away at 10:15 a.m. on Christmas Eve after a long, difficult struggle with dementia.
I rarely if ever mentioned her and her many difficulties on Facebook or other social media out of respect for her dignity and privacy. She was a very private person, yet very amiable and personable with everybody she met. I’m not saying this because she was my Mom, but I truly have never met anybody who didn’t think the world of her. It was my honor to be able to care for her as her health and mental health declined.
I honored her wishes for a brief and private funeral this morning. It was just Tim and me attending, with a few prayers and a short goodbye. I prefer to remember my mother in life rather than death. Even though she was still quite cute and beautiful until her last days, I opted for a closed casket.
My Mom was always a beautiful woman. In her younger days, she was frequently mistaken for movie star Katharine Hepburn. She sometimes told me of the time Guy Lombardo asked her out but she politely refused because she knew he was married. She always did the right thing, much to Mr. Lombardo’s surprise. She did date his [unmarried] brother Carmen briefly though.
She was quite accomplished in the business world as well, having studied law (straight A’s, thank you) at NYU, and having a degree from Hunter College. She was hired as a legal assistant in the law firm of former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Governor of NY, U.S. Secretary of State, and presidential candidate, Charles Evans Hughes (he lost narrowly to Woodrow Wilson). She worked closely with his son-in-law, who was vice president and chief legal counsel of Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, MI. Shortly after the war ended, because of her status she was given priority to buy a shiny new Ford, something which was very rare and in great demand at the time. It was Birch White in color, but Mom, always modest, said it was really just a nice shade of silver.
She met my Dad while working at the law firm in NYC. Dad was widowed, 17 years her senior, and had five young children at home by his first wife, but that was fine with Mom because she was really taken by him. They married and I came along a number of years later, born after my five siblings were already married. I was my Mom’s only child, but my Dad’s sixth.
When I was 15, my Dad died, also after a very long, slow decline spread over many years. Mom and I cared for him at home rather than put him in a nursing home. She was so loving, caring, and gentle with him as this formerly feared and revered, tough, Irish, NY street kid slowly became a frail shadow of his former self, and that made quite an impression on me. Little did we know this would be a dress rehearsal for a similar role for me as her caregiver many years later.
By sheer coincidence, shortly after my Dad died, my Mom’s former law firm in the city called her out of the blue to say that the partners were thinking of her and wondered if she would be interested in returning to the firm now that her son was older and able to care for himself as a teen. She agreed to go back part-time at first, but a few weeks before I was to start college, she had a heart attack and was hospitalized for a while. She returned to good health quickly, quit smoking cold turkey, and began a regimen of healthy eating and exercise. She returned to work full-time, opting to take the bus from our Fort Lee, NJ apartment to the Port Authority terminal and then walk two miles to and from work each day, even in bad weather. We later joined a gym together and she lifted weights and ran the indoor track there until she was 84. I should mention also that she also worked five days a week at a NJ law firm from age 70 until she was 84. Yes, she certainly set the bar high for me to do better than that.
We would always go to Cape Cod for a week or so, right after Labor Day, when the rates dropped. Same hotel, same efficiency apartment. The waters of Nantucket Sound are quite cold year round, and I would frequently stand ankle deep in the gentle waves, my pale six-foot-four frame shivering with goosebumps watching my Mom dive right in and tell me how “refreshing” the waters were. I know she didn’t do that to embarrass me, but that’s just the way it was every year.
After a broken hip, a hospital stay, and a few weeks of nursing home rehab, I moved her in with Tim and myself at our Poughkeepsie home for further recovery after New Year’s Eve dinner in 2000. She said she was going back to work and her NJ apartment as soon as she was able, so we continued to pay rent for the remainder of her one-year lease in NJ. But I could tell that her memory was not what it had been and she was gradually declining.
Eventually, I needed to take a firmer stand and insist that she give up her apartment and live with us, rather than go back to Fort Lee. She agreed, but she still had her new, bright red Subaru Forester and she was determined to continue to drive, much to my dismay. That problem was solved in a most unfortunate way as we were transporting the last of her possessions from her NJ apartment to our Poughkeepsie home. Her Mom’s fine china was padded and boxed safely in the back of her red (her favorite color) Subie and I was driving her up on our final journey from NJ when we had a head-on collision in Garrison. We were taken to the local hospital ER and Mom’s only injury was a slight bloody nose from contact with the airbag, so we were discharged within an hour. I was unharmed as well, but her car was totalled by the insurance company. We never did replace the car, and I became her chauffeur.
Over the years, we slowly unhitched her from her NJ connections. She got new doctors, new bank accounts, new everything here in the Hudson Valley. All except for one professional -- Dawn, her hairdresser of 30+ years. Every six weeks or so, we’d trek down to Paramus, NJ for her hair cut. We’d make a day of it with shopping the malls and a nice dinner at Baumgart’s, our favorite old-time German ice cream parlor/ gourmet Chinese restaurant. Yes, it’s probably a category of one, but we always enjoyed a very healthy steamed veggies with brown rice and orange chicken dinner… followed by a big hot fudge sundae for dessert, of course.
Her brisk jogging at the gym and fast walking in NYC eventually turned to slower, more leisurely walks, and then the expected progression from cane, to walker, to her wheeling herself around in a wheelchair, to me doing all the wheelchair pushing and lifting her in and out of the chair for meals, bedtime, and bathroom breaks.
Each day presented a new challenge. She was no longer learning new things, and forgetting random old things. We could never be sure what would be the next memory to fade. She would decide to make herself some tea, turn on the gas burner under the kettle (with no water in it) and then forget about it. I will never forget that smell of burning metal. Five charred and blackened kettles later, we opted for an electric, glass, tea kettle with automatic shut-off. She never did learn how to operate it, so we ended up doing it for her after all.
Her final year to six months involved ever softer foods as her teeth gave out, and eventually me spoon-feeding her over the course of a couple of hours for each meal. Every meal, either finely chopped or swiftly pureed, was washed down with a chocolate Ensure or Boost nutrition shake. When asked what she’d like to eat, any option with “chocolate” in the name (particularly ice cream) would get the instant, glowing smile and enthusiastic approval over any other previously listed suggestion. And so it was. She was 96, and was therefore entitled to have chocolate with each meal if she so desired.
Short term memory was the first to go, and eventually, most of her life became the great unknown to her. She usually remembered my name, but frequently called me Timmy and vice versa. She always remembered Frances, Tim’s Mom, though.
Her next-to-last night, we watched the Wizard of Oz on TV. She did not recall the movie, but did remember the songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road/ We’re Off to See the Wizard.” In all my years selling radio airtime, I explained to my clients how audio messages are the most powerful and the most memorable, particularly musical imagery. In fact, while my Mom’s dementia robbed her of a lifetime of visual and conceptual memories, she never forgot her favorite songs. When she was depressed, I would start to sing (if you can call it singing) “I Love You More Today Than Yesterday” and she would be smiling and chiming in for the rest of the chorus in no time. Of course, she would then repeat it 25 times in a row, each time being the first she could recall. She would frequently burst into “On The Road Again” for endless repetitions as well for no apparent reason. While it could be somewhat annoying, particularly when we were on the phone, or trying to follow a story on TV, we would [usually] let her go on [and on] because we knew someday she wouldn’t be here to sing to us.
Christmas Eve was that day. I called 911 the evening before, because Mom was in increasing pain and Tylenol just wasn’t doing anything to help. In the ER, they gave her morphine, and then another larger dose when the first one did nothing to ease her pain. Eventually, the ER doc took me aside for “the fork in the road” discussion. Will we be treating her to go back home, or are we going to opt for “Comfort Care” and ease her pain while acknowledging that she would likely not be coming home again. It was time. She had suffered so much, and the rest of her body and mind had given out, so I tearfully selected option B, which sounded more like the name to a pleasant mattress company jingle, or perhaps a luxurious hotel chain.
After our overnight in the ER, they admitted her to private room. I asked the nurse how “Comfort Care” usually worked, and if patients later transferred to a nursing home, or to their own home. She smiled, and explained the reality, then gently suggested I say my goodbyes now because Mom would be very unlikely to last 24 hours. She asked if I’d like to stay and be present as Mom passed on, or if I’d prefer to say good bye now and get a phone call when when she passes. She was alive, but hardly “living” at that point. The painkillers had numbed her completely, and she just stared blankly at the ceiling. While I hope she knew I was there, I will never actually know. Again, I selected nurse’s option B, kissed her, cried, hugged her, cried some more, told her how much I loved her and always would, and then left in tears to go home to get some sleep. I prefer to remember my Mom alive, smiling, laughing, singing, and swimming in Nantucket Sound, not dying in a hospital bed, or in a coffin.
The hospital called at 10:20 to tell me Mom had passed. Her suffering was over, and I was left to call the funeral home and let them know to begin the arrangements I had already worked out with them a few years earlier. Thankfully, I’m married to the most wonderful person in the world, and Tim handled that call for me.
The funeral was this morning, the day after our first white Christmas in some time. Some more light snow fell as we stood over Mom’s casket and we said a few prayers and our final goodbyes. It was just Tim and me, and folks from the funeral home. Brief and simple, just as Mom wanted it.
If you have it in your heart, a contribution to the Alzheimer’s Association in the name of Marjorie H. Clark would perhaps prevent somebody else from having to endure a disease that strips a person not only of their body, but of their mind and their life’s memories. Thank you.