My mom is dying. Well, she’s been dying for the past 13 years, but this is really it. Since she’s had Alzheimer’s, despite countless pleas to get some help, my father’s been taking care of her at home. Last week she lost the use of her legs and he finally decided to put her in a nursing home. She was pretty far gone for a long time before this, but my father finally gave in and agreed to spend money on her care.
There was so much she missed during the last 13 years. I got married and had a daughter. I bought my first house. I published magazine articles. When I was little and I used to show her what I wrote, she’d say, “Maybe you’ll be an author.” I think she’d like it if she knew I was writing a book. I know she’d hate that she’s in it.
She couldn’t see any of those rites of passage and achievements. I saw her, though. I saw her get worse and worse. And now it’s coming to an end, which is good for her, really, but I will never see her again. When I became a mom, I wish she could have told me what I was like as a baby. I wish she could have seen Rose and told me how much she was like me. I wish Rose had known what it was to have a Yaya, and I wish my mom had known that she became one. I wish I could ask her things that only she would remember. Like the stories about the Hollywood Restaurant her family had owned in New York. Like how to say this or that in Greek. Like why they gave me that awful haircut when I was five. But I will never get those answers. It’s been that way for eight years. Why is the finality of death so different?
I think it’s different because I never had a specific time to grieve. When she was first diagnosed, I was sad but that was the time to research the disease, see what to expect and what could be done. And as she deteriorated and I knew she wouldn’t be able to understand much longer, it was time to apologize for all the times I’d wronged her. And then it was time to monitor her descent into oblivion. I’d get weekly “progress” reports from my father. And then she didn’t know me anymore and it was time to accept the disease for what it was, and help her to get dressed and go to the ladies room. After that it was time to watch her slowly slip away. Now it’s time to plan for the end – helping my father make arrangements, telling her family and finding someone to babysit when we’re at the services. And when she dies, that’s when it’ll be time to feel the loss and the sorrow and the pain, all at once, but finally, it will be my time to cry. I’m not looking forward to it but I think that will be one element of the relief that I’ll finally be able to feel what my heart has suffered for the last 13 years.
It will still feel like a great loss. She was the parent I got along with. Although her quirks frustrated me, she was the one whose company I enjoyed. She took me shopping and bought me the best wardrobe in my high school. When I was in college, she’d slip me cash every time I saw her. All through school, she’d entertain my imagination with custom-made Halloween costumes. We’d stay up late sewing and fitting those costumes every Halloween Eve and I’d go to school tired, but I hardly noticed because of all the attention that those outfits commanded. She would watch TV with me and complain that on the rare instances that she watched that particular show, she’d always see a rerun. She said it about every show we watched.
When I got my driver’s license, she’d let me drive but she’d suck air every time another car passed us. It certainly didn’t help me concentrate. She believed she walked on the precipice between life and death every second of her life. When she let me drive her to White Plains, N.Y. to go shopping, I popped in a Van Halen tape and when the drum solo at the start of “Hot for Teacher” began to thump, she shrieked, “WHAT’S THAT? IS IT THE TIRES??” When we’d listen to the radio on snowy winter mornings and she heard a forecast below freezing, she’d scream at my father, “JIM! It’s gonna ICE UP! Did you hear that? It’s gonna ICE UP!!” Inclement weather didn’t bother my father but to my mom, ice on the roads meant a motorized Iditarod and imminent death to anyone who dared accept the frozen challenge. She told me that men hid in the bushes waiting to pounce on every passerby so I was terrified of every shrub in the neighborhood.
And it turns out that like most worry, hers was for nothing. She thought her demise would be quick and preventable but instead she’s enduring a slow, lingering death over which she had no control. I wish I could say that her beliefs led her to live her life as if every day were her last but she mostly cowered in the corner, so concerned about what might happen next that she never even noticed what she had in the moment. And I guess that’s what I need to take away from this experience. I wish I could tell you I didn’t internalize her beliefs but the minute I have something to lose, I start to think about ways I could suddenly lose it. I worried my baby would die of SIDS. I worry that my husband will die in a plane crash on a business trip. I worry that I’ll get carpal tunnel syndrome. But I need to stop focusing on that and enjoy what I have while I have it. I don’t know what my future holds. Nobody does. I don’t know if I’ll enjoy an old age. So I’ve got to make sure I keep my eye on today, appreciate everything that it brings, and fully expect that there will be a tomorrow.