It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed. My father died as I turned 30. Mom lived thirty years longer, although she was only a couple of years younger than Daddy.
Now, she’s been gone 20 years.
Mom’s last years were difficult — lingering with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home while Daddy had gone quickly in his mid-60’s. He’d had a few heart episodes before a final heart attack put him in a coma for a couple of days. That was it. No suffering. But I was always sure that Mom was happy with her deal, 25+ good years in exchange for a couple of lousy years.
Certainly, a bargain I would sign up for.
I had spent more than a decade from the time Morrigan was born in 1998 worrying. What genes had I inherited from my father? Would I survive my mid-60’s? I didn’t worry every minute. It wasn’t an obsession, but the questions were always there in the background. What was I doing have a child at my age?
By my late 60’s, the threat seemed to have passed. Maybe I had Mommy’s longevity genes. Like her older brother, Nat, I still have a full head of hair. Nat lived well into his 90’s. So did Mom. I stopped worrying.
Although there is always sorrow when I think of Mom’s last years, nagging thoughts about what we could have done differently, better, to make her life easier, I am able to remember the good years. While I was still living in Brooklyn, Mommy had sold her house in Great Neck and taken a floor in our Brownstone. We had gotten to spend more time together than we had since I left for college at the age of 17. She made carrot and beet juice for me and reminded me to take my vitamins. She moved with me to Staten Island, and we had dinner out at a restaurant at least once a week.
The beginning of the end
For a while, I didn’t recognize the early signs of Alzheimer’s. Although she was still traveling alone by bus to Manhattan for high colonics, she began to complain that they kept moving the bus stop. When she briefly considered staying behind in Brooklyn, we looked for an apartment for her. She didn’t like any of them. She complained that they had “too many walls.” Only when I started finding plates of fried eggs, uneaten, all over the Staten Island townhouse did I begin to get the picture.
I took Mom for a neurological evaluation. The neurologist was very sweet. Sitting back, observing the interview, I saw things I never saw before, how skillful Mommy had become at hiding her memory loss. Asked who was President of the United States, she responded with the hand flap that meant “don’t be silly,” “Come on, doc. You know the answer, don’t you?”
We got the dreaded diagnosis.
Dee and I went to an Alzheimer’s support group in Manhattan. I think there were three families there that night. We were asked to share our stories. I was asked to go first. I shared my fried eggs story. I was surprised by the responses from the other families.
“Do you think that’s bad?” the first one asked. “Our father won’t let us take his car keys away.” I couldn’t believe their story. What a nightmare.
Then it was the third families turn. “Do you think that’s bad? Our father won’t let us take away his guns.”
At the end of the evening, Dee and I walked out very much relieved. We had no idea what to do to support Mommy, but we knew things could be a lot worse.
Mommy kind of took the problem out of our hands. One morning, she couldn’t get out of bed. A neighbor called 911. An ambulance took her to the hospital, and she went from acute care to a rehab unit and from there to a nursing home rehab unit and finally to the Alzheimer’s unit.
The hardest years
Mom was in the nursing home a couple of years. Those were hard years, hard for me, maybe harder for Dee, much harder for my Mom. We were able to take her out every week for Sunday dinner. I was able to get to visit her a couple of more times a week, but the visits were painful as her memory deteriorated. I have managed to hang on to the funny stories and have told them over and over again.
One day I got a call from my cousin, Stevie. His father, my Uncle Nat, Mommy’s adored older brother had passed away. I was going to have to tell Mommy. I dreaded the prospect. I braced myself. I had no idea how she would react. I figured a gambit.
“Mom,” I asked, “have you spoken to Uncle Nat recently.”
She did her hand flap. “Don’t be silly. Nat has been dead for years.”
End of story. All my worries for nothing. I love that story.
Good days and bad days
Mommy had good and bad days. Some visits were really terrible. She was confused and anxious, and the visits were very stressful for me. On other days, she was pretty lucid. Those were the good visits. One day — it must have been pretty close to the end — we had a wonderful visit. I felt more connected to Mommy than I had in years. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to go. As I was getting up, Mommy asked, “So, have you spoken to Kenneth lately?”
I had to laugh. I thought that I was having such a great visit with my mother. She was visiting with my father.
A good bargain
Now, this year, Mom is gone 20 years. Something new is arising. Maybe it’s the 20 years. A long time. Maybe too, it’s the first anniversary of her passing since I retired. I have entered a new phase in my life, perhaps a final phase. I am looking again at my bargain. Will I spend the next decade watching for signs of Alzheimer’s? Was that the deal? Mid-60’s heart attack or late-80’s Alzheimer’s? I don’t see any signs yet, but I still worry.
It is still a good bargain.
I am so grateful that Mom lived to see me married to Dee and to dance with me at our wedding, to live to hold Morri, her only grandchild in her arms. Daddy was gone so long before Dee was even on the horizon.
I am so grateful for all these years that I have had with Dee and Morri. In these years, I have had a whole second career, a wonderful career, and a wonderful retirement party. But the years with Dee and Morri have been the greatest miracle.
Absolutely, I would make this bargain again.
And I know I want more. More years with Dee. More years with Morri.
I would make this bargain again, but will I be able to face what is next with Mom’s courage?