I like to believe I was of some help to my mother, 91 years old and worn down by age, as she left this world October 2. I worked nowhere near as hard, of course, as she did to bring me into it. But I did my level best as her work neared closing to honor her labors at my birth and of those years she was there for me growing up. Sometimes our visits were quiet, dementia having robbed my mother first of memory and then of coherent speech. But even up to just a few weeks before the end, I could coax her to pass the time in an exchange of mimicked animal sounds and blabbering nonsense jabber. I loved how this goofiness made her laugh the same joyful laugh that cloaked me in the cocoon of caring play she built for me as a child. It took some effort, but we stayed connected.
Three miracles of caring service made my mother’s last years, months and days safe, secure and bearable for her. Left virtually nothing by my father to tide her through old age, one single thing he did actually worked out in her favor. Because he was a member of the Masonic Lodge, my mother joined the Mason’s sister charity, The Eastern Star. She didn’t attend their local chapter events, but she paid modest annual dues and read their newsletter for 52 years. When I could see, close on the heels of her second husband’s death, that my mother’s mind was failing, I remembered this and turned to them for help. Inside of a few months, we turned over her humble assets, spousal veteran’s benefit and Social Security to Eastern Star, and the sisterhood welcomed Dorothy for life into their embrace. That was the first miracle.
When it became clear after a year at the lovely, service-rich Eastern Star home in Yorba Linda that my mother simply did not socialize well with the rest of the residents, I was called to a care conference. I went to the meeting in abject terror they were going to throw her out. On the contrary, the social worker, nurse and facility head affirmed for me that “she’s our sister” and they would find a suitable outside living arrangement that met their exacting standards.
The second miracle came in the form of Tabi Biscos, a Romanian immigrant who, with her husband Daniel and their daughter, Genyfer, operate a six-bed elder care facility downstairs from their living quarters on a quiet suburban Fullerton street. Mama Dorothy, as my mother came to be called by the family, lived there in style. She staked a claim to her favorite chair in the living room and occupied it like a throne where she could sit amid the daily household bustle and at her leisure look out a sunny window. She’d even get up occasionally and dance with Daniel to the music always playing in the house. Never an adventurous cook or diner, she developed and indulged an appetite for Romanian cuisine she would never in her life have conceived of eating.
And then came the third miracle of caring service: hospice. I cut my teeth on charities in the 1970s helping a force of nature named Mary Holabird, a Pasadena socialite and philanthropic patron, with some early work on establishing a charity called Hospice of Pasadena. The organization is no longer around, but the concept of hospice – compassionate care for the dying which Americans borrowed from Europe – turned into a growth industry, snapped up by hundreds of commercial and nonprofit ventures alike. Six months before she died, still with Tabi as her principal caregiver, a hospice nurse, social worker and doctor began visiting Dorothy routinely. They monitored her clearly deteriorating health, advised Tabi (who by then, thank you, knew my mother’s needs, ups and downs better than they ever would!) and helped keep her comfortable, pain-free and out of the corridors and regimentation of hospitals and rehab facilities.
As she lay bedbound in the last days of her life, I would sit for hours next to my mother holding her hand or stroking her hair and watching the steady, sometimes struggling, rise and fall of her chest with each breath, fearful that this one might be her last. It is with a sense of utter and complete awe that when that time came I recall vividly the stark and startling contrast. A woman whom I had never seen still, never gazed upon in anything other than full animated action, lay before me stilled forever. The earthly tent that once was Dorothy had been furled and folded, soon thereafter transformed by her wishes to ash and dust. What once was Dorothy Ruth, from here on, would be up to me to carry inside.
And perhaps therein dwells a fourth miracle, a forever miracle. What I mean is this miracle of keeping we the living do, this permitting into ourselves the vacating spirit of those whom we have loved. We may even do it in crude approximations of remembered connection like nonsense jabber, the silly oink of a pig, or listening hopefully, fretfully for a next ragged breath. We loved them, after all, and their small joys, their willingness to breathe us in, help us recall how much they loved us, too.
Sunset by Maria Ekland (CC BY-SA 2.0)