Revisiting My Mother’s Grave

The orderly rows of the national cemetery don’t suit my mother. In her life she was a jaunty jumble, plaid pants and crazy knickknack shelves, swirls of cigarette smoke, piano bench cascading with sheet music. Her topsy-turvy mornings in the kitchen on the red swivel stool with a foot propped on the broken dishwasher, the radio playing, the teeming ashtrays and lipsticked coffee cups, the sections of the morning newspaper splayed over heaps of books from the library.

The farrago of her nightstands and countertops. A thousand scraps of paper: receipts and grocery lists and all of her notes on everyday life: her elliptical book reviews (“Doris Lessing Golden Notebook—very good”); pediatric research (“amoxicillin best for pneumonia in children, but not if mycoplasma”); and news flashes from phone conversations [“John now vp for all of General Mills,” “Mia hurt knee and has new magazine for university”)—all scrawled in her breezy cursive, laced with the crooked lines and squiggles of her expert Gregg shorthand. Beyond the window, the colorful eccentricity of her garden, the large red rosebushes tangled in the cosmos.

My brimming, replete, untidy, exquisitely alive mother. She loved beauty and stimulating activity; had been the daughter of musicians, after all; had dressed in smart suits for a downtown business career. She did her best to fill the voids during her long and sometimes grim exile in the suburban split level, finding ways to project herself against the consuming sprawl of my father (every table and chair buried in his books and articles, every spare room given over to his hobbies, every wall festooned with his favored paintings and prints).

She made what lairs she could: the kitchen counter with its interesting jumbles; the bookcase next to her bed crammed with mementoes and family snapshots; the knickknack stand in a corner of the dining room, its carefully arranged and regularly dusted trinkets spanning a 19th-century Austrian music box from her grandmother and a misshapen nut bowl I’d made in 1st grade. The back stoop off the kitchen, where she stole moments of bliss in the evening beholding backyard beauty, smoking her menthol cigarettes as the sun swooshed its departing oranges above her garden.

But now. Her small marble marker (her embalmed remains in that well-joined oaken box—not even thinking of the bewildering corporeality of it), her perfectly measured gravesite lined up with precision in a row among thousands of others in a vast spare grassy flatland between freeway and airport. These grounds in some respects pretty, but never lovely: Too sparse, too stinting, too orderly, its few crabapples and oaks outmatched by acres of sod and long granite rows.

What, I think (kneeling to arrange the daisies and roses I have brought into the shiny little green cone picked up at the Flower Receptacle bin)–what has this relentlessly regimental landscape, this gravesite, this orderly and symmetrical place … what has any of this to do with my mother?


I turned back one for one last look before I crossed the road to the car. Standing next to the tree (was it a Linden?) at the end of my mother’s row, my eye was drawn to the profusion of bright green shoots sprouting from the trunk. Well, I thought, that’s something.

And then, driving slowly around the loop road toward the entrance, I came to a small crowd of mourners at what was clearly a military funeral, two dozen greying army men standing at attention (in their pressed green slacks and shirtsleeves and berets) for the rifle salute of an honor guard. I stopped some 30 yards away, entirely undone as a bugler played “Taps.”

This very formal and militaristic sendoff, not particularly large, few mourners aside from the honor guard, something routine and lackluster about it all—and the bugler’s “Day is Done” strains had a discernibly wobbling tone. Yet still, the somber ceremony moved me. Attention was paid, I thought … recalling, in contrast, the sorry sendoff for my mother on that frigid day in February.

Our ragtag assemblage at the funeral home, the awkward strain of dealing with my impaired father, the tuneless “I’ll Be Seeing You” pinged out by the hack pianist the funeral home had hired … and then our little group shivering for no more than two or three minutes over my mother’s casket in a “committal area” reminiscent of a warehouse storage facility area as the sweaty Father Dobrozky galloped at breakneck speed through a Hail Mary before fleeing in his waiting car.

No “Taps” for her, I thought, looking toward the grave where my mother’s remains had so unceremoniously been committed to the sod, looking across the long rows stretching toward the airport on one side and the freeway on the other. Eyes welling and heart bursting; yearning for proper commemoration not only of my mother’s death, but of the 85 years she had lived.

This is how it is, I thought. A lifetime of experiences and memories, of stirring the earth’s molecules daily and for decades with your gifts and strivings and yearnings, of tending nasturtiums and sick children, of knowing things and writing things down and regarding beauty and making music, of laughter and sufferings and prayers. Just gone. Just gone: my untidy, vibrant, remarkable mother.


Everything Slumps

My birthday approaching; lilt missing; everything slumps.

No card will come from my mother this year.

I spent yesterday visiting with the dying, shadowing a hospice music therapist in conjunction with a spectacularly ill-timed consulting project. What was I thinking?

Today I feel traumatized, my thoughts turbulent and sad, a grey vortex of bereavement and regret commingled with aching, yawning, tangled pain. Back in it: the loss of her, and how hard her final years were, and what it was for her to be that broken wren with ravaged lungs who kept pushing that walker with her face turned so brightly to the world, and the cruel facts of all that she lost and suffered in her life. And the many ways I failed her.

The loss of her, but more, too: With my mother gone, all of what used to seem so large and expansive and certain—the historical framework of her life, and mine as her daughter—now seems tenuous. I feel cut adrift from the history that was hers, the stories of her childhood, the sense of a living connection to her large and vibrant family. The father whose shtetl-to-tenement Jewish immigrant story made all the more remarkable his rise to urbane mid-century orchestra leader. The mother whose German pioneer parents ran a large farm while raising eight children to be professional musicians. All this now seems increasingly vague, disconcertingly abstract.

I feel a slipping away of the connecting threads, of the certainty of enduring ties, of everyday engagement with what my mother experienced and knew. The ordinary verities of her life: What does any of it matter now? I feel compelled to declaim things she knew—the experiences and memories that were organic to my mother, that came to seem inseparable from her: Here is the street of snug 1920s houses where spirited Aunt Anna lived, where eccentric Uncle Ed once tipped over in a wing chair while listening to John Phillip Sousa music on the Victrola. Here is the garden center where Elsie, my grandmother, briefly worked after my grandfather’s death, pruning azaleas and potting geraniums in a green smock over her plaid Pendleton jacket. Here is the slipshod bungalow where Aunt Mame ended up after losing her home to unscrupulous bankers in 1935, here is a trendy boutique where once there was a corner drugstore, soda fountain and all, owned by the parents of my mother’s teenage pal Rose.

The entwining of my own experiences with my mother’s from the time my tiny heart beat just beneath her large one. All that I came to know through her stories, to see through her eyes. The wistful loneliness I feel when the waiter brings bread in a cafe, my mother’s voice in my head singing “le beurre!” as she never failed to do when passing the butter dish; then I’m recalling her much-told (if improbable) tale of how she failed high school French because, having also enrolled in Spanish, she’d mistakenly completed her French exam in, as she put it, “not parlez-vous-Francais, but Ess-span-yol!”

The many things I recall and know—and am—because I am my mother’s daughter. The weave of history, of memory; a shared tapestry, and now a bewildering inheritance. If I am inseparable from her, now what? No daughter of my own; what, then, of my mother’s legacy; what, then, of my own?

Most of all, this: With my mother gone, will the skein unravel? Will the threads hold?


Every year on my birthday, my mother would make a big show of retelling—in a marveling tone, with gestural flourishes—the story of our first shared experience in the world. How it was a gloriously beautiful sunny October day, warm enough for her to don oversized pedal-pushers with her maternity blouse. How she knew in mid-afternoon, while enjoying coffeecake with my grandmother, that I was about to make my debut, and how my grandmother drove her to St. Barnabas hospital in her Plymouth, all the way exhorting my mother to “hold on, sis, I’m no midwife!” How I was an easy birth, out of her womb in a flash and nestled contentedly in her arms by 4:30, such a happy baby; how she cooed “my darling, darling daughter” in a ray of gold-glinted autumn sun beaming in the hospital window.

She’s not here to retell the story this year, or to see me shake my head in fake bemusement at her silly sentimental mugging. She would have been dismayed, I know, to see the snow that fell from October’s skies this year. Snow! The wet flakes turned to ice on the still-blooming lillies on the front-yard slope, closed the resplendent blossoms on the hibiscus, took the still-ripening heirloom tomatoes on the vine.

It’s because of my mother. I can’t help but think it. Thirty degrees in mid-October, the once-plucky geraniums now hanging their heads alongside a snow shovel better suited to December. The ash trees curling their leaves in shock or sorrow, color draining from the late-summer coneflowers and the weigela that only last week rebloomed on the front-yard hill.

Frost on the heirlooms; thyme frozen; the remaining harvest gone. I suffer the unseasonable chill, bemoan its insults and losses, but in truth I’m not surprised by it. My own roots heaving. This October altogether so much colder.


Happy Birthday, Mom

Today is my mother’s birthday.

New rivers of grief. Oceans, actually. Waves of emotions and memories, tumultuous. I feel undone, overwhelmed.


Mother’s Day

Today, for the first time, I visited my mother’s grave. She is buried in the flat grassy octagon of a national cemetery near the airport; her grave is in a farflung corner alongside a freeway. How ironic, I think, that her mortal remains lie near fast lanes and flight paths, she who spent her life so trapped.

Seeing the marble headstone bearing her name was a strange experience. Her January death placed her grave among rows marking winter deaths, one of a thousand graves the groundskeepers dug in November, before the ground froze. The older sections of the cemetery have lush grass and mature trees, with the rows for World War I veterans especially lovely and moving. My mother’s parents are buried there—the orchestra leader grandfather, son of Polish Jews, who died the year I was born and the pianist grandmother I adored, daughter of Austrian Catholics, who died, at age 102, in 1994. Their gravesites are amid oaks with verdant canopies and pink crabapple trees in full bloom on a sunny May afternoon.

But the area around my mother’s grave is little more than a treeless dirt patch, which I find dispiriting. In truth, the grave does not feel as though it has much to do with my mother’s life, or my grief. Too, it is galling to see the “wife of” inscription yoking her to my father, and thus to the whole unhappy arc of her life that proceeded from her marriage; it is of course an unavoidable consequence of her wish that we take advantage of the thrifty burial option she had as the spouse of a World War II veteran.

Still, despite everything, I am a little moved to see this place where her oaken casket came to rest, this small plot of land marked with her name and the dates of her birth and death. Proof, perhaps: She was here in the world for 84 years and 8 months, she has passed out of the world into another state of being, she is remembered.

I placed a bouquet of tulips at her gravesite and laid atop the marker a small stone gnarled with quartz I took from my bookshelf: an invocation of Jewish ritual, a nod to the long-overlooked Jewish half of my mother’s heritage. Disregarding cemetery regulations, I had brought a bottle of wine and two slender glasses that were something like the juice glasses my mom favored for her brief happy-hour interludes—her 15 minutes of peace perched in her knit slacks and oddball vests and sensible shoes on the back stoop, gazing out over her nasturtiums or skimming a novel, enjoying a half dozen sips of chablis and a few cheese-topped crackers and, for too many years, her cigarettes.

Next to the headstone I propped the large photo I had displayed at my mother’s funeral: my smiling mother in a bright red jacket raising a wine glass (a proper one, tulip-shaped) in exuberant toast. And there in the dirt patch between airport and freeway, in the only place on earth indelibly marked with her name, A. and I toasted her right back.


History, Tossed and Turned

For three difficult years, I tossed and turned, agonizing over how to help my mother. There was no mistaking the crisis; she was entangled in a train wreck that wouldn’t quit. Between her emphysema and her osteoporosis and her dodgy mind, she was in rough shape and no longer had the capacity to look out for herself. Adding torment to crisis, my impaired father was making things exponentially harder for her—and impeding my every attempt to intervene with the zealous fury he might well have shown as a grunt defending the flag on the Central European battlefields of World War II.

My mother’s lungs were failing and her bones crumbling—but there she was, stumbling up stairways in her large split-level house, her 50 feet of oxygen tubing tangling under her feet, her knuckles white as she clung, gasping, to railings and walls. There she was panting over saucepans and plates and burning potatoes while my father impatiently awaited dinner in his armchair. There she was shuffling along, all 80 bony breathless pounds of her, to the basement washing machine, down three flights of stairs with her arms full of clothes and her oxygen tubes trailing and her forehead bruised from hitting the laundry tub on an earlier trip.

And recently, in the soaring heat of mid-July, there she was, her shoulders heaving, perspiration dripping down her deeply wrinkled face, my father making a show of opening the kitchen window while affixing duct tape over the turned-off switch for the air conditioner (“because sometimes she thinks she needs things,” he said—nearly knocking over the hairdresser I brought with me one scorching afternoon in his haste to block my path to the a/c thermostat—“but I know better”).

Her trays of medicine went untouched; her nebulizer gathered dust. There was rotten food in the ‘frig. She couldn’t bathe because my father consistently yanked out the bath chair and handheld shower I had installed in what had amounted to something like a guerilla action. Affronted, enraged, determined to regain sovereignity over house and wife, adamant that my mother was “doing just fine,” and increasingly tangled up in dementia’s tangles, by my father was harassing the home health aides I’d managed to shoehorn into the house, tenuously, two days a week. The concerned and resourceful Retha or Ifè would try to sneak into the filthy bathroom with a can of Lysol and there he’d be, close on their heels (“Don’t touch that faucet,” he’d warn, hovering, hectoring; “I’ll get a lawyer”).

How to extricate my mother from all this wreckage? I dreamt of crushed and twisted metal; I felt as though I needed, in every possible way, the Jaws of Life. I knew, tossing and turning, that I was out of my depth. Standing up to my father had been worse than worthless; it had seemed only to stir his blood; he became more pugnacious, more irrational, more fiercely combative.

My mother clearly needed to be wrested out of the house and into a supervised living arrangement. But how? Her doctors had proved to be of little help. Her pulmonary specialist, Dr. N., a sympathetic young woman whose soft voice carried a clipped British-inflection as well as an East Indian accent, saw my mother rarely, only long enough to cluck over the results of breathing tests her nurses had just completed with my mother. “You are doing remarkably well to be here at all with so little left of your lungs,” she said kindly to my mother, who had just managed to walk six feet in a test of respiratory function. “Just keep doing your best,” she concluded, smiling warmly at the end of these five-minute consults.

My mother’s primary care physician, Dr. U., obviously was the person who ought to be coordinating all aspects of my mother’s care. Yet Dr. U., a highly recommended gerontologist I’d wheedled into taking on my mother, seemed simply aggrieved to have in her examining room a patient of troublesome complication and need—and especially by the daughter who insisted on calling her attention to an unending chaparral of issues, of pressing consequence to my mother’s health, that sprawled inconveniently beyond Dr. U.’s crisp examining room.

Continued …
History Tossed and Turned, II
History Tossed and Turned, III
[In Back Story: Big Mess With Mom]


Recent History, II

In what proved to be only a passing spasm of concern, Dr. U. herself had in early 2006 brought my mother’s vulnerability—or more specifically, her endangerment in the “care” of my incompetent and irrational father—to the attention of county’s adult protection division. My hopes had soared. But the situation, abundantly bad and deteriorating by the day, just wasn’t bad enough by the county’s lights. “The case of neglect against the husband is inconclusive,” said the letter from the county (which my mother repeatedly phoned me to read aloud with confusion and anxiety, my father’s angry voice in the background).

Dr. U. seemed to take that as permission for her to stop caring. My despair grew.

In the end it took a crisis: My mother found half-dead by one of the aides who had valiantly kept going to the house. The mercury soaring, the a/c off, my mom on the floor pale and dizzy in urine-soaked clothes, her respiratory distress acute and her heartbeat erratic. My father with his hands in his pockets. The 911 call, the ambulance.

The call from a social worker at the hospital: “Sometimes, when our parents get older we may need to pay a little more attention to how they’re doing,” a disapproving male voice said to me after sharing the news that my mother in bad shape in the emergency room. “Right,” I said.

The county stepped up then, finally: If the husband tries to take her home, we will intervene. Wonderful hospital social workers entered the scene: They got it and they knew how to help. Eventually I got my mother into Haven Ponds Care Center for rest and rehab—a transitional month during which I worked with social workers there to hatch the plan that would get her out of her house for good.

But I didn’t wrest her away from the grasping and incompetent control of my father. My failure. My guilt.

“If you could have, you would have,” my grief counselor, Melody, said to me gently. “You managed to do a lot for your mother,” she reminded me. The specialist, the gerontologist, the pulmonary rehab, the battery of meds, the nebulizer, the best oxygen, the coolest walker, the home health aides, and the right insurance to pay for it all. “And you did get her out of the house and into assisted living. That was huge.”

“But my father went with her,” I said. My mother had blossomed during her time at the care center. She had liked being there on her own, had been happy. “I don’t want to leave here,” she told me the night before her move to the assisted living apartment, where my father was already seething among boxes and furniture left by the moving company. “I’m used to it here,” my mother went on. “And I like it. I’m the pet.”

I am haunted by this conversation. By having failed to make it possible for my mother to remain at Haven Ponds, on her own and happy. I wish I’d fought for it. Things do, of course, come into focus differently in hindsight. At the time, everything was complicated and highly charged: A blur of doctors and social workers, lots of meetings and machinations, my father on the scene as both a troublesome presence and a potentially serious obstacle, the county standing by to swoop in if my father tried to take my mother home, the overwhelming sense of urgency about coming up with a plan that would meet my mother’s needs and somehow work with or for or around my father.

The doctors and social workers said assisted-living was the right scenario for her; that became the focus. The chief concern was about whether my father would resist—more important, whether he would write out the checks for my mother’s move or whether I would have to take legal action to make that happen. When he signaled that he would, grudgingly, move with my mother to an assisted-living apartment, we cheered; it got us over the hump, surmounted what we’d feared would be a disastrous hurdle.

“And so I moved her back in with my father,” I said to Melody. “The night before she moved in, he was bellowing at her on the phone about how he was going to have to live in this horrible place because ‘you got sick’ and because ‘your daughter made us move here.’ He was abusive and ugly, and I remember being in tears with a social worker and saying, ‘This is a terrible mistake, how could we be moving my mother back into captivity with this man?’ And she said, ‘Well this is what we were able to do for now, and it isn’t ideal, but it’s better, and we can do something else down the road if this really doesn’t work out; we can move her.’ But I knew this had been our best, our only shot.”

“I think it’s true that you did what it was possible for you to do at the time,” Melody said.

I think that might be true, but it feels only ambiguously comforting. Maybe I just hadn’t been up to the task. Maybe my decision-making had been flawed, my judgment faulty, Maybe I’d been deficient of imagination or ingenuity or courage. Maybe I just hadn’t seen things clearly.

It feels like a crucial failing. Among many failings.

“If you could have, you would have,” Melody says more than once as I confess my litany of sins.

The biggest failings:
I couldn’t save her from the marriage she rued. I couldn’t spare her the wifedom and mothering that cost her everything. I couldn’t give her back her career. I couldn’t spare her from the suburb she disliked or restore her to the city blocks she’d adored. I couldn’t save her from the mentally ill son or from the sick younger daughter. I couldn’t spare her the premature death of her brother or the mother who lived too long. I couldn’t spare her my own daughterly disdain for her shortcomings or my resentment at all the ways she failed me.


Grief, Sprawling

My grief for my mother sprawls in many directions. My smart, vibrant, warm, plucky mother spent three agonizing years stooped and gasping for breath over the handles of a walker, her body ravaged and withered by emphysema. It was terrible. I could try for 10 years and not come close to describing how heartbreaking it felt to watch her push through each day.

What was—and is—all the more unbearable is that her struggle was much, much worse than it had to be. Her marriage was always a bad bargain; it proved truly ruinous when she got sick. As the spouse of a woman suffering from both advanced emphysema and encroaching Alzheimer’s, my father was something like a perfect storm: selfish, inept, resentful, and increasingly impaired by depression and a paranoia-laced dementia. And thus the massive slow-motion train wreck I got in the habit of calling The Big Mess With Mom; see also Back Story. Train wreck and hostage drama: My mother enduring needless hardship and decline in thrall to a profoundly dysfunctional man determined only that she should continue getting dinner on the table at 5.

I failed to spare my mother this. I did try. And try, and try. It drained me; it cost me. It required skills I didn’t have. It revived old traumas and stirred old guilts. It plundered my time and ruined my sleep. It drew oceans of tears. It drove me to despair. But still I failed. I tried to save her and I couldn’t, and I am consumed with guilt: I should have tried harder. I should have done more.


Spring Without Her

The burgeoning of spring opens new wounds of grief.

My mother’s heart shuddered to stillness in the dead of winter, the trees stark and leafless. It was one of the coldest nights in years. Yet there was also a mist in the air, heavy and warm and strange, as my mother’s body was wheeled out of the care center into a brightly lit driveway.

It was around 3 in the morning. The gurney bearing the still soft body of my mother was being pushed toward a waiting hearse by two young men from the mortuary, one of them with an enormous belly; their bleary looks and the rumpled khaki pants below their blue blazers suggested they had been yanked from sleep to answer yet another call on the death beat.

After we had left my mother’s room ahead of the mortuary men, my sister had gone to her car and A. had continued on toward ours, but I felt compelled to stop in my tracks as the two young men wheeled my mother’s body slowly by. To bear witness. The almost imperceptible roundedness in the black body bag that was both my mother and not my mother. The mortal remains of her. The spent shell of her; its heat and light gone. The vessel in which she had lived for nearly 85 years, its wrecked lungs finally done.

The dead of winter. The dead of night. The frozen stillness of a January grief. My tears thickening in the peculiarly warm mist on that cold and starless night when my mother’s spirit departed the world and left this ruined shell to be buried in her memory. The world seemed too iced in to care.

The dirty snow in the parking lot. Not a leaf to flutter at my mother’s passing, not a flower to droop in sadness, not a bird to trill a mourning note.