Sunday, December 2, 2018


Oh, waiting is cruel. Whether it be for good or ill, for grades, test results, or a child’s Christmas morning extravaganza, waiting is agonizing.  And waiting for the birth of a baby?  Every month, phase, appointment, and scan holds it’s own particular excitement or worry.

Three years ago, Dave and I snow-shoed a slushy trail beyond the lake at Mohonk Mountain House while yearning for word from Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital where Tucker’s wife, Lisa, was in labor.  Later that afternoon, we skated in circles to tinny Yuletide tunes at the Mohonk rink while yearning for word.  The next day, we stood, yearning for word, holding our plates in the dining hall breakfast buffet as a portly chef flipped our omelets. Kind people we’d met on the trail, at the rink, and at dinner the night before asked, “Any word on the baby?” 

I’d never had to worry my way through a delivery, and as the disquieting number of our “nothing yet” responses mounted, anticipation had turned to concern.  Lisa’s labor was long and perilous… but gratefully, ended with the hoped-for results.  Lisa would recover and heal, and baby Paul has grown into a captivating little boy. He is smart, curious, and funny, but I admired Lisa’s courage in facing another delivery when we learned she was pregnant again.

Mom was still lucid when Tucker whispered that news to her in late February, a secret kept from the rest of us for months longer.  At Mom’s memorial service in March, Casey privately told her brother about her own pregnancy, again, a secret from the rest of us for a while, just to be sure. Casey says she made Mom promise, during those final days in Muirfield, to be a guardian for whatever little ones she might spawn, and Mom said, “I’ll watch over all of you…” So, in addition to the image I hold in my heart of a Heavenly Couch reunion, hoping that my belief and reality intersect there, I am counting on Mom to fulfill her promise.

Due to her previous birth experience, Lisa scheduled a C-section in October, and Lexi was born without the hand-wringing anguish of Round One.  Three years ago, it was weeks before Lisa felt strong and well. “I feel I missed out on Paul’s infancy,” she says.  When Dave and I went to visit two weeks after Lexi’s birth, Lisa insisted on making dinner. To our offers of help and our wish that she relax, she said, “I enjoy this.” She is thrilled and surprised to feel like herself, and have her beautiful baby girl.

Casey planned on a natural birth.  She was in good shape, took hypno-birthing classes, did a lot of reading, and hoped that genetics would play a role: both of my deliveries were smooth.  Sure, my contractions had been painfulbut I could imagine worse… and those early weeks when a new infant was in my arms? I picture them now as fatiguing, but surrounded by a blissful, golden halo.  “Mom, I think you’ve forgotten a lot,” Tucker tells me often.  “This is really hard.” 

Possibly. In general, I’ve forgotten a lot.

As a Pilates instructor, Casey is in tune with her body, and as her mother, am in tune with her. As her pregnancy progressed, her ribs felt bruised and painful.  I don’t remember feeling anything like that when I was pregnant.  Should I worry?  When her baby kicked, it hurt.  I don’t remember anything like that.  Should I worry?  During the last month, Casey’s fingers went numb.  Whoa.  Weird. I definitely don’t remember anything like that.  Should I worry? 

Truth is, I’ve worried a lot. When I was young and my stomach was ballooning, I felt only joy at the baby rolls and kicks within me. Armed with Lamaze training and copious reading, I was raring to go and ready for the birth battle. I wasn’t worried at all.  But it’s been a different thing entirely having our two precious girls facing that miraculous, but arduous, journey to produce life.

My daughter’s due date came and went. With her stomach huge and ungainly, sitting, lying down, and walking were difficult, leaving few positional options.  Throughout her pregnancy, in hearing of others’ scheduled inductions, she’d been resolute in stating, “No one’s taking this biscuit until it’s fully baked!”  But as nights passed, sleepless and uncomfortable, she conceded that a scheduled birth had some appeal.  

For several days, she experienced abdominal tightenings and cramps… were they contractions?  At 1:00 AM, in the early hours of Thanksgiving Day, she was pretty sure they were.  As they became regular and increased in intensity, she was certain. 

Then, after six hours, they stalled.  Argh.

Our nephew, Trevor, and his wife, Lisa, had offered to host Thanksgiving this year since Dave and I had no idea what that day would hold.  When Casey’s husband, PJ, texted us with news of Casey’s progress, and then, the lack thereof, we wondered what we should do: make merry with the Connecticut Sylvestro clan while our daughter faced the biggest physical challenge of her life, or stay home to worry and stew?  
It was tempting to text PJ every ten minutes.  What restraint we showed in sticking to an every-two-hours communication!  Without distraction, we doubted we could hold to that, so we picked up Dave’s mother and headed to Trevor and Lisa’s. 

It was a lovely afternoon of delicious traditional foods… and full family focus on getting that baby out. Dave decided to make a video to cheer Casey on, and Steve, his brother, composed lyrics to the tune of Happy Birthday.  We sang with loving gusto, "Have your baby right now.  Have your baby right now. Don't wait til tomorrow... Have your baby right now!"

Throughout dinner, we texted PJ periodically… hesitantly, guiltily… knowing he was busy supporting our girl.  By late afternoon, Colleen, the doula or birth coach, had arrived and was helping Casey (and PJ) stay calm.  Where was a doula to keep me calm?  I definitely could’ve used one.  Finally, at 9:30, PJ texted that they were on their way to the hospital.  Thank God!  That gave us license to go too, and at least we could be near our girl in her efforts.  The baby would be here soon!

Not so fast…

PJ’s mother, Janine, who loves our kids as much as we do, was just the right company as the three of us settled in for what would be a very long night. Initially, we shared our wait with an expectant father and his two remarkably well-behaved sons, a toddler and a child of about five. A big-screen TV ran a series of Christmas movies and religious shows, but the sound was on mute and we couldn’t drum up enough interest to figure out how to turn up the volume or change the channel. 

Every few hours, I allowed myself a walk down the hall to Labor and Delivery to check on my daughter. She was amazing in her bravery and concentration on the work to be done.  Dressed in a white johnny bedecked with blue diamonds, and connected to an assortment of wires and monitors, she breathed slowly through contractions.  PJ sat by her side holding her hand, and the doula stood at her head, stroking her hair. 

It was hard to feel so out of place as I remained by the door, my unhelpful hands clasped humbly before me, as Colleen, a woman I’d barely met, stroked my daughter’s hair while murmuring encouragement and tips. wanted to stroke Casey’s hair and murmur encouragement… but I didn’t know the tips, or the exercises, or what those lines on the monitors meant, and the doula did.  

What I did know was that the smiley face on the white board was still on the circle that indicated 4 centimeters dilation. Despite 30 hours of labor, that smiley face had not moved. How I longed for an eraser to rid the board of that simpering sign of stalled progress. How could Casey bear to look at it?

After each visit, I trudged back to our post with my discouraging report.  Dave and Janine would look up hopefully at my entrance, and then shake their heads at my words. Dave would return to his crossword puzzle, Janine to scrolling on her phone.  Wisely, I’d brought Robert McCammon’s “Boy’s Life,” a riveting story of a boy’s encounter with mystery, bigotry, and the supernatural. I hoped an escape with twelve year-old Cory might help pass the hours of waiting. 

The young father and his sons received word of a birth around 3:00 AM and left us.  They were soon replaced by two grandmothers, a daughter and grand-daughter who settled in to wait for their loved one to produce. As the hours passed, their numbers grew as more siblings and cousins came to check on progress.  In the muted light of early morning, we all wished each other luck, shared cheese and crackers, and were comforted in waiting together.  

Poor Casey!  Several times, PJ emerged to tell us she was fine, but still no change in that 4 cm dilation. 

The sun rose, and our friend Joanie arrived with pumpkin bread, chocolate covered espresso beans, pomegranate beverages, and cozy socks and fleeces.  Sustenance and warmth!  Cheese and crackers go only so far.  Missy and Paul Sr., PJ’s dad and his girlfriend, joined us, along with a few more cousins of the other family-in-waiting.  They were feeling the strain of the passing hours and were aghast to hear how long Casey had been in labor. 

When I snuck down for another glimpse of my girl, that infernal smiley face still grinned from the 4 cm circle.  The doctor, the doula, and Casey had agreed it was time to nudge things forward with an epidural and Pitocin drip.  Casey was exhausted and resigned, “I’m okay with it, Mom.  Don’t worry.” 

was worried, but not about the epidural. I just wanted the baby out, and my girl to be okay.  And finally, the 4 cm smiley face was erased, and a large pink heart filled the 8 cm circle. Thank God.  

The family of grandmothers and cousins had received their happy news and took turns visiting their loved one and her baby.  Joanie gave us hugs, sent Casey her best wishes, and headed home. Another expectant dad with his siblings and, again, two remarkably well-behaved small boys, claimed the remaining seats in the room. What wizardry had been used in raising the children that waited with us? And when was our new child going to make her appearance?  

Around 5:30 PM, I returned to Labor and Delivery in time to see a bustle of activity around my daughter. A blue cap placed on her head. A doctor explaining medications and risks.  A nurse untangling another IV line and preparing to insert it. PJ standing stock still with his back to me, holding Casey’s hand, unable to look away from his wife. Casey, weepy, her lip trembling, saying to me, “They’re going to do a C-section. Colleen will fill you in. I’m okay; I just can’t talk about it right now.”  And she turned away to inhale, exhale, inhale, and exhale. 

Colleen was packing up her things in the corner.  “The baby’s not responding,” she said.  “But it’s going to be fine.  I’ll be down to explain everything to you in a minute.”

“The baby’s not responding?” Omigod. 

Dave had left the hospital to feed and walk Casey and PJ’s dog, so it was Janine who saw my stricken expression and rushed to hug me.  “They’re doing a C-section.  The baby’s not responding, but they assured me it would be okay,” I stammered.  Paul Sr. and Missy didn’t speak. Janine and I held each other and sobbed.  It would be okay.  Casey would be okay.  Her little girl would be okay.  Of course they would. Thank God for C-sections.  But, I knew Casey was scared and distressed. And what about the “not responding” part?  

“Mom, you promised…” I prayed to my mother and father, to God and my grandparents… to anyone who might be listening and could intercede.  Who knows how the Other Side operates?  

Colleen entered the room, pulled up her rolling bag, and parked on the seat next to me. “The baby’s heart rate and blood pressure are fine, but she’s not moving or reacting to stimulation.”

 “Then how do you know she’s all right?” I asked, my eyes searching Colleen’s for truth. 

“They’d be running around like crazy if it were an emergency and they’re not.  It was measured and methodical in there.  It’s going to be fine.  Casey’s 9 cm dilated, and the doctor said she might be able to get the job done naturally, but mom and baby have had enough.  They’re both exhausted.” 

Dave returned with wine and lemon shrimp risotto, and I filled him in on the C-section. He took a deep breath and said he was relieved. "Actually, I've been hoping they'd make that decision. It's been too long."   

Elias, an expectant father whose wife was 7 cm dilated, took a break from the labor room and joined us for a glass of wine.  The other families had left hours ago.   How long do Caesareans usually take?

Finally… finally!  PJ strode into our midst.  “She’s here!  Casey’s in repair, but doing fine.  You can see her soon.  The baby’s beautiful.”  He held out his phone and swiped through pictures of an adorable chubby baby with PJ’s cheeks and Casey’s mouth… and a full head of dark hair.  

Welcome Eleanor Jean West!

To see the video composed Thanksgiving Day to cheer Casey on, click below and follow the link:

Sylvestro Thanksgiving Song for Casey

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Strong Girls

“Mom, I’m waddling,” Casey’s voice on the phone was rueful but good-humored.

“Hate to tell you, Sweetie, you’ve been waddling for days,” I replied.

With only weeks before her due date, Casey is short of breath, uncomfortable, sleep-deprived, and… waddling.   She has kept photo documentation throughout her pregnancy and recently invited me to join a shared album, “Belly Chronicles.”  My Lord! The female body is astonishing in it’s ability to stretch to encompass new life.  Two weeks ago, the doctor estimated her unborn child’s weight at 8 pounds, 3 ounces.  “I just want to meet her,” Casey said with plaintive yearning while stroking her distended stomach.   

Like bins of photos scanned into one thin, portable disc, this year  - with all its richness, sorrow, joy, and anticipation – feels condensed.  It wasn’t long ago, mid-January, when Mom confessed to feeling punky.  Within a few days, I headed to Philadelphia with my friend, Joan, to visit Mom and attend the Women’s March with my sisters. In the wake of Mom’s diagnosis, the events, exuberance, and power of the march were overshadowed as Mom approached her death with grace and courage. 

In the weeks that followed, we stepped out of life’s habitual stream into the cocoon of Muirfield. After Mom passed in March, the three hours from Connecticut to Pennsylvania became so routine they seemed to shrink to an easy commute as I drove back and forth to help my sisters sort through the furniture and keepsakes of generations that had come to rest in Mom’s house. During the summer, July held a trip west for us; August, time in Weekapaug.  Since then, again, we have been… waiting.  Gratefully, this wait has been one of joy as we have been waiting for… babies!

Yes, babies… plural. Casey is not the only one expecting. Long before telling the rest of us, Tucker and Lisa whispered news of Lisa’s pregnancy to Mom during their last visit with her at Muirfield.  And in watching our two girls prepare for the births of their babies, in watching them swell, nest, worry, weather discomforts, and yes, waddle, I’ve been reminded of a sign I particularly loved at the Women’s March: “Here’s to strong women.  May we know them; may we be them; may we raise them.” 

Two weeks ago, Tucker called with news of Lexi’s birth. His voice was happy, loving, and relieved as he reported that Lisa was tired but doing well after delivering their chubby, baby girl. 

Lisa’s mother, Jan, had flown in the week before, and Dave and I headed north after getting the call. Francie and Matt were in Boston visiting their son Campbell, so they joined us at the hospital as well. Within ten months, two hospitals have been our haven – for such very different reasons - allowing us to retreat and reduce our circle of concern to what matters most: those we love and their well-being. 

Our grandson, Paul, who’s not even three, seems such a big boy now that he has a baby sister.  When first he held little Lexi, he gently touched her fingers and asked, “She has such tiny… um, what do we call these?”

“Knuckles,” said Tucker.

“Oh. Knuckles…” repeated Paul.  And then, “Okay, I’m done,” he said, eager to have Tucker pick up the baby so he could scramble to the floor and play with his cars.

But, yes.  Aren’t those tiny knuckles a wonder?  I’ve held many babies, and still those tiny hands, fingers, and feet amaze me.  I could gaze for hours at Lexi’s tiny nose and tiny mouth, breathing deep her sweet baby scent, regretting only that while nestled in the crook of my arm she is not close enough to nuzzle her soft, kissable cheeks.  And where now, she sleeps and flops loosely over my shoulder, in six months, she’ll be smiling and sitting up on her own. So many surprises, miracles, and potential nestle within this brand-new human. 

When my kids were little, I wished desperately that their happiness and security would last forever. Maybe it’s because I’m older and know more, but life seems tougher than it was then.  Like the sign said, these girls will have to be strong.

And their parents are on it.

Before long, Tucker and Lisa will start reading to their daughter.  Paul has several shelves of books, and his sister will probably love “Curious George,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and “Click, Clack, Moo” as much as her brother does.  Soon, tales of Disney princesses and adventurers will join those selections.  A neighbor has already added “Baby Feminists” to their library, so Lexi’s heroes might include Michele Obama, Malala, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg as well as Moana.  

While Casey and PJ’s baby has not yet arrived, her room is ready for her. It is adorable and inviting in violet and light gray, with elephant accents and a pink braided rug. Long before brushes were dipped in paint or the color palette for the room was chosen, Casey ordered two signs for the walls. One, a Shakespearean quote, reads, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”  The other promises, “Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will move mountains.” 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Still Here...

Today is Rita’s birthday, so, while we want Mom to go as soon as possible because she is unhappy whenever she wakes up and sees she’s still here, we hope she hangs on until tomorrow.  Two days ago, not knowing what her situation would be in the days ahead, Mom rallied briefly and sang “Happy Birthday.” Rita listened, her smile wide, her eyes glistening, but we all had to chuckle when Mom wrapped up the song with “Happy Birthday dear Matt….” Ah well.  We knew what she meant. 

Right now, she is snoring softly, thank god, fast asleep.

Two days ago, frustrated with what was, to her, a snag in her passing, she keyed into the refrain her doctor, nurses, and Hospice staff have repeated:  “You can do whatever you want.  You can refuse food and drink.”  We have all learned that Morphine does not hasten the end; that common belief has evolved because it’s generally the medication patients are taking at time of death.  So, exercising the tiny area over which she still has control, Mom has stopped eating. 

She has been here at Muirfield for a month… as have we. Dave, Matt, and Bill have been extraordinary in supporting us and keeping everything chugging while we girls stay with Mom.  The men have done laundry; run errands; cleaned house; cooked delicious dinners for us… and more. 

Yesterday, I left Dave asleep at 638 when I headed out to take the morning shift at Muirfield. I clicked the “unlock” button on my car key and… nothing.  Must have pushed the wrong button.  Tried again. Listened for a hint of an engine purr. Nothing.

“Please, oh please...” I begged while stabbing the button about twenty times.  No luck. Still nothing.

Argh!  I love my hybrid C-Max, but she has failed me before, and this was really bad timing.

Fighting tears, I stomped back into the house, up the stairs, and woke Dave.

“My car’s dead!” I wailed.

“Ugh.  Bummer. Give me a minute to get dressed. I’ll give you a ride over, then call AAA,” he said.  Poor sleepy guy. I knew he’d say that.  So many times he has lifted my burden and made my problem, his. He delivered me to Muirfield, and spent the next four hours dealing with multiple glitches, finally getting the car started, and then, with Matt, driving aimlessly for half an hour to make sure it stayed charged.   

                                    *                                  *                                  *

Mom has gone without food or water for five days and has slept most of the time.  The nurses and Hospice staff tell us that despite all appearances, Mom can hear us. So Rita reports on her birthday dinner; I vent about my car; Francie reads aloud the inscriptions in cards when they arrive.  To give us a break, Dave took the late and early shifts yesterday.  He says he loved having time alone with Mom to tell her what she meant to him, things he wished he’d told her sooner… for it has seemed, increasingly, that she is far away. 

Dr. Spitzer has been on vacation.  Having returned, he has come in to check on Mom.  He stands at the foot of her bed and gazes at her. He turns to leave and whispers, “I don’t want to disturb her.”

“Wait!  Talk to her,” I say.  “Let her know you’re here.”

He sidles up close to her head, strokes her hair, and quietly says hello.

Mom opens her eyes and mouths, “Hi Peter…” 

We all look at each other, wide-eyed.  Wow.  Wow… She’s still here!  Despite what we’ve been told, we haven't really believed she’s heard our whispered love, assurances, and appreciation… but, she has! 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

March 1
1:02 AM
Dave has returned to Easton, and when not at Muirfield, I am happy here, alone at 638, surrounded by portraits, Persian carpets, needlepoint pillows, and vintage posters: vestiges of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and Mom and Dad. My sisters dislike the musty smell, but I love it.  It wraps around me, the scent of family history, and I envision all those lives that led up to mine, and am comforted. 

When I mount the well-worn, carpeted stairs, I trail my hand along the bannister and then the walls covered with the same paper hung when we first moved in over fifty years ago.  “Hello dear house,” I murmur.  At the landing outside my parents’ room, I call, “Good night, Mom…” It’s easy, not hard at all, to place her on her bed in her room, her favorite, cozy spot.

In the guest room, I wash up, then slip into bed under the crinkly white and pink-monogramed bed covers.  My gaze falls, as always, on my great-grandmother’s green velvet rocker and delicate lady’s desk. A needlework picture of a grumpy grandfather and little girl carding the wool of a compliant sheep hangs on the facing wall. For years I have slept here.  Even as a teenager, I’d tiptoe down the stairs to this room when my third floor bedroom seemed too dark or too far from Mom and Dad. 

With Mom soon leaving, and this house no longer mine to come home to, how can I pay attention enough?  
At 638, Mom is everywhere.  Sitting in one of the white plastic kitchen chairs watching Jeopardy or standing before the 1928 Roper stove.  Sipping her white zinfandel in the den, surrounded by shelf upon shelf crammed with family pictures. Stretched out on her bed, flipping through People or Majesty magazines… or ear to phone, keeping up with her friends.  

Oh Mom!  Despite all the CAT scans and hospital time, the cards and flowers, the vigil at Muirfield, the wretched days and this long stretch of sleep… it seems a terrible fiction that you won’t be here.

Who will recommend books knowing I will like them?  Who will be as eager to hear the latest tale of a St. Anthony find? Who will answer the phone at 4997 for a cheery, chatty phone visit?  Who will relish, as much as Dave and I do, the latest on our kids and their families?

You have to know, Mom, how fortifying this time has been for me, Rita, and Francie together.  Who would have imagined, after a half century as sisters, that we could get to know each other better?  But we have… and they have been stalwart, brave, and dear. I am so grateful for them! I think you must be proud of us… Do you remember what Francie said to you the other day?  “We’ll be okay, Mom.  We’ll be there for each other as friends and protectors…” And we will.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Fun... Forever

As soon as they learned of Mom’s illness, Tucker and Lisa booked a flight to Philadelphia for Martin Luther King weekend.  After her own stay, however, Casey worried that Mom might not last that long and urged her brother to squeeze in an earlier visit. 

While Mom knew Tucker was there, she slept most of the time. We felt badly since he’d flown in for the night, would head back to Boston on Wednesday, then return Friday with Paul and Lisa.   But Tucker had steeled himself to see Mom in misery and was relieved when she seemed peaceful and comfortable. 

We all looked forward to Tucker’s return with his wife and Paul.  Mom was eager to see her great-grandson, but didn’t want whatever hazy memories a two-year-old might retain of her to be that of sick-Greemie.  

Who could have foreseen a child’s perspective of Muirfield?  

For a toddler, the facility offered long carpeted hallways perfect for racing.  It was furnished with comfy chairs ideal for climbing and forts.  It contained mammoth desks tailor-made for hide and seek. And there were innumerable, kind grown-ups who, delighted by the diversion of an adorable, happy child, provided markers and paper, balloons and pipe-cleaners. For Mom, it was joy enough when Paul stood at her bedside to show her his dump truck or the drawing he’d made. 

And while the rest of us remained ignorant of the news for several months more, Tucker and Lisa quietly told Mom they were expecting another child in October.  

                        *                                  *                                  *  

Amazingly, Mom continues to look great. Her head rests on her favorite baby pillow, and occasionally she forgets to put on her headband;  I love it when she does.  Her silver hair falls softly around her face and her expression is relaxed and pleasant.  She says she feels totally with it, just weak, but she acts like she’s high. When she speaks, sometimes she takes off on rambling, nonsensical tangents.  We listen intently for insights into her frame of mind or meaningful memories. Often she’ll catch herself, pause, and grin, saying, “I don’t think that makes sense, so I’ll stop there.” 

Several times, she has realized her hands are clasped on her stomach. Immediately, she drops them to her sides and says, “I better not do that; it looks like I’m praying,” and we burst out laughing.  My mother is not a religious person. At all.  When in the past she yearned for heavenly intervention, she called on her parents for help… and so far, they have been successful in their vigilance. 

One afternoon, Rita asked Mom what she would like covered in her obituary.  As she thought it over, Mom caught herself “praying” again, and we launched into a mock write-up. “Mimi, known for her knowledge of scripture and given to quoting it.” Or, “Mimi tried to squeeze in the occasional bridge game between the Bible studies she held regularly at her lovely home.” Oh, the relief in that gasping laughter!

Recently, after the girls and my brother-in-law, Matt, headed home for the evening, I turned off the lights and leaned over to give Mom a kiss.  “This is exactly what I didn’t want, “ she said, her voice distressed and fretful in the dark.  “… To linger on and be a burden…”

I laid my head on the pillow next to hers and stretched my arm across her chest.  In tears, I said, “Oh Mom.  We’re so grateful you’re still here!  We don’t want you to suffer, but this time is a gift to us and your friends.  It has given everyone a chance to check in and let you know what you mean to them.”

“It has been good,” she said.  “All the cards and flowers and calls.  Friends coming in even if it was inconvenient.”

An inconvenience.  That is so Mom.  The outpouring of love and admiration has been a revelation to her.  Dad was a big presence, and while Mom is stronger than he was in some ways – he acknowledged this in her nickname, The High Command – she always felt she played a supporting role.  She’d hoped for a quick exit, but these weeks in Muirfield have allowed lifelong friends to fly in from Florida and drive from New Jersey, cousins to fly from St. Louis, as well as nieces from California, D.C., and Massachusetts. Her sisters-in-law have visited regularly, as have friends who live in the area.  If anything, we three girls act as gate-keepers to make sure Mom doesn’t get overtired. 

Almost every day, new deliveries arrive to take the place of the forlorn wilted flowers sitting on the floor by the door awaiting removal. Flamingos, blossoms, bear hugs, and yellow chicks in sunglasses cavort on the cards that line the windowsill. 

Many are hopeful get-well cards; others know better and cloak their good-byes with funny reminiscences or loving words about the role Mom played in their lives.  Her friend Kingie wrote, “I will miss you so terribly much… until I see you again.” My godmother, Aunt Patty, recalled their time together in Germany in 1951 as young brides of soldiers stationed overseas, and closed her note with, “Fun!  Fun!  Fun! And when we are together again, it will be fun forever!”  

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Francie checks the time and announces, “3:00.  Deb’s coming on duty, and all is well.”

The rhythm of our Muirfield life is governed by Mom’s daily status, meal times, Jeopardy, and nursing shift changes. Within our green-carpeted cocoon, we are blessed with a rotating schedule of competent, caring aides and nurses guided by their mission to keep Mom comfortable.   Tiny Carole with close-cropped curly hair and her love of animals.  Affectionate, kind-hearted Megan who weeps to see Mom suffering on bad days. And Deb, with her wavy, long, blond hair and artfully made-up almond eyes, our friend and Mom’s particular champion. 

After being here three weeks or so, Mom asked for Hospice, believing the organization would send angels of death who would help her cross over more quickly.  Not the case we learn, but dear Dan, a social worker, and sweet Jess, the team nurse, prove additional advocates for Mom’s comfort and eventual release. 

Most surprising, according to Dr. Spitzer who has seen her scans, Mom has experienced minimal pain.  This has frustrated her as she sees pain as the means to more morphine, and morphine as her ticket out.  While she encouraged my father to lie about pain levels to win increased doses when he was dying, she cannot bring herself to do so.  Then, during a recent phone call to a childhood friend, she was chatty and cheerful while reporting, “The pain came – as wanted – this morning.” She felt her request for a boost in morphine was legitimate when Jess checked in that day. 

Jess has fair skin and auburn hair.  She recently lost her grandmother, and her green eyes bathe us in empathy, coloring her care for Mom and for us.  Since we told her Mom is hard of hearing, she leans as far over the bed as she can when she talks to her.  “Mimi?  Can you hear me?  It’s Jess. I heard you had some pain today. We’ll adjust your morphine and maybe get you a gel mattress?  I’ll make sure you’re as comfortable as possible.”

Jess also repeats what Dan and Dr. Spitzer have made clear to Mom before.  “You are in charge, Mimi.  You can eat whatever you want.  We can bring in music or arrange a massage.  You can also choose to refuse food and drink.  Everything is up to you.”  These people are a gift to give Mom a sense of power when so little power remains. 

My sisters and I follow Jess out to the hall where we run into Dr. Spitzer.  The two confer about Mom’s condition and the increase in dosage.  Deb happens down the hall in the course of her rounds and joins our huddle. Unlike Jess, Deb has been with us during Mom’s bad days. She has seen her eyes squeezed shut, jaw clenched, as she’s fought to stay stock-still to quell nausea and vertigo.  “She’s anxious,” Deb says.  “Attavan would ease that.”  There’s discussion, note-taking, and general agreement.  When Deb is on duty, all is well. 

                        *                                  *                                  *

Mom’s not ready to refuse meals, and at Muirfield, that would be hard to do.  The food is amazing. Each morning, she receives three-page menus for the following day.  One of us reads them aloud, and, while it’s Mom choice, we all voice opinions. Tomato aspic with a dollop of mayo is a given, for lunch and dinner.  Mom loves it and doesn’t have to share; certainly no one else is seeking bites. Beyond that, hmmm.  A group effort.  Chicken crepes with champagne mushroom sauce or curried lamb?  A side salad of mandarin oranges, walnuts, bibb lettuce and bleu cheese? Oooh… fried oysters! I love them!  Add that.  Francie lingers over the thought of edamame.  Yes.  Add that too. 

When the tray arrives the next night, heavy with Mom’s choices and our additions, Mom’s appetite is robust… and she eats it all. Oh.  Well, that’s okay!  That’s great. Glad she enjoyed them. 

Deb checks in soon after and with glee we report Mom’s clean plate.  “She even finished off a few tidbits we’d hoped for!”

“Like what?”  Deb asks, and we tell her.

She chuckles, checks Mom’s vitals, and leaves.  Ten minutes later she returns with a hot platter piled high with fried oysters and edamame.  “You know I’ll take care of you,” she says with a smile. 

We feel it so fully, from Deb and the others.  They minister to Mom with medical skills and gentle strength, respecting her dignity, moving her carefully when she’s too weak or too sick, cheering her on when she feels well, easing her way when that time has passed.  And through the weeks, they look after us too.  With hugs, information, humor, and sympathy.  With a gentle hand on the shoulder, a tissue when needed…. And even with oysters and edamame. 

                                    *                      *                      *
At the end of each day, the too-small wastebaskets overflow with wadded tissues, empty seltzer cans, and cups.  The TV blathers in the background because we are waiting to watch Jeopardy, but the news is our pre-game penalty.  The anchors report on the world’s torments – an earthquake in Taiwan, Senate budget battles, local and national shootings, Trump’s jealous Tweets when the Eagles get a parade while his remains uncertain – and we wail at Mom to please turn it off. We, her aging daughters, whine that we don’t want to watch this toxic stuff.  She gets to leave all this poison behind soon, and we’ll be stuck with it.  Mom remains firm, “I want to watch.” 


Francie and Mom are Jeopardy regulars and at 7:00 PM, they lean forward as if at a starting gate.  Mom squints in concentration.  Francie nails a lot of answers and never forgets to frame them as questions.  I rarely know anything and on the rare occasion I do, (so pleased and proud!) I forget the question format and am chastised for leaping in and doing it wrong.  Ah, well.

After Jeopardy, we help Mom settle down for bed.  She takes out her hearing aids, “my ears”, removes her headband, and places it on the bedside table within easy reach.  We turn out the lights, kiss her goodnight and then two of us head out, never sure of what the morning will bring.  My sisters and I have started to take shifts for early morning, and in the late evening, we take turns waiting for one of our night angels, Amina or Abby. 

Mom has insisted that we go home and get some sleep, and to allow that, Muirfield has set us up with these extraordinary women.   Kind, gentle, and respectful, both come to care deeply for Mom… and, it seems, for the three of us too.

When I have the late shift, I linger to chat with whichever aide arrives.  Both are in their late twenties.  Abby is slender, studious, and soft-spoken with the lilt of the islands.  When I am not distracting her with whispered conversation, she hunches over her school books by the dim light from the partially open bathroom door in order to study for her courses in nursing. Several times during the day when my sisters and I are on our way to the cafeteria for lunch, we’ve run into Abby in the hall caring for other patients even after she’s spent the night with Mom.  “Omigod! You’re still here!  When do you sleep?” we exclaim. 

She smiles and says, “I’m fine.  I’ll make it up when I can.” 

On top of school and shifts at Muirfield, she’s a single mother who is deeply grateful for her mom’s help in babysitting for her young son.  We share pictures of our children and little Paul.  I have also shown her, and the nurses we are close to, pictures of Mom in her youth and even a few from Christmas when Mom seemed well and none of us could have imagined what was ahead.  As much as they have witnessed Mom’s grace and courage, I want them to have a sense of her as a vibrant, active person with a life beyond these walls. 

 With her streaked blond hair, vests, and slim-fit jeans, Amina is stylish, feisty, and funny.  She has strong opinions and a strong body, which is crucial as Mom grows weaker.  And thanks to Abby and Amina, I feel I can go home to bed at 638.  

On the nights when Dave stays in Easton, Francie and Matt have urged me to stay in their snug guest room with its mermaid posters and Disney decorations.  The bed there is irresistibly cozy with an electric blanket and innumerable pillows. The adjacent bathroom would be all mine… and I love staying there. But I know my nights at 638 are coming to an end. It’s home, and I want to stay there while I can. 

It is well after dark when I pull in, driving over the sinuous black shadows of the limbs of the copper beech, the centuries-old tree that stands guard over the house.  I park, then head back to the tree, stepping gingerly to avoid the expansive root system that stretches through the soil behind the house, breaking through the surface like dinosaur toes.

I spread my arms wide to embrace the trunk, laying my cheek against smooth, cold elephant skin.  “I love you copper beech,” I whisper, as I have so many times before. “I hope the next family loves you as much….” Tears spill over and I wish I could feel a tremble of response, or attribute the rustle of leaves to something more than a passing breeze.  Oh, I will miss the refuge of this house and the protection of this massive being.  

 But, I am grateful… for everything. Mom’s wonderful, long life and my own.  My father. My sisters who have shared that life and shouldered this painful time with me.  This house and this tree.  My Dave and our kids.  For Deb, Megan, Carole, and Dr. Spitzer who have blessed us all with their care and compassion through this final wait with Mom. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Eagles... and Rita's New Guy

Mom’s breathing is audible, with a hint of a rasp, but not quite a snore. Francie brought in a comfy blue and white striped quilt that is snugged up close to Mom’s chin. She is still as a mummy, but sleeping peacefully after a wretched morning of nausea and vertigo. Thank god for the medications that soften such miseries, but looking at her now, I can believe this is actually happening.  

Mom has moved to Muirfield, a healthcare center four minutes from 638, the house she has lived in for over 50 years, the house I think of as my third parent. Her room here has a wide bay window now brimming with yellow and white roses, lavender hyacinth, top-heavy sunflowers, and graceful orchids.  

Much as she’d hoped to slip away without fanfare, word has gotten out about Mom’s illness.  I can only imagine how hard it is for her friends to grasp that mom - vibrant, beautiful, active Mimi – is the one dying. In this, I’m grateful that it’s Mom’s turn to go.  It’s been brutal for her as dear friends have passed, and I can’t imagine the depth of her grief if she’d had to face the passing of her remaining cherished friends. 

Until this morning, Mom has had three good days in a row.  She was able to dress in a turtleneck and slacks, and sit up in a chair.  Her hair was brushed, silvery, and lovely, swept back in a headband, as always. This was important to her as two of her grandchildren, Casey and Campbell, were here for the weekend, and Mom wanted to be the Greemie they know: chatty, cheerful, and interested in every minute detail of their lives. 

Casey gave Mom a much-needed manicure and let the time linger as she held Mom’s hands, massaging them with Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion in the yellow bottle, a longtime staple in the medicine cupboard at 638.  Campbell and Mom played Yahtzee, hooting, as they are wont to do, over every full house and large straight. When Mom was back in bed, Casey snuggled up close. Mom is actually not one for snuggling, but with Casey, it has always seemed natural, and my daughter, who thought this might be her last visit with her Greemie, was holding on to Mom as much as she was holding on to her hand.  “Are you scared, Greems?”  she whispered.

“No.  Not at all.”  Mom responded.  But then she got teary, “I just wonder how it’s going to go…” 

I hope Dad is hovering, unseen, nearby.  Maybe Byeo and Poppy, Mom’s parents?  Perhaps Uncle Ding?  Might they all be here, perched on her bed, or surrounding us as we sit in our portable sling chairs? Are they waiting for her, urging her on, excited to get her back as much as we dread losing her?  

“Oh Mom, I hope they’re planning a party to welcome you to the other side!”  I whispered one night while we held hands in the dark.

“They better be!” she said, and we laughed.  But oh, I want it to be true!

                                    *                      *                      *

Rita’s nails are painted green, and news anchors on the TV mounted on the wall at the foot of Mom’s bed are abuzz with projections.  The police have smeared the lampposts in the city with hydraulic fluid to discourage fans undaunted in the past from shimmying up when plain old grease was the deterrent.   Fans’ “irrational exuberance” is a municipal concern as the Philadelphia Eagles face the New England Patriots for their first shot at a Super Bowl win in decades.   

Brash of him given the hype, Dave is wearing his Patriots jersey and fends off much good-natured ribbing as nurses and aides stop in to check on Mom and take a look at the score. A synchronized murmur resounds through the hall as every TV is tuned to the same channel for the game.  Mom’s room is crowded with folding sports sling-chairs we’ve brought in to supplement Muirfield’s two comfortable, upholstered wingbacks.  The chairs themselves – in jewel tones of burgundy, green, and royal blue – add a certain festivity to the room.  Shopping bags brimming with potato chips, pretzels, and cheese popcorn loiter against the walls.  A cooler holds wine, beer, humus and cheese.  Could be a playoff party anywhere.  

We pull up a Saturday Night Live YouTube skit portraying the colonial rivalry between those annoyingly successful New Englanders and the cocky folks from Philadelphia and watch it twice. Hysterical!  But to me, the game itself seems endless.  All those time-outs!  Thank god for the commercials. When everyone else loses interest because the game is suspended, I perk up because the commercials are funny.  I’m not a football fan, and no matter how many times the rules have been explained to me during drunken fogs at college or currently, while Dave watches his Patriots, I just don’t get it. But Mom knows this game is historic and although her eyes are often closed, she insists on “watching” to the end.  When the Eagles win, a riotous hubbub rumbles down the halls, while whistles and firecrackers ricochet through the neighborhood outside. 

                             *                             *                           *

Rita has a boyfriend. It's been years since my sister dated and long ago she reached the point where “I do NOT want a man in my life!” Apparently her guy, Bill, has heard this refrain more than once.

Dear Bill.  He came into my sister’s life, into all our lives, at just the right time.   

Rita had been out for a drink at one of her favorite restaurants when she spotted two men, one taking a photo of the other.  My sister is not shy.  She marched over and said, “If you’re taking a picture of him for, this isn’t a good background.  Try the shot over there.  And by the way… is the picture for Match?”

It was. 

“Then I have a friend who’d be perfect for you.  I’m having a party on Saturday; why don’t you come?”

Drew, the hopeful, agreed, and Bill, who was the photographer said, “If he’s coming, so am I!” 

As it turned out, Drew and Rita’s friend were not a match, but Bill and Rita were. By the night of her party, her friends and sisters had heard the lilt in her voice, and had seen the sparkle in her eyes we thought had disappeared for good.  We couldn’t wait to meet him and as excited as we  were, poor Bill faced a gauntlet of eager faces and quivering antennae as we all tried to make sure he was the dear man Rita thought he was.  

Since then, he has been proving himself to be so as he joins our men in being support staff for us and for Mom.  In the weeks of waiting, Rita’s basement flooded.  Bill met with the Service Master people so Rita could be with Mom.  When Dave and Matt, the extraordinary chefs Francie and I married, leave Muirfield early to cook sustaining and sumptuous dinners for us at 638, Bill joins them in the kitchen. (We are now enamoured of his shrimp with spicy chipotle sauce.) And best of all, when Rita leaves us at night to go home, she doesn’t return to an empty house.  “Not like when Dad was sick,” she says ruefully. 

In fact, we think it’s possible Dad orchestrated their meeting from the other side.  

While at Mom’s bedside, nothing gives us greater joy than teasing Rita.  All we have to say is, “So, how’s Bill?” and her eyes brighten, a little flush creeps to her cheeks, and a grin she cannot suppress suffuses her face with light.  So good for our saddened souls.  

                              *                          *                     *                         

A few weeks at Muirfield have passed. Mom is eating well and enjoying the delicious food offered. She’s had some dark, terrible days, but there are still mornings when we come in hesitantly, peer anxiously around Mom’s door, and find her sitting up, in good spirits, and eating a hearty breakfast.  So we aren’t surprised when Rita says, “Normally, I wouldn’t THINK of having Mom meet a guy unless we’d dated for months, but she wants to meet Bill, and he wants to meet her.”

On the day of The Meeting, Mom makes a big effort to get out of bed and get dressed.  She wears gray slacks, a maroon turtleneck and, of course, a matching headband. She looks beautiful and expectant, ready to meet this man who is making her daughter happy in the midst of deepest sorrow. 

It's a chatty, companionable visit. Mom clearly relishes the exchange and obviously likes Bill. Mom has always been a master at coaxing out her listeners’ interests, and Bill hits the right chords of warmth and concern without getting into painful territory. He times his departure well, and Rita walks him to the door.  When she returns to us, she is beaming, so proud of this dear man, so grateful that Mom has had the chance to meet him.  

And then, she bursts into tears.  

That is how it has been for us… a welter of emotions running close to the surface, leaking out in a mix of laughter and tears. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Mimi, Mom, Greemie

After a sleepless night of headaches and heartburn followed by a day of crushing news, how can Mom look so beautiful? As always, her silver hair is swept back in a hairband, and her skin is smooth and clear, the muscles of her face, relaxed.  Is she asleep or simply at peace with her decision and what lies ahead?

Her life is flashing before my eyes.  Her years as a child with her brother Ding and devoted parents at 12 Upper Ladue in St. Louis, her reign as the Veiled Prophet queen, her joy as a bride, young wife, new mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I feel it all. For Christmas, I made her a photo book:  “Mimi, Mom, Greemie,” and for weeks, I’d been immersed in her milestones – many of them so intertwined with my own.  

I started the project in October while home at 638 for a visit. Mom had gone to bed and I’d retreated to the back room that once was my sister's and now was used for storage.  There were bins and boxes of photographs as well as Dad’s old desk, a high chair, and some glass cases from Mom’s antiques show days.  I knew I couldn’t take some of the larger photos home because Mom would notice, so I began to take pictures with my phone, sorting through a sea of moments lovingly frozen in film by Mom’s father, Uncle Ding, and Dave.    

Suddenly, around midnight, I heard Mom’s voice, “Lea? Where are you?” 

I peeked into the hall and saw her standing at the guest room door where I have stayed since my teen-years-bedroom on the third floor made the transition to another storeroom. In her pale, blue nightie and her hair loose around her shoulders, she squinted in the bright light and beamed at me. "Oh!  You’re looking at pictures!  Let’s look at them together!” Somehow I herded her into the guest room and we sat on my bed for a “lovely chat” - a cozy, in-the-dark, pre-bed chat, so named by my grandmother Byeo when I was little.

I had never had a middle-of-the-night lovely chat with my mother before!  I knew it was precious, kept telling myself to drink it in and enjoy it, but those bins of photos were calling me and I had to work to shut them up.   Mom and I talked for 45 minutes or so before she began to fade and headed back to bed.  I returned to my project and hit the sheets around 3:30. 

For weeks I was immersed in a world of soft matte sepia. Byeo and Poppy always elegantly dressed, Byeo’s hair in controlled curls coiffed close to her head, gloves and hats customary for outings.  Mom enviably lovely at almost every age.  Dad finally entered the scene in ‘48, wearing civvies for his visits to St. Louis, but handsome in uniform with his lieutenant’s bars for formal shots.  And ultimately, appear, a plain, peaked child, “but we loved you to pieces anyway,” Mom assured me. 

We celebrated Christmas at Thanksgiving in Weekapaug this year, so all of us were together. Mom twisted her ankle when she leapt to her feet at the temptation of a TJ Maxx shopping trip, so that slowed her down.  Other than that, she was her usual cheerful self. I’m so grateful we didn’t know, that she didn’t know what was brewing inside her.  She loved her book, and I sat beside her as she turned the pages, and grinned, pointed, and wept over beloved faces and phases. 

It is barely two months later that we are in the hospital, and a CAT scan has revealed lesions on Mom’s lung and three masses the size of golf balls on her liver.  Dr. Spitzer spoke to my sisters, Rita and Francie, and me, in the hall outside her room at the hospital before he confirmed these findings with my mother. 

Mom was dressed in a blue and white hospital gown, sitting up in bed, propped against white pillows, covered with a white sheet, her hands clasped on her lap.  When we walked in, she smiled at the doctor and the three of us trailing behind him.

Dr. Spitzer is slight of build, with dark hair, and black-framed glasses.  He stood at the foot of Mom’s bed and rocked from one foot to the other while meeting her gaze. “Mimi.  We know why you don’t feel well.”

Mom sat up straighter and appeared pleased.  Is it possible she had no idea what was coming?

“It’s not good.  You have metastatic breast cancer.  It’s gone to your lungs and liver.” 

Her smile held, suspended in the gulf between her life as it had been and this news that it would soon end… and then we all burst into tears.  But only briefly. Mom wanted information.  She had decisions to make. 

“How long do I have?”

“I can’t say for sure, and others might say differently.  We’ll have an oncologist come in to chat with you as soon as possible. But I’d say one to three months.”

Mom sat straighter as she drew in a long breath. My sisters and I stood taller as we did the same. One to three months?

Mom recovered more quickly than we did.  She smiled at Dr. Spitzer who looked as stricken as we felt.  “Well.  You know how I feel about this, Peter.  No treatment.  I always thought 86 would be a good age to die.  Who knew I’d be such a good predictor?”

The doctor and Mom laughed together, and he said, “But Mimi, you don’t always have to be right!”

May we all have a doctor like him.  He told Mom she was boss, and he would honor her wishes and see that everyone else did. He was loving and kind.  And he knows my mother well.  Over the years, they’d come to an understanding.  He would advise her to have this test or that procedure, and she would nod her head, smile… and refuse. Mom did not believe in excessive medical care, and that covered pretty much everything other than a visit when she really didn’t feel well.  

It was only a week ago that she really didn’t feel well.  

She’d felt “punky” when I went home to Philadelphia with my friend Joanie to join Rita and Francie at the Women’s March in January.  Mom has always been stoic, and she greeted us cheerfully when we arrived.  When we blamed her lethargy on lack of vitamin D and dehydration, she was willing to agree. 

“Are you drinking plenty of water, Mom?”

“Yes.  I always have some by my bed in the thermos Rita got me.”

“But have you been drinking it?”  

“Oh yes.  I take sips.”   But the sips were so sparing that the thermos rarely required refills.

It was comforting to blame such reasonable, easy fixes.

After the march, Joanie and I returned to Connecticut, and the next day, I tutored at Mercy Learning Center as usual.  After my students left, I stole a peek at my cell phone.  Whoa.  Ping, ping, ping: a steady barrage from Rita and Francie lit the small screen.  Mom had felt sick enough to ask Rita to take her to Dr. Spitzer:

Rita:  Mom has a nodule in her lung.  Spitzer wants to talk to me.  Ordering CAT scan.

Francie:  Do you want me to come over?

Rita: I’m good for most of the afternoon.  He wants us to stay with her at night as he knows she won’t stay in the hospital.

Francie:  I can stay all nights this week if need be.  Can she be alone at all?

Rita:  I can change plans and come over around 9:00 tomorrow. I can skip Jared’s [her son’s] game Thursday and spend the night.  We’ll figure it out.

Francie:  Yes, we will!  Thanks for being there today.  Just let me know what time you need me to come over.”

Here, there was a pause in the exchange, and then:

Rita:  She’s begging to go to the hospital.  Francie, if you want to come to Spitzer’s office, come.

Francie:  Coming now.

And so was I.  My mother hated hospitals.  She was begging to go?  With my throat tight, I sped home, packed clothes for a week, and headed for Philadelphia.