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 Match.com, this isn’t a good background. Try the shot over there. And by the way… is the picture for Match?”
“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 Match.com 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.