Last night my mother nearly died. And maybe she was supposed to.
Seven years ago she was moody and forgetful, telling you the same stories over and over. Five years ago she could not find her way from 34th and Lex to 34th and 3rdone city block.
Four years ago she was afraid to leave her house in Pittsburgh, and she could no longer use a toilet. My Dad had to clean her like an infant.
Three years ago she forgot my name and my relationship to her.
Two years ago she forgot how to speak and walk. A little while after that, my Dad had to put her in a home. She lives there now, staring at nothing. She cannot feed herself. She does not look at you when you talk to her. She barely responds to touch. Sometimes she seems to respond to music. Usually not.
She seems to like ice cream when you feed it to her.
For three years, I've thought of my mother as dead, but I never had the chance to mourn her and put it behind me. For three years I've thought of her as dead, though her body is alive and could last another twenty or thirty years.
She could outlive my Dad. She could outlive me.
Late last night, my Dad called to tell me she had come down with pneumonia and might die. He apologized for disturbing me, as if that's what he was doing.
He has become so gentle, so tentative. Losing your wife by degrees must do that to you.
My Dad had found her in a fever, choking on her own mucous. The nurses were giving her Tylenol. Not trying to save her. My Dad asked that they give her antibiotics. They needed the doctor's permission to do that. My Dad got hold of the doctor.
This morning, my Mom's condition turned around. She will live. Maybe for another twenty or thirty years.
I feel relieved. In a very complex way.
While I was dining with friends, my mother was dying. While I was strolling down Broadway, my father was contemplating his wife's death. And now she's all better. Except that she is not there.
I wonder if the soul can be at peace in Heaven when the body is still alive on earth. Assuming such things as Heaven exist.
I wonder if the feeling that my mother is dead (when she's really still alive) will change when she finally does pass.
I wonder about my father's decision, though I don't doubt his wisdom and kindness. He did not want her to die in pain, and the part of her that still lives was in terrible pain from the illnessthe temporary illness. The one that responds to penicillin.
There is no penicillin for Alzheimer's.
My Mom loved me when I was a baby. She loved me when my brother came along. She loved me when I was a teenaged drug addict. A promising college student. A hopeful young writer. An ad man. A drunk. She loved me, she loved me, she loved me.
That's what Moms do.
She used to quote a news story from the 1950s. The mother of a condemned murderer had visited him just before he was to be executed. The reporters asked how she could weep for a man who had killed without mercy.
"He's my son," the woman said.
My mother loved that story. It creeped me out, but I think I understood what she meant.
My Mom saw me get sober. I think she understood what I was doing. I think she was proud of me, but the absurdity is that she was proud of me no matter what I did.
My Mom loved music, books, and movies. I inherited those loves from her. My Mom was not a racist, and I am profoundly grateful, because when your parents are racist it is very hard to overcome that kind of thinking. My Mom was an armchair socialist, and it's easy to laugh when recollecting some of her opinions, but I know that what motivated them was not political understanding, but a belief that every human being deserved a break. I inherited that too, from my Dad and my Mom.
My Mom loved books. She would be proud to know I'm writing one. She will never see it, even if I bring it to Pittsburgh and hold it in front of her.
My Mom was smart. She was funny. She held grudges far too long, yet at other times forgave easily. She was silly, loyal, passionate, half-crazy in some ways, fearful, nonjudgemental, rock-solid.
Now she is none of those things.
Now she is a body that might have died last night.
And maybe was supposed to.
When she dies in fact, my father and brother and I will carry her ashes to Montreal, the city she loved best. We will feel what we feel and perhaps have what psychologists call closure.
Yet I feel now that by writing this, I have in some way buried her.
I loved you.
I hated you.
I ran from you.
I returned to you.
I miss you.
I love you.
I love you, Mommy.