Alive at the Party (Written in Summer of 2020)
In early July I drove six hours from my home in Connecticut to Maine, to pick up my mother from her assisted living facility and bring her to live with me, my husband, our two daughters, two kittens and four chickens. My stepfather had passed away at the end of June of pancreatic cancer, and none of us had been allowed to visit due to Covid-19 quarantine restrictions. We followed his decline by email and phone for weeks, a gradual fall which was punctuated by the three days of silence between his last phone call and his last breath. He had been the lucky one; my mom, duty-bound, had survived long enough with her own metastatic cancer to shepherd him to wherever he needed to go.
While my mother appeared to accept that she would die without any family near, I could not, so I broached the idea with her hospice nurse, John, of moving her in with us. I expected him to let me down easy; she was currently in the hands of experienced caregivers, not to mention the extra exposure involved in bringing her to a house with two children during a highly contagious pandemic.
“I think it’s a great idea!” he said. “Wouldn’t she rather be with your family than live the two months she has left up here alone?”
“So you think she’s only got a couple of months,” I whispered, turning away from my ever-present children. “And you think we can handle this…”
“I think your mom and dad were living for each other, is all. And yes, you can do this.” John said.
The fact is, I wanted to do it, and more importantly, I wanted to be able to do it. So when we offered this new living arrangement to my mom, her vulnerable and surprised response not only flooded me with guilt, but struck me as out of character for the sharp-as-a-tack, funny and practical person I’ve known her to be.
“I didn’t think you’d want me, and, you know, I don’t want to be a burden.”
It’s a cliche we’ve all heard, and yet a sincere one to which I can wholeheartedly relate. I am old enough, at 48, to recognize the gradual decline in my physical abilities. Though these changes are currently minor and un-limiting, they give me an unobstructed view of the steep slope; I don’t jump with abandon on a trampoline anymore, but I’m proud to say I spend a normal day in dry underwear. The time will come, though, when I will no longer brag about basic maintenance, and I do not want to burden my children’s blossoming lives with my faltering health.
Without any further arguments, my mom agreed. Once in our home, it didn’t take long for her to settle in.
“Put my mirror there. No, not there, to the right. Yeah, better.”
“Make a copy of these pages, not these,” she says, thrusting a lengthy legal document into my hands.
Noticing me strapping on skates one glorious August day, she sees not a much-needed chance for me to get exercise, but rather an opportunity for herself. “Oh!” Her eyes brightened. “Do you wanna rollerblade to the liquor store to get me a bottle of gin?”
One day last week, my younger daughter asked my mom, her Nanu, if she likes crosswords. As my husband, Steve, and I struggled to understand whether she’d said ‘crosswords’ or ‘curse words’, my mom decided it wasn’t worth differentiating. “Doesn’t matter,” she said as she eased onto the couch. “I like both — curse words and crosswords.”
Despite the fact that the last several months have felt like one long customer service call to Xfinity, T-Mobile, Cigna, Hospice, TD Bank and a slew of others, we love that she lives with us. My husband and I no longer exist solely as toiling parents who tag-team childcare, food prep and our work-from-home schedules. With my mom around, we too get to be kids again. “You can do no wrong, Steve,” she says, reaching up to pat his shoulder as she passes him in the kitchen in the morning on her way to the coffee pot. “We’re all so lucky,” she declares, “and I’m happy and relaxed for the first time in my life.”
Our kids have another adult in the house (and arguably the most interested, at this point?) to bounce their zany ideas off of while squirming in and out of her hospital bed all day. Our normally camp-centric, busy summer was replaced with day after day of unstructured time — even boredom. I wondered, when life resumes to a more normal schedule, how will my children categorize this time? How lucky they are to be bored, I thought. There are arguments that boredom leads to creativity, and sometimes it does. Mostly it led to more movies with their Nanu.
A week ago, my older daughter and I got into an argument, which ended with her screaming at us all, to get out of her room — a first since my mom had arrived here. Nanu easily obliged; she doesn’t get bent out of shape, but rather, spends her time doing NYT crosswords and watching serial killer shows on Netflix. After my daughter and I made amends, she went into my mom’s room for a bit, and later reported in confidence, “When I apologized to Nanu, she calmly told me, ‘You can yell at me all you want. It doesn’t matter, because I love you so much.’”
One could question — is this helpful? And in these times, I can’t imagine how it isn’t. My mom is living through this pandemic nightmare with us, throwing us an extra emotional rope. The gift of this horrible, confusing moment on earth — environmentally, emotionally, politically — is, we don’t have to miss each other now that Nanu lives with us. Everything that felt like the painful tug of impending loss before she moved here has evaporated. I will miss her terribly when she’s gone, and that will be relatively soon. She is in hospice care, is in and out of clear thinking, and ingests a timed and consistent cocktail of narcotics for pain management. She has undergone so many surgeries she doesn’t even recall all of them, but I know they happened, not only because I remember, but from the scars that line her body. Last weekend she abruptly went from bustling around the house on her own to being immobile in her bed — an overnight plummet. I thought back to two days prior, when I leaned against the door jamb in her room, observing as she slowly and quasi-meticulously made up her bed with new sheets. I had to resist the impulse to help.
“You know,” I started, “I was wondering if you’d rally into a new life once you were here with all of us, or if you just finally feel relaxed enough in this environment to die peacefully.”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” she said, backing herself onto the bed and reclining. “I think it’s a little of both.”