I was stunned when a letter from AARP arrived informing me I was eligible to join. I wasn’t that old and not even close to retirement. I knew of people in their forties who had retired, but most of them were cops or firemen and had chosen their career paths shortly after graduating high school. My sister, a year younger than me, reacted in a different way when I told her about the AARP solicitation. “I can’t wait,” she said. “Think of all the discounts.” The mystery of time, and aging, has been an obsession for me. At the age of twelve or fifteen, I remember continuously reminding myself to stay alert so I would recognize the precise moment when I became an adult. Of course I missed it, and though my life can be presented in some semblance of a narrative flow, with “a” leading to “b” and so forth, I can’t pinpoint precise moments of change.
My father was a renowned psychiatrist and my mother was a devoted wife, who, to her four children, myself being the oldest, represented the epitome of unconditional love and encouragement. From an early age, I thought my father was nuts, but he was revered and honored, so I came up with what I thought was the only sensible conclusion, that I was doomed and would never fit in or succeed since the grownup world celebrated my father’s accomplishments as if he was a contemporary celebrity version of Freud.
We lived in Flushing, Queens when I was three through six, and for some reason, snapshots of that period remain very clear in my mind. On Saturdays, my father would see patients in the morning in his office in our house and I would spend time with Mr. Florio, the gardener, until it was lunchtime and I was required to join my father in the quality bonding activity, or so he genuinely thought, of making model Aurora airplanes or aircraft carriers which were so complicated, with such intricate pieces, that my future panic of trigonometry, much less calculus, was deeply ingrained at an early age. One morning Mr. Florio didn’t come at the usual time. I was about five and time stretched out for what seemed forever, creating great impatience, as well as curiosity, about why Mr. Florio, who was always so punctual, was late. I sat on the front step of our house after my mother had reassured me that Mr. Florio would be arriving soon. Still, I bothered my father between each of his patients. “Where’s Mr. Florio?” I asked. “Why isn’t he here?” My father told me I shouldn’t worry, that Mr. Florio was on his way, but by the time my father finished with his patients, Mr. Florio still hadn’t come. To this day, I don’t know why my father didn’t call Mr. Florio’s house, or maybe he did and there was no answer. Anyway, after lunch, my father finally relented and decided that we would drive over to Mr. Florio’s house to see what was what.
There was an ambulance parked in front of a small house at the top of what seemed like a small mountain of steps. My father and I started up to the house holding hands. Just as we reached the top, the front door opened and two men in white were coming down a flight of stairs, carrying a stretcher with what turned out to be Mr. Florio’s dead body covered with a sheet. As the men passed, my father reached out and shook a young man’s hand, simultaneously placing his other hand around the man’s back. “I’m so sorry,” my father said. I asked if Mr. Florio would be coming next Saturday. That’s when I was told Mr. Florio was dead. The past lays the foundation for the future, and I came from anything but a traditional religious background. While some find solace in the roots of childhood religion and others may feel more comfort in a so-called “spiritual” approach to life, I was stuck at an early age pondering the word “infinity” and trying to grasp its meaning. I made the mistake of asking my father what happens when you die. His answer was remarkably straightforward — that you don’t exist anymore. “Not exist, what do you mean?” I asked. “How long?” And then my father hit me with the word “infinity,” the meaning of which I didn’t have a clue. Infinity, according to my father, meant forever and ever, and then once you thought you’d reached forever, infinity meant continuing even more. I was more intrigued than scared. I remember lying in bed and trying to put myself in a simulated state of death, a state of my perception of “infinity” in which I would be nothing. The few times I thought I had succeeded in reaching such a state, I promptly realized I hadn’t because I was consciously aware that I thought I had. I should feel grateful; so far the signs of aging have not hit me too hard. I have no indications of arthritis, no back pain, and my neck still looks basically the same as when I was a teen, meaning no rooster folds of baggy skin or fear of anything close to resembling a double chin. True, I don’t bounce out of bed in the morning, and my energy level is not especially high, and I must confess from time to time I can hear the click and snap of my cartilage when I rise. A major shock hit my family six years ago when health problems came crashing down without warning on unsuspecting members. First, my mother learned she had breast cancer, stage four, advanced, and shortly after that, my brother-in-law was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and then, my sister also discovered she had breast cancer.
At one point, my mother stayed at my sister’s house in Ontario while my sister recovered from chemo treatments in the basement and her husband lay dying in the upstairs bedroom. But someone had to take care of the kids, ages eight and three, and provide some semblance of continuity and normalcy, and that’s what my mother did, without complaint. I don’t know why but I was sure my mother would be okay, though, of course, I recognized there was a possibility she would die, but an abstract possibility as far as I was concerned, because I couldn’t imagine the world without her. My sister had a double mastectomy and my mother underwent surgery, and then with stoic optimism, endured her rounds of chemotherapy. In a snap, I went from being part of a family to seeing the ravages and realities of mortality on a personal basis.
I moved my sister and her kids down from Canada to live with my mother in New Jersey after my sister’s husband died, my mother spent most of her time in bed, but she was great with the kids, a true source of comfort and support, but also fun to be around. I knew my mother’s illness was fatal, but she never complained, or felt sorry for herself, not about the ongoing chemo, the chronic diarrhea, or the endless visits to doctors. My mother always made a small joke out of it, cheerfully saying, “Well, considering the alternative,” and then shrugging her shoulders as if to say, “What can you do?”
My mother had great difficulty finding an oncologist willing to treat her. No one wanted to treat a woman over seventy with stage four breast cancer because the outcome was bleak and the recovery period, the time undergoing chemotherapy, and the resulting side effects, were too much for anyone that age. Finally, one oncologist, Dr. Gabriel Sara, stepped forward, a straightforward, yet compassionate doctor, genuinely aware of suffering and pain. Dr. Sara said the situation was indeed dire, the odds were not good, but he would treat my mother because he liked her outlook, he could tell she was optimistic but realistic, and somehow he recognized my mother would fight tenaciously to stay alive as long as she could help her children and grandchildren. Dr. Sara helped my mother live seven years longer than she would have without the combination of his dedication and her determination.
Over those years, those valuable, but painful years, it was a continual case of one large step forward and two small steps back. Dr. Sara said to me once, about a year before my mother died, right in the room with my mother, “Things are going very well, and will continue to do so, until at some point things will turn south and kill Joyce.” Not comforting to hear, but it was important, the recognition that my mother was going to die, and of course that meant that someday I would as well. My mother’s life changed, she became dependent on me. I took her to chemo treatments and tried to encourage her to have a bit of soup or sip grape soda through a straw as she slowly recovered after each bout. I always treated her the same, talking to her as I always had, because I knew her mind was still extremely sharp, much more so than most of any age, even when she was overcome by fatigue.
The exact moment where our roles changed forever was when my mother needed a blood transfusion. She seemed listless and confused, which was very uncharacteristic, when I took her for chemo. It was a Thursday. My youngest sister was bringing her daughter down from Massachusetts for the weekend and my mother was really looking forward to it because she had a special kinship with Katy, who apparently was quite a bit like my mother as a little girl. At Dr. Sara’s office, blood was drawn from my mother and the white cell count was too high so it was decided that she shouldn’t have her scheduled chemo treatment that day. Then the nurse in charge said my mother needed a blood transfusion and we should go down the block to the hospital to make arrangements for the next day. My usually agreeable mother wanted no part of it, mumbling that she’d wait till Monday. Suddenly my mother was standing before Dr. Sara. One word from him and my mother immediately agreed to have the blood transfusion. “I want to wait till Monday,” my mother said. “You must have the transfusion tomorrow,” Dr. Sara said, and that was that. My mother hated hospitals, as do most sane people. The summer before she had been admitted because of an infection caused after a port was implanted in her chest so the chemo could be poured directly into her body. She was miserable, and told me firmly afterwards, “No hospital.” In fact, while in the hospital, she told me she had witnessed how older people were treated as if they were stupid. One night a nurse came into my mother’s room with a glass of water for my mother’s false teeth. The only problem was my mother still had all her original teeth. My mother and I laughed over the image of the nurse trying to yank out my mother’s real teeth.
The day of the transfusion was horrendous, the length of time spent sitting with a plastic bag pinned by a thin tube into my mother’s arm, the drip, drip, with the bag seeming to take forever before there was any true sign it was beginning to drain. My mother, whom I’d never known to complain outwardly, and was stalwart in her acceptance of reality, seemed like a little kid as she kept softly saying to me, “I want to go home.” Finally, the bag was almost drained of blood and I could tell my mother was excited over the anticipation of release and awaiting freedom. The nurse came up to where my mother was sitting patiently and unhooked the empty plastic bag with traces of blood streaking about, only to replace it with another one filled with blood and my mother and I both knew that at the minimum, the transfusion procedure was at most only half over. There was no way I could accurately measure my mother’s diminishing body. Each time I took her to chemo, as I walked with her the one block from the parking garage to Dr. Sara’s office, I noticed her arms were becoming thinner and thinner, similar to a tree branch shrinking to a twig. Where was I and why couldn’t I stop it? And of course, that she could age so imperceptibly, what did that mean for all of us? The reality that my mother was dying whacked me right in the face, there was no escape from mortality.
I couldn’t imagine that my mother could really die, just as the inevitability of my own death somewhere down the line remained an abstraction. My mother was aware she was dying and handled it with brave acceptance. I remember after Dr. Sara told her the cancer, had spread to her liver and her life span could be measured in months, my mother said to me, almost in a voice of cheery wonderment, “It’s funny, I don’t feel like I’m dying.” But she was.
My mother was given a choice, do nothing and wait for the end, or continue chemo and try to delay the inevitable. My mother wasn’t scared of death, far from it, but she chose to continue fighting and Dr. Sara seemed pleased with her decision. I was caught off guard, wasn’t prepared for my mother to die the day she did. A visiting nurse arrived that Saturday morning, September 10th, to hook my mother up to an IV, and while examining my mother, said, “She’s not going to make it through the night.”
Once on my birthday, I think my fortieth, my mother said, in glowing awe, “I was there at the beginning.” And she had been there, and continued to be there, as a source of comfort to me just knowing that she was in the world. And now, while she had been there at my beginning, I was there at her end. I watched my mother’s eyes, her beautiful blue eyes, and I’m still haunted by how they moved from side to side, and I kept saying, ”I’m here, Mom, I’m here,” and wondering what she felt, and remembering that despite the kind clarity on the surface, she had been blind in her right eye since the age of ten, and could barely see out of her left. Still, I sense, even through the morphine patch and lack of sight, my mother realized I was there. My mother wanted to die at home in her bed. There was no way she wanted her life prolonged through the wonders of science and medicine. I had watched my mother only a month before standing up to my father, and the visiting physical therapist, and anyone and everyone, advising her to wear a life alert alarm around her wrist. She wanted no part of it. She was alive and operated in a specific time and space and had no desire to try and extend such boundaries through artificial technological advancements. Using a prearranged code word, through the answering service, I was able to reach Dr. Sara. He was calm and forthright. The end was here. He respected my mother’s wishes. Increase the morphine patch, let her slip away peacefully.
I came up the stairs at about three in the afternoon and entered my mother’s bedroom. I approached the bed and instinctively dropped down on one knee, taking her hand in mine. She looked peaceful, and then I sensed an eerie silence. I looked closely at my mother and her eyes were open and her mouth was also open, frozen, a small oval with nothing coming out. I was still holding her hand and the unbelievable hit me, my mother had just taken her last breath. I stared down at my beloved mother’s face, so restful and calm, and I waited to see if by some miracle she might blink or speak, but of course she didn’t. I cried out to my sister, ”I think Mom’s gone,” still unable to say “death” or “died,” and a moment later my sister was in the room. Sitting on the bed, without saying anything, in quiet tears, my sister and I acknowledged that our worlds would never be the same. My mother died on September 10th, and then shortly after, I learned that her horrible eye accident occurred on Sept. 9, 1937 when her cousin zapped her with a paper clip zipping from a slingshot. My mother and I had a common bond due to eye accidents; when I was eighteen a drunk in a deli in Manhattan dropped a quart bottle of beer and glass shattered, a piece piercing up through my right eye. Major surgery within the hour saved the eye, and I have memories of my mother diligently sitting by my hospital bed everyday, content to be silent, or at times, we talked about the Knicks chances in the playoffs. The one story my mother delighted in telling me was how she obtained her driver’s license. She was an excellent driver, but according to the uniform rules of the State of New York, she should never have received a license. The bureaucrat at Motor Vehicle asked her to cover her right eye, the blind one, and read the eye chart. Then, for whatever reason, the Motor Vehicle guy was interrupted and stepped away for a moment. When he came back, he made a fortuitous mistake for my mother by asking her to cover her right eye and read the chart again, So, my mother, who over the years drove her four kids numerous places and came rushing whenever we were in jams, obtained her driver’s license because she was able to read the eye chart twice with her left eye instead of sitting in helpless darkness if she had been asked to read with her right. Though now I’ve experienced a sorrow I hoped would never come, I am left with only good memories of my mother, what she was like and what she wanted for me, and her other children and grandchildren. And I laugh to myself, knowing that she would agree, that she died on Sept. 10th instead of the following day, 9-11, so she would never have to share a day of grieving and remorse with the multitude, but that’s the way she was, she was always one of a kind to me.