Like all Angelenos, I spend a lot of time in my car. When not chauffeuring children hither and yon, I’m driving myself back from their activities and to my own. When in the car solo, I enjoy thoughtful, talk radio; thank heavens for KPCC.org. I also enjoy making phone calls in the private bubble of my vehicle. Most of my calls to those on Eastern Standard Time are made from the car. My mother is one of those regulars on speed dial.
Mother/daughter chats often start with an investment report–
“The markets are still up,” my Wall-Street-Journal-reading mother reports.
“So far so good,” I reply. “But what goes up, will come
“We’re diversified. I’m prepared.”
I emphasize the positive and answer her questions. Then we move on to the mundane recitation of our worlds. The weather–Florida is experiencing a cold snap, lows have dared to dip into the 60s. Health–Are your allergies acting up? Mine are.
“How are the kids?” she asks.
“They’re trying to kill me. Just like I tried to kill you, mother. They’re good.”
Then we come to the meat of our conversation. Sometimes it’s about my Parkinson’s progression, our shared fears about my children’s future, or the indignities of aging that impose themselves upon my mother with increasing regularity.
“When I go,” she announces, “don’t put my obituary in the New York Times.”
My mother is a particularly practical person. We’ve discussed aspects of her funeral, what possessions should go to whom. But a post-mortem marketing plan – well, that took me by surprise.
“I don’t want the IRS to catch wind of it.”
My mother is one of the few people who can reduce me to monosyllables.
“I don’t want them to know I’m dead. They may attack the
estate. They do that, you know.”
“Mother, there are probate documents and the like that have to be filed.”
“Why make it easy for them?”
[If you, dear reader, happen to be employed by a taxing authority, please remember these blogs are fiction: any resemblance to persons living or some day dead are purely coincidental.]
“I told you,” my mother continues, “I saw Sally* last week, right?”
“Yes, mother you did.”
Sally. I have fond memories of her. She was part of the social package who came with my ersatz stepfather, the man my mother dated for two plus decades. Sally was married to Harry*, one of my stepfather’s tight circle of friends. Years after the massive stroke that landed the gentle soul who was my mother’s gentleman friend–my father-adjacent figure–in a nursing home, I would call Harry every so often. Our conversations tickled him because they connected this lovely man whose relationship with his own children was distant to a generation enamored with trends he didn’t know existed until I explained them
I phoned weekly during his final walk on this mortal coil. I was driving north on the 5 on a perfect winter day in 2002 when my mother told me he’d’ shuffled off.
I should’ve called him more.
Now it was Sally, his widow, who was circling the drain after a recent stroke. These people were part of the fabric of my youth. Now they are names spoken on long distance calls, names that won’t be mentioned for many more years because those for whom the names have meaning are dying off.
“That’s not a life,” my mother whispers. “Her aides said she could still hear after the stroke, but I don’t know.”
“Can she feed herself?”
“No, I gave her sips of champagne for her birthday. It depressed me. I couldn’t sleep that night.”
My mother is upbeat by nature. But seeing a dystopian future that might be your own tends to bring down even the most relentlessly optimistic.
Sally’s health was never vibrant. She’d lost an eye to cancer and while its glass replacement looked good, it didn’t enable peripheral vision – yet she still drove her car around town. She was always battling ailments. Her body, used to afflictions, rallied after the massive stroke that should’ve killed her. Tragically, her mind didn’t follow.
I’m sad that the woman I knew is now a hollow shell and that this might be the fate of others I love. I pray that this is not my future.
My cell phone says I have four bars of service. And yet there is still silence. “Mother—you there?”
“I have a living will, but is that enough?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Mother, I won’t let that happen to you.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like Switzerland or Belgium here. The doctors could leave me in a coma and say that they saved me.”
“That will not happen.”
“How do you know? Sunny Von Bulow was in a coma for 28 years.”
“There are ways. For example, the use of morphine to–”
“Alleviate pain. I don’t want to be in pain.”
“It also lowers blood pressure. Profoundly.”
“Oh. That would move things along….”
“Mother, I won’t let what’s happened to Sally happen to you.”
Again, silence. The silence of inevitability. This feisty force of nature who at 90 still lives independently is not ready for her final curtain. She is well-informed – in addition to the Wall Street Journal, she reads the New York Times and a pile of beauty and fashion magazines. She is sharp. But time does march forward. She repeats herself more than she realizes. She is slowing down.
“If you’re in a wheelchair, would that be okay?”
“Oh, yes, I could live with that.”
“Then I won’t shoot you like a horse.”
She forces a laugh. “It’s the mind, if my mind goes…”
“I won’t let your body stick around– I promise.”
There will be a day when I have to deliver on that promise.
A day that will come too soon whenever it arrives.
A day I dread.
*In the interest of respecting the privacy of those about whom I write, “Sally” and “Harry” are pseudonyms.