Death: the most unlikely of happy endings or ‘Bossiest Eulogy Ever’

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Mom died on February 25th. Her funeral was in Utica, New York; yesterday was her memorial service. This is the eulogy I wrote and read yesterday.

Eulogy II

The first Tuesday after Mom’s funeral, I woke up and, because it has been part of my waking-up ritual for what seems like forever (even though it wasn’t) she was my first thought.

The picture that immediately popped into my head was her coffin newly lowered into her grave – a gorgeous, round-topped pine box the color of warm tea, black grain running through like tea leaves.

The feeling it evoked was a mixture of happiness, relief and serenity. Mom was okay. Mom was safe. She wasn’t confused, afraid or anxious. Her body wasn’t stiff and rigid because of a Parkinsonian freeze. She was beyond pain, beyond fear and I felt at peace.

This is not always how I feel about having a dead mother. The range of emotions I am experiencing on account of this loss are different than any of the others preceding it. Sadness. Relief. A little conflicted about the relief. Relaxed in a way I haven’t been in years. A little conflicted about that.

I am happy she got to see me finally marry the right guy, graduate from library school at 55, even if she slept through a good deal of the ceremony (lucky Mom, right?), share some of my life in Milwaukee and give me the most incredible gift of all – the absolute trust that I would have her back as she navigated the terrible and solitary torture of a slow, agonizing slide into helplessness and utter dependence.

For a woman who associated being dependent with being neglected, marginalized and abused – for valid reasons – this required an unprecedented leap of faith, on two fronts.

 

A little context – on two fronts

Mom’s upbringing, combined with the circumstances of my birth, had not laid the groundwork for dependence with dignity or mother/daughter compatibility.

She’d been a surprise.

Her parents were excited about another son to help with the planting, harvesting, milking and other farm chores. Instead, they got a fourth daughter. She was two weeks old when her sister Bessie suggested calling her ‘Arlene’ with an ‘I.’ (Her birth certificate reads “Baby Chernoff.”)

Mom grew up poor, Jewish, left-handed and unwanted on a farm during the Depression. A doctor told her parents, immigrants who hadn’t gone past sixth grade, that she shouldn’t be allowed to read outside of school because of her poor eyesight. The only toy she ever had was a doll her brother took apart. She once told me that when she really wanted to set her mother off, she’d walk around the house singing “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”

Her incredible tenacity in surviving her first year at Syracuse University with so little preparation for college life, eventually figuring it out (in part, after the dean in whose office she was crying told her to start doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle every Sunday) and going on to graduate and build a life in New York is remarkable.

 

A brief digression

I will now break from this eulogy to present a brief episode of “Irlene Chernoff: Life in New York.”

Scene: Girl’s night out. Syracuse Alumni Lois (tall) and Irlene (not so tall) enter the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to attend a talk by Eleanor Roosevelt.

They stroll across the lobby to the elevator and press the call button. The elevator arrives. They step in. The elevator is occupied by two women, one tall and one not-so tall.

The tall one is Eleanor Roosevelt.

The not-so tall one is Dorothy Parker.

Brief Silence. Furtive staring.

Lois: “Irlene. I never realized how short you are.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: “Good things come in small packages.”

Dorothy Parker: “So does poison.”

End Scene

 

Two-front context – continued

Then, a 50’s-era miracle happened. After having all but cemented her place in the family as the cool aunt and successful old maid career woman, Mom snagged the hottest bachelor in Utica. Being “Mrs. Rabbi Waldman,” in the words of my friend Debra, was her favorite job ever.

Here’s Mom, describing Dad in a letter turning down a job offer in New York in April 1958, because she’s getting married:

“…he is everything I ever dreamed of in a man. He is warm, sensitive, human, strong and the most understanding man I ever met; in addition to being liberal, of diversified interests and professionally a rabbi …”

By the time I came along, Mom’s older siblings had all reproduced. Used to being bossed around by the four elders, none known for being shy about their opinions, she was nervous in the way of any first-time mom. Unfortunately for both of us, I was born by emergency C-section two weeks after my due date, and because of Mom’s reaction to anaesthesia, by the time she was fully awake and ready to be the Best Mother Ever, I was a week old and had bonded with Dad.

Things were different 17 months later when Debby came along, and thus, the family rectangle (Amy/Dad, Debby/Mom) was established. It worked well until 1974, when Dad died.

A seismic shift

Until about 2005, Mom and I did not have the easiest relationship. Sometimes that happens with mothers and daughters, and if the daughter is lucky – which I was – she gets to a place where anger, sadness and resentment are replaced by gratitude for (in my case) the care she does give, and for a great husband and in-laws, supportive friends and the ability to have built different relationships with my own daughters.

One by-product of Parkinson’s disease was that – to paraphrase Mom – she stopped seeing everything she didn’t like about herself in me and started seeing me. Our subsequent relationship was deeper and more satisfying for its having happened long after I’d had enough therapy and done enough interior work to understand that parent-offspring compatibility is an add-on, rather than part of the standard package.

Nothing compares with what it feels like – after almost 50 years – to suddenly have a mother who goes out of her way to tell you you’re terrific and you feel it it so much that you could spend the rest of your life lying on your back and rolling around in it.

Even if that had never happened, and I was standing here, I’d still be grateful for everything Mom gave me, because once you know that nothing you do will please someone, it gives you the freedom to not worry about displeasing them.

Which, like the love you can roll around in, is also a gift.

And as the daughter who ended up being Mom’s Primary Person on her Grand Exit Tour of Planet Earth, it was my job to make sure she faced some unpleasant stuff in the service of making sure that her Grand Exit went the way she wanted.

Son of seismic shift –  the nursing home version

It would not be an overstatement to say that Mom’s Exit Plan did not involve a slow agonizing slide into helplessness in a Milwaukee nursing home. She had ordered up a serving of being “carried out of here feet-first,’ “here” being the condo she’d bought on Cape Cod in 1982.

I have vivid memories of visiting nursing homes with 50-something Mom. We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Near-comatose people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sat in wheelchairs in the halls or rows in common rooms in front of a TV, some aware of us, some staring at nothing. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation on the same theme.

“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”

I didn’t shoot Mom, and I didn’t give her pills. But there were so many times, especially over the past two years, when I wondered why she was still alive. I went from being angry all the time to “she’s warm and I can hug her.”

And I came to rely on a group of people I had already grown to love and respect – the holy women (and occasional man) who cared for Mom and the rest of the people in the Helen Bader Unit with relentless devotion.

They helped Mom through these past brutal years, but they also helped Debby and me. It was a team effort in a game that ended with Mom’s death. And now that it’s over, I’m gonna tell you two things. First, we won. Second, we were able to because of three other things.

The most important – Thing One, if you will – was Mom. It was her decision to move into the nursing home. I’m not saying it was easy, and I’m not saying it was pretty. Debby was freaked out about her spending $10,000 a month on 24-hour care on top of rent for her assisted living apartment. I was slightly less freaked out but knew it wasn’t sustainable. That four months, though, gave Mom the time she needed to wrap her head around what she realized needed to happen. It was her idea to tour the Home; she chose Bader.

I have seen – and continue to see – new people coming in who didn’t choose. Some are angry, and what’s hard is made harder, both for them and for the staff who care for them. It is a stark contrast and a constant reminder of the remarkable courage my mother displayed in making her own decision to move to a memory care unit.

I also know that part of the reason she was able to make that courageous choice was because she knew – Thing Two – she could count on me. By then, we were far enough down the road that, given the choice to stay and help or have me do it, she jetted off to California to hang with her sisters, allowing me to set her room up in a way that it could serve multiple functions (seating and dining facilities for six) and favorite pieces from every room of her former home(s).

The “as happy as possible under the circumstances” ending

Bragging about your childrens’ achivements – the albums, the concerts, the book deals, the degrees, the awards, the jobs – that’s easy.

Entrusting your own well-being to their care is a whole different level of affirmation.

I did it as right as I could, and I think, for the most part, I got it pretty right. But I got it right because she helped me get it right. I got it right because she was honest enough and courageous enough to face her own death, and when she wasn’t, she borrowed my courage and my love for her and we got through it together. And when I wasn’t courageous enough to face her decline, I had spent enough time at the nursing home to be on a first-name basis with the people who were caring for Mom, and they helped me. That’s Thing Three.

If your mother lives in a nursing home, it’s a nursing home. But your mother lives there, so it’s also your mother’s house. When you come around more, your mother might not get more attention and more care than the people whose families don’t come around, but I know this – she gets better care. Because as good as those caregivers are, no one has time to rummage through your mom’s drawers and discover the several-sizes-too-small bra that belongs to the lady across the hall. Also, they are going to have your mom’s back like nobody’s business if you show up, because you’re going to see what they do and how to make your mom’s life and their lives as easy as possible, given the circumstances.

So this isn’t really as much a eulogy as it is a message, and kind of a directive from us. Mom’s death was beautful, and it was beautiful because I never stopped telling her, right up to the end, that this was her old age and eventual death and that she was in charge. And I never stopped believing it.

In truth, I started pushing her to talk about what she wanted and what we should do long before she was ready.

But because of – or maybe in spite of it – Mom and I were able to have all the hard conversations, and even find some light moments in the midst of them. We planned her funeral and this memorial service together, and the comfort of knowing what she wanted and being able to make it happen has brought me the kind of comfort that only a supportive mom can give.

‘I’m not big on long goodbyes’ or Death at Christmas

Like most working people in the US, where Christian culture is majority culture, I’d been looking forward to a couple of days off at Christmas.

It’s not my holiday. But I get to partake of its best parts because Sweetheart’s family is a mashup of Lutherans, atheists who grew up as Lutherans & Catholics-by-choice. Sweetheart was nine when his parents split. From that point on, it was Christmas Eve with Mom and Christmas Day with Dad. That’s carried into adulthood, except now Dad is at the Mom celebration and Mom comes to Dad’s brunch. They’re what it looks like when you decide to stop letting the past get in the way of the present and learn new ways to be kind.

It makes those big life transitions so much easier. When First Husband died, Better Wife than I’d Been called me right away. (Unexpected, as BW adored FH and loved my children, but not so much me. I was fine with that – she didn’t have to be nice to me as long as she was good to them.) Together, we got the six combined kids (three apiece, ranging from 19-29) through that terrible time. At that point, I hadn’t spoken with First Husband’s father Sidney for about five years. But BW’s father was dying, and she’d just been widowed for the second time. She had her hands full. So I started calling Sidney every week to check up on him and let him know how his granddaughters were faring.

I was particularly worried because of Mrs. Sidney – I’ll call her Barbara. He’d married Barbara within a year of FH’s mother’s death when FH was 15. She had never warmed to Sidney’s children, and didn’t share his level of anguish. She wasn’t crazy for me either, but time passed. Things changed.

We’ve had lots of breakfasts and dinners together, a couple of Passover Seders (one that included BW & her family) and those weekly calls.

Mrs. Sidney and Sidney. This photo was taken in April.
Mrs. Sidney and Sidney (z”l). This photo was taken in April. The (z”l) is a Hebrew abbreviation for a phrase that translates in English to “of blessed memory.”

I’ve seen Sidney go downhill steadily since First Husband’s death.

This past June, he pulled Barbara down as she was trying to help him up after another of his increasingly frequent falls. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. They gave him two to six months. Barbara, who doesn’t drive anymore, found a nursing home nearby. She visited a couple of times a week and wondered aloud more than once what, if anything, either of them was getting out of those visits. My mother is in a nursing home here, and I see lonely people with no or infrequent visitors. It’s not pretty. I had a hard time understanding the way she was dealing with things until the day she told me she’d never seen anyone die before.

She’d never seen anyone die before?

She’s in her mid-80s. I feel very lucky to have seen people die. It’s made me much less anxious about the whole process.

Now, Sidney has given two of his granddaughters that gift.

The youngest, Talia, is a 27-year-old undergrad who works as a nanny. She lives about two hours from the nursing home. Since June, she’s been there every week when she’s not in school and every other week when she is.

On Tuesday, the evening before my first day of Christmas break, she called me at 9 p.m.

“Has anyone told you what’s going on with Grandpa?”

“Ummm…..no. What’s going on with Grandpa?”

“I’m in his room. He’s dying. Barbara called to tell me they said she needs to have a CNA in his room 24/7, so I told her to tell them I was coming down,” she said. Then she said something I knew she hadn’t told Barbara.

“There’s no way I’m going to let Grandpa die alone with a stranger in his room.”

I live a scant hour and a half from Sidney’s nursing home.

“Do you want me to come down?”

She burst into tears.

“Oh, Mommy! Would you?”

I would.

When I got there, he was actively dying (unconscious and in a state of possible semi-awareness). He was also agitated. I rousted the nursing staff when I found out that his last dose of morphine had been about two hours before.

I had Talia call Former Sister-In-Law, who was in from Texas and had taken off from her job to be there. (All I could think was – Lord, please don’t let him die with me in the room and NOT her). SIL and her lifelong best friend arrived at about 11:30. By 5 a.m., when they left to nap and shower before returning later in the day, Talia’s sisters had flights. Alex was coming in at 1 p.m. and Liza, who’d just seen him a week before, would arrive the next night.

Barbara showed up at about 8:45. The Hospice Nurse was there and told her she might want to tell him that it was okay for him to go.

She sat by him. She took his hand and said, “You’ll be in a better place, and we will all be okay.”

Then we went out for breakfast. She offered to split the bill. I didn’t let her.

I dropped her back at her place for a hair appointment (she lives in one of those all-inclusive assisted living complexes), hit up the grocery store for some provisions (a box of clementines, some grapefruit soda, a green plant) and headed back with food. Talia ate the to-go breakfast I’d gotten her and took off to fetch Alex from the airport.

We were alone for a bit.

I told Sidney that we’d all be okay and I’d keep up the weekly calls to Barbara. I played my guitalele and sang a bit for him, and then Vicky the Hospice Nurse, who turned out to have a great voice, showed up. We harmonized on songs we couldn’t remember the words to and told Sidney we were worth every penny he was paying us.

I also told him that for a man whose stock lines included “I’m not big on long goodbyes,” he sure seemed to be stretching this one out.

Then, I remembered that I had Mandy Patinkin singing Yiddish songs on my iPad (Sidney was a big fan of Yiddish songs). So I put that on for him. Alex & Talia arrived, then Cathy. When my daughter-in-law Abbi showed up a little after 3, it was okay – better in fact – for me to head out. The room wasn’t that big and at that point I was just extra baggage.

I sat beside him. I gave him a kiss.

“I’m not big on long goodbyes,” I told him.

Then, I made my way back to Milwaukee, exhausted but just in time for Christmas Eve with the in-laws.

Talia called at 8 to tell me Sidney had died, with Alex and Talia each holding one of his hands, Cathy with her hands on his head and Abbi sitting nearby.