Mom’s running gag

It’s Mother’s Day, and the third anniversary of the day my mom died. How like her to make her final exit at this time of year, ensuring we’d never thoughtlessly skip observing the day, or enjoy it too much without feeling some pangs of loss for her. When I was growing up she joked often about her plans to be “a burden” on her children in her old age. The timing of her death is a kind of extension of that running joke.

Three years ago, when my mom died, I wrote “I will miss her” — not much of a stretch, and of course it’s been true. I had grown accustomed to long phone conversations with her once or twice a week, as I commuted to and from my distant job (at Danger, where an important perk was free cell phone calls, which made the long commute more tolerable).

In April, a few weeks before she died, I wrote my epic seven-part blog series “A boy and his dog,” which I was eager to share with my mom. She was a big fan of my writing and I was a big fan of her praise, which she had a lot of for my still-new blog. Little did I know that she had begun her final decline. She’d been in and out of hospitals and a nursing home for several weeks, but we still thought it was temporary and she’d be returning home before long. Meanwhile I offered to read my story to her over the phone, and was annoyed when she kept putting me off. I didn’t realize that her ability to focus on a story, or even remain on the phone for more than a couple of minutes, was at an end.

My long drive-time conversations were over, and soon the fun started to drain out of going to work at Danger. The most avid member of my writing audience was gone and soon I wasn’t writing quite as much. In spite of her joking, the only way in which my Mom ever was a burden was by being absent.



Hi, it’s me! Pick up the phone, please!


Hiya, son!

Hi, Mom! How are you?

I’m good, how are you?

I’m OK. I have some exciting news for you.

Oh, OK! What?

We finally used the sled!

The sled?

Yeah, the sled. You know — the Centennial Edition Flexible Flyer you once gave me.

I gave you a sled?

Yeah, don’t you remember? It was a really big deal. You used to keep asking me whether I had used it yet.

Ohh, yeah, I remember. That was a long time ago!

Yeah! Twenty years. You sent me that sled in Pittsburgh.

Twenty years you didn’t use the sled?

What can I say? We tried a few times but this was the first real opportunity we had.

I can’t believe that in twenty years you never had a chance to use the sled.

Well, keep in mind where I’ve been living for seventeen of those years. We got one millimeter of snow one day in seventeen years, and no one could believe it.

So where did you use it?

We took the kids to Tahoe. I wish you could have seen them. They loved the snow, and the sled works great! In fact it works a little too well — it goes fast, and it was a little scary!

For you, or for the boys?

Oh for me, definitely. The kids were fearless.

I can’t picture you scared on a sled.

Of course you can’t. The last time you saw me on a sled I was a fearless kid, like Jonah and Archer. It takes a grownup to be scared. Anyway, it was only scary until I figured out how well it steers, and how soft the snow is when you wipe out. It was hilarious — Archer was riding with me and we wiped out together, a couple of times, and each time he got out from under me and stood up and said, “Awesome!”

“Centennial Edition Flexible Flyer” — that must be worth something by now.

Yeah, probably. That’s part of the reason we’ve schlepped it around for twenty years.

If you keep it in good condition, maybe you can sell it for some nice bucks when the boys grow up.

Pshaw. I don’t want to worry about keeping it in good condition, I want to use it. It can’t possibly be worth more than the fun we have using it!

That’s the right attitude. I want to see pictures.

You will.


The old fly, call, sprint, bound, ring gag

A couple of times after I moved to Pittsburgh for college, I flew home to New York without telling my mom. Her apartment building had a pay phone in the lobby. On these occasions I would call her from the lobby, pretending still to be in Pittsburgh. In the middle of the conversation I’d say, “Hold on a second.” Then, leaving the phone off the hook (but having arranged with the doorman to hang it up for me after a few minutes), I’d sprint from the lobby down a long hallway to the rear staircase, bound up to the third floor, and ring her doorbell. I’d greet her with a “Surprise!” and a goofy smile, and she’d greet me with a delighted hug.

Thanksgiving was a good time to do this trick, because it was plausible to claim not wanting to travel on Thanksgiving, and because Thanksgiving is a great family-togetherness holiday, and because my mom’s birthday was always right around Thanksgiving. In fact today’s the day she would have been seventy-four.

After I surprised her this way two or three times she started asking me, “Are you really down in the lobby?” whenever I’d call from Pittsburgh to say “wish I could be there” on some holiday or other. She was always disappointed when I convinced her that I really was far away still. In later years, after college, I did this once or twice more, only with the advent of ubiquitous cell phones I didn’t have to arrange anything with the doorman, or sprint, or even say “Hold on a second.” I could call her from right outside her apartment door, and ring her doorbell right in the middle of a sentence. Convenient — but I liked the lower-tech, higher-effort version better.

Happy birthday, Mom. This is the story we would be remembering together if you were still around. I miss you.

Mom’s last good day

Tomorrow marks one year since my mom died, but I prefer to commemorate this, the anniversary of her last good day. It’s a comfort that she had a good day so close to the end, especially since things had not been good for her for a while.

I flew to New York on the preceding Saturday to give my sister Suzanne a week’s respite. She’d been shouldering the burden of caring for our mom and was burned out.

I spent much of Sunday with my mom in her room at the nursing home where she stayed in between trips to the hospital for radiation therapy. I knew that her health had been deteriorating but was still surprised by her fragmentary awareness and her hallucinations. It was hard to get her to eat or drink anything. By Monday morning it was clear she was getting a lot worse; among other things, she was severely dehydrated and increasingly confused. When the EMT’s came to bring her to the hospital for her radiation treatment, I made a snap decision and ordered a trip to the ER instead. (“Good call,” the driver told me.) I spent most of the rest of the day there, in the ER, waiting at her bedside to get through the interminable triage process. I prefer not to remember the discomfort she was in for most of that time.

But by Tuesday morning, one year ago today, things were looking up. She had been moved to a private suite in a brand-new, ultramodern wing of the hospital. She was medicated, rehydrated, and swathed in clean sheets. She was comfortable for the first time in days, and positively cheerful. She was still a bit confused (losing track of the conversation from time to time) and was still hallucinating (imagining that fluffy cotton strands were drifting down from the ceiling, once in a while trying to pick one off where it had “fallen” onto her arm), but unlike the previous few days, these things didn’t seem to bother her. If anything, she seemed delighted by the occasional strangeness, which was very like her.

We chatted about how nice the new hospital wing was; about her latest medical tests and the latest news from the doctors; about the unworthy trash on every TV channel; about Suzanne, productively back at work; and about my kids, of whom she could not hear enough news, of course. She smiled often and laughed a few times.

We spent an enjoyable morning together. Unfortunately, I made periodic forays out of her room to track down one or another of her doctors and pester them for the latest information, and the news was not good. Her kidneys had shut down. There were signs of sepsis.

By early afternoon they had decided to move her to the ICU and I was told (politely) to scram. They’d call me when it was OK to visit her again. I was assured it would be a few hours. So I headed from Queens into Manhattan to meet Suzanne. At that late hour we still believed there was a good chance our mom would squeak through this medical crisis, surprising everyone once again as she had done six years earlier; and so we spent a wonderfully unworried evening, eating, conversing, and strolling through lower Manhattan together, and making a memorable visit to the patio on the rooftop of her office building, taking in the sights and sounds of New York City on a warm spring night from a dozen stories above the street.

And then came the call from the hospital. One of the doctors told me, in very carefully chosen words, that our mom’s condition was extremely serious and that this was a good time to visit — conveying very clearly, without coming out and saying so, that this could be our last chance to visit. Suzanne grabbed some of her things from her apartment and we drove back to Queens, arranging for our dad to meet us at the hospital.

Our mom was intubated, breathing with the help of a respirator, and so couldn’t speak; but she was awake and aware. We spoke encouragingly to her for a bit. The doctor told us that her condition was deteriorating, and that furthermore they had discovered some previously undiagnosed new cancer. Our dad arrived and had a few private minutes with her. By this time it was quite late at night so we told her we were going back to Dad’s house and would return in the morning. Our mom mouthed the words, “I love you.” It’s the last time we saw her conscious. Considering what followed the next day, it was about the best possible ending to this day.

For Grandma Flori

A few weeks ago, when we told the kids we’d be visiting New York, and that while in New York we’d be visiting the place where Grandma Flori is buried, Jonah volunteered this suggestion: “Can I make a picture for Grandma Flori and leave it at her grave?” He might just as well have asked, “Can I blow right past all normal limits of six-year-old sweetness and sensitivity?”

We were in New York all last week and visiting my mom’s grave was the first thing we did. Here’s the picture Jonah brought to her: “That’s a beach chair with Grandma Flori in it, and me and Archer standing behind her.” (By the time my kids knew her, my mom was already completely housebound. How could Jonah have known that a beach chair had theretofore been perhaps my mom’s favorite place to be?)

Made everyone laugh

Among the very earliest artifacts available for Star Trek fans to own was the book, The Making of Star Trek, by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, and I read it in the 70’s.

One anecdote that I remember from that book had to do with production of the original pilot episode, “The Cage.” In one scene, the actress Susan Oliver dances as a seductive “Orion slave girl,” covered from head to foot in green body makeup. The optical lab that processed the film footage from those scenes believed they had screwed up — and they color-corrected Oliver back to her normal skin tone! As I recall the story, this happened two or three times before the studio finally sent explicit instructions to the lab and they got it right.

I thought of this story when I learned from my dad a few weeks ago that someone made an unwanted “correction” to my mom’s cemetery headstone (on the proof that he saw). As long as I knew her, my mom jokingly maintained at each birthday that she was turning 29 (a source of extra hilarity when I “passed” her in age). So we put it in her epitaph, since with my mom, humor was paramount. But someone saw fit to change it to 73, which is correct only in a narrow-minded arithmetical sense — pah.

Fortunately we were able to correct it before production of the real headstone, which is newly erected.

Mom’s considerate timing

Moblogging from JFK, on my way back home after a very strange and sad week.

I flew here one week ago to help out with my mom. We knew she was in trouble, healthwise, and we knew she was pushing her luck for the umpteenth time by refusing (out of laziness, weariness, or resignation) some proportion of the medical care she needed. We knew that one day her luck would run out.

The point of my visit was to help my sister help my mom. Suzanne had been shouldering most of the burden as usual and needed a break. She had a big week coming up at work. I was extremely busy too as usual but arranged to come for one week. As it turns out, it was just the right time, and just the right amount of time, to

  • have a final few coherent interactions with my mom;
  • get her to the hospital;
  • be there when she died;
  • make a lot of calls to friends and relatives;
  • go through her house and pick out the few things that I wanted; and
  • attend her moving and ultimately joyous funeral.

Now here I am, headed home exactly on schedule, no muss, no fuss. As I said, strange.

Overtime over

Six years ago, my mom, an elderly diabetic, developed a massive infection. It was nearly septic, and she was at death’s door. Thanks to the extensive and deft surgical intervention of one Dr. Rifkind — who was certain my mom would not survive — she not only recovered, but lived long enough to become a grandmother, twice. She lived long enough to see her children succeed in their professions. She lived long enough to see her grandsons become great friends (like her own children before them) and begin growing into exceptional young men. In other words, she lived long enough to see her legacy assured. But she did not live long enough to suit me.

This afternoon, a brilliant May day, my mom died. This time it was an infection that did turn septic, among other serious complications. Holding her hand at the end, in the same hospital where she gave birth to us, were me and my sister. Her final words to us — late last night, the last time we saw her conscious — were “I love you.”

The eventful extra time she had was a miraculous gift, for her and for me. She shared a lot of joy she might have missed. But it was not enough. There was more joy to share.

My world grew a little lonelier today. I will miss her.

A travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham

First thing in the morning yesterday, on the advice of her doctor, my mom reported to the emergency room at New York Hospital Queens. (Under its old name, “Booth Memorial Hospital,” it’s where she gave birth to me and my sister, Suzanne. I wonder how Booth would feel about its new name, whoever he was.) She was promptly evaluated and admitted to treat an infection complicated by diabetes. The treatment plan called for intravenous antibiotics, no surgery. Suzanne waited with her to be assigned a bed. And waited. And waited.

As of 2pm local time today she was still waiting in the emergency room. All day and night — and day — a procession of doctors and other hospital staff professed their shock at her treatment, promised to rectify the situation, and vanished. Meanwhile, just a short time ago a surgical resident happened by and re-evaluated her, opining that she does in fact need surgery. It’s Kafkaesque.

I’m going to New York shortly to help my family (especially my saintly burden-shouldering sister) with the situation, and maybe kick some medical ass.