Thursday, August 9, 2012

To Janet V. Lender, Departed

That’s Mom at left in her last photo, taken just days before she passed away about two years ago.  She was 90.  I haven’t blogged about her yet, because my memories of her as an elderly woman were most prominent in my mind.  That was troubling to me, because I wanted to remember her for who she truly was, as the younger woman I knew as our Mom growing up.

I’ve gotten over it.

Dad died five years before Mom, and almost immediately afterward she said she wanted to move out of their condo in the assisted living community Dad had moved them into about seven years beforehand.  He’d arranged their move largely because he wanted Mom to be in a facility where she’d be cared for in case he went first.  Mom said she never wanted to move out of Mt. Tabor, where they’d lived for over 33 years, and admitted she’d wished she’d pushed back to Dad about it.  She said the assisted living place was too depressing: somebody she knew died each month.  She also said that after Dad died she didn’t have any privacy, couldn’t even eat alone in the dining room if she wanted to.  She wanted her own place and independence again.

We moved her to an apartment in Bergen County, about five minutes from Manette’s and my house.  Once or twice a week I’d go over if I didn’t otherwise see her for dinner or a visit to our house.  I’d check out the new scrapes in the bumper of her ’98 Ford Taurus, make sure she had everything she needed, help her with her finances and have tea or a snack.  Periodically she’d appear on our back patio (a mile walk from her apartment), gazing off at the woods.  She wouldn’t ring the bell because she’d insist she didn’t want to disturb us.  I’d come out to make sure she was okay.  “Oh, yes, dear,” she’d say.  “I’m just resting before I walk back home.”  She’d accept a glass of water but always refuse a ride.

She drove almost until the end.  She’d get lost on the way back from Shop-Rite once in a while, and find her way home by asking someone walking by the side of the road how to get to Prospect Avenue.  After being injured in falls when she was 88 and 89, she insisted she was only taking a hiatus from driving until she’d healed.  I’d go over and start up the Taurus every week or two, drive it around, maybe take it to the car wash.  Then I’d report to her that everything was in fine working order for when she could resume driving.

She lived with Manette and me for about a month after her first fall (I started referring to her as “the old girl” around that time, never to her face, of course).  The doctors never figured out what caused it, but wanted to put her on anti-seizure medication anyhow.  Even before I could protest, Mom said no way.  She wasn’t about to get dumbed-down into a zombie by some drug.  We have a big house; I asked Mom if she thought she’d be better off living with us.  She wouldn't hear of it.  I was at least able to impose the condition that she let me get her a Life Alert emergency service when she returned to her apartment.

Her second fall was more serious.  She wasn’t wearing her Life Alert emergency buzzer around her neck, and it took her a half hour to crawl to the phone with a broken hip to call for help.  She had a partial hip replacement, rehab, then another surgery and full hip replacement.  She lived with Manette and me again for about five months after she finished her second rehab.

She progressed from a wheelchair to a walker, exercising up and down the driveway, forbidden from the sidewalk and streets.  We’d find acorns, leaves and little pieces of bark in her pockets that she’d pick up and examine.  Once our neighbor, Venus, brought Mom home after finding her 100 yards down Summit Avenue—Mom would make a break for it down the sidewalk if she sensed I wasn’t watching.  Venus said Mom had fallen; Mom said, no, she’d bent over to pick up an interesting leaf and just slipped.

Mom was an accomplished artist all her life, working in watercolors, acrylics and pencil and charcoal.  Manette and I bought her sketch pads and pencils while she was living with us.  She never used them.  But on my birthday that year she sketched me with a ballpoint pen on our kitchen notepad and presented it to me with her birthday wishes.  I think it’s the last sketch she ever did.

That Christmas she asked for help in buying gifts for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren—she was “Grandmother,” declaring from the outset she wasn’t “grandma,” “nannie” or “granny,” and “GG” to her great-grandchildren.  We made a list.  I dusted off her wheelchair and took her to Target.  While we searched the aisles for what Mom wanted, she invariably stopped me and pointed at something the kids would like better.  Mission accomplished.  That year Mom used our return address when she mailed her Christmas cards.  She made sure everyone (and I) knew she’d be returning to her apartment by jotting beneath our address: “Temporary.”

One night Manette and I dared to go out to dinner.  Mom set off the smoke alarm while cooking dinner and the fire department was summoned to our house.  After that we hired a live-in health aid.

Mom moved back to her apartment six months before she died, this time with her live-in health aid.  By then she was getting around fine with a cane.  She went through a bad patch a month before she died, and one morning her health aid called me over.  Mom’s breathing was labored, so I called an ambulance.  I stayed beside her gurney in the emergency room, watching the monitors and talking with her.  She kept apologizing for inconveniencing me, right up until five minutes before she took her last breath.

While I was outside calling my brothers, one of the nurses came out to me, apologizing for interrupting.  She wanted to know what kind of pacemaker Mom had, because they couldn’t shut it off.  The old girl just wouldn’t give up.


  1. What a beautiful tribute to an undoubtedly wonderful mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She sounds like a great lady, full of life and courage to the end. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    1. Thank you, Carol. She was a great lady, full of life.

  2. This is beautiful. Thank you for writing it (as if you could do otherwise). Your mother sounds like an amazing woman and mother. Patty's 91-year-old mom lives independently in a nearby apartment right now, and your visits to your mom sound similar to theirs. Each day is a blessing not taken for granted. Nevertheless, thanks for the reminder.

    1. Thank you. Yes, you learn to appreciate each experience as if it might be the last. I recall when Mom was staying with us to recuperate from her hip surgery, that she needed to eat dinner at 5 pm like clockwork. One day she opened the door from the kitchen to the back stairs to call up to me in my attic writing study, "David, it's your mother," to get my attention at 5 pm. As if I didn't know who it was, like we had scores of elderly matrons living with us.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting.

  3. :)
    It was our pleasure indeed to read it, as well as this comment of yours. Your mom was obviously a very special woman, and she had a very special, caring son. A mother couldn't want for more!

  4. This is a fine tribute to your Mom, Dave.

    She seemed like a great Mom, and you seem like a great son ...

    Props ...

    I came here to check out Sasha Returns, I just found your excerpt through Twitter. Interesting piece ...

    Couldn't find a comment section on that, but I found this great blog entry.

    Great job on both ...

  5. Very poignant tribute. A great lady by all accounts. You, sir, are a lucky man to have such a mother and she was to have you as a son.

  6. What a heartfelt tribute. She sounds like she was tough as nails. Good for her.

    And here I thought you were just a pretty face.

    Well played.

  7. A wonderful tribute. You speak of her so vividly and lovingly I can almost picture her appearing in your backyard. I can tell you enjoyed her as a person as much as you valued her as a mother.

    Speaking as Berk, my wife and I are currently moving to be closer to her mother so that her mother can stay in her own home a little longer. We look forward to spending these last years of her life with her, as you were able to enjoy them with your own mother.

  8. Thanks for commenting and for sharing your own situation with your mother-in-law. Yes, my Mom was a great lady and someone I can still picture appearing in my backyard.

  9. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post again. If you hadn't, I wouldn't have had the privilege of reading it. Your mother sounds like quite a woman, and you are quite a son.


  10. Thank you, Carole. Yes, she was quite a woman, and we all miss her.

  11. Dear David,

    Found this through Twitter and am touched by the way you allowed your mother the autonomy to make her own decisions all the way to the end. We are facing some similar situations with our elderly parents and I take great comfort in your story.

    As parents get older their need for independence seems to grow, rather than diminish.

    I love the image of your mother appearing on your back patio, resting to catch her breath before returning home, and of her picking up leaves to examine on her daily adventures. Most touching.


    1. Kathleen,

      I'm sorry it took me so long to respond; I was away and not paying much attention to my emails.

      I really appreciate your sensitivity to my mom and how she managed the end of her life--she wouldn't let anyone overrider her except when we insisted that decisions were life-critical. Yes, it's hard to let elderly parents go out on their own, much as it's hard to let kids go. I've often heard people say that their parents turn into kids when they get really old. I think there's some wisdom in that, but I'm not sure that everyone gets that it's the same kind of process as with kids growing up: let them go their own way.

      I was fortunate to be with Mom when she passed away in the emergency room, doing fine and then suddenly, gasping for air, the monitors summoning the doctors and nurses to try to bring her around. Up until a minute before those final breaths she was telling me how sorry she was that I had to stay there with her in the emergency room, busting up my busy day with babysitting her. I guess that's what moms say at times like that.

      I was calm, because I somehow knew that she was going, and I was comfortable with the fact that we'd done all we could for her and she was peaceful.

      After she passed, I went outside the hospital to get a cell signal to call my brothers and Mom's live-in health aide. While I was out there one of the emergency room nurses who'd attended Mom came outside to find me. She wanted to know what kind of pacemaker Mom had, because they couldn't shut the thing off and, and despite no other life signs, she kept showing a pulse on the monitor. I got a good laugh out of that; the old girl just wasn't giving up so easily, even after her spirit had left us.

      Thanks for your comments, Kathleen. I hope your parents have a great transition to whatever is coming for them.