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.