I had gotten an oil change–one of those chores that I resent doing on a weekend, but derive so much satisfaction from when it is done, when my sister called.
“Brandywine called. Mom fell. They have taken her to the hospital. Did they call you?” I checked my phone and did not have a missed call.
Under normal circumstances, my mother having fallen in her Assisted Living facility was a cause for concern, although not unusual. However, the fact that they were taking her to the hospital meant we had crossed a Rubicon, of sorts.
My mother has Alzheimers, something I have discussed with heartbreak in many of my blogs. Her very nice facility has managed decently with COVID, avoiding an outbreak with strict lockdown policies and frequent testing. When the weather was nice, we could meet outdoors with masks and distance, and later when it was cold, we visited through an open window with my mother freezing on the other side of the screen and my sister and I pressing our foreheads to the window, trying to talk through our masks. It was difficult to convey all the love and longing that we felt, while watching my mother shivering in the open window. At that point in the afternoon, the sun was at our backs, making us invisible to her. Our hope was that, somewhere in the recesses of her memories, our voices were familiar. Her birthday, Labor Day weekend, we celebrated with my mother, masked in a wheelchair, and the rest of us masked about 10 feet away.
Prior to Covid, my sister could always make my mother laugh during our visits with a little loving jostling in the form of exaggerated hugs and squeezes. My mother would smile and laugh at her antics and we always said that if she didn’t KNOW us, she did know it was someone who loved her. Now sitting across the long table with no physical contact and limited facial cues, we noticed a decline. Gone were the laughs and smiles–with a mask and distance, we could have been the chairs that we were sitting on for all she knew.
Since my husband died, my relationship with my mother has changed. I feel like I have this tremendous secret that I am keeping from her. Half the time, I just look at her and smile and think how much I would really just like to throw my head in her lap and weep–for her, for us, for my husband, for my father— losses that she is not aware of.
But COVID has taken a disease, like Alzheirmers, that systematically separates you from yourself, and has leveled the fatal blow by separating you from everyone else.
I used to say to my kids that as long as my mother could still laugh, there was life. COVID has taken that away from her, and us.
So now, after speeding to my sister’s house, sitting with a requisite cup of cozy tea, our phones placed like incendiary devices in the middle of the table, we waited for information.
Within an hour, the nurse that my sister had spoken to earlier confirmed that her fall had not caused any injury, however, a COVID test showed that she was positive. We were stunned. She had been vaccinated the week prior. More information would follow.
My sister sent out the texts to our brothers and there was some back and forth until it was understood that we were waiting for the nurse to update us.
A little while later, the lovely ER nurse called to say that her vitals were all good. They were suggesting an antibody infusion to ameliorate the effects of the virus. Would we give permission?
My sister and I briefly conferred coming to the same conclusion–we would rather that she be felled by a bad reaction to a new treatment, than take the chance that the virus progresses and she would die alone and confused.
Within hours, the infusion was complete, vitals were good, and she was waiting for transport back to her facility. Crisis averted.
We received a text from our youngest brother that read, “Should we talk about arrangements?”
My sister and I looked at each other. I wrote back, “Final arrangements?” and he picked up the phone.
He expressed that this was a wake-up call and we should start to plan out for the eventuality of my mother’s passing. My sister and I were in agreement, but were relaxing in the reprieve you get from coming out on the other side of an emergency, so we said yes, but just not that day.
“I just don’t want it to be like Daddy, “ he said before hanging up. We knew what he meant.
My father died from pancreatic cancer, a year before my husband. He was diagnosed and like he lived, he attacked the disease as a challenge to his mental fortitude, physical strength, and just plain doggedness. He enrolled in trials, suffered through a variety of procedures and treatments, and at the end of the day succumbed to the disease after a brief, but painful six months.
In our conversations on my way home from work, he would try to tell me about his financial arrangements and would spell out exactly what was going to happen with his estate.
“Dad, please, let’s not talk about this now,” was my response, and I meant it. But he would persevere, and I would let him, because I saw how important it was for him to be understood.
I never thought, (I would have appeared defeatist) to ask about his final arrangements. With a diagnosis that is a slam-dunk death sentence, I would have thought in his usual efficiency, he would have had that covered.
We were with him when he died. All of his children, his wonderful fiance, and her family. The lead up to his final breath did not have the tranquility associated with someone who has accepted his fate. In fact, it was a struggle to the end.
Finding out that he had not made final arrangements was both baffling and yet, weirdly understandable.
To plan on the disposition of your worldly goods is insurance, to plan your final arrangements is more concrete. If you live, you can change your will, hang on to your money, but if you live and have made plans, they sit as a reminder of the fact that one day you will need them.
Now I say I understand it, yet it caused the rest of us an inordinate amount of aggravation. Having died three days before Thanksgiving, we could not find a funeral home in Miami that would even see us, let alone agree to preparations and viewing. The six of us broke into teams, one group visiting funeral homes, another group exploring final resting places. The Mass was the only facet that was easy. He had a close relationship with his parish priest who handled everything, with my father’s fiance.
So this is what my brother was alluding to when he asked about arrangements. He wanted my mother to have better than something that was patched together at the eleventh hour.
I look back and realize that, in my father’s case, it ultimately worked out. His wake was in the hotel residence where he lived (sans body), his Mass at his church, and the repast at his home. But for my mother, the die is cast. It is not how, but when. So my youngest brother, with the biggest heart, bravely broached a subject that none of us wanted to tackle.
And so it was that night that I started to sketch out her Eulogy. Not that I would be writing it, or giving it, but it was my way of coming to terms with what would be happening. There is no happy ending here unless you consider the care and love of the family you created as your legacy, which she did.
So as I started to write, I realized with incredible sadness, that in terms of her narrative, her life has been over for more than a decade. Sure, there have been some funny and poignant days in between, but her life, the person that she was, has been MIA since her 75 birthday.
My work went from reportage to an archaeological study–compiling a history using the artifacts of a life. Her life, which was so rich with love, loss, and undying loyalty was now being seen through the lens of time.
My children and her other grandchildren would have stories of their time with their “Nan” and all of them would be years old. None of us will run the risk of having a fight with her, or not calling her on her birthday before her death. All of those things are in the treasure chest of the life that was, and is no longer
I realized I was writing her “history” even though she is still with us. And that is the greatest gift and the greatest pain of that disease. All of her stories will be when she was vital, beautiful, engaged, and funny. Not one of us, ten years from now, will have an anecdote about these last few years. We will intentionally brush aside all of the painful memories of her decline and will cherish the person that she was, and will always be, for us.
In writing a eulogy for the living, it became so clear to me that although her life will end in sadness (don’t they all) her life was spent with love and laughter. With a ton of friends that she cared for and who cared for her in return, with children that loved her and honored her by modeling many aspects of their lives after her, and a marriage which ended in divorce, but where her fidelity and grace was an inspiration to us all.
She always persevered and always kept her grace, faith, and dignity intact. She never apologized for putting her family first–she would say we were her greatest accomplishment. And so, at the end of her physical life, we will always have this–this unchangeable vision of our mother as she was always.
Hostias Et Preces
My brother’s request about arrangements is heard. We all want to be able to take the time to give her a life-ending that befits the place that she had in our lives.
For all of us, the mourning has been spread over years–each stage of her decline marked with a deeper sadness. From the very first moments of forgetfulness, to her pain of knowing what was happening to her and unable to stop it, to our pain of her no longer knowing what was happening, to the fear and paranoia–all of these brought fresh sorrow.
When my husband got sick, it was a double blow. My mother would have been the one I would have called at least once per day to discuss. She would have been at the hospital every day with me, she would have been the one to be tender, when I was too tired to be. She was great in a crisis–without her, I had to be. And I missed her support and guidance every day.
When she does pass away, I believe what my youngest brother is hoping for is something we should all aspire to–a celebration of her life to be shared and experienced with those that she loved and molded with all the tradition that made her who she was,
It will not be a happy task–to make these plans, and certainly, if it happened in the next few months, any plans that we would make would be superseded with the laws of that day, but it will be a labor of love and hopefully a job well done.
Claudia Lucey is a widowed mother of four, mostly adult children. Her “happy place” is the beach, where she spends every waking moment in the Summer. But spending time with her children is her greatest joy. Her philosophy is that laughter, even through tears, is the greatest emotional outlet. Nothing makes her happier than a good laugh, even at her own expense. She is a Director of Marketing for a construction company, yet she is a trained journalist who loves to write and photograph buildings of any size or shape.