Sat 26 May 2007
Let me just say at the outset that it is weird to be in somebody’s apartment, staying there, when that person is not there. Especially when it’s your mother.
She and I haven’t lived together for many years, and in the interim, she has single-handedly kept the American silk flower industry afloat. And, oh yes, the basket manufacturers as well. Her apartment is filled with sentimental paintings of dogs and flowers, of glass vases of all colors and shapes, baskets tacked to the walls, and everywhere, on every surface, multiple arrangements of silk flowers.
Somehow it works, decoration-wise. You walk into this otherwise white condominium in Florida, and every wall is covered with bright-colored pictures, and every tabletop has glass ornaments and silk flowers, and the couches are pink and the furniture is white wicker…and somehow you feel you’ve stepped into a kind of Disneyland of an apartment. A bright, cheerful amusement park of a room with big pillows to sink into.
But my mother is not here.
Tonight she is five miles away, spending her first night in a “skilled nursing facility” after being discharged from the hospital. She is sleeping in a gray room with a beige tile floor, right next to the nurses’ station. She will be there for weeks while they try to get her stronger after her cancer surgery.
Here, in her apartment, I walk around and look at her photograph albums. In her closet hang caftans and muu muus and jeans with rhinestones on them, and bright pink shirts. In the refrigerator she has apple sauce and orange juice and dill pickles and mayonnaise and nothing else. Her silverware looks like bamboo. She wants me to take it home with me.
“It’s the prettiest thing I can leave you,” she says. “Take it, take it before someone else does.”
Sometimes she talks like that, as though she understands the cancer has spread throughout her body and that she can’t care for herself anymore and won’t be coming back here. It was she who called in the hospice people and signed the living will and the Do Not Resuscitate order. But then sometimes she looks at me and says, “I think I’m going to get a second dog. And I want to let my hair grow longer, and don’t you think I should get a second-hand car?”
I bring her the Intention to Vacate form from the place where she lives, and she signs it without a second thought, and then says, “It was such a nice place to live, wasn’t it?”
I say, “It’s very sad to leave,” and for a moment, we sit quietly together, both of us dry-eyed. I do not tell her that the place wants to charge her an $660 lease-breaking fee…just because she had signed the lease two weeks before she was diagnosed with cancer. When I asked the administrator if perhaps that charge could be waived if I presented a doctor’s note, the woman said it was impossible.
“But she has terminal cancer!” I said. “Sure they don’t intend for her to have to pay a penalty.”
“Well,” said the woman, “she should have gone to the doctor before she signed the lease, shouldn’t she?”
I’ve been in Florida for five days now…and for much of that time, I’ve had the sense of being on automatic pilot. It feels as though it’s someone else who is talking to the hospice people, making arrangements with social workers, skilled nursing facilities and nursing homes, who is talking on the phone to family members, ending leases and turning off telephones. It is someone else who spends at least ten hours a day in the hospital room.
Every day there is a checklist, and every day this Person Who Is Not Really Me works her way through it, going through the necessary telephone calls and preparations. Although I am usually a person who cries easily and can keep up tears for quite some time, I find I don’t feel like crying at all. Here I am, being with my mother who has just learned she is DYING, and I am dry-eyed. What does this mean?
Maybe it just means that I am not in crying mode yet, that I am settling things that couldn’t be settled if I were in tears, and that later there will be the release that comes when everything else sinks in.
Or maybe it’s that, sitting here in this apartment every night after spending the long days with her in the hospital or in the skilled nursing facility, I just feel connected to her spirit somehow. I feel sustained, buoyed up in a way I don’t feel when she and I are talking. Here, amid the white wicker and the bright orange sheets and purple pillows on her bed, I feel her bravery and her unwillingness to have this be a time of complaining and sorrow.
Tomorrow I fly back to Connecticut, and saying goodbye to her is going to be very, very hard. But I will come back in a month and try to see her settled up near my cousin in Jacksonville, which is where she wants to go.