Friday, May 25, 2012


It is six months after my mother shed her troubled earthbound body for what even we barely-believing hope is a better place.  It is difficult for me to write about the first seconds, minutes, hours and finally days after she drew her last breath in my arms.  Yes, it is difficult to dwell on that time but even more so because my usually excellent memory is vague.  Perhaps this is a natural defense offered by a generous brain.  It is also because I was standing still, achingly sad while the world was swirling around me.

It seemed that within minutes people began to arrive. A very dear friend was first on the scene.  She instinctively tried to console me and then quietly began making phone calls to my list of family and friends.  These were calls I was unable to make.  It was too soon.  I couldn't begin telling and retelling the news and circumstances of my mother's death.  I called my brother to give him the news.  I called the funeral director to begin arrangements.  The first thing that needed to be done was to have my mother removed from her room, her cocoon.

The house was filling with family and friends.  As I greeted each new face I cried.  Somehow my sister and I kept finding our way back to each other for hugs and tears of mutual grief and strength.  The person who had been most noticeably absent was  Niki, my mother's aide and our housemate.  She had left that morning for a new job.  I had called her to give her the sad news.  Now Niki, my mother's angel, had arrived.  She hugged my sister and me and rushed upstairs to see mom and make her presentable for the funeral director who would be arriving shortly.

Making my mother presentable may sound strange or perhaps even ghoulish but not to anyone who knew my mother.  This was a woman who would never be seen without her hair being perfect and looking perfectly presentable.  I was not going to let her leave the house for her last time any other way.  Niki instinctively knew this.

I was unprepared for the soul-cleansing wail that Niki gave when she went in to see Addie.  My mother had become a second mother to her.  They had an amazing bond. I was relieved that Niki was with mom.  This was a facade of normalcy in a time of chaos.

The busy have no time for tears.

Lord Byron

I had a couple of hours of full-blown, self-indulgent grieving but now there had to be a break because the business of death was at hand.  We three siblings had decisions and plans to make.  We left the house full of loved ones and went to the funeral home to plan.  Somehow having a job to do was comforting.  I am a project oriented person, why should this have been any different?

About a year ago, during one of my mother's hospital stays I had decided that I did not want a traditional funeral home wake for my mother.  Since we had agreed that when the time came mom should be cremated,   I wanted to have a simple gathering of friends and family at our home which would then be followed the next morning with a funeral mass at mom's church followed by burial alongside my father who had predeceased mom by 41 years.  

My brother and sister agreed with my plans and so it would be.  Instead of hours of despair and depression at the funeral home we would celebrate mom's life at home in comfort and familiar surroundings.  This would also give my sister and me yet another project to prepare the house for guests.

The formal gathering at my home was planned for two days after mom's passing.  This gave one full day not only to prepare for guests at the house but to put together the particulars for the funeral mass as well as write an obituary.  I went into full "producer" mode which was my natural default.  I knew if I stopped for too long   the grief would take over and I was scared.  I was sure that if I stopped to think about what we were busy preparing for I would crumble.  "Just keep moving.  Just keep one step ahead of the sorrow" I kept telling myself.  It was working.

My sister and I have always been close.  Although she is eleven years my senior we have been each other's strength through all the years of Adelaide's illness.  We shared a bond with each other and with our mother that no one else can ever know.  Now we were bonding even closer in mom's death.  


brooks atkinson

As I look back the time spent tending to my mother's funeral mass was the most absurd.  I tend to be a man who knows what he wants and how to make it happen.  The church seems to prefer to stand on tradition, conformity and submission.  This is a titanic clash of wills.  I have always been honest and forthright in my writing so I will admit that there has been quite a distance between me and the church of my mother and my youth for many years.  

It is really quite simple.  I see the church as"standing on tradition, conformity and submission" and it sees itself as the sole appointed and anointed direct voice of God.  I'm a producer.  My mother's farewell was to be one of the most important productions of my life.  Do not misinterpret that as meaning garish or showy or disrespectful.  I just wanted her final mass to be personal and jubilant.  She deserved that.  I would see to it.  This should have been a reasonably easy job.

I have a wonderful friend who is a gifted singer.  When she came to visit me she would always go to my mother's room and sing for her.  These shared moments were some of the highlights of my mom's years of illness.  To me, the connection of souls through God's gift of song is a religious experience I am proud to have been witness to.  It went without saying that I wanted dear Linda to sing at the funeral.  

Linda gracefully accepted my request and we agreed upon a couple of traditional songs.  My brother-in-law is also a talented musician and singer and he was also going to sing a very special song for my mother.  I also had a couple of minor requests of the church, one being that I forbad the playing of the church organ. I just do not like the way this particular pipe organ sounds and to me it is forced melancholy.  

  I conveyed my plans to the funeral director who immediately said that there "might be some problem with the church" and then added "you know you have to pay the organist and the regular funeral singer even if you don't use them."  This immediately brought to mind the Broadway musicians' union dictating how many orchestra musicians a show was required to employ.  I expressed my disdain at the church having "a problem" and that I didn't care who we had to pay.  I would rather pay the organist not to play than to play. I also requested that my brother-in-law's cousin give one of the readings at the mass.  "A woman?" the funeral director exclaimed.  "Yes that 'woman' happens to be a nun".

Later in the day when I was on my fourth phone call from either the priest or the "musical director of the church" I was forced to play my producer's trump card.  I calmly informed the priest that I had not expected to spend the day after my mother died producing her funeral and negotiating with the church.  I also explained quite simply that since my mother had been cremated I felt no urgency to follow through with her funeral mass in his church.  "Although my mother was uniquely devoted to your parish I do not feel the same bond.  I am perfectly willing to postpone her funeral while I find a more welcoming congregation of some other more 'Christian' faith".  

The priest acquiesced but asked that the nun present credentials before the service?!  

Day two was finally over.  My friends were taking turns staying with me, wonderfully concerned friends were afraid to leave me alone.  I welcomed the company.  I was somehow functioning but the pain of grief was profound.  I had twenty years to prepare for my mother's death but I do not know how one actually accomplishes that.  In one breath I had lost my mother, my best friend, my mentor, my job, my identity, my raison d'etre and soon my home.  My world could never possibly be the same again. Sometimes a little self-pity is justified.

There are few human emotions as warm, comforting, and enveloping as self-pity. And nothing is more corrosive and destructive. There is only one answer; turn away from it and move on.
dr. megan reik

That evening is when I discovered something new and odd and awful.  I discovered that the shower was the most painful place to be.  From that night and for the next couple of weeks I could not stand in the shower without breaking down and sobbing.  It was the only place I was truly alone.  I was alone with my sorrow and my pain and it was easy to let all of my emotions out even after I had learned to mostly tuck them away in front of people.  

The evening of the "open house" was here and friends and family were arriving.  It was amazing.  People showed up that I hadn't seen since I was in high school.  Teachers that my mother taught with thirty years ago and that had taught me were in my living room.  It was a full house.  It was a house filled with love and tears and laughter.  We shared Adelaide stories.  Old friends reunited.  I met some of my sister's friends who I had only heard stories about for many years.  So many people approached me to tell me what a wonderful job I had done taking care of my mother for all these years.  I was actually embarrassed.

Frequently throughout the evening my sister and I would find one another to express how happy we were that we had decided to honor mom in this most natural of ways, borrowed from the Jewish tradition of shiva and made just a little Italian.  I kept repeating that "mommy would have loved this".  She would have.  Adelaide loved nothing more that to have friends and family filling our home with love.

The day of the funeral arrived.  Another of my friends came to house sit.  She tried hard to convince me to take a tranquilizer that I had for just such a time but declined. I decided that I wanted to experience the day to its' fullest.  Another of my friends chided me that I was a "typical writer" for that.  [I love my friends]

The funeral service began with the organist playing the processional hymn on the organ.  The first couple of notes bellowed from the pipes and my brother-in-law sprang to his feet in fear that I was going to cause a scene and "bring down the curtain".  He grabbed the funeral director who bolted up the the organ loft pretty swiftly for a dignified gentleman.  The organ was silenced for the remainder of the service.  Linda sang like Beverly Sills and Maria Callas had taken her over.  The priest gave a wonderfully personal eulogy capturing the very essence of my mother.  Sister, having presented her credentials, read a lovely verse.  Brother-in-law performed his song which brought me easily to tears. Then in a final act of love, the elder monsignor who had been a very close friend of my parents stood and gave a second eulogy and spoke beautifully of both of my parents.

The funeral was beautiful.  It was tear-filled but it was a joyous celebration of my mother's exemplary life. I was proud of myself for this most important "production".  I am so thankful for having such talented and generous friends.

 Six months have passed.  Most of the tears have stopped, at least the public ones.  Most of the time I remember Adelaide as a healthy vibrant woman now.  My friends continue to surround me and watch out for me.  My sister will forever be my rock and my inspiration.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012



Yes, I love the rich colors of the foliage. My birthday is even in Fall.  The first hint of chill in the air combining with the shortening of the days is always sure to trigger the blues for me.  I am one of the many who suffers from "seasonal affective disorder".  In a good year I begin to hibernate.  I take on projects to distract me. I listen to my favorite music, watch my favorite movies and cook my favorite foods. Sometimes these efforts even work.

2011 was the Fall of a lifetime.  There was no little trick to beat the blues.  This was the season in which the gods challenged my very being and nearly won.  

Late in September my mother was hospitalized again.  This was another bout with pneumonia and at 91 a bout with pneumonia can always be the last one. This was another of those episodes where the doctors warned us to expect the worst.  We have had so many of those that I began to accept them as part of the ritual.  Mom didn't seem so ill this time.  At least she was comfortable and responded quickly to medication. I was even able to relax a little because my mother's private aide spent nights in the hospital alongside mom.

Amazing Adelaide made it through and back home.  Mom's aide, Niki even convinced me to take a couple of nights away from home so I could relax.  This was in everyone's best interest.  At home I would just hover and Niki didn't need that.  The weather was beautiful and I spent my couple of "bonus days" on the New Jersey shore. This really was a great idea.  I regained some strength which I was certainly going to  be needing.

Mom was recovering very slowly this go 'round.  She had lost her appetite and was sleeping more than before.  I, of course, was worrying because that was what I did well.  

As if Fall isn't difficult enough for me, Mother Nature decided to let it all out and delivered the now famous Halloween blizzard of 2011!  Snow in October is not only unwanted but it is wrong.  Trees with leaves do not accept the weight of huge amounts of snow willingly and they did not.

As the snow began to pile up the trees began to fall.  This was as frightening an experience as I had experienced to that point.  Trees were falling on my house.  The snow was blowing in gale force winds.  Niki was beginning to panic.  My ancient dog Mickey wanted to go out an play but that wasn't going to happen. 

I was worried [I told you that was my job] that we would lose power if not the roof so earlier in the day I had checked the generator and made sure it was at the ready.  Niki and I had also loaded all the firewood I had on hand into the garage so we could have some extra heat and ambience.  Right on schedule, about four hours into the storm the power did indeed go out.

Luckily I had the generator up and running in minutes!  I was never a Boy Scout but I'm still good at being prepared.  Niki and I made sure to run cables to Mom's room to keep her electric bed functioning and heat going for her.  We had some lights for us and a nice fire roaring.  We were scared but comfy enough.  

That comfort lasted about three hours until the generator failed.  No matter how I tried I could not get it restarted.  Time for the back-up plan.  Lift mom off her electric bed and air mattress and put lots of padding under her.  Get the flashlights and lanterns.  Put quilts on mom and get the portable propane heater [indoor safe] which I had bought years earlier to "be prepared" for some other possible disaster.

Niki stayed with mom.  I slept in the fireplace room.  We made it through the night.  The snow had stopped. The trees stopped falling.  Neighbors came to my rescue and got the generator working.  It's a good thing they were able to help because we were without power for five days!

11  15  11  15  11

Adelaide never fully rebounded from her hospital stay.  This time it was different.  She was not the same.  She was not smiling.  She was not eating much.  Mid-November on a Thursday afternoon my sister was visiting and trying to feed mom lunch as she had so lovingly for so many years.  Mom just was not doing well.  My sister and I were both worrying.  Niki was obviously lying about her concern for mom's condition in order not to alarm us.  I knew better.  

The following day I could tell mom was not heading in the right direction.  I told Patricia that I thought mom was tired of fighting.  Neither of us wanted to believe it because we had played this scenario so many times before.  I could feel that mom was not the same.  Over the next couple of days I felt mom was slipping away. Niki continued her charade but we all knew.

On Monday mom was a little better.  She ate a little lunch for Patricia.  She even smiled a little.  Oddly enough when Patricia was leaving and kissed mom and said she would see her the following day, Adelaide managed to get out a quiet but unmistakable "goodbye" in return.  

That evening mom was doing worse.  I could not sit still.  I hovered and worried.  Mom's eyes appeared to be sunken in and she was awake but not with us.  

Tuesday was Niki's birthday.  She had gotten mom taken care of but had to leave the house for a new job that she had just gotten.  I heard her chatting away with mom as we all did. I could hear "it's my birthday.  Don't you want to smile for me?"  Niki said mom seemed a little better and then left.

Mom did seem a little better.  She was certainly more alert.  She ate for me and that was a wonderful sign!  Way to go Adelaide!  

About an hour later I could hear mom coughing a little so I rushed to check on her.  She was obviously in distress.  I raised her oxygen level and put her on her side.  I stayed with her while I called 911 and then my sister.  I told my sister what was going on and she said she would meet me at the hospital.  I told her not to go to the hospital but to come home instead.  I knew Adelaide was not going to be going to the hospital.  

The paramedics arrived followed by my sister.  I was holding my mother while they were assessing her. Her breathing was very shallow. This was that moment that no one can ever be prepared for.  THE decision.  The DREADED decision.  They asked if I wanted them to intubate her. 

In that briefest of moments I kissed my mother who was still in my arms and said goodbye.  I told her I knew it was time and how brave she had always been and how much I loved her. I called my sister into the room and told her it was time.  Then I gave my answer to the paramedics and invoked the DNR.

 11:15 [am] November 15, 2011

It was over. Our beautiful mother was gone.  She slipped quietly to the other side while I held her and with Patricia at our side.  In an instant our lives would never be the same.  She was at peace.  It was beautiful.  We were devastated.

I am still so proud of myself for having seen to her caregiving all the way to the most fitting end. All those dress rehearsals.  All those emergency room trips.  All that worrying.  All that dread.  In the end she was as home where she belonged and where she would have wanted to be.  

I recall that the first thing I was able to say to my sister was that now we were orphans.  I am sure that sounds peculiar to those of you who are fortunate to still have one or both parents but I am equally as sure that anyone without parents will understand.  I lost my father when I was 10 and my mom when I was 52 but regardless of my age the sorrow is immeasurable.

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. 

Au revoir mon doux.
Ti terrĂ² nel mio cuore per sempre.
Vestibulum ut res docuit.