Part I: The Last Sound
January 26, 2013, 8:13pm. The last sound I heard from my mother sounded like “AHHhh,” but it could have been “UHHhh”. I’m not sure, but it was unmistakably her voice and her last breath. The dark reality of my mother’s death, still raw and undigested, was amplified by unfolding events over the subsequent months.
October, 1993: Marie and I are packing for a trip to Sedona, Arizona and the Grand Canyon. We are flying my parents from New Jersey to Phoenix, where we will pick them up en route from our home in San Diego. We are shopping at Adventure 16, our local hiking supply store. I pause at the hiking sticks and see a wooden handled one. My mother, Mary Bladen Eilenberg (she hated her middle name) had flagging knees and, at 62, walking was becoming a painful chore. I thought this “hiking cane” would play to her vanity and send her into physical therapy or for an orthopedic consultation. This backfired, as the stick became her favorite accessory.
She did have an orthopedic consultation. It was with a contemporary of my doctor father, David. The orthopod told her that her deconditioned state made her a poor candidate for knee replacement. This was her shield against surgery for years. David always had a knack for seeking out marginal consultants.
Fourteen years later, we bought a vacation home in Sedona, on the boundary with the national forest. Mary’s walking had deteriorated to the point that she rarely visited the top floor of her 3 story home in Wayne, New Jersey, and couldn’t imagine visiting us in Sedona. She would throw the daily laundry, hamper and all, down the basement stairs and crawl down after it.
The basement included a laundry room, my old bedroom turned chemistry lab, a darkroom/ X-ray development room, and my father’s former medical office. The office had an X-ray machine, 3 examination rooms, a consultation room, a waiting room and a cubbyhole for the nurse. The office was long shuttered and was now a repository for discarded freezers from various dead relatives, each filled with spoils from Costco and Trader Joe’s. These, along with a Costco gas generator, gallons of hand sanitizer, vats of Xanax, miles of duct tape, a shotgun, two revolvers, and some hard currency, were to carry my parents and their live-at-home second daughter, my sister K, through the next terrorist attack, days of reckoning or zombie apocalypse.
Over the years, Marie and I returned to the east coast regularly. We would spend a few days in Manhattan for theatre, pizza, museums, street photography, visits with my baby sister and her husband (Sarah and Aaron) and Marie’s younger sister and brother-in-law, who lived in Staten Island and Manhattan, respectively. If we timed it right, my older sister, Susan, an English literature professor at SUNY Buffalo, would drive down.
Towards the end of each New York City fix, we would take the bus out to the New Jersey suburbs for a few days with my folks at their 928 Alps Road home. On each trip out to 928, my father appeared shorter, deafer, and deeper into the grips of Parkinsonism, yet no less determined to tell me how poorly they were doing. It went like this:
David: “Steven, can you go downstairs and turn off the valve to the outdoors hose bib?”
Steve: “Dad, it’s midnight…can’t it wait until morning?”
David: “It might freeze tonight…It ‘ul just take a minute and I don’t have the strengthuhhh…”
Steve: “You know I can’t find any of your tools!”
David: “I bought some wrenches from Costco…I can tell you were they areuhhh”
Steve: “OK. Where are they?”
David: “Come down and I’ll show youuhh”.
I’m not afraid of many things, but this would make my skin crawl. First off, most of his tools had been stolen by the handyman husband of a home health nurse who looked in on him. About the only thing I could reliably find was a multi tool meant to cut your seat belt and break the car window, moments before your overturned crashed car was to burst into flames. The SafeTHammer® came with coupons for a stylish pair of blue-blocker sunglasses and for TV EARS, a wireless voice clarifying TV headset. David bought the tool at Costco, under a looping video featuring Ed McMahon giving a personal endorsement. The infirm elderly have trouble
getting out of chairs, no less burning overturned cars. I suggested to my father that you could also use it to beat yourself about the head until unconscious, to prevent a painful fiery death.
His resolute answer to me was “adrenaline”. Each of his cars, whether they ran or not, had one buried somewhere in the glovebox.
David’s “Come down and I’ll show you” actually meant “Come into my office and I will tell you how horrible our life is.” How your mother can barely walk, no less shop and make food. How her mind is going and how worried he is about K, his live at home daughter.
He lamented that his cars were getting old and that he could no longer work on them. How the heating bill was eating up their savings. How his pharmacy prescription writing privileges were about to expire. Losing prescription writing privileges led to stockpiling a lifelong supply of the
anxiolytic, Xanax. He would show me with his thumb and index finger held up, what “thin ice” they were on. With his Parkinsonism tremor, this hand gesture was both sad and comical. These were endless, repetitive, one sided conversations.
What kind of horrible son would dread these post-midnight office consultation room conversations? This was, after all, the very same room where, back in 1969, he gave me a sex education talk. Flustered, he mistakenly opened up the wrong Frank Netter medical anatomy book on human sexuality. In the Netter series, there are two volumes dedicated to human sexuality, one normal and the other abnormal. As he went on about petting and heavy petting, he showed me pictures of women with extra breasts under their armpits (polymastia), hermaphrodites and weeping genital cankers. I went off to bed, a confused and horrified 12 year old.
I am that kind of horrible son. The kind who heard variations of his “thin ice” lecture for decades, dating back at least to our Sedona trip in 1993. For each of his complaints, I had what I thought were considered responses.
Mary’s knees? Let’s get another orthopedic opinion. Perhaps from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. I’ll research the surgeons and get back to you.
K’s situation? Let’s set up a trust.
My parents’ estate? I’ll find an excellent attorney, make the appointment and pay for it. I suggested excluding me from the estate, dividing the assets among my three sisters.
I even tried to bribe my parents into action, offering to help find and finance a home for Susan, the English professor perpetually renting in Buffalo. This was before we bought our current money pit contemporary home in San Diego in the days when we had spare cash.
It took me years to understand that David just wanted someone at which to talk. As the man of the house, he proudly carried these rusty shackles, and they were his and his alone. I could not fix this. In his defense, he thought all lawyers were crooks and Mary insisted that the estate be divided four ways equally. As a topper, Susan told me that owning a home in Buffalo was tantamount to a life sentence there. Discouraged, I turned to things I could fix; those requiring no permission or agreement.
On each trip back, I would concentrate on a single 928 house repair. It often entailed undoing one of David’s previous repairs. On one trip back, the loose-with-age slate tiles in the foyer had been glued down with copious amounts of silicone rubber bathtub caulk. Walking into the house felt like being on a rocking ship, with each tile yielding in a different direction. It seemed the house, cars and my parents were lockstep in falling apart, all barely held together.
I spent an alarming amount of time researching telephones for the hearing impaired, TV ears, 3 and 4 wheeled rollators, and Depends.
Nitro Euro Style Rollator Walker in “Hot rod red”
I bought them a new flat screen TV, a TIVO® box, and an iMac computer for my mother. The iMac was to fulfill a selfish wish that Mary and I could become e-mail pals, independent of my father. I would send her pictures and stories of our travels and social events and she would tell me what was new at Costco or what crazy antics her water aerobic pals were doing. Our Friday
evening phone chats were usually cut short by my father grabbing the phone, then telling me what a mess things were or asking me details about a medical journal article I hadn’t read.
The iMac experiment was huge failure. Mary was a die-hard technophobe and certain that she was the longest undiagnosed survivor of Alzheimer’s. She feared showcasing her computer skills would expose her and lead to a second insane asylum internment.
Her first internment was the stuff of family lore. It went like this:
Our home: Cleveland Army Barracks.
My father was a medical intern or resident at King’s County Hospital. Susan, two years my senior, and I were under my mother’s charge when Mary started hallucinating and slipping into a mental fog. My father diagnosed her with acute schizophrenia and had her committed. She was subsequently found to have encephalitis and had an uneventful recovery. I imagine some of her distrust in doctors and the medical system stemmed from this and she tried her best to hide any defect.
Mary and I would sit at her shiny iMac computer and have conversations like this:
Steve: “So, go to your home page.”
Mary: “I am home…”
Steve: “No, your home page on the computer.”
Steve: “OK, this is a link to your home page. Click on it.”
Mary: “What’s a clink?”
Steve: “Just click on this spot.”
Mary speaking: “Click.”
Steve: “No! Don’t say ‘Click’… use the mouse!”
Mary, lifting the mouse to her mouth: “Click.”
Steve: “No, it’s not a microphone, it’s a mouse…an input device!”
Mary: “????” Sweat beads forming on her forehead.
Steve: “OK, put your hand on the mouse and push down.”
Mary: pushing down “What now?”
Steve: “Lift up…Lift up!”
Mary: “Ha, look at that! Something happened!”
Steve: “You clicked on the wrong link!”
Mary: “What’s a link?”
Steve: “OK! Let’s start over…”
Eventually, we got to her Yahoo home page and she attempted to enter her password. Watching my mother type on a keyboard was quite a sight! Her head sunk into her shoulders. Her face became a clenched fist. Her mouth opened to a small “o” and her fingers hovered tentatively over the keyboard as if it had been smeared with dog shit. Remembering none of the keys, she would hunt for each letter as if it were hiding under the keyboard. Each key strike was deliberate and appeared painful, as if the shit covered keys were also electrified. She uttered low guttural sounds like “Aaaaahhhhhh… Ooooowaaah, Eeeaaah” and the like.
This was the polar opposite of her 10-year older husband, who kept his left index finger in his nose, while rapidly and efficiently typing with his right one. Defeated, I changed Mary’s desktop picture to a pretty flower bouquet and would call it a day. Susan, an actual teacher, had similar results instructing Mary.
Upon return to San Diego, I wrote my mother the following email:
“Hey M! Believe it or not, we arrived without crashing. Got home to our spiders and just one small roof leak! Was great seeing you and D. Love that Tavern pizzeria. Wish they had a branch in San Diego but until then, I’m still experimenting. Planning to make a garlic, broccoli rabe, anchovy pizza later this week. I’ll let you know how it comes out. E-mail me back. You need the practice! Love, s.”
Three days later, there was a Gmail waiting for me from Mary. I opened it with great anticipation. It said: “Bi m”.
If she was ever able to find and include an emoticon, it would have been a crazy face, but this never happened.
To continue on to Part 2: Here’s a link: https://aperturephotoarts.com/ran-ipad-mother-died-shit-got-real-illustrated-autobiographical-tragicomic-novella-part-ii/