It had been three years since my mother moved into my house when she asked, “Which Allan are you, the professor or the piano player?” Alarmed by her confusion, knowing this meant we were now entering the uncharted waters of mental decline, this seemed like the moment I might have considered placing her in a nursing facility.
I was a 65-year-old, twice divorced, former rock ‘n’ roll journalist now associate dean in the journalism school at Florida International University, moonlighting as a caregiver for my 95-year-old mother.
Colleagues and friends concerned about my looking sleep-deprived often questioned why, given my mother’s precarious state, I hadn’t put her in a nursing facility. Severe rheumatoid arthritis had curved her spine and hunched her over, gnarled her fingers and eaten away at her hips, robbing her of mobility and independence; bouts of pneumonia had weakened her and left her prey to a variety of infections.
I was keeping a promise I had made to my father before he died that I would look after her, I told them. I refused to institutionalize her and put her in the hands of strangers. More than the promise, she was, after all, my mother.
Two trusted caregivers looked after my mother during the weekdays and on Saturday. My budget stretched to the limit and no family help within reach, I took the night shifts after work and all day Sunday. While I had plenty of room in my house, I had not nearly enough understanding of what moving my mother in would entail or how drastically it would turn my life upside down.
My house, a quiet haven surrounded by lush tropical plants in Fort Lauderdale, was transformed into a quasi-nursing home. A hospital bed, portable commode, oxygen machine and stacks of adult diapers and bed pads had squeezed out the My Little Pony dolls, Gameboys and Beatrix Potter books from my daughter’s childhood bedroom; a parade of home healthcare nurses and doctors performing check-ups and setting up therapies in my living and dining rooms frequently forced me to find sanctuary in the four walls of my bedroom or the four lanes of the interstate, where I drove aimlessly as a getaway.
But if I hadn’t anticipated the commotion, the emotional drain and sadness that came along with caring for my mother, I also hadn’t expected that it would be the start of a new understanding of who she was as a woman, and not just as my mother, nor foresee the resolution of conflicts with her that lingered in me.
As a child discovering his sense of freedom and independence, her chronic anxieties, especially her excessive concern for my welfare, had become repressive. Her love, distorted by her nervousness, was so smothering that I often ran away from home, in part driven by wanderlust, but also out of a need to distance myself from my mother.
Even before I moved her into my house, my mother and I got together on Sundays for a drive to the beach and a breakfast of bagels and lox at a Jewish deli or a roast chicken dinner at her favorite restaurant. Conversations typically revolved around her love of travel and her next trip to visit my sister and her daughter in San Diego. Armed with her walker, she cheerfully flew the 3,000 miles to California. She celebrated her 90th birthday there.
Her mind did the traveling when she moved into my house, mostly back to her earlier years, with stories and unexpected surprises about her life.
I was delighted to hear how my grandmother stuffed hard-boiled eggs in my mother’s winter coat pockets when she was a child in Brooklyn. The eggs served as hand warmers and later doubled as her lunch. I loved hearing about how she excelled in English and writing, especially grammar, as her mother was Austrian and her father Russian, and they almost exclusively spoke Yiddish at home. A professional writer who developed FIU’s grammar and writing program, I never knew that she and I had that kind of link between us.
And there were the regrets. Her father forbade her from attending university and becoming “a person,” as she phrased it. She yearned for the opportunities as a first-generation American girl, but knew the limits of her father’s Old World ways. She gave her savings from working day jobs in retail shops to her younger brother so he could enroll in New York University.
Once in my house, our Sundays followed a routine. She woke with the sun and called me to lift her from bed. As she always awakened me once or twice a night to reposition a pillow to ease the pressure on her bent spine or give her a drink of water, I often put off her impatient calls. Bleary-eyed, my first stop was the kitchen and a strong cup of coffee. Once in her bedroom, I gently lifted her back and turned her body upright so her feet dangled over the bed. After I eased her pink slippers onto her crooked toes, I held her under her armpits and steered her to the commode beside her bed. The first time I unbuttoned her nightdress was an awkward moment for us both. She averted her eyes shyly; though also greatly embarrassed, I carried on like an unengaged orderly wiping and freshening her with washcloths.
After dressing her in a housedress, I rolled her into the living room in a wheelchair and sat her in the corner of the sofa. Her two favorite joys followed: my brushing back her thick, white hair and her morning tea with small cubes of pound cake, which I dunked in the tea to make them easier for her to swallow.
She sipped her tea, chatted and dozed. I reclined next to her, reading the Sunday paper or binge watching a Netflix series until I had to make her lunch.
Several months before she died, she awoke disturbed. I thought she might have had a bad dream or imagined her mother calling to her, as she did from time to time.
“I was a nervous child, but Pop ruined me,” she blurted out. “He ruined me. He was my downfall. He made me sick.”
My mother had been my grandfather’s favorite of his three children, so I was alarmed by what I thought this implied.
As she continued, however, I realized that the harm to her was emotional distress caused by a gambler’s addiction.
My grandfather had been a successful baker during the Depression. Old photos revealed that the family lived well — expensive clothes, a big car and furs. But his early-to-rise baking schedule was offset by all-night gambling binges. He was a card player and frequently squandered the family’s earnings.
“727 Alabama Avenue. …I waited for him every night…” she continued, growing more agitated. “I stayed up all night by the front door worrying and waiting for him to come home…”
A memory suddenly flashed through my mind of the many nights my mother waited up for me when I was a college student living at home in New York.
“Mom and Pop separated for a while,“ my mother quivered. “I went with my mother. My nervousness got worse. I got sick with pneumonia. …I worried so much.”
My mother looked at me, her wide eyes more sorrowful than I had seen them since my father died 16 years ago. “727 Alabama Avenue … all my problems came from there,” she cried, her crippled fingers trembling as she reached for my hand.
The revelation, which was so distressing to her, was a moment of clarity for me and my relationship with my mother. I would think about it later; I needed to calm her.
“Do you remember when Grandpa’s card table disappeared?” I interjected.
She was unresponsive. “The card table up in the country, where he used to play with Mr. Newman and his friends,” I added.
I was referring to when my grandfather operated a small resort in the Catskills in the 1950s. Every day at 3 p.m. he played rummy on a rough-hewn, grey table with three cronies: Mr. Newman, who sat beneath a worn, plaid taxi driver hat; Bear, as they called him, a big, burly man with huge, furry hands; and a slim, nameless refugee from Hungary, who had a concentration camp number burned into his forearm.
“The card table, do you remember it?” Silent and distant, she nodded.
“I stole it … ” I confessed, hoping to stir her interest with the story.
The missing card table had been a mystery for decades. Arthur and I had kept the secret of how it lay at the bottom of the lake down the valley from our hotel, the victim of one of my failed attempts at running away from home.
“Arthur and I carried it out behind the handball court at midnight,” I quickly recounted. “We got up before Grandpa started baking and sawed off the legs, then dragged it down the valley to the lake. I had my fishing rod and a bag of sandwiches and was ready to shove off when Gary emerged from behind the bushes.”
Gary was Arthur’s 5-year-old brother — the kid who always tagged along when you didn’t want him around.
I explained that I decided to try the raft out with Gary in it to see if it would float, but the water spurted up from between the grey planks and quickly covered his ankles. Arthur and I fished Gary out and watched as our grandfather’s card table sank to the bottom of the lake.
My mother suddenly raised her crippled hand and hammered it downward, shouting — “Good! Good!” and then “Good, Good!” again.
Before I could finish the story, she closed her eyes.
I wondered whether her story was part of her developing dementia, like her confusion about me being two people. Or was it a long-buried memory rising to the surface in need of release?
I had often felt it ironic that after a life of love and conflict with my mother that I was the one who looked after her. And yet, her revelation opened a door for me. The understanding of her relationship with my grandfather explained some of her behavior toward me. Her nights waiting by the door, for him and me, became one. Long after I thought I had accepted and forgiven and forgotten her possessiveness, I unexpectedly found a deeper kind of peace.
I sat staring at my mother. Her breathing, which had been labored and heavy, was now steady and smooth. I leaned forward and held her head to mine, knowing we didn’t have many Sundays left together.