Her Way: A Portrait of My Mother
“Is it too early to get up?” I said to the empty house. Morning light showed through the slats of the blinds. The night before, I collapsed on the bed of my mother’s guest room in upstate New York. My mind had never shut down. Mom passed away yesterday. Despite the mad dash from my house almost 5 hours south, I didn’t make it in time to be with her in her last moments.
* * *
Although she lived so far up north, over the past 20 years, doctors near me in Rockland County had managed Mom’s major healthcare. In this way, I could help her with the recovery. Once she felt better, she would strip the bed, stuffing the sheets into a pillowcase, pack her bags, and insist on returning to her home.
“No, Holly. We are not doing this YOUR way. We are doing this MY way!” she always said.
* * *
In the summer months, I am closer to her at my small lake house 45 minutes away from Cortland. On July 10th, just four days before, I was there preparing for guests when I got the Life Alert call. My mother, Mary Jane, had fallen and was on her way to the hospital by ambulance. I jumped into my car and met her in the ER. Once I walked in, I could hear her angry voice and knew she was being less than cooperative with the staff. The doctor turned to ask me a question, but Mom cut me off.
“No, Holly,” she said, two index fingers jabbing at me for emphasis. “I did not fall. I simply rolled off the couch.”
Dorothy, one of her caregivers, discovered her on the floor hours after the incident. Mom’s plan had been for Dorothy to pick her up and put her back on the couch. She had no intention of pushing the Life Alert button attached to her belt. Unable to lift her after forty-five minutes of trying, in frustration, the helper activated the 911 system herself.
Mom had been furious.
* * *
Two weeks before, in late June, I spent 7 days with my mother at her house. The first morning, on her way to the first-floor half-bath, she shuffled by moaning and groaning. “Are you having pain in your back?” I asked. Mom paused for a moment and straightened as best she could, while giving me a steady, defiant look. “No, I’m fine,” she said and continued on, adding, “I’m just having trouble breathing.” The door clicked shut behind her with the long green cord snaking out from underneath, her lifeline to the oxygen machine in the living room.
In hushed tones, an aide named Kimmie said my mother could no longer make it up the stairs to the full bath on the second floor. No more showers. As Kimmie began describing her idea for installing one downstairs, Mom called out from her sunroom, “Where are you two? What are you talking about out there?” Earlier, Dorothy was making sandwiches in the kitchen and whispered something about a new health issue. She wanted to make sure I knew. Again, Mom shouted, “What’s taking so long? What’s going on in there?” She did not want me to know anything, but it worried the caregivers, carrying so much responsibility for her. Mom had told them her reason. “She might put me in a home.”
My sister called my mother the night before the accident. Their conversation mostly had to do with how a heating pad was helping somewhat with constant back pain. Since Ivy lives 2,000 miles away, she posed no threat of intervention.
Her helpers were there in the mornings and late afternoons. On weekends, she only had help in the mornings and liked it that way, she said. Despite my mother’s finicky ways, it was clear the women cared for her. Her meals came out on a tray just to her liking. The steaming hot bowl or plate was atop a placemat with the added protection of a potholder beneath, the correct utensil always placed on the left side. A plastic lid must be on the coffee mug to keep in the heat, with a clean stirring spoon standing by in a repurposed plastic applesauce cup. Her bottle of water required a straw within easy reach in another nearby empty plastic bottle.
The first morning of our week together, as Dorothy carried her breakfast into the sunroom, my mother patted her hands on her lap with great enthusiasm. “Put it right here,” she directed. “Now, where’s my bib?” A search began among the many pillows on the couch. By the time we found it, the coffee became cold by her standards. She took a sip to be sure and looked up with suspicion at Dorothy. “Did you REALLY push the button on the microwave twice?” she asked. “This is lukewarm!” I imprinted the scene in my memory as, moments later, the unacceptable item was on its way back to the kitchen. Mom seems happy, I thought. Perched on a dining room chair pulled up to the doorway of the small over-crowded room, I leaned forward to see her over the tray between us, piled high with pills, unopened mail, and an old soup container jammed with pens, scissors, and nail files. Every surface of her house looked like this, a confusion of furniture and plastic containers.
The night before, my mother announced we were leaving at 9:30 AM to go buy a recliner. Dorothy was coming with us, she decreed. Here it was, 10:30 AM, Dorothy was only there until noon and Mom’s plan appeared unlikely. “Do you still want to go to the furniture store?” I asked. “What?!” she said, shaking her head in exasperation. “Talk louder! You never speak loud enough.” She reached to check her ear. As usual, no hearing aid. “Wait a moment.” Another hunt ensued among all the cushions. This time, we followed the fishing line leading to the tiny audio device attached to the belt with her Life Alert, an ingenious solution invented by Todd, Kimmie’s fiancé, Todd, after Mom lost it so many times.
This recliner purchase would be Mom’s tenth. Besides the two right here in her Cortland house, there were three down in Rockland County, two in my lake cottage and another two in her cabin near mine. Last November, while I visited for her 87th birthday, the topic had come up about buying yet another. Nestled into the one in her sunroom, she said, “It’s perfect in every way, except there’s no lever on the side to raise the footrest and tilt back.” She showed how she could lower it with her legs, but no longer had the strength to push it back without help. For the better part of the day, we looked online after measuring and recording the dimensions of this otherwise ideal chair, discussing every imaginable detail; color, fabric, and price. After I arranged for a manufacturer to mail her upholstery samples, my next instructions were to go to a nearby furniture store to see if any were in stock. On the way back, she also wanted me to bring her a chocolate milkshake from the fast food place around the corner. Although I came back with the milkshake, it disappointed her that the local store only carried a rocker-style model, a feature she most disliked. We agreed to pursue the project further when I returned in January.
On the weekend planned for my visit, a massive snowstorm blasted through Upstate New York. Mom called, forbidding me to make the drive. “We already have over a foot of snow here with more on the way. DO NOT come up here. I mean it!”
Then came the scourge of COVID-19. Although her TV always blasted the news about the virus spreading all over the world, Mom felt certain I was exaggerating. “There isn’t even a single case in this town,” she said. “Mom, please do not go out to any stores.” I pleaded. “Don’t worry, dear. My helpers are doing all my shopping.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, I called her for the holiday. “Well, you were right about the toilet paper aisle being empty,” she began, admitting a trip to the supermarket to see for herself — Dorothy, wheelchair, and oxygen tank in tow.
* * *
Now in June, although she had every intention of going out to the furniture store to sort out the recliner issue, my once unstoppable mother admitted defeat. “I’m just so tired,” she said, heaving a huge sigh and sinking back into the cushions. I had never seen her look tinier.
“Everything is wrong with me,” she said with a wan smile. “But my body just keeps going,”.
* * *
Earlier in the month, extreme fatigue drove her to make an appointment with a new pulmonary group. She had a history of getting fired as a patient, so long ago I stopped asking why a new doctor. Back in November, I found a letter from a dermatologist stating she was no longer welcome in the office. Whatever happened must have been awful, since Mom’s appointment had to do with a recurrence of melanoma. A similar situation happened with a local internist and, years before, with a pulmonologist in Rockland, although he took her back later. The most diplomatic adjective once used by her cardiologist down here by me was the word, “forceful,” which I always felt was the perfect description.
On her first visit, the new pulmonologist raised her oxygen level. During the follow-up appointment, a different doctor lowered it back down again. Mom explained the specialists were temporary, something to do with the restructure of the practice due to COVID-19. Another doctor would be seeing her next time in September. It was clear no one here in this town knew her or her medical history. Did her fatigue have to do with her lungs, or was it the new health issue?
No matter what, my mother was not up to going anywhere today. Kimmie and Todd arrived in the late afternoon, and all four of us came up with a more practical plan. In a few days, my son, Sam, and Todd, with his pickup truck, would bring a recliner with the much-needed lever from my lake cottage.
Mom and I settled in to watch TV. None of her “high-class murders” were on PBS that night, so we watched news of the protests, the violence, and the destruction of statues. She worried about my daughter, her granddaughter, Lily. “You should MAKE her leave Brooklyn and COME HOME.,” she said, giving me a piercing glare. “She has no business being there.” she went on, shaking a vehement little fist. As much as her body was failing, her mind was sharp as a tack. Ask her the name of any politician, and she provide a full rundown, well-sprinkled with her unique perspectives. She was still reading the newspaper, too, although now its pages were more likely seen draped over her like a blanket, with her beneath, fast asleep.
Mom dozed off again. I cleared a space on the dining room table and opened my laptop. Late into the night, the ever-present white noise of the oxygen machine took on the eerie semblance of a choir intoning an ancient Gregorian chant. After a while, I became convinced I was hearing a specific word—a prolonged, deep intake of breath, followed by a slight pause and then a long hiss exhaling the word, “T-I-I-I-M-E.” I stopped to record it on my phone and sent it to Sam. “What does this sound like to you?” I wrote in the text. He replied, “S-A-A-A-M” and I laughed out loud.
Whenever my mother was staying with us and needed something, she would use the house phone to call our cells. Sam was first on the list. Often, she left him a voicemail. “Sam, I need you right away. Get down here, please.” After that one summer of dire medical emergencies, he always came running. Most times, however, the pressing need had to do with reheating her coffee.
* * *
On June 29, I left for the lake to meet my family. As planned, a few days later, Sam, Todd, and I delivered the recliner to Cortland. We all had a good laugh as Mom happily showed us how she could now operate the chair by herself with the side lever. After the long, strange winter, it cheered her to see everyone.
* * *
On this first morning after her death, the house was eerily quiet. No more oxygen machine biding time, just the whirring sound of the fan spinning a humid breeze. I listened to the odd strangled bark of the dog in the next yard. What time was it? I held up my phone and shielded my eyes from the bright screen — 4:30 AM. After many nights spent in this room, I knew what came next. On cue, a pickup truck roared to life as the neighbor headed off to work. Might as well get up, I thought. Lying here is useless.
Splashing cold water on my face, I stared out the bathroom window into the parking lot just beyond the backyard fence. Coffee Mania just opened for business, and cars were just beginning to line up to the drive-through window for their morning caffeine. At first, this new resident had appalled my mother but in time, she became a customer. The physical proof was the loyalty card I had discovered the night before on the dining table — just one more purchase entitled her to a free cup. The garish red tail lights competing with the glorious rose-colored blaze of the new sunrise sparked a memory.
* * *
Before the oxygen machine, I would drive up from Palisades to bring her back to my house for doctor’s appointments and/or major medical procedures. On one particular trip, we were in the car, my car stuffed to capacity, and finally ready to leave when she insisted we join the ever-present exhaust-streaming line of vehicles. While brandishing her red travel mug, she dictated instructions to me what precisely I should to say when it was our turn. “First, she should rinse the cup with hot water,” she began. “Do you hear me? HOT WATER!” Over the blast of the heater warming up the cold car, Mom shouted, “Then I want it filled two-thirds full with coffee, add two teaspoons of sugar, and the rest should be whole milk. Am I clear?” She gave me her sternest look as I grudgingly took the mug. It had been a 7-hour ordeal to extricate her from her house and I was trying my best to remain patient while calculating the time we would roll into my driveway, long after dark. We reached the window, and I handed over the travel mug. As I opened my mouth to speak, my mother became certain I wouldn’t get it right. Leaning over, she began yelling the instructions herself, directly into my right ear, to be loud enough for the startled woman behind the glass. I remember at the time thinking the entire situation was insufferable. Now it was an almost endearing recollection.
* * *
The first phone call from the hospital came in yesterday morning. “Your mother, Mary Jane, is coding,” said a woman’s voice. There was a long pause on my part as I absorbed her words. “Excuse me, are you saying her heart has stopped?” I asked, incredulous. Was this person telling me my mother was dying?
The next call came 15 minutes later when I was in my car, already racing back upstate. “Are you driving?” the nurse asked. “Yes.” “Do you want to pull over?” “I can’t. I’m on a major highway. Just tell me.” My mother had just died.
Arriving at the hospital, the receptionist pointed a ray-gun thermometer at my forehead. No temperature. In a daze, I headed towards the elevator and overheard the young woman say over the phone, “She’s here.” The lift was open. I stepped inside and pushed the button for Floor 2. The doors scraped shut and opened seconds later. Two women were standing together down the long hall, deep in conversation — about me, I knew. Both in scrubs, one in white and the other navy blue, they looked up in unison and the one in white scurried away. The other in blue approached me. She had been my mother’s nurse today, I heard her say.
The nurse led me to the place where I last saw my mother, the door of her room now closed. She turned the handle to release the latch and pushed it open, revealing the dimly lit room, the curtain partially drawn and my mother’s still form on the other side. This is so unreal, I thought as I became aware of the nurse study me carefully, watching my reactions. I noticed myself doing the same thing of her; curly brown hair threaded with gray and reined in by the straps of a light blue mask. She reminded me of someone I knew and wondered fleetingly what thoughts were going through her mind. It’s so hard to discern who people are when they are wearing masks, I thought as I struggled to focus. She was describing what happened. With a gesture toward the chair next to the bed, she said, “Her heart just stopped while she was being helped to the recliner.”
* * *
In the ER four days before, my mother had demanded pain medication. In the past, over-the-counter meds were all she would take. A nurse brought her up to this room where I now stood and I remember looking around and wondering aloud, “Why no heart rate monitor? For someone with a heart condition, shouldn’t it be a standard operating procedure?” “Not necessary,” everyone said when I continued to raise this question. “Your mother has compressed vertebrae. She’ll be going to rehab in a few days.” I never saw a doctor, either. Was this due to the fact it was a weekend? Where was her cardiologist? His office was right here in the hospital. Did he even realize she was here? No one could give answers. My heart broke. What was happening? Later I realized what the Social Worker in the ER had meant when he said she wasn’t being “officially admitted” to the hospital. Although she had a bed in a room, they assigned her the lesser status of “under observation,” a recently revised hospital admission classification.
She seemed to be asleep when I arrived on our last morning together. At the touch of my hand on hers, she opened her eyes with a start. “I feel like I am fading,” she said and gave me a sweet smile. Over the years, my mother had said this during other hospital stays. As always, I wondered if my mother was having a premonition of her own demise.
“Mom, I need to go home for a few days,” I began. “There are bills to pay…”
“Can’t Sam pay the bills?” she interrupted.
“Mom, I am coming back in a day or so when you go to rehab,” I continued. “And I want to make sure the first-floor shower is ready when you return home.”
This last talking point got her full attention. Her startling blue eyes flashed open as she barked, “Did I give MY permission to put a shower in MY house?”
Same old Nan. I thought. No worries. She’ll be okay until I get back.
Tossing my bag over my shoulder, I took her hand again. “I’ll be back in two days,” I promised. “Goodbye, Mom. I love you.” Instead of the usual hug and a kiss, I blew one towards her à la COVID.
Mom always disliked it when, as she put it, “People freely bantered about the ‘I love you’ expression.” Eyes squeezed shut and nose wrinkled, she would shake her head in vigorous disapproval, saying, “It just sounds so insincere.”
But this time, she blew me a kiss, waved goodbye, and whispered, “I love you.”
* * *
Now, just a day and a half later, I was peering over my mask through racking sobs and tears. The world had changed forever. My gaze shifted back to my mother. She almost looks like she’s sleeping, I thought, and understood I was looking for chest rise. I forced myself to turn back to the woman in blue scrubs. “She was not alone,” the nurse said, her mask sucking in and out with each word. I wanted to scream aloud, “These damn masks make this an even more grotesque nightmare!” “Another nurse was with her,” she continued. “She was holding her hand and talking to her in her last moments.”
It should have been me holding her hand. I should have known.
* * *
Her first name was “Mary Jane,” as opposed “Mary” with a middle name of “Jane,” a mistake she often corrected with annoyance. “Mrs. Whitstock” was her preferred title. My Dad called her “Peaches” or “MJ.” Among themselves, the caregivers, Dorothy, Heather and Kimmie also referred to her as “MJ” or else "Miss Mary Jane." My siblings and I called her “Mom.” A select group was permitted to call her “Nan,” even if they weren’t her grandchildren. Siri L. was at the top of that list! Descriptions of her range from strong-minded and feisty to generous and sweet. Infamous for her opinions, she also touched the hearts of many. Some have said she was a fearless woman who taught them what it meant to be strong and independent.
As one of our friends later wrote, “It is so hard to comprehend the loss of Nan. This is a woman that I thought we would never lose.”
My mother will forever hold a place in my thoughts. There are plenty of questions I could have asked and so many new ones now she’s gone. I regret the times I meant to call her, but the day just got away from me.
The morning after she left us, Ivy woke from a vivid dream. Mom appeared to her as a beautiful angel who filled the entire sky, smiling and happy on her way up to Heaven. A sense of energy and joy enveloped my sister, and she felt sure our mother wanted us to know.
* * *
Mary Jane Whitstock lived life her way. She’s back with Dad now. Sam makes voicemail music videos. The following is a link to the last one he made of, and for, Nan. Recliner: