> Family > Heart of Matter

My Mother, My Self

May 9, 2009 | by Daphne Merkin

A daughter gives her dying mother the only thing she can: dignity.

I was, as fate would have it, worlds away from the goings-on of upper-crust New York when I first heard the disturbing news about Brooke Astor. The contested specifics --whether the 104-year-old philanthropist and grand dame was or was not looked after in the regal style she was accustomed to (including a private chef and expensive face creams, fresh flowers and bonbons) -- had gone far beyond the bounds of a family dispute and taken the very public form of a lawsuit brought by Astor's grandson against his own father, Astor's guardian. As a result, what might have been a matter of purely local intrigue had reached all the way to Israel, where I was sitting shiva together with my five siblings for our recently deceased 86-year-old mother.

On the face of it, the final years of a cosseted blue-blood centenarian would seem to have little to do with me or my family, hunched over for the prescribed week of mourning on low chairs in the living room of my mother's Jerusalem apartment while piously dressed visitors streamed in and out, offering condolences. Or, indeed, with anyone other than the once-formidable and now-bedridden Brooke Astor. Even from afar it was possible to discern that the details of the case were being reported with the sort of dry-eyed and gossipy note of incredulity that always accompanies human-interest stories about the sorrows of the rich (as opposed, say, to the sufferings of cats) -- as if to imply that the situation of an impossibly wealthy old lady at the mercy of callous relatives wasn't one ordinary folk could reasonably be expected to identify with.

And yet the plight of Brooke Astor struck an immediate note of recognition with me thousands of miles away, newly familiar as I was with the problems and crises that can arise when caring for an elderly, frail mother. More than that, I would argue that once you look beyond the particulars of class and money that TV anchors, press wags, and the Schadenfreude-inclined everywhere have delighted in dwelling on, it becomes clear that the plight of an aging heiress dependent on the goodwill of those who are entrusted with her welfare is emblematic of the eventual predicament of Everywoman.

"Men as well as women experience ageist bias," Margaret Cruikshank points out in her book, Learning to Be Old: Gender, Culture, and Aging, "but men do not face the 'primal loathing' that old women evoke merely by existing."

The underlying principle has very little to do with how many homes or the number of household staff a person happens to have, whether she lacks for no-skid socks or has had a valuable piece of art (a Childe Hassam, to be exact) sold out from under her, as was claimed about Mrs. Astor. It has to do with the essential vulnerability of the elderly -- elderly women especially. It has to do as well with the way they are psychologically diminished by circumstance, however luxurious or simple their immediate surroundings, to being at the mercy of the world, much like infants. (It has always seemed to me that because females are more readily judged than males on the basis of their appearance, old women are more easily reduced to being old bodies than old men are.) And it has to do, finally, with the obligation to honor the integrity of the person as they once were, before the passage of years rendered them partially or completely helpless, even if they are no longer fully cognizant of what's going on around them.

All of which raises the questions: How much of your own life should you put on hold to attend to the waning of a parent's life? How much do you owe? And do your motives matter, whether you're doing it out of love or obligation, or perhaps to stave off future pangs of guilt?

My mother had me so convinced of her immortality that I find myself waking up to the realization of her being gone with a feeling of disbelief that lasts throughout the day.

My mother was diagnosed with metastasized (stage IV) lung cancer at the beginning of last January following an exhaustive series of tests. The news came as something of a shock (she was not a smoker), even though she had been short of breath and wheezing on and off for months. Admittedly, I had spent much of my adult life trying to pull myself away from the magnetic force field that surrounded her, but I had done so in the secure knowledge that she would always be there. I had envisioned her looming large in my life for years to come, an indomitable presence who would, for better and worse, remain one of my mainstays into the foreseeable future. In truth, my mother had me so convinced of her immortality that I find myself waking up to the realization of her being gone with a feeling of disbelief -- of psychological disorientation -- that lasts throughout the day.

Although she suffered from a family proclivity to heart disease and had undergone an emergency quintuple bypass in her mid-70s, my mother was an unusually strong woman. She liked to take long walks; during my youth she went off once or twice with a married couple for a week of trekking around St. Moritz, leaving behind detailed instructions for the tending of my immovable and cultivatedly helpless father. She signed on for a cruise to Alaska the summer before her 86th birthday, and, even as her strength failed in the months before she died, she looked forward to going on Sunday car excursions to obscure nooks and crannies of New York's five boroughs with my oldest sister and brother-in-law.

There had always been something admirable about my mother's enormous energy, the sheer willed onward propulsion of her. As opposed to my own brooding habit of "checking my pulse," which was how she mockingly described my inclination to sound out the exact tonality of my feelings, she had a Scarlett O'Hara-ish "Tomorrow is another day" approach to everything from far-reaching decisions to immediate crises. This attitude depended on a conviction of certitude that didn't allow for much reflection -- a stance that became harder to pull off with the isolation and self-reckoning that grave sickness imposes. What I see most clearly in retrospect is that my mother's determination to jostle life's terrors back into place by minimizing or denying them came at a cost not only to her children (who often were made to feel lily-livered by contrast to her own mountain-climbing fortitude) but also, finally, at a cost to her. To let down one's guard was to risk inviting in the specters of doubt and regret. And so she remained an inveterate seeker of diversion from the clamor of her unharmonious inner life right up until the end. She loved movies, primarily for their escapist values, and was kept supplied throughout her illness with piles of videos. In the week before she died she went with my two sisters to see a Catherine Deneuve movie, Changing Times. (Ever opinionated, she gave it a resolute thumbs-down.) Two nights later, in what turned out to be a misguidedly hopeful effort at outfoxing her illness and keeping her tethered to the earth by indulging her need to flee into imagined worlds, I ambitiously rented a batch of eight movies for her to watch; as it turned out, she would see none of them.

Although my mother was used to a fairly privileged standard of living, this was not something she would have ever directly owned up to. "Diamonds are cold," she would insist, and in later years she took to mocking what she considered to be my highfalutin interest in the finer things of life by saying, "You and your Frette sheets." My mother enjoyed nothing more than recounting how she was mistaken for the housekeeper when she did errands in the neighborhood, invested as she was in an image of herself as a secret member of the proletariat, a resilient twice-told immigrant (first as a 16-year-old girl, when she fled her native Frankfurt with her family for Palestine in 1935, and then again, more than a decade later, when she left Israel for America). My mother's identification with simpler and more idealized models from her past was reflected in the German and Hebrew lullabies she chose to sing to us when we were little, snatching a bit of time away from my father before he commandeered her attention once again, calling out for her in his loud, impatient fashion: Lulshin! (This was his nickname for her, a diminutive of her given name of Ursula.) In her clear musical voice she would sing ditties of boys and girls making their way to the newly established Jewish homeland and of an old German lady who smoked a pipe and one night burned the house down. This bedtime ritual was the more precious because it pointed away from the woman we knew -- who went out on the town with my father looking elegant in her Norman Norells, and who oversaw a populous household staff that at one time included a cook, a chauffeur, a nanny, a cleaning woman and a laundress, not to mention Mrs. Rabow, who catered dinner parties -- and toward other long-lapsed possibilities of who she might have been.

My mother died with a certain prearranged single-mindedness of purpose -- without tubes or IVs, keeping her artificially alive when she was already three-quarters gone. She feared the process of dying, the indignities attendant upon it, and had gone to great lengths to ensure that she would get the most up-to-the-minute palliative care. She drew her last breath as she wished to: at home, tucked into a freshly made bed, in the same immaculate bedroom she had occupied for the past half century, in the very duplex apartment I had grown up in, on Park Avenue. (After a memorial service in New York, I flew with my siblings to Jerusalem with her body in keeping with her desire to be buried next to my father in the peaceful hilltop cemetery where they have adjoining plots.)

She had planned on going when she was ready and was frequently in a state of quiet fury at the fact that she had been given a notice of termination without having been consulted.

The six months that transpired between the news of my mother's fatal illness and her death in the very early hours of Sunday morning, July 23, were tumultuous ones. Although my mother espoused a macabre view of the world and often spoke of her death (her chosen epitaph was "She never made mountains out of molehills"), she was used to having things her way. She had planned on going when she was ready and not a minute before and was frequently in a state of quiet fury -- interspersed with bouts of extreme irritation, fleeting paranoia, and sudden onsets of despondency -- at the fact that she had been given a notice of termination without having been consulted. She disliked having to depend on other people, and she hated being perceived in any way as needy. Up until the very last day, although she could not so much as lift her body from her bed on her own, she insisted on not being accompanied into the bathroom.

As the outlines of a medical plan emerged, it became apparent that there would be an almost unspoken division of labor in regard to her care. My oldest sister, who lived across the park from my mother, was the designated "responsible" sibling. A stickler for details and listmaking, she took over the burden of taking my mother to Sloan-Kettering for X rays and MRIs, chemotherapy and checkups. My second-oldest sister came twice from Israel to stay with my mother for extended periods, overseeing every aspect of her routine. I believe she provided the most consistent emotional support for my mother, which also meant withstanding her irate accusations of being manhandled-"policed" is the word she used -- and her casually tossed-off insults about things being done less well than she would do them. There were also my three brothers, two of whom paid regular visits and one of whom, the youngest of us, was a solicitous and unfailingly affectionate presence.

My own involvement was both hazier, less officially spelled out than my sisters', and, or so I like to think, more psychologically intense. This had to do with my reputation within the family, which was that I was notoriously unreliable in terms of showing up on time if at all, as well as with my relationship with my mother, which had about it something of a lover's intimacy, including our squabbles. (I had, after all, written a novel, Enchantment, about the spell my mother had cast on me, an inconsolable daughter frozen in time, longing for a more motherly mother.)

If I had to characterize my own role in looking after my mother I would describe it as having been the self-appointed guardian of her spirit, her Elan vital. I worried about my mother feeling lost and adrift under her show of bravado, and since I was never sure how much comfort she derived from the visible love of her children and grandchildren, I aimed to provide company by keeping her abreast of the world outside her cancer. I carried tidings from the literary front as well as social gossip in the form of accounts of dinners I had attended or of weekend visits to friends in Connecticut or the Hamptons. Along with chocolates and scented candles, I brought my mother an assortment of books to read, memoirs and novels, and the occasional sober political tract by the likes of Amos Oz. One night, in response to her comment that not one of her many visitors was willing to discuss her impending death, preferring to talk about their own ailments or to lecture her on how much there was to appreciate about the life she had lived, I read aloud an unevasive and unsentimental poem on that very subject by my favorite poet, Philip Larkin. "Most things may never happen: This one will," I quoted from Aubade, checking to see that my mother was listening, sitting up in the comfortable recliner in the room next to her bedroom. ". . . Courage is no good:/It means not scaring others. Being brave/Lets no one off the grave./Death is no different whined at than withstood." Marvelous, my mother said, her deep-set green eyes sparkling like they did when something caught her fancy. Exactly, she added. For a moment I felt we had fought off the malign intruder in our midst, that language conquers all. It is her legacy to me, from one Virginia Woolf lover to another.

Another of her legacies, for all that she liked to deride its importance to her, was a delight in the aesthetic realm, in visual beauty, and proper grooming. Cotton blouses and linen pants were meant to be ironed; my mother never failed to find some piece of my clothing too crumpled for wear when I showed up at her spacious room on the VIP floor of the hospital, where she also continued to bemoan my sixteen-year-old daughter's indifferent T-shirted style of dressing. My mother remained concerned about her appearance -- although she was never one to be obviously vain about it -- even after she had come home from the hospital with catheters implanted in either side of her lung to drain the fluid that her body could no longer get rid of on its own. A hairdresser came in to maintain her indeterminate brown/beige color, and the devoted Eva, who had worked for my mother for years, washed and blew out her hair, shaped her eyebrows, and kept her toenails gleaming.

The second-to-last weekend I spent with my mother I brought her a striated Italian glass carafe with a matching tumbler. I had carefully picked it out at Bergdorf Goodman, after much discussion with an amenable salesman as to its functionality. My mother kept water by her bed and was supposed to drink more liquids than she did, and I somehow thought this would add a touch of glamour to that drab necessity. Shortly afterward, I left for a four-day writing assignment to Paris, where I hunted around for a tiny passementerie container to hold my mother's pills. These delicate and uncrucial touches seemed important to me, a way of reminding my mother that she was who she had always been. But when I brought over the gift on what turned out to be the Monday night of her last week, I noticed that the glass carafe had a crack in it. Of greater worry, my mother seemed more withdrawn than I had seen her, as though she had pulled back inside herself in readiness for departure.

I slept next to my mother for the last three nights of her life. "Don't be lonely," I repeated over and over again, but of course I was telling this to myself.

It has always seemed to me that dying -- uneuphemistically veiled in contemporary coinages like "passing" -- remains the great taboo topic of our information-loaded, garrulous, relentlessly confessional age. When the imminence of death actually puts in an appearance, it tends to induce a kind of panicky busyness in those closest at hand; the brute reality is cloaked in an obsessive bustle of death-delaying arrangements. But as more women live beyond the age of 85 (four out of five centenarians are women), and linger for a decade or longer in a declining condition that consumes more time and money than planned for, there is always the terrifying prospect that instead of devotion, this state of dependency will elicit impatience, an indifference that can verge on neglect. Although I am hounded by things I wish I had done differently -- called her more often, been more regular in my visits -- I take solace in the thought that I tried never to treat my mother as less than the complex, infinitely prideful person I knew her to be under her failing body.

I slept next to my mother for the last three nights of her life. Sometimes I held her hand and sometimes I simply stared at her, taking in her beautiful lightly freckled and remarkably unlined skin, the resiliency of her jaw line. I talked to her because the nurses insisted that she could hear me even though she didn't respond much, assuring her that there was nothing to be afraid of. "Don't be lonely," I repeated over and over again, but of course I was telling this to myself. When she seemed in discomfort or pain I would lean over and kiss her, inhaling her delicious smell. The last words she said to me were in garbled German, "Ich denke dich," which, in essence, means "I'm thinking of you." All these weeks later, her absence still strikes me as implausible, the loss of her bewilderingly real.

This article originally appeared in Vogue.


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