My mother died a “good death.” We all said that. She was surrounded by her family — my two brothers and me, two daughters-in-law and all four of her grandchildren. She’d been to the beauty parlor the previous Thursday, so her hair was nice, light gray with a bit of a bluish tint. Her fingernails were manicured and painted, a pale magenta as I recall. She sat at the end of her long yellow living room couch, an oxygen tank positioned next to it. Mother looked good, even with flexible tubing running up into her nose.
She was ninety-one when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her oncologist explained that the cancer was slow-growing, that she’d probably die of natural causes before it got her. Perhaps the cancer had already been there for quite a while, Doctor Goldberg said. He’d seen patients in her condition go on for years.
Mother seemed to take the news in stride. At first she just kept going as if nothing had changed: driving her gray Subaru Forester to Pilates; attending concerts in Minneapolis and St. Paul with her friend Thelma; traveling to Poughkeepsie for her umpteenth reunion at Vassar; flying to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the American Composers’ Forum, of which she was (still) a board member; and always scrutinizing the Upshot column in The New York Times for signs that Hillary would win.
Mother was strong. I don’t mean strong as in supremely confident, because she could be quite unsure of her abilities and was often flummoxed by small things. She’d played the piano her whole life, and was an accomplished pianist, but rarely got through a piece from start to finish without making some small mistake toward the end. It was hardwired into her DNA to stumble just short of perfection, almost as if that were something she expected. She frequently described herself as being “mechanically dyslexic.” I don’t think she’d ever hammered a nail or turned a screw, though she always had definite opinions on how best to accomplish the task. She could operate a computer, but needed to call her “computer guru” Bob for the smallest complications, such as attaching a document to an email.
Mother and I had a special bond, though we never actually articulated it. When I was eighteen, the two of us were driving back from a trip to visit my grandfather who still lived in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Mother’s family had been in the lumber business in Northern Wisconsin since the 1870s. We’d flown up there to retrieve the Buick Skylark my grandfather no longer needed so that I’d have a car in the summer before I went off to college. My only memory of the trip is how green and thick the upper Michigan forest appeared over the starboard wing as we descended to the little Rhinelander airport in the rain that last time.
The visit was for the most part uneventful. I’m sure I thought about what my freshman year at Princeton would be like come fall as I wandered downstairs, like I always did, to see the Tiger Room. Gramps was a member of the class of ’17, and had built the Tiger Room in the basement of their big house on the hill. You entered the little room through a large wooden Rhinelander beer barrel that served as the doorway. The walls were lined with black and white photographs of Princeton football teams from the early 1900s and there was a long red quaffing table running down the center. Dusty beer steins sat silently on a shelf along one wall, my grandfather being the only Princetonian who lived up there.
As Mother and I drove down Old Highway 8 on the way back to St. Paul, we were hit head-on by a pickup truck. It was raining heavily and Mother was driving. The truck was coming from the other direction when it got one wheel caught in the soft mud of the shoulder and swerved over to our lane. The force of the crash drove the Skylark’s hood back through the windshield and into the passenger side where I was riding. Mother wasn’t hurt, but I was. The hood smashed into the right side of my head, fracturing my skull in several places.
A highway patrolman sent for an ambulance from one of the little Wisconsin towns. I came to for awhile and started talking, telling my mother not to worry, making jokes even. But then I went into convulsions and everything turned haywire. My father was a surgeon and Mother reached him in the operating room in St. Paul. He grabbed his two partners and they all climbed into his car, racing to meet us as we came down toward the Twin Cities. When we met up, they climbed into the back of the ambulance and went to work. Now you can’t tell from the outside that anything ever happened to me. But I’ve had to deal with the after-effects, for the most part successfully, ever since. I even went on to Princeton that fall, though I had to take time off later because I started experiencing temporal lobe seizures, which I still get.
Afterwards Mother and I didn’t often talk about our accident; I don’t think either of us wanted to bring it up much, at least I know I didn’t. I wanted to get on with my life. Mother always thought that if my father had been driving it wouldn’t have happened. But that seemed beside the point to me. If he’d been driving he might have turned faster, or maybe to the right instead, but then he’d probably have taken the brunt. Someone was going to get hurt, no matter what. I never blamed Mother for what happened, not even to myself.
But after the accident we always had a private channel of communication we could switch over to when we needed to talk about something important. I’m not saying she didn’t aggravate me by going on ad infinitem about my long-dead relatives, or by what I considered to be her infernal stubborness. But when things needed to be said we could always find the space to say them.
What kind of things? For a long time it was things in my life — inadequacies that I felt; worries about the future; deciding to be a lawyer; love; money. We never bothered much with successes; that’s not what mothers are for. Then, as she got older — especially after my father died, and then when she herself was nearing the end — we talked mainly about her.
Mother managed through a combination of toughness and wiliness to stay in her own house in Mendota Heights just outside St. Paul until she took her last breath. She lived there alone, her Subaru wagon plastered with Obama and Planned Parenthood stickers, parked to one side of the garage. She still drove the car to her “club” (the suburban golf course where she had dining privileges) every Friday for lunch with her friends, and to the beauty shop on Thursdays to have the thin strands of her hair washed, rinsed and fluffed up.
She’d become increasingly unsteady on her feet, beginning in earnest when she slipped on the ice coming out of Pilates about a year before she died. That time she sustained a concussion and a huge red and purple bruise over the right side of her face. Her bedroom in Mendota Heights was at the top of a long curving flight of stairs. She insisted on sleeping up there even though there was also a bedroom and bath on the main floor.
We’d tried to get her to move to the new independent living wing at the Episcopal Home in St. Paul where most of her still-functioning friends were, even renting and furnishing a one bedroom apartment there when an unexpected vacancy came up. My wife and I had put her name on the waiting list the year before, without telling her at first. But Mother kept outsmarting us. She’d agree to drive over to the new place and spend a night, sometimes two, and afterwards say just enough nice things about it to give us hope, while all the while slyly postponing the real move until some unspecified date before winter set in.
The problem was that once Mother was in the small apartment — though it looked great with its faux red-oak floors and even a portable electric piano that we’d moved there from home — she was alone in a different way than she was at the house she’d lived in so many years. One time I called her at the new apartment on a Saturday morning, the way I always did on Saturday mornings, and she sounded down. I drove over to the Episcopal Home and brought along our dog Murphy, who usually could be counted on to cheer her up. As usual, I let Murphy in first (Mother couldn’t hear too well so we didn’t bother to knock) and he ran around the place until he found her. She loved being surprised by Murphy.
But this time as soon as we arrived she looked at me directly, in the way she did when we needed to discuss something serious, and told me straight out that she was unhappy. “I’m just so lonely,” she said. Mother had never said anything quite like this to me, at least not in that direct a way. She was too much of a fighter. The closest she’d come before was when she told me one night that she badly missed my father.
She was proud of leading her own life — going to Pilates at the strip mall in Mendota Heights, to Minnesota Orchestra concerts at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis or to hear the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Ordway in St. Paul. She had season tickets to both and had had the same seat on the main floor for many years. She usually combined those symphony evenings with dinner at Vincent’s in downtown Minneapolis or Pazzaluna in St. Paul with her best friend Thelma. Thelma Hunter was a concert pianist and icon of the Twin Cities classical music world, from whom Mother had taken piano lessons back in the fifties and sixties when we were growing up. Mother and Thelma were loyal friends who’d long ago bonded over music. They rarely missed a concert.
Either Mother or Thelma drove on those evenings, taking Mother’s Forester or Thelma’s black Mercedes sport coup with her initials in gold leaf on the door. They always parked in the same place on the third floor of the Orchestra Hall Ramp so they’d be sure to find their car again. Mother confided to me that Thelma always fell asleep as soon as the musicians started warming up. In another one of her drawn out negotiations with us, Mother promised they would only take side streets at night.
Mother’s driving had become a big issue. The previous summer, she and Thelma had driven up to the family cabin on Lake Namakagen in Northwestern Wisconsin. My mother and father had purchased a ten-acre piece of property on the lake in the nineteen-eighties. They restored the old house that was there and built a sleeping cabin for the kids and a pole barn to store boats. Mother — whose family tended to give E.M. Forester-like names to their cottages — named the place Four Winds, though no one ever called it that. It was an idyllic setting. That weekend Mother and Thelma were going to read and walk and play the piano together.
But on the way up, Mother pulled out from the intersection of Highways 63 and 8 (the same fateful one where we’d had our accident) without seeing the motorcyclist who was heading their way. He was going fast and wasn’t wearing a helmet, following close-in behind a Budweiser truck slowing to make a turn into the parking lot of the Northern Wisconsin bar at the corner. When the truck had almost finished its turn into the lot, the motorcyclist was suddenly there as Mother started to inch forward. She hit the tail of the bike, sending it careening down the shoulder of the highway before it crashed. The motorcyclist sustained a ruptured spleen and head injuries.
Mother maintained to the end that the accident wasn’t her fault, that if he hadn’t been going so fast it wouldn’t have happened. She always emphasized how nice the highway patrol officer was to her and that, even though he gave her a citation, he seemed to take her side. That was the point she kept making at her deposition later. The case settled out of court for a large amount. Fortunately Mother had good insurance. After that, we got her to stop driving for a while and to use a driver. But before too long she was back on the road, promising to drive only on side streets.
My mother often drove me nuts. She was quite a narcissist in the way only blue-blooded ladies of her generation can be. But I loved her dearly. So when she said she was just so lonely, it was hard for me to hear. It was then I understood she was afraid she’d be abandoned if she ever moved into the small apartment at the Episcopal Home. If she ever let on she might be happy there, we might all think everything was fine and not come around so much, so those words never passed her lips. She thought we were trying to trick her, and on one level she was right.
But things kept heading south. One night she slipped again, this time on the icy sidewalk outside Pazzaluna, where she was having a pre-concert supper with Thelma. Someone called an ambulance. But she waved it off and managed to get herself back up and into the concert hall by show time. I only found out about the incident the next day. Shortly thereafter, Thelma was also diagnosed with lung cancer. That summer she died in bed listening to classical music on the radio. Neither Mother nor Thelma had smoked for many years.
As her cancer progressed, Mother’s back and chest began to ache more. She started to wake up in a panic in the middle of the night, afraid she wouldn’t be able to breathe. Doctor Goldberg inserted a tube so the fluid between her lungs and chest cavity could be drained regularly. Then fluids began to seep through the thin skin on her legs. She finally agreed to move from her upstairs bedroom down to the one on the first floor.
We hired round-the-clock private nurses to stay with Mother, do the draining, wrap her legs tightly to stop the leakage, and administer her meds. The nurses were wonderful to Mother, but they were expensive. Mother was a woman of means, but they weren’t unlimited. Eventually, Laurie — who’d cleaned house for both Mother and Thelma for years — started spending nights in the upstairs’ bedroom with a baby monitor so she’d know if Mother needed help. Mother loved Laurie and they’d become close friends over the years. Mother had a way of developing strong relationships with many of the people who came into her life. No one ever talked about The Episcopal Home anymore.
One Friday night in that last November I picked Mother up and took her to dinner at her new favorite restaurant, Axel’s in Mendota Heights, only five minutes away from the house. My wife, Paulette, and I were leaving for Florida in a few days. Mother had made it clear that we should carry on with our lives. Dr. Goldberg was still saying she could last a year, maybe more.
My mother and I sat across from each other in a booth. We each ordered a Scotch — mine on the rocks, hers with water — and a small steak, though she no longer could taste her food very well. I myself don’t drink Scotch anymore and don’t eat much steak, but with Mother this was still our ritual. She had the waitress bring a pillow for her to sit on so she wouldn’t sink too low. Afterwards I told her to wait while I went for the car. It was cold and icy, typical Minnesota early winter weather. When I pulled back up to the double doors of the restaurant, I couldn’t find her right away. Then I realized she was the frail old woman standing off to the side by herself. I didn’t understand at first that that woman was my mother.
I flew back the last week in January. I’d reserved a plane ticket to come home that week to make sure I could spend time with her. The nurses were now saying that the end was coming soon. There was more leakage from Mother’s legs and the soreness around her back and chest was getting worse. My sister-in-law Mary Ellen picked me up at the airport and took me to the house. “She’s been waiting,” she said. “She wants to have a party for you.”
Mother was sitting at the end of the yellow couch in her living room. She needed help getting up now. She gave me both of her hands. I noticed she was still wearing earrings and her hair was fixed. Her oxygen tank was next to the end table. She was sitting up straight in her gray Shetland wool cardigan and tweed slacks, tan support socks not quite covering her swollen ankles. My mother never slouched, even at the end.
“How are you, dear?” she said, just the same way she always did when I called her on Saturdays. “We’re going to have a party tomorrow night for your birthday.”
My mother loved to have a party, it’s true. She was very social. But there was something much more fundamental going on here. More than anything, Mother knew how to zero in on you and look at you in a way that revealed not only her utter loyalty and love, but also her surpassing belief in the importance of occasions. My birthday was still a month off.
We might have skipped my party. Mother was having more and more trouble staying awake. It would be hard for her to get to the table, much less to sit there and make conversation. What was the point then? For Mother (and I think for all of us) the point was to continue just a little longer to be a family. I was staying out at the house. Everyone would be coming at five o’clock for a drink and then dinner, just the way we always did. She looked so tired I told her she should take a nap before people started to arrive. But she said she was afraid she wouldn’t wake up if she went to sleep.
“I feel like this is a game, and I don’t know how to play it,” she told me matter-of-factly after she lay down. I promised her she would wake up, hoping I’d be forgiven if she didn’t. She seemed to relax a little then. In another minute she was sound asleep.
The walnut table in the dining room had an extra leaf that night. As usual for big family gatherings there was a white linen table cloth and Mother’s best china and silver. There were candles in pewter candle sticks in the center of the table. One of my sisters-in-law thought to bring flowers. That night happened to be the night the winners of the American Composer’s Forum young composer awards were being showcased on the radio. Mother had been saying all week that she really wanted to hear the new work. So we tuned in public radio and had it on in the background.
Mother kept falling asleep in her chair at the end of the table. She wasn’t eating anything. Suddenly there was a noise like metal being dragged across a blackboard and we all sat up straight. “What was that?” I remember saying. Someone went over to turn the radio off. For once in her life, even my mother didn’t want to hear any more new music.
I thought I should take her to bed. It didn’t seem right for her to be struggling to sit up and stay awake while the rest of us ate and drank and tried to make conversation as usual. This time when I got her to bed, she didn’t say she was afraid that she wouldn’t wake up. Instead, she looked at me and asked if she’d stayed too long. I told her maybe she had.
Later that night, my mother died. In the afternoon the nurses had explained to us what to do if she gave out. We called the crematorium at the number they’d left in the kitchen. Two men — one of them older and quite fat, the other young and skinny — arrived in about half an hour and wheeled an empty gurney into Mother’s downstairs bedroom. The scene was oddly Shakespearian. The fat man was obviously experienced, like he’d done this many times before and was about to retire. The younger one was only about twenty, but said all the right things, as if he’d recently finished his training. I couldn’t help thinking this was just the start of his career presiding over the end.
Did Mother die a good death? I don’t really know. I’m not sure what a good death is. She was surrounded by her family. But she suffered pain, discomfort, fear and confusion in the year before she died, especially at the end. Death itself is simply death. Neither good nor bad, only inescapable. As my father, the surgeon, once said to me, “In the end, everyone dies from cardiac arrest. Death is when your heart stops beating.” But I think Mother, being the more literary of the two, was closer to the truth when she said that death was a game she didn’t know how to play.
The two men had brought along a white sheet which could be tied together around her body to form a bag. We all gathered together and helped draw the clean white cloth over our mother, and tied it up. By some unspoken agreement, I followed her by myself out to the dark blue Dodge Grand Caravan waiting in the driveway. The rear door was already open wide. It was black and cold outside as they hoisted my white-shrouded mother, head-first, into the back. I held onto her big toe through the cloth for just a moment longer before they shut the door.
Jeff Alden is a recently retired lawyer.