On May 12, 1994, I was teaching a class in Strategies for Crisis Intervention and Prevention. Instead of business attire, for this class I wore sweatpants, a sweatshirt and had my hair up on top of my head in a ponytail scrunchy. I referred to it as my Lhasa Apso look. I was called out of the class to take a phone call from the nursing home where my mother was in hospice care.
Come at once. This seems to be the end.
My mother had been invalided with massive strokes since 1975 and then contracted lung cancer after a lifetime of heavy smoking. The cancer metastasized and she spent the last six months of her life in a nursing home, receiving pain meds when needed and oxygen. She refused medical interventions. This was not the first time that I got a call and hurried to the nursing home.
Until her first stroke in 1975.
When I went to the hospital after the stroke, my mother told me to go get her cigarettes. They had, of course, taken them from her. Her face was distorted and she couldn’t close her mouth. So smoking would have been an issue anyway. I gently replied that I couldn’t. She told me that she was my mother and I had to do what she said. It was very difficult to understand her speech, but I figured it out and tried to calm her down. She then screamed “Goddammit get me some fucking cigarettes!” I almost fell over. This former debutante, whose marriage was the center of the front page of the society section of the New York Times in June of 1941 said “fuck you” to me. And she spent the next 19 years of her life cursing up a storm.
I rushed to the nursing home, and it was obvious to me when I entered her room that this time could very well be the end. She was sitting completely in an upright position with the oxygen mask on, but her breathing was extremely labored. She tried to take the mask off and I knew she wanted to say something to me. My eyes welled up as I leaned over and put my ear right up to her mouth. “Your hair looks like shit.” I thought oh my God, the last thing that my mother is ever going to say to me is that my hair looks like shit. Then she gathered one more breath and said “I love you.”
An Episcopalian nun came in and said a prayer at my mother’s bedside as she took her last breath. I felt for a pulse and there was none. The nurses came and said she was gone. They said I could stay with her for a while. My father had not arrived in time, so I needed to call him. In 1994, the nursing home had pay phones in the hall, not phones in the rooms. I grabbed my purse and realized I had absolutely no money with me. No quarters. I had switched purses and my money was in my other purse. Because of the shock, it didn’t occur to me to ask the nurses to let me use their phone. In a panic, I turned my bag inside out. Then I had a thought.
My father always left money for my mother. They brought carts with juice, books and little gifts around and he always made sure she had money for a little treat. I realized that I had to find a quarter in my mother’s bag to be able to call my father.
So as my mother’s body lay in peace in her bed, I rifled through her purse. As I was looking for a quarter for the pay phone, my eyes furtively darted back and forth between the bag I was searching and the open door. Crushed that she had passed. Scared someone would catch me.
Taking a quarter from my dead mother.