Saturday, September 30, 2006


“It’s nice to be alive on a day like this.”

The statement is so Bea, the optimistic little girl, hungry for life, a seeming paradox now that she is bedridden and close to the end. I peer out the window at the rain and wonder at her words, the only ones she will utter today, besides, “I’m hungry.”

I turn her several times and provide dinner. The salmon salad is not a big hit. Bea freezes, mouth half open, with the salmon mixture on her tongue. She drinks water and eats half a chocolate pudding. It occurs to me that my mother would probably not be alive today if we had put her in a nursing home six months ago.

Our bed & breakfast guest, from Germany, tells me her country provides its citizens with nursing homes, but they resemble hospitals, not pleasant places where one would choose to live. She also speaks of a friend from Chile who returned to her hometown to care for an elderly aunt, because it seemed like the right thing to do: “They cared for us, so we should do the same.”

Sven reminds me that in the old days, children always took care of elderly parents. One daughter didn’t marry in order to assume this role. But life expectancies were shorter back then.

Home care? Nursing home? Assisted living facility?

Even people who can afford assisted living may eventually end up in the nursing home building of the assisted living complex.

Elderly care solution guides suggest visiting nursing homes unannounced in order to form an impression of what life will be like for a loved one interned there. People who take this advice will probably react the way I did and reject the nursing home option. For Bea, home care with hospice is definitely the best solution.

Still, home care is not ideal for the caregiver who may find his own active years shortened by the burden he/she has assumed now that modern medicine prolongs life.

Sometimes Sven and I do miss our freedom …

Friday, September 29, 2006

How Much Can Bea Say in One Minute and 30 Seconds?

Imagine you are sitting by Bea’s bedside towards the end of her latest talking marathon. Bea speaks in a soft voice so as not to disturb anyone, but it is possible to make out most of her words. She has talked through Lisa’s visit. Then, for the next hour, Virginia, our volunteer, heard all about plans for a wedding reception. You are about to experience Bea’s monologue for less than two minutes, although she will talk non-stop late into the night, bursting into laughter from time to time.

Ready, set, listen:

“I’m going to wear your dress, the one you took out of the closet. Shades of brown and gray. It’s a wedding party. I’d like myself to enjoy it. I’d like your husband to have a great big smile. I’d like you to have a great big smile. I want you to come. Esther doesn’t want to be pursued. How about that lady from Syracuse and the fat man? He’s getting thinner. Do I hear somebody else besides you and me and me and you? What do you think I should wear? How about your hat? I think you should wear your hat. I’ll do whatever you say. I’ve got to stand up so you can see that I can stand up. How can I sit in a chair if I can’t stand up? I’ll wear Esther’s pearls. I can tell you where they are. I’m not going to get up any more than I have to. I’d like to go to Scotland. But these people talk with some very studious-sounding words. And on my birthday, I’m gong to have something interesting to do. I want you to know we did have some silver and we gave it to you. This evening I intend to be just whatever you want me to be. I know she doesn’t want me to wear American Indian. She’s American Indian. Esther is your cousin. I don’t know enough people in New York to organize the dance. My favorite person in the whole wide world right now is you…”

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Kitty, Selden & More

The daughter of Bea’s friend Kitty has sent an email after reading By Bea’s Bedside: “Mother was not only devoted to Bea, but fascinated by your dad's Russian background. And I enjoyed reading about Nancy who was also so important to Mother and whose brother Selden she often wished she'd married and talked about endlessly to me from the time I was a child. I wonder what Bea remembers about that relationship? Mother must have shared her deepest heart with her over the years.”

I explain this email request to Bea. I have brought with me a yellow pad, a sign that I will be recording her words. My mother immediately notices. She is alert and happy to cooperate.

“Why didn’t Kitty marry Selden?” I ask.

“That’s the part of the sad story. Somebody else got there first.”

Dwight Macdonald roomed with Selden Rodman at Yale. I admire the photo, which the Macdonald children gave Bea after his death. Women of my generation would have called him a “hunk.”

“He’s very handsome,” I comment.

“He was. I fell for him.”

I request more details.

“Kitty was good-looking, one of the best-dressed girls in the class. She was very much in love. Selden was a poet of some note. He had been published, I mean. She loved him and he loved her.”

“So then, what happened?”

“It was senior year. That was when Selden shifted his interest to another woman, Eunice Stedman, one of those steadfast girls who always does everything right.”

“Kitty must have been devastated!”

“No. She was very modest and sober about it. She suffered the exigencies of life in a shifting society.” Bea adds as an aside, “We can use big words in the book you’re writing.”

“He should have married Kitty!”

“Especially since they had sex together! Life is difficult to understand.”

I am thinking about Kitty’s regret at not having married Selden. We make choices in life and must live by them. I remember Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken, which Bea used to read me as a child.

“Do you have any regrets?” I ask.

“No, I cannot think of any.”

I throw out a possibility, an experience my mother has only described to her granddaughters: “Did you regret your abortion?”

Bea is quiet and doesn’t respond at first. Her mind is moving forward from the happy-go-lucky days at Vassar. “Yes, I do remember that I had it and felt very embarrassed. That was a long time ago.”

“There wasn’t much choice then,” I point out.

“Certainly not.”

“Who performed the abortion?”

“A doctor. I found him through a senior doctor in NY. The experience was very subduing.”

“Do you remember how old you were?”

“25.” Bea says this without hesitation. She certainly remembers. Her voice is void of emotion.

“Did anybody go with you?”

“No. It was a secret. I think I even went back to the office. I was afraid I was bleeding. It’s an unpleasant feeling.”

I want to ask about contraception and the prevalence of abortion in the thirties, but Bea has already retreated to more pleasant memories …

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

All We Need Is Love

After talking sprees, Bea seems to go into hibernation. Nothing will wake her. I could march a brass band past her window and Mother Bear would not even flinch. I can remember Nurse Jane’s snapping her fingers and calling, “Oh, Be-ee!” several times to no avail on multiple occasions. When my elderly mother sleeps, she sleeps. Her breathing is rhythmic and low. She can sleep two or three days in a row like this.

I have just entered the bedroom as Bea finally awakens and looks around at the surroundings with enormous little-girl eyes that sparkle with the discovery of the world around her. How delighted she is to see me! Now that I have come, the day can officially begin.

“I want to get out of bed,” Bea declares and starts pushing off her covers.

“Not right now,” I say and gently replace them. “Maybe later, when Lisa gets here.”

From past experience, I know Bea will probably have forgotten by then. Her short-term memory has called in sick. Sometimes my mother will remember details from the beginning of the century yet be unable to recognize the names of recent acquaintances.

We run through our standard orientation drill. Bea always needs to know where she is after long periods of rest. I am reminded of my children who would do an inventory of their toy animals before I could turn off the light. Bea does the same when she wakes up. Only there is a problem. The routine today has produced disappointing results. Her hospital bed does not feel familiar. The room was renovated with rafters which she does not recognize. And her parents are not here. Where have they gone?

Bea declares in a small voice, “I need people to love me.”

My mother seems a little more lost than usual, a shadow of her former self. I empathize at her quandary.

ME: “I do love you. I hope I show it.”

BEA: “You do show it.”

ME: “Why do you say you need people to love you then?”

BEA: “Because I need love. You are related to me, aren’t you? Would you please tell me how?”

ME: “I’m your daughter.”

BEA: “I’m so happy to have a daughter!”

And so begins another day…

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Letter from Dorothy

"Sunday, 12/4/94

Dear Bea,

I’m sorry you were so upset by difficult thoughts that you couldn’t sleep when you wrote me. You had other stresses in addition to anything I had said. If you had previously told me all that you wrote, I would have been better able to understand. It’s too bad that Mother, and mostly Dad, had such awful Victorian mores. Sex was okay for them but no one else!! I just did my little-girl masturbation in secret. I was going to enjoy anyway! I got self-slapped by nasty Uncle Ray, too, and it took all my will power not to give him a dose of his own medicine when he was old.

It’s too bad when a lover doesn’t understand the value of foreplay to arouse a woman, and she must also work hard herself to achieve the orgasm. It’s a joint effort and even then, not always attained in my opinion.

It’s hard for me to grasp why Jack and Jimmie are to be shunned when quite innocent and removed from their father’s acts. Guilt by association? So awful in the McCarthy era! You must remember.

I enclose $40, $20 for your Christmas gift and $20 for Paul. Please buy a bottle of champagne as my gift to him. I know how much he enjoys it, and it is festive when celebrating.

I think, however, Bea, that you are entitled to make a family call even if he cannot with no sibling. Do you get paid for all the work you’ve done on his books and other duties concerning them? You might calmly remind him of this. Don’t let any man browbeat you ever! That’s my motto (smiley face).

I’m sure, now in Florida, you can relax in the nice warmth.

Have an enjoyable Christmas and get some of the rest you deserve.

With my love always,


Monday, September 25, 2006

October on the Patuxent

"On this fine sunny October day, a Patuxent oysterman shows me how to lock the claws of crabs my daughter caught before her return to the city.

'I hear you’re writing a book,' he says.

This information comes as a surprise. I gulp and say something that sounds like yes.

Here in the country with my dog for a few weeks rest, I’m probably not deemed quite respectable just reading books. So, last week, when one of the oystermen allowed as how he didn’t see how I could be by myself day after day just reading, I said something about writing, too. They can’t feel friendly toward me if they are plugging away with their oysters and I, an able-bodied woman, leave my perfectly good husband and children at home and lounge around all day doing nothing. No use trying to explain. So, I will dedicate my book to the Patuxent oystermen because they considered it possible.

The tattered page is dated Oct. 8, 1962 and also contains a poem to my father:

Osprey fly high;
herons fly low.
Please tell me how
my love can grow.

Maples are red.
The river is blue.
Before the leaves fall
I would love you.

Zinnia, cock’s comb,
petunia, aster.
I must somehow
learn to love faster.

Seagull, blue eel,
bobwhite, quail.
Where is the love
that does not pale?

Butterfly, cricket,
red apple tree.
How can my love
ever love me?

Green crab, sunfish,
butternut tree.
When will I learn
the way it must be?

Soybean, mushroom,
oyster and shell.
What must I know?
How can I tell?

Trumpet vine, cedar,
Full moon above,
show me the way
to give my love."

Only vaguely do I remember Bea’s retreat to Sotterley near Hollywood, Maryland. As far as I know, she never finished the book she describes on this frequently folded piece of paper.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The “Beautiful Bouquet”

Bea is sound asleep today, exhausted after two days of conversation. I take the down time to sift through some of her papers and discover what appears to be the beginning of a memoir:

“This is the last week in the year 2000. I am now 91.

The important fact in my life is that my husband, Count Paul Alexandrovich Grabbe, died at the age of 97 ½.

I tell myself that people do not live forever. I think of St. Francis saying, ‘Grazie Signore, per la morte, nostra sorella corporale.’

But I do not want to identify my remaining days with the inevitability of death but rather to have the pleasure of recalling special moments of joy in my life. I like to think of the circumstances under which I met the man I married.

It was wartime. Paul had been offered a job at the Office of War Information because someone liked the book he had written with visual aids called, We Call It Human Nature. The way I met him was – and is – important in the story of my life ...

NOTE: The narrative continues on the next page of the spiral notebook, but Bea's mind seems to have jumped back in time.

... Because I had worked for CBS Radio before the days of TV and because I had been fired by the grotesque head of the Department of Education, Sterling Fisher. (Oh, he was a sterling fisher all right but did his fishing in the Bronx where he took up with little girls, eager to sleep their way up.)

NOTE: IN THE MARGIN BEA HAS WRITTEN that a refusal to sleep one's way up led to being fired.

After college I wanted to do something in the field of education, and so I had taken a summer course at the NYU Radio Workshop. That had led me to qualify for the window-dressing department at an otherwise strictly bottom-line section of Bill Paley’s CBS.

My salary was ridiculously low, $30 a week. I was proud to get a raise to $35. With this sum I was able to support myself in NYC. I lived in a rather crumby section in a walk-up apartment, costing only $50 a month. I took it over from Selden Rodman.

So many years later I like to think of this early self-sufficiency. Sometimes I was a little embarrassed to be delivered there by such people as Deems Taylor …”

The narrative stops here. So often Bea did this, start a memoir, then leave the reader wondering what happened next. I find clues elsewhere. This statement my dad wrote on a pad, for instance: “Man’s greatest problem is coping with women in his life – his mother, psychologically, and later his mates. The problem is to find a woman who will make a man whole, free him from his mother and release his pent-up creative energies. The sexual act is part of the problem as a stimulus to creation.”

Hmmm. Not very romantic.

Digging for more information, I come across Chapter V (marked “or VI”) of a novel Bea never finished:

“They had meant to spend the afternoon at Dumbarton Oaks, but the park was closed. They proceeded quietly along the wooded path. Here in the seclusion of the trees, some of the tension left her. After a while, they came to a large clean oak log and sat down.

He was telling her about his early life – some of the things she wanted to know. She wasn’t eager; she knew they would come eventually. And she had half guessed some of them. But it was good they came so soon in the relationship.

It was a story she had heard before, the one about the rebellious child who befriends the servants and finds a bulwark in them against parents who do not have the time nor the flexibility to understand …

Sara had decided that his absorbing interest in clarification was an unconscious expression of his own inner psychic need. She was pleased and surprised though, to hear him say that he had even considered seeing an analyst to find out what sort of a blockage might be causing it.

She felt a lift in her spirit at this evidence of insight and quietly remarked that it always seemed to her wise for people interested in psychology to get themselves analyzed. He said it was not psychology he was primarily interested in.

She knew she was on dangerous ground now and spoke slowly: “No, not psychology exactly. But your interest was reflected in the book you wrote. Besides, anyone concerned with anything bordering on psychology does well to avail himself of all the new values that analysis turns up.” Then she spoke about some of the ways it had helped her.

He said perhaps it would be wise for him to be analyzed so that he could be more able to love her. She felt as if he had handed her such a beautiful bouquet that she could hardly reach out her hands and take it …”

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Reunion

I can hear Bea chattering away. The low hum has continued off and on through the night. I go in to tell her to be quiet around 1 a.m., and she asks which gown I plan to wear to her party.

This morning the subject is still apparel:

BEA: “How do you feel about wearing a uniform?”

ME: “No way.”

BEA: “Okay, so you’ll have to wear a dress then. An appropriate dress.”

Talk-talk-talk-talk-talk. How can anyone have so much to say? The monologue seems to spew out faster as the day wears on. Now, at almost 5 p.m., I wish she would stop. Jabbering this way is not normal. Bea has become that wind-up doll whose mechanism has broken, the one from Mad Magazine, Alfred E. Newman.

I feel like shaking her and screaming, “Shut up!”

On a scale of 1 to 10, the sound level must be about a 2, a gentle rumble only I notice as a permanent fixture of the day’s soundtrack. Her eyes are red-rimmed, her lips parched. When I offer ice cream, Bea asks me to serve Martin and Ruth, standing behind me, first. I ask if Helen is here, too.

“Not right now,” Bea says. “I think she’ll be back later though.”

“How about Dorothy?”

“Some family person said she was dead.”

Right! Many words ago, I spoke of Dorothy’s death in Austria. For some unfathomable reason, Bea has retained this information.

I was thinking about her sisters today. How nice it would be to have a family reunion, just us women, four generations, by Bea’s bedside. Helen would come with her cigarettes, picking bits of tobacco off her tongue; Dorothy with her gregarious toothy smile; Bertha, their mother, whom I have never met. I’m sure “little” Dotty, would be here in a split second if I invited her three daughters. The trip for sisters Nan, Sally, and Margot would take longer as they must travel by car and plane. They could bring their daughters, too, and I’d invite mine. Seventeen women in all. We could share insight on life and men, have a few laughs, express what each of us feels is really important. The older souls could pour their accumulated knowledge into a horn and pass it around so everyone could drink her fill. How joyous such an occasion would be!

I share these thoughts with my manic mother.

“Why, I think it’s a wonderful idea!” Bea exclaims.

As I close the door, I hear her voice again. She has already started planning the festivities….

Friday, September 22, 2006

Another Talking Marathon Begins ...

“Has anybody seen Helen?” Bea asks, as if my deceased aunt has just stepped outside for a cigarette, biting the edge of her thin upper lip with its garish red lipstick, also a shade favored by my mother, who applied the lipstick more meticulously so it did not smear.

“No,” I say. “Are you worried about Helen?”

“Helen takes care of herself. What about Dorothy? Is she dead?”

From the look on Bea’s face, I know that, quick as greased lightning, we have left the dream world behind. I acknowledge that sister Dorothy has indeed died, more than a dozen years after Helen.

“How did that happen?”

I have told the story before, but she needs to hear it again: “Dorothy had a stroke, walking across a bridge, in Austria, on a guided tour. Remember when you went on a guided tour of St Petersburg? Aunty Dotty did the same in Austria. Seems like a good way to end a life, don’t you think? Having a good time? Dorothy was a good-time-kind-of-girl.”

Bea nods. She is all there this morning.

“Has anything changed in the neighborhood?”

My mother sounds ready to organize her annual cocktail party, a source of the latest gossip on our neighbors and always a fun occasion. They all used to meet for cocktails at least once a year, a tradition Bea initiated.

“No,” I lie. Why bring up friends who have died or been moved to assisted living facilities?

Upon my return from the kitchen with breakfast, I notice her mind has raced elsewhere.

“They don’t have fights now, do they?”

“Who are you talking about?” I ask.

“The people on television.”

“You were watching a movie on television?”

Bea nods. There is no television set in her room.

My elderly mother experiences dreams in a new way: mind-movies have become a real source of pleasure in her stripped-down bedridden world. Often when I peek in, there’s a beatific expression on her face. Not now. She is peering around expectantly. I glance behind me. There is nothing there.

“Where did that Pauly go?” Bea asks, as if her grandson had just ducked behind the armchair, a game of hide and seek from the past recreated by her overactive brain.

It is so bizarre to careen from reality to irrationality this way. The dizzying ride doesn’t bother Bea, but it makes me queasy, especially when I think we have only lived through the first ten minutes of our day!

“Paul’s in California,” I say in a firm voice and push the balls of my feet against the floor in search of grounding for us both. Bea has started another one of her talking marathons.

“What’s the name of the guy here then?”

“You mean someone was here?” I ask innocently and switch on the stereo. “Italian, with an amazing voice?”

I leave her with Andrea Bocelli and go about my own life for the next hour…

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Rocking and Rolling with Bea and Lisa

There are places I would rather be. Paris. Rome. Boston, holding the hand of my daughter whose beloved cat just died. But I will not abandon my mother.

Bea sleeps now. In fact, she snores loudly.

This afternoon I helped Lisa with the bed bath. Protruding bones always affect me more when I serve as helper. I reach down and poke at a bump, unsure what lies beneath the taut skin. The bump turns out to be part of Bea’s ribcage. None of us are prepared to see bodies this gaunt, legs broomstick thin.

Lisa indicates a purple splotch on Bea’s heel. I take note. It will need to be checked every day. I smear on some Bag Balm.

We “rock and roll” Bea, change her nightie and sheets. It takes two to tango, ditto for bed baths. Lisa uses humor to distract our victim. We turn her this way and that, slip in a sheet, slip out a brief, adjust the sheepskin so it is in an optimum position.

“I’m cold!” Bea protests.

Lisa covers her patient with a towel, then applies Bea’s new Lavender & Acacia Body Milk to dry-prune skin.

I untangle and wash her hair, then braid it.

Bea doesn’t want to play Name the Snarls today. She can’t wait for the ordeal to be over.

Why does my mother still live? What is she living for?

“What a great day!” I say to Lisa. “The sky is so blue!”

“I want to go outside,” Bea pipes up suddenly, the first words she has uttered that were not a complaint.

“Do you have a wheelchair?” Lisa asks. “We could …” She stops, realizing we couldn’t.

Bea is so fragile, like an antique vase with a hairline fissure that might, at any time, break into millions of pieces.

She doesn’t eat. She barely drinks.

“Let me sleep!” Bea cries, angry now at the four hands still manipulating her poor body.

Emotionally this elderly care takes a toll. I snap at Sven, eat too much, argue with my son. Sven reminisces about his plan to visit an archeological dig in Turkey. He also wants to see Rome.

Bea used to tell me that my father’s mother was quite a lady. “She knew when it was time to leave,” Bea always said. My grandma died at 82, several days after a trip to the hospital. I had just turned four. She did what was appropriate, the implication being so Bea and my father could live their lives.

Now modern medicine makes it possible to live longer than ever before. The drug companies and the doctors who pioneer the life-prolonging operations must never consider that living longer doesn’t always imply living better…

And longer lives have consequences. Family members must make choices on elderly care, a burden earlier generations did not face.

Bea is awake when I tuck her in for the night. “Thank you for being my daughter,” she says with a gentle smile.

That’s all it takes. Tears fill my eyes.

“You’re welcome,” I respond softly. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I leave her there with the hum of the electric air mattress....

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bea’s Russian Connections

While abroad, Bea journeyed to Russia. Paul didn’t go. My dad knew that if he returned to his homeland, everything would feel so familiar that leaving again would be problematic. He had a new life in the United States, and Beatrice needed him by her side.

Bea thoroughly enjoyed her guided tour of St. Petersburg. At the Hermitage, my mother managed to get separated from the group, so taken was she by the art on display. I imagine her wandering through the marble corridors, lost and a bit panicked, but pleased to have an experience all her own. If Bea was able to throw herself so totally into writing and editing Private World of the Last Tsar with my father, it is surely in part due to her personal discovery of my grandfather’s world, previously limited to his diaries and photos.

While Paul was working at Dartmouth in 1944, my parents had made friends with Professor Dimitri von Mohrenschildt. They would stay in touch with this fellow Russian émigré who spent the last years of his life at Sri Auribindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. Bea and Paul followed the situation in Russia closely and contributed every year through International Orthodox Christian Charities. When Dimitri mentioned the desire to help the children of Russia, Bea suggested IOCC and acted as liaison. Dimitri acknowledged her assistance on a postcard, September 12, 1996:

“Just a word to tell you, dear Beatrice, that I finally got in touch with Alexis Troubetskoi. I sent him a check on Wells Fargo Bank, California, for $10,000 and received a reply dated Sept. 2 from Moscow. He will come to the States on Sept. 26 and will return to Russia in October when he will attend to the disbursement of these funds as I suggested. Thank you so very much for your help.”

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Notes on Spain

Bea always believed in the power of literature. When I moved to France, she suggested French classics and sent a book on French civilization. “What are you reading now?” my mother would always ask. Not reading was simply unacceptable.

In the late seventies, Bea and Paul spent a few months of winter in a rented house on the Spanish Riviera. They had stayed the previous year in St. Jean Cap Ferrat. Proximity to grandchildren was the primary motivation, and each trip included a stop in Paris. Then work on my dad’s book began. Research was easier in the university town of Gainesville, so they started going to Florida for the winter. Bea quickly made a coterie of new friends, all retired folks who shared her love of culture.

While in Spain, Bea wrote this note:

“Better to understand Spain, I am reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. I had not realized before how shamefully the USSR destroyed the Socialist movement in the civil war.

I wish we had the opportunity to meet more Spanish people. In Madrid we shall see remarkable Carmen Aldecoa, who went with us to Granada. We also have met the Spanish wife of a Russian. She is a friend of Salvatore Dali and has some exceptional examples of his work – sketches for paintings – on the wall. Contemporary to Dali and to us, she now seems more a monument to her own past beauty than a currently responsive product of Spain.

I like the men who deliver the firewood and work on the grounds. They are open and friendly and have a quality of endurance. I like them better than the brittle shop girls in Marbella, some of whom have a feckless quality. Not that I blame them, for one must preserve one’s own inner space in this shifting period we are now going through.

We feel here in Spain the years of repression by a totalitarian regime. In this respect Spain must bear some similarities to the USSR. I think there has been the attitude in the government of ‘The people be damned’ and the people must know it.

Still, there has been some progress, fortunately, within the Church – an element lacking in the USSR. A leading protestor in Barcelona is a priest.

And yet the reactionary element in the Church is still strong and organized.

When the trouble comes, it will come in Catalonia.

We have yet to see Madrid and Barcelona – next month.”

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Challenge

It’s the middle of the night. I am sleeping peacefully. Then Bea shouts “Food!” I pop up in bed like one of those roly-poly dolls, with weighted bottom. How I hate to be awakened! I remain cordial but every bone in my body cries out for sleep as I feed my mother.

Bea must have noticed the difference in attitude, because upon my return at 8 a.m., she is already talking up a storm and for a reason …

ME: “My! You are chatty this morning.”

BEA: “I’m trying to do it all today so I won’t do it tonight.”

We share a good laugh, the first of many during the day. It helps to laugh about it.

My midnight surliness has made Bea rethink our living arrangements. All morning she has been making plans to move in with Virginia, a friend who is unfortunately dead: “Darling, I feel I’m in the way. I need to be a guest for a limited time only.”

I watch her fold her hands, a gesture that, in the past, accompanied an important decision of some sort, incongruous now that she is bedridden and dependent on others. My mother is using a voice that used to make sense: “I know Virginia would want me. Ruth, I think, is still alive. I could live there. I just need to know what room I’m supposed to stay in until then…”

“Right here. This room. This is your room,” I tell her. And, to myself, “Patience!”

A caregiver daughter of an elderly parent must let go of the person the parent used to be and open arms to an invalid child, quite a challenge.

Yesterday Bea could barely put one word in front of the other. Today she can't stop talking: “I have to be in contact with other people. It came over me when I realized everybody was doing something except me, and I want to do something. I need advice as to what to do. If I had some goal …”

When she gets manic, I shoot from the hip. I don’t mean to be cruel, but sheer honesty seems the way to go. Once the flow of words ceases, I say, “You can just stay right here in this bed until you feel it’s time to die.”

To my surprise, she declares simply, “Thank you.”

I assume Bea has grasped the concept, but the next time I stop in, she is again working on departure plans: “I have to be somewhere with my parents. I didn’t intend to stay here longer. I was planning to go home. My mother always said, ‘Why don’t you come home?’”

“Meaning you could always come home?”

Bea nods, very serious indeed. I take her boney hand in mine and gently explain the family home in Montclair was torn down and replaced by a parking lot many years ago; I am her family now; she is in her own bedroom.

This information is not what she wants to hear. Her voice takes on a more strident quality: “I want to talk to my mother. How do I go about doing that? I call her up. Can you get the number for me?”

“She died a long time ago. I’m sorry but you cannot call your mother.”

Bea heaves a sigh of exasperation. “All these people dying!”

Denial? Not really. Life is so worthwhile. Why would anyone go and die? The idea is so far from Bea's frame of reference that she cannot comprehend.

I realize I am living an unusual experience. Not every daughter gets to accompany her mother on this final journey. We are weaving our way down the road of life, and there’s no map. That’s what makes the trip so exhilarating …

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Of Sisters, Imaginary and Otherwise

“Describe Dorothy,” I request, curious to see what Bea will say.

“Blond hair, blue eyes. Normal in size.”

Bea stops. Talking isn’t what it used to be. The way she advances words reminds me of a child learning to walk – a few cautious steps, a pause, a few more steps, but then once the legs start moving, it is hard to get them to stop. “I went to visit Dorothy in the Virgin Islands. She offended me the very minute I got there. She said, ‘You smell. Go take a hot shower.’”

Bea lurches to a stop. She has been remembering one of the last times the two sisters met. I imagine the scene. With Dot’s husband Charlie in between, they confront each other by the slate blue wall on a hill in St. Thomas. Snakes are spilling out of Dorothy’s mouth. Bea stands there, crushed and speechless. It occurs to me that, in reality, she probably answered right back.

Women who don’t have sisters often wish they did. I stare down at my mother. Her solicitous letters from Europe indicate Bea was instrumental in getting Dorothy to attend college. Bea loved her sisters in a profound way. She even loved complicated Helen whose name my mother was calling last night. “Can you tell me what you think is important in life?” I ask.

Bea is so still I wonder if she has registered my question. It is something I have been meaning to ask for a while. Her eyes are closed. I wait. Has she gone to sleep?

“Friendship. To care about people. I care about people.”

A word, a pause, a phrase, another phrase, all uttered in a raspy voice that is hard to understand.

My mother tires easily these days and indicates a nap would be nice: “It isn’t necessary for you to wake me up as long as my little sister is here. She likes people.”

Instinctively I realize Bea isn’t referring to Dorothy, but rather that imaginary sister present recently. “How do you know?” I ask.

“I’ve heard her say so, and I feel it inside of me.”

“What is she like?”

“I have a hard time defining her. She’s me! Sometimes she feels oppression like die, d-i-e.”

Her words do not make sense, so I steer the conversation to a dream that does, this email from Dorothy’s daughter, Nan:

“Last night I dreamed of my mother, in old age. She demanded to ride a motorcycle, because she said Bea had ridden a motorcycle and she'd be damned if she'd be outdone. So I got a motorcycle, and in great trepidation got her up on it and off she went, slowly in a very large circle. As she came back she slipped off the back. I ran to get her, really scared that she'd broken a hip, but she stood up and said triumphantly, 'Tell Beatrice she's not the only one who can ride a motorcycle!'”

“Is that something Dorothy would have done?” I ask.

“Yes. Is Dorothy dead?

“She is.”

“How did that happen? She was so young!”

I pick up a photo of Bea and teenage Dorothy, at the New Jersey shore. In Bea's mind her little sister has become that young and carefree girl again.

“Now let me sleep.”

I have been dismissed.

The edges of reality have become a blur, like LeCount Hollow Beach this afternoon, partially veiled in mist due to the change of season. After spring, comes summer. After summer, fall. My mother has already entered the winter of her life and I feel the chill.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Everyone Has a Name"

Bea often brings up her name.

“My name is Beatrice,” she will say quietly to herself, lying there in bed and wiggling her toes, “What a pretty name!” Or, “Beatrice is my name. It means ‘bringer of happiness.’”

I look on the Internet and discover she is right: "From the Latin name Beatrix, derived from beatus 'blessed soul' and meaning 'that gives happiness, joy.'"

Today I found this neat little acrostic poem Bea wrote in her later years, no doubt, while bored and already no longer able to read for long periods at a time:

B Be careful when you fly alone!
E Everybody wants to fly
A around this world from
T time to time,
R returning now and then,
I in record time, to
C come again to
E every happy place remembered,

G going over many years.
R returning, turning to my youth
A a long, long time ago
B because it helps to remember:
B Beatrice is my name.
E Everyone has a name.

Friday, September 15, 2006

"Unusually Old"

“Do you make a noise when you die?” Bea asks when I come in with breakfast.

I surmise from the urgency in her voice that she has been thinking about this question for a while.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Why?”

“She was asking me.”

“Who was asking you?

“My imaginary sister.”

We have explained sisters Helen and Dorothy have both passed. Curious about death but unwilling to admit interest, Bea attributes the question to an “imaginary” sister. How hard to be the last leaf on the family tree!

Five years ago, Bea expressed her feelings on old age in a poem:

I am a special person.
I am unusually old!
I am surprised to live so long.
I am alone because my friends are gone.
I am the proud grandparent of two granddaughters and three grandsons.

I am happy to be a mother.
I am glad that I could give birth.
I am very tired sometimes and want to cry.

I am the author of a book.
I am proud of that.
I am glad that when I die my work will live on.

I am sometimes ashamed of myself.
I am glad to live in Wellfleet, near the big ocean.
I am going to enjoy the sunlit days.

I am enjoying the flowers my daughter plants.
I am afraid when I hear a strange noise at night.
I am bothered by birds chirping early in the morning.
I am a special person.
I am unusually old.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Sven's Role = Moral Support

As husbands go, Sven is rather patient. Nine years ago, when I suggested our move to what was for him a foreign country and the care of my elderly parents, he embraced the idea not with enthusiasm, but rather like Robinson Crusoe, determined to make the best of the situation.

Bea took an immediate liking to my new husband. Once he had devoured the in-depth articles in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, she started sharing opinions, delighted to have an in-house intellectual with whom to converse, not to mention a handsome escort for seminars at the Wellfleet Public Library. Sven enjoyed my mother although she dominated the dinner conversations to such an extent that I had to remind him not to neglect little old me.

Bea is mostly silent these days. In fact, this week, she shut up Nurse Jane by asking, “Do you always talk so much?”

I could have pointed out former volubility, but didn’t.

The hospice folks tend to be our only contact with the outside world. Neighbors know Bea is in the homestretch and imagine she needs a quiet environment.

Yesterday I discussed the phenomenon with Jane who told me it is the norm for most caregivers. We tend to become homebodies in order to keep a close watch on loved ones. Social life is curtailed. We hesitate to go out. The result is isolation.

These days Bea’s slumber is profound. Sven goes into her bedroom to say hello every once and a while, but he, too, shies away. There is something about Bea’s circumstance that discourages contact. Perhaps people are reminded of their own mortality, as if death, like a tornado, might suck up everything in its passage …

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Emergence of Sexual Desire in Women's Novels – Introduction

In the late 1980s, Bea began assiduously doing research as she prepared what could have been a marvelous book. Unfortunately, she never was able to finish it. Nonetheless, we have a glimpse of what it might have been thanks to her introduction:

“In their rebellion against the strictures of patriarchy, women writers have increasingly become aware of – and articulate about – their own sexual feelings. The gradual emergence of physical desire as a subject is reflected in the novels of British women between the mid-19th and mid 20th centuries. Those writers, who consciously or unconsciously project passion in their work, at the same time protest male dominance and the institutions of western culture shaped by male dominance.

Included here are love scenes and related expressions of women’s amorous feelings form the works of seven novelists of literary distinction, chosen to show a progression. Starting with the three Brontë sisters, chapters proceed chronologically to Olive Schreiner, Dorothy Richardson, Rosamond Lehmann and Doris Lessing. All but Richardson are of mixed ancestry, and all by Anne Brontë have spent some time outside England. These circumstances may have made possible greater freedom of expression in their time. With the possible exception of Lehmann, all protest patriarchal institutions. The female reader may at times identify with the heroine subliminally and, as in a fairy tale, find a greater understanding of her own nature. Art transmutes the unacceptable to a form that can be taken in by the psyche.

Up until 1847, with one notable exception, women’s novels concerned with courtship and marriage conformed to the strict sexual taboo of the period. The exception was Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for her polemical The Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792. For this treatise she has the honor of being the first rebel against patriarchy in Britain. She later fell in love with an American, had a child, and, rejoicing in the discovery of love, wrote The Wrongs of Women, or Maria. She died in childbirth before the novel was finished and her husband, William Godwin, published the long fragment in 1797. As Ellen Moers remarks, it ‘contains Wollstonecraft’s most radical feminism and most powerful writing on a woman’s passion,’ putting emphasis on a woman’s right to passion. Like her poignant love letters, the unfinished novel is finding renewed attention of late, but at the end of the 18th century, it did not reach the wide reading public responsive to Jane Austen’s gently satiric novels, nor, a generation later, her own daughter, Mary Godwin Shelley’s romantic horror story, Frankenstein (1818).

Then, fifty years after Wollstonecraft’s Maria came the publication in 1847 of three novels by three remarkable sisters, Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne Brontë (1820-1849), writing under the androgynous pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. All three sisters, in very different ways, wrote about a woman’s attraction to a man, and all three presented heroines who rebelled against a male-dominated society.

Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, Charlotte’s masterpiece, left staid literary critics gasping with indignation. Discerning reviewers like George Henry Lewis, immediately recognized its distinction. The book had wide sales, brought lasting success to its young publisher, but was disparaged all the more when it became known that Jane Eyre was the work of a young, unmarried woman. Some critics even said it was coarse. A century later the post-Freudian Richard Chase stated his belief that the novel’s power arose from its mythologizing of Jane’s confrontation with masculine sexuality.

Anne’s novel of note was her second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published the following year. While lacking the passion of her sisters’ novels, it was criticized for its too vivid depiction of debauchery. However, Anne wrote with a high moral purpose: she dared to make a strong plea for divorce at a time when all rights in marriage were for men only. In 1930, George Moore referred to the book as ‘the literary Cinderella’ of the Brontë books. With the advent of Women’s Studies, the book is finding renewed attention.

Emily’s great work, Wuthering Heights, has received its widest acclaim for the story of the undying love between the willful Catherine and the foundling Heathcliff.

An early and lasting influence on Emily and Charlotte was the store of Irish legends and Yorkshire folk tales, which the Brontë children learned from their father. The Reverend Patrick Brontë’s life and antecedents had a marked effect on his children’s lives and work. Perfervid and devout Evangelical parson that he was, Reverend Brontë may well have been surprised at his own influence.

In Part I, we shall consider the novels, as well as the unique background, of the Brontë sisters.

Part II will relate to the evolution in the literary expression of sexual desire by British women novelists during the century between the triple publication date of 1847 of the Brontës’ first published novels and the 1960s works of Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated city.

These seven writers, all of recognized literary merit, have been chosen as most clearly exemplifying the gradual articulation of feminine desire at various levels of consciousness in the novels of women writers during this crucial time-span.”

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Reckoning

Autumn has crept into our garden early this year. Stems gaunt and leafless, the cleome lean precariously close to the Russian sage. Outside Bea’s window, a few white blossoms still dance on the gaura, but the tired plants already bend in the brisk breeze. From beneath the skirts of the Grosso lavender, a renegade clump of Mexican Hat pushes forth new sombreros, as if to entice the merry nasturtiums to play. The nasturtiums never let go until the first frost. My mother always used to plant nasturtiums, one of her favorite flowers.

With the change of seasons comes a reckoning.

“I’m going to die this week,” Bea announced yesterday. It was one of the only things she said and did not invite comment.

How do you know? Do you welcome death as a release? Why give up now? What makes you so sure? Questions tumble through my mind, but remain unspoken.

I stare at her face, beautiful in its angular hollows and transparent skin. Bea is a rare flower whose time has come. Our garden will be barren without her …

Monday, September 11, 2006

Nuts & Bolts: What I Learned about Hospice

True or False:

1.) Everyone in the United States can look forward to receiving hospice in the period prior to death.
2.) People with cancer receive hospice in priority.
3.) Your GP needs to provide a referral.
4.) Medicare pays for hospice.
5.) Hospice care lasts only six months.


1.) True. Hospice is available to anyone as an end-of-life comfort care service. In 2000, 1 in 4 Americans who died received hospice.

2.) False. Many of us think hospice is only for cancer patients. The majority of hospice patients have cancer, but hospice is also available to people with other life-threatening illnesses, including Alzheimer's.

3.) True. You can request this referral, however, from your doctor or have a hospice representative contact your doctor.

4.) True. Hospice is also covered by most insurers.

5.) False. Hospice care usually lasts less than six months, but not always. The period can be longer. Hospice also provides bereavement support for up to a year.

Death is not something most people want to think or talk about, but information is power: any person facing the advancing stages of a terminal illness is eligible for palliative care. It is also interesting to note that there are now different types of hospice in the United States, both non-profit and for profit. Bea is fortunate to have Hospice & Palliative Care of Cape Cod, a non-profit service which provides health aides, nurses, doctors, social workers, volunteers, chaplains, and grief counseling. For more information, see their Web site.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Word Respect

Bea has always loved words and encouraged their respect. Scrabble was her favorite game. Needless to say, Bea always won, except with my dad. She would let him score more points every second game. Getting him to play at all could be considered a major achievement since he was not a native-born speaker. Every Christmas Bea gave grandson Alex a Scrabble desk calendar. Her son became a newspaper editor; her daughter, a writer. Bea can be lying there in bed and out of the blue she will comment, “Rhapsody. Now there’s a beautiful word …”

Lisa tries to tempt my mother with a nice bowl of porridge: “Your belly would be so grateful.”

“Belly is not an elegant word,” Bea declares with evident distaste.

“What should I say?”


Lisa and I are just finishing a major grooming operation – shampoo, manicure, toe and ear cleaning, bed bath, etc. – when Nurse Jane arrives and notices the new lotion.

“Great stuff, called ‘very emollient body lotion,’ from Alba,” I tell her as Lisa smears a thick layer onto Bea’s back, necessary for the prevention of dry skin and bedsores.

“E-moll-ient!” pipes in the back’s owner, taking joy from each syllable. The spa treatment has put her in fine spirits.

Later, I ask what emollient means.

“Don’t know,” she says. “And you thought I was so smart!”

I am changing her by myself this evening, a tricky task due to extreme frailty. In order to position the underpad, I have to trot around the bed several times and tug on her sheepskin.

“Too bad you can’t jump,” Bea comments wryly.

Joared posted a comment that sent me to a Web site with an amazing sunset to symbolize the end of life.

I thought a lot about senility today and whether it applies to my mother. Here are some dictionary definitions to ponder:

1.) Senile: Exhibiting the symptoms of senility, as impaired memory or the inability to perform certain mental tasks.

2.) Senile dementia: A progressive, abnormally accelerated deterioration of mental faculties and emotional stability in old age, occurring especially in Alzheimer’s disease.

3.) Dementia: Deterioration of intellectual faculties, such as memory, concentration, and judgment, resulting from an organic disease or a disorder of the brain. It is often accompanied by emotional disturbance and personality changes.

Bea does not suffer from 2 or 3, but senility applies although, on some days, her mind is crystal-clear. Last week I noted distress at being unable to do anything “useful.” Today she failed my Everything-You-Can-Remember-About-Playing-Scrabble test yet felt well enough to want to go outside.

ME: “How I wish there was a magic button on your bed that I could push and transport you into the garden and then you could see how beautiful the cosmos look in the sunshine, with the goldfinches flitting from branch to branch!”

BEA: “I’m getting up. I am going to get up and act in a sensible way.”

ME: “You don’t think staying in bed is sensible?”

BEA: “Interesting question!”

My mother is just very old. During her waking hours, her mind stays busy: today she was wondering what life would have been like as a man. Senile she may be, but sharper than many of the young folks who voted for George W. Bush.

“Onomatopoeia,” Bea says as I leave the room. “Now there’s a lovely word ….”

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Letter from Ted

Anyone who has been following this blog will remember the author of that unforgettable poem Bea quoted earlier on, “The dreams of thirty centuries have been spun out since first thy thirsty soil drank deep of blood …”, her Greek-American beau from Williams whom Harry did not want his daughter to marry: Ted.

Bea has saved one of Ted’s love letters. What makes it noteworthy? In the margins, Bea has left comments – in capital letters below – a habit she later applied to correspondence from my brother and me.

Across the top Bea has scrawled, “Oh, bless his heart for such a sweet letter!”

“431 Riverside Drive
New York City
March 12, 1932

Dearest girl,

I can’t say anything that would express or could indicate one poor scrap of my feelings. What can I do? I could fill this sheet with nothing but, I love you, I love you, I love you. Or, I could try to thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming down from Heaven. Or, I could try to tell you that I still don’t understand how or why you can be so good to me.

But I can’t do any of the above because they would seem so terribly trivial compared to that surge of emotion, (GOOD!) which was the fleeting joy of your visit. You came and went – and it was like the aroma of wood smoke on a breath of evening wind in fall. It had vanished so quickly, and yet had left something, which can always be recalled. (OVERDRAWN TO SENTIMENTALITY?)

If you knew how I hope you were satisfied with your visit, how I hope you accomplished your aim! At last, if the results were disappointing to you, won’t you be a little glad that you helped me, just as you do every time you see me? (I DON’T WANT YOU TO SPEAK ANYMORE TO ME OF MY HELPING YOU BECAUSE …)

You see, darling, if it doesn’t sound too ridiculous, you are teaching me the pleasure of humility. No young man could fail to take mental stock of himself, see his many shortcomings and decide to try to overcome them, when he has been treated so dearly (NO SUCH WORD) by the girl he cares for. (PROPER HUMILITY NECESSARY IN LOVE BUT OTHERWISE, AFTER MARRIAGE COMES REVERSE OF TOO MUCH HUMILITY IN A DESIRE TO SHOW AN EXCELLENCE NOT FELT SINCERE, A DESIRE TO COMPENSATE IN PART AND IN PART AN OVERDEVELOPED IMPULSE OF MALE TO SUBDUE, IN A SENSE, THE FEMALE.)

It is only gradually that I am learning what a woefully insufficient person I am. But, thanks to you, I not only gain such knowledge, but am led to do something about it. Of course, I am also led to the conceit of desiring to be your lifetime task of regeneration (BETTER NOT TO MENTION THIS TOO MUCH)… but since such a conceit is universal, can’t we excuse it on the grounds that it’s just another of those Instincts?

When I received your telegram I was delighted at the prospect of seeing you.

By the time your train was due, I was also afraid.

When I missed you at the gate, I felt very ill for a moment.

When you told me that you had come down to see me, a gigantic steam shovel removed a mile of earth under my feet. (VERY GOOD!)

And, at six o’clock yesterday, when you told me you could stay until eight, I felt like the fellow in Cell 13, who has just received a stay from the governor. (GOOD!)

Finally, when your train pulled out, I was a very lonesome little boy, afraid of the tall buildings and dark, narrow streets. (THIS ALSO GOOD.)

I’m so glad you were able to stop in, even if it was for a moment. Mother hopes you will come again on your next visit to New York. So does Grandmother, who expresses decided ideas on you, including comments on the latent strength of your little finger … (GOOD BUT POINT OVER-STRESSED AND BETTER NOT EXPRESSED.)

Dearest, some day, when I wake up and realize how nice you’ve been to me, I’ll try to thank you as I should. Meanwhile, let me enjoy my dream and tell me, when you have a chance, what conclusions you drew this weekend, if you drew any. (BEA HAS DRAWN TWO LINES HERE IN THE MARGIN.)

Above all, no matter what you decide or what happens, let me say,

All my love, Ted”

Friday, September 08, 2006

Letter from Harry

"January 19, 1968

Dear Bea,

Your letter is a very interesting one, and, of course, unexpected. If you feel this psychiatric analysis is benefiting your complex, whatever that happens to be, it is money well spent, but you only are the judge of that. I know of nothing in your early childhood that would be of help.

There were incidents, later in your life. No doubt you remember when Mother was in the hospital with Bob? You went sledding on the Joralemon Street hill and collided with another sled, resulting in a slight concussion. I happened to be home when a group brought you in. Dr. Murray came up at once and stated that you were to be kept quiet and that you would be perfectly normal by morning, which turned out to be the case.

Of course, Mother and you had many quarrels until you left home and took a room on a street near the East River. From then on your life was a closed book, and, no doubt, you well remember those days. I always felt you were your mother’s favorite.

There was one incident that I will never forget and this one might prove of help. Remember your trip abroad as hostess? When we arrived at the pier at sailing time, we found you in a distraught condition, and you finally admitted that your good friend Ted, whom you thought was in love with you, was even more in love with your friend Nancy and had spent the last night before sailing with her. I suppose you two compared notes and perhaps agreed he was not worth the affection you were both showering upon him, and, to this I certainly agree to this day. With this I will close and hope one of these episodes will help you in the analysis.

Love, Dad”

Thursday, September 07, 2006

On the Merry-go-round

Bea is sitting up, alert as the goldfinch perched on a shaft of anise hyssop outside her window. She has been awake for two days now.

I bring half a sliced turkey sandwich with mayo and cranberry sauce, made just the way she likes it, except without iceberg lettuce, too chunky to handle. Bea reaches out with both hands and actually grabs the sandwich. I watch as she aims it at her mouth.

Praise pops out of me: “You’re doing so well on that sandwich!”

Bea smiles like a schoolgirl who has just brought home her first report card – straight As!

“Do you think they’re going to start it again?” she says very clearly, between small, unhurried bites.


Bea's request for a sandwich has lulled me into regression to another time, or perhaps I am simply in denial. Her starting a conversation before my return from the kitchen jolts me back into the present.

“What?” I repeat.

“The school.”

“What school?”

“This is a school for nurses, isn’t it? I just wanted you to know that this room could be used. I could get up and go. Get my bags and go. Then they could use it.”

“For what?”

“Why, training!”

I start to explain about hospice care, but Bea interrupts. A worried expression clouds her face.

“Oh, no. I don’t want our father to have that expense.”

“Our father? You mean, Harry?”


Here we go, off on a tangent. My elbows swing out to maintain balance. I’ve noticed they do that a lot. I tell her Medicare pays for hospice. Bea doesn’t look like she believes me.

Our conversations seem to take place in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” You never know what is real or what period of Bea’s life her mind will occupy next, a disconcerting experience that feels like a journey through a region known for quicksand.

“Can’t I go home?” she pleads. "I'm okay ..."

Bea is trying to make sense of her situation. She occupies a hospital bed. Lisa comes five days a week, but there are other young health aides present on weekends: Carmen, Alison, Tammy, Ruthie, Florence, Janice, Barbara… No wonder Bea thinks she is in some kind of training hospital for nurses!

I explain that the noises she hears on the stairs are not doctors with patients, but bed and breakfast guests. This makes her laugh. I do so love it when she laughs, a sound that floats up from deep within her wasted body, incongruous in its sparkle.

“You are so sensible, and accurate. I’m going to miss you.”

This unexpected statement makes me choke up. Is she talking about death?

“I’ll miss you, too.”

“But I’m going to bring you a little present …”

Right! After she leaves our “school for nurses.” And so the merry-go-round of our day continues … I run to catch up, jump on my horse, and we turn round and round, my mother and I.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What’s For Dinner?

At meals, I always try to give a choice: “Beef bullion or clam chowder?”

Clam chowder is an old favorite. My mother nods enthusiastically at the idea. She used to like it, a lot.

Bea is still smiling when I return from the kitchen. The first spoonful goes down okay – not too hot, not too cold. She has more trouble with the second. Her eyes open wide to indicate uncertainty. These days Bea approaches food with circumspection, like a mail order bride on the prairie, confronted by a new husband.

With a little cough meant to demonstrate difficulty in swallowing, she croaks, “Too thick!”

The third spoonful makes her choke.

I explain how flavors we appreciated in youth no longer seem to reach mature taste buds, worn out from overuse at almost 97. Nothing works forever, after all.

Bea is busy moving her tongue from one side of her mouth to the other, as if searching for something. It is not clear whether my message is getting through. Then she hands me a tiny piece of clam. I glance down and realize how many more there must be in the cup.

“Can’t take the clams out of the clam chowder,” I declare glibly. “Wouldn’t taste the same.”

A second clam does it. Bea painstakingly peels the tiny thing off her tongue.

I try avocado. Perhaps the thin slices will inspire memories of dinner with my dad for whom she would delicately slice avocado into salad every night? Bea accepts the avocado, then shakes her head, as if the offering were, in fact, unripe mango. Is this a nasty trick I decided to play now that old age prevents her presence in the kitchen? She glares up at me. Her eyes shout, “Traitor!”

“You used to like avocado,” I say, contrite that this former pleasure has disappeared with the person she used to be.

Applesauce is not something she likes, but it is easy to swallow. (Think, baby food.) Two spoonfuls go down. Bea is making a face. I know there is no use trying for a third.

Finally, I offer chocolate ice cream. She consumes the whole bowl. Now here is a food my mother appreciates, a relatively new discovery for her taste buds, a treat she served my dad over the course of their 56 years together, refusing to have any dessert herself so she could live – Hah! I almost said forever – longer ….

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How Much Care Is Necessary?

Last night I slept soundly for the first time in months. I did not use the bed next to Bea’s bedroom. Instead, I slept far enough away so that I could hear her cry out, but not close enough for soft talking to disturb my sleep. In my dream, I returned to Paris and escaped aboard an Express train to Lyon with a dear old friend who needed respite from his life, too. When I woke up, it occurred to me that I was now traveling in my mind, just the way Bea does every day!

How much care should one provide? My daughters and I disagree. They do not see any problem with going off to the beach for a long walk and leaving Bea alone in bed.

“Hospice provides volunteers for that kind of thing,” I say.

“So, call a volunteer!” they cry in unison.

Comfort Care, as the hospice folks have explained it, seeks to eliminate distress. As Bea’s primary caregiver, I have become a member of their team.

Once I went shopping and my husband forgot he had babysitting duty. Lisa found Bea frantic. Unacceptable!

A mother would never leave an infant alone. I feel the same way about Bea, which makes this period of my life so strenuous…

Monday, September 04, 2006

"Notes for A & N"

On August 17, 1954, Bea felt the urge to write down a few thoughts on a scrap of notepaper, while at Rehobeth Beach in Delaware. I was seven; Nick, four.

“The most important thing is to express true emotion.

Moral strength, or more exactly, spiritual strength, is much different in its demands from what we might think it would be.

Everyone has his own inner needs, everyone.

The demands of life are two-fold:

1.) find some way of realizing one’s own inner needs

2.) keep oneself in a willing, open, receptive state to realize the needs of those whose lives are related to ours.

The second may be harder, but it is essential to a healthy, happy life.

Isolation will result when this giving and taking is, for whatever reason, not optimal. I think people can make the two-way effort. There are many aspects of life, which will help. The sooner people find what gives them joy the better equipped they will be for the giving and taking.

The natural world is a great source of comfort. I don’t think it is necessary to wonder why this is so. One should simply experience nature often, and, if that can best be done alone, then alone.”

Sunday, September 03, 2006

When the Caregiver Becomes Sleep-Deprived

All night Bea talks quietly to herself, despite the sleeping pill I administered at 7 pm. It is just dawn when I enter her room.

“Will you answer me, Martin?”

I hear annoyance in her voice, but nothing like the murderous rage I feel at having been awakened over and over during the course of the night. In a flash, I understand Lizzie Borden and empathize with the occasional loony on the local news driven to eliminate an elderly mother.

My presence makes Bea forget Martin. “Am I glad you’re here!” she declares. “I can’t get them to do anything.”

Whom we are talking about is not clear. She mentions some names I do not recognize but, at this point, I do not really care.

Then Bea asks, “Do you know what Barbie is up to?”

“Barbie the doll? No, I don’t know what Barbie’s been up to.”

Lisa has explained that lack of sleep causes confusion whenever Bea is unable to nap, but her talking nonsense upsets me even more than sleep deprivation.

In the afternoon, Bea helps Martin celebrate Ruth’s birthday. When I point out both friends are dead, my mother just stares up at me in disbelief.

“I’m balmy today,” she says by way of excuse, accepting a sip of water for her parched throat.

My daughters visit and find their mom a zombie. Their grandmother’s brain clears long enough to recognize them.

“Sometimes I’m stupid; sometimes, brilliant,” she tells Stephanie.

“Time for something to eat,” I say. I hear annoyance in my own voice.

Sleep deprivation is reason enough for a substitute caregiver. I ask my daughters to feed the sleepless one, awake now for at least 36 hours, and leave ...

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Facing the Unknown

I hear Bea early in the morning but do not get up. When I go in at 7, I can tell from the odor that she has had a bowel movement, part of this experience of life on earth. I remove the comforter that kept her toasty during the night and replace it with two blankets, to provide a gentle cooling down of her body prior to changing the brief. Bea seems subdued. Her mind has not been idle, however. I wait patiently and take her hand. It is even colder than usual.

BEA: “I was thinking … that it is time… for me to die.”

Her face is solemn. She is speaking in a hushed tone, almost a whisper. Words of comfort spring into my head.

ME: “We love you.”

BEA: “How are you related to me?”

ME: “I’m your daughter.”

BEA: “I was lucky to get you as a daughter. Do I have any other children?”

ME: “Nick. My brother.”

BEA: “Oh.”

Bea is thinking hard again. There is something more she wants to communicate. I sit there, studying her face. The skin on her cheekbones seems sleeker, younger. Her pupils are pinpoints of black in a sea of light blue.

BEA: “I don’t know how to express it. I’m going to die soon. I’ve become aware of it …”

ME: “It’s all right to die. You’ve lived almost a full century.”

BEA: “I don’t want to die.”

ME: “I know. But dying may not be as bad as you think. You just leave your body behind. That’s what I believe anyway. You are such a strong life force, I do not think your spirit is going to disappear. It will always be with me anyway. In memory, at least ...”

When you care for an elderly parent, you have the opportunity to get close to something profound, closer, in fact, than I personally have ever been, except perhaps while giving birth. The elderly are like infants, totally helpless, but they can speak and do express what they are experiencing. Anyone who chooses a nursing home is not going to know this closeness because he or she will not necessarily be there to listen. Like quality time for a child, the moment has to be just right. What a gift to hold Bea’s hand as she faces the unknown! The mystery of it is awe-inspiring.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Bedridden Blues

At some point in our lives everyone has been bedridden. Often the experience accompanies sickness. Usually it occurs during childhood with a parent nearby to offer love and support. The warm bed provides comfort, escape from school or daily chores. We all remember the smell of hot chicken soup and the cozy feeling of wiggling toes under the covers. Once the initial cause for bed rest has been remedied, we revel in the novelty if confinement lasts a day or two. After that we get antsy. Our goal becomes resumption of daily life. Not so for elderly people who must remain in bed.

Because of short-term memory loss, every seventh day or so Bea forgets her bedridden state. My mother will throw off her blanket or comforter in a desperate effort to rise, a plan foiled by the side rails on her hospital bed. The mixer Bea’s mind has become blends actual experience with dreams. She really thinks mobility to be an option.

“Help me get up,” Bea demands. “They need me in the next room.”

“You can’t get up,” I tell her gently. “You haven’t walked for five months.”

“Of course I have! I walked back and forth today.”

At 96 ½, it is hard to accept being bedridden, perhaps because implicit is the fact that the end of life is approaching. The caregiver needs to take into account the distress immobility can produce and stand ready to empathize.

I am so grateful that the team from Hospice & Palliative Care of Cape Cod is an available resource as I navigate the murky waters of my mother’s extreme old age. Should I have a question, I know a quick phone call will probably resolve it. Bea’s comfort is their main concern. When Lisa or Nurse Jane leaves, Bea is ensconced in the nest her bed has become, clean, and happy. As her caregiver, I feel empowered by the visit, flush with the moral support it provides. Thank you, Hospice & Palliative Care!