Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bea Passes Away

Bea took us by surprise and left early. I was not expecting her to go so fast, with my brother coming the next day. But she knew he has a hard time with death, so she left by herself, once I had closed the door. She had been breathing deeply all afternoon. It was so peaceful there in her room, with the last rays of autumn sunshine falling on her face. I wish she had let me hold her hand, but independent Bea did it her own way, to the end.

A friend sent this quote when my father passed: “A life well-lived cannot be diminished by death. The beauty, guidance, and inspiration it gave us will shine on as brightly as ever.”

Bea’s beautiful life was an inspiration to everyone she encountered.

I have the feeling my dad was there to greet her. His spirit had lingered seven years ago, November 16, when he had to leave her behind. Bea’s spirit did not linger. It just soared.

I am glad we had this time together and recommend the experience of home care to anyone who is considering it.

We can imagine Bea now with friends and family, partying away, no more pain.

As I say a final goodbye, I borrow words from her first love, Ted:

“Good night, agapiti. You have placed me under a glorious debt, because you have given me the green pines, and sunsets, and new leaves, and crazy moons, and star-dust which go into the weaving of dreams …”

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

No Pain

Morphine (mor´ fen) n. A bitter crystalline alkaloid, extracted from opium, the soluble salts of which are used in medicine as an analgesic, a light anesthetic, or a sedative.

Bea lies in bed, sedated, feeling no pain.

Due to the general euphoria after World War II, we baby boomers were raised under extraordinary circumstances. Well-meaning parents misled us into thinking life was like a fairy tale. They did their best to shelter the pastel-colored nurseries of America and downplayed the possibility of nuclear war. Consecutive scientific breakthroughs created the illusion that civilization had won out in the battle with germs. Baby boomers grew up bubble-children, in glorious ignorance of pain.

But pain is a part of life.

Bea had her share. Sibling rivalry, sexual abuse, blame at the death of a little brother, estrangement from brother Hunter due to schizophrenia. My mother gave up her first love because of parental disapproval. Breakup with beau Bill Whitney must have been painful. She had an abortion, then lost her job at CBS. Finally, she married a man who had lived through Revolution, as damaging to the psyche as the Holocaust, although the annihilation of the Russian aristocracy received no media coverage. Despite all this, Bea bought into the dream that life was a garden party without ants. She bit off big bites and chewed hard. Anything was possible if you just tried. I marvel at her consistent optimism. It certainly brightened my world.

I am glad the morphine keeps her protected, but I miss her already …

The Beginning of the End

BEA: “Are you my mother?”

ME: “Well, sort of. I take care of you.”

BEA: “That’s a no.”

The morphine from last night has worn off, and Bea’s marvelous mind kicks in. How I will miss it!

Yesterday Nurse Jane showed me how to administer the medication. Bea still talked all night, off and on, a rumble breaking into my consciousness like radio static. I gave mini-sips of water and a second dose around 2 a.m.

Her voice is hoarse but jubilant when I tiptoe in at daybreak.

BEA: “We’re going for a ride.”

ME: “What fun! Can I sit in the rumble seat?”

BEA: “Sure!”

Imagine windows in a house, at night. The lights go out, one at a time. This description also fits the human body. Jane tells me Bea’s organs will begin shutting down, one after the other. We will do our best to keep her pain-free and comfortable, during this process.

Now that I think about it, I don’t think I will enjoy the ride so much after all …

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bea Loses the Ability to Swallow

Dysphasia (dis fe' je) n. Difficulty in swallowing.

Dysphasia is what Bea now has. It is common in elderly bedridden folk at the end of life. When she tries to swallow water, her throat makes a gurgle that leaves her brow furrowed with surprise, a new development, recognized by professionals as one of the last circles my mother will make prior to landing.

I spend a lot of time by her bedside.

BEA: “Why are you so nice to me?”

ME: “Because I love you?”

BEA: “Are you my mama?”

ME: “I take care of you, so I guess that’s like being your mama.”

Nurse Jane comes to visit and provides counsel on how to keep Bea as comfortable as possible in the days she has left. We will try to continue fluids, despite the dysphasia.

“It may just be your time, Bea,” Jane says, pragmatic as ever.

For once my mother seems ready, at last, to accept this permission to die.

“I’m very old,” she croaks. “Now leave me alone.”

We follow orders, leaving her propped up in bed, swaddled in down.

Monday, November 27, 2006

When the Elderly Bedridden Cough Up Phlegm

Phlegm (flem) n. Thick, sticky mucus secreted by the mucous membrane of the respiratory tract, as during a cold or other respiratory infection.

Bea has been coughing, off and on, for two days now. Saturday I call Hospice and a nurse comes. She takes Bea’s temperature and uses a swab to remove as much phlegm as possible. The nurse suggests Bea should drink more fluids, but my mother now chokes on them, as if her body has forgotten how to swallow. There is a risk of aspiration, and pneumonia.

Yesterday Bea feels “awful” although she is in a happy place by the time Lisa helps me change bedclothes. We notice ankle swelling and position the front of the bed higher than usual.

The cough doesn’t seem to bother Bea, although it makes an eerie, guttural sound. I wipe the phlegm away with tissues. The wastebasket beside her bed is full of them.

The HPCCC nurse on duty calls to see how things are going. She does not seem to think Bea’s condition will improve, but my mother has surprised us all before, so who knows?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Strenuous Day

“Where is Ethiopia?”

This unexpected question pops out of Bea’s mouth in the middle of a coughing fit that hits with the force of yesterday’s gale winds. I hold a tissue below her mouth and wait. She is positioned as straight as possible, the way Nurse Jane once suggested.

“I want you to spit it out,” I order. Touchy-feely, I am not. “No more talk. You need to concentrate. Now spit!”

Bea coughs hard again and succeeds in releasing a thick glob of bubbly phlegm. I do my best to collect it in the tissue, a chore that makes me gag.

“How about Ruth?” Bea asks, much less concerned by her condition than me.


“How about inviting her over for a drink?” Before I can answer, she has moved on to another idea: “So many thin things.”

“What thin things?”

“I don’t know, dear.” She is peering up at the rafters but now turns her head to bestow a soft angelic smile that makes me feel all fuzzy inside. “So good to have you here.”

I give a quick kiss and rush off to the kitchen for warm beef broth.

“Can you do it with me?” she asks as soon as I return.

“Do what?”

“Greet my husband.”

“He was here?”

Bea is coughing again. She nods, then leans forward slightly and spits into another tissue.

At times like these, I feel out of my depth. I think of all the caregivers who have such duties daily. How grateful I am that Bea has been healthy! It must be so much harder to care for an elderly bedridden person who is not.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Singing Old Songs With the Elderly

Bea has been singing quietly to herself all morning. Music that enters young heads stays there. My mother surprises me with the number of songs she remembers from childhood.

Caregivers can easily encourage songfests that bring pleasure to elderly charges. All one needs to do is provide the tune and a line or two …

When Lisa comes, we have a real jamboree.

“I love you. A bushel and a peck,” Lisa sings. “ A bushel and a peck and … a hug around the neck. Don’t you know that one?”

“Sure she does,” I say. “Used to sing it to me all the time.”

Bea is being shy. Her eyes swing around to take in her audience.

Not one to give up, Lisa tries another: “How ‘bout, Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah. Someone’s in the kitchen I…”

She stops. Then comes the faint voice: “Know-wo-wo-wo.”

Lisa: “Someone’s in the kitchen with Di-nah…”

“Peeing on the old banjo.”

Bea has not forgotten the words. She is just in a good mood and making a joke.

The change in lyrics gives us all a good laugh…

Friday, November 24, 2006

No Visitors

I ask Bea if she has had any visitors of late.

“They’ve been calling,” she responds, narrowing her eyes so she looks like a toothless Crusader Rabbit, head turned away from the rafters, where visitors appear. “But I don’t want to talk to them.”

Thursday, November 23, 2006


One of the main stories in the December Reader's Digest is nursing home negligence: Deadly Neglect: The Shocking Truth about What's Going On in America's Nursing Homes. How much better to have my mother close by and not have to worry about malnutrition or dehydration or infected bedsores!

“Today is Thanksgiving,” I tell Bea this morning. “What are you thankful for?”

Her mouth curves down in a proud smile: “You!”

As for me, I am thankful for our hospice health aide. Lisa’s compassion brightens Bea’s final days.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Bea's Retreat

Yesterday’s Frontline Living Old explained the coming crisis for the elderly in our society. Hopefully this PBS documentary will motivate new thinking and solutions. The Web site has a great selection of resource material. Individuals do have many questions on elderly care. Here are the latest Internet searches that led strangers to Bea’s Bedside:

• Disorientation in elderly (UK)
• Handling dementia and hallucinations of elderly
• How to position bedridden person to prevent bedsores
• When elderly parent withdraws and won’t communicate.

This search seems particularly relevant today.

Lisa and I talk in whispers. Bea is in a quiet place. She may lie still on the bed between us, but her spirit is wandering as Lisa again massages her toes, cold. At the end of life, such a retreat is normal and must be respected.

“Are you ready for her to leave?” Sven asks later.

A child is never ready, no matter how much sense the departing makes. An orphan I will be, but one who was loved intensely.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Lesson #1

“Imagine a perfect world. What would it be like?” I asked Bea yesterday, since her mind was totally there.

“I don’t know who would have a perfect world,” she replied with the sad resignation of someone who lived through most of the twentieth century. “Nobody, darling. Nobody.”

“If it could exist?” I insist. “What would there be?”

“Love. You cannot have a perfect world without love.”

I guess the world needs to learn to love better …

Monday, November 20, 2006

Rough Ride

Bea chats away, 50 miles an hour, for most of the night.

When I say hello in the morning, she asks without preamble,“Have you seen either of them?”

In my mind, I recall the nursing-home tray with its little paper cups used for distribution of meds, a method of behavior control that must make many elderly people start considering death as an option. The nurse's aide smiles as she administers the daily dose ...


“Your father and my father.”

“They were hanging out together?”

“Yup. They’re both dead, aren’t they?”

“They are.”

If I had drugged Bea, she would not be sharing thoughts this way. I wonder what she is going to say next?

“I’m so cold! I spent the whole night on a big stone mausoleum ... Do you mind if I call you Ruth? It’s one of my favorite names ... There’s a slice of banana, up on the rafter. What would be nice is some chocolate pudding …”

I can tell from the way the talk stops and starts, like an old jalopy, sputtering without gas, that she has slowed down now. Still we jerk along until a disconcerting remark shatters the illusion of a return to our past, when my mother always made sense.

“Do you have any more little playmates for me?


“Somebody to talk to.”

“Oh, you mean the ladies who have been coming in, like Lisa and Virginia?”

“Yes, playmates. Because I’m a little girl now ...”

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Road to Dignity

Bea doesn’t want our weekend health-aide to touch her. Alison perseveres and, with a smile. I go in, under the impression that a more familiar face might help. Despite her squawking, Bea gets a bed bath and fresh nightgown. The skin on her tummy has become crackled like a sun-baked salt flat. Her skull is more angular than ever. While Alison applies Shea Butter, I fight the mental image of a scrawny chicken being buttered up for Sunday dinner, a perverse way to consider one’s mother, I agree.

This afternoon, Bea sings hymns to herself. She wakes me during the night, worried about a lost purse: “I have a problem. I wish there were some way I could find my handbag. It’s hard for me to accept because I have to have the responsibility of it since I don’t know how much money my father gave me. I need to pay for this room …”

Ah! Relinquishment of responsibility! No one wants to be beholden to others. Since the bedridden are, caregivers need to be illusionists. The Road to Dignity passes through Comfort, Reassurance, and Deception. We make stops along the way …

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Bea’s Novel (4)

On the edge of a mountain lake was a stretch of woods, which, in some deep way, had become her own. When, as a child, she had escaped to these woods, it had been as though with awe she walked on her own heart. In late spring, there were Indian pipes and trailing arbutus and white birch, but what she looked for were wild orchids. She would peer intently through the bushes and around the tree trunks for the flowers that seemed to hide with care from the human eye.

Pushing aside branches that caught in her hair, Sara thought about the Indians, who once had walked there, and remembered fingering the smooth flint of an arrowhead found nearby. Every once in a while she broke off a sassafras twig and chewed it to get the tangy taste of the tree itself. Sometimes she would lie on her back and look up at the sky. Only small patterns of light reached the ground.

It never occurred to her to be afraid. No one ever came into this part of the woods. She wouldn’t get lost. Moss grew on the north side of the tree trunks and that would guide her home. There was method in nature, far more consistent than in people.

As the ground became softer beneath her feet, she would bend and look slantwise for there she knew the orchids would be growing. Sometimes she found one, and one was enough. For a long while she would watch it emerge shyly from the two dark leaves, which spread themselves out close to the ground as a base for the incredible slender stem. The delicate pink flower, paper-like in texture, seemed to float on air, like a boat.

After a while, she would pluck the orchid from the lowest possible point and go directly home. Her mother would admire it, always and ever again, admire each new one, and put it in a vase on the living-room table. But everything about the orchid had changed. She would feel uneasy as she looked at its long, beautiful stem, hidden from view, and its proud head peering somewhat ludicrously over the edge.

Often, since she had come to Washington, she thought of orchid-hunting in the woods near Green Pond. There was a place where she had knelt down and felt the earth. That spot had become a part of herself, and she returned to it as if it might help her find what now more than ever, she was searching for …

Friday, November 17, 2006


Death is very much on our minds today. It approaches on little cat feet, like Sandburg’s fog, hovering at the window, ready to pounce once Bea shows willingness. Her retreat into herself concerns Lisa, who applies warm hands to Bea’s cheeks, colder than usual. Afterwards, Sven joins us for a brief conversation. We agree that most people cannot cope with the idea of imminent death, be it of a loved one, or oneself. The modern world has made the whole subject taboo.

Indeed, who wants to talk about death? Bea certainly doesn’t when the Chaplain from Hospice & Palliative Care of Cape Cod stops by for a visit. My mother reiterates the wish to “go home”. We discuss her delight at having climbed a Belleville cherry tree as a child. And, she expresses the desire to see her mother again …

I summarize a recent conversation: “Bea expressed fear of death, and I told her it wouldn’t be so bad, that she would be surprised.”

“Pleasantly so perhaps,” adds the Chaplain, who then describes how deceased family members sometimes appear in dreams to show the sick and elderly the way.

Bea listens without comment. “I want to sleep,” she says. “Go away.”

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bea's Knees

Bea complains of knee pain. I help Lisa swing my mother up on one hip in order to reposition the sheepskin. How flat her body has become! From this angle, she resembles the coyote in the cartoon, after Roadrunner has just run him over. The boney kneecaps seem totally out of proportion to the stick-figure legs.

Lisa notices the right knee is warmer than usual. “How much does it hurt?” she asks.

“Comme ci, comme ca,” Bea replies.

“Translation, please!” Lisa says.

I do the honors: “Sounds like a 7 or 8.”

“Oh, you know what, Beatrice?” Lisa exclaims. “I just saw a friend from Vermont, who asked about you, because she follows Sandy’s blog.”

“Wow!” Bea declares, breaking into a gleeful smile. “I should go on Oprah!”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bea on Oil

The bedsores on Bea’s toes seem better, although her left foot still feels like ice, so Lisa begins another massage. Suddenly Bea says, “Hopscotch.” She pronounces the word with such delectation that I surmise a memory of childhood has just surfaced. I am about to request details when she asks, “Isn’t that the name of a town in the Middle East?”

Lisa and I smother giggles.

There was a time when my mother's mind wasn’t such a quagmire. On a slip of paper, she has left us these thoughts on oil, drafted in the early eighties:

“Ever since the passage of the oil depletion allowance, the oil industry, its lobbyists and Congressmen, whose campaigns have been supported by the industry, the US has been strongly influenced by all aspects of oil production and processing. Investment in research on other forms of energy has been sparse, if not willfully blinded (sp.?).

Since the discovery of oil in the Middle East, US presence and influence there have been motivated by oil economics.

Other countries have comparable influences in their governments. Where a country gets its oil now shapes that country’s foreign policy.

Third World countries with oil resources become subtle pawns.

Why? Economic necessity: all industrialized countries depend on oil…”

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bea Remembers the Freedom March

This morning I ask Bea if she ever met Art Buchwald. She doesn’t think so. While talking about life in Washington, DC, I remember that my mother participated in the 1963 Freedom March. I suggest she tell Lisa about the experience since officials participated in groundbreaking for a memorial to Dr. King yesterday ...

BEA: “It was impressive. I’m sorry you missed it.”

LISA: “What was the march about?”

BEA: “Freedom.”

LISA: “Were there a lot of people?”

BEA: “Quite a few. Millions. Millions of strangers.”

LISA: “How long did you march?”

BEA: “Too long! All around Washington.”

LISA: “Did you hear Martin Luther King speak?”

BEA: “I did. That really did impress me. He spoke with such feeling, and he knew what he was talking about. I wanted him to talk so people understood that day.”

LISA: “Did people understand?”

BEA: “Yup.”

LISA: “What was his message?”

BEA: “Be good kids.”

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Lonely Life of the Extreme Elderly

Bea is really, really old.

The New York Times Book Review brings news that Art Buchwald has written a “deathbed” memoir, Too Soon to Say Goodbye. The 80-year-old comments on the number of visitors who trooped to his bedside once they thought he was about to die. Well, Art Buchwald is Art Buchwald. I doubt most elderly folks are so lucky. My experience is that people shy away from death. They don’t want to discuss it, and in fact, act as if it doesn’t exist. Perhaps this is why visitors to Bea’s bedside are rare. Society does not teach us how to interact with someone who is about to pass over. There is another problem: when you get to be 97, most of the people you have known during your lifetime have already died ….

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bea Quotes from Shakespeare

I find among Bea’s papers a schedule for Ethel Levy’s Shakespeare seminar at the Wellfleet Library. Bea has scrawled across the top, “2/8/01. Out of desperation, in view of the inexorability of death.”

A few days ago, my mother recited these verses from Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death ...

“Dusty death,” she repeated.

I had the feeling the words have taken on new meaning.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Letter from the War Correspondent

Since Bea is sleeping soundly, I again dip into her well of correspondence. What foresight to keep all these letters! This time the pump brings up the aftermath of World War II, described by a friend at Time-Life, William Walton, also born in 1909:

Bad Wildungen, Germany, May 18, 1945

Dear Beatrice,

Only a bad conscience would make me hark, at this late date, back to that March day in Washington when I failed to show for cocktails. As you probably divined, I finished my business quicker than expected and took off for New York, without the slightest idea where to reach you. So do forgive.

Since then things have moved so swiftly my head is giddy – statesmen dying, nations collapsing, wars whimpering to a lose and chaos on every hand. The transition from magnolia blossoming Washington to the stinking, death-filled concentration camps was incredible in the span of three days. And to walk into such places as Leipzig city hall and find the mayor, treasurer and SA chief, each with his wife and children, all suicides sitting cozily around like figures at Mme. Tussaud’s. It will be years, I suppose, before I can digest what I’ve seen and experiences. The stench is one that lingers weeks after the last bodies have been removed, forever maybe.

Then there was the Red Army linkup, for us more exciting than the end of the wear itself. The Russians turned out to be all we had hoped, a wild, hard-drinking, laughing crew who seem to have no discipline but manage to get things done. And how they wine and dine their friends – bowls of caviar, heaps of sausages, smoked sturgeon and salmon, eggs floating in sour cream, weird wonderful salads, vodka, wines, chicken, ham, veal and god knows what else all for one lunch.

Now comes the harder part, trying to poke among these terrible ruins and find some foundation on which to build a new nation or nations. There are few encouraging signs, but perhaps it is too early yet. Germany, more than anyone else, is in profound shock, unrealizing yet just what defeat means. When she comes out of the shock, maybe there’ll be underground resistance, maybe just gloom, or maybe some help for us. Anyway, that’s what I’m looking for now and heading into Bavaria to see what’s there. By fall, I expect to be home again and to see you. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you’re up to and what goes on in the land of Truman, V-E Day, fried eggs, and Eunice Jessup.

Love to you both,


Friday, November 10, 2006

The After-Sunday-School Party

“Mary loved the lamb, and the lamb loved Mary. That’s all you need—love!”

Bea notices I have come up to her bedside and asks, “Is there any ice cream left?”

“You want ice cream? At 2:30 a.m.?”

“There are quite a few people who would.” Bea looks around a bit apologetically. “Maybe you need some helpers to distribute the two gallons?”

Welcome to Bea’s After-Sunday-School party! For starters, let’s get situated: we are in Washington DC, at "St. Ruth’s Episcopal Church, just south of the Cathedral.” The children, it seems, have been quite rambunctious.

“The girls behaved so badly. One young man hid under the bed. He just learned that you have to study to get ahead. For some people, it takes a while. I knew all these things when I was about the same age. I was trying to discipline him.” Bea pauses, then adds, “If I wanted to pull someone out from under the bed, how would I go about it?”

“I’m not sure,” I stammer.

“I know everyone here was thought to be very friendly. Sometimes people do things like bring teddy bears. People like to get attention. Some are ideally suited for playing. They feel that it is right to study and then play games, but if you could see the crowd! I would like to know how people are getting home. Some don’t want to go to church. After a while the same people will be interested in David.”


“He is a friend and associate and playmate of the children who attend (these) classes. I was like the little girls today, with ribbons in the hair, and ribbons around the waist, and lots of abilities. The more we see, the more we learn. The more we learn, the more other people like to hear us perform. David was naughty. You cannot very well study mathematics and have someone say ‘I love you.’ Church is a good place to make friendships.”

I repeat this last sentence, just to make sure.

“Yes, write it down, just as you said it. To hold an audience is one of the greatest things in the world. There is going to be music. Did we get a new Victrola? It looks new to me. I wish she had just asked to come up the (church) steps. If they don’t behave, they won’t be invited again. In this school, for the girls, the main thing is sports.”

“Sports? At Sunday school?”

“It’s a special program I’m initiating. Are there any parents we have not telephoned to come and get their kids? …”

It is 3 a.m. Bea had a sleeping pill at 7 p.m., upon her request. She seems to be slowing down a bit, so I administer half an Ativan to help her bring the party to a close ….

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A Happy Day ...

I am puttering around Bea's bed when she says, “I call you, The Efficient One. To have you around is wonderful.”

Praise is nice. I glow.

There has just been an election, but I have not mentioned it yet, so I share the good news: “Guess what! The Democrats won back Congress!”

Much to my surprise, Bea must have been listening to the commentators' voices from our living room because she already seems aware of this information: “I must confess, it is the first time in my life that I did not vote.”

My mother spends a happy day, telling herself stories and remembering rhymes, like this one:

“School days, dear old Golden Rule days.
Reading and writing and ‘rithmatic,
taught to the tune of the hickory stick.
You were my queen in calico.
I was your barefoot, bashful beau
and wrote on my slate, ‘I love you, Joe’
when we were a couple of kids …

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Twinkle Toes

“Let me wiggle my own feet!” my mother squawks, still a bit testy this morning.

Lisa ignores the request and begins to massage Bea’s tootsies.

“Can you twinkle your toes?” Lisa asks. “Move them around?”

Bea knows how. She's one real good toe-twinkler. Sometimes I come into the room and find her toes in motion. But her efforts have not been enough. While cold extremities are a normal progression for a bedridden person of extreme old age, her feet have gotten colder than one would hope these past few days. The wool socks and heating pad, applied yesterday, seem to help though.

Methodically, Lisa does one side, then the other.

I watch each foot perform a little dance movement, to the left, to the right, then up and down, slow exercises called Range of Motion.

“Can you point your toes?” Lisa asks. She supports the back of the ankle as Bea follows directions. “Good!”

“I’m Beatrice,” Bea tells the air.

“Middle name?” Lisa calls out.


“Push down on my hand. Oh, good!”

“I rather like you,” Bea proclaims.

Lisa points at one of the bedsores. The exercise has made it bleed. She is massaging away old skin now, large flakes of it. I have never seen so much dead skin in one place. Bea starts humming a little tune. Twinkle Toes seems to be enjoying her foot massage. We assume she is no longer listening.

“Do you have a vacuum?” Lisa asks.

“That’s a funny idea!” Bea exclaims. “I’m an old lady. After you get to be too old, it isn’t funny anymore …”

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tough Love

BEA: “Ouch! What are you doing?!”

ME: “Time to change your pants, sorry!”

BEA: “I don’t want you to change my pants. I don’t want to be alive anymore.”

ME: “Most people your age aren’t. They die.”

BEA: “What!? I don’t want to die.”

Streams of serpents spewed from Bea’s mouth this morning, and I must admit I answered in kind.

Yesterday Nurse Jane diagnosed two bedsores on Bea’s toes. Lisa showed me how cold Bea’s feet have become due to a lack of circulation. One baby toe had turned blue. We put on warmer socks and a heating pad.

Her frailty is extreme.

People say hospice patients often pass while their caregivers are away, the assumption being that they prefer not to subject loved ones to the event, considered by some an ordeal. Getting Bea up on one hip for a diaper change is the ordeal, if you ask me …

Monday, November 06, 2006

Biederman Writes Bea from Paris

This morning, while Bea sleeps, I read correspondence from Charles Biederman.

In October 1936, Biederman moved to Paris where he rented an art studio for six months, “saw Gertrude Stein dragging her poodle down the street,” hobnobbed with Miro and Leger, met Mondrian, showed work to Pierre Matisse, and observed Picasso, on more than one occasion, drinking in a café. What a thrill to receive weekly letters full of wisecrack observations on the development of abstract art! The whole correspondence is worth publication, but that would be off-topic. Instead, here's a relevant snippet:

“In your last letter you said that – you know if I don’t want you I will say so – well, Beatrice, that supposes things, doesn’t it? In the first place, I’ve left New York and you, and we made no promises, as we both understood that such could not be the case. So, if and when I do return – I may live somewhere else in the States, that is, I’m thinking about it – I cannot possibly know how and where we will pick up where we left off. But this much I do know, that we are friends, and I hope always shall be, which is worth more than anything. Should I, on my return, wish it otherwise, I would, if I were you, prevent it for your own good. You are a person, a woman, whose only happiness it seems to me, can be in being married, etc., something I could not give you. Our association, physically, would soon terminate and, as has been my experience, the friendship between you and I might go with it. So that is what I think about it. By the way, why couldn’t you write me with your views about all this? You never were explicit …”

Unfortunately, Bea did not save copies of her own letters, so her response will remain a mystery.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Rumble-Seat Ride

Bea remains awake until 6 p.m, a record of sorts, two nights and three days without sleep.

Our weekend health aide Alison Wonderland tended Bea today. Alison wears crocheted shawls and long flowing skirts with little bells that jingle when she moves. Her aura still warms the barren landscape Bea’s bedroom has become. Were my mother not at the end of her life, I know how much she would appreciate Alison’s persona. Bea has always loved artists. She had affairs with more than one and exchanged letters with abstract artist Charles Biederman until the end of the century. It was with Biederman that she first rode in a rumble seat. I can just see them motoring along, off for a weekend with Dwight and Nancy Macdonald:

“June 6, 1980

When we got off the elevator at the Borgenicht Galley on the afternoon of March first and I saw you, silhouetted there with your pipe in your mouth, in conversation with someone, what a joy it was, and I knew that the part of me that has always cared for you, ever since the ride to Brookfield in Dwight’s rumble-seat, was again called into being …”

Saturday, November 04, 2006

How Bea Tries to Get Everybody to the Theatre on Time and Fails Miserably

Moonbeams illuminate my mother in an otherworldly light. Bea is still very much of this world, however, lone contestant on an empty stage, conscientious contender for the Guinness World Record of Non-Stop Talk who, despite a sleeping pill, has not even paused for a nap. At least the relentless chatter is more serene now than yesterday when I sat down by her bedside to record her latest adventure.

Bea looks up at me with desperation in her eyes …

BEA: “You’ve got to help me get them in the car! It’s a play they’re putting on. There’s a party afterwards. We have to get the people into the car.”

ME: “What kind of car?”

BEA: “I think it’s a Buick. Maybe you want to get in the box.”

ME: “You mean the rumble-seat? I’ve never ridden in one before. What’s the name of the play?”

BEA: “The Bluebells… something. It doesn’t matter what the name of it is.”

ME: “Is Helen here?”

BEA: “No, she broke down.”

ME: “How about Dorothy?”

BEA: “She’s in charge. Now, I think we will have to leave the flowers here. There’s nothing else we can do except get this load of people down the hill and that worries me. We have to get the horse –“

ME: “There’s a horse?! Who brought a horse?”

BEA: “The other family. This is too much for me. Will you take over?”

ME: “Sure.”

BEA: “Thank you, darling. Okay. Everybody in the car. I have to get some clothes on. Just push the people into the car. Push them into the bottom of the canoe. Push them into the front of the canoe, anywhere you can push them. What happened to the baby?

ME: Canoe? What baby?

BEA: The host’s baby. We have to get these people to their homes. However, there’s this wise child, listening very carefully.”

Bea extends a wobbly finger towards the ceiling.

BEA: “Pile them in." (TO ME) "You can be my sister. Okay. Come on, girls. Leave the flowers. All right, Helen. Where’s Dorothy?

ME: “What are you going to wear?”

BEA: “A yellow dress from my collection.”

ME: “Yellow?”

BEA: “Yes, yellow. It’s very nice. I wore it many times. It’s my best dress. Schiaparelli. I got it in Paris. The main thing is we’re going to be very careful driving the car and especially going down the hill. How old is the child? Two or three. Are you three, dear? Yes. I can give you this blanket as that will keep you warm. Take the blanket. You’re a joy, Helen. Take this and put it around as many people as you can.”

ME: “Where are we going?”

BEA: “As far as the airport, at the town next to us.”

ME: “The theatre is at the airport?

BEA: “As soon as we get to it we’ll know. You’ll see the signs, ‘Buy Cheap Underwear.’ Now turn around and get going. I’m sure you’ll understand why this has been difficult. She has the lead in the play. Use the blue and white blanket. It’s ours. I want to bring it home. You are remarkable.”

ME: “How’s that?”

BEA: “To be so calm. Now, please drive slowly. I have some candies in the car in case anyone wants some. You know where the airport is?”

ME: “Yes.”

BEA: “Well, start now.”

ME: “What about the party?”

BEA: “We’re going to have to cancel the party. Now, be a good girl. Just be quiet unless you have something to say. Take them to the airport. Go ahead. I’ll stay here. I’ll be grateful to you for the rest of my life ...”

Friday, November 03, 2006

Conversation with Lisa (2)

Before Lisa’s visit, Bea eats half a peach/mango applesauce. Strangely enough, she accepts this new variety better than regular flavor. After changing Bea’s brief, Lisa feeds her the second half.

BEA: “This is what I had yesterday …. Pretty soon I won’t be eating.”

LISA: “What do you mean?”

BEA: “Pretty soon I’ll be in Heaven.”

LISA: “Oh! And what does Your Heaven look like?”

Bea does not answer, busy considering the question.

LISA: “Who will be in Your Heaven?”

BEA: “Jesus ...”

LISA: “Will he be there with open arms?

BEA: “….but what do you mean by My Heaven?”

LISA: “What does Heaven mean to you?”

BEA: “What does Heaven mean to you?”

LISA: “In My Heaven, there would be her two huge dogs.”

BEA: “Why two? Most people have one.”

LISA: “Because I want to be surrounded by unconditional love. Who else will be in Your Heaven?”

BEA: “Heaven? I don’t believe in Heaven.”

LISA: “Where will you go after you are done being here?”

BEA: “I’m going to sleep now.”

Neither Nick nor I can remember Bea ever mentioning Heaven or Jesus. This episode demonstrates a need to believe in something after death, perhaps a throwback to childhood, when Bea was brought up Episcopalian.

Lisa suggests a visit from the chaplain might be appropriate. I decide to invite the chaplain on a day when Bea is talkative.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Conversation with Lisa (1)

LISA: “Rumor has it that you ate a worm.”

BEA: “As a child? Yes.”

LISA: “How old were you?”

BEA: “Three, four.”

LISA: “With whom?”

BEA: “Family.”

LISA: “What happened?”

BEA: “I ate the worm. I swallowed it 20 years ago, in the backyard.”

LISA: “But why?”

BEA: “Somebody dared me.”

LISA: “Who? Your sister?’

BEA: “Yes. Helen.”

LISA: “How did it taste?”

BEA: “Not bad …”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Vassar Reunion

Today Bea received a reminder that her 75th Vassar reunion will take place in June. Five years ago, she attended her 70th …

"Poughkeepsie, yeah!" Bea exclaims as we reach the familiar Taconic exit. I maneuver our Volvo through the maze of new highways, past The Dutch, and up the hill to Alumnae House. Ten members of the Class of 1932 have returned, with canes, walkers or in wheelchairs. Bea admires a most unusual plastic cane, filled with alternating layers of rose petals and magenta flowers. She listens to a speech by President Fergusson with rapt attention. "You have lived well through years of depression and Prohibition and know how things should be done …"

Indeed, these are unusual women, and my mother is one of them.

Saturday, I take Bea to the new art gallery which instantly becomes her favorite place on campus. We borrow a wheelchair to get over to the golf carts, lined up outside the chapel for the parade, the reunion highlight. Above our heads floats the yellow banner: "Class of 1932. We're still here."

1932 leads the parade to the field house while a brass band plays. Yellow balloons bob. People cheer. Waving to the crowd is quite a kick for the ten little old ladies, all dressed in yellow, their class color.

Emotion fills the field house as reunion classes march in, one after the other, singing "Salve." There is something powerful about being connected to all these strong women and now men. Vassar meant so much to Bea that I am glad I made the effort to get her here.

Later there’s a memorial service. Bea’s roommates are only present in spirit. Kitty is ill with Alzheimer’s. Nancy has passed away. Miggits has not been able to leave her assisted living facility.

We take a bus tour of the campus, but Bea is tired. I know that she will never return. "Goodbye to pleasant memories," my mother says softly as she leaves Vassar Sunday morning … forever.