Those thirteen days I sat in a room and watched my mother die

December 8.

here’s a selfie from three years ago when I had — Beatle boots a pea coat Yoko hair —and a mom who didn’t hate me because she’s in pain and that means lashing out and that’s when she recognizes me at all // who was that girl who called her mom twice a week & gossiped who today has to get up put on clothes, give her a good death.

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December 9.

She’s calmer at home. Her sweetness comes back.

I get organized. I sign into her Facebook page and get her friends involved.

Everyone says the same shit in these cases, and I’ll say it too: it’s like I was an actor in a play. I did the things I knew I should do.

No part of me believed the words I was writing or that the eventuality I was spending all day preparing for would actually occur.

I see that now, did I see it then? Hard to say.

 

The hospice medications take too long to arrive, she’s in too much pain than she should be for a day. Then they come, the “Comfort Pack.” And we are awash in morphine wrappers overnight and we learn about new drugs that combat things called “wet aspirations” (the non-Shakespearian way to say ‘death rattle’) and “anguish.”

I write down her words. She slurs and slides her way through conversations.

 

I just remembered something about my dad–once someone shot a pigeon and he did a citizens arrest.

He sounds like a great man. Do I remind you of him at all?

Oh, so many ways, so many.

I thought I was like Grammy Muriel, because I’m uptight and, like, Germanic.

Oh noooooo, you’re like my father because he loved animals so much. A great man. And you’re great like him. He was completely unconventional. He just didn’t believe in the usual things, the, what do you call it—society. He just didn’t. Anything anyone normal did—he didn’t want to do it! He didn’t see why he should, you know?

I feel like I’m that way too.

Oh you toooootally are. He reminds me of Jacob too. He’s very very, like, tinkering? Gentle people. He stood up for people.

But he wasn’t political, was he?

No, he stood up for underdogs, that’s how he was. Because he had been one, so poor.

 

So what happened with the citizen’s arrest, did he follow up on it?

Oh yes, he followed up on everything. He saw things through.

[pause]

Look how much he was like me: both journalists, he worked to the end of his life, I did, too.

[my heart pounds. How much does she know what she’s saying?]

He was a literary guy. Oh Lagusta, he would have taken you, he would have shown you so much. A great sense of humor. He would have taught you all the trees, and the birds. Do you want to hear more about him?

Of course.

He made so many weird flavors.

Of what?

Anything! Like, blueberry cream popcorn, strawberry, you know.

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Later, it is very late. She swims out of the darkness and says:

Do you know why we’re doing this?

Doing what?

The animals. No more animal suffering. Do you understand?

I understand, but I hope I don’t. She says again

Do you – Gus, do you understand?

I do understand–you want to make sure that when you’re not here anymore less animals suffer because of it?

Yea.

The email she wrote me over a decade ago says she wants her body to be donated to science and to ensure that in doing so it spares an animal from being used as a research tool. It’s actually a thing we used to joke about because she wrote it when Ingrid Newkirk from PETA, who for a bit was in talks with my mom to write a play based on her life, said that when she died she wanted PETA staffers to barbecue her flesh to show that there’s no difference between human and animal barbecues or whatever, and I’d told her that I wasn’t making her into a human barbecue, which she and I got a kick out of saying, but it’s the kind of story that you tell to other people and they look at you weird.

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Jacob has been researching medical colleges and places. It’s surprisingly difficult. The social worker for the hospice says we “should start researching a Plan B.” I stare at her.

“There is no Plan B with someone’s final wishes.”

Jacob the logistics man is on it instantly, and finds and winnows down medical schools.

There are a lot of forms to fill out.

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Later that same night, around 4 am, she says:

When the new Emile Zola novel came in my grandmother and her friends were avant-garde—They would go to the boat and meet the book coming in. Isn’t that nice?

Wow, that’s so cool.

Yea.

She’s started making this noise just like Lucy’s baby, Henry makes: a grunted “yea” or “ye” when she likes something.

Do you want a sip of wine?

Ye.

Do you want more pain pills?

Yeh.

Should I turn off the light?

Eh. Yeh.

 

December 10.

Sometimes it’s like I’m on an endless slumber party or snowed in. I wear pajamas late and am up all hours of the night and there is treat food around everywhere and wine and today she wanted mimosas so everyone brought so many oranges and we opened champagne and I haven’t been outside in days and we’re always telling each other our secrets and friends keep coming by with more treat food and wine and we tell stories and laugh and Mary recorded a special harp song for her we played on a loop and Deena brought candles she loved to sniff and when it gets sad we eat more treat food and have more wine (not to mention cool narcotics) and tell more stories. There are candles everywhere — we lit the menorah Lucy brought and my grandmother’s from Germany & everyone who comes in gives great hugs and back rubs and washes the dishes and everything has soft edges (except Kate’s Fuck Yr Male Gaze shirt)

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Jacob says to me, “I just remembered a story she told me while you were taking a shower. I was saying how I was brought up vegetarian the first few years of my life by my mom, and your mom said how much she liked my mom and that she reminded her of her parents. She said her parents always ate differently than everyone else and that it made them intellectuals and that they ate the food of intellectuals and how that made them different but it was always about food and how you could tell so much about somebody by how they ate.”

December 11.

Judy is coming to visit. She sometimes doesn’t quite know who Judy is, but when she does she is extremely excited about it. The morphine washed down with wine has made her smooth as glass, fun to be around. She weaves in and out.

Well I could not be happier. I am so excited! How far back do we go? A long time. A long time. My old friend! It’s Judy. She’s my friend.

Her voice is changing. Her words slosh around her mouth, all hard edges, wooden and strange. She gets angry if we don’t understand her. She reminds me so much of Anandhi, Jacob’s 5-year-old sister, when she was three and belatedly learning to talk. When you didn’t get her meaning she looked at you like you were the stupidest person on earth, because obviously she was speaking perfect English and obviously something was wrong with you.

We learn not to say “what” or “excuse me” but nod and hope you got the gist of things. It’s hard for me because I can feel language slipping away from her and every word seems vitally important. I want to make sure I take everything she has to give.

We engage her, hoping to keep her mind intact as long as we can. She’s talkative all morning. I show her a bunny video my friend Erin posted on Facebook.

Mom, did you ever have a bunny?

Neh.

Did you ever want one?

Gus, I wanted every animal.

Then sometimes she switches to perfect clarity like that, her words tinkling crystal champagne flutes, clear and open. Everything comes and goes, but the downward slope is evident.

Shameless brag, a year ago today:

A year ago. Shameless brag.

I talk about wanting a haircut, and she says:

Aren’t women funny, like, I measured my time by when I had my children but some women they measure it by their haircuts!

She says that her body reminds her of a painting, but she doesn’t know who the painter is. Her already thin and very tall frame was so much thinner than it had ever been. She probably wasn’t even 80 pounds. Five feet eight inches. I tried to think of what painter she could mean. I mentioned a lot of painters (her body in the past year, with its various swellings and weird things changing abruptly, had often reminded me of a Picasso), but none were right. A few hours later she says “Mo…??” and I say “Modigliani??” and she squeezes my hand and smiles. Her eyes and features were dark like his paintings, and she was so elongated.

I mention Sandor Katz and a fermentation project I’m working on. She says

Katz! I like that guy. Piiiiiickleeeessss!

It’s around noon and Judy will be here in half an hour. I keep a countdown going for her, I feel nervous. She seems different. She says to me,

What a day filled with interesting and unique experiences! What a wonnnnnderful day.

It sure is. Mom, do you want to lay down more?

Do you mean lie down?

Jacob goes to get food.

See you in a few minutes, Pauline.

OK, if I’m still alive, I’ll see you then.

Everyone turns to look at her, and she smiles in a way that doesn’t betray if she knows exactly what she’s saying or not.

My brother picks up Judy, which makes us all nervous because of his road rage thing, but they make it back in one piece (though when she leaves she gently hints to me that if there is any way to make him not drive so scarily maybe I could mention it to him?). She walks in and my mother gurgles her name. Judy takes her hands. She talks to her. My mom looks at her, and her eyes begin to close.

 

December 12.

Judy and my brother go to the shop for a tour and I am alone with my mother for an hour. Solitude with her is holy for me. I don’t exactly want too much of it—it’s too intense. But when it happens I am mindful of the sacred nature of it.

I take a few videos of her and I talking. In the first one I start to video and then break down in tears. It’s just a 50 second video of me selfie-crying. In the next one I say to her “Mom, it’s just us!” And she says in a warbling little bird underwater voice

It’s us it’s us Mommy and Gus! Ah ha ha ha!

And I’d completely forgotten about our song.

I am laughing and crying and telling her I’d forgotten and she says (I’m transcribing this from memory because I watch the video multiple times a day at this point)

Remmmmmemmmmmberrrrrrrr? Ourrrrrrrr soooooonnnngggggg.

I remember.

I say I’m going to miss her.

I’m goinnnngg I’m goinnnng to misssss me too!

Mom, I’ll always love you. And I’ll think about you every day.

I’ll always lovvvvvvve youuuuu, Gussss. Me tooooo. Love youuuu. Take a selfieeeeeee ehhhhh

So I take selfies of the two of us. I wouldn’t have taken photos of her like this because this is not how I want to remember her, but she says to, so I do, and I’m glad I did.

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Next in the video I ask if she wants another raspberry gel piece, which Jacob’s sister had brought over. Every Jew I know loves Joyva chocolate-covered raspberry gels. They’re not exactly good. They’re just a thing you love for no reason. Deena was smart to bring them over—the familiar box perks my mom up and, miracle of miracles, she nibbles a piece. She says,

That rapberryyyyy—not like the ones you make.

No, ours are different. Less sweet.

Oh I like them booooooooth.

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A few hours later Kate and Jacob and my brother and I are gathered around her bed because we’re worried she’s having a nervous reaction to one of the medications. Her tongue seems to be swollen and scarily smooth. Jacob calls the hospice nurse and they say they’ve never heard of anything like this. Kate looks it up and says it could be something called Glossitis where all the little bumpy things on your tongue go away. We watch her worriedly. The tongue is seeming to swell voluminously as we watch. At one point it sticks demurely outside of her mouth, like my cat Cleo when she finishes cleaning herself and forgets to put it away. We stare at it. It slowly moves to the other side of her mouth, then protrudes more. I swab it gently with the cup of water and special mouth swabs we keep by her bed. Suddenly a half-inch piece of it falls out of her mouth and onto the bed. Everyone flinches but no one says anything.

My brother gets a tissue and quickly scoops it up.

“Did she just bite off her tongue?” I finally say. We look at the red mass on the tissue.

“It’s a piece of the raspberry gel!” my brother yells.

And it is. And we laugh for about one hundred hours, and my mom is asleep with a candy mouth and she didn’t bite off her tongue and it’s okay. And that’s the story of the last bit of food my mother put in her mouth.

 

December 13.

Sun on me reading like I was a kid, listening to breath, quiet, surrounded by morphine wrappers ~~~ sort of actually just LIVING IN THE PRESENT MOMENT ~~~ luxuriating in the galaxy of that word daughter two syllables an identity not chosen soon lost but inhabited today

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It is exactly like having a child

She mews for me

She calls me mother

I sing her lullabies

The ones she sang me

 

I try to remember this one that goes

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,

Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.

And if that mockingbird don’t sing,

Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring

And if that diamond ring turns brass,

Mama’s gonna buy you a bottle of wine.

Which I sing with a laugh and Google the real lyrics and tell my mom she had some work to do in the rhyming department of ad-libbed lullabies. But she’s asleep. Or some variation thereof.

 

December 14.

Looking through her college books, one English major to another, to find poems to read to her. As ever, she helps me out.

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If anything exemplifies her more than this favorite poem of hers, an excerpt from Song of Myself that she liked so much she 💋kissed the page with her 1960s red lipstick💋, I have yet to find it.

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Not even water any more. No talking, just occasional whimpering.

So upset we can’t understand the whimpers, her eyes flash angrily when she makes sounds and we stare blindly at her and try to guess what she’s thinking.

The booklet we have says that hearing is the last sense to go, so we talk to her. If you ask her to squeeze your hand if she understands a little time will pass but you’ll often feel a faint pressure.

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December 15.

If you were to ask:

“Lagusta, at this point were you going a little bit insane because of never, like literally never, leaving a small apartment with a brother who ah, presents some challenges and a mother who is without-a-doubt dying, while your business wass experiencing its busiest month of all time?”

I would, on this day, say yes, it is beginning to wear on me. Yes absolutely. It is wearing. I am being worn. Worn down.

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But I am beginning to sleep through the night again, which helps. For about two weeks she’s needed little things every hour or so throughout the night, but now she is beginning the worst phase of all: she needs nothing. She wants nothing. She is starting to become almost nothing. I sit next to her and read. I try to make food but my mind isn’t on it. The kitchen is one room over from her, it doesn’t feel right. I organize her books into smaller and smaller categories until 8 or 9 PM when everyone gets home from Lagusta’s Luscious, a universe and three blocks away.

Everything is reversed work-wise. Suddenly I am a wife. I tidy the house and wash the dishes and at night Jacob and Kate come over and tell me about their day at their work, which is also my work. Usually one of them stays over with me. I do emails from her bedside and get reports from the crew. It is of course the busiest time of the year. I stare blankly through their reports of the chaos. They are in the most bustling, productive, creative place in town, I am two minutes away in a completely silent apartment thick with labored breathing and heavy with sorrow.

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No talking, barely awake. Moving her hands in large arcs randomly. Sunken. Ashen. Gurgling, breathing shallowly.

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My brother smokes weed all the time, which increases his weird Aspergersy tic of grinning in his strange and universally infuriating way. He is trying in his bumbling way to help her, clean her face off or comfort her, but it makes her writhe, and he still has his strange grin that makes you want to kick his teeth in. He is trying but he is so fucked up. He watches the way we care for her, and tries to imitate it. But the world of bodies is not a world he can understand. One day I walk in on him stroking the front of her neck, in a way that anyone with more consciousness would find instantly irritating, ticklish, and mildly painful. I try hard to be gentle with him but I am not running on full power, and the effort is often too much for me.

He is obsessed with taking pictures of her. I come to realize his whole life turns on regret—almost as soon as an experience is over he regrets how he handled it, and in this way his life hops from one stone to another of murky, unidentified regret. He regrets not talking to her enough or taking pictures of her before, so he does lots of both now. He starts a thing where he tries to get her to “wake up” and “look at me!” when he takes a picture of her. Druggily he’ll aim his phone at her druggily lidded eyes and he will jauntily say, “Mom! Hey Mom! I’m taking a picture! Hey wake up! Hey Mom! Look at me!” Everyone else in the room looks at each other nervously when this happens, all of us thinking the same thing—does he realize what’s happening here?

I think he does. But like me he can’t help but pretend it isn’t.

I tell myself that things are happening so slowly that we are already in grief mode.

I realize later how incredibly stupid this idea is.

How only someone who has never grieved would say this.

 

December 16.

Eighth day next to this bed / secretly hoping for a miracle Hanukkah-style but if my mom could still laugh she’d laugh a secular, Holocaust-generation laugh at that, for sure–today the hospice nurse asked her beliefs I was all, “Oh, the standard atheist Jewish stuff. We live on in the kindnesses we’ve done to others blah blah.” // A few months ago, she couldn’t believe I’d never read Carson McCullers. So good, who knew. I mean, she knew. I keep finding scraps stuck into her books. I keep telling myself I should find a different bookmark. But the nearby junk you stuff into a book is a whole different novel, isn’t it

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Annoyance at my brother continues. The smell of weed makes my eye instantly start twitching, so life sucks for my eye because my brother smokes all day long, emerging from the basement in sticky nauseating clouds scented of childhood stomachaches. Everyone in this house is on so many drugs but me, I think over and over, and get into mega Lagusta-straight-A-child-of-drug-addict-father mode, where I won’t drink wine at night to relax because of slippery slopes and it’s so stupid. Speaking of weed, speaking of childhood, speaking of stupid, speaking of stomachaches, I am going through books and I find a nasty, explicit poem written by my father about my mother tucked into a book. I should burn it, but I file it into my bag—why? Bearing witness, I guess.

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I have a conference call about the Secret Project. I hang up to find my brother shaking my mother and yelling at her to JUST OPEN YOUR EYES! MOM! MOM? HEY MOM! HEY! LISTEN! She is writhing and moaning weirdly, an otherworldly keen. I shoot a big syringe of morphine into her mouth and shoot daggers at him.

His pacing, his staring, his drugged lethargy. Every few hours I feel choked with rage at having to share space, this sacred experience, and my mother with him. I do breathing exercises so I don’t scream at him. They mostly work. A thousand times a day the same phrases careen through my exhausted irritated brain: he’s doing the best he can / he doesn’t have the tools / he loves her so much / he can be so sweet / open your heart and be friends with him instead of building walls / he’s doing the best he can / he doesn’t have tools

 

December 20.

I go home for two hours. My mom doesn’t need me. There’s nothing for me to do at her place except look at her. I am sunken into a pit of desperate sadness. I haven’t been outside, even for a walk around the block, in days and days. I’m obsessed with being present at her death. Holding her hand. But being at the apartment is wearing me down.

Walking into my house I feel instantly better. I play with my cats and put away laundry and life is fresh and clean and no one is smoking weed in one room and dying in another. I take a shower in my own shower and then go back.

Everything smacks me in the face instantly. Not having looked at her for two hours has allowed me to see her for what she really looks like, and I shudder. She’s so much not my mom that for the first time, I don’t want to come too close to her. Her eyes are so sunken. She rests her arms in the large hollows that once were hips. They fit tidily and don’t make an indentation higher than her ribcage. We have to move her limbs every few hours so she doesn’t get bed sores. Open sores are on the list of prohibited conditions for “anatomical gifts,” so we watch for them closely. Once I don’t realize that her arm is hanging off the bed at a weird angle for a few hours and it’s bloody and the nurse helps us fix her up and I dissolve into quasi-hysterical tears saying I’m a horrible caretaker. She convinces me things like this happen all the time, and that she doesn’t feel pain anymore. We’re not giving her any pain medications, are we? Nope. She doesn’t need them, it’s true.

I doubt she weighs seventy pounds now. It still takes three or four of us to change her every day or so, but just because she’s unwieldy, not heavy.

Her body is becoming not her body so quickly.

I want to hold her hands, but they are so puffy and strange-feeling. She keeps them tucked in between her legs like a kid. She is curling into herself.

Should I not be saying so much?

Do you know how death comes about? Do you want to know?

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December 21.

Going backwards for a minute. Writer’s privilege.

The night in early December I’m moving everything in I stay very late to unpack all I can, and I take a selfie in the mirror in the bathroom and post it on Instagram. The next day I get a Facebook message from the upstairs tenant saying that this is sort of weird, but she follows me on Instagram and recognizes the bathroom and is pretty sure she lives upstairs from my mom. Small town life. She’s sweet, brings me books to read, and it feels friendly and nice in the house with her toddler bouncing around upstairs.

We talk about the trees. My mother’s landlord is obsessed with chopping down trees. He owns a dozen houses in this neighborhood, is slowly buying up the whole town. He’s a Republican opposed to anything the Planning Board does. You can always tell who the Republicans running for office are in our little non-partisan elections because he erects large hand-painted wooden signs for them balanced on sawhorses on the lawn of one of his houses on Main Street. We on the Planning Board tangle with him periodically, and I guess I’ll have to recuse myself from now on when one of his projects comes up. He’s been a good landlord to my mom, though. He was hers around the corner and now in her new place. He’s not a slumlord, in a college town full of slumlords. I see him working on all his houses in all weather, in a Carhartt jacket endlessly hauling tools from his pickup truck. He seems just to want to remake the block, then the next block, then outward in ever-increasing circles, in his own image of perfection. I know something about that kind of insanity.

The trees. When we moved in the back yard was littered with huge cavernous holes where tree roots obviously were, and the front yard looked scrubby and uneven with some suspicious ditches. The next day Kate tells me her housemate, who is on the Village Tree Commission (ahem New Paltz, Cutest Town in America) is furious because my mom’s landlord has illegally uprooted trees on a property he just bought. I tell her it has to be my mom’s house. He has to pay a fine, which I’m sure he knew he’d have to pay before he started the culling. Apparently he has a thing about fall leaves.

The gift of caretaking, of emergencies, is that you interact with people you’d never normally interact with, and you’re grateful they exist, and are who they are. I spend December 21 looking out the window. It’s warm out, weirdly so. I look at where the trees aren’t. I listen to the kid upstairs learning to walk. I think about the landlord with weird affection, and about the little speech I’ll say the next time he comes scowling to the Planning Board and I recuse myself. How he is a good landlord, though he hates trees and laws. I look at the absence of the trees and I don’t look at my mom, much. Her face brings to mind the words “socket” and “hollow” and “sunken” too much.

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Knowing if I was alone I would be falling apart

Should I be alone should I be falling apart

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At around 4 PM we notice her breathing is changing.

It’s louder, stranger. I give her the pill for moist aspirations, the death rattle one. To be honest, and I might as well be honest, I’m not too concerned about the breathing thing. I’m so exhausted with concern, concern has hollowed me out. Jacob comes over after work and notices it too, and we stand by her bed for a while and watch her, then we go back to doing what we are doing. I wrap staff gifts and stuff envelopes with holiday bonus cash and write out sappy cards to everyone on the staff. My favorite activity of the year. Our holiday party is tomorrow morning. Jacob stays until around 1 AM but he hasn’t fed the cats and needs a night at home so he doesn’t stay the night. I stay up until 2:30 AM wrapping and card-writing while I watch The West Wing at the table about five feet from her bed. I can hear her breathing. I keep listening for changes.

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December 22.

I’ve been sleeping on the couch next to her, but last night I moved to the bed, in the room next door. She needs so little from me, and the couch is ruining my back. I get ready for bed and decide to sleep in the bedroom again. I go into the half-dark living room to say goodnight to her. Usually I stroke her head and tell her I love her and I’ll see her in the morning. But tonight she looks so scary. In the darkness it creeps me out to look at her. Very little of her is my mom. I get a sudden flash of intense anger at her, no softness at all.

WHY DON’T YOU WAKE UP ALREADY I yell at her.

And I go to bed.

I wake up at 4:30 and check on her. I stare at her for twenty minutes before I wake up my brother. “Do you think she’s breathing?” Her breath has been so irregular for the past few weeks that we’re used to her not breathing for stretches at a time. Twenty minutes is a long stretch. I put my hand on her forehead and it’s cold. “She’s gone.” My brother says.

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The second someone dies you’re in a strange spot: you’re the closest you’ll ever be to them being alive again. Every second you are pulled away from aliveness and toward the horrible limbo I guess everyone who’ve ever grieved lives in for the rest of time: the endless present when you’re alive thinking about how weird it is that they aren’t. Forever. The balance shifts with every second.

These things are all obvious. I think about them all day. The nature of time obsesses me now. Like how last year I was obsessed with how it had been eighteen years since I lived in Phoenix, and that I was eighteen when I left Phoenix. The turning point felt cleansing.

Every day I am pulled further away from being a daughter and all I have the rest of my life is no longer having a mother.

Our relationship—which drove me crazy and obsessed me and which I assumed we’d naturally perfect (since I assume I’ll get around to perfecting everything even though I have been going to therapy for five years to handle an obsession with perfecting everything / the rage that comes from unperfectability) in the twenty or so years we’d obviously have of her living in New Paltz, since our plan for years had been for her to move here around 2015, which was incidentally was when she did move here, and since her mother died in her nineties and she naturally would too, and often my mind, pre-November 13, 2014 went to how sort of nice slash annoying it was going to be when she did move, how much work it would take to get our relationship from where it was where we sort of annoyed each other a lot to where it needed to be which was sisterly which was where we had been saying it was since I was about twelve but really we sort of annoyed each other sometimes—our relationship was over. The great project. Sylvia Plath has a poem that warns about shit like this.  And I already thought about it a few times a week I mean

The woman is perfected

her dead

ok I get it but now I think about it a few times a day—our project is over,

We have come so far, it is over.

So far. We have come.

My brother and I don’t cry. We hug each other. It’s the start of a period of softness with each other. We sit next to her for a few minutes, looking at her. Watching for the minute she will breathe.

Then I call Jacob who comes over and calls hospice and I call Maresa and Kate.

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6:30 am: I am doing the most normal thing ever

sitting next to my mother and reading the New Yorker

a thing I have done hundreds of times

she just happens not to be alive this particular time

or ever again I guess

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Maresa and Kate come over. We all sit in a circle around her. The hospice nurse (have I mentioned how much I come to love her? That she’s vegan and so soft and wonderful?) comes and washes her and changes her clothes. I thought I would help, but when I put on gloves and ask what I can do she tells me I shouldn’t see my mother like this, and maybe I’d be happier in the next room. She, my mom, still doesn’t seem so different than she’d been the past week. I am kind of vague on what exactly the nurse means but I dutifully go make calls to the medical college I was in the process of setting her up with the day before. I peek once in the other room and see the nurse manipulating her limbs in a way I wish I hadn’t seen.

The medical college doesn’t open until 9. I call at 8:59 and explain the situation.

“I wanted to, ah, make an anatomical gift, I mean, my mother wanted to donate her body and I was in the progress of setting it up with you but it wasn’t completely set up and—.”

“Hello? Ma’am? …..Did she die?”

“Yes. Yes that’s what happened. Yes. My mom died. Yeah.” Maresa and Kate are each holding one of my hands as I say it and so because of this I don’t cry because it would have been awkward to have to pull my hands away to wipe my nose or whatever. I wonder if I could never cry, if they can hold my hands forever.

And they are able to take her and they will be there in an hour and they say to open all the windows to make the place as cold as possible because at this point it will have been almost six hours.

I don’t really get what this means and I am realizing I am hella stupid about death. We open the windows.

We sit in a circle around her. An hour! I thought it would take a lot more time than that. Suddenly I only have one more hour with my mother. I stare blankly at her and say, “An hour.” over and over. At around 9:30 I notice she’s become pretty yellow. We talk about her in a sniffly way.

It’s nice. Being there with her.

When the undertaker gets there he asks if we want to go into another room. I guess all of us are thinking some vague thing about “closure” so we all say we’ll stay here. We’d been talking about how peaceful she looked, finally relaxing into the pillows in a way she never had before. The undertaker looks at us then says, “OK, I hope this doesn’t upset you.” And in a businesslike way he takes the pillows out from under her and she stays exactly like she was. There is a large gap between her and the bed, her back is floating in air. We all stare in shock.

He gently folds her into a blanket. He pulls the blanket up over her head. I remember how when she was cold in hospitals she would do the same. I feel OK, like this is manageable.

Then he slides her into a body bag and zips it up and I no longer feel OK and my mother’s body is inside a black bag and I feel it through the bag and give it a hug through the bag and it is hard and unyielding and otherworldly and I want to scream that she is suffocating and I back away and my brother gives her a hug too and everyone says goodbye to the black bag and someone says how tall she looks and she is loaded into the back of an SUV and we stand at the door and my mother leaves forever and I watch until the SUV turns left to leave town and I suddenly want to follow it like how sometimes when someone I love leaves town I want just one more goodbye, how Jacob used to come back to the car when he was almost at the airport door before he left on tour for another squeeze because it feels special and indulgent to get even an extra second with someone but I don’t say that we should all get into the car and follow it but maybe that’s where I slowly started thinking maybe if things get really bad I could just go see her.

And then it’s time to go to the Lagusta’s Luscious holiday party.

We stare at each other for a while.

Maresa and Kate and Jacob decide to go because they have Secret Santa gifts to exchange and someone has to bring the staff gifts and bonus envelopes from me, and I give them the turquoise ring I picked out for Alexis as my Secret Santa gift and everyone is like, wow, we’re actually going to this party now but also, what else are you going to do? And it’s three days before Christmas and Maresa tells me her plan is to make 900 macarons today and Kate tells me the shop is empty of chocolates and full of customers and they’re going to bang it out and I hug them and kiss them and when they leave this experience is even more in the past and I hate everything and their eyes tell me they do too. Jacob only stays at the shop for a minute then my he and my brother and I (and I’m sure that’s not correct syntax, but without my mom I guess I’ll give up on learning it now) go have breakfast at The Bistro and we realize it’s the first time we’ve ever been out in the world together without her. No one’s taking a shift at home.

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I go home for the first time in decades. Everything I look at I think, “That’s the first time I’ve looked at Noodle since my mom died. That’s the first time I’ve looked at those books since my mom died.”

I am sitting and staring at my feet on the bed when my phone rings. Jacob answers it and it’s this reporter writing a bullshit article for one of those bullshit advertorial magazines the Hudson Valley is full of about our bullshit Valentine’s Day specials. She was in a huge deadline rush & didn’t want to do the interview over email. He tells her it isn’t a good time but she says if we don’t do it now it won’t make it into the issue.

In retrospect: who cares. At the time: I figured I wasn’t doing anything else, really.

In some colossal joke I hope my jouro-mom is enjoying from whatever vantage point her brain is residing at that moment, this woman is the worst reporter I’ve yet come into contact with, which is saying a lot because there are a lot of advertorial crap publications around these days, which personally I think is weird because print is supposed to be a dying medium etc etc. Anything I say she interrupts me to say, “Hold on! I’m typing!” which was funny because 1) why aren’t you taping as a backup and 2) I have literally not talked slower in my life than the day my mom died I mean literally it was the only time I’ve ever talked slow like ever, so.

I have to explain and spell my name to her about fifty times (“Yeah, no, it doesn’t have anything to do with ‘gusto.’ Yeah, it’s the name my mom gave me. Why? She liked it. No, yeah, um—you’re still saying it wrong. A ‘gus’ in the middle. Not a ‘goo.’”). She said she “probably won’t get to the shop before my deadline, so can you describe it to me?” “Um, it’s colorful. Where do you live?” “Rosendale.” “Rosendale is a 10-minute drive from the shop.” “Yeah, I probably won’t make it, so can you just describe it to me? What colors does it have?” “Teal and brown.” “That’s it, but you’d describe it as colorful?” “If you look on our Facebook page there are a lot of photos of it.” “What’s the name of your Facebook page?” “Lagusta’s Luscious.” “And how do you spell that?” “Ah. How do I spell the name of the business?”

In her defense I wasn’t so sharp either. She asked me my age and Jacob had to poke me to tell me I was wrong by TWO YEARS. “I’m sorry, I just realized I’m 37, not 39.” “What?” “I ah, I gave you my wrong age? I’d like to correct that.”

I did my customary thing of referring to the business as “we” since twelve fucking people work there, which I’ve done since it was just me and I wanted to make it seem bigger, and she said, “why do you keep saying ‘we’?” “Because other people work there besides me. I don’t really make chocolates lately…everyone else does.” “What?” “Well, we have managers, Alexis Tellefson and Kate Larson, do you want me to spell their names?” “No, it’s OK.” “Ah, ok, then we have our chocolatier people, and people who specialize in helping customers, and Jacob, who–” “Who’s Jacob?” “What?” “Who is Jacob, what’s his name?” (Did she ask me because it’s the only male name I mentioned?) “Um, well, Jacob’s my partner and—” “Oh like you run the business with him?” “No. The business is my business. I own it 100%.” Jacob is sitting next to me and though I do run it with him (& Kate & Alexis & everyone else) he’s so amazed at this convo that he’s just staring at me with his mouth open and trying to listen to her bonkers voice through my phone. “So he’s your husband.” “No, he’s my partner.” “Your boyfriend?” “Um. So. He does logistics at the shop, like, he helps figure out systems and—” “Oh, so he’s your platonic business partner.” “He’s my, ah, life partner.”  “Um. OK. I guess I get it.”

She asks me what we have at the shop apart from chocolates. “Well…um…” Jacob whispers to me, “Drinks.” “Oh yeah—we have drinks. We do a Drinking Chocolate—” “Hold on, I’m typing! Drinking Chocolate what is that, is it like hot chocolate?” “Yeah, it’s European-style hot chocolate and, um, we do pour-over coffees—” “Pour over coffee? What’s that?” “Um. Ah. OK. So.” I look at Jacob and his eyes guide me through each sentence and I get through it. “So, it’s, ah, fresh-ground coffee, so you grind beans to order, um, we use these Stumptown beans, they have a roastery in Brooklyn—” “Stump—WHAT?” Jacob is shaking his head. “Um, never mind about that, so, when someone orders a coffee you heat up water and you pour water—” “Hold on, I’m typing! So what is this? You pour water into coffee?” “Um. So you pour water over the grounds in a special container, ah, it’s called a Chemex, ah, flask. We do it at the front counter so customers can see how fresh it is.” “Uh, OK, lemme see. So you pour hot water into coffee into a flask in front of customers. OK, got it.”

I am just sort of staring at my feet realizing that from now on whenever I come into contact with a particularly humorously inept person I desperately want to tell my mom about I won’t be able to.

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The rest of time will consist of me coming into contact with humorously inept people I won’t be able to describe to someone who loves stories about ineptitude.

_________________________________________________________

 

While going through things later, I find a notebook she kept when her mother died. Reading it I can’t breathe. My mother is helping me through the loss of my mother. I have her exact thoughts at the moment her mother died. I also have my exact thoughts at the moment her mother died. All I’d been thinking about lately was that I was an orphan now. I open the notebook and read that when her mother died I ran onto my bed “sobbing, ‘you don’t have a mother’ — Oh God it hits me, I don’t have a mother — I’m an orphan.”

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Our twinned brains.

My mother.

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3 Responses to “Those thirteen days I sat in a room and watched my mother die”

  1. Jackie W

    Oh Lagusta i have been following along, not knowing what to say. My mom died of lung cancer at 60, had home hospice. So many of the same experiences & feelings, down to the atheist Jewish thing…my heroin addict sister who couldn’t handle anything…the Cheyne-Stokes breathing & the boluses of morphine. Fantastic hospice staff saved our asses. Much comfort to you in this liminal time. I will dedicate my next loaf of (vegan) sourdough to you & your mom: Bread & work. Love, mamajack

    Reply
  2. Jenna

    thanks for sharing. it’s rare to hear stories like this, that involve really being with someone as they are dying. it’s beautiful to read, so turning your grief into this story is really a gift for the rest of us, and should not be taken lightly. taking about time, i’ve read some old jewish texts that also tie in with a lot of indigenous cultures view of time as something that moves towards the past, instead of towards the future..there was a story about when someone dies, there’s an island of all your ancestors, and the dead person is standing on the shore, and your tears when they die, is what builds the canoe that enables them to get to the island. your ability to grieve properly is a gift to the dying person in that sense.

    Reply
  3. Larisa

    Thank you so much for sharing this over the past more than a year. By just recording what you’ve experienced you’ve made something more beautiful and true than most things. It makes me both adore and rue these wondrous, terrible lives of ours in this world. I’m so sorry and weeping for you and your mom, dear Lagusta.

    Reply

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