Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Thursday, February 21, 2013

I stand at my mother's bedside. I lean forward, kiss her cheek, stroke her hair. "Hello, Mom, Sally," I say. "It's me. Arleen. Your daughter. I love you." Her eyes seem to focus, a flash of something in the pale blue. Recognition? Connection? Love? And then it is gone.

I sit in this tiny room in the dementia care facility to await my mother's passing, desperate for an end to her misery, hoping it doesn't come today on my sister's birthday. I talk nonsense, grade student compositions, write in this notebook. I read aloud first from one book then from another as the hours layer one upon another. My mother no longer eats or drinks or moves. Even her eyes now seem frozen in place. Her small frail body is shutting down. Only her heavy breathing tells me she is still alive.

I am alone with the shadow of the woman who was once my mother, her quiet strength so often misunderstood. For eleven years she has been alone since my father's death. For eleven years she has been lost in the clutches of dementia, the memories of her greatest joys and her most horrific tragedies wiped away with an indiscriminate, cruel stroke of brain malfunction. In these eleven years I have felt closer to my mother than in all the accumulated years prior. An irony. My loss.

Throughout the afternoon my vigil is interrupted only by caregivers shifting my mother's position, teaching me to moisten her lips, offering their words of comfort. And by nurses checking her vitals.

The chair is plastic cold, the room too warm. I sit with my mother, this fragile dying woman who was once the vibrant mother of nine, the love of my father's life. My mother always shopped in the petite department. As a growing adolescent I wanted to be like her, petite and pretty, with blond curls and tiny feet, blue eyes and no glasses. But I continued to grow, tall and gangly, with dark frizz and big feet, green eyes and coke-bottle glasses. I was not my mother's daughter. I did not possess her quiet strength, a trait I came to appreciate only in these final years as dementia took her away from me.

I open the drawer in my mother's bedside table to find the hospice journal. The last entry reads: "Sally continues her dying process." My mother has been dying for eleven years. For the first seven of those years she insisted, demanded, fought to stay in the home she and my father shared on a lonely stretch of Pacific beach where the crash of waves lulled her to sleep after she checked and rechecked the doors and windows, after she raised the thermostat to warm her soul, after her tears dampened her lonely pillow. By 2009 it was obvious to everyone from the home health caregiver to the post mistress and the grocery cashiers that Mom could not continue to live alone, and we moved her into dementia care against her wishes. She adapted and gained weight. She walked the halls humming and smiling. But the disease kept picking away at her brain, stealing bits and pieces, memories and motor skills.

This room where I sit on this plastic chair, softened now with the padded cushion from her idle wheelchair, has been my mother's home for four years. This tiny room and bathroom. A single bed and bedside table. A dresser with a large oval mirror that once belonged to my paternal grandmother. The floor bare for easy mopping, the walls institutional white, the only personal touches are the family photos of faces she's long forgotten. Her husband of fifty years, her nine children and numerous grandchildren, her beloved parents are all strangers.

My mother has not eaten for a week. She is dying as I sit beside her my notebook open to record the close of her life. My pen moves across this page because I can do nothing more. I can only sit and soothe her occasional tremors with a hand on her shoulder and listen to the shallow breathing of a life at its end. I can only offer comfort with touch, word and song. I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck. My father's deep voice fills my head. I struggle to remember the lyrics and sing to my mother in a voice that even I do not want to hear, a voice that is not my father's voice. Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do. I'm half crazy over the love of you...

At dinner time I am served my mother's meal, the meal she no longer eats. Barley soup, pork roast, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables. I do not push the lima beans around my plate as I did in childhood. I eat my mother's dinner at her bedside, her red cloth napkin spread across my knees, the chords of Andres Segovia filling the silence between her breaths.

As evening progresses I must decide whether to stay or go. "How much time is left?" I ask Nurse Erika when she returns for a 9:00 p.m. check. "I don't have a crystal ball," she tells me, her voice a caress. She teaches me about mottling as she massages lotion into my mother's cold feet. "It's only progressed to her calves," she says. "But I don't have that crystal ball." I decide to go home.

Friday, February 22, 2013

I drive north knowing that my brother and his wife are already with our mother. Later a sister and her husband join us. More chairs are pushed into the small room. Mom's breathing is rough. She's now on morphine applied to the inside of her mouth every two hours. The dosage increases as the hours pass. We fill the afternoon with memories and laughter as caregivers change shifts, hospice workers offer comfort, nurses administer medications.

Before my sister and her husband leave, we play with Mom's wheelchair and talk of my spending the night in it. By 8:30 p.m. Mom and I are alone again and I am still undecided. A half hour later Nurse Erika and I talk of Mom's labored breathing. She shows me that the mottling is now up to Mom's thighs. She decides to increase the morphine. When she leaves to get the medication, I notice that we've lost the classical radio station that's been our backdrop for the past two days. I fiddle with the dial and land on 88.5FM, music of the 40s big band era.

"Go dance with Dad," I whisper to my mother. "He's waiting for you. Put on your black velvet top and your taffeta skirt. Go dancing, Mom. I love you."

Her teeth clack two, three, four times. Her harsh open-mouthed breathing stops. "She seems too silent," I say as Nurse Erika returns. She places her hands on Mom's chest, a gentle searching for the movements of breath or heartbeat, the signs of life. I am at her side. I reach forward and place the back of my hand on my mother's cheek. She releases one final breath and leaves this world.

Nurse Erika and I look into each other's eyes, grasp each other's arms. "Is she really gone?" I ask. "She's gone." I look at the wall clock. 9:25 p.m. Nurse Erika's stethoscope confirms my mother's passing. "I'll call hospice," she tells me and leaves the room.

I am alone with my mother's body still expecting another rasping breath. My arm on her chest, I swear I feel movement. The hospice nurse arrives. Another stethoscope check. Another confirmation."I'll call Neptune Society," she tells me and leaves the room.

My sister and brother-in-law return. They've only just gotten home when I call. Another sister who's been in flight, ending a vacation early, arrives to say good-bye to Mom's departing spirit. We sit together. I hear a knock and go to the door. No one is there. Then it is over. Or so we think.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

I awaken to loss and fear. 2/2/02. Dad's death. 2/22/13. Mom's death. Eleven years of care end and I feel like I've just lost them both. Only memory remains and I am terrified that the day will come when my memories leave me just as they abandoned my mother. I know I need to write as I always write, to process and to remember.

I'm still in bed when the phone rings. "Swedish called," my sister says. "They have a kidney." My brother-in-law is admitted, the match is confirmed, and kidney transplant surgery is performed the following day.

Life ends and new life is given. The synchronicity is beyond comprehension. I choose to believe that Mom's gift to me was her final good-bye and her gift to my sister will be her husband's health and longevity. And as I continue to hold my breath, waiting and hoping, I realize that in giving these gifts, my mother has diverted attention from herself in death just as she did in life.

Marcella Adeline Huber Feeney
September 21, 1924 - February 22, 2013

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Gabriela and the Widow on Kindle

Not long ago I heard a story on NPR about the effects of e-readers on the world of reading. People are reading more, particularly young people. The commentator suggested the increase could be due to anonymity: when you're on an electronic device, people might not know you're reading. Could be the kid on the bus next to you isn't just listening to rap or playing a game. He might be reading Great Expectations without fear of being labeled a nerd - or whatever it is kids call each other these days.

I was about to buy a copy of Jack Remick's Gabriela and the Widow in paperback because I'm old school, because I don't have an e-reader, because I like the feel of paper in my hands. But NPR made me question my bias against e-books, so I downloaded Kindle on my small Acer laptop, bought my first e-book and began to read.

I didn't like slipping into bed with a cold hard laptop. I couldn't float on the magic and mystery of Remick's lyrical prose. I was dog paddling with arrow buttons, unable to scan ahead or flip back to reread with the ease of turning a page. Still, the power of Remick's words kept me at it, pulled me to a computer screen long after my teaching and writing day was over. That screen became a portal and the story took me to the far side of my own life's mirror, a life I once lived and allowed to slip from memory.

“When you go through your reflection you become who you are.”

The Widow reminds us that we must never forget our past, for it is what makes us who we are and who we become.

“You must speak from inside the tears and you must smell the pain on your skin or you will never be whole again.”

Remick writes the tools of the craft into his story: a list of events and a stack of notecards, each labeled with date, place and object. Gabriela and the Widow use these tools to construct the List of the Widow's life and in doing so Gabriela experiences new ways of being, alternatives to the violent patterns that have marked her young life. Throw nothing of yourself away, the Widow teaches. Save your fingernail clippings, your hair trimmings, your life stories. A lesson on living. A lesson on writing. I see Gabriela with her notecards and her long list as I work the notecards on the storyboard of my current novel.

Gabriela and the Widow is a lyrical treasure that paints a magical mysterious world of two women, so close they inhabit each other's dreams and relive each other's experiences. In doing so the Widow leaves a bit of herself behind when she passes and Gabriela enters womanhood regaining a life tragically interrupted in childhood as an innocent victim of the atrocities of war.

This is a beautiful, horrific, captivating read full of the lights and colors, the smells and music of southern Mexico and central California. The story held me to the screen and that says a lot. I have no doubt some of you will point out that reading off a computer is not the same as using an e-reader. You may even insist that I give Kindle a chance, certain I'll love it once I get used to it. Maybe so, but I'm not ready to make the jump to an e-reader just yet. I still want a signed paperback copy of Jack Remick's Gabriela and the Widow for my library.