For the three years, one month and nine days following my mother’s stroke, fear and anxiety had been my constant, unwavering companions. I would wake up every morning and wonder which horrifying thing was going to happen that day. Which Mom would I find when I walked down hallway B and turned into room 407? The low blood-pressure, disoriented Mom tangled in her sheets and half-falling out of bed? The Mom with new blood-filled blisters covering her arms and legs from her recent bout of bullus pemphigoid? Or the Mom who had, in her sleep, rubbed her face for hours with the repetitive motion so common among stroke patients until she made a bloody hole in her forehead? Would I get a good phone report at the end of the day or a 1 a.m. call saying, “Your mother needs to go to the emergency room. Hurry.”
But now I didn’t wake up every morning and think: “What’s going to happen today?” The worst already had. My mother was dead, and there was nothing else I could do for her. And I felt nothing.
The days and weeks passed, and life went on, in a fashion. I got up early every morning and went to synagogue to say Kaddish (the memorial prayer) in the morning service. I came home, showered and shaved, and drove to the university. I stood before my students three times a week, taught them marketing theories with parts and subparts and sub-subparts. I read hundreds of student papers with similar introductions, bodies, and conclusions, and graded endless, identical exams.
After work, I went back to synagogue to say Kaddish again. I took out the garbage every night, went to the supermarket on Sunday afternoons and the dry cleaner on Tuesday mornings. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I started turning off my phone at night, no longer afraid I’d miss an emergency call. For a while, I still jumped every time it rang. Three years, one month and nine days. Old habits die hard.
On the surface, there was some relief. Symptomatic relief, they call it. There were no more battles with the nursing home director who loved to assert her power in random and needlessly cruel ways. Like the time she said my mother could no longer have guard railings on the side of her bed to prevent her from falling out, even though they had made me sign a form allowing them to put guard railings on the side of her bed. And when I asked how I could appeal the decision, she said, “Take it up with the governor of Florida.”
There were no more three-hour calls with Medicare bureaucrats or my mother’s private insurance company fighting to get the bills paid. Like the time they told me of course they would pay for the air mattress she needed to prevent her from getting more necrotic bedsores. And then the following week they told me under no circumstances would they pay for the air mattress and I would have to rent it from the nursing home for $160 a month, but I could appeal the decision, they said, and could expect to receive an answer within four to six months.
There were no more 14-hour ordeals in the emergency room, chasing down doctors and nurses, trying to get someone to look at her. Like the time she was rushed there due to “disorientation and changed mentation” and it took all afternoon and almost all night to get the results of her tests. Except they couldn’t find the urine analysis but decided to discharge her anyway since everything else was normal. And when I insisted on getting all the results before leaving, they found the urine analysis and discovered a urinary tract infection, which can cause serious changes in mental state.
But there were also no more daily visits to her bedside, talking, singing, holding her hand. No more wheeling her out to the garden and sitting together in the afternoon sun while the nurses came over and said “Hello, Miz Phyllis! How are you feeling today?” No more Friday afternoons just before Shabbat when I sang her special Sabbath hymns and asked her whom to say a prayer for when I lit the candles. (“Dad,” she’d say—my father, dead three years already. “And Larry” my brother. “And all the Jews, all over the world.“). And no more moments when she’d grab my hand and bring it to her lips to kiss it, and I would say, “Excuse me, Mama” and go into her tiny bathroom, turning on the faucets so she wouldn’t hear me cry.
And now I felt…nothing. Not sadness, not anger. Zero. As if my heart were one of the faucets in her tiny bathroom that had rusted shut.
Since the funeral, I hadn’t cried at all. This made no sense. I cry all the time. At movies. When I hear a song by the Carpenters. When someone wins the Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right.
What kind of monster was I? My mother was dead, and I felt nothing inside but an icy silence.
My friend Marc said maybe it was because I’d spent three years, one month and nine days saying goodbye to her, that I had done my grieving in tiny increments since the day of her first stroke.
Or maybe it was because I had no regrets, because we had no unfinished business. We’d been able to say everything we needed to and had loved each other unconditionally. Maybe my “process” was complete.
I didn’t buy it.
Marc said, “It’ll come when it comes.”
Weeks and months passed. I spent hours with the lawyers and the accountants working out the details of my mother’s estate. I spent weeks cleaning out her house in Florida and her summer cottage in New Jersey, sifting through her belongings, the vestiges of a life—of her life. Treasures, like the 47 rolls of Super 8 film my Dad shot starting the day they got engaged in 1954 and ending the day I graduated from college some 30 years later. And every birthday, anniversary, and Hanukkah card my brother and I ever gave her. And the baby book in which my grandmother Anne lovingly documented the first four years of my mother’s life. I went through her things like an archeologist surveying the remains of a ruined civilization and sorted them into piles: keep, donate, shred.
And then it was October 24, her birthday. Nine months since she died.
We’d spent the birthday after her first stroke in the ICU. Routine surgery had gone very badly, and her blood pressure had shot up to 220 over 100. They called in the crash team and found she had pneumonia from aspirating food into her lungs. The pulmonologist told me he wanted to do an emergency bronchoscopy, inserting a tube into her lung to suction the pneumonia out. I knew that if the tube nicked her lung on the way in or out, the blood thinners she took would cause her to hemorrhage, and we’d never know until she bled to death. While I was trying to decide what to do, he started yelling, “Yes or No, Mr. Weinstock! Yes or No! Now, Mr. Weinstock! Now!”
I said yes, and the nurses pushed me out of the room. And she lived.
We’d spent the birthday after her second stroke on the boardwalk on Miami Beach. I hired a medivan and a driver and an attendant and paid them double to wait instead of just dropping us off. I did a dry run the day before to figure out what to do in case it rained. And I brought extra oxygen canisters and bottles of water and ice cream and garbage bags and hand sanitizer and extra Kleenex.
I pushed her down the boardwalk in her wheelchair, and she looked at the sea and the sky and the birds and the people and it was almost too much.
I asked the beach patrol guy to take our photo. I knelt next to her wheelchair and put my head next to hers, and he counted “1, 2…” and on “3” she reached up and around with her one good hand and caressed my head and I felt my breath being taken away.
And now it was her birthday again, the first one without her and I knew I had to do something to mark the day, but I wasn’t sure what. I thought about eating some of her favorite foods (like pineapple or strawberry ice cream) but didn’t get to the supermarket in time.
So I found a few of her favorite musical pieces on YouTube and watched the clips one by one.
First was “Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn,” my mother’s favorite Yiddish song. I sat at my desk and watched the Andrews Sisters bob their heads in unison as they sang in tight three-part harmony. I thought of my mother, age eight, watching her parents dance to the song at the Catskills resort where they’d spend summers in the 1930s.
Then I found a Zumba routine she loved. I stared at the instructor kicking her legs and wiggling her hips and thought about my mother and the other ladies kicking their legs and wiggling their hips every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning in the clubhouse at their retirement community.
Then I remembered Aida. When I was 15, I’d bought an LP called “The Best Arias of All Time.” When the “Triumphal March” from Aida started playing on the stereo, Mom came running into the den with a big smile and wide eyes. “That was the piece we marched down the aisle to at my high school graduation.” She clasped her hands together in front of herself and marched around the room.
I watched and giggled, trying to imagine my mother as an 18-year-old. My mother who would take me out to our suburban Long Island cul-de-sac before my Little League games and hit ground balls so I could practice catching because I was so bad at sports. My mother who cheered so loudly at my brother’s wedding when I caught the garter. My mother who conquered her mortal fear of flying and, after 13 years, finally came to visit me in Israel. And when I hugged her at the airport and told her how happy I was to see her, she said, “Better I should come now than when I’m in a wheelchair.” My mother who, when she was in a wheelchair, held my hand as we danced to “Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn.”
That day in the den, she marched to the “Triumphal March” from Aida – step, close, step, close. Like an 18-year-old marching off to start the rest of her life.I hit the arrow marked “play” on the video and the music started.
Like my friend Marc said, it came when it came.
The grief attacked me with a savage ferocity, like an animal baring its rabid fangs. I listened to the music and I sobbed and screamed.
I wept for her, and I wept for myself and for the anguish and fear that I’d felt for three years, one month and nine days. I wept out of relief and out of guilt for feeling that relief, and I wept for the gaping hole that had been left in me when the anguish and fear were taken away.
After a while I stopped. I wiped my eyes and blew my nose, but the “Triumphal March” from Aida had started playing again. So I clasped my hands together in front of myself and marched around the room.