My partner Sally and I were in a hotel in Denver where Sally was attending a conference and I was just enjoying a long weekend away from Los Angeles. I was woken up by a call after midnight from the emergency room at Presbyterian Memorial Hospital in Van Nuys. The nurse on the phone said that my mom had been admitted, in a coma, after collapsing at her assisted-living residence, and that the doctor needed instructions on whether to try and take the measures to keep her alive.
Just five days earlier, I had done my usual Sunday routine with my mom. The folks at her assisted-living place would drop her off for the Sunday service at our UU congregation, and then I would sit in the service with her, usually with one hand around her shoulder and the other holding hers. After the service I would pick up a hamburger, fries and a coke for her and take her to Balboa Park where I would help her eat her food while we watched people play tennis or baseball, and watch the little kids run around. After she finished her lunch, I would give her the tennis racket I had brought and would bounce balls in front of her. Even at a point where she could not remember her name or mine, she could still swat a tennis ball bounced in front of her. Then when we were done, she would always say what seemed like the only word remaining in her depleted vocabulary, “Thank you”.
Returning now to that late night call from the hospital, momentarily stunned by the realization that my mom was finally on death’s door, I told the nurse on the phone to do what they could to keep her alive for now. I called my brother Peter and let him know what had happened and I managed to catch a flight back to Los Angeles the next morning and picked him up later that day after he flew in from his home in Cleveland. She had the breathing tube in her mouth and rasped for breath with eyes closed as we sat with her in the ICU of the hospital, held her hand, told her we were there and that we loved her.
I talked to her personal doctor (who had been the one that had originally diagnosed the dementia and been her internist all these years) and he said that if she came out of the coma she was likely to have additional brain damage on top of her now extreme dementia. My brother agreed that it was clearly time to let her go, and we instructed the hospital staff to remove the breathing tube and the intravenous fluids. Sally, Peter and I spent her last full day at her side, squeezing her hand, kissing her forehead, telling her it was okay to go, sitting quietly and sending her our energy and thoughts.
In the evening we went home to return in the morning, but before we left the house the hospital called to tell us she had died. When we got to the hospital they had moved her to a regular room. My brother and I went in and pulled back the sheet from her head. I was a bit scared, because I had never been so intimate with a dead body before. Her face was round and shiny and she looked relaxed. I kissed her cold forehead and told her once more that I loved her, and like I said to my dad the last time I saw him alive, that I would “always hold her in my heart”. In the 22 years since my dad died, I had found no better words to say goodbye to someone I dearly loved.
We had exhausted her modest savings helping paying for assisted living during the last six months of her life. The rest of those expenses were paid by mom’s sister (my aunt Pat). My mom had wanted to be buried beside her mom and dad in her hometown of Binghamton New York, in the Calvary Cemetery on the hill overlooking the Susquehanna River. To facilitate getting her remains there, we had her body cremated and shipped her ashes to the funeral home in Binghamton.
I led an informal service for my mom at the funeral home, with my brother and I, our families, her siblings and their families and a handful of old friends (who lived in or near Binghamton) in attendance. We sat in a circle around the urn with her ashes. I spoke and gave everyone else a chance to. In honor of my mom’s outside-the-box approach to life and sense of humor, I had us all sing two of her favorite Frank Sinatra songs as our “hymns”. First “New York, New York” and then at the end, “I did it My Way”. I can’t imagine she didn’t get a kick out of that!
We transported my mom’s urn to the cemetery on a blustery September day with light rain on and off. It was actually my mom’s nephew (her brother John’s youngest son), who worked as a gravedigger for the cemetery, that dug the hole next to her dad’s grave and placed the urn in it. We all took turns throwing a red rose in with the urn before he filled in the dirt.
Back in Los Angeles, we did a second service for my mom in the sanctuary of our UU congregation, with Sally’s family in attendance as well. Again I led it, and again had everyone singing those Sinatra songs my mom loved.
I had a headstone made for my mom with her college graduation picture etched in the stone along with, “Jane Roberts 1923-2006” and then, “Inspired Tennis Player, Artist, Feminist and Mother”, with the thought that any of my mom’s future descendents who read it might be intrigued to find out more about this person and those things called out. I am yet to get back to Binghamton to see the headstone in the ground next to her dad and mom’s.
Looking back, it is my opinion that my mom was always at her best when she was unconventional, using her wits and imagination (to paraphrase Sinatra) to “do it her way”. She taught herself how to play and became an amateur champion tennis player, without ever having a tennis lesson or a coach.
She left her parents home as a young adult, unmarried and not even engaged, to travel halfway across the country at the suggestion of a young sports writer (years later her husband and my dad) who had a scheme to get her into the University of Michigan. They were not even a couple at the time, and my mom found her own places to live in Ann Arbor for several years until she graduated from U of M with her degree in sociology and they decided to get married. Reading my dad’s diary of those years, after his death, I noted that there were several other women in his life during those years before marrying my mom, so she was definitely charting her own course.
Later as a parent, she eschewed the rewards and punishments of conventional parenting practice and adopted the mantra that “kids will tell you what they need”. Based on that assessment, she gave her sons lots of love, wonderful toys – wooden trains, Tinker Toys, Lincoln logs, plastic figures and dinosaurs, and various other accessories to facilitate our love of imagination play, plus venues to play in, including a full basement and the park next door.
Living on my dad’s modest college professor salary, she would buy old tables, chairs and other pieces of furniture from garage sales for a few bucks, strip, sand and beautifully refinish them (usually with linseed oil) so our small house had proper furniture. The walls surrounding that furniture were hung with the abstract paintings she painted.
Years later in 1970, divorced with two kids and lacking the money to travel abroad in the conventional way, she researched and worked out a deal to trade houses and cars with a young couple in Oxford England for the summer and found cheap charter flights to get her, my brother and me there and back, with the lower cost of living in England (at the time) paying for the plane tickets.
During that same time period, she was one of the few women in the mostly male world of local politics as a Democratic Party precinct chair and successful campaign manager for local male candidates for city council and mayor. Switching her focus to the women’s movement, she became a feminist activist and the membership chair for the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, but not afraid to recruit men as well as members for the group. Her greatest triumph as a feminist was as one of three women who coordinated a hugely successful local festival to celebrate the International Year of the Women in 1975.
With my brother and I leaving the nest, and lacking that mythical “man in my life” that she lacked, it seems she could no longer pull rabbits out of her hat and settled (in my opinion) for remarrying my dad, moving to the suburbs of Dayton Ohio to live with him, and lead a more conventional life as a wife and real-estate salesperson. After my dad’s death in 1984, she moved to the little New Hampshire summer resort town of Wolfeboro where she continued for 15 years to be (by all accounts that I am aware of) a colorful character in the stodgy little Yankee town on Lake Winnipesaukee, before leaving that place in 1999 to live her last chapter (dementia and all) with us in Los Angeles.
Thus the briefest sketch of the life of a person, who among other things taught me the importance of “being effective” and gave me the courage, after some succumbing to conventional wisdom for a while when faced with issues around school with my own kids, to let them “tell you what they need”.