The Last of Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts' college graduation picture
Jane Roberts' college graduation picture
After years of dementia, with barely anything left of who she was except a glint in her eyes of recognition when she saw me, and the ability to somehow still swing a tennis racket, my mom ended this incarnation, to relief and sadness on my part. Reflecting on the entirety of her 83 years of life, particularly the first half of it, I am struck by how she managed to use her imagination to make up for a lack of resources and “be effective” challenging conventional wisdom, including aspects of the liberal progressivism of the university town where she spent the best years of her adulthood.

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”.

5 replies on “The Last of Jane Roberts”

  1. I follow your posts on the dailykos, and here. My son doesn’t fit well into the public school box, and I have learned a lot from what you’ve written about your son, Eric on leftyparent. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your essays. This snapshot your mom’s life was beautiful and poignant.

  2. Nancy… thanks for commenting and I am glad that you enjoy them. It is great to be able to share my experiences in a way that is meaningful to others as well.

    So what do you see is the path forward with your son? Do you have any practical alternatives to that public school? Could you homeschool?

    I hope you can listen to what he tells you he needs and find a path forward for him to adulthood.

  3. Thank you for sharing this memory of your mother. I thoroughly enjoyed it! As a Gen-X only child of two parents within the pre-1946-“Mature” generation (not the 1946-1964 “Baby Boom” generation) I grew up close to my paternal grandparents, Chester and Marie Overdier, who lived here in Denver until their peaceful deaths at ages 84 and 86 in 2000 and 2007, respectively. I was blessed to have so much time with them and reading about your mother reminds me of them.

    It also reminds me of my maternal grandmother, Margaret Scott, a master degree holder who taught high school English and raised four children on her own financially and emotionally after leaving a husband in the early 1950’s. (He was enslaved to alcoholism and the demon of anger at the bottom of a bottle.) I was privileged to know my Grandma Scott during my childhood and teenage years, through college even, via phone calls between Denver and her home in San Diego California. She sounded so much like a snappy, witty Katherine Hepburn and always amazed me as a fifteen year-old with her insightful questions and intuitive understanding of my 1990’s teen age expressions. She reminds me very much of your mother as you describe her. She also succumbed to dementia at the end of a night in a lovely long-term care home after two of her sons and her daughter, (My Mother) sat by her bed, held her hand, and told her she could go to her parents whenever she was ready; everyone here loved her and was going to be ok when she decided to cross over to her parents.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It really made me feel Grandma Scott telling me calmly in her very dignified voice that she’s here still, and reminding me to be resourceful, to be useful.

    Please feel free to reply at your convenience.
    Best wishes,
    Suzanne Overdier
    Englewood, CO

  4. Suzanne… thank you so much for your comment and sharing a bit of your story. My mom was certainly a bigger than life character in my life, though our shared experience of her divorce from my dad gave me the opportunity to get to know her as a person and more of a peer as we went through some very tough times together. We developed such a connection in those years of my teenage that, when I had the opportunity to have her come live with my partner Sally and I for the last seven years of her life I was happy to be able to do it and share this last chapter of my mom’s life with her, difficult as it was. If you are interested, I can share with you other pieces I’ve written about my mother and our evolving relationship over the years.

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