What Color Are My Mother’s Blue Eyes?

My mother’s eyes.


And I am anxious, as a writer, to describe that blue exactly:

The complex sheen of a blue jay feather?

The polychromatic blue of a dying match?

The sharp blue of a crisp autumn sky?

The iridescent blue of a mussel’s inner shell?

The mercurial grayish-blue of snow at dawn? blue trees

The blue stretched taught across crimson in one of my mother’s paintings? crimson Her own whorled interpretations of blues? bluemom Whenever I sit up close to her hospital bed, I seek depth in my mother’s eyes. Eyes I have looked into all my life. Across tables at dinners of shared favorite appetizers, mussels with lemon grass, as we’d talk of the latest gallery exhibits, my latest novel I was drafting; talking avidly over bottles of wine at her kitchen table….

In her studio she could ask: “What do you think?” Looking at me – directly. Into my eyes. Looking to me for my opinion about her latest work-in-progress, a dab of camdium yellow she had her doubts about.

Looking to me for an opinion she has always respected, though I never felt quite deserving of such respect; she was the professional artist, I her student, informally trained without her registering that she has always been my teacher, from the time I was a child, when she encouraged me to fill the page.To be bold and unafraid.

And it was she who taught me exactly that, how to see: “Oh look at that,” she could gasp, in reverence to a muted sky, on walks along the beach near her house: mutedblue

With one of her sweeping hand gestures, she would draw my attention to the way light could at once seem strained and gently filtered, excited by such paradoxes. She taught me that, how to see past the obvious of the perfect sunset to the complexity of the less obviously exquisite in nature.

That was a different kind of seeing. How we always had looked at each other. To each other. A seeing  all of my life I have taken for granted.

Until now.

When I’ve never before thought about what it means to really look into another person’s eyes.

Not as consciously as I peer into my mother’s own. As she lays dying a slow and agonizing death of gangrene, of bed sores.

Of dementia.When my mother’s eyes seem not to receive and reciprocate the seeing.

I sit by her bed. She stares at me. Blankly.

“It’s me, Mom.”

She blinks. Once.

And I am desperate: “Mom can you see me?”

No change of expression. “Yup.”

And that may be the extent of our communication.

She blinks. I stare. Try to penetrate the blue. One pupil seems smaller than the other. One small black moon. One larger black moon. But both spheres perfectly symmetrical. Black moons against shallow blue skies.

And I want to grant and honor that blue as more complex than the shallow blue of pool water. As that complex sheen of a bluejay feather. That polychromatic blue of a dying match. That sharp blue of a crisp autumn sky. That  iridescent blue of a mussel’s inner shell. That mercurial grayish-blue of snow at dawn. That blue stretched taught across her own crimson. The subtle gradations of her own seeing.

But no.

The staring – is she unthinking? I don’t know. Is she merely dazed from pain medications? I look for alternative explanations other than the one that I see: Dementia.

And I wonder: as the mind fades, so does the soul? I can barely ask that question, silently, even to myself, never mind try to answer it.

So I lean on her hospital rail which she clings to as she is so afraid of falling.

And I immerse myself in her blue. Unseeing and seeing eyes.

And I face up to the truth: their light blue is shallow. Because the complexity of her intellect has become fragmented. Simplified into the flat toneless blue of pool water.


I am graced.

Because she is still here, in body perhaps now more than in mind.

And so I can gaze into my mother’s eyes and envision those pupils as black moons against blue skies. Perhaps, yes the shallow of pool water. But still. To me, the boundless of blue sky. My mother’s skies.

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My Mother’s Hands

My mother is never settled. She is always traveling. And she is tired of it.

“I’m tired, tired, tired! I want to go home!” she can cry. “I’ve been here and there, moving too much and I need to go home!”

But home is no longer clear–the house she has been living in these past 30 years, but no longer recognizes as home. And so in her mind she is flitting about, unable to find a place to settle.

And just as her thoughts flit about, so do her hands. Searchingly, feeling for the edges of her blanket, reaching up to feel and explore her own face as if  an object she doesn’t recognize.

Years ago, as she began to develop arthritis, she grew to hate her hands. “Look at my knobby knuckles,” she would say in disgust. She took to wearing large rings to hide what she saw as ugly and awkward.

Now in this last year since her stroke, as she has lost so much body mass, her hands have been transformed. From the tough knobbiness of the arthritic to the fragile. Literally breakable; when she is rotated regularly to avoid bedsores, one hand might get caught beneath her hip, and her aide is quick to free it: “We can’t have that happen.”

No. We can’t have that happen. Because her hands now are as delicately boned as a bird’s. As the sparrow I saw last night as I was sitting out on our porch where I sit every night no matter how cold. Needing air.

The trees were quiet with birds who’d already settled for the night.

But this lone bird flitted about frantically. From the porch railing, to bush, to railing, over my head, to porch roof, back to railing, then bush….Flitted about like my mother’s hands, searchingly, trying but failing to find a place to settle.

I longed to cup the panicked bird. As I can long to cup my mother’s hands. To give solace. Comfort.

“No,” my mother will say if I ever try to take her hand. She will pull away. Those hands too restless to cease their wandering. Their flitting. Like the panicked bird lost in a darkness relieved only by the light of a dull porch lamp .

All her life, my mother’s hands were committed to the tactile of her art, although  she no longer recognizes her magnificent expansive works.  Such as these, as she was always moved by the nuances of stormy ocean days: _GJM2659

_GJM2662 When not painting, she was sketching. I remember the scratching of her ink pens. Summers, at the lake, where she would again and again try to capture the imperfect of rotting tree stumps. A beauty not as obvious as a flower in perfect bloom. Nor as obvious as the perfect sunset as opposed the turmoil of a cloudy ocean day.

Sketching at the beach: quick renderings of people to capture the energy of an instance. On Monhegan island in Maine, she would draw the cragged rocks. I would look up to watch her draw, from where I might be sailing a small wood boat in shallow pools collecting between the rocks.

I remember when her hands were strong. Tough and unmanicured, to press in sand and seaweed into her canvases for texture, scraping at the canvas. To smear the paint with bare fingers when she could not get the effect she wanted from her large sweeping brushstrokes. And I can still hear her palette knife scrapping against a canvas….

And with her grandchildren: When her hands were still strong enough to introduce them to real hammers and nails to build sculptures in her studio:  IMG_0537

  Exploring hands, tracing fingers through sand: IMG_6055 Touching hands: IMG_9302 Reading-time hands: IMG_9172 Hugging hands: IMG_9704 Quiet hands: IMG_7853 As my mother lays dying, I am both moved and horrified by the fact that I actually find beauty now in her hands. In this new fragility.

Horrified because it wrenches me to see my once strong mother reduced to the fragile. To the easily snapped of delicate bones.

But moved by how the secrets of her hands have risen to the surface; the subtle curve of the delicate bone, the intricacy of veins branching out into the complex blue of a late evening sky just touched by last traces of light, the translucent white of her skin:


Mom. Your hands are beautiful.

So are you.

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Gangrene and the Perfect Shell

The gangrene.

The leg.

My mother’s leg.

The dying left one.

Most visits to her house, I am alone there with her aide, and I have helped to change the dressings on bedsores. To roll my mother toward me, reassure her that she is not falling while she clings to the railing of her hospital bed.

But rarely do my visits coincide with her nurse who comes in 3-4 times a week to change her leg dressings–until yesterday.

The leg.

  When I visit it has always been neatly bandaged–concealed. The last time I actually witnessed this merciless progression of decay, was before the nurses began bandaging her toes–the flesh of her big toe had been hanging off in a strip.

At the beginning of this new odyssey of a dying limb due to no blood flow to extremities, it was just an open sore on top of her foot. Though one deeply infected, and she was hospitalized for five days on IV antibiotics.

Amputation involving a 96-year-old was certainly not an option. The only option was to slow the progression by sending her home for life with powerful oral antibiotics.

And her doctor had been frank with me. “It will progress.”

Prognosis: eventually the gangrene will take her. She will succumb out of pure weakness.

Except for having noticed that the bandaging has been extended farther up her leg as well as now binding her toes, I have been blessed with not having to actually see the progression.
Until this coincidental visit: “Well it’s good you’re here,” her nurse says as he snaps on vinyl gloves.

“So you can see exactly what is going on.”

Exactly what is going on.

I’d planned on leaving the room, and now realize that was not only cowardly but neglectful; I am her daughter.

He began to cut open the bandages with small metal scissors. Cut up the length of the bandage.

He began to gently pull it open. Unwrap the packaged leg.

And there it was: the toes. Now completely blackened. The toenails–at odd angles as if glued on. Stark white contrast against the charcoal-dead skin. The opaque white of dried sand crabs she and I used to find on our beach combing expeditions. When we were always searching out the imperfect shells, of far more interest in their surprises of sharp angles, odd shapes.

No perfection here. And now I am longing for perfect shells.

The black of her toes extends up her foot. Up her leg. Almost to knee. Speckled, tar-like now….

The nurse takes out a disposable paper ruler. To measure the blackness. The blackened.

He seems pleased. “It’s progressed a bit, but not too bad.”

Not too bad.

My mother’ s aide has snapped on those vinyl gloves as well; she is used to helping. There is a method and a rhythm to this wound redressing; she holds up the leg so the nurse can cleanse her blackened heel.

I sit stone still in a wooden chair.

The light is bright coming in the windows. Icy-white reflecting off the frozen snow from my mother’s deck. Where summers, she used to have breakfast every morning in her lounge chair to read the paper. To look up at the trees. A deck she no longer recognizes.

Icy-white light now too garish. Brazen. On the blackened heel.

And my mother began to wail.

“This is new,” the nurse says. She does not evidently usually wail with the wound changes, the nurse said.

And he is the most careful of nurses.

But with these wound re-dressings, my mother is not aways blessed with the same careful nurse. The previous nurse had not followed directives in chart, to not use gauze; gauze becomes embedded in the sores and then must be carefully peeled away without peeling away the skin as well. The pain of even dead skin being peeled away…

I want to look away. Out at the bare crooked cherry trees in her yard. But in their own crookedness, contortion, I only see reflected back at me my own agony.

I make myself stay in this moment. With my mother. I rub her shoulder. I tell her it’s almost over.

“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t touch me. I’m done, done, done!”

Truth is, this process is a long one: saline cleansing of sores. Then application of the anti-fungal meds that effectively dry up the sores if not heal. No hope of healing. He applies the preferred nonstick plastic-coated Tefla pads; he arranges them carefully, a well-orchestrated patchwork, around her foot, toes and lower her leg, then wraps it all securely with the gauze.

And my mother. Exhausted, falls into a deep sleep. Mouth open. Breathing hard.

He peels off gloves. “We may be getting there.”

Meaning needing to administer morphine before dressing changes.

The morphine. The emergency box. Kept in fridge. The little bottle with the tiny syringe. Until needed. Morphine which does not give her rest. But rockets her off into a mental state of true wailing, not from pain but from complete and utter disorientation.

Her aide peels off her own gloves. She leaves the room. I know how she feels about the morphine. She’s been down this road before. And she knows best my mother now. Her good and bad moments, her capacity for joy. Not joy exactly…maybe there is not a word for these end-of-life moments. Maybe more a metaphor; the finding of an interesting shell along the beach.

“Let’s see how it goes next time,” the nurse says to me. “Then you can let me know what you want to do.”

What I want to do.

He leaves.

They had rolled my mother onto her side to relieve pressure from her tail bone.

She lays with her hands folded up near her chin. She actually looks comfortable which most of the time she isn’t.

I don’t wake her to say goodbye. I dare not even kiss her on her forehead. Because this appears to be real sleep; often she may lay there, even snoring a bit, but she is not sleeping. Behind her closed eyes she is stressing whether she is up for the “trip,” or  what to do with “all her houses,” and she is so tired from moving from place to place to place…

Now she sleeps. I am relieved.


And in my heart I now seek out the perfect shells. The ones her grandchildren liked to find when she would go beach combing with them, and they’d fill plastic bags with shells to string into necklaces: shells


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In The Listening

“You sound down.”

My mother. I’m calling her.

You sound down.

She has always been able to hear when there is sadness in my voice.

“What is it, Sandy?”

And then I start to cry. I cry on the phone to my mom who is suddenly fully my mom; she is oriented. She knows where she is. She knows she’s in her bedroom of the house she’s lived in for 30 years. She recognizes the desk opposite her bed. Maybe even the painting above her bureau. Her own painting. An abstract, of the ocean. One that resonates. Of her. Of my mom:


The day before when I had visited, she had been sitting up in her bed. Now a hospital one.  Staring blankly.

She had turned to look at me. To stare. Unblinking.

“It’s me, Mom.” I laughed taking off my glasses. New ones. “See? It’s me.”

Her stare, unwavering. Steady. “I know it’s you,” she said, though I wondered about the “me.”

“It’s Sandy.”

Her aide had raised the head of her hospital bed because she must remain sitting upright after meals due to swallowing issues.

After 20 minutes, she was tired, and her aide lowered back down the bed. Donning vinyl gloves, we changed her bandages on tailbone bed sores, and on her left hip where artificial replacement is beginning to protrude. Rolling her to one side so that she clung to the bed rail. Afraid of falling.

We settled her. A pillow between her legs to support her bandaged left leg – the one slowly dying of gangrene.

But that railing. She wouldn’t,  couldn’t let go.

“It’s ok, Mom,” I soothed. “You’re not going to fall.”

“Let her be,” her aide whispered. “It makes her feel safer.”

My mother clung. Shaky hands, a tangle of tiny veins, pale shell nails.

Then I put on a CD. Opera. Pavarotti. She always has loved opera. She would blast it in her studio while painting. On large canvasses she stretched herself. Expansive brush strokes.

“Louder. Turn it up,” she said.

I like to believe the volume cleared her room of all mental confusion. Of her torment in the relentless attempt to piece together thoughts increasingly too jagged to assemble into the…logical. Into the well-reasoned.

And that her room was cleared of the unsafe – the chronic panic of trying to get back home because you no longer recognize the familiar. That truly perilous insecurity so acutely ingrained in the gritty of dementia.

And so her room was aired out, allowing only for the listening. And perhaps the sensory; she loosened the grip on the railing. To delicately run her frail fingers back and forth along the cold metal.

She reached a hand out toward me.

I reached to her. “Oh, she said, not having realized I was there. “I thought you were the cat.”

And so this next night, on this phone call I cry and cry to her. Because in her own reorientation, I lose my own.

And because, unlike in the past, I cannot tell her what is wrong. What has been going on all around her in her house of 30 years. Beginning with a leaking expansion tank whose steam mushroomed mold through, not only her basement, but upper levels; the environmentalist found very high mold counts even in attic. I could not tell her about the men in white hazmat suits trekking through her house. Clearing out all closets to find more mold. Tearing down walls. Emptying out her own closet which she would not remember, but at the time oddly she didn’t seem to think odd. And now I can’t cry to her about my battles as her POA with her insurance company.

And I can’t tell her the reason I finally can’t stop crying. Because having, if only for a moment, her back, so fully as my mom, is utterly wrenching. Truly devastating.

As if we were still what we’d always been.

Which we are not.

I cry and cry.

“Oh Honey, please don’t,” as only a mother can plead, when her own child is hurting and she doesn’t know how to help. “ This too will pass,” she says. “There’s the good then the bad, then the good…”

I’m staring at the wall. “I’m okay.”

And then she is expressing some discomfort and I know she needs rotating. “I’m going to have to go,” she says, and I hear her aide coming in to rearrange her as she is too weak to rearrange herself.

“I love you so, so, so much.”  Oriented or not, we chant this phrase to each other now regularly, like a prayer.

We hang up.

And I take a long bath. I submerge my head enough so that I can hear the water. The way I imagine dolphins can hear; intelligent creatures, but perhaps better than us in communicating through the sensory. And I listen.


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Few Words

“I smell fish.”

Conversations with my mother, desert sands blowing in light winds this way and that: “Fish?”

I’m making my daily phone call to my mother. Sometimes more than daily when I’m especially missing her.

“Something’s fishy.”

She’s been saying this for days. There is no fish in her house. She has swallowing issues since her stroke so no longer even eats fish. She  drinks her “nectar consistency” meals of smoothies and soups, thickened with “Thick-It.” Which sticks to the roof of her mouth so her aide uses what she calls “lollipops,” little red square gauze things, to clean out her mouth.

“Maybe it’s the cat food, ” I say. The cats only will  eat fish cat food.

“The what?”

I change the subject: “Any cardinals out your window?” I know she’s sitting up now in the wheelchair beside her bed, facing her backyard.

Mom: “Any what?”

“Birds. Maybe your feeder is empty. I’ll fill it when I come.”

She has always kept the feeder full with sunflower seeds. Now she doesn’t notice. Or maybe in all painful honesty, just doesn’t care to notice.

“Where are you?” she asks. “Home. At home. With the boys. Your grandsons.”


If she doesn’t ask “Where are you?” she may ask: “So what’s new?”

The perfect generic question uttered by a person who no longer recognizes her own home or doesn’t always remember that her daughter is married with two children; sometimes I’m still on college. Maybe even high school, and she can ask about my “studies.”

So I ramble. About her grandsons. The dog. The hole in the ceiling where they had to repair leaking pipes from the upstairs bathroom. I tell her about the dog throwing up tin foil.

I ramble as I can when I visit her in the home she’s lived in for thirty years, and I pull down one rail on her hospital bed so I can lay my head beside her. Or if she’s sleeping so deeply she can’t be woken,  I lay my hand on her thin veined one–beautiful somehow,  in an inexplicable way, as only can be the delicate and withering. I lie close enough so that her breath is a welcomed breeze through my hair.

My mother can be up nights crying because she thinks my wedding has been cancelled and that I am heartbroken. So now I’ve put up photos from our wedding from thirteen years ago. I pulled out pictures of her grandchildren so that her aide, at 2 am, can show her, when she is not convinced that I am not heartbroken, that I have been married for thirteen years. And that I have children.

Last time my mother was in the hospital, I was only allowed in to her room wearing a paper yellow gown and gloves; she’d developed the highly infectious MRSA due to open infected sores because of very limited blood flow to her legs– completely blocked femur arteries.

One day when I walked into the room, donned in my antibacterial outfit,  she was crying.  “Oh, oh,” she sobbed.  “I thought you were dead.”

Then later: “Be sure to give me all the keys before we go.”

“What keys?”

“I don’t know. to all the trunks and suitcases…”

My husband says I wail and scream in my sleep. I don’t hear myself. But my dreams are vivid and repetitive: I am always packing, or trying to pack: either stuffing things into paper bags that rip, or I don’t have enough suitcases to hold everything, and I’m always in a rush, state of panic. Trying to get off a boat as it is sinking, hide from a tornado, or check in before my room is taken and I have to sleep in the dining hall full of beds, some kind of evacuation center.

We can analyze our dreams to eternity. I’m not interested in that. But I would like to quell the panic. I would like peace. But peace will not come with my mother’s death–I will be down on my knees. My head pressed against a hard wood floor.

Anyway, as her health care proxy, back at the hospital, I had been faced with two choices: invasive arterial grafting surgery or amputation of her leg.

And with such choices emerged the crazy side of the grieving daughter,  screaming, begging, for a far more rational alternative for a 96-year-old woman.

Which is antibiotics for life, and anti-fungal topical meds as new sores emerge, to keep infection at bay for as long as possible. Daily wound dressings by home nursing care.

Another phone call: “I bought new glasses,” I tell her. “They’re different. I needed a new look.”

“Oh thank you.”

“No, I mean glasses. for me.  I needed new eye glasses.”


Then this: “I have to go. I can’t sit like this anymore,” she said.

And I text her aide that she needs to be rotated.

Last time I was there, I helped her aide rotate her – my mother is too weak to roll over. Bed sores. And we had to pull back the blankets and change her Depends.

And I saw her. I saw my mother – her bones. Since her stroke she has lost weight. A lot. She is on that “nectar” diet. Protein, yes. Calories, not so much.

Because she has no fat left on her bones yes, she cannot stay in one position too long as nothing left to cushion her bones.

Her bones.

“I should’t complain. This too shall pass,” she still can say.

This too shall pass. She has been saying that to me all her life. Always during hard times.

One time as I lay beside her, back in her bedroom where she now is confined to that hospital bed, she said what she has said to me many times before: “You are a most satisfying daughter.”

“And you’re my best friend,” I tell her back.

We have in recent weeks told each other how we love each other “so, so, so ” much.

And she can still call me “Honey Bun.” Reaching out that thin veined hand to pat my head. “Go get some rest.”

Quality of life. When does one know if there is none left? When do you stop making her get out of bed to sit up after eating so she doesn’t choke?

Hallucinations: She saw a boy in orange. Then an array of flowers going by. And a row of figures. Someone swimming around the corner. A blue man on the ceiling.

But there are still her pearls of wisdom: “Be brave.”

“Go live it up!”

“Be sure to giggle. Giggling is so important.”

My own words, never mind of wisdom, are few. I am often left speechless. Unable to write. So today I took a picture instead. Of something close up. An image. The tangible. Of a lone feather: Unedited as are my emotions.


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