My mother Elizabeth Sloan Tyler September 9, 1918 – to April 16, 2015

My best friend; my life-long mentor and biggest advocate: “I love this earth. I don’t want to leave it.”

And she fought very hard not to leave it, to the very end, early yesterday morning.

Her reverence for this earth and genuine awe at all its wonders, and all of the nuances of the natural world, in its lights and shadows… she evoked in her painting and drawings.

Here, one of my favorite pictures of her – sketching on a trip we took to Italy together in 1996. I was sketching along side her in the next doorway. I remember the scratch of our pens as we were sketching the same street view, trying to capture it before it began to rain.

Mom. Mommy. You have left my heart broken. But I know where to seek you: in the all the moods of the sky. Because every time I look up and see the sky in all its changing colors, I will hear you exclaim: “Oh just look at that! Look!”

momItaly

_GJM2665

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Deathwatch and Deflected Moments

As my mother continues to deteriorate, I can wish she’d been taken by the aspiration pneumonia. When her blood pressure plummeted to 58/40, her pulse 30 – occasionally flatlining – and I was told she had anywhere from a few hours to 48 to live.

When perhaps she would have gone at once more swiftly but gently, swept up like a fine down feather, from gradual organ failure over a period of at most, a couple of days. 

Rather than from this horrendous dawdling physical and mental decline. This withering, this near actual desiccation.

Because after surviving the pneumonia, she has been battling gangrene, a result of completely blocked femoral arteries. A gangrene that has now spread up to her left knee, and whose charcoal tones are now emerging on the right leg.

She has developed a blackened bedsore on her left side where her artificial hip is beginning to protrude – She is a skeleton masked by brittle skin, devoid of fat and muscle mass. And as hard as we try to keep her hydrated, it’s becoming more and more difficult for the technician to draw blood for her testing of Coumadin levels. Levels that fluctuate wildly due to the powerful antibiotics she is on to keep the gangrene infection at bay.

And her dementia has worsened; I have talked her down off cliffs; out of true panic and fear, when she is lost in a city with no money, place to live, and is starving; I have promised to rescue her when she is locked alone in churches. She can hallucinate now, and I have admired the cute little chicks scurrying around on her bureau, or a child in a blue sweater. But the hallucinations can be shady men walking back and forth through her bedroom whom I’ve had to have arrested.

If my mother were in her right mind, if she knew her true state – if she could understand that the “big heavy shoe” is actually her left dead foot – she might have preferred that she had died then too, from the pneumonia. When there had been only two options: the invasive, a line into her neck, or the less invasive, powerful IV antibiotics. Neither of which had her doctor expected to work.

Still, as her daughter, and healthcare proxy agent, I had been faced with real decisions. I opted for the IV antibiotics, to assure myself that I was not deciding my mother’s fate. They agreed to the antibiotic route, I knew, only to compassionately appease a grown daughter suddenly reduced to a blubbering child, in the middle of the emergency room.

So they admitted my mother into a private hospital room at the very end of the hall, what I referred to as the “death” room. There was a comfortable rocking chair, and an expansive tray of coffee and snacks the staff rolls in for “families” keeping deathwatch:

hosptial

I am her family.

And I was not hungry.

I was only interested at being at my mother’s bedside. I pulled up the rocking chair so I could lean over her bedrail. She slept as deeply if she’d fallen into a cavernous crater, her mouth wide open, breathing harrowing breaths. I felt I should be memorizing her, the sharp distinctive slope of her nose, the birthmark on her forehead, a pale paper moon against an early morning sky.

For several hours I sat alone, rocking. Watching. Listening. The coffee carafes went untouched. Occasionally a nurse popped in, but no doctors until several hours later; the same doctor who in emergency had told me point blank that the antibiotics would not work.

He checked her blood pressure.

It was back up. 110.

He looked at me as if to say, “Wow.”

And I said, “You didn’t expect this.”

He shook his head. “No. I didn’t.”

My mother slept through the evening, but the deathwatch was over. Depleted, confused, actually annoyed by having said all my goodbyes for no good reason, I went home.

The next morning, I found that PT had come in and sat her  up in a recliner . “Oh I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “I’ve been waiting hours.” She went on as she always would at doctors’ offices. “Oh why do they do this? This is stupid. You wait, and wait, and then they see you for five minutes. Let’s just leave.”

I requested she be moved from the dead-end-of-hall-death-room to a room next to the nurse’s station; she would grow restless and try to get up despite the bell warning on her bed. She would want to get up to go collect all the keys to all her trunks and bags. She would be crying out at times, thinking I myself, her daughter, was dead.

When she finally was discharged, too weak to walk, she was brought home by ambulance – on a cumbersome archaic stretcher nearly impossible to maneuver up the three steps into her house.

As two extremely young EMS workers, sweating bullets, literally rocked the stretcher this way and that, my mother starting complaining: “Well, this is silly. Just let me get out . It’s been a lovely ride but it would be easier…” she said, in truly the best of spirits, as if she’d been off on a canoe ride and was pulling up to the dock.

After the rocking-cumbersome-stretcher ordeal, once the stricken young EMS kids had left, and my mother was settled back into her own bed, she said:  “Well as much as I love vacations, it’s always nice to be back home. But that was such fun!”

Such fun.

“Oh this is such fun!” My mother could often exclaim, sometimes with a quick ecstatic clap of her hands, her favorite square metal bracelets clanking, when we’d go out for one of our long talky dinners. Or when we did used to take vacations together, to a lake house with her grandchildren, after unpacking and having glasses of wine on the deck: “We’re finally on vacation. And what a nice spot….”

When I was visiting recently, she was sitting up in bed, despite the now painful open bedsores on her tailbone, gazing out her windows. She said, though too weak to express much exuberance,  “Well, this is such fun.”

She folded her hands over her blanket. “This is a nice spot.”

A nice spot.

But since her near demise from the pneumonia, I can count other such moments. Few and far between, but ones when she can still revel in the here-on-earth.

Moments her aide too can count, as she recounted to me about how one day last week she and my mother danced together.

My mother had turned to her and said, “Inspire me.”

Inspire me.

Her aide had put on for her a  Judy Collins CD, and the song “God is Watching Me From a Distance” came on.

Her aide began to sing along. And taking my mother’s hands as she lay and bed, she swayed them. And they danced to the music.

And then there are those moments when we are as we’ve always been. Truly small moments, but ones whose normalcy is magnified, like morning dew drops on grass.  Like my giving my mother sips of pedialyte, and her reminding me not to set the glass down on the wood table but on a coaster.

Or her just worrying about me, as only a mother can, as at Easter. Knowing this would be her last, I’d taken some time picking out just the right flower arrangement, brilliant pink azaleas in a basket shaped like a bird’s nest.

But when I arrived, she was sleeping soundly, awoke only long enough to glimpse the flowers.

I set the flowers on her bureau. Feeling a hurtful disappointment something like the childish one of being dismissed by a parent when trying to show them some magic marker drawing you’d been laboring over.

Then without opening her eyes, she asked,  “You ok?”

“I’m ok,” I said.

But as I’ve never been able to hide well my feelings from my mother, she heard the hurt.

“You don’t sound ok.”

I couldn’t speak.

At my silence she opened her eyes, glassy, one eye a slit. “You don’t need to worry about me,” she said. “I don’t want to worry about you worrying about me.”

“And I don’t want to be worrying about you worrying about me worrying about you.”

And we laughed.

Another moment. 

But all these moments are refractions of light on water – too quickly deflected. Since her near demise from pneumonia, would she herself wish she had been taken, swept away on a breeze then?

Maybe. I don’t know.

On good days, when she sometimes thinks she’s sitting in the sun out on a porch lounge, no.

On bad days, when she cries to me that she can’t take another minute of this, that she wants to just die, die, die and “get it over with” – yes.

Still.

She danced.

And we  laughed.  

_GJM2675

Another of my mother’s paintings, one I think she called “Spring Sun.” But I’ve always seen in it that morning dew. Light refracted.

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Don’t Be Like Me

“Don’t be like me.”

This is something my mother has been saying to me all of my adult life.

And she said it just the other day as I sat by her hospital bed, one hand, as always, clasping that metal railing. Afraid of falling.

What she meant was that as an artist, she has always put her art first. Yes, she would socialize, but after all her own caregiving responsibilities, she would prefer to devote whatever precious extra time she had to her painting. To stretch large canvases she would fill with large sweeping brushstrokes, always painting responsively, intuitively.

I had just lowered her hospital bed back down; after eating, to avoid choking, she must remain upright for twenty minutes, excruciating due to bed sores.

More comfortable now, she asked me what was “new.” A general term as she can never quite place me now in time.

When reminded, she will remember that I am married and she has two grandsons. So I can ramble on, this time, about their frog for some reason. How when one of her grandsons had won the frog in a school lottery, it had been the size of the dime, and now had grown ginormous in its very cloudy algae-ridden tank.

“Going to any parties? Meeting any new people?”

As her short-term memory is so short, within the space of a frog minute, she may have me placed as she can, back when I was still single. When she would worry about my too easily retreating from the social. From the reaching out to make new friends. From the cementing of close friendships which at the end of her own life, she feels herself lacking.

“But I am like you,” I reminded her. At her bedside as she lays dying. As I’ve always reminded her.

Because, like her, I’ve always been more apt to retreat from that, the social. The collective, the group settings, from when I was sixteen and preferred writing poetry at my little table in front of my yellow-checkered-curtained window, to hanging out at the mall.

And all the years I was single and working full-time in the city, weekends I reveled in my space and freedom to be alone in my apartment — writing. Yes, I had my friends I’d meet for dinner. But when the writing was going well, my spirits truly soared; I was never happier than when I was immersed in the writing of my novels. And never more bereft and lost than when they were finished.

And so when my mother made this age-old “Don’t be like me” statement, I reminded her of this fact: “We have to like our own company, remember? We need our own company.”

And she nodded, even in her dementia, knowing what I meant. What I’ve always meant–you can’t help that, as an artist or writer. As whatever that inventive, imaginative, innovative someone you are who thrives on the creative outlet for happiness. (Though happiness is such a shallow word and I’ve never been able to find the word I’m looking for. Fulfillment Peace?)

I do strongly believe that we all are graced with creative urges; be it the painting of your nails crazy colors, experimenting with different eyeshadow shades; carving sticks, gardening, cooking, making jam…

But in many of us perhaps the social can outweigh the creative urges. And it is perhaps those beings who are the ones blessed with closer connections outside of their own company. They may indeed have their creative outlets, but are the ones perhaps more apt to reach out, show up at soup kitchens and make meals for the homebound. A kind of charitable reaching out my mother always has felt guilty about not doing more of.

And whenever that guilt would rear its head, I would remind my mother of this fact: that for all of her adult life, from the time she was 20 and had to support her parents during the Great Depression, through those years as my grandmother’s sole caretaker while I was still a small child, then thirteen years of caring for my father as he was reduced to a child himself finally, by his own dementia…that she had well earned whatever residual time to devote to her art.

Because she had to devote this time. This creative urge was never a choice. It was an innate  need.

And that urge has never been a choice for me either. It is indeed innate.

And it has become a true coping mechanism as I try to balance the needs of two elementary school children (nevermind any needs my husband might have) against those of my mother’s, as her prime caregiving director: the one who, as POA, must ensure her live-in aide gets paid; household bills get paid; house insurance premiums gets paid; taxes get paid; the one to run errands, to CVS for more Depends and disposable gloves; to the pharmacy for prescription refills; to coordinate home nursing care for wound changes of increasingly invasive bedsores  and of gangrene; to now find a mason to reconstruct her leaking chimney and replace the metal flashing which evidently was installed all wrong in the first place.

And I am the one to make the funeral and cremation arrangements. To decide on the perfect spot where she will be buried in her church’s cremation garden. And in making these pre-arrangements, I need to do that – to step back and coldly assess her reality. That she will not be around much longer to have these age-old exchanges, when sitting at my mother’s bedside, I could collapse to my knees in grief, as she is suddenly fully herself:

Don’t be like me. 

But I go with the flow of this age-old exchange; I go on to remind her of what she’d always taught me: That you have to find your happiness from within. Because, no matter how much you may, or may not, prefer your own company, at some point in your life, you will find yourself alone. When even those people closest to you can’t always be there for you, because they too may be having their own needs unmet.

But this age-old “Don’t be like me” conversation could go just so far, as our conversations can, small snatches as if trying to catch ladybugs to wish on, when she suddenly interrupted me with: “I don’t know how much longer I can keep holding on.”

I seek out these moments now, as she is suffering so, and at times does cry out that she can’t take any more of it. Any of it.

So I took this opportunity to assure her: “It’s ok to let go.”

She stared at me. “It is?”

“You don’t have to keep holding on, Mom.”

“But I don’t want to fall. Oh no, I’m falling…” She readjusts her grip on the railing, and I realize this moment is not about the real letting go.

She was  panicked.

“You can let go of the railing Mom, it’s ok. You’re not falling.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Because I’m so tired from holding on…” she is suddenly crying. As she can. Suddenly cry.

“Mom.” I put out my hand to her, slip it under the rail. “Let go. I would never let you fall, you know that….”

Gradually she loosens her grip. I take her hand. I rub it between mine. Ice cold from gripping the cold metal rail.

“See?”

She calms down.

And I remind her that she is in bed.

“I am?”

Yes you’re in bed and you’re not falling.

“I hope not, because if I fall there might be frogs jumping all over me.”

And so there may not be so many ladybugs left to wish on, but there are fragments of conversation that stay with her, as the one about my son’s frog, even though such fragments may splinter into the nonsensical.

But my mother’s true sense of self remains steadfast. Even unshakable, as long as she can still turn to me and repeat a saying I now memorialize as I do her pair of china dogs from her childhood: Don’t be like me.

Although a saying I still refute: I am like you Mom.

The best of you.

momsekteching

My mother sketching. If not a paintbrush she always had an ink pen in hand.

 

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What Color Are My Mother’s Blue Eyes?

My mother’s eyes.

Blue.

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.

Still.

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:

grayskyfinal

Mom. Your hands are beautiful.

So are you.

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