The Opus in Gethsemane

Easter Sunday 2014 (‘…in three days I will raise him up…’) my mom walked cheerily out of her independent living apartment for the last time. She’d stopped whistling several months before or she surely would have been whistling as we left, as she had been whistling every day of our lives as far back as I can remember. I have her by the arm now. This particular Sunday (he shifts into full-frontal present tense) we walk arm in arm like a couple of pals going out for a stroll, her thrice-broken left linked trustingly to my right. She is wearing her familiar black puffy vest and red sweater. Her apartment is the usual mild mess with small stacks of newspapers and books everywhere, her bed hastily made.

“You like the way I make my bed?” Umpteenth.

“Yeah, where does one find a blind butler these days?” Umpteenth.

Today, with no preamble and no ceremony, we just walk out. Goodbye, apartment. And something irretrievable just…ends. All brouhaha to the contrary, when stuff ends in this life it just ends. Your dad dies forever and you drive home from the hospital and sit on your dumb familiar couch with your mom and sister and little brother and the cheap wall clock in the kitchen seems not to know that some big fucking thing just happened in the universe, the biggest thing so far. My father died about 2 miles from here, in a hospital bed! My big sister was with him when it happened! I was driving my mom home so she could get some rest and he passed while I was driving back to him! I found my sister crying and rushed in and kissed his cooling forehead, inadvertently trapping the startled nurse by the stilled machines so that she had to stand there jammed in the corner and look away while I kissed my dad’s face! O ticktockticktocktick. Now some 20 years later, my mom and I walk out of apt. 206.

Her Door, her Life Door? It’s beginning to close, and it’s an enormous Door, so large that its swinging massively on its hinge produces a movement like that of the moon across the sky, or distant mountains on a cross-country road trip with the family. There is movement, but it’s imperceptible. Imperceptible but by the fucked and very very useless gift of hindsight. But this hasty afternoon Aloha is going down and down and down to the dungeon of her last days on Earth. I’m taking her there with our arms linked. The import of this day must not mean much to me as we leave the apartment, because on the way over to lead my poor mother to slaughter I have done a work errand, dropping off some documents with an architect. ‘I’ll just work this into the morning on my way over to move my mom to the slaughterhouse’. She has her questions, once I’ve reminded her again that today is ‘moving day’.

“Why am I moving?”

“Remember? The management here says, and they regret it, because everyone loves you here, they say you have to move. Because your memory is getting dangerously bad.”

“My memory!” she galumphs and hangs her head like Walter Matthau. “What’s that got to do with anything!”  I’d been explaining to mom, sometimes 6 or 7 times in a 10  minute period, that her increasingly (if still mildly) erratic behaviors had obliged the management to ask her to leave the apartment she had lived in for 10 years. She would be moving into a place (I was careful not to use familiar, horrifying bromides euphemizing safety or security – buzzwords to failing seniors that only say Incarceration and Death) where a nice couple would be able to watch over her; benign caretakers who would make sure she didn’t fall. Of all the useless things to avoid, to take such lavish steps to avoid. FALLING!? Falling on an unattended walk is the finest champagne, ambrosia –  the delicious afterglow of a dream she wakes from every daybreak.

I explain again now to my mom, in telegraph; I’m tired of explaining this! Her behavior at the senior independent living apartment house had changed a little recently, her demeanor had begun to change a very little. She had yelled at a dining companion who had complained about her constantly singing at table (always ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ or ‘Two Sleepy People’), and then mom had lost her prize seating by the front window and been moved to a table in the center of the dining commons. The next day the lackluster and frankly inept manager of the facility complained to me that Aloha could not remember to go to the new table. Then she’d walked out of the front door at 2am in her nightclothes, made her way down to State Street and been gently returned by two good Samaritans and the police. This late-night episode of ‘wandering and elopement’ (episodic dementia terminology that is cruelly ironic in its seeming reference to marital joy) had been boldly marked on the indemnifying mimeograph the slack-faced building manager had asked me to sign a couple days later. The form protected the apartment owners from legal action should my mom walk into traffic or simply walk away.

At the obligatory doctor’s appointment mom was asked a series of questions in my presence; had to know the date (nope), the year (nope), what city she was in (nope), what a pen was (got it), what a ring was (got it), had do redraw a Venn Diagram right next to the original drawing (strangely, no), had to spell world backwards (she got as far as d and l). She did get three things right and was amusing besides, for which they give no extra credit.

When the doctor asked her height mom said ‘5 foot 5 1/2. And that half inch means a lot to me! ‘ During the cognitive test the nurse asked her ‘what State are you in?’ ‘October‘, says mom. The nurse and I exchanged glances. ‘No, what STATE are you in? Are you in Wisconsin, Florida? Maine?’ “Ooh, what STATE,’ mom says, and thinks about it. ‘August.’ she says. Then she starts laughing. Then, resigned; ‘I don’t know what state I’m in.’ A couple weeks before, mom and I had been about to enter a watch store to get her watchband resized. As we approached the door she pulled back on my arm and said ‘I can’t go in there.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. She pointed to a sign in the bottom of the window. No Bags Allowed.

Today, though, the Move. All the cascading elements have been leading to this. She is copacetic

“Oh well, whatever. I have to move, right? So let’s do it. I don’t mind moving.” The stiffened girlish shrug. Even then, I felt relief and not sorrow, despite knowing full well she would very soon now find herself enclosed and confused and frightened and without a single scrap of the hope that had, for some years, been dwindling in concert with the square footage of her shrinking domiciles.

“Yeah, you like to move, right? Born into the Army, married into the Air Force,” I said. She laughed.

“That right!”

So anyway we close her apartment door. “Take a good look!” I say enthusiastically, but feel the first mild sinking. She looks briefly around and nudges me playfully.

“Let’s go!” o god o god o god if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew

We walk downstairs. When we pass through the hallway behind the reception desk, by the mailboxes and sign-up clipboards, she completely surprises me by saying ruminatively ‘I’ll never see this place again’. Some of her friends and acquaintances there haltingly sense something and gather. Where is Jeff taking her? A couple of them look at us with troubled expressions, not sure how to process this. But they know, with whatever increasingly fine-tuned avian sense these fragile wraiths develop as they move forward into their own winnowing-down, they know that what is happening is The Thing. It is The Thing. The Thing That Happens. As if in the increasing fineness of the structural physical body there is more resonance, a heightened sensitivity to changes in timbre. They know. And now the group of glorious, chummy oldsters, they who have so lovingly seen my mom through these 10 years of falling action, they are murmuring the dreaded ‘goodbye’ – another one of their friends being weeded out, like  a soldier in a battle of attrition, or a siege. And now we’re just heading out the front door of the place. Just like that.

“Goodbye!” I say, as much to prompt my mom’s awareness as to actually, really say goodbye. I’ll be back to clear out the apartment, explain to everyone what has happened, apologize for the abrupt departure. I’ll be back. “Goodbye, goodbye.”


Lupe, a longtime Aloha booster, comes hustling out from behind the reception desk. “I can’t let you go without a hug!” she says, hurrying to my startled mom and throwing her arms around her in a very demonstrative and unquestionably final hug of farewell. This is a Last Time Forever. Aloha doesn’t raise her arms at first, but then she does, hesitantly. When Lupe pulls away tearily my mom turns to the door and she has a furrowed brow and water falling out of her eyes and an expression that says “Why am I crying?

I’m not a liar, I’m a traitor.  For Aloha this is the end of the day. The day I was born she would not have guessed that I would be the bailiff ushering her to a lasting confinement. Through an unremarkable little gate. Let’s keep up the cheery chatter, the terrified chatter, because what am I doing to my mother right now in full sunlight? I’m giving her a drink of poison, a long slaking draught of poison, not from a chalice but from a fucking jelly jar.

We walk the sidewalks of the City College campus, look appreciatively at the striking Pacific Ocean and while away the minutes, a little delaying tactic, and as the minutes pass I see a black mountain looming, just up ahead there. An hour? A friend of Sam’s walks by and says hello. Aloha seems mildly embarrassed to be seen, but as always she is suddenly not 90 but 40.

“Hey, nice to meet you!” she says with that trailing laugh I’ve known forever.

An hour later we pull up to her new House, the couple who run the place come to the gate to greet us, the gate is swung open, and with my splayed hand on mom’s back…my mom just walks right through the gate. And that is the end of that. We walk into the house. A speechless crone with long gray hair sits in a wheelchair at a lovely dining room table working her jaw and my mom looks at her with horror. Frank, the burly husband of the two who run the place says to Aloha –

“You like apple?” He puts his arm across my mom’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” she says cautiously.

“I’ll cut it up for you!” he says and strides off. My mom sits down, and I sit down with her at the dining room table. The crone is bobbing her long face and her long stringy gray hair, she’s babbling – a crazy old ghoul from Central Casting. When my mom can take her eyes off her she looks at me. The little light flickers on.

“Let’s go. Let’s go home.”

Here it is.

“Mom – this is home. You’ve moved here.” Of course she looks at me blankly for 5 seconds – and then her face, very very suddenly, you would say ‘spontaneously’, her face folds into a grimace of horror and her very blue eyes are aswim in sudden water.

“Oh, no!”

Clench your fist under the table, asshole. This is what you get, asshole. Keep it together.

“Mom – ”

“Oh, no, let’s get out of here! Oh, no, Jeff.”

“Where do you want to go?” I ask stupidly, my blood on the run, heart slamming.

“Let’s go, oh, please – let’s just go! I don’t care where! Let’s get out of here!”  Never seen her like this, not since Pat’s accident. And her blue eyes are full of water but it won’t fall down her face. The fullness of the trap makes itself known, it’s slammed shut already. When I watched her walk blithely through that gate in the driveway, I should’ve grabbed her. NO! Let’s go, mom! Forgive me! It’s a trap, a trick! But now 20 years of sickened anticipation is over, the surreal is real, and the gate is shut. This is that moment. She knows it. It has struck her like a wave. She raises her hands –  her arms –  raises her arms up as if to fend something off and lightly brushes her temples with her fingertips, a horror actress about to push her hands through her hair.

“Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

“Mom …let’s walk to the back. C’mon.” I adopt the ameliorating tone of a confidant. “C’mon, let’s walk to the back.” This is what ‘unbearable’ means. This is what that means. I can’t bear it. Just walk and hold her. There is a long driveway, it bends to the left as you walk to the back of the property and there is a sitting area with an umbrella. We sit down, but I don’t remember what was said, because within a half-minute Frank comes walking boldly toward us. My rescuer.

“Heeey! Let’s eat!” he says, Telly Savalas announcing supper. Slavika is with him in her apron; a nice, humor-filled Croatian couple. Been doing this for 30 years. Highly regarded, fully licensed, seen it all. Done it all. They shower their stupefied residents while wearing surgical gloves. Aloha, my mother, looks at me and grabs my forearm. I can’t. I CAN’T!! Frank looks at me conspiratorially as he says –

“Come on, we got dinner.” He face is motioning to me – Now is Your Chance, she just needs to acclimate, it’s better this way. Aloha gets the whole routine, though, and she looks at me. THAT look. And she just takes her hand off my forearm. And now I can see her door closing and the moon sweeping across the sky and all the bullshit gears working their phony magic. Frank gets on one side, Slavika on the other, they’re very gentle, they coax her to her feet and she rises from the cushioned lawn chair with difficulty.

“Come on, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Slavika assures in the singsong mantra of a caregiver. My mom, to my surprise, seems relaxed, her posture has loosened. But then I see it’s a striking surrender. Frank looks down at her and speaks very gently.

“You like potato salad?” My mom, while I watch, looks up at him with a sort of doomed leer, a gallows smile. WTF is that? I’ve never seen that expression. Has she ever used it before? She looks up at him and smiles, a ‘sad’ smile, a smile of saddened new ‘hello’. She is more alive and aware and aflame than anyone else in the scene. She looks right at his eyes.

“Yeah. I like potato salad,” she says with disgust, smiling. The white flag.

She lowers her face, she lets herself be escorted down the driveway. Am I seeing this? Frank and Slavika make faces and gestures – you can take this time to leave – it’s the perfect time. It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay! Go to your car, she’s fine. I’m afraid, though. My mom’s going to look over and see me leaving, Judas slipping between the guards. But she just walks between them without looking back. What is this? She puts her left hand on her hip as she walks between them, a gesture of fortitude, of putting her back into something. To my puzzlement, she doesn’t even look back toward me, doesn’t look back at all!  The goddamndest thing. Ever. EVER. I didn’t picture this. Her rounded shoulders obscured by her new keepers, she shuffles up onto the porch and through the open door. And that is how I killed my mother.

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