What was I thinking in bringing Mom to such an awful place?
I eyed the door and planned our escape.
My 85-year-old Mom got into a mess of trouble at Gray Bears, the senior agency where she volunteered.
Mom was never the sort of person to get involved with a community group. She preferred to stay at home, tending to the garden and puttering in the kitchen. Her favorite pastime was curling up in a recliner with a romance novel in her hands.
A Sudden Change
But things changed. My father died, leaving her alone and isolated in her home. One day she passed out. When she awoke in the hospital she was different. Before her hospital stay, she had enjoyed solitude and socialized only with a close circle of other Holocaust survivors.
According to her sister, who watched over her at the hospital, “When your mother woke up, she opened her eyes. The person looking back at me was not my sister.”
From that moment on, mother was terrified of being left alone. For a while she stayed in a mental health facility with a roommate, whose presence provided some reassurance for her. But once back home, she sat alone in the family room, terrified.
She hired a nurse to help at home. She didn’t need help. She just needed to be with someone. When the nurse was around during the day, Mom fretted about her departure in the evening. Mom dreaded nighttime. She worried about how she would make it through the night until the nurse returned the next morning. It was slow torture. Things weren’t working out.
Eventually I coaxed Mom into selling the house. She moved into the townhouse that I shared with my partner. The three of us became inseparable—the Three Musketeers. We had no choice. We could not leave Mom alone. Together we cooked dinner, cleaned the house, sat on the terrace, took walks together. Once a week we shopped at the grocery store—-together. We rented and watched videos together. When we made a mistake and chose a video that was too violent or X-rated for Mom, we popped out the video cassette and read our books instead.
Gray Bears Saves the Day
Gray Bears was our savior. It was a senior citizen agency that collected and sorted recycled materials and prepared weekly bagged groceries for homebound seniors.
At first, I didn’t think Gray Bears was going to work out. I had spent the last few weeks dragging Mom from one senior agency to the next. I could not interest her in exercise classes, tutoring school kids or sitting around a table learning watercolor. I was at wit’s end. We needed an activity for Mom. She needed the company. Gray Bears was our last stop.
Our tour included a visit to the “workshop,” a filthy, ramshackle wood building where, seated around a long table, a group of seniors and younger street people sorted used newspapers to be sold to florist shops. As we adjusted our eyes to the dim light in the room, a bedraggled fellow at the table shouted, “I can’t take it anymore. I’m a lesbian trapped in a man’s body!” What was I thinking in bringing Mom to such an awful place? I eyed the door and planned our escape.
But before I could grab Mom’s hand to lead her out of this Fagan’s lair, something remarkable happened. A very old and wiry woman seated at the table opposite us, reached her arm toward Mom. Their eyes met. To my surprise, Mom extended her arm toward her greeter. A few words of conversation between the two revealed that the wiry stranger was Gert. Like my Mom, she was Jewish, a widow, and like my Mom, she had grown up in Europe.
Mom turned to me, “This is where I want to volunteer.”
A New Life and a Sudden End
Mom lived for another two and a half years. For the rest of her time with us, she worked side-by-side with Gert at the long table where they had met—-four hours a day, five days a week, rain or shine. Knowing Gert and having the volunteer work helped Mom get through the long and difficult days.
There were problems. Mom still had free time in the afternoons and we weren’t always there for her during those times. We hired a Filipino lady to “help” Mom in the afternoons. One day we arrived back home in time to relieve the Filipino lady, only to find Mom in the kitchen preparing food for her “caretaker.” The caretaker was comfortably asleep on the living room sofa.
Mom told us sheepishly, “Esmeralda was tired. So I made her some lunch and put her down for a nap.” Esmeralda was reluctant to leave. But we were paying her by the hour, after all, so we escorted her out the door with some cash and a ‘thank you.’
There were crises. Like the time the doctor told her he couldn’t do anything to improve her hearing and I tried, unsuccessfully, to console her to the reality that she was going to miss out on much of the hearing world—even with the use of her troublesome hearing aids. We couldn’t do anything. Then there was the time I had to take her to the dentist and watch them pull all her top teeth, only to come home to an angry phone call from her sister, “What the hell are you doing to my sister!” I wanted to remind my aunt that just a year earlier she had begged me to take Mom off her hands. “I can’t handle her anymore. YOU take care of her.” I didn’t say a word.
There was the day Mom returned home from Gray Bears, shaken and upset. Every day after their volunteer work, the seniors lined up to receive a bag of free groceries. Mom had sneaked in front of the line to stand next to her friend Gert. In her former big-city community, where people were less polite, this would have gone unnoticed. But in our small town it provoked a stir and Mom got a dressing down from her fellow volunteers. I narrowly missed a call from the Director of Grey Bears—-like being called to the principal’s office about a misbehaving child.
But this episode passed, like all the other little hurts of our unplanned lives together.
One day Mom became ill with a cold. It seemed a trivial thing. But the cold turned into pneumonia. In a week’s time, with shocking suddenness, she was gone.
But we will always have our memories of the Three Musketeers.