The last of several strokes put my mother in a nursing home in Flushing, Queens, where my father’s constant visits and meddling in her health and welfare unnerved the aides, the nurses, the therapists, and the entire managerial staff.
Among her personal belongings he had brought to We Care were her plants from home which he placed on the sill of her room, but when a roommate joined her, the new arrival didn’t want them there (the window was on the newcomer’s side). Undaunted, adapting to his ad hoc home, my father commandeered an empty trough in the waiting room on my mother’s floor and dug in the plants, adding geraniums to the mix (he enjoyed gardening too). He watered them diligently.
One afternoon when I stopped in to visit, my father said he and I were wanted at a meeting. A meeting? What kind of a meeting? He didn’t know.
“Meeny?” my mother said in her clotted nasal speech that passed for her voice.
Were they moving my mother to a higher floor? She’d started out on two. That’s how they did it: the most agile and self-sufficient were on the lower floors. As your condition worsened, you were moved up. Up upsy-daisy, till you busted out of your diapers and wheelchair and trotted up the stairway to the stars.
It was not my mother We Care wanted to discuss.
I was made aware by a balding Mr. Skolnik, head of Social Services, in a sweater pulled over his ample midsection, that We Care did not care about, nor were they charmed by, my father’s agrarian interests. We Care was a facility for all clients and visitors, not individuals who decided to “requisition a space and make it his own. Your father’s planting in the common area has got to stop!”
There was more, much more, but my father cut him off. “Why are you talking to my daughter as if I’m not here! Talk to me!”
And Mr. Skolnik did. Up one side and down the other, a litany of my father’s offenses, from harassing the aides to spend more time with my mother when he wasn’t there (they ignore her, he said), to badgering my mother during her physical and occupational therapy sessions (I encourage her, he sulked), making it difficult for the therapists to do their jobs. He’d fed patients (sorry, clients) in the dining room, and encouraged my mother to eat solid food (she was fed through a tube). They’d had it with his shtick.
Embarrassed for my father, and for me, I wanted to jump into the trough with the geraniums and disappear. I somehow felt responsible for his bad behavior, a mother summoned by the teacher because her child is caught cheating on a test. I hadn’t brought him up right.
He responded the only way he knew. Criticized, he attacked. He was private pay, shelling out $200 per diem for care and getting bupkis (nothing) for his money.
“Dad, please. Stop,” I begged. “Listen to Mr. Skolnik !” Can they kick someone out of a nursing home because their husband is a pain in the ass? I worried. Bad as this place was (the whiff of urine everywhere, the aura of illness and looming death all around), it was still one of the better nursing homes in the area. “They have rules here,” I said. “And if you want Mom to stay, you have to accept them!”
That seemed to sober him. Perhaps he too was worried. He said, okay, in his world an apology.
When we returned to my mother’s room, there were the plants from the trough neatly lined in a carton. My mother glanced from me to the plants, gave me a knowing look. She might not have been able to speak, but there was nothing wrong with her brain.
I was in school then, pursuing a college degree. I hadn’t the head or the patience for higher learning when I graduated high school. I had marriage and babies on the brain. But it’s never too late to go after something you want. And I wanted to be educated, to join the conversation when others talked about the colleges they had attended. So I juggled my interior design business with writing papers and reading books, visiting my mother and keeping an eye on my father’s shenanigans.
My mother lived to see me in my cap and gown—not at graduation, but in her room at We Care. Soon as commencement ended I headed right over. She smiled at the sight of me. She knew how hard I’d worked, the eight years I’d spent as a part-time student.
Her throat was all but paralyzed. What she could say was thick and muffled and indistinct. Yet she made it clear that day what she wanted. “Take me hooome,” she begged.
What could I say to my poor mother? That I would take her home? Or, Soon, Mom. You’ll go home soon, or some iteration that would make her feel good for the moment but in the end disappoint her and come to nothing?
“You can’t go home, Mom. It’s too hard for Daddy to care of you,” I said as gently as I could.
She stared off into the middle distance.
I wonder now what she saw there that she would never see again. The high-backed, upholstered kitchen banquette we all slid into and out of for our meals? The heavily carved bedroom set she so bravely purchased without my father’s consent? Her plants on the built-ins in the TV room, that meant home to her? I could not bring myself to ask.
After 15 months of misery her heart gave out. Besides the daily humiliation of confinement and dependency and all the indignities a nursing home provides, she’d been hospitalized several times for fluid on her lungs (they pumped her out and bundled her back) and sent me making a beeline for a health care proxy. No, to heroic measures. No, to feeding tubes.
When my father called me to We Care that hot summer day, her forehead was already cool to my lips.
I made the funeral arrangements; my father wasn’t up to it. I was heartsick, but with a nod to real life I latched the bill to my Amex and got the points. The shiva, the Jewish seven-day mourning period, would be at my parents’ home.
I hadn’t been there in months and I knew to scope it out first—my father was not what you would call Mr. Clean. Pledge, Lysol, a spray bottle of Windex, a bucket of rags and a mop—I put them to good use.
But it wasn’t the dust and general disarray of my parents’ home that struck me; it was the lineup of stuffed animals propped against the back of the living room sofa. An elephant with a missing tusk; a rabbit, one ear flopped over an eye, the other eye gone; a bear with a patch of fur pulled out; a giraffe whose long neck bent in half; each animal worn down in a different way. Shopping curbside, my father had rescued them from his neighbors’ trash and given them a home. Gingerly, I pinched an ear, an arm, a fraying foot, and brought the menagerie to the bedroom, a bouquet of must and God knows what else falling off their faux fur. A therapist would have had a field day with the symbolism, but to me… to me they served as company for my father, something instead of someone to say good morning to and good night. A being, though stuffed and maimed, there to fill his empty, lonely home.
So many people at the shiva! My parents’ neighbors, friends, relatives I hadn’t seen for years and would probably not see again till the next funeral.
And the food!! As if what we did all day was eat. Actually that was what we did all day. Picking, and snacking and grazing on the deli platters that were sent, the casseroles brought, sampling box after box of bakery treats, jars of candied fruits and roasted nuts, pulling at grapes in the fruit bowl, as if we might fill ourselves with what was truly missing from our lives.
On the table with the fruit and a plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries (my ruination) were the albums. “I love to look at pictures!” said a cousin. Lean and taut as a spoke on his racer, he’d biked here from Commack.
And there was my mother at his bar mitzvah, her upswept hair and new bracelet watch, the timepiece hiding under a pop-up flower. I had followed her up the stairs to the Ballroom, my hands, wiper blades, moving to the rhythm of her hips. See my parents in Israel on an animal-skin rug. Look at them, leaning into each other. They looked so happy. Were they ever that happy? I know what I heard. I know what I saw. But I don’t know a thing about what passed between them in their private moments.
As was expected, my father said kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, for my mother, required practice for Jewish men, and boys over thirteen. But I too was honoring her, giving her the tribute and the voice she so often kept to herself.
When I had told the rabbi I was taking on the responsibility of kaddish, every day for 11 months, he said it wasn’t expected of me, which was a polite way of saying I wouldn’t be included in the minyan, the ten people required for communal worship—ten male people that is.
A bar mitzvah boy, still sleeping with a nite-lite? That pisher would be counted. According to ancient and prevailing rabbinic decree he was up to the task. A 58-year-old woman who had raised three children, gone to college and was running a business? Talk to the hand!
But I wasn’t there to make noise and change the rules about female inequality in Jewish ritual. I was there to honor my mother.
Months later we prepared for my mother’s unveiling, the graveside ceremony that commemorates one’s life and passing. We chose a double tombstone for when my father would lie beside her, pink granite (I thought gray too somber, my father agreed) swags of flowers etched into the stone. Working together at the monument showroom we took the floral image from one offering, font from another, wording and layout from still another. The father I had feared for so many years, the father who I could write about for hours on end but who wore out my patience after ten minutes was the same father with whom I stood as a colleague; designers, makers we (he, dresses; me, interiors), doing what we loved. So attuned to him, such an ease with him. Maybe he felt it too. “We did a good job,” he said, after he placed the order. Sad? Ironic? Better late than never that my mother had to be in her grave, that it had to be her tombstone that gave me those craved-for moments of closeness with my father?
The family gathered at her grave for the ceremony. My father spoke lovingly and warmly about my mother, dabbing at his eyes from time to time. (Did you ever tell her this when she was alive? I wondered.) I had dispensed with the cheesecloth fabric the cemetery provided to reveal the burial stone and used in its place a large, silk scarf of my own. There would be nothing cheesy about my mother’s unveiling.
Rita Plush is the author of the novels, Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches creative writing and memoir at Queensborough Community College, Continuing Ed, Queens, New York. Her stories and essays have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast and Art Times.