Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Death by Hospice
By Susan M. Silver
“Goldie won’t cry,” the principal had declared with the certainty of an experienced seer more than eight decades earlier, and that marked nobility of strength would define her always. It was on a heat-choked summer’s day—the kind of late-June day when the hushed humidity causes the greenery to seem wavering in irrationally insistent sunshine—when the compact ambulette delivered Mom to the hospice. And even in the Sisters of Divine Mercy Home, a little Temple of Transition for the terminally ill that faced the East River, reeking of bleach and sanitizers, mixed with the fragrance of jovially funereal floral bouquets, she remained regally calm and centered.
“Hi, doll! How’s my girl?” she chirped from the bed. Mom put down the crossword puzzle, her Persian Melon’d lips parting with delight at my presence. Although her skin had taken on a pearlescent pallor, disease had not diminished her gentle-gritty Greer Garson-ness. Intact as the cliffs of the Palisades where she had spent her youth, her carved-heart face, outlined by wig-thick hair restored to red, bore the shining graciousness of her handsome heart: the keylight within. The bed, labeled GOLDA GABRIEL, HEBREW, was positioned between the crucifix-protected doorway and a view of the Manhattan Bridge over steel-gray waters. Two empty beds—the beds were actually more like cots—surrounded her like parentheses.
“Did you notice the room number?” I offered, straining to wrap myself in the raiments of normalcy, even as I took note of the Beige Badge of Courage, the Oxycontin patch.
“Yes, isn’t that lovely?” came her response, in the familiar Greer Garson viola-voice.
How could she not have noticed? It was 203, the very number of the address of the house where I’d grown up, where she’d spent the richest years of her kismet-kissed marriage to my father. Psychics, astrology, and signals from the universe had always held a private allure for her. Clearly, she viewed this as an opportune oasis, a place to continue to thrive. Earhart-like, the wounded bird, flying over a vast expanse of ocean, had found its Howland Island.
Regardless of what anyone has told me about medical inevitability, if you have elected to view this as a rising-sun segment of the journey, I will support you; it is what you expect of me.
I returned to the second-floor desk--past a young man with black Beatle bangs, focused on polishing the pristine hallway linoleum-–to investigate the troubling matter of the telephone. There was none in her room. Or in any patient’s room. For my entire adult life, the sister-mother bond with Mom had been buttressed by our phone connection; when geographically separate, we spoke possibly twice a day, the telephone line acting as what I pictured as a physical string between hearts.
“Not a problem.” Sister Mary Christine rested her needle in the Crewelwork design of oversized red-and-green flowers. “She can have my cell phone. I don’t use it. You can talk all day if you like.” White-habited and veiled in black, the nun rose from her seat behind the built-in desk. She handed me a gleaming silver flip-top while gratefully accepting the Twinings Lady Grey Tea and the Mallomars, some of Mom’s last remaining edibles. She would be my mother’s chief caregiver, she said. Called Sister Christine, she was a woman of unfixed age, perhaps in her mid-forties, fair-skinned with freckles, probably a natural blonde. Hers was unquestionably a beautiful face, but not a perfectly peaceful one, and her mountain lake-clear eyes seldom looked away from the embroidery.
I know you do this work for the love of God, and that you are committed to the sanctity of human life. Do you understand that I am handing you my own personal spirit of Shangri-la, the one who taught me about the privilege of being alive and the sacredness of kindness, my confidante-advocate-comforter-best friend, my gold?
Over the summer months, although we depended largely on the sacred silver flip-top, I managed to travel downtown about once a week to the little Temple of Transition for our beloved bedside chats. A four-story earth-brown building nestled among earth-brown tenements, it hosted thirty-five patients ministered to by a half-dozen nurse-nuns. While this no-frills facility lacked the bridge games, art classes, and concerts offered elsewhere, it served our purpose: The same invisible chronic illness which had interrupted my career and precipitated Mom’s stepping in as my adult caregiver had severely limited my mobility. Now that the roles had flipped, I could not bear not to accompany her to the edge of her good night, so we settled on Sisters of Divine Mercy purely for its proximity.
Buzzed inside by custodian Vincent, squinting through bangs that fell over a permanently furrowed brow, I made my way past the first-floor chapel, which was watched over by a brightly painted statue of Madonna and Child. It was only a few steps up to Room 203. I brought bouquets of roses, always roses—sunrise-yellow roses, kumquat-orange roses, ripe-cherry roses. If there was a roommate--one appeared now and then and evaporated after about forty-eight hours--I exchanged hellos before pulling up a chair next to Mom’s bed. Around her was a puzzle-pourri that looked like wind-scattered leaves turned prematurely autumnal. With a paper cup in my hand, I announced, “I’m having coffee with my mom!”--as though we were at Starbucks.
On rare occasions, a round Russian-doll figure in a habit, Mother Mary Angela, will-o’-wisp’d by Room 203. Mother Angela, whose round gold glasses shielded eyebrows thick enough to rival a Greek shipping magnate’s, nodded cordially but exchanged no words with me. She seemed to regard me and my all-black New York City-style ensembles with suspicion, but I dismissed her stern mien as typical of any burden-bearing CEO.
Our topics of conversation were wide-ranging, mostly involving Mom’s mentoring: About the elderly tenant with long mahogany hair and aubergine lipstick, whose usually carefree mahogany Irish setter would unexpectedly lunge at me in the mail room of my apartment building (“Neutral, neutral, neutral. Avoid her. Don’t react, don’t engage. You don’t want to roll in the mud.”); about finding a winter coat to fit over my constant, allover pain (“Keep trying. Go bigger; look in the men’s department. Just get what you need to stay warm.”); about misguided old acquaintances who spoke of my needing nursing-home care (“You must get away from them.”). And she would fret about what she called my “fragile” state of health and finances, always concluding, “You’ll be fine. I feel you’ll be fine.”
Visit times expired like the clichéd candle flame, quenched by a breeze; she grew tired suddenly and needed sleep. As I moved toward the door, I instructed, “Remember, I’m always here, even if I’m not here,” which evoked a sweet smile of understanding. Already, I was lost inside the black-hole loneliness of the one who is not embarking on the journey, the one left behind.
You are a great disciple of boundless aliveness, marveling at every minuscule rotation of nature’s kaleidoscope: caring nurturer of the rosebushes and the eucalyptus tree; intrigued observer of ocean waves and sorter of shells; student of stars; dog-bird-cat whisperer. Summer’s peacock fan, spread before us, will soon contract. Tropical-feeling day after tropical-feeling day, the summer is slipping by, and you don’t seem to care.
When my energy failed, we relied on the silver cell. We giggled, gossiped, compared notes; the disease was non-existent. In fact, the telephone seemed less taxing for her than in-person visits; she was animated, witty—and seeming to offer me comfort. In the absence of formal activities, Mom contented herself with word puzzles and bridge columns. I assigned myself the task of faxing New York magazine crosswords, a particular passion, and articles of note; the obituaries of jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw and Lester Lanin, the society bandleader with whom she’d worked in New York and Palm Beach, were special requests. For these tiny acts, she expressed touching gratitude.
I wish I could fill your room with rose petals.
In an unusual move, Sister Christine took me aside one day on my way out, as Mom was drifting off. “You know, I’ve seen people die, and it’s beautiful,” she said.
“But how do you know—?”
“That’s where faith comes in. It’s a beautiful thing,” she repeated, bobbling her head as if to confirm the idea.
Goldie is a worshipper of life. This is between her and her God. But love is the bridge, the bridge is love. That is what Mom would say.
At some point, I mentioned to Mom having spotted a decrepit rosewood piano, with a scrollwork music stand, in the library at the end of the hall. A chance, I thought, for these new caregivers to bond with her when she extracted an unanticipated burst of big-band sound from the weary instrument.
“No, now it’s your turn,” she said simply. The maestro passing the proverbial baton, with heartbreaking nobility.
You belong in a glittery gown behind a ten-foot grand piano, on a horseshoe-shaped stage raised over the bar. Music gods like Duke Ellington worship your sound as “Honeysuckle Rose” travels down the keyboard by half-steps with effortless grace: the veiled virtuosity of Fred Astaire. Instead, you are mostly asleep in the Temple of Transition, to the tune of a humming humidifier.
She continued to wage the battle of the unwell warrior. Her hearing aid was somehow lost or tossed, so she communicated with the staff largely through exchange of written notes. Sister Christine often answered the phone in her stead; Mom got on after an unexplained silent hold. Having seen her walk across the room bent at a right angle, I arrived one day not terribly surprised to be informed by Sister Christine that she had fallen and was now forbidden to leave her bed.
“What will I do?” she asked. She allowed me to glimpse it, there in her eyes: fear.
“You can ask them to wheel you around in your chair,” I suggested. “It will be all right.”
Please tell me what it is you want me to pray for, God: for the continuation of life, or for the end of suffering.
By this time, the fax machine had stopped functioning, and I was having trouble getting through by telephone. Vincent took the calls, frequently telling me my mother was sleeping or otherwise unavailable, hurriedly hanging up.
My call just after Christmas—almost precisely six months after Mom’s arrival—was intercepted by Sister Christine, who said Mother Angela wished to speak with me.
“Your mother’s telephone privileges have been cut, and there will be no more faxing,” she said with the finality of a sentencing judge. “You may call between eleven-thirty in the morning and one p.m., and from four to five p.m.”
“But I was told—“
“Then you were told wrong. We’re running a business here,” Mother Angela snapped. It was a tone of contained fury. “There will be a meeting with the social worker this afternoon. Be there.” I later learned Mother Angela was contending with a dramatic falloff in donations that threatened to cause the place to shutter.
“You don’t understand. I’m keeping her alive.”
“We are running a business.”
My body stiffened, suddenly poised to pole vault, the heart assuming the manic pace of something from the pages of Poe. “Yes,” I agreed with a steely flatness. “The business of death.” The words slid out and would not be stopped, a child’s sled on an icy incline.
“Be there this afternoon at one-thirty. Goodbye.”
Here is a true conflict of spiritual passions: On the one side, a community’s extreme passion for the faith, which means submitting to God’s will to let go of life; on the other, an individual whose faith is rooted in extreme passion for life, God’s ultimate gift.
I tried to hurry downtown, but at the first hint of falling snow, finding a free cab in the city can prove formidable. I missed the meeting. Mom was sitting up in bed, as straight as her bent body would allow, her dignity undamaged. Occupied with a crossword, she was entirely tranquil, Greer Garson-genteel.
Love is the bridge, the bridge is love.
Sister Christine, along with her sacred silver cell phone, was off the scene altogether. In her place was ruddy-cheeked Sister Mary Agnes, a twentysomething. Flashing the gummy grin of a professional athlete who aspires to commentating, she rambled about her adventures walking through Chinatown on her day off, wearing her sneakers. Frowning Vincent had vanished, too, although I caught sight of him as he squinted at me from behind a hallway corner.
In a winter of back-to-back blizzards, there was a record-shattering storm. Frenetic flakes flew up, down, east, west, piling up in intricate latticework layers on sidewalks, tree limbs, windowsills. I phoned just as the statistics comparing this to the Great Blizzard of ’47 were being announced on New York One, during the early telephone time slot.
“Did you see the snow?” Did you see the snow?” I asked vibrantly, hoping for a vibrant response from one who viewed snowflakes as the Eighth Wonder.
“I think so…” she said in a faltering voice. “I have to sleep now.”
Death was mercifully swift. In an early-morning walk to survey the property post-storm, a thin layer of frozen snow, lethal Belgian lace, deposited following the major cleanup, caused Mother Angela to slip backwards on the sidewalk into a frozen-solid cumulous-cloud mound, inside which was a parked car. Arms flung out as though in pre-embrace of someone or something, the reverend mother, a reddish blood-halo around her, was found clutching the silver phone.
A few days later, Mom slipped from the choking fingers of the disease. Sister Agnes was holding her hand. The messenger man from the nearby mortuary, a gallows-humor caricature of the reaper in broad-brimmed black hat and ankle-brushing black coat, came to my apartment to bring me the final papers. Mom would have nailed the gratuitous grotesqueness of the moment, deadpanning: “Halloween.”
He reported that she was “beautiful, with a look of wonder on her face.” The date was February 3, or 2-03. Just the day before, I had conducted us singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Goldie didn’t cry.
Susan M. Silver is a New York City-based freelance writer with credits in People magazine, Us Weekly, the New York Daily News, and The Saturday Evening Post. Her fiction, which is familiar to Breath & Shadow readers, has appeared in Wordgathering, as well as Lifestyles magazine and Short Stuff. Susan’s well-received illustrated children’s ebook, Tuxedo, is available on Amazon.com.