Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the tag “relationships”

True Love

IMG_4657Sometimes when I watch movies or read novels or remember people I have known or even just observe people around me, I wonder if any couple ever experiences true love. I don’t mean young love, lust love, friendship love, family love, or any other kind of love that may or may not endure. No, I mean the kind of lasting love that truly embodies for better or for worse, the kind of love that elicits a smile whenever the beloved appears, the kind of love that makes one want to please the beloved and take away his or her pain, the kind of love that makes days away from the beloved achingly empty, the kind of love where one cherishes the very essence of the beloved no matter what time or misfortune or illness may have done to transform them. That kind of love. True love.

My aunt and uncle, Billy and Al Nikitovitch-Winer, are the only persons I know who share true love.  (If you know other couples who do, please tell me about them. Perhaps we can start a #truelove chain to dissolve some of the hate that surrounds us.)  Even though Billy and Al are in their early nineties, and Al has dementia, they seem to float on a sacred river of past and present love. When I visited them in July, after Billy had been hospitalized for a sudden collapse, what I observed made me marvel that love, even at the end of one’s days, can be so powerful.

Because he has always been a kind and gentle man, Uncle Al’s dementia elicits no anger or agitation in him, just a befuddled sweetness and apologetic forgetfulness touched by humor. And because Billy truly loves him, and has for more than 65 years, she treats him with the same respect and genuine solicitude she always has, whether or not he responds, understands or remembers.

When I first arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, frustrated after hours lost in a maze of dark, unfamiliar streets, they were waiting for me together, smiling and happy despite their recent ordeal. I left my heavy suitcase in the hall, and Billy told Al to please not carry it upstairs alone lest he hurt his back. But after she went to bed, he came into the kitchen where I was relaxing with a cup of tea and whispered, “I brought up your suitcase, dear.” When I protested, he said, “Don’t worry about me! It’s good for my muscles!” He flexed his skinny biceps and smiled that shy, ever-so-gentle smile I love so much.

In the morning, I accompanied Uncle Al on a short walk around the neighborhood while Billy slept and recuperated. It was easy to forget he had dementia of any sort as he chatted about this children and grandchildren, how many marathons he had run, how much he had loved teaching bio-chemistry at the University of Kentucky, and, most of all, how very remarkable his wife was. He stumbled a bit, and as I steadied him, he laughed and said, “Don’t worry, dear. If I fall down, just leave me there. They’ll pick me up with the trash!” He laughed, and I laughed along with him. That touch of black humor is what gives his dementia a spark of welcome awareness, one impossible not to notice and treasure.

Uncle Al’s dementia is not typical in many ways. He displays no anger, no restless despair, no extreme moodiness, just a constant smile, a cheerful countenance and a generosity of gesture rarely seen in anyone these days. We were resting on a bench in front of the house under the shade of an oak tree, savoring a bit of respite from the summer heat, when I mentioned their recent ordeal. He had slept on a cot next to Billy in the Intensive Care Unit and stayed with her until she was released the next afternoon after almost two days in the hospital. He didn’t remember any of it. “Really?” he asked. “I hope she’s okay. I better go in and check on her.” I realized in that instant that Uncle Al had answered all my questions and prompts with appropriate responses, whether or not he knew what to say or understood the context. It was as though every molecule in his body was designed for one purpose: to please.

Most mornings, after our little walks, Al would go to the kitchen and start to pour himself a bowl of Special K. I would remind him that we had had breakfast together earlier, and he would laugh softly. “Well, all right then!” His lingering smile held a sly acknowledgement of his memory loss. “So what,” he seemed to be saying. “I’m still here. I’m still smiling. Thank you for smiling with me.”

When he wasn’t talking, Al hummed to himself constantly, not a hum with a tune, just a “mm, mm” up and then a “mm, mm” down. Two hums up, two hums down, up and down, up and down, just under his breath. It soothed him in some way. Not being a saint on any level, I found it irritating at times, then felt disappointed with myself for being so easily irked by something so benign. How dare I let myself be irritated by someone I loved, someone who personified kindness?

Is being happy and kind with little memory of the past the same as living in the moment? The past is not completely erased for Al, just blurred around the edges. When he can’t remember something, he turns to Billy. “Memory is overrated,” he says. “Besides, I don’t need to remember everything. I have Billy for that.”

What cannot be erased is the love Al feels for Billy.  He loves his wife with every look, every word and every gesture. He can no longer make her breakfast or dole out her vitamins or do much around the house to help her.  He could not remember that she had been ill just days before and that they had been in the hospital together.  But when we went for drives, he remembered to open the car door for her and help her reach her seat belt. And when we walked together in the park, he remembered to cradle her arm in his or hold her hand as if she were the most precious of women.

Every morning, according to Billy, if she has woken up as early as Al has, he has looked into her green eyes as if she were a goddess and said, “Good morning, lovely. You look so beautiful today!”

Uncle Al may sometimes forget my name when he sees me, but he never forgets to greet me with a smile and a kiss. He calls me “dear one” and tells me how “marvelous” I look.  His essence as a gentleman and the kindest of souls has survived the ravages of his disease.

Billy is not irritated by Al’s humming or anything else he does or doesn’t do. She is sweet, patient, laughing, kidding, but never visibly annoyed. He may go out three times to get the mail. He may forget to turn off the garden hose until a small stream cascades down the driveway. He may disappear inexplicably right before dinner, leave five pairs of shoes by the door, wear the same torn Honolulu marathon t-shirt three days in a row, and hide things he finds in the most random places, yet she never raises her voice, speaks to him with condescension or expresses the slightest exasperation.

In reality, although she rarely shows it, Billy feels a deep sadness as the facets of Al’s intellect and personality disappear one by one. Who knows the extent of her sorrow or the heaviness of her burden caring for a man slowly reverting to childlike dependence?  Physically, she is the weaker one, the one in constant pain from arthritis and the cumulative effects of severe scoliosis, but one would never know it. She watches him fade away, bit by bit, until I imagine all that will be left of him are a small smile and a huge heart beating for his beloved.

Although Billy is not afraid of dying, she is afraid of dying first and leaving Al alone. Who will love him and care for him the way she does? She is his everything, his touchstone, his reason for living. But if she dies first, who will be there to love and cherish and admire and respect her the way every woman wishes someone would, in sickness and in health, until the final parting?  In this case, love has triumphed over dementia, untrammeled by memory loss, resplendent in its moment by moment renewal.

I can only hope that Billy and Al will die together the way they have lived together for so long: in true love.

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French Lessons

Scan 10He had been a difficult man, my grandfather, or so my mother and grandmother had always told me when they recalled the many days the two of them had spent alone while he disappeared from dawn until dinner to hunt or fish in his beloved Gironde countryside. I called him Papi, and when at nine I was sent back to France for a year, I did not find him difficult to love. The difficulty, I thought then, was proving myself worthy of his love, and it was only much later that I understood what Mami had gone through, living with a man who would never change a single habit to accommodate woman, child or society.
My grandparents were to meet me when La Covadonga, a rusty Spanish freighter my parents had been misled into believing was a safe luxury liner, docked in Bilbao, Spain, after twelve days at sea. Since I had traveled alone save for a promiscuous French chaperone, who never slept in the cabin or ate with me or watched me at all, Papi had agreed to fetch me by car, but he had lost his nerve at the Spanish border, and Mami had come the rest of the way by train. He was, she told me fretfully, an impossible, stubborn man. Could I imagine, she asked, that the one time he had gone to Paris with her and my mother, he left the very next day because he claimed hotels made him sick?
What I could imagine, after just a few days in France, was why he would not want to leave a perfect place. Never had I had a garden from which to pick strawberries, or cornfields in which to play hide-and-seek, or doves and rabbits to feed.
With great patience but stern discipline, Papi set out to teach me everything I didn’t know, and that, he said, was a lot. Every afternoon that summer, he would close the dining-room shutters, and, in cool semi-darkness, I would study reading, writing and recitation with him. He had been a teacher all his life, as had Mami, and he spoke in a loud, clear voice, enunciating every syllable and defining each difficult word. My American accent irritated him even more than my American ignorance, especially since my first language had been French. He made me repeat sentences, often tongue-twisters, endlessly, and memorize and recite all of his favorite fables by La Fontaine. I imitated his rolling Southern intonations so assiduously that to this day, I speak French with the inelegant and provincial “accent du Midi.”
Since Papi scorned those who slept late, I learned to wake up by seven. He was up at six, working in his garden before it was too hot, and I would run down the sloped garden path to see him after I had gulped down my café au lait. When I kissed him, his cheeks were rough and fresh with the scent of lemony cologne and dew.
In those days, Papi kept two gardens, one in La Réole, the small town we lived in, and one in Barie, Mami’s childhood home in the country, where we often spent weekends. There, he had plum, pear, apple and apricot trees. He kept bees, too, handling the hives with his bare hands, and he made me swallow a teaspoon of honey, which I hated as a child, every morning, for long life and health.
In one of Barie’s many attic rooms, Papi kept pigeons trained as tree decoys for hunting palombes, the wild pigeons that flew up from the Pyrenees every fall. He and his friends built elaborate fern tunnels and hunting cabins in the woods and spent every autumn day waiting for the birds to alight in the specially cleared trees, a wait that would prolong itself as both the woods and the hapless birds dwindled over the years.
When it wasn’t hunting season, it was fishing season, a time of lazy late afternoons by the Garonne river, where, if I was allowed to tag along, I had to be perfectly quiet amongst the flies and tickling weeds and smells of cow dung and rotting fruit, my small bamboo pole in hand, praying with fervent concentration to catch a fish and prove my worth.
For Papi was my hero, unlike anyone I had ever met in America. A short man, he appeared tall because he was compact, trim and strong. He preferred old comfortable clothes, a beret, worn boots and baggy brown pants, and he insisted on using the same soap to wash, shave and shampoo.
One night, as I lay under a lofty white eiderdown beneath a distant ceiling, I heard him telling Mami that I looked more like my father than did my sister and brothers. Since he had never forgiven my Yugoslav father for taking away his only child and for being foreign and dark-eyed and for eating delicately and sleeping late, I took his comment as a sign of disfavor. To win his approval, I tried to be the perfect student, and I was, except when it came to the violin, the instrument he played so well. Having failed within a month to sense any progress in my playing, he declared, wrongly, that I was tone-deaf, just like my mother and grandmother, and he took back the tiny violin he had given me.
Whenever we ate, Papi observed everything I did and commented, often unkindly. His eyes were very round, nut-brown and deep-set, and his mouth, tightly modeled, was quick to move. “You must take a bite of bread after every morsel of meat and salad,” he would say. “You must not trim the fat off your meat. It reminds me of your father picking the fat out of his salami.” He complained that Mami ate like a bird and was far too skinny, not like she was when he married her.
I learned to eat the way he ate, the French way, and I would flush with pride if he said I had eaten well: chewing the little bones of the birds he roasted in the fireplace, or crunching the heads and skeletons of fried “ablettes,” the tiny fish he caught in quantity in the springtime.
Once, I displeased Papi by refusing to finish my meal. I had choked on my lunch after learning it was my pet rabbit, Annie, my Easter present, butchered and baked without my knowledge or consent. As a Frenchman, he believed that such pets were meant to be eaten when full-grown, and that I should have learned that by now. Though he seemed contrite afterwards, and tried to comfort me by playing a violin jig in front of my locked door, he did not hesitate a few weeks later to dispatch my two pet ducks.
In school, Papi expected me to be first, and after a dismal and difficult start as fourteenth, I studied my way to third, second and finally first. He was proud of me, he said, very proud.
Then summer came, and my mother arrived with my brothers and sister, and Papi no longer bothered to scold me or even correct me. My French lessons had ended.

The year after we got married, I took my now ex-husband to France to meet my grandparents. I had been there several times since that childhood year and had noticed Papi’s gruffness turning to rancor, his dislike of socializing turning to misanthropy. He drove less and less. He abandoned the garden and orchards of Barie. He cursed the modern world, the church, the government, crime and industry, and in his escalating stinginess, begrudged every franc Mami spent on what he called “frivolities.” He had become an old man, more difficult than ever, a man afraid of death and shattered by the indecencies of a weakening mind and body.
Never sensitive to anyone’s feelings, Papi now demanded sensitivity to his. One day, Mami took us to Bordeaux by train, and we arrived a little later than planned. We found Papi at the window, cradling his round head in his hands, crying. “He’s always afraid I won’t come back,” Mami said.
When he forgot something, Papi would sit at the kitchen table and rub his temples with his calloused thumbs, until he was so frustrated that he would shout, “What did I go out to do, anyway?”
The day we left La Réole was a warm September morning, soft with the silvery light of Gironde. From the train station, we could see the wide Garonne river, twisting, brown and treacherous, through the rich valley of small farms, the land rising gently into hills of green and purple vineyards and patches of just-fading trees. Large cranes bordered one side of the river, and Papi told us they were dredging all the gravel, making the river a deathtrap of whirlpools. He pointed to other factories along the banks and said they had killed all the fish; it was no use fishing any more. He repeated how much he hated the modern world — he couldn’t understand why it destroyed everything. As for hunting, it had become a farce, the way they fattened up the partridges and released them for slaughter by weekend amateurs.
Everything had changed, he said, everything but him.

My Brother’s Keeper

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When Hurricane Sandy was heading toward New York, my first confused thought was, “I have to call my brother!” And then it hit me inside, like a kick in the stomach: my big brother was no longer in Westchester County. He was in an Alzheimer’s home in France, and I had put him there.

For three years, I flew back and forth between San Francisco and New York to try to save first his condominium, then his life, then his independence, then his rented apartment. Finally, defeated by his deterioration and the expense of New York’s memory care homes, I resorted to taking him back to France, just a few miles from where he was born, and leaving him in a place so far from me that now, despite the work, the worry, the responsibilities, the endless paperwork and all the legal battles I fought for him, I am filled with sorrow and regret.

“You did the right thing,” people tell me. Did I? I see him in my mind, wandering the corridors with empty-eyed men and women twenty years older than he is. I see him going outside to the small fenced courtyard to feed the chickens and stare at the familiar vine-covered hills of his childhood. I see him watching French television, restless and agitated whenever someone approaches, as he waits for a phone call or a visit, both so rare, both of which he will forget moments later.

But when I call him, I can see the smile on his face. “Maia, my sister, how are you doing?” he always asks, recognizing my voice instantly. “Are you coming to see me today?” And I lie. Yes, I lie again and again and again. I tell him not to worry, I’ll be seeing him soon, the way I used to. We’ll go out to dinner. We’ll have fun.

In truth, it may be many months or even years before I can afford a trip to France, and by then he may not recognize me at all.

What is the right thing to do? When my ex-sister-in-law alerted me to my brother’s decline, my first thought was, “Oh, he’s just getting more eccentric with age.” But she was persistent, and I finally flew out to find the most appalling scene I could have imagined. My brother, who cherished and refinished antiques, who was passionate about trout fishing and the environment, who spoke – and still speaks –four languages fluently, who had an MBA from Columbia University and managed the investments of rich foreigners, was living in squalor.

He had become a hoarder, unable to manage his money or his daily life, spending every penny he had on expensive meals and things he didn’t need. From the front door I inched my way through mounds of excess stuff, through a kitchen piled with dirty dishes, through a dining room littered with fishing rods and tackle boxes, to the one usable living room chair, where he sat watching grainy images on his vintage television, his beloved tabby cat on his lap, oblivious to just how bad his situation had become.

Upstairs was even worse: closets filled with dozens of expensive suits, slacks, shoes, shirts, and jackets, hundreds of ties, some with the tags still attached, drawers crammed with t-shirts and sweaters, boxes shoved under the beds and dressers, filled with who knew what. No wonder he was sleeping in his chair: a pile of unopened mail covered his bed.

When I started to sort through those envelopes and all the others littering the condo, I found that he owed every major credit card money, that his condo was about to go into foreclosure, that he owed the IRS a fortune in back taxes, and that he had liquidated the line of credit on his home and every savings account he ever had, including all of his retirement accounts. My brother, once well off and successful, was now completely broke and in serious debt. Somehow, I had to help him.

With the help of his forgiving ex-wife, we began cleaning the place, throwing out collections of empty cat food cans, wine bottles, plastic containers, magazines, newspapers, paper napkins – the list is far too long to recount. We filled one trash bag after another and snuck them out at night, so he wouldn’t see us. Otherwise, he would open the bags and look through them for hours, angered if we were getting rid of anything he found valuable, which was everything, from a pebble to a broken shell to a piece of wood he had found on one of his outings. The back of his van was crammed to the ceiling with objects he had taken from the streets or roads or garbage cans, objects he insisted could come in handy some day.

In the middle of one particularly bad night, he woke me up yelling, his face red with rage. He accused me of throwing out his favorite river rock (he had a huge collection!), a rock shaped like a heart. I was sure I had not, but afraid he might turn violent, I went out to the dumpsters in the biting cold, took back that night’s haul, and looked through every last item, finding nothing, as he sat staring at me in anger. The next morning, I found his precious rock in the kitchen.

I went back in November to continue the cleanup with my daughter. One morning we found him screaming outside in his underwear, angry that the squirrels were eating the birdseed he scattered everywhere, against his condo association’s regulations. People were getting into their cars to go to work and staring as I tried to gently steer him back into the house with the promise of eggs and bacon.

I went again in January, and then every other month. The house began to look better while my brother got worse and worse. Every time I returned, he had put new yellow post-its on the refrigerator, on the telephone, on the kitchen cabinets, on appliances he could not remember how to use, on his stereo buttons and his television remote control. I made him a notebook with all of his important numbers written down, but he would misplace it. There might be four post-its with our father’s number right on the phone, yet he would claim he couldn’t find the number. The message machine was always full, mostly with threatening calls from creditors.

Meanwhile, he had no awareness of his condition. He insisted on taking an exam to maintain his broker’s license so he could work again. He failed it repeatedly, always blaming someone or something and vowing he would pass it the next time.

Desperate to find out what was causing his mental decline, I took him from one doctor to the next. He had severe diabetes, high blood pressure, and cirrhosis.  He was ordered to stop drinking, which he ignored, repeating the same story that he never liked to get drunk growing up and had been raised the French way on red wine mixed with water until he was old enough for the real thing. Both of those statements were true. I had never seen him noticeably drunk, but he had obviously become a big drinker. His supply of expensive French wine was running out, so he started buying beer instead.  If I showed disapproval, he would wag his finger, furrow his brow and give me an angry lecture denying he had a problem.

After an exhausting series of tests, including one for mad cow disease, the diagnosis was always dementia. Probable cause: alcohol and uncontrolled diabetes or early onset Alzheimer’s. I got power of attorney, applied for disability, and put his house on the market.

On February 20, 2010, my sister-in-law called me to say that my brother was very ill and had called her to ask what he should do. The day before had been his 60th birthday, and he had drunk a few six-packs of beer outside of the nearby gas station with some guy he barely knew. He was throwing up blood. She called 911 and they took him to the hospital.

Everything was wrong with him, including a bad case of pneumonia. He went into a coma for days and was put on a ventilator. Once again, I was asked to decide whether or not to keep someone alive by artificial means. This time, I did not hesitate to say yes. He had a daughter I loved, and I was not about to give up on him. I was even naïve enough to think that he might regain his mental facilities!

When he came out of his coma, he remembered nothing. And when he finally returned, after escaping from the convalescent facility through a bathroom window, he denied that he had ever been hospitalized.  He had been gone for nearly a month. He had lost weight and seemed much healthier, but his mind was worse than ever.

And so it went. I arranged for Meals on Wheels and help with his utility bills, and he was approved for Social Security Disability payments. My sister-in-law agreed to come once a week, as did a social worker. But no one could control him, really. He would disappear in his van to feed feral cats or wander the country roads or shop and eat and drink in his old haunts with a new account he managed to finagle before I could close it and pay back all the overdraft fees.

Because the real estate market was so weak, it took months to sell his condo, and when it finally sold, at a greatly reduced price, paying back the liens and fees and attorneys left me with just enough for moving and rent and expenses his disability check could not cover. But where could he go?

I wanted to give my brother a chance to live on his own just a little longer.  He was much too young for a nursing home, and Medicaid had turned us down. So I lied again and made a great case that he was diabetic but fine otherwise and signed a lease for a coop apartment in a nearby town, where he could walk everywhere if he lost his driver’s license.  We painted the walls, sanded the floors and filled the place with his beautiful furniture, paintings and rugs. It was on the seventh floor, with a view of trees and sky and the sound of trains rushing by on the nearby rails. He loved it, and quickly forgot about his condo.

Wherever we went, he would pick up papers and garbage as he walked, railing against people who were pigs and had no respect for the environment. At home, he would spend hours cutting off loose threads from his towels or picking lint off the carpets with his fingers. Clearly, obsessive-compulsive behavior was part of his baffling disease.

The last time I took him to New York City, he wandered off in the subway station while I searched for him in a panic, calling out his name like a madwoman. I eventually found him dancing in front of a subway musician. By the time he had picked up all the trash on our way to H&R Block, we were very late. He fell asleep in his chair while the tax preparer was talking.

Every week, he would get into trouble of some kind or other, and I would get calls or e-mails from the building manager and his landlord. He kept parking in the wrong spot, usually the manager’s. He was feeding birds on his balcony. He crushed beer cans on the kitchen floor with his hard heels during the middle of the night. He told an old woman who was bugging him to go fuck herself. He got into a fight with the superintendent. One night he locked himself out of the building and pounded on the doors, yelling for someone to let him in, until someone called the police. His unpredictable behavior and angry outbursts cost him the renewal of his lease, although I did manage to get him a six-month extension by filing a bogus discrimination suit.

Finally, in November of 2011, police arrested him for driving erratically and impounded his car. By the time he told me, it was too late to get the van back, although I tried. I had ignored his doctor’s repeated advice to take away his car keys. How could I do that to my brother? Furious when he realized they had taken his precious van to the dump, he threatened to blow up the police department and set fire to their cars.

In three short years, I watched as my brother morphed into a demented man unable to care for himself. But when had it really started? And why had no one noticed when his eccentricity degenerated into madness? I felt guilty as hell.

April 1st loomed ahead of me, with no solution in sight. After his old cat died, we had gotten him a new one thinking that having the responsibility of a pet would help his mind.  Instead, he left open cans of cat food in every room of the apartment and forgot to change the litter. Already fat, the cat became positively obese.

I hired a wonderful woman named Dora to come in twice a week to clean, wash his clothes and arrange his medications.  They chatted away in Spanish, and she coddled him into taking showers and changing his clothes. Despite her efforts, he now slept fully dressed on top of his bedcovers. .

In March, he was hospitalized again for an infection in his hand that wouldn’t heal. He was forgetting to go for his infusions. Once he was better, the hospital refused to let him leave unless I promised he would have 24-hour care. He would wander away from his room, and the nurses would find him in CVS trying to buy beer. How could I afford 8-hour care, let alone 24-hour car?  So I lied to the social worker, signed a paper and faxed it back, and had Dora take him home.

I arrived a few days later. When I came to pick him up for dinner that first evening, he had disappeared. It was a cold wet spring day. I drove around and around looking for him.  I saw a homeless old man trudging through the slush with a black beanie on his head and big rubber boots on his feet. He was carrying two CVS bags, his eyes focused on the ground. He put the bags down and picked something up. I slowed and stared. It was my brother…

I had to hide my tears as I helped him into the car. He insisted on putting the bags in the trunk. As if I didn’t know they were filled with candy and beer! He had a daily limit on his ATM card, and every day he would walk to the bank to get his “lousy twenty bucks!” He was constantly losing the ATM card, or getting conned out of his money or getting kicked out of stores for stealing, a fact he thought he kept hidden from me.

Seeing my lonely brother bent over in the semi-gloom picking garbage off the sidewalk finally broke me. I gave up hope that I would find an affordable memory care home in Westchester County, which he loved so much. I gave up hope that I would ever be able to rent a place and pay for daily help, let alone have Medicaid help pay for it. I gave up hope that I could do anything more for him than pay his bills. He needed to be in a place where he was safe and cared for.

And so I lied again and bribed my brother with a vacation to France. Then I abandoned him to strangers.

He tells me how he has to clean the dining room after every meal – the people at this hotel eat so messily. How he saves the crumbs to feed his big birds.

“You mean chickens?”

“Yes, yes, chickens. “

He says he misses music and dancing.

“But I bought you a radio and your daughter bought you a CD player just before she left. She said she taught you to use it. “

“Really? I never saw them. I’ll have to look. I’d sure like to hear some Lady Gaga…”

Everyone says that I did the right thing, that I did what I had to do, that he’s healthy now and better off. But I would give anything to have him back!  Just to see him smile. Just to hear him tell the same stories over and over again and laugh out loud. Just to let him feel that someone he knows cares about him.

He may have lost his mind, but to me he is still the brother who wrote to me when I was far away in college, the brother who took my son and my daughter out to dinner every week when they lived in New York City, the brother who sent me a beautiful set of serrated knives with wooden handles for my birthday. The brother I love.

Who Decides When It’s Time to Die?

 

Lily was 17, a lovely black-and-white American pit bull, wiser and gentler than any dog I have ever known. My son had owned Lily since he was a teenager, but as his drug problem had escalated, his sense of responsibility had evaporated.  He had been smart enough, however, to realize that Lily needed better care than he could give, and he had let his girlfriend take her. Now clean after ten long years, he was driving to his ex’s house to tell Lily he loved her before the vet sent her off to eternal sleep.

Kept in prime shape with a raw food diet and regular exercise, Lily had outlasted her breed’s average life span. Although it seemed she would live forever, despite her arthritis and her hearing loss, despite her cloudy eyes and her mottled fur, she finally succumbed to a kidney infection. Incontinent and unresponsive, she lay on the bed with her eyes closed and her tail limp. It was finally time to say good-bye.

When he arrived, my son cradled Lily’s head in his arms.  She opened her eyes and licked his hand. Her tail came up and thumped lightly against his leg. He picked her up like a baby and pressed his nose to hers. She licked him again.

The scent and touch of her first owner seemed to bring Lily back to life.  My son placed her gently on the floor, and she took a few wobbly steps. The vet was called and cancelled.

Lily was no longer ready to die. Today, she is still getting by, slowly, sometimes painfully, but clinging to life, wagging her tail and enjoying every caress that comes her way. Lily will die sometime soon, of course, but not yet, not quite yet. She still has love to give and people who love her, no matter how frail and old she is.

Ten years ago, the doctors told me my mother was going to die. When I got to the intensive care unit, they had stuck a tube down her throat and tied her tiny hands to the bed. Weak and shrunken to barely 80 pounds, she had still summoned the strength to try to break free from the tubes and lines that bound her. When she saw me, her sea-green eyes filled with tears and her face crumpled into a look of frantic pain, as if she were begging me to release her from torture.

The nurse gave her more morphine.

A team of social workers and nurses escorted my brother and me to a windowless conference room. “Your mother cannot survive,” they told us. “Her lungs and heart are shutting down.” They asked if we wanted them to keep her alive no matter what or refrain from resuscitating her should she start to fail.

We went out to the hall, a depressing dull beige hospital hallway, and wept.

Long ago, my mother had asked me to help her die when she could no longer take care of herself. I had promised, but I later realized that I could never actually “pull the plug.” Now she had been ill for at least three years due to a pulmonary embolism, leashed to an oxygen tank, in and out of hospitals — where, being French and a picky gourmet, she refused to touch their nasty food or sip their cloying Ensure or even drink their water, which she had always hated. To please her, we would smuggle in red wine, oysters and strawberries. No, my mother would not have wanted to be revived, would not have wanted to be a burden, would not have wanted to have us suffer because of her.

So my brother and I signed the “do not resuscitate” order. They removed all her tubes, unhooked the clicking and buzzing monitors, and wheeled her out of Intensive Care. They put her in a little room with a big red dot above the door, a dot that meant “let this patient die.”

But she didn’t die. She woke up, saw us standing by her bed and smiled a big happy smile. She reached for our hands. We kissed her and smoothed back her blonde hair. She called us by name. My mother wasn’t ready to die!

We went out into that hall again and wept under the big red dot.

Every day that I went through that door, the red dot seemed to glare at me. Meanwhile, my mother continued to improve. The nurses and doctors called her “our miracle girl.”

One day, as I was painting my mother’s toenails a brilliant blue and laughing at how silly they looked poking out from the sheets, a nurse walked in. My mother looked up at her with a smile and said, “You see, I’m so much better now that my daughter came.” She gripped my hand and looked up at me with the sweetest look of love and gratitude.

She was giving me credit for her recovery when in truth I had signed her death warrant.

My mother lived another two years, slipping slowly away yet always eager to see her loved ones. She said knowing what her children and grandchildren were doing kept her wanting to live. At the end, we moved her to a hospice, where she received the most loving care.

The last day I saw my mother alive, she told me I was beautiful even though she could hardly speak.  But soon her breathing grew ragged and her translucent green eyes were fixed on a faraway place, a place I couldn’t see. I held her hand and I kissed her and I whispered how much we loved her and what a great mother she had been.  When she was finally ready to die, she did.

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Natalie Breuer

Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.

mfourlbyhfourepoetry

p 1 o 2 e 3 m = Four By 4 By Four

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