The Mother I Wanted

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Photo via Unsplash.
Photo via Unsplash.

"There are no good options here," the surgeon said, confirming what I had just figured out, the realization snaking its way into my mind and body. Standing on Harvard Street in Brookline on a blustery day in early January, ten minutes out of therapy where I told my therapist that my mother, getting hospice services in her assisted living apartment, was rushed to the ER the night before due to heavy internal bleeding.

The surgeon confirmed what the hospitalist, the generalist who spoke with me a few minutes earlier, had said: my mother had a perforation, a hole in her colon. Until the hole was closed, she couldn't eat or drink, and couldn't process food. There was no way my Mom, who had been through so much in her 95 years, could survive a major operation and the recovery that would go along with it.

My mother's care manager, Rita, a social worker with a heart of gold, had been my Mom's advocate for 15 years. Now, she filled me in, confirming the doctor's prognosis over the constant beeps of the heart monitor, the static of my cell connection, the buzzing of my own mind as I tried to absorb the reality that my mother—a constant presence for all of my 66 years—had weeks, or possibly just days—to live.

Two months earlier, when my mother suddenly lost 10 pounds and slipped under 80, I went back to Cleveland, and with her consent, signed her up for hospice. With the care and attention the hospice staff provided, along with her private aides, Mom rallied a bit over Christmas and New Year's, her appetite picked up, she might have gained a few pounds. (We stopped weighing her, and I finally let go of my focus on her weight, which I'd fixated on for years, during those last few weeks.)

In her late 80s and 90s, my mother was, as her primary care doctor told me several years earlier, "dwindling:" losing weight, energy, and mental focus. Gone was the energetic, compulsive, talkative woman who raised me, and who maintained both her energy and her ability to worry into her early 80s.

Over the past fifteen years, the script had flipped—in some ways I had a new mother—kinder, gentler, but more passive, dependent on the kindness of friends and family. Still, Mom always knew me when I called, knew herself, and knew where she was, even if she couldn't keep track of her aides' names. (At times, neither could I, as over the last few years she required 24/7 care, which led to a virtual smorgasbord of helpers, some regular and some fill-ins, along with a few who didn't quite work out).

But there were silver linings that went along with my mother's memory loss, which morphed from "mild cognitive impairment," to something called vascular dementia. Those silver linings meant that she no longer worried about what might happen, and couldn't pine over past losses: the death of my father, her first husband at 61, a few weeks after her 60th birthday, and the tragic death of her youngest son, my brother Russell, from liver cancer in his 50s, which occurred when Mom was 90, just as her short-term memory went south.

The mother who raised me was a classic redhead: prone to anger, mood swings, loving, fiery, and unpredictable. An anxious woman who grew up in a chaotic home, my mother craved order, routine, and cleanliness. But after her second husband died and she moved into an assisted living facility near her home outside of Cleveland, once the yoke of responsibility finally lifted, my mother thrived, mild cognitive impairment and all.

The mother I knew, and the one I got to know in her 80s and 90s had some things in common: resilience and an iron will to get through challenging times; a small stature and lack of appetite—food was a means to an end, not a source of pleasure; loyalty and love for her family and friends. What emerged, when my mother no longer had to worry, when she let go of her need to control life, was a grace and warmth, a deep fundamental kindness I'd only seen in passing in my youth.

Mom was grateful, almost effusive when I called, daily, to make sure she was eating, to ask about her frozen shoulder, her oxygen level, her physical therapy. "I'm fine," she'd say, despite the aches, pains, and the hand tremors that made eating a labored, exhausting task.

"How're you?" My visits to Cleveland seemed to both buoy and exhaust her; she was determined to put on a good front, to go on our outings to a movie, for ice cream, for a drive around town.

The mother I had in my 50s and 60s, was in some ways, the one I always wanted. Or maybe, in those later years, I saw who she always was, without the static of her anxiety and my resentment.

By the time I got to Cleveland, my mother had moved from hospital to hospice house, was heavily medicated, and could no longer speak. Still, when I approached her, touched her shoulder and said, "I'm here," she opened her eyes, briefly.

I spent most of her last day with her, in that room. Her breathing was labored, and hard to watch. She seemed already half gone, looking off into a distance I couldn't see. That evening, when I left her room to get something to eat, she died quietly, sparing me the moment of her passing, a final kindness.

Today, two months later, I'm left with memories, gratitude for these years we had together, and a void, a chasm that will remain unfilled.

Judah Leblang is a writer, teacher, and storyteller in Boston. He will be performing his new one-man show, "The Expiration Date" at the Beacon Hill Friends House, 6 Chestnut Street in Boston on Sunday April 7 at 4 PM—on site, and online. For tickets and more info go to