Her days were numbered then, but you’d never know it from the picture. Two months earlier, in January 2005, Mom’s doctors had discovered a spot on her lung. Because she was eighty-one and weakened from her battle with emphysema, the doctors felt a biopsy would be too risky. They told Dad and my sister Barbara that Mom could expect to live another year or so. Barb shared the news with her brothers and suggested we might want to take our vacations in San Antonio that year.
I headed for Texas at Easter. It was both disheartening and inspiring to watch Mom go through her morning routine. It was a lengthy process. She got up at seven, had breakfast, inhaled several potions to make breathing easier, washed, put on her face, and got dressed. If she worked steadily, which she always did, she was ready to go out by eleven-thirty or noon. Everything was a struggle. She wasn’t always able to keep the frustration below the surface, but she never let it get in her way. She kept plodding, slowed but not stopped by her condition.
On Good Friday, a woman from hospice visited Mom. She explained the hospice program and completed the necessary forms to get Mom on the roster. There were advantages to hospice. For one thing, the drugs she needed for the condition that was expected to do her in would be free. But Mom wondered. She would be on the hospice rolls for six months; what if her subscription expired before she did? If her condition didn’t improve, the woman said, her doctor would inform hospice that her demise from respiratory problems was still thought to be imminent, and she would be eligible for hospice services for another six months. It was an eerie conversation.
Dad held up well through it all. How much of that was due to his inner strength and lifelong “keep on keeping on” attitude, and how much was due to encroaching dementia is hard to say. But he still loved to walk, and he still loved donuts. And the bakery he preferred was a mile and a half up the road.
“Tom, let’s walk up to the bakery,” he said one morning. I couldn’t say no, and I couldn’t help but worry. By that spring, I didn’t have to walk very far before my legs began to tingle, grow numb and get heavy. For several years, these had been niggling, once-in-a-great-while problems that if they occurred at all came on after a good deal of exertion. But now they were getting more frequent and harder to ignore, although I managed to for several more months. Still, I didn’t want to give Mom and Dad anything more to worry about. Dad’s pace had slowed, however, and I was able to keep up with him. If he noticed my gait getting funkier and funkier as we walked, he didn’t mention it.
Easter dinner was at Barb and Rob’s. By then we had done our catching-up and discussed all the important matters. San Antonio is a long way from suburban Pittsburgh, where I grew up, but I was home that afternoon. We joked and remembered, lobbed cushioned barbs at each other and enjoyed being ourselves and being together. I was sitting across from Mom at the kitchen table when Barb said, “Mom, smile.” She did, a great, gleaming, happy smile, and Barb snapped the picture. The smile is so big you hardly notice the oxygen tube that runs to her nose, and the twinkle in her eye is enhanced by the reflection of the flash on her glasses. On the table, the San Antonio Express-News is opened to the crossword puzzle and off to the side there is a glass of wine.
One Sunday evening about a month later, Mom had to fight for every breath, and hospice was notified. That Tuesday, Barb called with the news that she had died.
The picture of the smiling woman doing the crossword puzzle and having a glass of wine is on the wall in the bedroom. It’s the way I remember Mom. It’s the way she would want to be remembered.