Happy Mother’s Day.
My mother died the day before Mother’s Day sixteen years ago. Each year at this time my memories of Mom revolve around both her life and death. Her last few years weren’t what I would have predicted.
When Ernie and I moved from the Midwest to Maryland in 1993, Mom came with us. I had found an assisted living apartment for her. She was 85 at the time—independent, and mentally sharp.
My father had died over twenty years ago. Since that time her only friends were other women. A couple of months after the move, she had to have new glasses. Then she wanted to replace her old hearing aid with not one but two. Clearly, she wanted to see and hear what was going on around her. Over the phone, she told me, “I am having so much fun,” and mentioned a boy friend. As a gerontological nurse practitioner, I knew that a move to an unfamiliar place could make an old person confused. I dismissed the boy friend as wishful thinking.
Shortly after that phone call, I pulled up in front of Mom’s apartment building on a lovely spring afternoon to take her on a shopping trip. She came to the car and shouted to me through the open window on the passenger side, “Come on out, I want you to meet someone.” After shutting off the engine, I got out of the car and followed her to the bench by the front door. Two men sat side-by-side: one was obese with red blotches over his face and the other, a tall thin man, wore a baseball cap and cowboy boots, with a red-tipped white cane resting between his knees.
Mom nudged me in front of the two men. “Lee, I want you to meet my daughter.”
The man wearing a baseball cap stood up, ramrod straight. His eyes were hidden behind dark glasses. Red suspenders stretched across a pot belly covered with a blue flannel shirt. His right hand shot out in front of him.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said in a strong, even voice, shaking my hand. He smiled showing a scattering of rotten teeth. I felt as if I were meeting my teenage daughter’s beau who so wanted to impress.
Lee was twelve years Mom’s junior. At first they talked of marriage but Mom said no because he was a Jehovah’s Witness and she a Catholic. In her mind that was deal breaker. Then they were going to move into one apartment. But they were never able to decide which one would give up his/her apartment. For the next seven years, they saw each other daily. They took walks together—Mom leaned on Lee while she guided his steps; they sat together at the same table for communal dinner, and they took naps together. Mom never told me outright but I surmised this when she revealed she had lost her favorite earring in his bed. I never asked what else transpired between them.
However, their relationship was not without problems. Mom didn’t trust him. She suspected that he was cavorting with other women.
While Lee was a younger man, he was an unlikely gigolo. Besides diabetes and blindness, he had had two heart attacks, a triple bypass, and a Foley catheter that migrated from his bladder out of his penis and down his pants leg and ended up in a collection bag not so neatly tucked into his left boot. Most times he reeked of stale urine and dirty clothes. Mom, who had had a life-long addiction to cleanliness, never complained of his hygiene. But by God, don’t let him prove unfaithful.
Mom’s suspicious and judgmental nature never seemed to take a toll on their relationship. Lee would laugh and say, “There she goes again” when she would accuse him of flirting with another woman. At the same time, Mom would insist we include Lee on family celebrations and occasional luncheons where Lee would eat with his hands and Mom would inevitably spill her water, or wine, and I would leave a big tip as we left the table and floor in a shambles.
When Ernie accepted a job offer in North Carolina, Lee encouraged Mom to go with us. She had become more frail and had frequent falls. After being hospitalized with a bout of pneumonia, she was admitted for a short-stay in a nursing home not far from her apartment. A kind health care worker would walk Lee to visit. I was glad I wasn’t present to witness their final good-bye.
Mom lived just lived nine months after the move.
I went to visit Lee shortly after Mom’s death to give him her radio/cassette player and large button telephone. On the drive up to Maryland, I had romanticized the visit—he expressing his deep love for my mother, sharing the moments they laughed together and telling me how much he missed her.
During the visit, Lee sat in his recliner in a cluttered apartment never uttering the nice words about my mother I longed to hear. And he didn’t remember the times I took them to the Red Lobster and the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. After I programmed his daughter’s number into the phone and we ran out of polite topics to talk about, I left.
On the long ride down route 85 South toward North Carolina and home, I wondered if Lee didn’t talk about Mom with me since I was the one who took her away—although he encouraged her to leave, or he was losing his memory? Or both?
Nevertheless, I couldn’t be too disappointed since he gave Mom a reason for living and certainly kept her blood flowing if only from the aggravation of thinking her blind prince charming had a roving eye. And I will always remember the time she said she was having “so much fun.”