This has been a year of real loss and foreseeable loss in our family. The real loss is my mother-in-law, Lloyd Bailey Gill, who died in October. She had been recovering from a mild case of pneumonia and was doing really well, scheduled to go back to her own apartment in senior housing after a stay in the nursing unit. She celebrated her 94th birthday on Friday, Sept. 29, walking into the building’s dining room for lunch with her friends. The following Monday morning, she was unresponsive when the staff tried to wake her.
In the hospital, she regained consciousness, but her left side was paralyzed, she couldn’t form words clearly, and she couldn’t swallow. She was terribly, visibly frustrated. And she had signed a Do Not Resuscitate order, which precluded hospital personnel from inserting a feeding tube. Four days after her return to the hospital, after her doctors determined that she wasn’t going to get better, she was taken back to her apartment on hospice status. She was set up in a hospital bed in her sitting room, facing out toward Norfolk Harbor, and was happy to be back in her own place. She died less than 48 hours later.
Lloyd’s death was a shock, although she was 94; she had been independent and healthy for so long that we were certain she was going to round the century mark without breaking a sweat and just keep going. She had outlived most of her contemporaries, and my husband, Spencer, and I were pretty sure she was going to outlive us. The Jewish birthday blessing, “To a hundred and twenty” didn’t seem that farfetched. It seems strange to say it, but I still can’t believe she’s gone so soon.
Lloyd was a devout Presbyterian, but she left instructions to be buried in the family plot immediately, and her funeral was the day after she passed away. Spencer was helped first by the mourning rituals of those first few days: the three shiva minyans we held at our house and the well-attended memorial service and reception at Lloyd’s church. Then he was distracted by logistics: the lawyer and the will, paying her last bills, clearing out her apartment, dealing with his difficult, dithering older sister. (Big sigh of relief when she went home to Massachusetts.) Because we were the only relatives who lived close to her, we brought home everything from furniture to laundry detergent and paper towels, not to mention a 1952 brass trivet commemorating the Confederacy.
Spencer says he feels his mother’s death in occasional pangs: someone will say something, and he’ll hear a response in his mother’s voice in his head, or he’ll turn on the lamp from her desk that replaced the smaller lamp that was on his desk. A big pang at Thanksgiving, when she wasn’t with us on the annual trek to Richmond to have dinner with Spencer’s cousins; we drank to the memory of their “Aunt Sistuh.” Another pang this morning, when normally we would have been opening gifts in her apartment with her and Spencer’s sister, who always flew down at Christmastime. There’ll be a big one in the fall, when Spencer used to watch the U.S. Open with Lloyd, an avid tennis fan.
I hope we don’t also lose Lloyd’s surviving friends at the apartment tower in Norfolk, who are warm and fun to be with. We should probably collect their phone numbers and make a practice of visiting on Saturday afternoons after shul. But of course we will lose them sooner than later, as they are 90-plus or close to it.
Meanwhile, I’m blessed that both my parents are still around and very much compos mentis, but Lloyd’s passing has thrown their mortality into sharp focus. My mother, Lois, has been on kidney dialysis since May, and although she and my dad utterly reject the prediction of two years’ further life expectancy that one of her doctors has made, dialysis is usually seen as the beginning of the end. She’s holding up pretty well so far and can probably withstand the tedium and tiredness for quite a while, but I’m dreading the day she decides she’s had enough.
And when we lose her, we’re likely to lose my dad as well. Either he’ll go soon after she does, or our relationship will devolve to a once-a-week, 30-second phone call, with maybe a once-a-year visit, by his choice. Mort grew up with an unloving father and a passive mother, and in adulthood he had enough real love for only person; boruch haShem, that person has been Lois, for 64 years. He held my sisters and me at arm’s length when we were kids and does so even more now, but all our lives we’ve had the role model of a father who treats our mother like a queen, now with the attention and tenderness of a devoted caretaker. We learned not to settle for less, and we’re all married to men who treat us well. I just hope Mort will let us in a little when he needs help.
Does it help or intensify the hurt that we have lost/will lose our parents without really knowing them? One of the sharpest differences between the baby boomers and our parents’ generation is that their culture taught them to keep problems and emotions to themselves, while we were encouraged to let it all hang out. What stories will go untold, what secrets unshared? Does Spencer regret not pressing his dad for details of his war experiences or his mother for stories of her college days? In the months to come, as I fly out to my folks more and more frequently, will I try to know them more before I have to stop asking questions permanently?
More to the point, what will I do when I can no longer talk to my mother on the phone every night? Clearly, I need to take my own advice.