When my mother went into the hospital on April 3 with a rapid heartbeat, we had no idea how much longer she had to live. Doctors in the emergency room at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn discovered she had pneumonia, an infected bed sore, and a possible urinary tract infection. She was 98 years old and also had dementia.
In the evening, she was moved to a private room on one of the hospital’s newer floors. As far as hospital accommodations go, it wasn’t half-bad: beige walls, comfortable chairs, a very nice bathroom, built-in closet, and small, flat-screen TV monitor that could be stored unobtrusively against the wall. The room itself was located at the end of a long hallway and afforded patients privacy from passing strangers. Its major drawback was the window, which faced another wall of the hospital about 15 feet away, and was positioned so that my mother had no view at all.
One night, I was seized with the impulse to surround her with images of this beautiful world she had lived in for almost a century. (Short of banging nails into the walls, there wasn’t any place for family photos.) I also wanted to fill the room with creative, life-affirming energy to counter the potentially fatal crisis she was facing.
Across the street from the hospital was a Barnes and Noble bookstore where I found several art magazines filled with reproductions of contemporary work. I cut the images out by my mother’s bedside, grouping them by general subject matter (e.g., flowers and food, portraits, urban views, farming, mountains and meadows, etc., etc.), and showed her some I thought were the most evocative.
Me: Here’s a man in a car facing one way, and next to him, a woman in her car going in the opposite direction. Do you think they’re kissing hello or kissing goodbye?
Lillian: I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine.
Given the absence of adequate work space and proper tools, putting the pictures up on the walls was a project-and-a-half. I worked on a sheet spread on the floor, and R~, a devoted aide who came to assist in the hospital after an absence of several years, used the overbed patient table usually reserved for meals.
When we were finished, I was curious to see whether the number of images came anywhere close to my mother’s age. There were 95 so I added an extra three.
I hadn’t spent much time with R~ previously because weekends when I visited my mother were usually her time off. But during the hours we spent at the hospital, and later, at the hospice, I grew very fond of her. She was warm and giving and had a compelling personal story. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the love she had for my mother and her dedication to Mom’s comfort and health. She also got what ElderSparks is about, and was excited about creating a picture montage for her own apartment. It was she who predicted — once the pictures were up — that doctors, nurses, and other hospital personnel would be flocking to my mother’s room to see what we had done. And she was right.
Originally, I was inspired to do something for my mother but it was also gratifying to see how others responded. It seemed to lift them out of their professional routine and feed a latent sense of wonder. If that resulted in above-average care for my mother, and made them eager to visit again, so much the better. It definitely became the catalyst for more intimate conversations — with everyone from cleaners to a department head.
Their initial impression was that these were either images I had created myself, or ones that had a direct connection to my mother. Of course that wasn’t the case but as I glanced around the room, the pictures jogged my memory — of places we had vacationed as a family, of events in our lives, of people we had known. It was like uncovering clues to buried treasure.
My mother had to wear an oxygen mask for much of her stay. When she became agitated, mitten restraints were put on her hands to prevent her from pulling the mask off or tugging at the IV line delivering antibiotics. Then she’d struggle to remove the gloves. Getting her to stop was a contest she often won.
I did however really like the mittens. They reminded me of puffy white boxing gloves — ideal for hand puppets. I couldn’t resist drawing a caricature of my sister on one and of myself on the other, and would sometimes carry on a conversation with my mother while I was wearing them.
Me, extending my hand: How do you do Mrs. Goldsmith?
Lillian: Who the heck is she?
Me: Why she’s lying here right now.
Lillian: I was only kidding.
When they weren’t in use, I liked to keep one on each side of her pillow as a sign that she wasn’t alone, and that her son and daughter would always be there for her.
To distract her from fidgeting, I bought some toys I thought would do the trick: a plastic slinky, flexible pink tubing, a flashing tentacle molecule ball, and a wooden tensegrity gizmo for toddlers.
One night, I fashioned the tubing into the shape of a heart that I hung from the ceiling at the foot of her bed so she could see it. It was similar to the medical tubing that brought oxygen to her lungs. A completely spontaneous and simple creation, it represented for me the heart essence of what was happening in the room: my mother’s fight for survival and the care and love being showered upon her.
I had also brought the keyboard and bubble wand from her apartment. I thought the bubbles would be entertaining at best but soon discovered they had actual therapeutic value too. Several times a week, a physical therapist arrived to help my mother exercise her limbs. She would have my mother grab a cone with one hand and pass it back and forth among those who had gathered by her bed. In her absence, we accomplished something similar by having my mother reach out to catch the bubbles floating toward her.
A granddaughter and great-granddaughter visit
At good moments, my mother continued to respond to “Jingle Bells” and other songs by nodding her head and clapping along. She sang “Happy Birthday” to my sister, and loved watching R~ and me dance to the keyboard’s programmed songs she had enjoyed at her residence. I would never have imagined that its jazz tempo would provide the perfect accompaniment as I improvised strings of notes for a 98-year-old Jewish woman in the hospital. Yet it became an almost daily meditation for me, and one of my offerings to her. A nurse said that she found the music soothing.
Aware of my musical limitations, I asked anyone who entered the room if they played the piano. Two young volunteers, Ossy and Sonja, each accepted an invitation to play for my mother. It was great to hear someone perform who actually knew what they were doing.
A week-and-a-half into my mother’s stay, the words from a 1960’s song by the Incredible String Band popped into my head. From then on, I sang it several times a day either to my mother, or to myself as I traveled back and forth from her bedside, as my wish for her. The words are slightly altered from the original:
May the long-time sun shine upon you.
All love surround you.
And the pure light within you
Guide your way home.
Mask-making and funny-face games — activities that proved so rewarding over the last two years — continued to evoke sweet smiles, laughs, or a hearty “Oh boy!” Mom would mimic me as best she could when I squished my face, stretched my lips, or stuck my tongue out. Once, I pretended to examine her by touching her forehead, eyes, nose, ears, and lips with one of those curled-up paper party favors that unroll when air is blown through the opposite end. She responded by kissing its tip when it came near. I made a pizza pie from a paper plate which then turned into a hat. No doubt it was inspired by the pureed food the doctors prescribed for her. It looked so unappealing, I never dared to sample any dishes.
As we waited for a bed to open up at the hospice, I couldn’t resist making additional decor improvements. Back at my mother’s apartment I had created a sun out of an aluminum pie plate and pipe cleaners that became a centerpiece for the wall.
Now I did another version from a paper plate and towels. It started out as a re-do of a previous mask, and morphed into what I like to think was a guardian spirit by the time I finished.
Other additions: taping gold-metallic balloons to the walls, giving the latex glove dispenser a comic face, and turning two of the gloves into friendly sprites keeping watchful eyes on my mother from above.
(Note: One of my primary concerns was to avoid doing anything that would interfere with patient treatment, damage or mar the physical environment, or be difficult to remove. Every night before leaving, I took down the balloons, so paranoid was I that one might burst and end up lodged in my mother’s throat while no one was around. Although I sometimes wondered if I was pushing the envelope too far, no objections were ever raised by staff. In fact, quite the opposite was true as recounted above. Dr. S~, Methodist’s chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine, thought so highly of Room 507’s transformation that she asked the editor of the hospital newsletter to do a story on it.)