Even though we were very pleased with the care my mother was getting at Methodist, and grateful when the hospital told us she could stay in her room until space opened up at the hospice, I was eagerly awaiting her transfer. All reports indicated that Calvary was the gold standard of hospice care in New York City, a place where my mother could rest as comfortably as possible during whatever time she had left.
She was admitted to Calvary on April 21 but instead of the private room we had expected, she was placed in a semi-private one reserved for new arrivals. On the other side of the curtain, nearest the door, was a woman in her seventies with stage IV lung cancer. My mother looked younger. Whatever enthusiasm I had for the move completely evaporated: The space was small and cramped, with minimal privacy; voices and the sound of the TV invaded our side; serenading my mother on the keyboard would have intruded on theirs. I couldn’t wait for a private room to become available.
Things reached a nadir one night when the roommate abruptly died. I was dozing in a chair next to the curtain when awakened by the pleading of the woman’s adult daughter — “Don’t die, Mom, don’t die!” — followed by terrible weeping. Within minutes, family members arrived, crowding into the limited space, speaking loudly, and pushing against the curtain that divided the room. I was torn between wanting to respect their privacy and grief vs. protecting my mother from this onslaught of pain and suffering. Plus I felt guilty for not being more accepting, and trapped because I didn’t want to barge in on them if I needed to leave for any reason.
Medical protocol called for the body to be wrapped without delay but one daughter wanted to stay with her mother as long as possible. It was a sentiment I totally understood and related to. On the other hand, I wanted the corpse out of there as quickly as possible. As a child, my mother had to sleep in the same bed in which her sister died. My grandmother, consumed by her own sorrow, left her surviving daughter to fend for herself. It was an experience that scarred my mother for life. Thankfully, she seemed oblivious to everything now going on around her but I wasn’t about to let her spend the night alone in that room with a dead body. Fortunately, it was removed before midnight.
The next morning I told three different administrators about my discomfort. All understood and apologized. Coincidentally, a private room opened up later that day. As far as I know, my calls had nothing to do with it.
The physical environment may be a minor consideration for others but for me, as a visual artist, it is something I’m acutely aware of. My mother’s condition was enough of a downer — I didn’t need her surroundings to make me feel worse. The new room felt like the presidential suite at the Waldorf Astoria compared to the one we left. Located at the end of a hallway, it was undisturbed by passing traffic. A window overlooked a playground across the street that was surrounded by tall trees. Though her view was limited, my mother was bathed by its soft illumination. Also filtering through was the redeeming presence of children and teens at play. Framed art pieces hung on the walls, a potted plant had been left on the windowsill, and a crucifix, which I was initially tempted to remove, gazed down upon her. (I figured she could use all the help she could get, and didn’t want to show any disrespect to our hosts.) The space was blessedly quiet, airy, and restful.
During her last few weeks of life, as my mother spent more and more hours asleep, we gradually entered the vigil phase. Her decline had started years ago so I had lots of time to prepare for the inevitable and come to peace with it. Throughout April and May, I spent 7–10 hours at her bedside daily with only a few days off in between. About half of each shift was in the company of R~ or another aide, or my sister, but evenings, it was just my mother and me. I wanted to make the most of those hours — to be present in a way that acknowledged and honored this end stage of life — but I had no rituals, or religious practices and beliefs, to fall back on. Death was a mystery and these were uncharted waters. So I improvised.
I wanted my mother to hear music I couldn’t provide on the keyboard so I brought in a CD player, speakers, and albums I thought were appropriate from home: a compilation of exalted opera arias my wife had made for a dying aunt; Eden by the English soprano Sarah Brightman; a raga and bhajan by Pandit Jasraj, a virtuoso Indian musician and singer; and the transcendental compositions of the 11th-century Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. Other music I thought my mother might enjoy, including Klezmer and Broadway show tunes that she loved, seemed out-of-place once I played a few selections.
“Karitas,” Hildegard of Bingen The Harmony of Heaven, Ellen Oak (1:55)
Lovely as the room was, I eventually felt the need to correct a few deficiencies. One of the walls had a large blank area closest to where my mother faced when she lay on her side; the opposite wall had 3 distinctly unrelated elements: a dry-erase board where the date, shift hours, and names of the on-duty staff were listed; the crucifix; and a clock. With all due respect to Jesus, it wasn’t a wall that encouraged lingering. In fact, it wasn’t until my mother’s last night that I succeeded in pulling it all together.
My first attempt at hospice redecorating was a total failure in several respects. I was inspired to create a spiral of light that would hang from the ceiling in front of the empty wall space. One night, I spent 2-3 hours bending armature wire into the right shape, twisting a strand of Christmas tree lights around it, and struggling to suspend the unwieldy construction from the ceiling while precariously balanced on an armchair. “Pathetic” was too kind a description so down it came. In the process, I saw that simply hanging the lights in vertical, twisting lengths was enough — it gave the entire room a beautiful, intimate glow.
Alas, I don’t think my mother, who was asleep, ever saw it. A nurse came by and said the lights could be a fire hazard and that I needed to get the safety department’s permission to put them up. Although I was 99.9% certain they weren’t a danger, and had, in fact, planned on unplugging them whenever I left the room, I had to admit she was right. Hospice staff had enough on their minds without having to police guests like me who might burn the place down in their misplaced zeal. In the end, I dropped the whole idea: I think I was secretly relieved to have one less thing to worry about.
Instead, I began to fashion a mobile out of the paper plates left over from mask-making at my mother’s apartment. I wasn’t sure what final form it would take, and improvised at every step. It all came together when I stuck a party horn through the middle of each plate. My mother loved the sound they made and thought the sculpture looked pretty. As so often happened, it was only afterwards that I found meaning in what I had done: I imagined the horns as trumpets heralding her upcoming passage to the other side.
“Oh fronden virga,” Hildegard of Bingen The Harmony of Heaven, Ellen Oak (2:11)
Moments of tenderness, hope, and levity alternated with ones that were utterly heart breaking. Sometimes I would brush my mother’s hair, or make sure she had her lipstick on. While massaging her head and feet, I’d rub moisturizing lotion gently into her skin and feel like I was anointing her as part of a sacred rite. Despite her frailty, she never lost her sense of humor. She laughed heartily when I wore a pair of Groucho glasses, and exclaimed “Oh wow!” when I made a popping sound with the inside of my cheek and finger.
The words at the bottom of the panel read: “Mrs. Goldsmith’s very cuckoo clock.” An arrow points to it on the right side of the picture.
The only time I turned the TV on was to catch some snippets of the British royal wedding.
My mother rarely showed any awareness of her condition but once she asked: “Do you think I’m getting better?” Before I could respond, she closed her eyes and went back to sleep. On another occasion while saying goodnight, she took my hand and drew it to her cheek so she could kiss it. She held it there so long I thought I’d have no choice but to stay the night.
“Raga Shuddh Varari,” Inspiration, Pandit Jasraj (4:17)
Much of her day was spent facing the ceiling. Surely, something could be done to make that view more appealing. In my box of craft supplies, I had a bag full of colored drinking straws I had been carrying around for months. Perhaps I could finally put them to use.
By pinching the ends, it was easy to slide them together and begin to build something — kind of like Lego blocks only different. Once I was well along, I invited R~ to work with them too. It was somewhat intimidating for her but she was willing to give it a shot. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she repeated over and over — even as her piece began to assume a distinctive shape. “Don’t worry,” I tried to assure her, “neither do I. But sooner or later, trust that it will all fall into place.”
I ended up doing something that involved overlapping planes at different angles; to her credit, rather than copy me, she went in the opposite direction and worked with a simple oval. It was exciting to see how the same material could yield such different results. We put hers up at the head of my mother’s bed, and hung mine from the ceiling at the opposite end. Only then, as I looked at her creation, did I realize we had installed two dream catchers in the room. I couldn’t have planned it better.
I knew that I was bringing a lot of myself into the picture, but how could I ensure that the space had my mother’s imprint as well? (And was it even wise, in this time of letting go, to keep reminders around of this ever-receding life?) Again, uncharted territory without a compass or GPS for guidance. Her few possessions had mostly been given away by now, and there wasn’t a suitable place to display any memorabilia. We had a few of her scarves and I tied one around each corner of her bed. Later, I found some stylish hats of hers which added another personal touch to the room.
“Chi Il Bel Sogno Di Doretta,” Kiri Te Kanawa (3:20)
The flowers I brought on Mother’s Day. They were artificial because my mother had always been allergic to real ones.
Knowing this would be the last Mother’s Day card I would give her weighed heavily on me. I kept the inscription short and simple, thinking there was nothing more left to say. I now regret that I did not also ask her forgiveness for all the ways I had failed, wronged, or hurt her. [Several weeks later, at a memorial service for Jewish patients who had recently died at Calvary, I was finally able to do so.]
Until this point, much of what I had done in the room had its origins in abstraction. Missing was something more recognizable that could represent the passage from one plane of existence to another. For days I searched for an appropriate symbol and finally settled on a bird — bird as spirit, bird as spirit taking flight. I couldn’t find an origami pattern that I liked so R~ and I cut several two-dimensional figures out of paper. Later, I placed them in various parts of the room, and on the door. One I covered in beads.
A nurse came in and complimented me on the room’s appearance. I confessed to having serious doubts of my own. I had put everything together a piece at a time without any overall plan. Each seemed to work by itself but what of the whole — this crazy hodgepodge of incongruous elements (plastic straws, pipe cleaners, clothing, toys, art, medical equipment, TV, acoustic ceiling, and non-descript furniture)? Maybe it was totally tacky and a violation of everything I was hoping to do for my mother.
I left the room and tried to clear my mind before returning. I wanted to see if I could experience it from a totally fresh perspective. When I went back in, I was surprised at how ethereal it looked: an aged, white-haired woman asleep in a bed surrounded by objects whose connection to her and with each other were hard to explain or comprehend. Something strange, mysterious, and magical was astir — an event beyond understanding. The room felt like a ceremonial space inviting one to enter and bear witness. In my own idiosyncratic, sometimes fumbling and limited way, perhaps I had indeed connected with deeper truth.
“One Quiet Night,” One Quiet Night, Pat Metheny (5:02)
The day after Mother’s Day, I developed a debilitating cough and didn’t return to the hospice for another week. Sunday was uneventful: My mother slept most of the day and ate very little. Monday was more of the same. It was a gray, drizzly day not unlike the weather pictured on the Pat Metheny album, One Quiet Night. Although it was sitting in the room for weeks, I had never played it. I put it on for a change of pace and liked the way it captured the mood outside.
S~ (the other aide) didn’t understand what I was going to do with my mother’s hats. Frankly, neither did I. But after she left around 5:00 p.m., I finally found a place for them.
“O pulcre facies,” Hildegard of Bingen The Harmony of Heaven, Ellen Oak (2:37)
As night fell, I put Hildegard’s The Harmony of Heaven on: Of all the CDs I had brought, it got the most air play. Many staff members told me how much they appreciated it. I busied myself beside my mother’s bed making lengths of circles out of pipe cleaners to hang from the TV. That didn’t work, so I hung them from the bottom of the dry-erase board. Shortly after 8:00 p.m., my mother’s eyelids suddenly started fluttering. She opened her eyes wide and stared straight ahead before closing them. There also appeared to be some regurgitated food in her mouth. The sequence alarmed me enough to call the nurse but by the time she arrived a minute or two later, my mother had reverted to her normal state. The nurse thought it could mean any number of things and didn’t seem worried.
I applied some moisturizing lotion to my mother’s face and feet. Typically, when I touched her lower extremities she’d have a reaction but not this time. Similarly, there was no response when I inquired again about eating. It was unusual for her to go this long without some sign of consciousness so I became even more concerned. I asked the technician who arrived to clean and turn her to see if she noticed any change in my mother’s condition. Stepping outside to give my mother privacy, I began to wonder if she had had a stroke earlier or gone into a coma. At 10:00, I mentioned this to another nurse who notified the on-call doctor. He came immediately and checked my mother’s vital signs. Her blood pressure was so weak it couldn’t be measured. With genuine sadness, he informed me that she had entered the terminal stage and didn’t have long to live.
I sat by the bed holding her hand. When the night-shift nurse came on duty, I told her what was happening. She came close to my mother and said to me: “You know I’m sorry to say this but I think your mother has already died.” I had been right beside her and didn’t even notice her final breath. That’s how peacefully she went into the night. She was one month shy of ninety-nine years.
May the long-time sun shine upon you.
All love surround you.
And the pure light within you
Guide your way home.