(Originally posted June 1, 2012.) My mom was born this day in 1931 and died June 2, 2012. The last two weeks of her life were spent in a Stamford, CT hospital bed in the ICU on a ventilator. I sat with her every day and, when she finally had to decide whether or not she wanted to continue living that way for the rest of her life, I sat by her side in that ICU and started writing. I didn't want to wait and write her obituary. I wanted to celebrate her while she was still with us.
I read it to her the morning before the family assembled to say good-bye to her before she was removed from the ventilator. She couldn't speak, of course, but she scribbled "thank you" on a scrap of paper and we cried.
My mother has led a remarkable, if an unremarked upon, life.
Lottie Claire Blumenfeld was born in Cleveland, Ohio on March 11, 1931. She was still a baby when her family moved to New York, where her father Harry was from, and when she was three years old, she became big sister to my Aunt Maura. But by the time Maura was born, Harry was ill with tuberculosis–he was never to even hold his youngest daughter; the only time he ever saw her was through an observation window in the hospital. Shortly thereafter, Harry was shipped out to a TB sanitarium in Colorado, where he died in 1936.
It was the depth of the Great Depression and my grandmother Rose, widowed with two small children and alone in New York, was unable to support her family. She was forced to put her little girls in a Brooklyn orphanage where they lived for three years until Rose could get her life back on track and bring them home.
I don’t think my mom ever got over the experience of being “abandoned” at such an early age, even if her mother did visit her every week, without fail. I believe it formed the basis of her personality: quiet, shy, and somewhat reluctant to ask for help. She is the personification of the stereotypical Jewish mother, the one who would rather sit in the dark than bother her children to change a light bulb.
My mother grew up in the Bronx, attended Thomas Jefferson High School–where she was involved in the drama department, working behind the scenes in various capacities, from assisting the drama teacher to prompting the cast–and graduated with a commercial diploma. After school, she went to work in various clerical positions, and met my father, Sidney, in early 1951 at a meeting of the camera club he belonged to. Sidney was a talented amateur photographer, almost ten years the shy nineteen year olds senior. It may not have been love at first sight, but it came about soon enough. To the delight of both families, Lottie and Sidney were married on June 24, 1951. They took an apartment in 261 Buffalo Avenue, a pre-war apartment building in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. In the adjacent building lived both my grandmothers (and my mother’s younger brother, David, from Rose’s second marriage), my great-grandmother, and my father’s sister, my Aunt Phyllis (on whose birthday I was born) and her husband Milton (Mitzi) Markowitz. Like her brother, Phyllis had three sons. Mom’s sister Maura, who returned to Cleveland after marrying Ernie Lieberman, also produced three boys. It wasn’t until she became a grandmother that Lottie would get the girl she wanted, my nieces Saralynn and Ruth. Within spitting distance of 261 lived something like a dozen other family members. This was back in the day when the nuclear family was a little less exploded and scattered.
Alan came along in May, 1953. I followed in June, 1955, and Lewis rounded out our unholy trio in February, 1958.
We never had a lot, but Sidney was a hard worker and always provided for his family, even if it meant moving us to tiny Grafton, West Virginia in 1961 to follow an employment opportunity. Mom hated West Virginia. Never having learned to drive, she was trapped in a tiny apartment with three small children and a herd of cows outside our back windows. This Appalachian adventure lasted only a year before we found ourselves back in Brooklyn, this time in Canarsie and eventually East Flatbush.
Lottie began working outside the home around 1967. A temp job in the accounting department of Universal Terminal and Stevedoring at One Broadway in Manhattan lead to a career of almost thirty years with the company (later acquired by the Danish shipping company, Maersk Line). Mom was ahead of the curve of working mothers. While the family needed her income, we joked that she took the job to get away from her three sons, a collective handful of adolescent testosterone that I would not have wanted to try and corral and control.
Eventually, we grew up, moved away, and mom and dad were left to relax some. They moved into a small one bedroom apartment in Canarsie (another joke: one bedroom so none of the kids could possibly ever move back in with them), dad retired, they saw first me than younger brother Lewis marry, and all three of us settle into our own lives as adults.
When my father died in 1993, I worried about how Lottie would survive without him after nearly forty-two years of marriage.
That was the first time she showed us her amazing strength and resilience. Her grief was there and strong, but she continued, sailing on with life without missing a beat. She stayed in Canarsie for five years, commuting from the tail end of Brooklyn out to Newark, New Jersey, where her office had relocated several years earlier. She retired about sixteen years ago, and a couple of years later, when the house in which she rented her apartment was being sold, we found her a place near us in Stamford, Connecticut.
Mom remained an independent soul. Her apartment was located across the street from a strip mall that had a supermarket, a drugstore, a few small restaurants, and within a block or so was a beauty salon, a movie theater, and just about everything she needed. Not knowing how to drive, it was the perfect set-up for her. On the occasions when she needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment or to do some shopping beyond the immediate confines of her neighborhood, I lived minutes away; she always prefaced her infrequent requests with, “If it’s not a bother.” Of course, it never was.
When my son was little and my wife needed to work (she was involved in a family business), mom became our daycare center. In her late seventies, she took charge of three year old Max. I think she enjoyed every minute of it.
As the years passed, arthritis bent her back and twisted her left foot, making it somewhat difficult to walk. She started to use a cane, but come rain or come shine, she still made it to the beauty parlor every Friday for her hair appointment. The supermarket across the street from her apartment closed, so I would drive her to the more distant Stop & Shop every couple or three weeks. “I hate to bother you,” she would say on the phone, “but I’m running low.” Even after my divorce, the sale of the house in Stamford, and my move to Fairfield (about twenty minutes east of Stamford), my answer was always the same. “It’s never a problem, mom. Whatever you need.” She asked for so little, it truly never was a problem.
About fifty years ago, she was hospitalized to have her gall bladder removed. In recent years, she encountered some (relatively) minor health issues–the aforementioned arthritis, a case of the shingles, and cataract surgery–but her health was overall pretty good. Most recently, she has had to deal with treatment for macular degeneration, an eye condition that necessitated receiving injections directly in the eye. At eighty years old, she walked willingly into the specialist’s office and submitted to that without complaint. I winced and squirmed just hearing about it.
She never, in fact, complains about anything, not even when she should.
About a month ago, she began experiencing some pain in her side. In spite of the fact that we speak at least two or three times a week, she did not complain to me about it. She only brought it up after two weeks when she became too weak from dehydration to walk and her sister, worried and 800 miles away, badgered her into, finally, calling me.
The medical details are, in the end, irrelevant. Suffice to say, mom has been on a ventilator in the ICU for almost two weeks. Attempts to wean her off it have proved futile and the medical team agrees she is unlikely to ever breath again without assistance. Fully cognizant of her condition and situation, we put the choice to her. She did not blink, did not shed a tear. She scribbled a note to the doctor and me: “Live or die.”
Mom is in a horrible situation. Live, bedridden and hooked to a machine that does her breathing for her and another to feed her through a tube, forever robbed of her freedom and independence. Or disconnect the machines and die.
Mom has chosen to live the time remaining to her without, as usual, help.
Her strength and courage under these circumstances has left me speechless and awed. We don’t usually think of our parents in such terms. Familial familiarity breeds, in most cases, complacency. They are just there, mom and dad. We don’t see what goes into their lives, what it took for them to raise us, to see us through to places where we can at last care for ourselves and, ultimately, if we’re lucky, to care for them in turn. As hard and heartbreaking as these last two weeks have been, I would not give up an instant of the hours I’ve sat with her in this room, nor the moments that I’ve been given to tell her how much I appreciate, love, and respect her for all she’s done for me in my fifty-seven years as her child and how much I admire how she’s facing what’s to come.
My mom is an amazing woman. I needed to share a just a bit of her story, but not in an obituary, written in the past tense. But this way, in the present tense, as a tribute to someone who is still among us.
And who will stay with me, always.