The Fatal Borscht.
My mother came into her beauty again in her nineties. We had a big party at a restaurant for her ninetieth birthday. When Mom lifted her glass for a toast, she looked up at the sky, waved her arm and said to my father in Heaven, “I made it, Babe!”
My mother died on January 15, 2011. I always think about her around this time.
Mom and I were the last ones standing in our family. My father died in 2005 at the age of eighty-nine. My sister Nancy died far too young at fifty-nine, in 2009. Mom and I weren’t all that compatible. I would have been better off ending up with Dad, and she would have been better off ending up with Nancy.
As Mom once said to me, totally without irony, “Other people live for their parents’ approval. Why not you?”
It had never occurred to me to live for her, or anyone else’s, approval. She shoulda told me! I failed to absorb many unspoken messages as a child, such as “You must grow up, marry a lawyer (or at least a Certified Public Accountant), and have children.” My parents never explicitly told me that and many other messages, such as “Do not choose a career that involves saying embarrassing things in public.” They assumed I would just absorb these messages because they were so obvious. Their mistake.
Although Mom could never really embraced who I grew up to be, she loved to hug me. She was always very affectionate, and she was a loving, nurturing mom when it really counted, when I was a child.
My mother was diagnosed with congestive heart failure early in 2010. She already had round-the-clock helpers at home, because of her lack of mobility due to arthritis. At least the Doctor said it was arthritis. Everyone knows all old people get arthritis. However, Mom declared: “It’s my body and I would know if it was arthritis and I’m telling you it’s not arthritis!” What could I say to that, other than, “Okay, Mom. So be it.”
Since Dad had died six years earlier, I had been going down to Los Angeles to be with my mother for four days every month. I couldn’t stay longer than that because my personality tended to dissolve after four days around her. She considered me an incompetent loser, and I gradually became one in her presence. My best friend Carolyn came down with me once and actually witnessed this transformation. Carolyn was pretty astonished by it, and it caused her to miss her bus to San Diego, because I suddenly lost my ability to navigate around my computer to find the bus schedule.
Besides my four monthly days, I always came home if there was a crisis. At one point after her diagnosis, Mom had what was called an exacerbation of her heart failure, where she had trouble breathing. She called 911, the ambulance rushed her to the hospital, and I rushed down to L.A. Mom came home after eight days and announced, “I would definitely rather die than go back to the hospital again. All they did was torture me. And besides, would you look at this bill!” My mother had the kind of insurance that told her exactly how much her treatment cost. “A hundred and eighty thousand dollars to keep a 92-year-old woman alive. Can you imagine what else they could have done with that money? It’s outrageous!” Her sense of reason was deeply offended.
I said, “Okay, if you’re not going back to the hospital, I’m going to get you signed up for Hospice.”
Mom was alarmed. “What do I need Hospice for? I’m not dying. Hospice is for dying people.”
Me: “You need Hospice because, the next time you get an exacerbation, I’m not going to sit here and watch you suffocate, without any medical help.”
So I got Mom signed up for Hospice home visits. The Hospice nurse showed Mom’s three helpers how to help her use the oxygen tank and how to administer morphine to her if she was having trouble breathing or in pain. Hospice is all about making the patient comfortable. Traditional Western medical treatment is all about keeping the patient alive as long as possible.
Once, the nurse was trying to draw blood from my mother, who needed to get a weekly blood test for a drug she was taking. The nurse was having trouble finding a vein. After three tries, she stood up straight and said, “I didn’t become a hospice nurse so I could poke a patient again and again! Mrs. Baum, you don’t need to take this blood test anymore.” My mother was relieved and my mind was blown. A nurse could decide not to follow a doctor’s order because it made the patient suffer!
Hospice is a wonderful thing.
Hospice also supplied counselors who came to the house. Of course, my mother scorned counseling, but I used it. Because it was a Jewish hospice, the counselor was a rabbi. My mother hated that rabbi. It was one thing to be a woman rabbi. It was another thing to be a short, scrawny woman rabbi, as my mother described her. “That is the homeliest rabbi I’ve ever seen! What do you need a counselor for, anyhow?” I retorted: “My mother is very sick, and I need to talk to someone about it.”
Mom went through two exacerbations under hospice care. Each time, when she started having trouble breathing, her helper gave her morphine, she relaxed and went to sleep. When she woke up, she was much better. The exacerbation had passed.
I knew that Mom would probably die of heart failure. I worried that she would suffer for a long time. I also worried that I wouldn’t be there when it happened. But I wasn’t willing to move down to L.A. for the duration, because of the aforementioned dissolving-personality phenomenon.
On January 10, 2011, I few down to L.A. for my regular four-day monthly visit. When I walked into the house, Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, totally fine, reading the paper. She announced, “There’s a recipe for Ukrainian borscht in the L.A. Times.” That was her way of saying, “My darling daughter, I’m so glad to see you! Would you mind making this soup for your dear old mother?”
I’m telling you, that recipe for Ukrainian borscht was so long! It had an astonishing list of ingredients. I went shopping for everything the next day. I remember a whole brisket of beef, among other things. And beets, of course. We had no food processor, so I had to grate lots and lots of beets. I worked on that borscht for days.
One night, The Gang came over to play bridge. These three, all over 90, plus my mother, were the surviving remnant of the Young Modern Friends social club of their youth. The Gang had played bridge on cruise ships, in hotels, at campsites, and always at each others’ homes for over 70 years. When The Gang began, they were five couples. That was two bridge tables and one couple sitting out. Now they were reduced to four people, one of whom could still drive, so they could get together. They played bridge once a week at Mom’s house. That night, Mom won $1.25. She liked to win.
The next day, the borscht was ready! I proudly presented a little cup to Mom, who was reading a New Yorker, sitting in her recliner. She pretty much lived in her recliner. I thought the soup was pretty damn good. Mom took a few spoonful's, put the cup down.
I said, “So, what do you think of the borscht?”
“It’s given me a headache,” she announced. “I don’t want any more.” I took the cup away.
The headache got worse rapidly. My mother was in agony. “I can’t stand it! I want to die!” I phoned Hospice and asked for a nurse to come ASAP. Ana, her helper, had been taught what to do until the nurse arrived. She tried to give Mom some pain pills but my mother couldn’t get them down. My mother was squirming in her recliner. “I want to die! I want to die!” I didn’t know what to do. My mother was in agony, and I didn’t know what to do. Ana gently told me to massage my mother’s temples. My touch actuallly seemed to calm my mother down. I seemed to have helped her. I was so grateful to Ana for being there at that moment to tell me what to do.
Ana had been working for my mother for 15 years. Mom always gave her time off to go to court with her delinquent son, who was often in trouble. Mom gave Ana advice about her life, and Ana thought she was very wise. I never thought my mother was wise. Ana adored my mother. I used to tell Ana that she was my mother’s True Daughter. They had a beautiful relationship.
Then it hit me: My mother had some borscht…. And then she was in agony! I tasted the soup again. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest borscht in history, but it didn’t taste… fatal. But still, it certainly didn’t give Mom that warm, cosy feeling that you usually get from a nice thick soup, did it?
Wait a minute! What if I had been an awful, irresponsible — even criminal — daughter, and everyone knew I was scheming to get my mother’s money?!? I could be in big trouble at that moment! Ana would suspect me of poisoning Mom with The Fatal Borscht! She could sneak away to make a phone call to the police! I could be arrested for trying to kill my mother, even though I was only guilty of making a mediocre soup.
But the truth was I was a good, responsible daughter, and Ana knew it. Everyone knew it. I was above suspicion. Phew.
The Hospice nurse arrived and gave Mom some morphine that totally relieved her of pain. Thank goodness. Then the nurse left. and Mom laid back in her recliner. Her eyes were closed, but she was awake. “I want to go to bed,” she said.
If I hadn’t figured it out before, then the fact that Mom wanted to go to bed should have told me she was dying. My mother never wanted to be in bed. She had stopped sleeping in the bed when my father was alive. My father was terribly hurt by her decision, but she insisted she was more comfortable in the recliner.
Now Mom wanted to lie down in the hospital bed in her bedroom. I said, “Okay, Mom, Ana and I will put you in the wheelchair and take you to the bed.”
Mom, with her eyes closed, said, “The two of you aren’t strong enough. Get Noreen from next door.”
“Don’t worry, Mom, Ana and I can do it!” Ana was short and sturdy. I was tall and not so sturdy.
Mom: “No you can’t! Get Noreen!”
“Come on, Ana, let’s do it.
Ana and I tried to lift Mom from the recliner to the wheelchair. It wasn’t easy. Was it even possible? She seemed so heavy!
Mom: “Get Noreen!”
“Come on, Ana, let’s give it another try!” But we could not lift her.
My mother was right. What she knew and we could not accept was that, although she was fully conscious, she was dead weight. She could not lift a muscle to assist us.
This was my mother — if not to her last breath, then certainly to her last word. She’d always had an iron grip on reality. Her mind was still clear as a bell. She understood that she had no control over her muscles anymore. So she could not help Ana and me with the move to the bed. She also had a good idea of just how much strength Ana and I had. She realistically evaluated the situation and decided we needed Noreen’s help. My mother, who it turned out was dying, had a much stronger grasp of reality than I had. She was leaving the planet with every marble she’d ever had.
“Go get Noreen!” My mother spoke sharply, her eyes closed. Those were the last words she said. She never spoke or opened her eyes again.
Noreen was home. And, in fact, it took the full strength of all three of us to move my mother from the recliner to the wheelchair and from the wheelchair to the hospital bed.
Two hospice nurses stopped by at different times, to see of there was anything that Mom needed. One nurse assured us that she was not dying, and the other nurse assured us that she WAS.
I phoned my cousin Harriet and my friend Jerry and asked them to come over, to keep me company. So, at some level, I must have understood that Mom was dying. But the idea had not become conscious. The three of us, plus Ana, sat around Mom’s hospital bed, chatting.
Suddenly I realized I was very hungry.
“Hey everybody, how about some Ukrainian borscht?”
We decamped to the kitchen and each had a bowl of the soup that had now been simmering for a very long time. It was delicious.
Then we went back to the bedroom.
Mom was awfully still.
She had stopped breathing while we were having soup.
Maybe my mother was waiting for us to leave her alone so that she could leave us. Who knows?
The Fatal Borscht had been entwined in my visit from the first moment I arrived, when Mom had commanded me to make the soup. The borscht had been there at the moment Mom felt the pain that signaled that her dying had begun. And the borscht had been finally consumed at the very moment she died. If it wasn’t perfect, it was perfectly ironic. Or if it wasn’t that, it was just the way things happened, and we had to make the best of it.
My mother lived to 92. She had a very good life. She had suffered intensely in the end for less than a day. And I had been able to be there the whole time. So we avoided the two things I had feared. Not only that, she had won $1.25 at bridge the day before she died. And she had been able to give me and Ana instructions up until the very end. That seemed like a pretty good death to me.
A year later, as is the Jewish custom, we met at the cemetery to put a plaque on my mother’s crypt. It said, “Beloved wife, mother, aunt, friend and sister-in-law. Playing bridge in heaven, no doubt.”
Subscribe to Terry’s Blog.