by Beth Sherman

No one ever talked about death. Although obviously it was part of people’s lives. Several women she knew had recently died – felled by a car accident, Covid, esophageal cancer. After the funeral for the woman with cancer, everyone spilled out of the service chatting about school and their children. The usual topics. Death was as distant as a cloud. There was a tendency to focus on the illness part, on battling disease no matter how great the suffering. What if you could end the suffering sooner? Was that so wrong? Leah really wanted to know but it wasn’t the type of thing she could bring up while waiting with the other mothers at the bus stop.

Walking down the long corridor, Leah saw breakfast trays on carts, laden with the remains of half-eaten meals. Two signs were taped to the wall. TODAY is WEDNESDAY, one of them said, in big block letters. The other said, The WEATHER is CLOUDY.

At the door to Gail’s room, she paused, steeling herself before stepping over the threshold. Someone had propped Gail up in bed. Her coppery hair was matted and greasy, her right hand and right leg encased in splints. She stared straight ahead, with eyes that didn’t focus. There was a feeding tube attached to her stomach. Her unencumbered leg flopped above the covers, pale and exposed. A plastic bag peeking out from under the bed held her urine.

The sight of Gail still came as a shock, like being slapped unexpectedly.

“Hi, Mom.”

No answer. Leah had learned not to expect one.

“I watered your plants this morning,” she said to her mother. “And vacuumed the carpet.”

Leah didn’t know if Gail understood or if the words registered as random sounds. When she asked one of the doctors, he told her they couldn’t be sure.

There are worse things than dying.

Putting her fingers to her lips, she lightly grazed Gail’s forehead. People did this to the prayer book, kissing it, then touching it to the Torah scrolls paraded around the synagogue. A sign of devotion since it was considered disrespectful to handle the Torah itself. Devotion from a distance.

In sixth grade, Leah cheated on a math test and the teacher had made her stay after school to write I will not set a bad example for myself 100 times in cursive on the blackboard. He left the room after a few minutes, but she’d stayed and completed the task, even though it was futile and humiliating. That was the kind of person she was. She used to pride herself on her discipline, her ability to time-manage her way out of stressful situations. But lately, she felt like she was skating on the surface of her life, the way you’d glide over a frozen pond, eyes fixed on distant trees, ignoring the sudden sound ice made when it cracked.

Medical aid in dying was legal in a dozen states  New Jersey was the closest but you had to live there, and they didn’t. She’d heard of a black market for euthanasia pills. Pentobarbital. Ten grams caused death in 20 minutes. She tried to imagine forcing pills into Gail’s mouth, tilting Gail’s neck back so her mother could swallow. Madness or mercy. She couldn’t decide.

There will be considerable deficits, the doctor told her, and Leah thought of a bank balance, life extracted in small, steady increments. He looked young enough to be in college. (It was a teaching hospital, with a rehab wing. Half the doctors had pimples and wispy facial hair.) She wanted to point out that Gail was a prisoner – couldn’t talk, couldn’t move – but she remained unfailingly polite, as if that would somehow help. He showed her a CT of Gail’s brain, the stroke appearing darker than the surrounding tissue, like an ugly black butterfly had landed on the X-ray. She tried to imagine how it felt to be Gail. Only being touched when you needed assistance with basic bodily functions because everything you did from the time you woke up until the time you went to sleep required someone else’s help. To not be understood. To lose the ability to swallow and control your bladder, bowels, and the right side of your body. If Leah were Gail, she’d rather be dead. Is that what Gail wanted, Leah thought, as she set up her tools – Emory board, scissors, cotton balls, polish, topcoat.

Leah hoped her touch was comforting, soothing the leafy thicket in Gail’s brain, that overgrown woods teeming with foliage where light could no longer penetrate. She glanced over at Gail, who was staring straight at her with blank, unseeing eyes. The deadness there, the absolute lack of recognition or anything remotely human, caused the back of Leah’s throat to burn.

The stroke had occurred two weeks earlier at Gail’s Fourth of July party. Leah remembered not wanting to go. But she couldn’t think of a plausible excuse, and off they went, Olivia complaining loudly in the car that she was too old to be spending major holidays with her grandmother (making it sound like a four-letter word), Ryan playing video games on his phone.

Gail greeted them wearing the same flag T-shirt and red Bermuda shorts she wore every year on the Fourth, scarlet lipstick slashed across her mouth, her arms and legs slathered with  coconut-scented sunscreen. She ushered them ceremoniously onto the narrow terrace where  Leah smelled briquettes burning under the grill. She eyed the hamburger patties, glistening pink in the sun, and wondered how long they’d been out of the refrigerator.

“I don’t eat meat,” Olivia announced.

“Since when, missy?” Gail asked, incredulously.

“Since now,” Olivia shot back.

“Honey, go get the drinks,” Leah said to Ryan, who ran back into the apartment.

During their years together, she and Gail had lived separate, parallel lives, like two race cars endlessly circling the same dusty track. Gail claimed to have forgotten entire chunks of Leah’s childhood. And then there were the pieces that only existed after the fact, in Gail’s imagination, whole episodes that never took place, usually revolving around Leah’s many failings.

“Do whales have butts?” Ryan asked, carefully pouring himself a soda.

“I don’t think so, sweetie,” Gail said, as Leah flipped burgers.

“Then what do you call their butts?”

“They don’t have a defined backside, darling. They’re all whale. Plus, a spout.”

“Oh.”

Leah glanced at her watch. Five-thirty. It didn’t really matter if Olivia ate with them, only that they survive the next hour and a half without killing one another. At these moments, she wished her ex-husband were next to her, if only to provide a buffer between Gail and herself, between Gail and Olivia. But one of the perks of divorce was that he no longer had to attend these get-togethers.

“What is wrong with young people today?” Gail asked, looking pointedly at Olivia. “Take, take, take.”

“I’m a young person,” Ryan said. “But I’m not one of the bad ones, right Gran?”

“Absolutely not, my sheifale. Come here.”

Ryan scampered over and Gail pulled him onto her lap, where he nestled close to her as she stroked his hair. “You are an angel sent from heaven. Such a gut eyngl.”

“I know what that means. That’s ‘good boy’ in Yiddish.”

Olivia jammed her ear buds back in and turned the music up.

Leah had a sudden flashback to herself as a teenager, listening to the radio on this very terrace, while Gail paced back and forth like a tiger at the zoo, reeling off Leah’s many faults: Bad grades. Bad boyfriend. Bad attitude. Bad everything.

After dinner, she cleaned the grill. The thermometer hanging on the railing read 92 degrees.

“Where’s Gran?” she asked Ryan.

“Resting.”

“Mom,” she called, poking her head into the bedroom, where Gail was lying under the pink floral comforter. “Do you want some pie and ice cream?”

The shade was down. Gail lay on her side, facing away from the door.

No answer. Leah assumed she was asleep.

It was only after they’d gotten home that Leah began to feel uneasy. The next morning, when she went back, the right side of Gail’s face drooped like a basset hound. Gobs of drool were splashed on her chin. She stared at Leah without appearing to recognize her. There was a three-hour window to get help for stroke victims. Three measly hours to rush her mother to the hospital where doctors could begin cooling the brain. They told her this not unkindly, though she was clearly at fault. Here was something Gail could legitimately blame her for – if only she could talk.

In the hospital, Leah concentrated on the past. Small moments that hadn’t amounted to much at the time. Baking oatmeal cookies. Sitting at the kitchen table while she did her homework and Gail knitted sweaters, mittens, and hats. So many hats that Leah wore a different one to school every day of the week.

“Remember, Mom. That time I wandered off in Eisenhower Park and it took you an hour to find me? Remember when we stayed up all night to watch the eclipse and we couldn’t see anything? Or how you liked to braid my hair?”

She would leave the hospital exhausted, making sure to thank the nurses, feeling guilty and then relieved when the glass doors in the lobby slid open and she was safely outside, hurrying away like a thief.

Her mind was faulty. Little things – forgetting where she left her wallet or putting the milk in the cupboard, instead of the fridge. Missing meetings at work. She liked getting in the car and driving, the radio turned up so high it drowned out her thoughts. This hopelessness, this nagging futility she wore like a second skin.

“Remember when you used to sing to me, Mom?” Leah said. “When I was little?”

The woman in the other bed was off getting tests, and the room was eerily quiet.

Leah traced small circles on the back of Gail’s hand, questioning every major decision she’d made, every turn in the road. Gail’s room permeated by the smell of ammonia and bedpans, the hidden specter of death. How many times she’d wished that Gail would disappear from her life. Wished for a better, more supportive mother. She hated her own disloyalty.

“Mom.” Her voice sounded tinny. “Are you in there?”

She’d never be able to give Gail death pills. Not without Gail’s consent. That would be murder. Right or wrong, she couldn’t do it.

The doctor came in. One of the younger ones, tall, with a nervous manner. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes blinked rapidly.

“How’s she doing?” Leah asked.

He stood next to Leah, put one hand on her shoulder. His mouth trembled. She took in his pressed white coat, the stethoscope around his neck.

“PT isn’t working,” he said softly, as Leah’s heart fluttered between her ribs. “She’s on a blood thinner and a statin to lower the risk of a second stroke. But I’m afraid she’s not going to get any better. She’ll need to be moved to a long-term care facility.”

After that, she could see his lips move, forming useless words. He swam in and out of her vision as tears raced down her cheeks. A nursing home. That’s where Gail was headed. One of those places where they stuck patients in wheelchairs and left them slumped over in hallways all day. A horrible end with no end. It wasn’t fair. On the bed, her mother lay still as a corpse. It was only when the doctor left the room for a moment that she picked up the extra pillow.

 

Image by Sandy Torchon via Pexels