Last week, I went to visit my ninety-three year-old mother and found a stranger in her apartment. A docile, pale old lady in a wheelchair was falling asleep over her hardly-touched cake and coffee. She apologized and begged forgiveness of me, and of anyone who came near.
This was not MY mother. The mother who, weeks ago, was still stuffing her walker into the car, and shuffling off to the “beauty parlor.” The mother who bought jewels to match every outfit. The one who demanded that everything be executed in her own particular way, or you’d suffer her scorn. MY Mom could out-eat anyone, and was shamelessly vocal about whatever or whomever she disliked. Head of our tribe, she didn’t apologize.
Last week, the only thing my Mom ate with any interest was rum-raisin ice cream. It was set before her in spoon-sized clumps after lovingly prepared meals were removed and dumped in the trash. Morphine was doled out to balance my mother’s free-from-suffering time with her time to be able to think and communicate coherently. Sleep, when it came to her, was deep and steeped with groaning. Over the weekend she drifted ever farther away into her sleep.
On Sunday we sisters kissed her goodbye, said we’d be back in two weeks. But early the next morning, I got The Phone Call, the call that knocks you upside down even if you’ve known for a while that death was parked waiting right outside the door. Needing time to process this, I went to the gym. There, responding to the first person who casually inquired, “Hey, how are you?” I tested out the words too impossible to believe yet, “My Mom just died,” adding, “I think I’m an orphan.”
“No,” my friend said, looking me sternly in the face, kinda like my mother used to, “You’re not an orphan. You’re a matriarch now.”
I am still waiting to see how all this will hit me once I finally get it through my head that my Mom, the woman who gave me life, carried and protected me—and ruled my world—is dead. Sooner or later, I will be clobbered hard by the loss of her, I’m sure. But that morning in the gym, after being dubbed “matriarch,” I mustered up twice as many planks than ever before and threw myself into a fierce aerobic frenzy. Then, still breathless, I phoned my sisters to assign them various tasks from the list of all that had to be done to accommodate the great shift in our tiny family. What kind of matriarch will I be? I wonder. The glue of the family, or the iron fist?