My mother died exactly a week after her 79th birthday, and ever since, her birth and her death have been linked together for me in a weird existential equation. We Jews are good at commemorating death, having centuries of practice, and I know what to do when that anniversary rolls around: Stand up in synagogue and recite the mourner’s prayer, much as I did every day for nearly a year after she died.
But what about her birth, her life?
“Let’s go out for dessert on her birthday, something chocolate and decadent,” my sister suggested that first year.
My mother certainly would have approved. Her love of chocolate was boundless. It may well have been born of the deprivation she endured as a young girl growing up in England during World War II, when food was severely rationed and sweets of any sort, especially her beloved Cadbury chocolates, were a rare treat.
Whatever the source, this love was as central to her personality as were her natural exuberance and her uncanny ability to make friends anywhere (including in the hospital recovery room, after giving birth to my sister). My mother was as optimistic and restlessly ambitious as any immigrant to America, but she also was frugal and suspicious that her good fortune could end in a snap.
So we were taught at an early age to eat a piece of fancy chocolate with slow, careful nibbles, savoring each bite, stretching out its lifespan as long as possible, and would react with horror when my father or someone else would pop it in his mouth and swallow it whole. Such a desecration!
And we learned early on where my mother kept her special stash of homemade chocolate goodies — plump cookies, crunchy mandelbrot — and we’d pilfer a piece or two when we hoped she didn’t notice.
I must have talked so much about my mother’s chocolate obsession that when the man who became my husband first visited the family while we were both in college, he knew to bring a box of Godiva. So pleased was my mother with this gift that, even though I was barely 18 years old, she seemed ready to sign the ketubah right then and there.
While she always insisted that Cadbury’s Black Magic (the English version) was her favorite, Godiva became an easily acceptable second choice. It was my sister’s idea to use the signature gold boxes as centerpieces at our mother’s surprise 70th birthday party. And a few years later, on the day my mother and father finally moved to an apartment in an assisted-living facility near us, I bought her a box of Godiva to ease the transition.
By then, Alzheimer’s disease had tangled her brain but not her disposition, and each time she wandered back and forth in her strange new home, she noticed the shiny box on the counter anew. “And who brought me this?” she’d exclaim with girlish delight, as if seeing it for the first time instead of the fifth or sixth. Never had I received so much praise for one small purchase.
She lasted in that apartment only a year. Alzheimer’s was a ruthless invader, decimating everything in its grasp, and worse, leaving my father weak and depressed, as if he were the collateral damage in this silent war. Caring for her was killing him. One day we celebrated her birthday, the next day she entered the alternative universe that is an Alzheimer’s unit.
No chocolate there. Until a new ritual arose, born of necessity. I’d generally stop for coffee before a visit, to fortify myself, and one time I was accompanied by my youngest daughter, for whom I bought a cup of hot chocolate to make a difficult experience a little more palatable. When she couldn’t finish it, we offered the remaining, cooled beverage to my mom.
She grabbed the cup and hung onto it like a dog on a bone, drawing long, deliberate sips.
“Oh, that’s gorgeous,” she said, reaching to drink more.
From then on, I brought her hot chocolate on every visit, until she could no longer swallow. It was the one thing I could do to make her happy. And she’d invariably tell me, “That’s gorgeous” — the last predictable and lucid phrase I would hear her say.
She died on a warm, humid day. The birthday flowers I had brought a week earlier were sapped of their vitality, waiting like a fading sentry at the foot of her bed for permission to depart. The death rattle that so horrified me as I stayed with her the previous night had been replaced by the slow, shallow breathing of someone in the process of leaving this world.
A close relative joined our little vigil, bringing a box of Godiva that had grown soft in the midsummer heat. I ate mine slowly, of course. Some of the sweet, chocolaty coating stuck to my finger, and I reached over to gently rub it on my mother’s dry lips.
She died about an hour later.
So it seems only fitting that a woman who passed away with her favorite chocolate on her lips be feted annually with the likes of rich double-chocolate gelato, profiteroles doused with whipped cream and dark sauce and, this past year, a mile-high sundae stuffed with so many unctuous ingredients that I lost count. Four of her five grandchildren made it to the last outing — considering their far-flung lives, a real achievement — and before digging into our ice cream, cake and fondue, we lifted a spoon or fork and toasted the woman who would have oohed with delight at the spread before us.
It was gorgeous, Mom.
Jane Eisner is Editor of the Forward.