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First PersonI lost my mother after Mother’s Day. Five years later, she talked to me

On impulse, I silently said, “Mom?” And she responded.

The owner of the board-and-care facility where my 88-year-old mother spent her last years called me on Mother’s Day in 2006. “Your mother is unresponsive,” she said simply. “I’m calling 911.”

Mom spent a few days in a hospital, mostly sleeping. One morning when I arrived, she looked at me, smiled and softly said, “Hi Ellie Belle.” I squeezed next to her on the bed and put my head on her tiny shoulder. 

“I’m so sorry you’re going through this, Ma,” I said. 

“I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this with me,” she responded. 

By “this,” Mom meant more than the latest hospitalization. Eight years before, when I was visiting her in Ohio, she sat me down one evening and told me, tearfully, “Ellie Belle, I’m losing my marbles.” She was right.

‘We just buried him!’

Thankfully, she still knew who I was, though she didn’t recall moving from Cleveland to Los Angeles to live in the board-and-care facility near my home. Often, when I’d arrive there to visit her, Mom was surprised. “Ellie! When did you get into town?” I knew that it was pointless — and unkind — to correct her.

“I came right from the airport, Ma,” I’d say. And we’d start fresh. 

Other times, when more people were around, it might be more awkward. Like at my Uncle Bob’s graveside funeral in California in 2003.

“Who died?” Mom asked in a shrill voice as I settled her into a seat opposite the grave. My mother wasn’t mourning. She hadn’t much liked her sister’s narcissistic husband, and when I hissed at her, “Uncle Bob died, Mom! ” she giggled, her dark and quirky sense of humor still very much intact. 

Back at my aunt and uncle’s house, I fixed Mom a turkey and tomato sandwich from the table laden with deli platters.

“Where are we?” she asked as she chewed.

“We’re at Carole and Bob’s,” I said. 

“Where’s Bob?” she asked loudly. 

“We just buried him!” I said. Our laughter brought stares from around the room.

“Let’s get out of here, Ma,” I said. She hugged her sister, Carole, offering pretend condolences, and we departed.

Forgetful, but wise

A month before, my gardener’s baby had died of crib death. I wanted to do something to express my sympathy and help out the family. As I called Mom for suggestions, I marveled that I was still doing so even though I was 57 years old, even though she was the one losing it. 

As a kid, I was programmed by Mom’s commandments: Thou shalt stand up on the rapid transit to let women sit down. Thou shalt write thankyou notes. Thou shalt help your host clear the table. I learned to be a decent person from my mother. 

Though Mom was forgetful now, she was still very wise. “Sweetie, send Gabriel a check and some flowers,” she said, referring to the gardener. 

During my mother’s six years in board-and-care homes in LA, there were changes in caregivers, residents who died, and occasional crises, like when Mom fell in the bathroom, breaking her nose. She looked like a prizefighter. 

There were also many intimate moments, like when I climbed into the shower with Mom to wash her hair.  I brought videos of her favorite Broadway shows and Mom sang along, off-key, but recalling all the words.

To die with dignity

When Mom was discharged from the hospital that May of 2006, I told the owner of the facility where she lived that I didn’t want her sent back to the hospital if she was unresponsive again. The owner said she has to call 911 unless the patient is in hospice care. So that’s what we did. Mom had always said she wanted to die with dignity. 

My sister flew out from North Carolina. We sat with Mom for two days, told her we loved her and that it was OK to go. We sang Broadway songs. Mom didn’t respond, but we were sure she was singing along in her head. 

She died on June 13, 2006.

Until her dementia, Mom always had her nails done in shocking orange. So on June 14, my sister and I went to a salon and got our nails painted in its gaudiest orange. When we giggled, the manicurist asked why. “Our mother died last night,” I said, and we laughed again. The manicurist looked appalled. Mom would have been delighted.

Mom was cremated, as she wished, and my sister and I each got half of her ashes. My share sat in my closet for years as I wondered what to do with them. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in an afterlife. But five years after my mother died, I was swimming laps and missing her. On impulse, I silently said, “Mom?” 

She responded. “Ellie Belle! I’m so glad to hear from you!” 

Talking to the dead

While I swam, Mom asked about my son, about my work, whether I was dating, and if I was happy.  Then I asked my own question.

“Mom, where are you?” 

She didn’t skip a beat. “I’m every place I’ve ever loved.” 

Suddenly, I knew what to do. Over the next two years, I scattered Mom’s remains in her favorite spots — my garden, her childhood home in Cleveland, the coast of Maine. I also took some to Mom’s favorite travel destination: Italy. I sprinkled her ashes with Saint Francis of Assisi, at the Roman Colosseum and in Venice. 

In Venice, I sat on a small dock hidden between apartments, listening to the Grand Canal’s rippling water. I thought about Mom’s Italian classes and how she would sing off-key to La Bohème

“Here you go, Mom,” I whispered. 

I emptied her ashes into the waters below. Then I watched with horror as a large film of white dust floated out onto the dark canal. I held my breath, waiting for someone to notice that I’d polluted the Grand Canal with the last of my dear mother. Mom giggled. Then a gondola approached and dispersed the ashes, and, with the sound of the gondolier singing La Bohème, my mother was truly in all of the places she ever loved. 

“Thank you Ellie Belle,” I heard her say.

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