Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Ripening of Mourning

Frances on her 91st birthday with me and my granddaughter
The last time I posted here, it was two and a half months after my mother, Frances Alenikoff, passed away. In that post, I came right up to the hardest edge of grief -- and ended before crossing over into it. My post ended on a loving note -- it's last word is "joy."

But when I wrote that post, I was raging inside. It wasn't pretty and I wasn't ready to share. Now nearly ten months have passed since Frances' death and it's time. A commenter to my last post jumpstarted my stalled will, so here goes.

Is This My Bedroom?

Frances settled into her new room  -- actually her old room -- with a certain gingerly-ness, it seemed to me. I had brought her back to her home in East Hampton, NY after three years in western Massachusetts. We had exchanged places -- I had brought her to western MA when she was recuperating from an accident. But as she stayed and settled in to a senior "facility" (see her room in the photo above), it became clear that I needed to give up my apartment in Massachusetts and move to her home in New York to take care of many years of deferred maintenance and get it ready for her hoped-for return.

"Lion Head & Woman" stone by Frances Alenikoff
But now, finally back home on Long Island's East End, it was almost as if she didn't recognize her bedroom (to which, along with the adjacent bathroom, she was confined, unable to mount the stairs to the kitchen and living room above). It was mostly as she had left it, with her drawings on the walls, her books on the shelves, her stones on the bureau tops and desk. And there were other worrying glitches in her recognition of her surroundings.

Was she confused? Was it the multiplying lacunae in the web of memory? Was it just her poor vision? It was so hard to tell, because she was a past master at pretending either that things were better than they were (her own condition) or worse (anything she thought others had done to her.) Whatever it was, I felt judged and found wanting yet again, as if it were my fault that she hadn't slipped seamlessly into her life before old age disabled her.

And yet perhaps that was my expectation, not hers.

The Program, More or Less

She was quite testy with me, but that was nothing new. I busied myself with getting The Program underway: hire caregivers, scope out opportunities for Frances to socialize, cook her healthy meals, bring her her archives (reviews, videos of her dances, photos, writings) to review, arrange doctors' appointments, take her out for rides to her favorite places, shop, clean -- and try to snatch enough moments to have a sliver of my own life, too.

Some parts of The Program were more successful than others. I won't go much into the details of doctors and caregivers -- others have written copiously about this, and Jane Gross' New Old Age blog on the New York Times is a great place to find such material (especially the comments from readers.) But what surprised me was my mother's ambivalence toward picking up what she could of her old life.

Nobody Wants To See Me

She categorically did not want to see her old friends, although she framed it as "nobody cares about seeing me." She didn't even want to talk with them on the phone. Her closest attachments were to her caregivers -- women she could regale with stories of past achievements, juicy anecdotes about former lovers and journeys to far away lands. To women who had no previous Frances to compare her to, she could be The Star -- the old woman who was the most fascinating, the wildest, the most charismatic client they'd ever had.  She called them "Darling" and flattered them (although she complained about them behind their backs).

After she died, one of her friends called me in a rage: WHY HADN'T I LET HER KNOW FRANCES HAD BEEN IN EAST HAMPTON! She would have come to visit her! What kind of a daughter was I, keeping a good friend like her away from her? I tried to explain 1) that I didn't know she was such a close friend, since Frances never mentioned her, 2) didn't have time to find out since I was too busy taking care of everything else, but, more important, 3) Frances didn't want to see her friends.

Or more accurately, she didn't want her friends to see her. She didn't want them to see her disabled, overweight, incontinent and old.

The Past Delivers A Slap In The Face

A few days after she returned home, I took my mother to Louse Point -- her favorite beach in the old days, where all the artistic summer people of my mother's generation had congregated year after year, and where I was to scatter her ashes after she died. We parked at the end of the point.

I had picked up a copy of the East Hampton Star on the way (one of the best local newspapers in the country).  I opened it to the Arts page, thinking Frances would like to see what was happening in the local arts scene, and handed it to her with barely a glance.

She took the paper and a look of horrified shock flashed over her face. I looked again and there was a huge photo of, and full page spread about, the artist Audrey Flack, who looked trim and full of vigor. Audrey had been one of my mother's closest friends at one time, but they had had a falling out somewhere along the line. I never knew what it was about -- only that my mother felt deeply wounded. I think she had felt dissed and discarded by Audrey.

But who was really at fault and how much was real and how much imagined and how much due to the bitter comparisons my mother always made between herself and her more famous friends (although she was more well-known and admired than she knew -- always minimizing her triumphs and exaggerating theirs), I can't say. All I can say is that the news story threw her into a rage. I tried to cajole her out of it, but to no avail. Our peaceful beach outing was ruined.

The Fallen Goddess

Like many performers, my mother was a narcissist. I always said she sucked the air out of every room she walked into -- and I squirmed with embarrassment at her penchant for self-referential comments in every social situation, from regaling shop clerks with every detail of her day to the time she insisted on showing a video of her dancing in the nude to a boyfriend of mine, whom I had brought to her house to "meet my mom" for the first time. (The boyfriend vanished permanently after that performance.)

But Frances' unwillingness to have her friends see her; her painful shock at seeing an old friend celebrated in the media; her preference for a social circle made up of only her caregivers and me -- these are completely understandable.

The Goddess (photo credit: Don Manza)
She was a proud woman. Photos of her had been featured several times in books or calendars as representations of "The Goddess" -- and she completely identified. In her own eyes, as well as those of others, she was at one and the same time, human and the icon of ineffable femininity.

And she well understood how far she had fallen from that image. She was flesh, decaying flesh. She was mortal, and shuffling toward the last inches of that coil. She could no longer pretend to herself or anyone else that anything other than the inexorable slide toward death was happening.

And I was neither the most skillful nor the most suited of character to help her come to terms with that -- although there were moments of brilliance I managed to achieve in spite of the swamp of fear and ignorance that trapped me so often in tactless remarks and flatfooted responses to her emotional needs. I'm kind, but blunt. I like to look reality square in the face and deal with it. And maybe that's not really what my mother needed at the end of her life.

But more of than in my next post.


  1. Well I think its completely useless to find out the symptoms if the time of dying is near or not.Whenever God wishes us to return back to the another world then we have to go back in that very moment.


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