By Phyllis Mass
June 10th marked four years since my mother died in hospice at age 93. I kidnapped her from her Edgewater, N.J. residence in December of 2005 and moved her to an assisted -living facility near me in Philadelphia, one month after my younger sister died of lung cancer. We spent a glorious year and a half together, even as she struggled with congestive heart failure and I grappled with the loss of my kitchen due to a flood which morphed it into a three-foot high swimming pool. I would not have a working kitchen again for a year and a half.
There are so many things I miss about my mother, but her laughter and her sense of humor are the primary ones. As I had engraved on her stone, "Laughter Was Her Elixir." The void of humor and laughter in my life today is palpable. I never realized how much of it I had in my life until she died. She was the first person I shared anything remotely humorous with. Even at 93, she "got it." She was alert, alive and funny until the day she died.
She had an excellent ear, a delightful sense of the absurd and a grand gift for mimicry. Of all her impressions, her perfectly inflected Ruth Westheimer delighted me the most. When we purchased our first answering machine in the'70's, I convinced my mother to record the greeting as Dr. Ruth. Everyone who called us and got Dr. Ruth were mystified as to how I managed to get her to do my greeting. Soon people were calling just to hear Dr. Ruth, not to leave a message. The phone rang constantly, but whenever we answered, disappointed callers would say they wished to hear Dr. Ruth's voice. They even asked us to hang up so they could call again. Reluctantly, I shelved "Dr. Ruth" and resorted to a brief greeting in my own voice.
My mother loved to comparison shop. She could also stretch a dollar further than anyone I knew. In her heyday, she ferreted out clothing bargains which not only looked terrific on her but cost next to nothing - 50 cents, $50 or $500 you couldn't tell which items cost what or how much. Once, when I complimented her on a pair of gorgeous crocodile shoes, she laughed and whispered that they cost twenty-five cents each. She claimed that whenever she paid full price for an item, "Its performance always disappointed."
When told she had two weeks to a month to live, she ordered me to find a suitable hospice to care for her. I did and visited with her every day at Taylor Hospice in Ridley Park for the six month she lived there. Though bedridden, she told me that her hospice time was one of the most fun things she had ever experienced. I spent hours, reading to her, cooking her favorite meals and laughing with her, the hospice nurses and aides. I even accused her of pulling "The full Art Buchwald" on me -- recovering sufficiently, as he did, and sent back home to die several months later. She did not recover.
She was "voted" most popular patient and I had the dubious distinction of being "voted" most popular visitor. Of course, it helped that, unlike the majority of patients who presented themselves at the hospice, my mother was not comatose so she could actually interact with the nurses and the staff. And unlike many visitors who came for just an hour or so to visit comatose loved ones, I came every day and stayed for several hours. I told my mother she was a therapy patient for the nurses.
She died as we were engaged in a meditation to a CD I still play today when I meditate. The metaphor for my mother is the sound of laughter. Anytime I hear people laughing, I think of her and realize how truly blessed I was.
My formal meditation practice, not the rituals of Judaism, got me through this loss. But in the end, nothing really helped. I am the sole remaining member of my original family. There is no longer a buffer between me and death. I will never get over the loss of my mother, but where once my mother's death loomed large in the foreground, four years later, it has receded. Still omnipresent, it is not as visually or viscerally prominent.
As a writer and humorist, I still manage a couple of laugh out-loud pieces now and then, though not as often cas I did while my mother was alive - and certainly not as screamingly funny. While time does heal, this wound in my heart will never close. It can gush anew at any time. My mother was so much more than my mother. She was my muse.