Thursday, February 22, 2007, 8:02 PM
“See how her ears are pinned back to her head? It’s not commonly known but some people, when they’re about to die, their ears lay flat like that,” the hospice nurse explained to my sister and I. She said it with a respect but also with an excitement for the process. I had to admit even in my traumatized state it was an interesting fact to learn. “It won’t be long now,” she patted moms arm.
I looked at my mother. Her eyes were blown out. They looked like the kind of fake, glassy eyes you see on a creepy doll, but with less precise margins where the eyeballs met the whites of the eye. There was no focus to them, no life, yet technically my mother was still alive. It reminded me of when my dog was sound asleep but her eyes were eerily open to a degree. Her breath came and went in a steady wheeze called the death rattle, until every four or five cycles it caught and the rattling stopped. I’d then hold mine waiting for the end to finally come, but she’d inevitably gasp again and we’d both let go to resume the shaky in and out until the next time.
My mother had always been a combination of the wisest owl on the block, mixed with steely determination, and a whole lot of Dear Abby thrown in. I’d often come home in my teenage years to find one of my friends hanging out with my parents, getting my mother’s take on their latest angst.
Mom and dad had as close to a fairytale relationship as conceivably possible. I am not talking about my biological father and my mother; they divorced when I was five years old. My dad was Don Levy, the man that raised me.
My parents had been high school sweethearts destined for the alter. In a fateful twist, they unknowingly followed a similar path after marrying others. Both had moved their young families from Minneapolis to Southern California, and then back again once those marriages were done. While still licking their wounds, they ran into each other at the Lincoln Deli on Wayzata Boulevard in St. Louis Park, married three weeks later, and stayed blissfully so until my dad died.
I remember my parents fighting only once. I have no idea about what, but they were angry enough to send my younger sister and I upstairs to bed while it was still light out.
“But Mom, I’m eleven years old.” I whined. “And it’s only 7:30.”
That was all she needed to say because she also gave me ‘The Look’ as her words made their way to my ears.
‘The Look’ was something she used in order to let me know she meant business. She’d never needed to spank me in my younger days, nor yell at me once I grew older. All she had to do was gaze in my direction, her face set in such a way that I never wanted to find out what would happen should I not listen to her.
One Friday after dinner I was watching my three older sisters get ready for a night out. Carole King’s Tapestry emanated from the speakers, filling the basement. Linda, Cheryl, and Chelle sat on the avocado green carpeting crowded around a makeup mirror plugged into the wall, round lights hardly strong enough to let off the dimmest of glows, let alone light their way to flawless makeup. Bonne Bell, Maybelline, Max Factor, Revlon, and Cover Girl products were littered about the floor. Each girl had four huge orange juice cans, sectioned just so, like rollers in her hair. This was meant to straighten the kinks and smooth the frizz. When the cans had done their job, they’d take them out and insert steaming hot Clairol electric rollers in the hopes of creating Farrah Fawcett waves. As I watched their ritual, I longed to be old enough to have grown up plans on a Friday night. My dreams of the future were interrupted by my mom yelling down the basement stairs for me.
“SUE ELLEN LEVY! Get up here right now.” I knew I was in big trouble. Normally I was just plain old Sue.
When I reached my room, my younger sister, Margi, sat innocently on her plaid pink and purple bedspread, looking like the cat that ate the canary.
“Did you drive the car?”
I blinked at her, my eyes round, and said nothing. I was too shocked to open my mouth. She gave me ‘The Look’ and asked again. “Did you or did you not, at thirteen years old, drive my car?”
There was no use resisting. Margi had told on me. Two days prior when no one was home, I snuck into my mother’s room, rummaged through the catchall on her dresser, found her car keys, and took Margi for a little jaunt up and down our driveway. I was grounded immediately, destined to miss Debbie Slater’s birthday party the next day.
It was dad that let me off the hook. The next morning I climbed into his lap and kissed him good morning, explaining I would never, ever do anything like that again. Before I knew it the grounding was lifted.
“You go get dressed for the party, I’ll talk to mom. ARLENE,” he yelled from his favorite blue recliner.
“Oh, Don,” she’d eventually sigh lovingly, pretending to be exasperated after agreeing to lift my punishment.
It was twenty-five years into their union he lay on the bed in a fetal position in his favorite blue bathrobe. “I’m not feeling too well today,” his voice was distinctively void of the boom in volume it normally projected, “I’m going to have mom take me to hospice this morning.”
I was not surprised. The day before he had her drive him around slowly - every bump in the road caused him to grimace with pain - in her red Camaro so he could see the sky, the mountains, the neighborhood, and the world just one last time. “I love you dad,” was all I could manage.
A few days prior he had given me an envelope that I still have today with ‘Sue –Ellen’ written across it in one of his trademark thin-tipped black felt markers. The contents bore a blue sapphire Pyramid Life Insurance ring he had won for Salesman of The Year, some photos, his rainbow-colored suspenders (a bonafide food addict, in the last months of his life the cancer had taken its toll and he needed them to keep his pants from falling down) and two notes. One was for my children Max and Jake, the other for me.
The hospice told us he had two or three days, and put him on a morphine drip to ease the pain. Seven days later my sister and I woke up early, our backs screaming from sleeping on the sofas outside his room.
“I’m going to run home and shower.”
“I’ll stay until mom comes,” I offered.
When she did, she went in to see him and kissed him on the cheek, “I’m going to run to the mall Donny, I need to pick up my new glasses. Sue will stay with you until I get back,” she explained to his perpetually slumbering body.
Alone, I made myself comfortable in the family area that was attached to the hub of patient rooms in that wing, and gazed blankly at the television. My dad hated when we sat in his room and stared at him. He would bellow in his Fred Flintstone voice, “There’s nothing to see here girls, go home, or shopping or something,” when we visited him at the hospital. After ten minutes a chill blew past me and I sensed he was gone. I crept over to his door and squinted, the nurse followed behind me.
“I think he’s dead,” I whispered. And she confirmed he was.
Here I sat again in the same hospice thirteen years later, waiting for my mom to stop breathing. She never minded when people were around. A flurry of friends and family came and huddled up in her room watching her craggy breaths. Two days had passed since the nurse explained the flattening of her ears.
At eight o’clock on the evening of that second day my sister and I decided to take matters into our own hands. She put Tony Bennett’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” (their song) on repeat on the portable CD player in mom’s room, while I tucked a photo of my dad on my mom’s chest just under her blanket. I knelt over and whispered in her ear it was okay for her to go, we would take care of each other. I hoped she would understand, with the Alzheimer’s and all.
In the family area Ryan Seacrest dramatically began announcing which singers were safe and which were in jeopardy. Not ten minutes later I felt a chill. I crept to her room, Margi and the nurse right behind me, and looked in.
“I think she’s dead,” I whispered. The nurse confirmed it.