Bungling through…the dying process. Part two.

Rule #2: Being with someone while they die, especially someone you love, is the most intimate experience you will ever have. (Noteworthy: If you talk about it too much, however, you will creep people out.)

Here’s what one of the nurses told me. There’s birth and marriage and sex and all sorts of intimate experiences out there to be had, but death is the one that can most bond you to a person. Seems like she was right. My mother’s death, and her dying process, feels like such a big part of my life at this point — maybe even deserving of a paragraph on my resume. 

May 2011:  Chaperoned Mother Into Death

– Supervised dying process, kept pain and discomfort to a minimum

– Interpreted body language, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues; Served as both advocate and spokesperson for the infirm, dealing with both medical/support staff and laypeople, including friends and family

– Other duties as assigned, including the watering of gardens, the collection of mail, the returning of phone calls, the paying of bills.

The truth is, I was such a novice. I had never before seen a dead body; I’m terrified of funerals; I am that person who always says the wrong thing, mostly out of fear and abject ignorance. But yet, my mother trusted me (and my best friend, Michele), with her life — and her death. And somehow we managed.

When it became clear that my mother wasn’t going to survive, the doctors told us there were several drugs at our disposal for (her) pain, anxiety and breathing. We were told to let the nurse know when my mother needed anything. But when someone can’t speak and can barely move, how do you know how what they’re feeling?

“How are they leaving it up to us, two bungling idiots?” Michele asked me.

But then it happens — you really start to tune in. You notice the slightest tensing of the brow. You notice a wince when you move her arm. A slight squeeze of the pinky when you ask if she’s in pain. And you know that current dose of morphine isn’t doing its job; and more important, that you can do something about it. If death isn’t inevitable, pain or discomfort should be.

And then you might notice a slight upward flinch in her mouth when you get it right — an attempt at a smile. A small motion that you might not even notice if you weren’t so there.

So. Yes. It’s a very intimate thing. And it makes me feel sad, and changed, somehow. Maybe wiser. And wise people can still lose it from time to time, right? Right? Especially when said Wise Person is driving and a particular Collective Soul song comes on? I would think.

I guess wisdom doesn’t replace pain. And wisdom isn’t anything you can put on your resume. But that makes me think — the things that really matter in life aren’t actually resume-appropriate anyway. In my limited (but growing) experience, I’d say mostly they’re the things that you bungle through.


Bungling through…the dying process. Part One.

Rule #1: It’s all guesswork.

Okay, first of all, when someone you love is dying in a hospital, there will be PLENTY of people who will give you advice. Most of them will deliver this advice with a good degree of authority, and thankfully with a good degree of compassion. Accept that advice, but realize that no one really knows anything for sure, and few will admit that.

When you get to the point that the doctors start telling you there’s nothing further they can do, you’ll be told to gather the family for any final goodbyes. You will likely feel partially dead yourself. You will likely question what you’re being told and you might ask things repeatedly and still not be able to hear what’s coming at you. It’s important not to be alone at this time, to have someone you love with you; what you don’t retain, they might. You will likely break down, contort your face into unbecoming poses, suffer from an undelightfully runny nose and care little about it until hindsight kicks in. If it does.

The doctors will probably give you a timeline. Realize they may be wrong. In my case, what was expected to take four hours took forty-eight. No one really knows.

You will probably say your goodbye, and feel lightheaded, confused, and slightly psychotic. And then you may glance at  the various vital signs monitors. And then you will say goodbye again. And then you will glance back up at the monitor. And then you will repeat your goodbye, and then you will study the freaking monitor. And then you will wonder if you should summon an emergency surgery because maybe it’s not her time to die. And you will act on this thought. And the doctors will look at you with pity and feeling and tell you again that she’s dying.

And then you will watch the monitor again. And then will start second-guessing yourself. You will wonder if she’s waiting for you to say something important. And then you will scour your heart and soul for anything that requires closure, and you may hear yourself saying something like, “And I’ll make sure all your library books are back before the fines kick in.” Or, “I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time about your composting obsession.” Or, “Thanks for not buying me Jordache jeans when I was in middle school. It actually DID give me character.” Even if you’re still bitter about the Jordache.

And then you will hold her hand and wait. And then your knees might get tired and you might sit down on the chair next to the bed, still holding on to her hand for dear life. Or death.

And then you will get tired. And the nurses will start circling the room. And you’ll feel okay, you may even start to feel hungry when you realize it’s been fourteen hours since you last ate. Or took a pee break. And then you start to feel ridiculous — how can I take a pee break when my mom is dying? How can I be thinking of a banana nut muffin, for God’s sake, AT A TIME LIKE THIS??

These things can happen. Don’t worry, it won’t last forever. You’re just bungling through.



Bungling through….

I said goodbye to my mom on the Sunday before last.

Well, actually, I said goodbye to her that Friday. And Saturday. And that Sunday, for the last time.  It was probably the most emotionally significant and unexpected thing that I’ve been through. I’ve thought about how best to honor her, and here’s what I’ve come up with. A series of “Bungling Through…” blog posts. Death isn’t anything most of us specialize in, emotionally, logistically, medically, legally, or any other adverbial way. It just kind of happens. And you kind of learn as you go. At least that’s how it happened for me.

Of course, I may look back in a year or two and wonder what the hell I was thinking, but for now, knowing my mom and her wonderfully inappropriate sense of humor, it seems like a brilliant idea. And if in a year or two — or even a couple months or weeks or days from now — I look back and question my judgement, there’s always the wonderful, underestimated power of the delete key.



I went for a walk earlier today and met a nice older neighbor who asked if he could pet my dog, Casper. Apparently, the dog he’d just met around the block was too shy to let a stranger near him.

“Your dog’s not shy, is he?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” I said. “He always wants to say hi to everyone he meets. Some people like it and some people doesn’t!”

Yeah. So that’s not a typo. That’s actually what I said: SOME. PEOPLE. DOESN’T.

I couldn’t really correct myself. For one, in an effort to be friendly, I’d said it with WAY too much aplomb. And for two, I stunned myself silent for a second too long to reel it back in. And for three, how do you even explain that word choice? A four-year-old could’ve handled that sentence better!

I thought about trying to add something kind of folksy, so he might think I meant it in some eccentric way, but nothing short of attempting a jig came to mind. And while I thought (albeit wrongly) that I could pull off basic small-talk conversation, I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull off a jig.

That’s the problem with writing versus talking. In writing, it’s perfectly acceptable to start with a sh*tty first draft. In talking? Not so much.

Not surprisingly, the conversation came to an awkward and abrupt halt. Probably a good thing, because you know how those new-neighbor convos go — they eventually wind into who you are and what you do for a living. Probably not a good time to admit you’re a writer.

Life in bullets

I’ve figured out why I don’t post here very often. It’s because I feel like I have to write a freaking essay when I do.  Well, enough of that. I’ve decided bullet points will do just fine. Here’s what’s up with me:

  • Book cover! I’ve seen the early stages of my book cover, and I’ll just say this. If this book were a man, I would marry it. (Also, of course, if I were single, but that seems to be taking the metaphor too far).  I have been using the L-word very liberally these past few days.
  • Moved! Actually one ! probably isn’t enough. Totally understates the stress involved. There was lots. But we bought a new place, a small, humble little house that seems to have accepted us with little angst. It’s got an outdated kitchen, 60-year-old windows, and rooms the size of some people’s bathrooms, but if this house were a man…..okay, I already used that metaphor. And anyway, I pretty much did marry it in — I’m just as legally bound.  What I love about this house is the simplicity of it. We’re using every single inch of space, and for some reason, that feels good. Also? It’s got this adorable glass brick window that I put pretty colored-glass things in. Sometimes, when the sun shines through it? I hear a choir on high. I’m that excited about this weird little window.

(Side note: Two of the pretty glass items in the window are these beautiful blue drinking glasses my mom gave me. Here’s the story about them: It was in the 1960’s. My mom had recently graduated college, and had moved to  Berkeley, where she took a job as a receptionist. When things got slow, she would read her Gertrude Stein book. It was there, she says, that a “beautiful lesbian” befriended her. After finding out my mom was living in an empty apartment, the woman gave her those glasses. As my mom was telling me the story, she had an “aha!” moment, realizing the Gertrude Stein book probably endeared her to her friend.) (And yes, this story totally reminds me of a Mad Men scene from a recent episode, but it’s TRUE!)

Okay, so maybe this is a two-bullet update. I mean, since I’ve decided to post on here more often, I should save some bullet-worthy things for later.  (RUM PUNCH!) (FRIENDSHIP!) (SEE??? I HAVE…THINGS…)

Attention: My Mom’s Secret Admirer

Dear “Dale”:

The tomatoes are growing quite nicely. She’s been wanting me to tell you that. Hope you’re well.

Um, okay, then.

Take care.


Who the hell is President McClatchey anyway?

My mom lost her mind. 

Thankfully, she found it again. 

It was a hectic Wednesday, a couple of weeks ago. It was the first day our house was on the market, and I’d be running around trying to clean and purge the place for weeks, when my mother’s boyfriend called. “Something’s wrong with your mother,” he told me. And yes, something was. For one, she was trying to drink a banana.


Barely able to hold it together, my daughter and I got in the car and rushed to meet them at the E.R. They set her up in a room and began questioning her.

“Do you know what year it is?”


“Who’s the president?”


“Who’s standing next to you?”

“My daughter.” (me)

“And who’s that next to her?” they asked, pointing to my daughter.

“She’s — ” she gave an apologetic smile. ” — a stranger.”

And that’s how it went. She had a lot of stories that night — stories of birds and cages and rattling those cages. She talked a lot, very faintly, and as if she were in a dream. At one point, she pointed to the hospital curtain, a pattern of hollow squares. “Oh,” she said, very interested. “They used pictoral Roman numerals and not the academic ones!”

I cried.

At first I tried to hide my tears from her, but by the second day, nothing bothered her. She was checked out — in her own little world where she had seventeen children (as she told the physical therapist), and lived at a strange address, and birthdays or years didn’t matter, and the president changed from McClatchey to Anderson, and none of it really mattered anyway. Her voice was monotone, her eyes went flat, her ability to care was suddenly gone.

“What month is it?” one of the therapists asked.


“No, it’s May.”

“Oh. Okay,” she’d shrug, expressionless.

The doctors talked about a stroke or a possible brain tumor. The case worker told me to start thinking about nursing homes. A nurse sat down with me and said, “At least she seems at peace with everything.” And I sobbed gracelessly, my nose clogging and my eyes swelling and my breath catching in snorts in my throat.

But then day three happened. She knew Obama was president. We all perked up a little. She still seemed confused and slightly detached, but there was hope.

One of my best friends visited. She asked my mom about her latest trip to California, and who she saw when she was there. Things were going well until she said, “I didn’t see my mother this time.”

The sinking feeling returned. I reminded her that her mother has been dead for twenty years.

“Oh,” she said. “I guess that’s why I didn’t see her then.”

Over the next several days, her clarity improved and her personality returned. She wanted to read again, and she began asking a lot of questions. Her sense of humor started to resurface (particularly when I told her the above). And the doctors discovered that it wasn’t a stroke, and it wasn’t a tumor. It was a strange little virus that somehow got up into her head — viral encephalitis.

Viral encephalitis! Probably from a mosquito when she was gardening! 

I wanted to cheer. You can recover from viral encephalitis very well, and there are not likely to be any lasting effects. Wow.

A week later, she checked out of the hospital. That night, at dinner, we entertained her with stories of her confusion (like I said, her sense of humor had returned).

So, like I said, my mom lost her mind and found it again. And I feel like in some ways I did the same. Although like some people, I don’t have a mosquito to blame.

(insert huge sigh of relief)

Confessions of a girl called Pierre

When I was six years old, my mom sent me to a day camp, where the combination of a typo, a poor choice of clothes, and a really bad haircut had the counselors convinced I was named Pierre, and therefore, must also be a boy.

Too shy to correct them, I spent the whole week as “Pierre.”

At first, I was upset, and the boys were suspicious — the name “Pierre” didn’t do me any special favors, but it did seem to explain to them why I was weird and looked (very, very slightly) like a girl.

But I soon realized this new identity had its advantages. Sure, I might have to develop a bladder of steel, but for one, I could solve the Mystery of the Urinal by simply spying on the older boys as I washed my hands for lunch. Curiosity fulfillment? Check.

And the boys were actually a lot of fun. For one, no one expected me to like pink things and Barbies, which was sort of a relief since I didn’t own much of either. All the awful but inventive things they did with their American cheese slices and various puddings made lunch an hour of pure comedy. Toward the end of that week, they started to tolerate me. Somewhere in a box of memorabilia, I still have a fourth- or fifth-place ribbon for bowling, made out to Pierre — I don’t remember, but I like to think that I was chosen to be on their team.

I might not have been the most popular “boy,” but for that week, I got to experience the world as someone else. And it was weird, and new, and thrilling.

Sometimes I think my first case of mistaken identity was one of those pivotal events that made me want to be a writer. Because when the writing’s going well, I get to experience the world not as my boring, reluctantly suburban self, but as a 13-year-old board-game-addicted outcast, or as a socially awkward 17-year-old with a mad crush. It’s sort of like the Pierre experience all over again. It can be just weird, and new, and thrilling. And sometimes, even more so.

Most of the time when people ask me what made me want to be a writer, I give them the short(er) answer: Great books, encouraging parents, a wonderful librarian named Mrs. Law, and an inspiring fourth-grade teacher named Mrs. Finkelstein. And all of that’s true. But then there’s also Pierre. And sometimes I wonder, where would I be without “him”?

Better get my act together….

So it’s been over a week and I’m still pinching myself.  Because I have an incredible agent, who got us multiple publishing offers, and……my book sold to Disney-Hyperion!!  So perhaps I should start acting like a professional. Soon, I promise.

Wow. I have visitors! If I’d have known you were coming, I’d have cleaned up a little, but please! Come in! Have a seat! I’ll just move this old pizza box — oh, and let me just move this pile of laundry. Don’t worry, it’s clean, it’s clean enough.  Let me just scoot it out of the way. There we are. See, there’s plenty of room here on the couch.

Oh, what’s that? Oh, okay. No, no, I completely understand. We ALL sometimes have appointments that we’ve completely forgotten about. No, no, of course, I don’t mind. 

Okay, well then. PLEASE do come back. I’ll air this baby out and it’ll be a completely different experience. With news and everything because this time, I actually have it! I’ll brush my hair, put on acceptable clothes, spray the Febreze, that kind of thing. A day or so is all I need. Promise!


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