photo by Jane Bell Goldstein
An Intimate Conversation
by Marsha Michaels
As far back as I can remember Mom smoked Kent cigarettes. Whether holding me as an infant, bathing me or telling bedtime stories, she always had a cig hanging from her fingers.
It was popular then to smoke, everyone did. Many times she had a lit cigarette burning in an ashtray in every room. No one knew it was addictive. No one was arrested or put in jail. I heard it caused a type of euphoria through some kind of brain activity. . . . At cocktail time, a J&B Scotch usually went hand-in-hand with the cigarette.
I was thirty-five when I returned, once again, to Manhattan to visit my still-smoking fifty-seven year old mother. Mom had a beautiful apartment with a balcony on the sixteenth floor of a building in the heart of Midtown, just blocks from the United Nations and Grand Central Station. The interior style was French formal, with a huge, hand-made coffee table made from burl wood. Two deep brown velvet couches sat opposite the burl table. The magazines on the table were current issues of Women’s Wear Daily, Architectural Digest and Vogue. A beautiful dried wreath I had sent her many years before lay in a decorative pottery dish that I had also bought for her. She always kept me close, with the treasures I had made for her, from fourth-grade clay pieces to mature gifts I sent from Colorado and California.
Mom and her husband made a comfortable life for themselves, working long hours in the textile industry and sustaining a small import business of their own. They sold yarns imported from the finest Italian textile houses in Milan, Italy, to top American design houses to be made into couture clothing. It was a perfect business for Mom, who always loved the idea of wearing fine clothing. Her dream had materialized.
Mom suffered with severe arthritis. At the time, they called it rheumatics. One could barely even touch her shoulders without her experiencing searing pain. She would call and tell me she didn’t have a bone in her body that didn’t hurt.
She remained fearful of my lifestyle, that of a dope-smoking hippie. I said to her, “Mom, smoke a few hits of this doob with me. It might ease your pain.”
For the first time now, I saw she was actually considering it. “Just smoke it like a cigarette, with a shallow inhale,” I told her. “No need to hold the smoke in your lungs, just blow it out.” I demonstrated. She took the joint and held it like a pro.
A few moments later, after a couple of tokes, we were chatting non-stop about all my special dress moments. For my prom I wore long, white, leather opera gloves and a floor-length white sheath gown, with a lace cap-over top. The three linen dresses I bought for thirty-five dollars each at Bonwit Teller when I got my first professional job at Bloomingdales on 59th Street made her proud that her good taste had rubbed off on me.
We had some great laughs, talked about Dad, who had suffered his first heart attack at thirty-five. “How did you cope?” I asked.
“We got through it the best we could.”
Ten years after the first heart attack, the day after his forty-seventh birthday, Dad had a massive coronary at work and died. I was just seventeen.
That day we reminisced. Not about our loss, but about his life and how good he always smelled. Talking about Dad brought us smiles and comfort. It was something we could never do in front of Mom’s husband of many years. He was extremely jealous of our relationship and made it almost impossible for us to spend time alone. But that day was an exception.
Two hours later, Mom said, “Well, I have to tell you, I feel nothing from that pot of yours.”
“Really?” I answered. “Tell me, do you usually sit on your coffee table with your legs crossed?”
She was stunned, and did her best to cover up, but the fact was, nothing ached for that period of time, and she and I reconnected.
Less than a decade later, Mom was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that eventually led to bone cancer. Over the next few years, radiation alone could no longer hold the cancer at bay. Mom was not about to surrender and believed every word her doctor told her, refusing to seek a second opinion, as the family urged. Unknowingly, she started the most deadly of chemo treatments, without truly understanding the ramifications.
Three months later I was called to her dying bedside. The doctor said I had twenty-four hours. I took the next flight out of San Francisco, landed at JFK, dropped my bag off at their apartment and then went directly to the hospital. As I took the elevator up to her floor, I took a deep breath and walked into her room. Lying there, with a shaven head, not a line on her face, she looked beautiful. I sat down.
“I’m here Mom.”
“Listen to me. Everyone you ever loved is waiting for you. It is safe to let go.” To this day, I don’t know where those words came from.
She was receiving the maximum dose of morphine and was still in excruciating pain. I asked the doctor if he could give her something so she would no longer be conscious of the pain.
“You are asking me to come very close to that fine line,” he remarked.
“Yes I am, please help her.”
That night after our visit, she lost consciousness.
I had crossed the country several times to see her during her illness, and was with her on that last trip far longer than the twenty-four hours the doctor had indicated. During that last week, while she remained unconscious, I revisited all our favorite haunts. At the Plaza’s Oyster Bar, our number one choice for lunch, I sat at the bar and stared at the table we had last occupied, and then crossed 57th Street to see a foreign film at The Paris Movie House. This is where we first went after Dad passed, to see a French movie called A Man and a Woman. Retracing our footsteps was the only way I knew to comfort myself. At night, in the hospital, I would tell her what I had done, knowing she would be pleased that I held our time together so dear.
I recalled then that once she had called me in San Francisco to ask, “Did you have a good childhood?” Somewhat surprised, as she had never demonstrated insecurity before, I assured her I was very fortunate.
“Every weekend you and Dad took me to museums, plays, movies and miniature golf. You took me to Saks Fifth Avenue to dress me and kept us stylish, though poor.” I laughed. “Are you kidding?”
“Well, I was just wondering. It’s always good to know.”
Early on the morning of the fifth day, her husband and I were summoned to the hospital. As we entered the room, the nurse told us that she was failing and it would be no more than an hour. I sat next to her and whispered that I loved her and would miss her. A tear came to her closed eyes.
I had never been with anyone passing. “How do you know when?” I asked the nurse.
“Her pulse slows, and stops.”
It was strangely peaceful.
I learned a great deal from her life, but much more from her death. I will always be grateful for those two hours when I saw her relaxed, at ease and joyful with our memories. She had suffered long enough with her physical body.
In my dreams I am always looking for her, always trying to get home, never able to get a direct flight. Recently, we ran into each other at a party. She looked younger than me. We crossed the room. She said, “You look good, Babe.”
“You too, Mom.”