“I have an old lady house now,” said my mother, Angelina, after she saw some safety features I bought to aid in her home care.
On the cusp of 97, she doesn’t think of herself as aged, and neither do I. Therein lies what has become our biggest issue; one which led to an in-home fall that had her hospitalized with a rehab chaser.
My mother always has been a force of nature. Born in 1922 in Italian Harlem the third youngest of 13 kids, the phrase “tough as nails” hardly does justice to her grit. This was never more evident than when she beat breast cancer twice — in ’92 then again in ‘01.
Angelina lived through the Great Depression and World War II. She is not only a member of the Greatest Generation, but a great mother.
At 38, she became a single one right before I turned three. It was the early sixties, when the matriarchal gold standard was Donna Reed and June Cleaver. Angelina was Helen Bishop, the unmarried, working mother on “Mad Men” who Betty Draper pitied and scorned, yet at the same time envied for her self-reliance.
If living with that stigma wasn’t exhausting enough, she worked all day at what was then the monopoly known simply as “the phone company,” where she rose from operator to executive, before coming home to our new living situation in the Bronx with my grandmother. My mother then worked a second shift around our home as chief cook and bottlewasher, as well as laundress, grocery shopper and housekeeper.
When I became a mother myself, Angelina moved from her outer borough to the Upper East Side so my son, Luke, and daughter, Meg, would have their granny as their nanny.
Even during her 80s, she was on the go. When I looked at her, I still saw the same feisty woman I’d always known, except with grayer hair. My kids saw her that way too. Luke was in high school by then and began calling his grandmother OG, the abbreviation for Original Gangster — someone who’s exceptional, authentic, and “old-school.”
When she turned 90, I went into denial about some distinct changes. A few adjustments were all that were needed. Then, as now, my mother insisted on staying in her own apartment — her last vestige of independence. But I began providing her meals, paying her bills and escorting her when she needed to go outside the home.
I chalked up bouts of forgetfulness as no biggie, since she could still tell stories of events that happened when she was ten, even though she couldn’t remember what she’d eaten for lunch a few hours later.
Because for over two decades I’ve freelanced from home, and have lived across the street from her, I was in and out of her place all day. Then at night I’d set up her TV shows, and after the news she’d put herself to bed.
Yes, we were going along swimmingly until one morning a couple of months ago, I brought her over breakfast, before heading to a meeting. When I left, my mother was reading the paper in her favorite chair where I thought she’d stay until I returned in a few hours. Instead, she got up, lost her balance and hit the floor.
“I feel broken,” she said to me when I found her. Broken indeed. Five ribs worth. After four days at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, Angelina went into Mary Manning Walsh Home for two weeks of physical therapy. I brought her home to my house, but after a couple of days she wanted to go back to hers.
Things however needed to change for her protection. She uses a walker now. (Six months ago when I suggested it, she took her foot and kicked it across the apartment. Life Alert received a similar reaction.) Now she’s like speed racer with it. I also got her safety rails that wrap around the toilet to let her get up and steady herself. I installed a Wyse camera that lets me monitor her apartment via an app on my phone during the day if I can’t be there for personal or professional reasons.
Eventually she may have to make my house hers and give up her beloved apartment.
Motherless friends constantly tell me how lucky I am to still have my mother. They’re right, and when she’s gone, I’ll miss her. In some respects, I already do.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novel, “Back to Work She Goes.”