The Retraction From Life


Weaker, yet still alive, still able to speak, Louise M. Hurvitz was in her wheelchair, in the sunshine near the glistening Marina boats, when she told me she wanted to eat a steak.

That was on Monday, August 18th. She ate a hamburger that night, and a slice of pizza on Tuesday night. She was 8 months into her Stage 4 lung and bone cancer.

Nurse Linda said she was looking great.

Then on Wednesday she began to call for her sister “Millie”. She was up all night, and then asleep all day by morphine and Lorazepam. In periods of wakefulness, her glazed eyes no longer looked at me, but out into nothing.

She was no longer able to speak. I went every other day to see her, knowing she was entering death.

A blue booklet left by hospice, Gone From My Sight, explained how the bedridden dying walked out of life. We noted her symptoms mirrored in the book.

The late afternoon sun was bright in her bedroom on Friday, August 22nd. She screamed that her head hurt, her back hurt, everything hurt. She wanted me to shut all the drapes. I abided and put the room in darkness. Foreshadowing.

She was in her last days. Nurse Bertha said if she ate she would stay alive. And then on Friday, August 29th, Labor Day weekend, hospice came and said, “no more food or water”. She was given 72 hours.

All weekend were the pleasures of Los Angeles, the beach and the beer, the walks along Abbot Kinney, the barbecues, I partook of some haunted by an upcoming phone call.

And then on Sunday, August 31st at 11:30 PM we were called and told she was breathing irregularly. We got in the car and rushed down to the apartment. My brother and sister-in-law were at her bedside. A nurse helplessly held the nasal end of the oxygen tube against her open mouth.

She was gray faced.

She was gasping for breath.

I replaced the nasal oxygen with a whole nose/mouth mask. Nurse Linda arrived. The hospice nurse came. It was about 2am and we did not know how long she would live. Exhausted we left. And an hour later I was in bed when my brother called.

“I hate to tell you this but Mom has passed.”

All the fighting for her life, all the medications, the food, the physical therapy, the chemotherapy, the consultations with UCLA medical doctors, the cat scans and the other radiology, the organic smoothies packed with nutrients; all the equipment, the oxygen, the ointments; everything done to keep her alive and going. Done.

Her body was pronounced dead by a doctor. The cremation company came to the apartment to wrap up and remove her.


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We held a home service for her, almost a week later, on Saturday, September 5th.

Andreas Samson, my friend who writes Up in the Valley, attended and wrote a touching description of the bittersweet “party”.

There was food and drink, old photos on the flat screen television, a Spotify soundtrack of her beloved music (Frank Sinatra, the Fifth Dimension, Herb Alpert). Relatives who had never seen her sick, showed up to pay their respects.

And her life was presented selectively, with an emphasis on the young, beautiful, vivacious, pranking, intelligent, subversive sorority girl and network executive.

She, who died at 80, mothered a retarded boy, took care of an epileptic and ill husband, worried and fretted over children, finances, nightly meals, laundry and cleaning, her daily travails were wiped away or spoken of in one sentence salutes at our remembrance.

For 52 years, I had grown up and grown old with her. I knew her love and her craziness, her exasperating circular questions, her sparkling memory for names, faces, and events.

She, who drank vodka and grapefruit juice, and later switched to red wine, was probably an alcoholic. She was full of shame over events she had no power over, castigating and punishing herself.

But she fought hard to protect and to nurture, and daring to venture out of Lincolnwood, IL, moving to suburban NJ where she set up a new life with her family at 47, exploring Manhattan, New England and the East Coast with the curiosity and passion of a young woman starting out life.

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She sold airplanes with a male friend, a pilot and airplane broker who lead a life outside of norms, a man who was later convicted of stealing money from his customers. He flew Louise and our family, often, to Albany, Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, Manahawkin Airport, Miami, East Hampton, Nantucket, Block Island, all around the Eastern Seaboard. American life was seen from 8,000 feet, little houses and little lives across the vast expanse.

She went into the city to see plays with my father, to walk neighborhoods, to buy groceries at Fairway, see exhibitions at the Metropolitan, attend concerts and events at Lincoln Center.

She read the NY Times and Bergen Record voraciously, keeping herself informed on culture and politics. The papers piled up in wet and musty mountains stacked in the garage.

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She loved her new home in the woods, a place where the windows were always open and the rooms smelled of rain and leaves and florid humidity. In the spring, summer and early fall, the back deck, suspended on the second story of the house, was her outdoor space, a place of reading, eating, entertaining and midnight conversations by candlelight.


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She lost my father after his long and agonizing brain disease, an illness that took 4 years to progress, rendering him an invalid.

But after he died, in her apartment in the Marina, she became a devoted grandmother and somehow earned the respect and awe of children who had once only seen sadness and burden in her exhausted eyes.

She was valiant onto the end; never giving into death, never acknowledging that life was less than the entirety. An iron dome of denial was her shield.

She was more than she ever admitted to being. She was magnificent in her life force, in her refusal to die, in her love for life.

 

 

 

 

Denial.


“She was screaming at night about her arm, her chest, her leg,” Anisha, a caregiver, said.

“She hardly slept.”

Anisha was speaking about my mother,now in Stage 4 cancer, confined to a bed for the last eight months.

Later on, when I went into her room, my mother said she had slept well the night before. “There is nothing wrong with me,” she said.

She was breathing on oxygen, then she told us to take it off. She has refused most pain medication, reluctantly asking only for sleeping pills.


 

I took her out on Sunday, in her wheelchair, and we ventured along the Marina. By chance, we happened to come to a dock where a water taxi was taking passengers. I wheeled her down and we rode around the harbor for a dollar.

A hospice nurse visited on Sunday night and found nothing “wrong”, only anxiety.

On Monday, another nurse came and told me later my mother’s feet were showing signs of “mottling” an impending indicator of death.


 

On Tuesday, I was back down at her apartment. A social worker was talking to my mother. Anisha told me that my mother had not slept the night before, and had talked of her future fear and past regret. “You should give her some hope for the afterlife,” Anisha said to me, an atheist.

When the social worker left, I went back into the bedroom. My mother was combative, annoyed. “You and your brother are driving me crazy with this system! How would you like to be under a microscope?”

I asked her if she had slept well. She said of course. She slept fine.

Again we went out to roam around the Marina. It got windy and she asked to go back inside. “I want a steak,” she said. She had not eaten more than liquids for at least a week. I corrected her and said she meant hamburger.

And then after I left the apartment, after I had two glasses of wine at a bar, I walked around Venice, shooting pictures along the canals, and then wandered back to my car.

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The phone rang as I drove east on Washington. It was Anisha. She wanted to assure me that my mother had slept well last night. When she had called out, it was only in a dream.

“I told him,” Anisha said to my mother before she hung up the phone.

The Virtual World


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Yesterday was a beautiful day up on the sixth floor of UCLA’s Santa Monica Oncology Center as we brought my mom up into a sun-filled room with dozens of reclining leather chairs and she was connected by vein into chemo.

The wall of glass windows looked west to the shimmering ocean as the 80-degree sun blew hot and the palms swayed in the wind.

Instead of needles, blood, screams and suffering, there were copies of Martha Stewart Living, November 2010: beautiful show dogs photographed in sepia, apple pies set on wood tables, silver and purple leaves pressed onto canvas for a do-it-yourself art project. I saw Calvados and potatoes au gratin, buttery grilled beans on 18th Century Limoges china, tulip bulbs laid into the soil on a Connecticut farm.

In my hands were two bags from FLOR, full of colored carpet samples I had gathered for a client, purple and brown, green and yellow squares, laid out on the wall ledge so my mom could tell me which ones she liked.

My brother was listening to a podcast, partly; answering emails, talking to his wife, and texting his business partner as the medical anti-cancer fluid dripped and dripped, into my mother’s bloodstream, and he talked of idiot entertainment execs and the virtues of a new calendar app.

The nurse, an Asian-Californian woman, in a tan Levi’s corduroy jacket over dark brown scrubs, came to change the tube; her long, straight black hair shining in the bright sunlight, her smile warm and genuine, caring, here in the chemo spa; where all voices were subdued, all expressions were smiles, and all expectations were high.

To combat nausea, the doctor prescribed the Martian sounding Onandestron.

After the tube came out, my mother said, “That’s it?”

And the caregiver, the nurse, and the two sons wheeled her out of the sun, and into the dark elevator, down to the red Ford Focus waiting in the garage.

2/19/14


52 years ago, in Park Ridge, IL, a 28-year-old woman labored in Lutheran General Hospital for 20 hours and gave birth to me.

Yesterday, we were together again, at 8:30am, inside UCLA Medical in Santa Monica, CA to hear the news that her cancer had spread from lung to bone and most likely would kill her within months.

There were tears in the office, and treatment talked of but not promised, because there was not much that could be done to arrest and blockade a disfiguring and painful disease. Aggressive killing cells, moving fast, were taking over every bodily pathway and steering this woman, my mother, into death.

Back at the apartment, I called 90-year-old Aunt Millie, my mother’s sister in Chicago, to tell her a grave prognosis. Simultaneously, we burst out crying, she wailing that her little sister was not supposed to die before her.

Later on, in the sun, I sat with my mother in the open door of her apartment, by her knee, as she spoke of her disbelief. I told her I didn’t want to see her in any pain, that if she had to die, it should be quickly.

To wish your mother to die faster seems obscene, blasphemous, selfish.

But every choice pondered, in treatment or without, lead into the same dead end: 2 months, 4 months, 8 months…

A vulture phoned later, a cousin who traffics in crystals and angelic communications. He spoke, like an infomercial, of “amazing” cures down in Mexico, and “unbelievable” results.

Topped in yarmulke and baptized in mysticism, he droned on in monologue, flavoring his pitch with prestige (“Harvard” and “M.I.T”), cliche and promise (“Think outside the box” and “alternative treatment”). Gross and unrelenting in salesmanship and insanity, the voice of this bearded charlatan claimed godlike knowledge that might save a dying person.

But the huckster claiming the miracle cure has no power over us.

Our immediate family was inoculated in skepticism, disbelieving in the afterlife, doubtful of religious fervor, resigned to believe that death is death and without merit except in its extinction of pain.

Dreams of heaven were not on my mind, only the distant past.

I saw again the Super 8 movies taken by my father as my mother pushed a stroller around Indian Boundry Park in Chicago in early Spring, her black hair and skirt blowing in the March winds. I saw days spent with my younger mother in love, the warm breath of life, memory, kisses, spaghetti sauce cooking on the stove, the days spent on the porch watching the rain pour down on Birchwood Drive; I also recalled the explorations into old neighborhoods, the angry fights, the dramas and battles over bad report cards, the shame when I came out and my eventual acceptance and her grudging respect, the fierce warrior who always thought my best days were still to come; she with her inexhaustible conversations and inability to stay silent long, how can her voice go away! How can my mute words replace life itself, extinguished cruelly and helplessly by the biological necessity of dying?

2/19/14: a dark day, an unforgettable birthday. It ended, as many days in Los Angeles do, eating sushi. Me, my brother, my sister-in-law and my 7-year-old nephew went out to dinner, drank sake and split raw fish rolls. And I blew out a single candle on top of vanilla ice cream and fried bananas as the entire restaurant sang Happy Birthday.