I moved to Oakland at the beginning of October 1974, into a big old rundown house which I shared with two couples: Judy Grahn and Wendy Cadden, and Carol Wilson and Alice Molloy. Each woman had her own room. Mine was in the attic. I was the extra person, most welcome but still feeling like a fifth wheel.
During the first week of January, when I’d barely begun to settle in, the phone call came from New York. Mom had had a stroke and was in the hospital, unconscious. I was on the next plane.
When I arrived, a shrunken version of my mother lay under the blankets, and Dad was standing by the bed. A couple of years ago she’d told me she’d been diagnosed with polymyalgia, an autoimmune disease. It gave her terrific headaches. I hadn’t bothered to look it up. I was 29 then, out in the world and having adventures. I had no interest in spending my life like my mother, being a housewife, raising her two girls, adopting her nephew, carrying bedpans for her disabled mother, looking after her blind father. I didn’t want to hear about the miseries of old age, not then. So it wasn’t until the actual event that my father shared what the doctors had told him: polymyalgia causes strokes.
They’d been treating Mom with prednisone. “That’s what caused the moon face,” Dad said, his voice matter of fact, his eyes brimming with love and agony.
A little while later my sister Jeannette joined us, and then a doctor showed up. He said the X-rays showed that Mom’s brain was more than half destroyed, and she would never recover. Dad couldn’t accept it. He wanted to take her home and look after her, even as she was.
We came and went for the better part of a week. Sometimes I took Mom’s hand and she squeezed it in return. The doctor dismissed it as just a reflex. He was wrong. However much diminished, she was still there. Now I too wanted to take her home and care for her.
One day at the end of the week Dad and I were standing in the hallway when we heard an alarm, and two people raced past us in hospital coats. They wouldn’t let us into Mom’s room while they were doing whatever they did in those days, trying to restart her heart. They weren’t successful. When the doctor told us, Dad let out a short, high-pitched wail and then began to sob. I can still hear that wail, and it still breaks my heart.