Shine on: How long will it last?

Oh, that was one wicked big moon, wasn’t it? Like a mass hallucination. I stood by my car that magical Saturday evening, not wanting to get in and drive. I wanted to soak up the moonlight, inhabit the moment, and, for once, pay full attention. Even now, I can close my eyes and conjure that night sky bathed in more light than we have any right to expect.

I was in the parking lot of my mother’s nursing home. I’d seen Mum just two days before. She’d been dressed, her hair was brushed, and she was in good humor.

Well, actually, that visit began badly. Mum, God love her, is 93 and has been suffering from a marble deficit disorder for a while. Conversation can be awkward, as it was the day she thought I was a drug kingpin. I walked into her room, and she looked up at me, horrified. “I am so disappointed in you.”

Luckily, our conversation about the family brought her back to reality. When I left, she was watching a TV show and remarking on how the women in the audience throw themselves at Dr. Oz.

Just two days later, on Saturday, I was shocked to find her lying in bed, in a nightgown, her hair matted. Worst of all, she was nearly unresponsive. She seemed to be awake, but could scarcely speak.

“Who’s the President, Mum?” Her eyebrows pulled together, and she was thinking hard, but coming up empty. “Do you know what year it is?” She had no idea.

Today, the nurses were worried about my mother. So was I. She lay on her side, curled up like a baby. I brushed her hair, washed her face with a warm washcloth, and tried not to freak out. I’ve been visiting her here for four years, and she’s always dressed, coiffed, and wearing makeup. We’d chat about family, politics, and reminisce about the old days.            

During those visits, we’d often talk about my college years, when I lived at home and commuted to school. My friends were her friends. If we went out for dinner and drinks, my friends made sure that Mum was invited. “Mrs. Jaquith” seemed too formal for them, so we all called her “Boomer.”

One night, we’d gone to a restaurant in Boston. After dinner, our group lingered for hours, enjoying our daiquiris and bloody marys. Suddenly, Mum noticed it was 1am, which was the time, back then, when TV stations signed off by playing the National Anthem. She pushed back her chair, stood up, and began belting out, “Oh, say can you see….” It didn’t seem right to remain seated, so we all stood up with her and sang The Star-Spangled Banner.

I went out to the nursing home lobby with my cell phone and called my daughter to tell her that her grandmother seemed to be dying. I’d hoped to get through that calmly, because I’m the mother now, but my voice betrayed me.

Back in her room, I decided the best thing I could do was sit with her. I watched for the slight rise and fall of her chest to discern whether or not she was still in there. My face close to hers, I said, “Would you like me to read to you?” She opened her eyes slightly, and I was struck at how blue her irises are. They matched a nearby throw pillow. “Boomer blue” is what we call that color.

On her shelf is a copy of a book I wrote, a collection of essays I’ve broadcast on the radio. I looked for one about the family and started reading Wet Crackers, about Mum’s recipe for Depression-era treats that I’d thought sounded disgusting. (They were, essentially, wet crackers with a little sugar sprinkled on top.)

I’d read a paragraph, then have to stop so I could sob as quietly as possible for a while, and then resume reading. Near the end, I noticed that, although her eyes were closed, she was smiling, faintly, at all the right places. She could hear me.

I read a few more, and she appeared to be enjoying them. When I got to the one about how I try on my wedding dress every anniversary, just to see if I can still squeeze into it, she opened her eyes. I leaned in to hear her: “Did Harry have to cut you out of it?” (Not yet, maybe this year.)

When Harry arrived so we could go out to dinner, Mum remained in her fetal position, eyes nearly closed, but she smiled and knew who he was.

So, progress. We went to dinner, and Harry drove me back to the home where my car was parked. It was the night of the supermoon, when, you’ll recall, the glowing orb had swollen to dreamlike size. Having had some wine with dinner, I didn’t want to get behind the wheel right away.

My daughter texted me: “Look at the Moon!” Should I try to take Mum outside to see it? And how many times did we sing Shine On, Harvest Moon with Mum providing the harmony? Maybe hundreds.

The corridors in the home are quiet in the evening. Mum was lying in the same position, facing the wall. “Mum? Mum? You awake?” She was. I told her about the supermoon and how it wouldn’t appear this big for another 18 years. Would she like to get into her wheelchair and go see it? At this point, I’m thinking there’s no way – but I did the right thing by asking.

Eyes closed, Mum whispered, “How long will it last?” I said, “Just tonight.” She hesitated, then said, “Okay.”

She managed to rise up and sit. I brushed her hair, put a robe and slippers on her, and off we went. I could hardly believe she was upright. I’d thought I’d never see her like that again. Not only was she upright, Mum was downright giddy, as though we were in a girls’ dorm in the 1950s, about to escape on a Saturday night for God-knows-what kind of escapade. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s what she thought was going on.)

We rolled along the sidewalk until the moon was in clear view. I locked the wheels and crouched next to her. We howled at the moon, and in a shaky, barely audible voice, she harmonized as we sang, Shine On, Harvest Moon. When we’d had our fill, we headed back, Mum giggling and shushing me, as though we might be caught in a forbidden after-curfew entry.

When the day began, I never could have predicted it would end like this. In a matter of hours, we went from Mum scarcely able to speak (and me choking on sobs) to howling at the moon.

As my mother so memorably said: “How long will it last?” Hard to say.
Early on the morning of April 5, the day this essay was sent to press, Edith Cassidy Jaquith– born March 2, 1918– passed away.