More Than a Woman



I saw this poem on the subway one day. It captured me with it’s eloquence and truth.


I think of long summer days spent swimming in my parents’ pool. I was with my daughter, about 9 years old. We played silly games together. Sometimes I would pretend that I was Koko the gorilla and she was my pet kitty-cat. I’d pull her through the water dragging her under my arm shouting, “Koko love her baby!” in what I imagined to be a gorilla voice and we would laugh together. Our other favorite activity would be to play the soundtrack from “Saturday Night Fever” (already 20 years old by then) on the outdoor speakers. I’d teach her my disco moves from the 70’s. Though she was still a bit young to watch the movie, we played roles. In the song “More Than A Woman”, I was Tony Manero and she was Stephanie Mangano. At one point we’d hold hands and circle around and around making waves as we acted out what we called “looking like we were in love”, our mouths agape in a parody of love-struck dancers.

On the other end of the pool was my mother with my five year old son. He would have a life vest on, his head popping out above with his long dark hair in bangs leading to his very large and almost black, brown eyes. You could see my mom’s strong and tanned shoulders as she led him around. Her hair was curly and a bright red. She was about 60, but looked a good 10 years younger than that. She would pull Paul along, holding his little hands while he kicked, squinting from the water that would splash in his face. “Wooooooooooo! Good job, good job!” She would say to him.

As a single mom finding my way through life, I don’t know what I would have done without that pool and my mom. Parents of grown up kids always say how that time of life goes so fast. Now that I am at that point, I get it. But you never realize it when you are in the middle of those long days.

I’ve often said that my mom was my partner when my kids were growing up. When Madeline was a newborn and my husband went to work, I will never forget the relief when my mom showed up at my house with fresh-baked muffins from our favorite bakery. I sat in the rocking chair nursing the baby, and could smell the scent of Tide detergent coming up from the basement along with the comforting sound of the dryer going. Clean clothes would be folded and ready soon. I could finally take a shower, when I handed the bundle of baby to her. Her help was a bit of heaven during that incredibly exhausting period.

By the time I had two very young kids, my husband and I made the decision to divorce. Never an easy choice and always hard on the family. Both my father and my mother did everything they could to help me from drowning. They helped me get back on my feet financially, while I went to school at night, and lovingly took care of the kids from time to time. My mom devoted one day a week to come over and hang out with them. That was my day for myself, as well as some time to just talk with my mom.

She used to greet my daughter with, “Hiya Toots!”. She introduced her to Broadway shows and encouraged her love of musical theater. With my son Paul it was, “Can I have a sniff?”, because for some reason he seemed to retain that divine baby-head smell well beyond his infancy. He would fake exasperation as he tilted his head to her and she would give a great inhale of his thick hair. “MMMmmmmmm! Thank you, Mr. P” and she would finish it with a kiss.

We would take the kids shopping at the mall. First we would go to Sbarro and have pizza. The strategy was to buy a little toy for Paul after that to keep him interested in and stay in the stroller while we women would get down to business. Madeline would try on clothes and when she would model outfits for us, my mom and I would serenade her with the Elvis song, “You’re so Young and Beautiful”. I must add here that my mom was always a huge fan of Elvis and so my kids were thoroughly educated on his music and legend.

When the sun finally would set on those summer days, after the waterlogged kids were fed and in their nightclothes, we would settle down in front of the tv and watch a silly Elvis movie as they each nodded off. My mom and I would have a glass of wine and talk. We would laugh sometimes, we would vent about my father, my ex-husband, relatives. Our conversation was easy. If we were sleeping over, we would each take a kid and escort them to the yellow bedroom with the twin beds and tuck them in. I would sleep in the bedroom next to it. After we said goodnight, I would hear my mom puttering around, turning off the lights, perhaps finishing up some dishes that we’d left in the sink. The sounds were very comforting as I would drift off to sleep.

It is now 20 years later. My parents sold that lovely home and moved into a senior living center nearby. My kids grew up and have their own lives.

I think that once they moved into that place, my mother’s tragic secret that she had been successfully hiding from most people was revealed. The repetition of stories, loss of words and confusion had been brewing for the last couple of years.

She has now reached the phase in dementia of not being aware that it is happening. Once she got there it was a blessing as well as a tragedy. Before this she was angry and terrified. Now she just doesn’t say much and when she does she stops mid-sentence or says something that does not relate to the conversation. And she remembers nothing.

A couple of months before my daughter’s wedding we took my mom shopping at the mall to help her find an outfit to wear. She walked slowly, a little overwhelmed. She didn’t really like anything but we got her to try on a few things.  It was as we helped stabilize her to step in and out of dresses, I first noticed the disposable underwear. My mother of the silk, expensive lingerie was wearing beige, paper adult diapers.

She showed no interest in the food court, we could barely get her to eat or drink. We pointed out the carousel in the mall where we used to spend many days taking the kids on. She gave it a blank stare.

We gave up after a little while. She was visibly tired and we were not getting anywhere. I went to bring the car around while Madeline took her to the bathroom before leaving.

My father no longer has a wife. Married over 60 years, they were best friends who argued, laughed, talked and shared a great life together. Not long ago I overheard him telling her about a trip they had taken to Venice. An incredibly elegant and romantic story. I so admired his bravery as he shared this story and didn’t cry as she repeatedly said, “was I there?”.

“Yes, Patsy. You were there and are still just as  beautiful”.

Instead of a wife, he has a child. There are signs taped up in the bathroom by an aide that comes in daily to help my mother bathe and dress.

“Patricia, don’t forget to brush your teeth”

“Please put pads in the wastebasket and don’t flush them down the toilet”

“Patricia, remember to wash your hands”

I haven’t had a mother in years. I try to remember her, how she was before. I smiled recently as I thought about when we were kids and she would hide a large Hershey bar in the freezer for herself to nibble on. She would wrap it in foil and label it with masking tape, “Liver”. Nobody would touch it. That was the mind that is gone.

My daughter asked me to do a special dance with her at her wedding. Of course it would be from the now 40 year old “Saturday Night Fever”, which she finally watched just that year. We choreographed our moves right from the dance contest scene, her fiance counting off the steps with us.

It was on a long, summer day that my daughter married the love of her life in an outdoor wedding at my brother’s house, on property reminiscent of my parent’s old place. My father had helped my mother buy a lovely outfit that was much better than anything we had seen at the mall. Her aide had helped her get dressed and she was stunning. She faked conversation with people that knew her, but she didn’t really know them any more. My father held on to her and stayed by her side.

As the first bars to “More Than a Woman” started, I strutted across the dance floor to my partner. I was Tony Manero and she was Stephanie Mangano. We brought the house down with our moves, including the “look like we’re in love” with hands clasped, circling around. It was a magical and humorous moment enjoyed by all.

My grown son stood nearby, a handsome man now who still has thick dark hair and the eyes that are so brown that they are almost black. My mother sat next to my father, watching us. She smiled too, though her eyes did not seem to understand the full relevance and meaning of this dance, and of the summer days years ago when we laughed and played with those children in the pool.





Your Mom Doesn’t Live Here Anymore


When I look into her soft, blue eyes I don’t see her inside. Not anymore.

She looks like my mom. An older version, a version who wears grey washed-out tee shirts now instead of the beautiful clothes that she used to wear.

Her voice is the same, only she doesn’t have much to say anymore. What she does say, she repeats. A lot. The stilted conversation is peppered with a nervous laughter. Is she embarrassed? Or is it just part of her confusion?

She loves her dog. She loves her big, fat, bushy red dog. He keeps her company all the time and I think he is what keeps her going.


My mom was always a little discombobulated. She was one of those people who can never find their keys, their glasses, their wallet. But eventually she always did find them. She was famous for losing a telephone. Not a cellphone but an old-fashioned house phone. My father would always buy her expensive cameras, computers, cell phones and she was constantly struggling to figure out how to use them. All this stuff was normal and part of who she was.


In thinking of her, as I do often these days it comes to me that her biggest talent was to make whomever she was speaking to seem interesting. It was why she was so successful as a corporate wife of a CEO. My mom could talk to anyone. She was a good listener and knew how to find the route to another person’s ego. My father’s clients adored her. My friends adored her, my children and their friends adored her.


Yes, she brought little presents to my kids when they were young. And many larger ones that they didn’t know about, such as paying for music lessons and such. Their favorite thing about her though, was just simply hanging out with her. She was the best audience ever. When Grandma was with them, they were the most talented pianist, singer, artist and certainly the most interesting people. It’s not that she treated them like adults. She treated them like people. Young people who had something to say that was important.


My mom and I could talk for hours on the phone. My ups and downs, divorce, falling in love, finding my way through a complicated career were always discussed. She was a friend, not just my mother.


Many lazy summer days were spent, floating on blue rubber rafts in her swimming pool. Cicadas would be buzzing their long, whining song along with the little cement elephant fountain spurting water out of its’ trunk. My mom was always one of the first to put on her bathing suit on her strong, healthy body. She was a beauty, always looking far younger than her years. She was a grandma that never minded going into the water with the kids. She wasn’t one of those grownups who sat by the side of the pool, dreading having to get wet. She relished her time with them. I think that’s part of what kept her young.


Somewhere an invisible line was crossed. Stealthily, insidiously, something inside of her head began to go…away.

My mom was from the generation that was on the cusp between going to college to get your M.R.S. and going to college to get an education. She got the first one, and was married to my father when she was eighteen years old. My mother had the occasional job, but never had a career. She raised three kids. She and my father socialized but I do not recall my mother ever really spending time with girlfriends. She had no hobbies, no goals or aspirations that I ever knew of. Pretty much everything revolved around my brothers, me and my father. The only thing that she was really passionate about was movies and theater. My now grown daughter attributes her with instilling her love and later on, pursuit of becoming a singer.She did go back to college in her 40’s and got her diploma. She tried her hand at some writing  for her classes. She mainly wrote about our family. Sometimes I wonder if her lack of drive for anything outside of us is partly responsible for what is happening to her.


When my father started to make some serious money, they were in their 50’s and she perfected her game as his wife. She was groomed and dressed by personal shoppers at Bergdorf’s and hair stylists at Frederic Fekkai. My mother loved being able to write checks and help her sister out when she was struggling. Or to take me and my kids shopping. We would exit the mall pushing a stroller with my little son, the rest of us carrying giant blue bags from the Gap. I think her heyday was when she would pack all of the kids, including my nieces and nephew into her huge silver SUV and just be grandma. We called her big, beautiful house full of toys and magical gardens to stroll in- Camp Patsy.


I think I first noticed it at family gatherings. We are a loud, funny bunch. We joke, we laugh, we drink and cook great food. You need to be witty and quick to keep up.

Somewhere along the line, my mom started to become a little invisible in these get togethers. While she may not have always participated in the sarcastic banter that is the specialty of me, my brothers and father, she would have engaged more with one of my sisters-in-law. Or some of the kids. Instead I have noticed her sitting quietly with a drink in her hand. Watching but her eyes were just a slightly blank looking.

When she would speak, it was increasingly to talk about something she had already told us. The same stories were repeated more and more. She was overshadowed by a bunch of loudmouths. It hurts me to say it now, that she was kind of dismissed.

Then her increasingly difficult ability to find words. Most of us have what we call “senior moments” when we space out on a word that we cannot remember. Her frustration grew as she would have more and more trouble expressing her thoughts. With this has come general confusion. Her calendar is loaded with scribbled notes, including my daughter’s boyfriend’s name because after five years she still cannot remember it.


I moved away from the family, so I see everyone a little less often than before. My kids are grown and don’t need a babysitter. My father is retired, they sold the house and moved to a senior living community. Life moved on.


Seeing her less often is what has made me look at her in a new light. On the phone, we have very little to talk about. She tells me that I sound great and that she is happy for me. When I ask her about herself, she talks about her dog and complains about my father. When I try to make plans to see her, she uses him as an excuse. At one point, she had me so concerned about him that I went up there to check things out for myself. Other than a painful hip, he was doing fine. Sharp as a tack, current, learning new things and engaged. It dawned on me that he was her excuse for never going anywhere. If it isn’t on “campus” as I call the place where they live, she doesn’t go.

Last year, her sister was dying. I spoke with my cousin, her daughter, every day. When she told me it was apparent that it was the end, I was the one who had to explain the gravity of the situation to my mother. I don’t believe that she knew how bad it was. I offered to make the arrangements and travel with her from Connecticut to North Carolina to say goodbye. Or at least to be with the family.

Mom decided that it wasn’t really necessary for her to go.

She twisted a tale about how wonderful her brother and my cousin were being and that they told her not to come. She seemed to think that if she went, she would be expected to write checks and she was in the position to do that any longer now that she and my father were being more conservative with money. And of course, my father. He wasn’t doing very well. Not true. She was becoming a true artist of deflection.


She justified it, and went on. Not too long ago, my mother would have been the first person to get on a plane to go there. This was not my mother anymore.


I have started to re-frame my relationship with her. I feel more a caretaker than a daughter. We don’t have much to say to one another. We walk our dogs on the perfectly manicured grounds and have stilted conversations. Those long talks of yesteryear are gone now. When I go to visit, I check out the refrigerator, clean it up a bit. I remember when I was younger and would go visit my grandparents and the drinking glasses were kind of schmutzy looking. Sadly, I am starting to find the same thing in the cabinets in my parents’ kitchen.


I think the hardest part is that she is somewhat cognizant of what is happening to her. She will start a conversation with a thought, lose it somewhere along the line and exclaim, “Ugh! My brain just stops when I’m talking! I hate this!”

She is snippier with me now too. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism but at times she will be a little harsh with me. My daughter noticed it too. It’s only with me and my dad. Perhaps she is most comfortable with us. Or maybe it’s because she knows we are watching, observing something that she is powerless over.


Recently, my father had a hip replacement. He sailed right through it and at the age of 82, he is making a swift and excellent recovery. My brother was there with her at the hospital to lend support and to get the follow-up from the doctor.

Later on, I got it out of my father that my mother never went back to the hospital while he was still there for three more days.

She did not pick up the mail for two weeks.

When I talked to her on the phone, she barely spoke about him. It was all about how tired she was and how happy she was to get a break. Her conversation with me now is basically telling me that I look wonderful. Or that I sound wonderful. Or about her dog, or that my father exhausts her. With that nervous laugh, she says she is ready for a drink!


I have one wall in my New York City apartment that is devoted to family pictures. Generations of us.  Some are in color, the older ones in black and white. There are my grandparents, my kids as babies and as young adults, myself, my brothers, nieces, my nephew at all ages and stages of life.

It is the photos of my mother now that speak to me especially when I look at them. There is the one from the early 60’s of her with a Jackie Kennedy hair-do, taken with little me, both of us wearing stylish overcoats holding hands strolling on the Upper East Side.

Another one is of her with her dark hair in a flip, arms around my baby brother and I shielding us from the wind on Jones Beach. It is very intimate in nature.

Another place in time, at Camp Patsy. A day when we played dress-up from her wardrobe in Grandma’s attic. My daughter is eight in the picture and is wearing an old prom dress of mine, My sister-in-law is wearing an 80’s outfit with sprawling palazzo pants and shoulder pads, holding my baby niece. Mine was the best- lime green bell bottoms and matching top with a groovy fringed scarf a la early Jackson 5. In the middle is my mother, smiling widely not in a silly costume. She is beaming at sharing her old stuff with us.

Then there is a family portrait taken on the beach on Martha’s Vineyard about ten years ago. It is all 13 of us, my original nuclear family, brothers’ spouses and our collective five kids at various stages. Happy faces, at magic hour right before sunset. I remember it so well, how afterwards the kids ran around in the sand and we adults opened a bottle of champagne, toasting and laughing.

There she is, in the center of us. Her red hair gleaming, her blue eyes bright. Her beautiful smile. She was there, she was in the moment.

I miss my friend. I miss my mom. Though she’s still with us, she’s gone.

Blood Brother

Why was the American Red Cross leaving me messages? Something about being a marrow donor match. What the hell? I listened to the message again.  Uh-oh…

Years ago I had donated blood toward a marrow drive.  It only took a few minutes and with a band aid and a sticker saying “I gave blood!” I walked out without a second thought.

When I made that donation I was at a very different stage of life. I was married with young kids, my husband supported us. I talked the talk, I would gladly give to help another person in need. It would not be that much of an inconvenience really and I could be a hero.

Well big mouth, now I had to walk the walk… And it was not so convenient at all.

“You are a perfect match”, the representative from the Red Cross said over the phone.  

“I, I uh, put my name in the registry a really long time ago and, um…”

“Well Ma’am, you can always withdraw your name from the registry”

“A perfect match, really?”

“Really.  Very unusual for all the numbers to line up so closely between a non-related donor and recipient. You are about as close to a perfect match as is possible’.

I had just started a brand new job. They had waited for me to finish at my former job, my supervisor calling me every day and nagging me, “when can you start?”.  Finally, I was there now, my first day being exactly one week before.

No more husband to bring home the bacon. I was chief cook and bottle washer now. Literally.

“Ma’am, the protocol is this. We are going to send you some literature to fully educate you on the procedure. If you are willing, we will take more blood samples for testing. If at that point you get clearance and are going to go through with it you need to come to the hospital at U-Conn in Farmington where you will have a complete physical and more blood work. Look at it this way, even if you are not a match or have a condition that would prevent you from being able to donate you will still be getting a full physical and the best medical care available for you at no charge.”

Well, I thought, I will study this and find out what it really entails, which is probably what I should have done in the first place.

It goes like this- the donor has to have complete clearance concerning any disease, because the recipient will have no immunities upon receiving the donation. The donor is given general anesthesia and a hole is drilled into their pelvic bone, where the most concentration of bone marrow is located in the body. Then a very long needle is inserted to the hole and withdraws the fluid from the bone.  The recipient receives the marrow in the form of an injection into the bloodstream, no drilling, no holes.  Incredibly, the cells find their way to where they belong on their own. If all goes well, the platelets start doing their work gradually, giving this person a second chance at life.

According to the pamphlets, some donors reported a “pinching” sensation and soreness after the  procedure. Others said they needed to take a whole week off and could barely walk. No lifting was allowed for a couple of weeks after.  

Anesthesia and pain. Having to take time off from work and having a physical job that required lifting and two small children that also required some lifting. What had I gotten myself into?

In the literature there were also testimonials from donors. They said it was the best feeling that they’d ever had by giving the gift of life. It was worth the discomfort and the disruption. They were fortunate enough to have healthy lives in the first place.

When I shared this news with my mother, I got that look that she had given me since I was a teenager.  Once again I had plunged headfirst into a situation without understanding the consequences.  My new supervisor was also not thrilled at the possibility of me being incapacitated for a week.

It was so inconvenient! Why now, at this point in my life?

I learned a little more about my match. He was a young man in his early thirties of Jewish Ashkenazi descent, as am I. He lived in Kentucky had acute lymphocytic leukemia and this was his last hope for survival. I pictured a very pale young man in a hospital bed. For some reason I saw him with a close cropped beard, probably unrealistic since he had been through chemotherapy. Nevertheless, this person laid in this hospital room with tubes in his arms surrounded by monitors and beeping machines. His eyes were an unusual light brown, like mine.

What if it had been one of my own children laying in that bed? And what if we learned that somewhere out in Connecticut there was this one lady whose blood was a virtual match for my dying baby. That there might just be a glimmer of hope. And what if unbeknownst to me, she might not share that precious marrow because, well, it was really inconvenient at this time.

I would die, along with my precious child. I could never do that to another parent.  So I told the blood people that I would go forward with the testing.

First step was to go to a local blood drive where in a separate area they were expecting me and would take a few vials of my blood for the initial testing.

Later on though, the FedEx truck that was carrying that precious cargo was in an accident and the vials shattered upon impact.  I missed work again, and gave more blood to replace it. When it was tested, my donation passed and I was given clearance for the next round.

The tide began to turn.  Though my supervisor at work was a little bitchy about it at first, he proudly announced my status to the rest of our company at a staff meeting. My mother said she would accompany me to the battery of tests and physical in Farmington.

After filling out forms and being measured, weighed, poked and prodded we were sent up to the area for the rest of the exam. We walked into the waiting room and we were hit in the face with reality. Every single person in that room was bald, both adults and children.

Of course, chemotherapy. This was an oncology office and these were all people who were praying to find hope in someone like me.  My mother and I looked at each other and for the first time we both really felt the full impact of what this was about.  Afterwards, over lunch she told me how much she admired what I was doing and how grateful she was that I was on this side of the fence as a donor and not one of the others in that room.

A few days later the results came back. I was in great health and that we could go ahead with the procedure. The recipient would be on an aggressive round of radiation to kill off any remaining antibodies he had left. This was to ensure that upon receiving my marrow his body would not reject it.

I took extra good care of myself. I wouldn’t even drink a glass of wine. It was almost like being pregnant again. I was responsible for another human life now and wouldn’t take any chances of harming him.

The donation does not have to be in the same hospital.  When I was to have my procedure, the precious cargo would be flown to Kentucky and administered to him there. Donors and recipients are not allowed to meet one another beforehand.  However, a year after the procedure provided that the recipient recovered, an exchange of letters is permitted, If mutually agreed upon they can meet in person at that time.  

I pictured meeting my blood brother a year later. He would have more color in his face and be in street clothes instead of a hospital gown.  He would smile and we would hug each other.  I would look into those light brown eyes, the ones that were the same color as mine.

The procedure was scheduled for the Friday of Memorial Day weekend in Farmington. I would go up the night before and be put up in a neighboring hotel so I could be there for the early morning appointment. My mother would stay with my kids that first night, they would go with their dad for the rest of the weekend to give me a chance to recuperate.  Depending on how I felt, I would go back to work on Tuesday perhaps.

I was excited now. I no longer was angry with my younger naïve self who had put her name in that registry.  This was a life changing moment for me as well as my guy.

Then on that Wednesday before, another phone call.

“We are so grateful for your time and your gift, but we are very sorry to say that the recipient did not make it. He passed away yesterday.”

“What? No, no…what happened?” I asked.

“The radiation treatments weakened him too much and he just didn’t get through it. We know that this is very hard for you after making this commitment. His family wanted you to know how much they appreciated your generosity”.

And that was it. Suddenly I had Memorial Day weekend free. I would go to work the next day. My life was normal. No inconvenience, everything could continue on normally. Only it really didn’t.

That weekend I sat by the light of citronella candles on my deck surrounded by my friends, their kids, my kids.  The smell of hamburgers on the grill, laughter and conversation was in the air.  I was quiet though. Glass of wine in my hand, looking up in the starry sky I felt like I had lost a member of my own family. I silently made a toast, I’m sorry that I couldn’t save you.  I wish you peace my blood brother.