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The day I Killed Mom—a (mostly) true story

When she turned fifty, my mother took up a new career: dying. It was a family tradition, she explained. “People in my family don’t make it out of their fifties. So we have to be ready to go.”

Each Christmas, she announced, would probably be her last—no point in a real tree or all that decorating. Her grandchildren would nod, and go right on dragging in and decorating a huge tree, around which our even more huge family would celebrate as usual, with Mother baking, making up beds, passing around Baileys Irish Cream, and loving every second of the noise and mess and confusion.

After pursuing dying for a few decades, it was time for her to think about retiring. But since there were really only two ways (ruling out vampires and/or zombies) to move on from that career choice—a coffin, or coming back three days after being nailed to a cross—she was naturally a bit hesitant.

Finally, though, we could all see that her big promotion was getting close. My father had moved to the fold-out sofa in the living room while Mother mostly stayed in the hospital bed that held pride of place in the family room. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren sat on the ends, dangling their feet and watching the large screen television, or wandering in and out from the backyard pool. After the little ones were asleep, the rest of us sat around her big bed, drinking pitchers of margaritas or tom collins, and playing pinochle/accusing each other of cheating, while Mother sucked down spoonfuls of Baileys and morphine.

One afternoon, the phone rang and it was my Mother’s banker, asking how she was doing. With all the yelling and laughing, one sister took the call into the other room. “She’s good. She’s drinking Baileys and cheating at pinochle.”

He cleared his throat a few times. “The thing is, we have a lady here wanting to cash a check for her granddaughter, who she says was your mother’s nurse. The check is drawn on your mother’s account for several thousand dollars.”

“Um, could you hold a minute please?”

One of my sisters looked up from the pile of limes she was slicing. She remembered a young aide who had come for a day, but left early when she got a call saying her grandmother had died. In collegial respect for a fellow dying professional, Mother had insisted that my brother give her a ride home. We got out my parents’ checkbook and looked at the register. Nothing had been written in quite a while. “What’s the check number?”

It was from the box of unused checks up in their study. He promised to notify the police and we said goodbye.

Cards forgotten, we all sat around discussing the special kind of cojones it would take to steal from a dying woman, even one who’d been at it for thirty-plus years. Mother felt sorry for the girl who had just lost her grandmother, until I told her Granny had miraculously come back from the grave to help cash the check. I think my mother was intrigued.

While Mother consoled herself with sips of Baileys, the rest of us decided this was a job for mojitos. The doorbell rang, and two polite young police officers introduced themselves. I asked if they wanted to come in, and they looked grave. “No, we heard about your mother and don’t want to disturb your family at a time like this. We can talk out here.”

I closed the door on a loud accusation of dastardly card-deeds and accompanying burst of laughter. “Yes?”

They explained that they needed us to file a complaint, and to provide details about our contact with the young woman. She had already told them that although she’d been sent by an agency, my mother was apparently so grateful for whatever services she’d provided in her few hours of aide work that she pressed the check into her reluctant hands. They showed me a copy of the check, and the illegible signature could have been Mother’s. It could also have been Ghengis Khan’s.

I explained that Mother was dying (I didn’t say for how long), and we’d all gathered to be at her bedside. She did have full-time health aides, but the agency sent over subs sometimes when one of the others couldn’t be there. This one hadn’t even been there a full day.   

The older officer had a lot of questions for me. His younger companion was extremely polite, but his eyes kept flicking over to the big picture window whenever a particularly loud burst of guffaws and/or accusations rang out.

The door behind me swung open to reveal one of my sisters with a pitcher of mojitos and some glasses. A niece took her arm and whispered in her ear, as peals of mirth rang out behind them. I closed the door and met two impassive faces.

I’m not sure how other families do it, but we had team shirts, family jokes, a theme—The Big Chill meets Waking Ned Devine—and lots of Baileys. 

I returned their stares. What I wanted to say was that in listing her seven stages of grief—at least as it was practiced in our family—Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross left out the manic, inappropriate humor stage. And the mojitos.

I settled for an attempt at dignity. “Everyone grieves in their own way.” Then I closed the door and took the glass my sister held out. Best mojito ever.

That night, we all pitched in to help with the cooking. I made my special garlic roast chicken, forgetting that Mother never ate garlic. The smell spread through the house, and she surprised us by coming to the table for dinner. As usual, she was laughing and making death jokes—“Better have seconds now, because I’ll be dead broke later, if that girl cashed more checks. Or maybe just dead.”

Everyone marveled at the way she rallied, joked, and ate my chicken. That night, when it was my turn to sit with her, she asked about each of my children. After I filled her in, she sighed, “I think that’s good enough.”

Even Mother had to be right eventually. The next morning, after the funeral home’s hearse had taken her away, one of my sisters turned to me. “It was your garlic chicken. I think you killed her.”

EPILOGUE: The night of her funeral, I woke up to find Mother sitting on the end of my bed. I asked her if she was okay, and she said she was just waiting for my father, who was always late. “Maybe you should make him some of that chicken.”

She was still laughing as I drifted back to sleep.

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