Truth be told, the phone rang at 4:45 AM this past Saturday, February 18th, not 3:00 AM. But the news was grim nonetheless: my mom had passed away, at age 87.
But to understand how we got to this point, let’s flashback a bit. On Wednesday, February 1st at about 5:30 PM, Nina and I hopped in the car to drive around the corner to our favorite local San Jose-area sushi restaurant for dinner, when the cell phone rang. It was my cousin Barbara from New Jersey, who said they had been trying to get a hold of mom for the past three days to no avail.
This was not good.
A friend of my mom’s had taken to calling her every hour on the hour, with no answer. Barbara and her mother (my aunt-in-law) dropped off some chicken soup on Sunday, mainly as an excuse to see how mom was doing. The verdict: she clearly had been slowing down. She had recently quit her neighborhood bridge circle, the equivalent of Hawkeye Pierce giving up poker or Eddie Felson quitting pool. And yet, when I called her that weekend, she said she was fine, and we discussed the Super Bowl party Nina and I were planning for the following weekend. Mom pondered why the Super Bowl was played on Sunday, and said it should be on a Saturday; otherwise the entire country would be exhausted and hungover on Monday when they reported back to work. She certainly had a point, there…
Naturally, we immediately headed back home, and dialed the Burlington, NJ police department. They eventually ended up breaking down her door, and discovered her lying on the floor of the dining room, where she had fallen as, we think, she was walking up the three steps from the garage.
She had been on lying on the floor for three days.
The police and the paramedics, along with my cousin and aunt, drove her to Lourdes Hospital in Willingboro, NJ. The name belays its Clockwork Orange-style brutalist 1960s or early ’70s modern architecture:
Mom was placed in intensive care, and we quickly made plans to fly out. After about five hours of no sleep, we woke up at o’dark thirty the next morning and flew cross country to Philadelphia airport.
That evening, we saw my mom, with a respirator mask over her face, and looking extremely frail. The doctors told us that although lying there without food or water for three days had been a terrible trauma to her body, they suspected that she had not been eating, or not been eating much for quite a while before that. She also had multiple fractures in her back. While at least one was from the fall she had just experienced, another one was from November; she had fallen just before we had arrived for our annual Thanksgiving visit. As I mentioned back then, it was obvious that she had been slowing down, both mentally and especially physically.
Even back in November, it was painful to witness how slowly and ponderously she was moving. Just getting up a curb or a short series of steps was a challenge. But she insisted she was fine, that her back just still hurt a bit from that November fall, and that everything was just grand.
I wrote in November about a financial incident that had left my mom very confused. There would be another financially-related incident on the Friday before she fell: the bank manager called to tell us that she had taken out $5,000 in cash – when we called my mom about this later that day, she was not happy that we knew. But we reminded her that banks have to look out for little old ladies being scammed.
Mom had mentioned the $5,000 during a rare lucid moment in the hospital. She said it was “in the safe deposit box.” OK, but which safe deposit box? We went to both of her banks, and were told us she didn’t have a safe deposit box with them. She also told us that she had taken it out to pay her property taxes. Oh great — nothing like an 87 year old woman wandering around with a 5K John Gotti-style flashwad of cash and, unlike Gotti, a giant “MUG ME” sign on her back. But the circular “logic” was so my mom. Her eyesight had been failing – she gave up bridge because she couldn’t see the numbers on the cards – and she couldn’t easily sign a check. But she didn’t want the tellers at the bank to know the amount of her property taxes. So the least objectionable alternative from her point of view was to take out sufficient cash, and walk it into city hall. As long as she wasn’t mugged, her privacy would be intact.
When we found the money – in a dresser drawer, not a safe deposit box – we re-deposited it, and then wrote a check to pay her taxes. The woman clerking at city hall told us that a surprising number of senior citizens pay their taxes in cash, likely for similar reasons as my mom’s.
Meanwhile, my mom still lay in the hospital, emaciated from what we were learning was a long-term physical deterioration, compounded by her lack of nutrition while lying supine on the floor for three days. In recent years, she was prone to wearing high-necked sweaters and long trousers and even her bridge friends said they didn’t even realize how thin she had gotten. Multiple times while she was in the intensive care facility, the doctors tried to insert a feeding tube, but unsuccessfully, due to a blockage in her throat. They attempted to do an upper-GI series to investigate if that blockage might be a tumor of some sort, but my mom was unable to swallow a barium pill. Inserting a feeding tube surgically would have likely killed her. Based on all that, and her considerably weakened health, and her broken bones, they and I reached a grim conclusion. Nina and I decided to put her on hospice care.
Given various locations available, we decided on the one that was closest to her home. If – miraculously – her condition improved, mom knew she could go home. But more importantly, it made it easy for her friends – some of whom were around my mom’s age, and hence had difficulty driving – to visit her.
All-in-all, the hospice and nursing home staff did their best to make her comfortable. But if you’ve never been through it, you have no idea how grim it is, watching a loved one, who you had only recently spoken to on the phone and appeared to be in full vim and vigor (which itself was a façade, in retrospect) fade away in a matter of weeks to parchment and bones.
The gang at PJM were uniformly great in allowing Nina and me enough time to sort through all of this. Checking in with them while in New Jersey caused flashbacks to my trying to explain to mom just what the heck I did for a living. She simply did not get the Internet, let alone the Blogosphere, and it made each visit akin to Groundhog Day, starting from scratch to explain what a Website was, what a blog was, etc. In the fall of 2007, we got mom an XM-equipped tabletop radio, tuned it to channel #130, and while PJM’s XM show was on the air, she could at least tune in and hear me, and Steve Green, Glenn Reynolds, James Lileks, Roger Simon, and the rest of the gang, which helped to make what I do slightly more concrete to her.
Nina wrote my mom’s obit for the local paper, with input from me and other family members:
Mae Riker Driscoll, a lifelong resident of Burlington, NJ, died in the early morning hours of February 18, 2012 at Burlington Woods. Mrs. Driscoll is survived by her son, Edward B. Driscoll, Jr., and her daughter-in-law Nina Yablok. She is also survived by her sister-in-laws Mary Riker and Mary Poole Riker. She was pre-deceased by her husband Edward B. Driscoll, Sr. and her sisters and brothers Rose Clair, William Riker, Roy Riker, Harold Riker, and Kathryn Phillips.
She is also survived by and nieces and nephews, Dr. Ted Clair, Richard Riker, Shirley Riker, Joan Emmons, Barbara Kaupas, Deborah Schott, Diane Rose, Denise Riker, Donna Riker, as well as by numerous grandnieces and nephews, and many dear friends.
Mrs. Driscoll and her late husband, along with other family members, owned Riker Chevrolet on the premises of the current Burlington Chevrolet. They also operated Holiday Lake in Edgewater Park, as a family venture. Later Mrs. Driscoll and her husband owned and operated Driscoll’s Liquor Store until they retired in the late 1980s.
Mrs. Driscoll was President of the Burlington Women’s Club, and a member of St. Paul’s Young at Heart. She was an avid bridge player and played two to three times a week until shortly before her death. She was happy to have lived in the same house which she and her husband bought shortly after their marriage in 1947.
Her friendships with the members of the clubs to which she belonged, her bridge friends, her neighbors and her family enriched her life and kept her active and happy after her husband died. Her family is grateful to all of those who brought her happiness over the years.
At her request there will be no services, but a private celebration of her life will occur at a future date.
My mom witnessed the Great Depression, WWII and the American boom that followed. The photos of her and dad from the 1950s and ‘60s, which I’ll try to scan and post in the coming weeks, look like outtakes from Mad Men – all skinny ties, furs, and big Cadillacs with tail-fins. After she had retired, she was happy to turn her back on much of the world and spend time with her friends, nearby family and her bridge cronies. As I said, she simply didn’t get the Internet but she was happy that her son was apparently happy doing whatever it was he did, and a success at that.
Nina and I thought long and hard about some of her decisions, not just financial ones, but ones related to her health and well-being, and we kept coming back to allowing her to maintain her independence and her right to make her own decisions. Maybe that’s the libertarian in me. She spent her final years living on her own terms, and ultimately, that’s all you can ask for. I hope she and dad are off somewhere now cheerfully enjoying steaks, whiskey sours and a Sinatra or Crosby record together.