Emma, my mother, died when I was born. Having been a vegetarian all her life she said she was therefore a bleeder. So, for three days in September 1941 as I was being born blue with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, she was bleeding to death. Family rushed in, transfusions were given. My aunt, Emma’s sister-in-law, fainted. The doctor brought Emma back to life. She forever revered him.
I died in 2001, in October. That’s when my life as I knew it ended; that’s when I as I knew myself ceased existence. That’s when Emma began to lose herself, too. But I didn’t know it yet.
I had lived in Redondo Beach, California, for 30 years, my entire adult life so far, raised my daughter there. Then for the winter of 1995 I decided to go to Naples, Florida, for a working vacation. I could stay with Emma, who owned a villa there. I moved out of my apartment, packing up all my things and putting them into storage. I left my daughter, 27, standing on the curb in Redondo, waving goodbye in my rearview mirror. I would return soon. I drove my little Hyundai solo across country to Florida. I stayed seven years; I liked my job.
In 2000 Emma sold her villa and moved up north to be near her family and friends in Wilmington, Delaware.
I stayed in Florida another year, and then drove north, too, in October 2001, to visit family before heading west and home to California. I boxed up and shipped most of my belongings West. My daughter and I had planned for a big 60th birthday party reunion with all my friends when I returned to California. I arrived in Wilmington at 1 a.m. Emma was waiting up and ready with food for me after my long trip up from the South. Only a mother….
Yet, quickly I saw that she needed help — in Florida, in her early 80s, while I was with her, she had survived a lumpectomy and a mini stroke — and after all, now, she was 87. She couldn’t live alone, and there was no one else but me.
I felt the floor of my chest open and my heart plunge into my stomach.
I had no clothes, not even a winter coat. I pieced together part-time jobs, including one at a department store where with my discount and position to see when clothes went on sale, I could buy clothes for a good price, and another as a freelance features writer for The News-Journal, the Wilmington daily newspaper.
Thus began our decade-long trek through murky tunnels and craggy paths. I stumbled often. Emma simply fell: I ran and got neighbors to help pick her up. I often found no response of help from state and healthcare agencies. There were days when I told healthcare aides to leave and never come back, days when the aides left Emma alone for hours, while I was out, without telling me.
In October 2001 I had chosen to stay in Delaware and care for my mother: my lifestyle and the self I knew ceased to exist thenceforth.