Mom was failing. She knew it. We knew it.
And through her last year with us there was the inevitable struggle to come to terms with end-of-life issues, even for a woman of 97.
The armamentarium of cancer-fighting drugs had been used up, and it was just a matter of palliative care.
Twice widowed and still living on her own, mom was spunky most of the time. I did my crying privately after many of our visits when I’d look at that sweet face and try to memorize it, trying not to let go of it … yet.
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Blessedly, the palliative medications worked, so my mother had the gift of her cherished independence and what is called “quality of life.”
Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve came and went.
And then along came Valentine’s season. But those cherubs and red satin hearts seemed the last thing mom would have on her mind. Still, to my shame, I forgot to send her a card that year.
That shame was even greater when I got a call from her at dusk on Valentine’s Day asking me why I’d sent her a card signed “Your Secret Admirer.”
In the life of a 97-year-old woman, such a mystery was profound. Why hadn’t I just signed it with my name?
I assured my mother that I hadn’t sent that card. At first, she didn’t believe me. Not even after I tried to convince her that, while I adored and indeed admired her, it was no secret.
Thus began a chapter in my mother’s life that no one could have imagined.
Like a smitten teenager, mom began searching her high-rise apartment building for possible suspects. Might it be the elderly gentleman on the 21st floor who occasionally chatted with her in the laundry room? He was courtly, dignified and shy – a prime suspect.
Then mom called to report breathlessly that a certain gentleman had ridden the elevator past his floor to finish a conversation with her about a health-food store he’d discovered. Aha, she speculated. He might just be the one, since they both had an interest in soy products. Maybe not the stuff of glamour for the young, hearts-on-fire types, but plenty for nonagenarians.
And there was a younger man, the dashing 88-year-old physician who had moved onto mom’s floor as a new widower – another possibility.
When I visited, I couldn’t help noticing that my mother had taken to wearing blush and lipstick, even when she was heading for the trash room. Her hair was carefully coiffed. And there was a light in mom’s eyes that I hadn’t seen in months, a merriment that reminded me of her decades before.
Somebody out there had admired her. And had sent a Valentine’s card that may as well have said, “I’ve had my eye on you because you’re special.”
The guessing game went on for several weeks, and then, as her health deteriorated, less and less often. The card that had stood like a sentry on her nightstand disappeared one day. I didn’t dare ask what had happened to it.
Too soon, her advancing illness took over my mother’s life. Her sunny yellow and white bedroom began to resemble a dispensary. She grew more and more frail.
Mom never had another Valentine’s Day. She died a few months later. And some of the hardest emotional work I’ve ever faced was sorting through her things, deciding what to keep, what to donate, what to simply throw away. Each decision felt like a stab.
Toward the end of the ordeal, it came down to just the things on a high shelf in mom’s bedroom closet, and ultimately to a single box simply labeled “Treasures.”
In it, my mother had placed pictures of her own parents, my father as a young man, several baby pictures of my sister and me, birthday cards from her two daughters, and the primitive artwork of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I wept as I went through the contents of that box, berating myself for not sending her more cards and notes so that her mailbox wouldn’t yawn empty so many days.
And at the bottom of the treasure box, there it was – that “secret admirer” valentine.
It was in its envelope, somewhat frayed and worn, mute testimony to a great deal of handling.
I carried my mother’s last valentine out of the apartment that still carried the faint smell of her favorite cologne, and gently placed it in a treasure box of my own.
And there it will stay.
Sally Friedman is a writer in Moorestown, N.J. Readers may send her email at email@example.com. She wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.