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Mother’s Day Confidential: News of My Mom’s Death Was Slightly Premature

| May 12, 2013

monique safa haddad et pierre

My mother, who always knew to indulge my tastes early on. The picture was taken by my father around 1970.

This piece originally appeared two years ago. We’re still with Odyssey. And my mother is still, alas, not dead.–pt

The other day we got a condolence note in the mail from Odyssey Health Care, a hospice company (“Big Hearts, Better Care”). It was addressed to “all the family members” of my mother, and written in dry, black ink. “Our deepest condolences to all of you,” the note went. Signed: “Odyssey Hospice Staff.” Below the fold, in print, ran a few more lines about memories easing pain, and wishes for us to find “renewed strength in the caring support of family and friends.” Surprisingly for a health care company these days, no bill.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive We’d called hospice in to take care of my mother, a resident at an assisted living home off of Belle Terre Parkway, a few months ago. A different hospice company had just finished off my second father (after a long illness, as they say in the necrological business; a heart attack swiped off my first decades ago, when he was the age I am now), so calling in the gentle reapers had something of a reflexive quality to it: Hospice is the humane, legal, slow-mo version of assisted suicide, a concession that postponements of the inevitable are themselves down to their last unassisted breaths. The condolence note from Hospice was a surprise though. It was also slightly premature.

My mother, of course, hasn’t died. Not yet anyway, though in most regards she’s been dead for several years now: Alzheimer’s is the sort of torture that imprisons the body in a fate worse than death while keeping it conscious for the rest of us to see, like spectators at an endless hanging, and for the victim to, for all we know, endure with more awareness than we dare admit. In that sense the condolence note is at least a decade late: the disease began its assault on my mother’s mind in the mid- to late 1990s, when she was still in her 50s, and living life more fully than if she were competing with the days of Genesis. I don’t think I ever took to religion or the tall tales of my Catholic upbringing because in her presence any deity’s deed looked small, and her radiance was more real than any transfiguration the gospels could pull off. For the past ten years it’s been more like witnessing her crucifixion, day after day. To believe in a god that capably cruel would be offensive.

Click On:

So the absurdity of the condolence card had more truth to it than the ironic words of the card itself: “May your memories help ease any pains…,” as if the betrayal of memories weren’t the problem to start with: to remember on behalf of an Alzheimer’s victim is an act of salvation, like writers and artists who preserve demolished worlds. It’s also a galleon of guilts, tilting in the crosscurrents of the very act—remembering—that the remembered has been denied. It’s not any different than mourning, except that those of us who have parents or grandparents or lovers or—heaven forbid, children—lost to Alzheimer’s mourn in their presence, to their blank face, every time we see what’s left of them. They are the true living dead, just as we’re the disease’s accomplice, its fellow torturers, for keeping them alive. It’s not just one galleon but a whole armada.

For that and other reasons it wasn’t upsetting to receive that condolence card from Hospice, despite its coldness (a white card, essentially a commercial for the hospice company wrapped in rote sympathy). For a moment there I sensed fancied relief mixed with the sort of comedic resignation my wife Cheryl and I have become used to in the past 10 years, dealing with every possible aspect of that earthly afterlife wishfully referred to as elderly care. From ERs to assisted living facilities to nursing homes to rehab hells to sneaking and swindling caregivers suckling at Medicare’s teats to supplemental insurers’ gangsters to profiteering specialists and their pharma accomplices, we’ve experienced it all. Not for ourselves. That’s to come. But for our parents. We’ve had a front-row seat to the low-simmer crime against humanity that still manages to pose, in more fanatic eyes, as the world’s best health care system. Not even the Pentagon is that wasteful—in lives, dollars or time.

A mistakenly written condolence note from a hospice company doesn’t add up to a hill of beans in comparison. To the contrary. The picture wouldn’t have been complete without it. We laughed about it, briefly, having long ago moved past even laughing about what used to infuriate us and hurry us along to our own decrepit health, when we’ll become wards of elderly care’s monstrous maw, if we make it that far. I’ve learned through all this not to knock the fortuitous heart attack: it can be a hell of a blessing, considering the alternative, assuming it strikes you when you’ve pretty much completed your responsibilities to parents and children, and your next of kin begin to morph into insurers and health care providers.

A very nice bereavement counselor from Hospice did eventually call to apologize for the note, a few days after we pointed out the error to her home office, just to be sure that my mother’s hospice services weren’t interrupted. She attributed it to a filing mistake. I assured her it was no big deal and to save her bereavement energy for those who needed it. I’m sure she understood when I told her that the saddest part of receiving this condolence note about my mother is that it was a mistake.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here.

monique et fouad haddad

My first father, Fouad, who died in 1976, and my mother Monique, who's been dying since the late 1990s.

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26 Responses for “Mother’s Day Confidential: News of My Mom’s Death Was Slightly Premature”

  1. fox2trot says:

    Exceptional story. Thank you for sharing it with us. It’s a nasty disease. When I was 23 I had to move back home, 2 months latter both grandparents came to live with my parents & I got a big dose of reality. My Grandfather, that bigger than life, outdoors man, stronger than a ox, had Alzheimer’s. Alongside my parents I helped take care of he’s daily needs, we kept him at home until he finally passed.. At times I was grateful that his (or so I thought) mind wasn’t there while I bathed him or cleaned him, because I knew if it was he would be utterly ashamed, so I would sing, to ease my mind & comfort him. Sometimes I would get a slight smile from him when he had his favorite food – ice cream It was a BIG life lesson for me at the age of 23.


  2. palmcoaster says:

    My Mom is physically departed since 1997…but I feel her presence around me daily when I cook her favorite meal, from those old inherited recipes she gave me. In the garden when I grow her favorite flowers and cherish the memories of my younger years by her side gardening along by my mom, my closest friend of those years. Recall the laughing about the funny tales and the silly things she at times will goof around in her elderly years. Few days ago I satisfied a strong desire buying for my garden a blooming Wisteria vine that I planted in the highlight spot of our front entrance. Simply because bring memories of my Mom, smiling among the blue fragrant blooms in the springs and summers of our youth, relaxing under the trellises of our patio Wisteria, while my younger brothers and sisters were battling for our playful Mom, undivided attention. One day we will embrace again as she will be waiting for us with open arms and her luminous smile.


  3. Steve Wood says:

    Nice article Pierre, I lost my Dad in 07 after after battling Alzheimers for 10 yrs also. My Dad was in perfect health and played 18 holes of golf almost everyday he could play. It was absolutely terrible to go and visit him and after 88yrs watch him go from a war vet and a hard worker for his family to a baby laying there in his bed not knowing anything. The love of his life was my mother and the love of her life was my father. I never really knew that someone could will themselves to die but my Mother did and died 3 months to the hour that my Dad did. She could not bear to do a christmas without him after almost 60 yrs of being together we buried her on christmas eve in 07. My mother fought 2 different brain tumors, breast cancer, so she had had multiple chances of dieing but she could not see my Dad alone and fought on for 25 yrs, so they are together in a better place and together which gives me and my family a feeling of peace. We love them and miss them both.


  4. fadi Haddad says:

    Dear Pierre,

    This is year 15 seaching for you on off. Finally a few minutes ago Monique came to my mind and I thought I would put a search on her. Here is what I got. If you dont remember, I stayed at your house in Queens in 1981 and you came to my house in Blacksburg to visit me and wy wife. You have so many comments on Alzheimer. I just want to tell you, Monique and Fouad look so beautifull in the picture. I am lucky, because the 30 years old memory I have is a very optimistic and smiling Monique very happy and proud of her 3 sons and her new husband.

    Anyway, I hope I am writing the reply to the right mail. let me know where you are in the US and a phone number maybe. I am in Kuwait, just came back 3 weeks ago from Boston.

    Good to find you.



  5. Kathryn says:

    I am one of the lucky ones. Monique is still for me, that beautiful smiling welcoming woman who fed and entertained the friends of her 3 sons. I know that your memories of that woman have dimmed in the face of her state today. But I sincerely hope that they in turn will be forgotten so that you may retain only the good…


  6. Perry Mitrano says:

    You know it does not take much to remember my mother on mother’s day except one this, how much I trully miss her. This was a good read 2 years ago and again now. Thanks for sharing.


  7. Sue Dickinson says:

    I can certainly understand how you feel. My mom passed away April 2008. In 2006 I went to Syracuse to surprise her for Mother’s Day. Only I was the one that was surprised perhaps shocked. When I walked up to her, hugged her and presented her with flowers, she looked at me like a total stranger. She was wearing a corsage and I asked her who she received it from. Her response as she looked at my dad was “him”. I said “oh you mean my father” and she responded “he is not your father” I said “yes mom he is and you are my mother” and she said “Oh no I am not”. Every visit I made home after that which was often she would open the bedroom door where I was sleeping and go to my dad and say “get that stranger out of our house.”. Her condition worsened rather quickly after that and it was necessary for us to put her in a Nursing Home. She had the wits about her to escape numerous times even though she was on a “Secure Unit”. Her living there lasted 10 very long months but the one person that suffered the most was my dad as he always thought she was going to get better and come back home. Mom did recognize her grand-daughters when they made a visit to her 2 months prior to her death and I am so very grateful for my daughters sake. For her sake and those around her she was called to her next life and certainly has to be in a better place. But every Mother’s Day I relive that day when for the first time she had no idea who I was. I always loved you mom and will miss you forever. This is the most debilitating disease for any family that experiences it.


    • Pierre Tristam says:

      Sue, I was not aware of your difficult times with your mother after the disease took its toll on her memory. To hear those words, “not my daughter,” from one’s own mother, must be a form of murder without actually dying, which is really what dementia is all along: a form of death where death doesn’t happen, but keeps accumulating one hurt after another. You don’t need flames to make a hell, you just need Alzheimer’s. And so all my belated sympathies.


  8. rickg says:

    Great piece Pierre. Very touching.


  9. confidential says:

    To all those so fortunate to still have their Mom’s …enjoy their company while you can because when they are gone our lives change forever. Hope was a Happy Mother’s Day for all those Mom’s still with us and the one’s in Heaven.


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