The Momma d’Elisson, age 20.
Today is March 30. At sundown this evening, it will be the 12th of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, three days before the start of the Passover holiday...and my mother’s Yahrzeit.
It was March 30, 1988 - nineteen years ago - that Mom had her meeting with the Unexpected Visitor.
Perhaps Unexpected is not the right term. Unwelcome, certainly - but not unexpected. The handwriting was, as they say, on the wall. It had been only a few months before, at Thanksgiving, that Mom noticed some alarming symptoms. She was tired. There was a yellow tinge in the whites of her eyes. Her feet were swollen. And when she walked, you could hear fluid sloshing around in her abdomen.
Lethargy, jaundice, edema, and ascites...all symptoms of end-stage cirrhosis of the liver. What had happened?
Unbeknownst to any of us, Mom had contracted a case of chronic active hepatitis - the same condition that was later to affect Naomi Judd. But in Mom’s case, the disease did its work quietly, asymptomatically, for years...until her liver had, effectively, been converted into a fist-size chunk of useless tissue.
Two months later, in January, Mom and Dad came to visit us at our home in central Connecticut. Mom looked different: shockingly gaunt. Part of this was due to the hepatitis; part of it was due to the low-protein diet she had been placed on in an effort to slow the progress of the disease. With care and luck, the doctors had told us, Mom could live another ten years or more.
Deep in my heart, I knew it was not to be. We took a walk together, my Mother and I, and as we talked and strolled among the bare trees, I had a vision of her as a white-haired little old lady. And I knew - knew - that this was a vision of a future that was not to be. It was a bitter realization, but it stung with the sharpness of truth.
It was in mid-March that things went downhill rapidly. The slow accumulation of toxins in Mom’s blood - toxins that could no longer be cleansed by her ailing liver - created a condition known as portal vein-systemic encephalopathy. She became confused, semi-delirious. Thus began her one-way journey into the hospital, the “Patient Motel.” (Patients go in, but they don’t come out.) She spent the next two weeks alternating between a sort of twilight consciousness and full lucidity.
Mom knew she wasn’t going home. One afternoon, she told me that she wished she could have spent more time with her granddaughters. After hearing this, I went out to the parking lot, got in my car, and broke down, sobbing, for half an hour...the only time I cried.
The end came in the early morning hours on March 30. Dad and my brother (the other Elisson) had gone home, exhausted. Mom’s big brother Phil and I were there, holding her hand as she slipped away. After making a few necessary phone calls, I walked out of the hospital into a warm spring morning. It was the first day of the rest of my life...and my first morning as a motherless child.
This evening, I will light a candle to my mother’s memory.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in synagogue.
Tomorrow night, at dinner, I’ll order a perfect Rob Roy, straight up. Mom was not much of a drinker, but when she did have a cocktail, that was her Poison of Choice.
And, over the next year, as always, every time I play a round of golf, every time I read a science fiction book, every time I tell a ribald joke, every time I do the New York Times Sunday crossword, I’ll remember Momma.