The Last Dance

She was the mom everyone wanted for their own. At the end, each day was a gift

We got a whole extra year. That’s what I tell myself as I glance back over my shoulder. My mother outlived the medical prognoses by the many shiny gift days in which we talked and laughed and watched sports together on TV. She wasn’t supposed to hang on for more than six months after she broke her hip and had the surgery to repair it almost two years ago. Those were the odds, given her frailty, her underlying anemia. The doctors were kind (enough) when they told us, but direct. My sister and I bristled on her behalf. We’ll see, we responded as one. We did not think my mother was quite done; there was too much sparkle in her eyes. She continued to watch the news, and she still liked to eat—even the awful food at the convalescent facility in Santa Monica where she went after the hospital. Once we got her home we started feeding her all her favorites, sometimes even chocolate cake for dinner, her eyes dancing with the transgressive nature of it. Not that she said so. But she smiled at me as I dabbed the crumbs from her lips.

Her talking was minimal, her cognitive skills compromised by the pain meds and the anesthesia—and by some ongoing loopiness. I don’t like the word dementia and brushed it off when anyone used it. She was there, she was ours, her face lighting up as my sister and I walked through the door. She took note of our outfits—as she had always done—and commented on our haircuts. Her physical therapist was correct about one thing: She didn’t manage to walk again. She was wheelchair bound, succumbing to the chair with an uncharacteristic acquiescence that made me understand that she understood. She was 88, and she was getting tired.

My mother was able to stay at home with caregivers 24/7. That’s the other way we were lucky. The reason we could afford it is because she had worked all her life. Long divorced, in her forties she had given up her first love, acting, to get into real estate when the parts dried up. She was bereft for a while, though she didn’t complain. People adored her, her new colleagues and her old ones, those in the movie business to whom, setting her ego aside, she now sold houses. My mother just came with an extra bit of joy—mixed with grit. As I bounced in and out of her house during the strange and wondrous last interlude, I felt grateful to her for making it possible and also to the women who worked there and kept her safe and pretty.

I would call ahead and say I was on the way, arriving to find her in her wheelchair, lipstick on, her blue eyes even bigger with an expertly placed smoky line. We had dinner parties. I invited some of her friends (many of her contemporaries were gone, but she had always cultivated younger pals) and many of mine. Not all at once; that would have been too much. They tended to come in pairs. I cooked pasta and made my famous salad dressing, tossing the greens in the scratched-up wooden bowl we had used since my sister and I were teenagers. As the months went on, my mother’s usual gusto for food ebbed. We didn’t try to push her to eat. Such battles were beside the point. Well, maybe we engaged in a few small ones, but generally the idea was to revel in the time that was left. There were days it seemed she was getting ready to go. She would talk about her mother and father, about my father—the three of them dead for a long time. It wasn’t in a maudlin or fearful way. It was as if she were spooling backward, picking up threads from the past and presumably the future. She didn’t say she was going to see them again; she was already doing that even as my sister and I, with all our daughterly love and need, were trying to hold her to the planet with our fists.


The day came that she slipped through our hands. It happened quickly. On a lovely spring evening she fell into a coma. We moved into her house—my sister and I, my husband, and our big yellow Lab. We took turns lying beside her, shuffling about the house. We didn’t change clothes, and we barely slept or ate, keeping our eyes on her as her breathing became more strained. Three tough days and then three really bad hours, and she was gone. We knew what to do, whom to call, even as we had been pretending the time would never come to do any of that.

I am always amused when I see the phrase “untimely death.” Obviously it refers to the loss of someone young, someone in his or her prime. And yet, as my older husband points out, What is a “timely death”? By any actuarial table my mother’s was surely age appropriate. But tell that, would you please, to my knees when they buckle with longing as I near her house or go into the market, where on any given evening we would collide with one another—literally, heads down, hands pushing our carts. Crash! and we would look up. Oh, it’s you, we would laugh with delight.

Over and over this happened. I lived my entire life within walking distance of my mother, ridiculous for any daughter perhaps, certainly for one in this huge city. From my first conscious moments until my mother’s final ones, I knew she was wild about me—just as she adored my sister. She had come by her maternal gifts instinctively. Her own mother had run off to Europe with a new love when my mother was eight, leaving her to be raised by a tender single father. Maybe her natural and tenacious parenting came from him—and/or from some need to get it right when it was her turn. Even so, her love wasn’t unconditional. She didn’t believe in unconditional love, nor do I. She wanted us to do and be certain things: happy and hardworking above all. She spent the grace year telling us how much she loved us. That kind of maternal love is empowering, no question. It gave my sister and me spunk and drive and hope. But I think it also kept me close in a way, tethered; I wasn’t as bold or as sturdy as other women I befriended along the way, who hadn’t had such mothering. I knew I was the lucky one. They knew it, too. She had enough warmth and energy to turn them into surrogate daughters.

So we threw her a party. In the first days following her death, as we were creased with the initial hard pangs of grief, we thought we would do a small extended-family gathering, in her house or mine. We would invite the loyal clan of neighbors and friends who had come to visit her. But then we started to hear from her real estate tribe, from my pals and my sister’s. What was planned? they asked. What were we going to do? Suddenly our small tasteful afternoon of remembrances seemed bland and boring—and so not my mother. Thus was hatched the Phyllis Avery Memorial Dinner Dance. The dinner had been one thing. We were going to stop with that. A few remarks by some of us and then a nice meal, preferably in a restaurant or club by the beach she loved. But my mother was mad for music—for singing and dancing. So we went for it, raising perhaps a few eyebrows from those who thought we might have gone a little too far. People called: What do you wear to such an event? Well, I said, I don’t know—I’ve never been to one. Anything festive, I settled on. Translation: For women, no black pantsuits.

They came—125 of them—to a big hotel in Santa Monica. The late afternoon sun was visible through the windows, as was the ocean. We offered our remarks. We cried. And then we partied. We drank wine and ate pigs in a blanket and hugged each other. Then the DJ—yes, we hired a disc jockey—started with swing music from the big band era, songs my mother knew by heart. When I had called to book him, I asked whether what we were doing was odd and whether people would actually dance or feel funny doing so in the face of death. If you get out on the floor, he said to me, they will follow. So I did. I danced for my mother. I danced with my men friends and women friends and stepgrandsons and by myself. I was a dancing fool, fending off my sorrow with my feet. Of course, in the morning, as the exhilaration wore off along with the wine haze, the ache for my mother returned. It was she I always called after such an evening to regale her with details. I will long for her each and every day. In my small speech I concluded by asking my mother to haunt me—to stay vivid in my days. The request was no doubt unnecessary. She will do it, I am sure.                          

Illustration by Gracia Lam