Departments: Family: Doesn’t Mom Look Great?

But the reality is, she’s 85. And it’s time to have a conversation about dying, and death — the talk none of us wants to have

The past few years, my mother wasn’t part of my life. Not really, anyway.

It used to be a pretty roaring thing we had, Mom and me. I’ll skip the story of my parents’ visit to me many, many years ago at Penn State, except to say that as we perused the dinner menu at a swank place one night, Mom wondered what was new with me.

“Oh,” I said, flipping casually to the wines, “I just quit school.”

Yeah. I was that kind of kid.

And Mom had, well, a certain idea of how spanking clean and spruced-up the world should be, and how all I did was make it dirty. About 15 years ago, I was getting a broom out of her kitchen closet to sweep gum-tree burrs off her sidewalk — Dad’s job, but he was dead. A couple of months earlier, Mom had had me drill a hole in the broom handle so she could hang it by a leather loop. The drill bit had chipped off the cheap wood when it poked through the dowel; Mom, I now saw, had taken a bit of deep-blue paint and touched up the end of the broom handle to match the rest.

I stared at that broom for a moment, imagining Mom’s reaction when she discovered her broom handle had been so ignominiously treated by me. It wouldn’t match the otherwise pristine state of her closet, where each food group possessed its own shelf, where there was not a speck of dust anywhere. Although she didn’t quite get the blues to match: Her touch-up was a little watery, lacking the perfect smooth, lacquered depth of the rest. I wondered: Did she take the freaking broom along to the paint store in the attempt?

Over the years, it did get better between Mom and me. Our fights became more sport than fire. I’d call her at 10:30, my wife Karen and two sons asleep, and we’d have a go-round on Bill Clinton’s mating habits — “Men are like rabbits,” Mom informed me one night, making me nearly regurgitate scotch all over my dark living room — or the state of the world via George W., whom she grew to disdain almost as much as I did.

Then she sold the house — the house my father built — moved to a condo, sold that, and moved to an efficiency at Pennswood. That was eight years ago. She decided she could no longer handle the drive to Philly to visit me. We’d go months without seeing each other, even though she was a quick jag up the Turnpike. I checked in with her maybe twice a month. She called only to tell me that I hadn’t for a long time.

Sometimes I’d look up from my life and think: This is odd. I barely see her or talk to her and …