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

So what we have learned, my sister and I, is that the conversation about Mom’s wishes, if she can’t make her own medical decisions, is the point: It’s the families that don’t talk, Barbara Mack assures us, who have problems figuring out what to do.

Actually, Mom was always quite clear: If I have a hangnail, pull the plug. The conversation only serves to muddy the waters, because messy hair and dribbled-on clothes might be something that even Mom would opt for, given the alternative. Yet my sister, summing up, is an optimist: “We’ll know it when we see it.”

“That’s his job,” Mom says, nodding at, God help her, me.

It seems that in her living will, she anointed me the first one to call if a judgment is needed about a medical action. She thinks my sister is too queasy about these things to step up and drop the hammer.

And so I’ve come full circle: To do this right, talking to Mom a couple times a month over the phone won’t cut it.

Then it happens — not a stroke or a heart attack or anything really serious, but close enough: Mom is at quilting one afternoon a few weeks after our meeting with Barbara Mack, stands up, and then suddenly is not standing. She apparently blacked out, hitting her head on a cabinet; she came to immediately, but got a concussion.

Worse than the concussion, though, is that Pennswood’s medical staff doesn’t know why she fell, and not knowing why — well, at this point, you can probably guess how Mom might feel about that.

So I’ve come to see her, on a Sunday evening. We watch the final Congressional debate about the health-care bill — it’s the night of the deciding vote. On C-SPAN.

“John Lewis,” Mom informs me at one point, turning up the dulcet voice of the longtime Congressman from Georgia. “Civil rights.”

I smile, and consider how sophisticated Mom has become, in her dotage. She’s taking a course “on your sister’s computer” on the history of the Middle East from 1914 to 9/11. “What do you think of Israel?” she asks, the blather of Congress again mute. “When Biden went, what a problem. I think it all stems from Arafat. He had no idea how to organize the PLO.”

This from a woman who, when she got married just after World War II, pronounced the word “whore” the same as “war.”

Now she’s a big reader of early American history. She runs the gift shop at Pennswood, and gives tours of the place. She’s on the food committee. There is a clamor, apparently, to get seated at the table in the dining room that Mom organizes, every Sunday. On another day, when we take a tour of the nursing facility, Mom stops to say hello to a Brooke Astor look-alike, who stage-whispers, “Don’t tell her, but she is really neat.”