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

Mom? It’s not her popularity that surprises me, but the realization that she’s been living a life I know little about. As if she has grown into another person on her own, in plain sight but without me seeing it.

Now, on the muted C-SPAN, a woman with curly gray hair is speaking passionately on the health-care bill. “Who’s that?” I wonder.

“From Florida. A Democrat. Jewish.” Mom points the remote at her. “I like her. Her name is Wasserman.”

A regular political nerd, my mother. We listen: The health-care debate has made it all too clear how juvenile we are, when it comes to doling out medical care to dying Americans. That granny death-panel scare sprang out of a provision to get insurers to pay for a conversation with a GP about end-of-life choices once every five years, something medical ethicists have long advocated. The notion that government agents might barge into nursing homes and start ripping out breathing tubes could only get traction in a collective mind-set imbued with Everything must be done to keep us alive forever.

My mission with Mom, I now realize, is different. At some point, in the warm glow of her efficiency, surrounded by lamps and chairs and end tables I grew up with, Mom and I reach back, land on Dad building the family home in Morrisville — it’s a familiar story, of course. We quietly disagree: I say it took him three years, Mom says only a year and a half. We break out the old album, the Polaroids Mom took as a bride of Dad digging a trench for the foundation, and the framing going up, and leaning on his ’48 Olds to survey two completed dormers …

She sits next to me on the couch, so much smaller than I am now, and when I don’t notice pages sticking together, she backs me up. Like a child demanding the full year-and-a-half story. The thing is, I want it too.

With that, something shifts. Mom and I start talking daily, ostensibly about her medical tests to figure out why she blacked out, or if she blacked out. “They’re turning me inside out,” she complains, but she’s cheerful, sunny in a way she didn’t used to be, and I realize that’s due to the security she feels at Pennswood. It’s home. A place where she’s grown.

One breezy day, we drive out Greenwood Avenue over in Trenton to visit the cemetery where Dad and Mom’s parents are buried, and where her ashes will be. Trenton is memory lane for my mother; her family moved from rowhouse to rowhouse, looking for cheaper rent. My grandfather sold insurance and drank. Somehow, they got by.

At a corner near the cemetery, Mom points to a real estate office: “There used to be a bar there. When I was nine years old, I went in one afternoon to tell your grandfather to come home.”

“I bet he liked that.”

“Oh, he probably ordered me a root beer so he could finish his beer.”