On Her Plate

New York, Points South

“Let me tell you what’s on my plate.”

It’s Mom on the phone, from her hospital bed in NC to me at my desk in NJ, and I think, Ah, she wants to talk about her upcoming pacemaker procedure.

“Chicken,” she says. “It’s been cooked and mashed. Mashed potatoes, and…collard greens, and Jello. Green Jello. Can you believe it?”

No metaphorical “on my plate” here. No chance to see the inner workings of her mind, the sources of her fortitude in the face of a procedure that apparently has daughter more concerned than mother.

I laugh, and she laughs, and though I’m fairly sure for different reasons, we laugh a little more. It feels good.

Mom speaks more hyperbolically at times these days, and more and more, it seems, directly, her mind. I listen for possibilities of reflection and insight from her as well as for stories that make her happy to tell. Not long ago, more or less out of the clear blue, she told me she was glad that I still work in New York even though I’ve moved to New Jersey, and “I have never seen a sunrise as beautiful as that one from your apartment window.” I stop myself from discussing comparatively beautiful sunrises — say, the ones above a beautiful lake in Maine in July — and take her extravagant expressions as encouragement, support. MomVisits2010

After a week in the hospital, placement of a pacemaker is decided, and the procedure is set for Monday, the 6th of October.

Over the weekend, reminders of Mom appear as regularly as potted chrysanthemums on neighbors’ porches and stoops this time of year. Talk turns to mothers more than once with friends on the beginning of, and the break fast ending, Yom Kippur. I open the closet door in my study looking for a mailer and packing tape, and spy the tiny blue coat my mother made for me by hand when I was a toddler. Rummaging in the boxes in the basement to find a book by Sarah Manguso to quote exactly a particularly exquisite line for my students in our discussion about sentiment and sentimentality in writing, I come across troves of letters my mom tucked away for me. Neither the irony of the nostalgia-rich discovery nor the direct evidence of Mom’s persistent and faithful actions is lost on me. The letters are from my father but the saving of them for fifty years is my mother’s doing. She is a gatherer of people, a preserver of connections.

She has good care – good doctors, good friends, and people she truly enjoys. One of my brothers has driven to be with her.


Atul Gawande writes with brilliant directness in an essay adapted from Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, in Sunday’s New York Times, that “people have priorities that they need us to serve…[and] the best way to learn those priorities is to ask about them.” One doctor and a half dozen of her friends tell Mom from their experiences that her life will be better with the pacemaker.

Mom’s cardiologist says, “Ask her what she wants,” when I ask whether we all should gather.

“You need to decide what you need and want to do,” Mom responds. “I am going to get through this fine,” she says. “If one of you would come, that would be nice,” she says.

Maybe our favorite: “I’m ready to get this done and get back to living.”

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