“Don’t worry about your serve. Jimmy Connors didn’t
get his serve together until a year before he retired.” So
my mother advised me as she lay in St. Vincents Hospital in July
1993. I had just returned from my weekend “share house”
in Westhampton, where I was told I had better strengthen my serve
if I wanted to go anywhere in tennis. I was 39.
When Mom and I were alone she would talk about tennis. She revered
the game and serious players. In the women's final at Wimbledon
that July, Jana Novotna had led Steffi Graff, who was considered
unbeatable, by a set, when Novotna's game fell apart. She went on
to lose the match, and when formally introduced to the Duchess of
Windsor afterward, collapsed into the duchess’s arms rather
than curtsying as is usual with members of the royal family. “Tennis
can be so cruel,” Mom cried. “You can be playing beautifully
and it can just slip away from you in a snap.”
Mom was the second daughter of J. Ben Goldsmith, an orthodontist,
and his wife Florence. As a child J. Ben had emigrated to the U.S.
from Lithuania. He went to Harvard Dental School, served in World
War I, and then married and started a practice and family. Like
my parents would do later, he and Florence settled in to a life
of stultifying routine. Strangling his family with strictness and
rigidity, he created an atmosphere where silence was pervasive,
My mother’s spirited older sister Edie fought her father
every time he forbade her from going out, while my mother hid in
the shadows. Mom described Edie as a wind entering a room and captivating
everyone with an acerbic wit and brash frankness. My grandfather
would introduce Edie as his brilliant daughter, Barbara, my mother,
as his lesser daughter.
When my parents met, my father was a Big Band trumpeter. The
country was at the tail end of a postwar swing dance party. He was
on the cutting edge, shared a Manhattan apartment with an artist.
Mom and Dad got engaged. Married. Within a couple of years, rock
n' roll had replaced swing, and Dad left the music business. Mom
discovered he wasn’t a cool, freewheeling jazz musician at
all, but a narrow-minded working man with traditional values and
an iron bond to his mother. Divorce was unusual in the early fifties.
A divorcee in her mid-twenties was stained goods. Even if the times
had been permissive of divorce, my mother wouldn’t have sought
one. She hadn’t the strength to admit the mistake, go through
with the ugly proceedings, face up, and return to her parents' house.
So what did she do? Start a family.
Over the years, my parents' impatience and intolerance with one
another festered. They submerged themselves in routine. By meeting
daily expectations they minimized conversation. But hostilities
surfaced. Dad abused Mom; Mom, me; I, Karen. We practiced the predictable
pecking order of domestic violence, of both the physical and verbal
varieties. My mother would fly into rages and slap me hard across
the face. I never was able to determine what the provocation was,
if any. I once pushed my sister off the top of a sliding pond. Fortunately,
all she needed were stitches to her upper lip. I would throttle,
push, and pinch her if she didn't follow my orders.
Mom's callousness toward me reversed when she and my father moved
into Manhattan when they experience empty nest syndrome. In Manhattan,
she sought Karen's and my friendship, now that we were older and
no longer a burden, and she needed us. She and my father could no
longer plant themselves in opposite ends of a house—they were
trapped together in an apartment. Mom needed to escape, and Karen
and I could provide company on outings. But she was still distant
and uncomfortable with me, didn't look me in the eye, went into
discourses on remote subjects. She conversed with herself and I
|One evening Mom and I hit tennis balls in Central Park, an opportunity
that, as a beginner, I relished—hitting with a real player,
my mother no less. She became winded quickly and stopped a couple
of times to cough. But Mom often cleared her throat and coughed so
I thought little of it. And she walloped me with her forehand cross-court,
her best shot, her only shot, she said. I couldn’t get near
it. Mom posted a card on the bulletin board. Advanced intermediate
was too strong a claim, she thought, so she described herself as a
strong intermediate. We went out for a bite afterward and Mom had
her usual rare hamburger, an unhealthy choice that irked me. I’d
always admired Mom's athletic figure, but at 66, she was getting heavy
around the waist. We returned downtown on the subway and when I got
off at the stop before hers I was struck by a glassy, faraway expression
after she coughed. An eerie feeling overtook me but I dismissed it.
Over the next few weeks, Mom learned she had pneumonia and stayed
home from work. The pneumonia persisted over the next week, at the
end of which was her 67th birthday. After two weeks without improvement,
Mom was admitted to St. Vincents for intravenous antibiotics. She
went to the hospital by herself, took a taxi while my dad and I
were at work.
For the next couple of weeks I went to the hospital every evening
after work. The pneumonia was advancing. The situation was becoming
worrisome, as speaking was becoming an effort because of the amount
of breath it requires. And Mom's breathing was getting labored.
One night Mom announced that she wasn’t getting better. She
opened the drawer of her night table and removed the bottle of Escape
I had given her for her birthday. She had brought it to the hospital
along with her toothbrush inscribed with her name; eyeglasses; contact
lens case and solution; and lipstick. She opened the bottle, sniffed,
and remarked again how rich and lovely it was. I screwed the top
back on and put it away. She told me she was sorry, she hadn’t
cared for me enough as a child. I made light of her apology. “Do
these antibiotics give you the sorries?” I asked.
In the last days before the biopsy, a former boss of Mom's came
to visit. She adored him because he had given her a job she loved,
and a sense of belonging. He organized business conferences which
he would cancel, then keep monies he’d received. She was too
weak to groom herself, even to sit up. And he felt awkward, having
brought a gift for her birthday. At a loss for words, he said, “Barbara,
you’ll get this biopsy done, and then you’ll be just…”
Mom interrupted him. “Dead. I’ll be dead,” she
The next day was the day before the biopsy, so numerous blood tests
were taken prior to surgery. As Mom lay on her side we could see
a part of her back swell as she struggled to breathe. There was
little healthy lung left and a small piece was doing all the work.
The biopsy was scheduled for 11:30 the next morning. When Dr. Halperin
came in to see Mom, he said it looked like she was having a good
day. He said, "This always happens. You schedule a procedure
and the patient turns out not to need it." But he told my father
privately that if they could get her through this, it would be an
The elevator opened into an open area and Mom’s handlers
pushed her through wide swinging doors. A team of pathologists,
anesthesiologists, surgeons, and nurses surrounded her gurney. Towering
over Mom, they discussed what kind of specimen was needed from what
part of which lung. I tried to listen to what they were saying but
could hear nothing amid the din. Mom tugged at my shirt. I leaned
over, and she whispered, “the stateroom scene.” “Yes,”
I said. “A Night at the Opera!” Mom nodded. She was
reminding me of a scene from the Marx Brothers' “A Night at
the Opera” in which tens of individuals crowd into the tiny
stateroom of an ocean liner. Room service, manicurists, barbers,
and bellhops climb atop one another, each trying to perform a job
Then she was gone. My dad and I sat in the main lobby of the hospital
unwinding from the harrowing afternoon. We embraced, weeping. My
dad tried to comfort me as the sorrow I’d masked earlier poured
out. “If she doesn't make it, I’m afraid I’ll
never laugh again. I won’t be able to go on living,”
I said. “But death is a part of life," Dad answered,
“and it makes it easier, because then the suffering will be
with us, she won’t be suffering anymore.”
Mom was engulfed in a maze of wires and machines beeping randomly
at high and low tones. A plastic hose and mask had been placed in
her mouth and taped to her face. Her jaw was fixed wide open, gaping
and ghastly. Railings were up on both sides of the bed, preventing
us from getting close. She couldn’t move her mouth to speak,
and communicated with her eyes, which screamed, “Get me out
One day when I arrived at Mom’s bedside, Dr. Halperin clutched
my hand so tight he nearly broke it. He said Mom had turned a corner.
An x-ray showed the pneumonia was receding. The erythromycin had
been working. This meant that in all likelihood she had Legionnaire’s
disease. Mom was oblivious to the good news. After all, she still
had a large plastic tube taped to her face and was covered by IV
lines, catheters, and electrodes. Crying with glee, I told Mom she
was the bravest person I’d ever known, that she had done a
It was a victorious day when Mom was moved out of the ICU and into
the step-down unit, a regular hospital ward. One day the respirator
was unhooked and she breathed on her own for 45 minutes. The entire
staff of the floor applauded her.
One afternoon my father phoned me and said he had received a call
from Dr. Carpati. Mom's lungs were failing, the respirator had to
be raised to 100% oxygen. A second, emergency biopsy was underway.
Mom was now in the largest room of the ICU, the one reserved for
patients who need more monitors than the others. The bed faces outward
toward the hall and a wall of glass enables constant observation.
This is where moribund patients are placed.
I knew this was probably the last evening I could spend with Mom
and determined to stay the night in the waiting room. Though Mom
was sedated, maybe she’d sense my presence, know that I was
there. My father wanted to leave. Dr. Carpati pulled me aside, recommended
my dad and I stay together. I was young and could spend the night
in a hospital waiting room, but my father, 70 years old, couldn’t
do that. I went to my Dad’s, slept on the sofa in the living
room. I kept the phone beside me in case the hospital called.
It was 6.30 a.m. I dressed and walked to the hospital. Dr. Carpati
greeted me with bad news. Mom had not responded to the medications.
She could live another few days, perhaps a week or more.
Mom’s body was swelled to the point where she no longer looked
female. She was like a figure in a Fernando Botero painting, inflated
like a sausage. Mom would have deplored this situation. I wanted
to put an end to this lingering state before she heard any of the
staff mention her dying.
I saw a nun and told her we needed a prayer read by a rabbi before
withdrawing life support. She said that it being the Jewish New
Year, the rabbi was off. But she would find the priest. I asked
that he bring the 23rd Psalm. He came running up about 10 minutes
later with a photocopy. Said he didn’t have much occasion
to use the 23rd Psalm, it being from the Old Testament. He was so
anxious when photocopying it, that he cut off half the prayer. The
three of us huddled in the waiting room as he read the prayer aloud.
Dad signed the withdrawal consent.
Before the unveiling of Mom’s head stone a year after her
death, my father drew a blank when the rabbi, who hadn't known her,
asked him about her. They hadn’t really spoken in 20 years.
Dad said she was a very discerning woman, had good taste. I asked
the rabbi about the tradition of placing a rock at a person’s
grave. What did it mean? He said that in the old days, people used
to make a day of it when they’d come to visit loved ones.
They’d have a picnic lunch in the cemetery. When it came time
to leave, they’d denote their presence by leaving a rock.
It was a way to let people know the deceased had been visited. So
I collected a dozen rocks and placed them on Mom’s stone.