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16. Gertrude Dies


My mother died on July 31, 2005, a foggy Sunday morning, at 6 a.m. She was 90 years old.

I’d thrown a big party for her on her birthday the previous March 15: many relatives flew in. Piles of lox and bagels, a cake, wine, toasts, reminiscences, memory album, the works. About two months later, my mother asked me to drive her to the doctor. She had stomach cramps.

The doctor sent her straight to the hospital. The cancer had started in her colon and metastasized; it was incurable.

A few months earlier, there’d been a national news story about a young woman, Terri Schiavo, who was on a respirator and was brain-dead. Her family was split on whether or not to “pull the plug.” It was a hot topic in Gertrude’s retirement community. In her apartment, with the heat on high, she asked me a question:

“If I ever got like that, would you…”? Her voice trailed off.


“You know.”

“No, actually, I don’t.”

She looked at me with pleading eyes. “You know, use a pillow…”

I suppose I was aghast. “Are you crazy? That’s murder.”

Gertrude thought that the law allowed a son to smother his sick mother with a pillow. I had to explain to her that, no, things don’t work that way. But I did create, the next day, a formal Advanced Healthcare Directive for her, which stipulated that, in the event of her impending demise, and at her request (or mine, as her designated agent), all treatment except for pain management be withheld.

Gertrude spent a long month dying. The hospital had the legal right to discharge her, since she would never get better and they needed the bed for treatable patients. But her doctor, to whom she was devoted, called in some favors and arranged for her to remain in her private room. I visited as frequently as I could; the hospital was in Burlingame, near SFO. Driving down was hell, given Bay Area traffic. More often, I took BART, the subway, which was a lot easier, but still, a one-way trip took an hour. I made it to the hospital three or four times a week. (And kudos here to cousin Maxine, who visited every day; she lived in nearby San Mateo.)

The last week was pure anguish. She was wasting away, but fighting. The pain got worse; they upped her morphine. She was more or less in a permanent coma, although once, as I held her hand, I could have sworn she gave mine a squeeze. One day I noticed a drip into her arm I hadn’t seen before. I asked the nurse what it was. Saline solution. What’s that for? To keep her hydrated. Wait a minute, I said, isn’t hydration a form of feeding? She has an advanced directive, a legal document, that says no food, no water, just morphine. Please stop the saline. Well, the nurse replied in a huff, I didn’t become a nurse to kill people.

Standoff. I raised a ruckus. The hospital’s chief physician intervened. The result: they stopped the saline solution. It was now day by day. “Gosh, but your mother is fighting this,” a station nurse told me.

I knew exactly why she was.

You see, her only grandchild, my sister’s daughter, was pregnant. Her first birth had been difficult; so might this one be. Her doctors wouldn’t even let her fly to San Francisco to visit her dying grandmother. At about 10 p.m. that night of July 30, as I lay sleeping, I got a call from the nurse. “Your mother just went into the death rattle. You better get down here.” I rushed across the Bay Bridge. As I stepped out of the elevator, the nurse said, “Congratulations, Mr. Heimoff.”

I stopped. “For what?”

“The birth.”

“What birth?” It seems my niece’s husband had called the hospital a few hours earlier to ask if they would please inform Mrs. Heimoff that her granddaughter had just given birth to a healthy baby girl. The nurse whispered it into Gertrude’s unconscious—but comprehending?–ear. The baby girl had been named Jackie, after her great-grandfather.

That’s why Gertrude fought so hard. She refused to go until she knew her granddaughter and great-grandchild were safe. Once she did, she stopped fighting.

She was in a deep coma, breathing stertorously–a tiny thing, her face grimaced with agony. I brushed her hair, kissed her forehead, sat beside her for hours in the darkened room. It grew very cold. Around 3 a.m.—it was now July 31–I curled up in her bed and covered myself with a blanket. As I drifted off to sleep, I massaged her feet.

Next thing I knew, something brushed my right cheek. It felt like a feather; it woke me up. I glanced at the wall clock: 6:03 in the morning. I looked at my mother. Her face no longer was grimaced; it was white like porcelain, smooth and serene. I hopped to my feet, felt her forehead: still warm. But that face—so beautiful. Not a line. “That’s the girl my father fell in love with,” I thought.

I told the nurse my mother was dead. “She can’t be,” he replied. “I was just in there, making my 6 o’clock rounds. She was breathing; you were asleep.”

“Well, she might have been breathing three minutes ago, but she isn’t now.” I left her room as they put her in a body bag. I took with me some of her personal items: A sweater. The hairbrush. Her purse. Then I went to a diner and had some breakfast. A death. A birth. The circle…

A month after she died, I got a bill from the hospital for $950,000. Her health insurance, from her pension as a schoolteacher in New York forty years previously, covered every penny. I don’t think people have insurance like that anymore.

What woke me up at 6:03? What was the feather that brushed my cheek?

  1. Paul Stark says:

    Gertrude was always really nice to me, even after you broke your pelvis, which I think she might have blamed me for. My 60th birthday was July 31, 2005. I remember the day.

  2. I don’t think she blamed you. If she did, she never said a word to me. She knew that we both were terrified of that dog. It wasn’t your fault! Take care. P.S. Minnie was always nice to me!

  3. Steve, Reading this put tears in my eyes. I think maybe there was an angel nearby.💙☺️ BTW, my birthday is July 31.

  4. Thank you Edith. Take care.

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