Death Lessons

When her mom passed away, Gay Haubner learned lessons about life, death, realtors, and mattresses.

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For the past 20 years, every visit to my mother in Colorado Springs included a drive past her bank.

She’d tap tap tap her pink nail against the driver’s side window and say, “After I die, just go in there and ask for Tanya. Bring her the paperwork, it’s all in the bottom drawer of the marble-top dresser and everything’s arranged so you won’t need a lawyer or have go through probate.

“After Tanya, you can have lunch. There’s a Panera right behind the bank. I know you don’t like chains, but have you had their macaroni and cheese?”

Every event in my mom’s life — or death — was planned around a meal.

“Mom! Mom!” I’d cry. “Shut up! You’re gonna live forever!”

The prospect of immortality offended her.

“You’ll thank me someday,” she’d sniff.

Lesson: Don’t be squeamish about death. Talk to your parents. And thank them before it’s too late.

The last photo of my mother was taken the Friday before Christmas. She is wearing a new outfit: a pink pullover with a cat appliqué bedazzled with sequins and a matching sweater trimmed in pink fake fur. Her make up and hair are model perfect. You can’t see it in the photo, but I know that her carnation manicure is pristine, her trademark rhinestone set into the polish of her right index finger catching the light.

Gay Haubner's mother. Joy

Mom is beaming like a real diamond: she is at a retirement home (just visiting, she would not be budged from her townhouse) to swoon over her latest crush, a swarthy, handsome fifties-style crooner (“He’s better than Tony Bennett!”) who entertains the oldsters with songs only they remember. I am sure that she clapped enthusiastically and off beat and sang along, forgetting half the words. My sister, almost as pretty, went with her.

The day after that photo was taken, my sister called.

“Mom’s sick. She’s sleeping on the couch. I made her a turkey sandwich but she doesn’t want to eat.”

In my family a lack of appetite means something is very, very wrong. We Haubners can eat our way through anything. I once successfully treated a bout of stomach flu with fried chicken.

My sister wrangled an appointment with the doctor for the morning of Christmas Eve; the doc sent mom home with an oxygen tank and a follow-up appointment in four weeks.

“So it can’t be that bad,” I said on the phone to my sister. “She’s 85. If she had a hangnail the doctor would send her to the hospital.”

“Mom just wants to sleep and I’ve got the oxygen turned up as high as it will go. And she’s still not eating.”

That was serious.

“Okay, it’s Christmas. Nothing’s going to happen. If she’s not better by tomorrow, take her back to the doctor.”

Mom was not better, an appointment was made, and my sister, after being stuck five days in an apartment with a comatose old lady snoring and drooling on the couch, took herself down the road for some fresh air and a cold beer that she never got to finish.

With uncanny timing, one of my mom’s friends walked in the townhouse door (she always left it unlocked, “I hope someone does come in and take something!” my mom grumbled) just as my sister had a frosty IPA put down in front of her. Before her first sip, her phone rang and she got an earful of vitriol: she was a cold-hearted, unfit daughter to abandon her sick mother and an ambulance was on its way.

I guess mom never told her good friend what she told her kids: “I don’t want you to ever call an ambulance for me! I hate hospitals! Just let me die at home!”

(A few years ago following a minor surgery, mom had a nosebleed that refused to stop. Despite looking like the third act of Lucia di Lammermoor, mom insisted that she was fine. It took an hour, two changes of gore-covered outfits, and an entire box of wadded up bloody Kleenex to convince her that even though it was prime rib night and she had made reservations, we were not going to dinner at Walter’s Café. We were going to the ER.)

If it hadn’t been for the pesky pal, Mom might have gotten her wish. The ambulance came and took her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with double pneumonia.

I phoned the next morning to say I was flying in from Costa Rica. The last command my mom ever gave me was “I’m fine! Don’t come! You stay home and feed your husband!” I ignored her concern over my husband’s diet of Cheerios when left on his own and booked a flight.

I called my sister before getting on the plane in San Jose.

“How’s she doing?”

“Not good. Mom’s oxygen levels are way down. They want to move her to ICU and put a breathing tube in.”

“No! No! You know she doesn’t want that! I gotta go, they’re calling my flight.”

I was somewhere over Mexico when my mother stopped breathing. Buzzers and bells started going off and a scene out of a TV medical drama took over, with doctors and nurses rushing in and my sister being frogmarched out of the room.

My sister hopped in her car, sped over to my mom’s place, and as promised, there was a big three-ring binder in the bottom drawer of the marble top dresser, and stuffed among the hundreds of loose papers (apparently the only thing my mom did not own was a three-hole punch) was a notarized document giving my sister health proxy.

Lesson: Take all your paperwork to the hospital, even for a broken pinkie toe.

My sister got back to the hospital and a sedated mom and a respiratory specialist who broke the news that a person mom’s age who was intubated would most likely never be able to breath on her own again.

Mom, always the contrarian, proved him wrong.

By the time I arrived on New Year’s Eve morning, the ebullient staff was treating mom as if she were Lazarus. The tube was out, she was breathing through cannulas stuck up her nose, which she kept complaining about.

“They’re keeping you alive mom!”

“Who cares,” she rasped, her throat scrapped raw from the tube. “I want to go home.”

That was not an option. Members of her medical team, which seemed to number in the dozens, all of them calm and competent and respectful and always seeming as if they had all the time in the world to answer our questions, dropped by to see the amazing resurrection. The after-care specialist gave my sister and me a list of rehab facilities and told us to visit them and make a first and second choice. The pretty physical therapist coaxed mom out of her bed and walked her to the end of the hall and back. The pleasant nurse, always cheerful even when he had to help my mom on and off the commode (I was astonished that the embarrassment of this didn’t kill her on the spot), managed to spoon some yogurt down mom’s throat; she waved him aside after a few mouthfuls and gasped, “Where are you girls going for dinner?”

We went to Walter’s, sitting underdressed among the revelers at the bar on New Year’s Eve, celebrating mom’s revival over a festive plate of duck and big glasses of red, passing on the happy news to the bartenders and waiters at her favorite restaurant and to Walter himself: mom was doing great, on the mend. Over dinner we studied the list of rehab centers and picked out the two closest; we’d check them out the next day.

We never saw them.

New Year’s Day we walked into the ICU and found a subdued bunch hovering around my mom’s hospital bed; the thin tubes going up her nose had been replaced with much thicker ones that were pushing oxygen into her lungs with a loud whoosh that made it almost impossible for us to talk to her, even with her hated hearing aids in (she always claimed “They don’t work!”). She had suffered from macular degeneration for years, now her green eyes were pale and flat as a stone, trying to make sense of what was going on around her.

Once a day, my mom’s medical team met outside her room to discuss her case, making sure my sister and I were included. I don’t remember much of that morning’s conversation; it ended with the nice nurse slipping a purple paper band on my mother’s wrist, like the ones you get at an outdoor concert, only this one said “DNR.”

I still clung to the list of rehab centers, as if there was some promise there that everything would be all right.

Lesson: Prepare for the worst.

If you want to make time stand still, spend a day in an ICU. I finally forced myself to stop looking at the clock on the wall; I could see the second hand ticking away, but every minute stretched out to an eternity.

Stuck whirling in my stupid head was “Mommy can you see me? Mommy can you hear me?” Mommy also could barely speak but clearly communicated that she was miserable. When she dozed off, my sister and I huddled over the bulging white notebook, trying to make sense of the official-looking notarized papers interspersed among handouts claiming “You Don’t Have to Pay Death Taxes!” and “How to Avoid Probate,” a glossy brochure on donating your body from a company called Science Care that held a laminated, signed consent card (“I don’t want a funeral! After I die, these people will pick me up and it won’t cost you a thing.” “Shut up mom!”), raggedy newspaper articles on real estate, recipes that all seemed to include a container of Cool Whip and a stick of margarine, an editorial claiming smoking pot led to murder (on which mom had scrawled “Send to Gay!” and then angrily crossed it out; it made her crazy that I couldn’t get mail in Costa Rica), and dozens of expired coupons that kept escaping from the notebook, littering the hospital floor. Could the Xeroxed form filled out in blue ink stating she wanted her property divided evenly between her daughters, headed in her swirly Palmer script “To My Poopsies,” possible be a legal document?

The nice nurse stuck his head in the door. “There’s a lawyer here to see your mom.” This seemed incredibly fortuitous; my sister and I managed to slap welcoming grins on our faces.

A fortyish, dark-haired, energetic guy bustled into the hospital room and called out “Hi Joy!” At the sound of a familiar male voice mom’s eyes flew open and her hand went to pouf up her thin, flattened hair. Her gentleman caller got a bigger hello than I did.

Mom was from a time that believed in the Miracle of the Male Gaze. For the 15 minutes of flattery and cajolery from a not-bad-looking younger man, my mom’s hearing and sight were restored. When we saw her start to tire, my sister and I hustled Mr. Lawyer out of the room, and bombarded him with questions. Somehow he didn’t know the answer to any of them.

“I’m a lawyer but I’m not your mom’s lawyer. I specialize in real estate law.” We thanked him for coming by, stuffed the papers in some order into the binder, and went back to spend another millennium watching mom slip in and out of consciousness. Mostly out. She woke up once to remind us to reschedule her dentist appointment, and a second time to ask for an emery board; she had felt a snag in her manicure.

I have no memories of how my sister and I made our escape from the hospital, of the drive back to my mom’s place, of what we said or did that evening. Did we eat? Get drunk? Watch Netflix? It’s a jump cut back to the ICU the next day and the ashy, shrunken figure who could now barely see, hear, speak, or breathe.

Any trace of my mother was gone. There were no sequins, no feathers, no matching earrings and brooch and necklace, no jaunty hat, no too-bright lipstick, no leopard print scarf and belt, no carefully penciled-on brows. Mom was past enjoying a cheeseburger or a reuben sandwich, no longer able to gossip about her friends, or give her daughters unwanted advice, advice she always punctuated with a sharp jab in the arm. Lying in that hospital bed was only a body who did not want to be there.

The dozen doctors and nurses standing outside mom’s ICU room had little to say, none of it good news. The day before yesterday, when the pretty physical therapist escorted mom like the beauty queen she used to be down the hall, with the staff clapping and cheering, seemed like a weird dream.

I looked at my sister, her face teary and drawn, violet shadows like bruises under her eyes, and said, “This is exactly what our Mom did not want. How can we end it?”

My sister nodded and croaked “Yes” and not a single doctor suggested a procedure or a pill that might keep mom going. Thank goodness.

It was astonishingly simple. Mom was being kept alive by air forced up her nose. The respiratory specialist gradually lowered the amount of oxygen she was receiving, the nurse gave her morphine, and mom fell asleep and never woke up.

The staff moved respectfully and silently about the room, verifying time of death, and turning off all the blinking, beeping machines. My sister and I knew without being told that we could take as long as we wanted. After a few hours we were done, there was no point in staying. We had things to do.

The chaplain, my least favorite staff member (too smiley and cheery) was waiting for us to discuss “arrangements.” I handed him my mother’s Science Care info like it was a Get Out of Jail Free card, not believing it would work.

My mom had been adamant: no fuss, no obituary, no funeral home, no service, no “Celebration of Life.” She couldn’t stand the idea of not being at a party that was all about her, not able to pick out a special outfit, choose the menu, put out the crystal and silver she loved. It seemed incredible that somehow her body would be magically whisked away, to astound medical students on how a fat old lady of 85 could have such nice skin.

A friend of mine also had a mother who subscribed to the I’m Dead So Don’t Bother school, and was shocked when Science Care told him, nope, we’re not going to take her. The grinning chaplain hemmed, claimed he had never heard of such a thing, took the card, and told us that he would call them.

By the time we got back to our mother’s place, my sister and I both had emails from Science Care. Before they would agree to accept mom’s body, my sister and I had to fill out a grillion-item questionnaire. Science Care wanted to know if mom had rabies, AIDS, a titanium hip, typhoid, shingles, a pacemaker. What was the highest level of education she had reached? What county was she born in? Where did she work last? And her job before that? What were her parents’ middle names and what counties were they born in? (I wasn’t sure of what my grandma’s first name was; we grandkids called her Nana but she was also known as Inez, Wilhemina, and Sally.)

Filling out the forms and verifying each other’s answers was an hour distraction from our real task: emptying out my mom’s two-bedroom, two-bath, formal dining room with wet bar, eat-in kitchen, two-car garage condo that had about an acre of closet space, decorated in Victorian Bordello. Mom had assured me again and again that she had parted with a lot of stuff.

She hadn’t.

Mom was a compulsive shopper and a consummate hoarder. There were no Collyer brothers piles of newspaper; her Preciouses were stashed away: behind the couch, under the beds, beneath tasseled tablecloths. Every drawer was so jam-packed you had to yank it open partway, stick your hand inside, and pull something out to get it open. The hall closet was crammed with coats in every length, color, and season, dozens of boots lined up underneath, hundreds of hats on the shelf above. Boxes and boxes of vitamins, many of them unopened, crowded under her four-poster pillowtop bed. (Mom believed in miracle cures for aging and obesity. She once bought “fat-burning” soap, claiming it had to work; she saw it on Facebook!)

Picture of Joy Haubner in a bathing suit when she was younger
A picture of Joy in earlier days.

I opened one closet and found 200 pairs of shoes arranged on the shelves by color. An additional 200 pairs were on the floors of two other closets. My grieving came to a screeching halt.

Lesson: Please do not do this to your kids. Clear your crap out so we won’t have to.

I was extracting dozens of pantyhose entwined like Laocoon’s snakes from a dresser drawer when I heard the door open. It was my mom’s friend Kirsten, never one of my favorite people. Kirsten made her dry-eyed condolences and asked if she could take measurements of my mom’s condo. She assumed she was going to get the listing.

Over my own dead body. I would never let this woman, who I had heard use an ugly epithet to refer to her son-in-law, sell the place.

“Have you ever heard the expression “the body is not yet cold?” I asked, showing Kirsten the door. She came back the next day, when I was out and my sister was sobbing on the couch. Kirsten settled in. “I’ll just wait for Gay.” I got to throw her out again. She called that evening, I hung up, she called back saying, “We were disconnected” and I disgorged my angry grief on a deserving subject.

Kirsten was followed by more realtors: the son of mom’s “almost” boyfriend, a neighbor, the brother of someone my sister went to school with, and a guy we never did figure out, all wanting to list mom’s townhouse.

Mom, after 30 years in real estate, neglected to designate someone to sell her place. Maybe she thought no one could do as a good as job as she could, if she weren’t dead.

Lesson: If you’re a realtor, please wait a few days before showing up with your business card, list of properties you’ve recently sold, and tape measure.

We couldn’t give anyone the listing for the townhouse anyway, nor could we meet with the celebrated Tanya to sort out mom’s financial affairs, as legally mom was not dead. We needed the death certificate, which oddly was not issued by the hospital she died in, but by Science Care, who eventually did take mom’s body away (to Aurora, Colorado, for a non-specified reason), a process that could take up to seventy-two hours, hours we spent emptying closets and drawers, filling boxes and bags, and making endless trips up and down the stairs.

We filled the townhouse’s assigned dumpster three times; when it was piled to overflowing we surreptitiously tossed garbage in other people’s dumpsters. We made four trips to Goodwill, cramming boxes into the back seat and trunk of my sister’s Lexus.

It took 68 extra-strength garden-sized black Heftys to bag up mom’s clothes and accessories; a woman’s shelter got probably $60,000 worth of clothing. There was one dresser that held nothing but costume jewelry, one closet nothing but purses, over 100 of them (we opened them all in case there might be a forgotten $20 bill inside). Mom owned 16 pairs of white pants and 14 pairs of jeans, even though I had never seen her in jeans.

My mom had enough plates and silverware and glasses in case 60 people dropped by. She had a KitchenAid stand mixer and two hand mixers. She owned two different sized crockpots, three muffin tins, 21 scissors, and a billion pens. There were hundreds of greeting cards for even the obscurest occasion, and enough stamps to keep the U.S. Postal Service afloat.

Mom had unfortunately discovered online grocery shopping and was equipped to wait out the zombie apocalypse; the freezer held dozens of fancy frozen dinners and in the cabinets were at least three of everything: peanut butter, Oreos, Wheat Thins, cake mixes, dried fruit, Swiss Miss, Bisquik, bags of flour and sugar, boxes and boxes of Rice-a-Roni, and a lot of instant pudding, not only chocolate and vanilla, but pistachio and butterscotch and pumpkin spice. I developed a ravenous appetite for pudding, its cloying sweetness and baby food texture. One night I feel asleep on the couch with a spoonful of chocolate pudding halfway to my mouth and woke to a new brown stain on the once white couch. “Mom’s gonna kill me” was my first thought.

I made an appointment with a furniture dealer; he wandered through the townhouse, shaking his head at the ivory brocade chaise lounge, the pink marble dining table, the seven-foot high china hutch.

“Sorry. No one wants furniture like this anymore. Try Gorman’s Auction House, they take anything.”

Mr. Gorman did agree to take almost everything, but balked at the well-used sofa, with the mom-shaped indentation and the new chocolate stain.

“What about the mattress on the four-poster?” I asked.

Mr. Gorman shrugged. “Legally I can’t sell a used mattress, so I’ll give it away with the bed.” A pick up was arranged for the end of the week.

But that damn couch. No charity was willing to go up stairs to pick it up, not Goodwill, or the Ark or Salvation Army or Habitat for Humanity. My sister and I tried to budge it; it was too big a job for the two of us and everyone we called suddenly remembered a prior appointment or a back out of whack or a bum knee.

I finally found a removal company who came and took the sofa away, and it only cost me $95. Then two men arrived with a big truck to transport the rest of the stuff —the furniture, the china, the glassware, the cookware, the two crockpots, et cetera —to the auction house.

Most of the townhouse had been cleared out when one of the men, the one in charge, emerged from mom’s bedroom.

“We’re not taking the mattress and box spring,” he announced.

“Mr. Gorman said he would!” I cried. The guy was unmoved.

“Sorry. It’s my own truck. If I get bedbugs in my truck, I kiss my business goodbye.” I felt my mom’s outrage — “Bedbugs! The very idea!” — from beyond the grave, or the anatomy lab, I guess.

I followed him back to the bedroom, where the queen-size pillowtop mattress and immense box spring leaned against the wall like beached belugas.

“What can we do with them?” I wailed, dusting off my damsel in distress look.

“The city dump will take them; they’ll charge you $50 for the mattress and $50 for the box spring.” How my sister were going to get these monstrosities to the dump —could we tie them on the roof of the Lexus like upscale Clampetts? — was the question.

Lesson: I don’t know what the lesson is here, unless it’s sleep on a futon.

“How about if I give you a hundred dollars?” I asked hopefully.

“Nope. Sorry. I can’t take the chance.”

I plopped down on the floor. All the grief I had buried came up at the sight of those stupid mattresses. I had navigated the donation of my mom’s body, wrangled the death certificate, met with Tanya and signed 500 documents, found a realtor I didn’t hate, made pals with the people at Goodwill and the local food pantry, apologized to the downstairs neighbors a dozen times for the racket, arranged to pay maintenance and electric for the townhouse until it sold. And now I was defeated by bedding.

My sister and the other moving guy came into the bedroom to see what the hold up was.

The guy in charge turned from the mattresses to my sister and said, “You look awfully familiar. I must know you from somewhere.”

“Do you watch a lot of porn?” she asked.

Five minutes later, after each guy got a photo with my sister, not looking her sexy best, but always pretty and busty and blonde, the movers agreed to take my $100 and the mattresses.

My sister and I stood in the empty apartment. All traces of my mom — the gilded cupids, the lace curtains, the silk flower arrangements, the dining table that was always set in case of guests, the gold framed mirrors, the sticky candy dish, the giant TV permanently stuck on Fox News at maximum volume — gone. There was only a crater in the carpet to mark where the marble dining table had settled in.

An empty apartment

I have some of mom’s silver (I refrained from taking both gravy boats), a Limoges plate, and a few pieces of jewelry, including a fake Fendi necklace, earrings, and bracelet mom got rooked on during a Mediterranean cruise. No clothing; I tried and failed to find one piece that did not have feathers, sequins, rhinestones, appliqués, fringe, lace, glitter, or was not an animal print. I have the comfort of knowing that my mother died in almost the way she wanted; I guess no one dies at home anymore.

I have memories of mom scolding me, “Brush your hair!” and of her disapproving of all of my boyfriends until they were history, then sighing, “I liked Mike/Steve/James much better than this new one.” Of us laughing so hard that we would race to the bathroom, one of us making it while the other did the “peepee dance” outside. Of mom’s overwhelming grief when her miniature apricot poodle Shay-Shay died, how she wailed “I couldn’t feel worse if it was one of my own kids,” making my sister and I exchange shocked, unloved looks.

I pick up the phone or start an email, then the pricking behind my eyes reminds me that mom is no longer there to answer. I console myself with the thought that I was the World’s Okayest Daughter, and that somewhere on the streets of Colorado Springs there is a homeless woman happily wearing a zebra striped dress with a black lace collar and cuffs. If she’s lucky, she also snagged the matching belt and shoes.

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Comments

  1. Marvelous writing, as always. Finding comedy at such a sad moment in your life is a great talent.

  2. Gay, you’re definitely one of the most popular writers at the Post, as ALL of these wonderful letters preceding mine prove.

    I too am so sorry for your loss, of course, and that your mother’s wishes (for the end) were not granted her, and you as well. I’m also very glad that you have that beautiful photo of your mother taken on Christmas Eve, looking her best, that unknowingly then would be her final photo. God knew, and arranged the perfect picture for your comfort and peace of mind whenever you need to see or feel close to her. She wouldn’t want the unpleasant hospital images as described to be the last for you, and now they’re not.

    This personal essay is among your finest with lessons to be learned by everyone, but still incorporating the trademark humor and details all of us who’ve written here love about you! Today I had to re-read Chapter 50 of ‘North Country Girl’ where your mom was one of the shining stars of quite a California caper!

  3. Your thorough details paint such a vivid portrait of your mom and your relationship to her. Much love, Gay.

  4. Ahh Gay. That made me so sad. You were a great daughter and I am sure your Mom was very proud of you.

  5. Your writing so beautifully expresses the thoughts and experiences we can all relate to… even the sad ones… and always with that underlying humor that can break through at literally any moment in all of our lives.

  6. The best stories help you understand things about yourself while feeling how the writer felt. I got both of those things here. Thanks for sharing, Gay, and I’m sorry for your loss.

  7. It seems appropriate to me that this tender, funny, gut-wrenching, truth-telling essay is in the Post next to articles by Saroyan and Didion.
    Loved it, love you. As another commentator mentioned,”more, please “.

  8. Gay, your story had me laughing, crying, and then crying some more. Wonderful writing! A lot of us can connect personally. I doesn’t seem right to not have our moms just a call away.

  9. Loved this story because I have lived through this two times with my sister. You chronicled the journey so well- a roller coaster ride through pathos that ends in a Seinfeld episode. It’s exhausting. After reading the book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” and watching Marie Kondo spark joy, I am ruthlessly going through my stuff. My love to you and your sister for the loss of your incredible mother.

  10. This is so full of love and gems – it’s one of the best essays I’ve read in a long time. I’m so sorry for your loss, and so happy for the laughs you’ll remember.

  11. Thank you for a beautiful, funny and raw account of a widely shared PTSD. It is “around that time” for many of us daughters and sons, all the sad truths we face.

  12. OMG Gay—you are the female version of David Sedaris. No one can make my emotions go from crying to laughter in 2 seconds like the two of you. And I want the contact info of that organization that picks up bodies—I want mine to go there as well.

  13. I loved reading this so much Gay. Being a new member of the Motherless Child’s club I can appreciate the “pricking behind my eyes reminds me that mom is no longer there to answer” – such a woebegone feeling.

    As usual, you captured the essence of your mom so well that I feel like I knew her. I know how hard it must have been to clear everything out – and obviously there was a LOT – but I love that she must have felt that there was no reason to. Understandably in her mind there was no need – there would be plenty of time when she was old – which very clearly she was not.

    Hugs and love to you – I am so sorry for your loss.

  14. Thanks for sharing, Gay. It’s with tears that I write this, having so recently experienced so much of it. I still have two huge boxes of greeting cards for any occasion, just in case I ever listen to mom’s voice admonishing me to be better about sending cards… Good lessons here. Love.

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