SWAPNA, DID YOU EAT?

My mother, Shoshana, 15 years ago.

A cozy evening sitting by a gas fire in my sister’s apartment. In Jerusalem, where the houses are all made of stone, permitting the cold and damp to seep in, I deeply appreciate the warmth.

I slept very poorly last night on account of the steroids and antibiotics I’ve been taking to counter asthma and prevent infection, but this afternoon I made my way to my mother’s apartment and received a shock. She lay in bed, pale as a ghost, a tube snaking to her nostrils carrying oxygen from the inflating and deflating tank next to her bed, her face shrunken, eyes puffy, breaking into paroxysms of coughs every five minutes. Like me, she had not slept much the previous night.

At 91, my mother has a heart condition and mediocre lung capacity. Tests consistently show no immediate threat, but anything can happen. Urgent Care units (including the excellent one that took care of me a few nights ago) won’t deal with her on account of her age, referring her to a hospital emergency room, which we try to avoid because of the nightmarish facilities (lack of beds, lack of chairs, 8-10 hours’ wait, and the conglomeration of groans, cries, and exhaustion in those packed hallways.

How do we keep her comfortable? Swapna, her superb Indian caregiver, looks at me, question in her eyes. She was hoping I’d bring a special medication with me, but it’s impossible before tomorrow.

“I’m going to lie in bed with her,” I tell her.

I stretch out alongside my mother, remove a gold necklace that bothers her. She’s wearing a purple faux velvet house robe and is covered by a warm quilt, but complains of being cold. Swapna finds a woolen gray shawl and drapes it over her.

She tries to doze off, exhausted. At her bedside are the same piles of books I’ve seen for the past five years; she no longer reads books though she was once an avid reader. But I do a double-take at one because of the Buddha image on the cover. It’s a Hebrew book on presence and mindfulness. An hour later I’ll espy Swapna in her room doing full prostrations as part of the Hindu services she does several times a day, probably to a photo of a Hindu deity.

“Swapna prays a lot,” my orthodox Jewish mother whispers approvingly, suddenly awake. “Such a good person. Swapna!” she calls.

“Yes, Ima,” Swapna comes in. She calls my mother Ima, Hebrew for mother.

“Did you eat?”

“Yes, Ima.”

Over the next 3 hours my mother will ask her the same question a dozen times. When Swapna takes her temperature—“Swapna, did you eat?” When Swapna measures her oxygenation—“Swapna, did you eat?” When she fluffs up the pillows—“Swapna, did you eat?” The answer is always Yes, Ima.

I lie alongside, remembering my stupid irritation at that question over the years. Don’t you want to know about my work, my marriage, my life? My mother was a little mystified and even afraid to ask those questions of her Martian daughter. Instead: Eve, did you eat?

They’d starved during the Shoah, and she never traveled anywhere without a loaf of bread n her bag. Four years ago her brother flew her Business-Class to Toronto to visit an ailing nephew, and in the midst of all the lavish food she took out a loaf of bread from her carry-on and munched on it contentedly.

Why do we ask so much from the people we love? Why do we ask so much from those who love us? When are we finally sated and ready to let go of those infernal, endless needs?

70 years after my birth I once again lie alongside my mother, holding lightly to the thin shoulder under the purple robe, occasionally fluffing up the 2 and even 3 pillows under her head. The quilt barely moves above her light breath. These two bodies know each other well and long.

The blessing of having an elderly parent is that as she ages, wrinkles, and withers, grows cranky with children and caregiver, gives in to relentless memories and paranoia, asking a million times what day it is and whether you’re hungry or not, is that even a stubborn, self-centered daughter can finally see that this human bears little resemblance to the woman she remembers. The years have demoted her to a small, shrub-like body, looking up with wonder at the trees that still get sun while she today is lost in shadows. I finally grant her her own journey; any fool could see she’s been on it for many years, but I’m the foolishest fool you’ve ever seen.

What’s left is to hold her lightly, pray that she sleep, relax, find ease.

She opens her eyes. Her color looks better, her eyes brighter.

Swapna appears in the doorway and smiles. “Ima, coffee?”

Ima smiles wanly yes. “But Swapna, tell me, did you eat?”