I SPY

18 months ago

We almost lost my mother yesterday. Not lost like displacing a sock or a glove, lost like died.

A quick survey of 36 hours starts with ever-worsening cough, goes on to breath that becomes struggle, two lost nights of sleep. Continue to a visit to the doctor and the order to go IMMEDIATELY to Emergency,, don’t stop for gas, don’t stop at home, etc. Proceed with infusions and intravenous antibiotics, and once again, it’s time for the big decision: Stay in the hospital for several days or go home?

We bring her home.

In the afternoon I think we’ve lost her. Her breathing goes from stumbling to highly erratic and loud, and she refuses to take oxygen. Her head rests on the pillow, skin stretched tight, as if preparing for its final skeletal grimace.

In the evening a little color comes back. She gets softer, tenderer, smiles, but is clear: “I’ll be dead by morning,” she tells us.

We try to strategize. “Mom, you have two options,” my brother begins, but she interrupts him.

“I know, death and death,” she says.

The prospect doesn’t worry her in the least, she’s ready to part. Three grandchildren and a son-in-law arrive, bringing food. We don’t move from her side till she sleeps, but her breathing is shallow. We leave her in the hands of Swapna, her highly capable Indian caregiver, and go to our respective beds with phones open right under our pillows.

In the morning she’s stronger and very disappointed to be alive. And, as often happens after a physical collapse, her cognition has taken a dive . Once she woke up after such a episode obsessing about numbers. Today, it’s spies:

“Eve, don’t look out. Don’t look out! There’s a man waiting under the tree.”

“What man, mom?”

“One man? Many, many men. They’re waiting for information.”

“From whom?”

“Don’t be stupid. Whom do you think?”

“What does he look like, mom?”

“I told you, there are so many of them. What does it matter what he looks like? I have to go to the grocery store to buy eggs.”

“Mom, Swapna says you have eggs.”

“Don’t be silly. I buy eggs because I have to deliver a message.”

“What message, mom?”

She peers at me intently to check if she could trust me, then nods to herself as if coming to a decision. “They ask me how many eggs I need. If I say three then it means that the situation is very bad. If I say 10 it means the situation is under control. That’s why I have to go buy eggs.”

“And how many eggs will you buy, mom?”

She doesn’t hesitate. “Eight. I don’t need more than eight.”

Five minutes later: “Eve, a million people are eavesdropping on my phone all the time.”

“A million people! Why, mom?”

“What kind of question is that? Because I know. I know!”

“You know what, mom?”

“The meaning of the words. Eve, every word has at least ten different meanings, don’t you know that? You, a writer? Every word has many meanings, and I know all the meanings. If you go out and someone says something to you, like hello, that’s not just hello, that’s code for something very important. And I know all that, only you don’t, you think it’s a conversation, but nothing is just a conversation. They know. They know!”

“This is silly,” my brother tells her. “Your family is fine, the country is fine, stop thinking they’re coming to destroy everybody. Come into the sun.” He cajoles her onto her small terrace under a warm winter sun. “Sit here, feel the sun, see? I told you everything is fine.”

Two other guests come. They talk of their shopping and cooking, their preparations for the Sabbath. How glad they are that she came back to us once again. She smiles and nods.

As soon as they leave she asks me. “Where is our President?”

“I think he’s right in his home, mom.” The President’s house happens to be 2 blocks away.

“They’re sending him away as soon as possible and a thousand soldiers will take over, you’ll see.”

“I don’t think so, mom.”

“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you pay attention to the news? Don’t you know what’s going on in the world? We’re in a terrible war. There are attacks everywhere and you know how I know?”

“The eggs, mom?”

“No, the butter. There’s no butter anywhere. That tells you everything.”

“I heard that there are problems with the butter supply here because—”

She shakes her head dismissively and looks at her TV, which we put on in an effort to distract her. The screen shows a newscaster talking. Adjacent is a glass showing reporters on the other side. “You see that mirror?”

“It’s glass, mom.”

“They can see everything through the mirror, can’t you see that? There are a million people behind that mirror. Where’s your brother?”

“He’s talking on the phone.”

She shakes her head. “He’s telling them things. I knew it. He’s telling them about me.”

I’m outraged. “He’d never do that, mom! He’s completely loyal to you. His family always coms first.”

She looks dubious. “Swapna!” She calls out. “How many eggs do we have?”

“Enough, Ima,” Swapna calls back from the kitchen.

“Help me up, Eve, I have to go buy eggs.”

Swapna, bless her patient, caregiving heart, doesn’t understand that my mother has a message to deliver to the Mossad. She shakes her head, looks sorrowfully at me, as if to say don’t indulge her delusions, bring her down to earth, and then returns to the kitchen.

But I’m flying in the air right alongside my mother.

“Remember when they imprisoned me in Russia?”

“Remind me, mom. Who imprisoned you?”

“You know, the – the—the–”

“The KGB?”

She gives a dismissive snort. “The KGB! What do they know? People much more important than the KGB, nobody knows who they are, but they caught me once.”

She reflects on that episode, and how she managed to cheat the Russians of vital information, and how her family and country could depend on her till the day she dies, but they always need to stay vigilant and always, always prepared for the worst.