Are You in the House?


(Mom and me on East 27th Street, New York City)

Are you in the house?

That’s what Mom asked me yesterday when we spoke on the phone. I haven’t seen her since Easter Saturday, and was calling to let her know I wouldn’t be visiting this weekend. I’m feeling under the weather.

“Are you in the house?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m in the house,” I said.

“How are you feeling, Mom?”

“I’m alright.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m taking care of things in the house,” she said.

I was wondering which house she meant. Did she think we were living in the same house now? Was it the house where she grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin?  Was it the fifth floor walkup apartment in New York City where I was born, or the apartment building on Junction Boulevard that was converted into a Jack in the Box and made the Lunney family, with their 10 kids, homeless? Was it the house we rented in Jackson Heights–the last house we lived together as a family? Was it the apartment she lived in in the Bronx before Lorin and I packed up her things and moved her into the nursing home?

What is a house, after all, but a place to lay one’s head. Or was it home Mom was speaking of? A place where family gathers, and hopefully, love makes its presence known.

It’s often hard to know what she means. That’s part of the Alzheimer’s. I interpret what she’s saying much of the time or try not to question at all, to let it be.

“How are the tulips?” I asked.

“They died, dear,” she said.

Why did I even ask? Of course they were dead after two weeks.

“What about the lilacs?” she said.

“They’re not out yet. They come out in May. I’ll bring you some then.”

“Okay. (pause) Where are you? Why aren’t you here?” she said.

“I’m at home. I’m not feeling well and didn’t want to get you sick,” I said.


“I’ll see you next week, Mom.”

“Oh, okay.”

She sounded deflated. I felt I had let her down. But I can’t be there all the time.

“I’ll see you soon,” I said.

“Okay. See you soon.”

What does house / home mean to you?

Jesus Was a Surfer

Last night I watched King of Kings on the Turner Classic Movie station (TCM). I hadn’t seen this 1961 film since I was a kid–it was one of many religious films we used to watch at Easter time, along with Barabbas and The Robe. My mom always remarked at what a handsome Jesus Jeffrey Hunter made. Being a very pious child–I wanted to be a nun for all of third grade–I took these films very seriously.


(google image)

Watching the film was a surreal experience. Narrated by Orson Welles, the performances ranged from wooden to campy. But most remarkable was Jesus’s appearance – dark blonde with piercing blue eyes. Kind of like a surfer dude. Rip Torn who played Judas Iscariot was also surferesque. I kept waiting for Jesus to say, “Gnarly waves, dudes.”

White Jesus isn’t anything unusual, as the role in most films has been portrayed by Caucasian actors, including Robert Powell, Max von Sydow, Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jeremy Sisto and Jim Caviezel.

Sarah Griffiths wrote an article in the Daily Mail entitled “Behold the Face of Hollywood Jesus: Artist merges images of actors who’ve played Christ to reveal the ultimate look of the messiah.”  According to retired medical artist Richard Neave, Jesus probably looked more like this:

real jesus

Daily Mail

Sarah Griffiths goes on to say:

Dr. Neave’s team studied first century artwork from various archaeological sites, created before the Bible was written.

From these works, they hypothesised Jesus had dark eyes and likely had a beard, in keeping with Jewish traditions at the time.

The Bible also offered a clue as to how Christ wore his hair – short, with tight curls, unlike many Renaissance depictions, for example.

This comes from a Bible passage by Paul, who wrote: ‘If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him,’ suggesting Jesus did not have this hairstyle.

When I was a kid, I didn’t question the omnipresent blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus. But it seems odd now. As recent as 2015, Ewan McGregor was cast as Jesus. Why not an actor of color?

I enjoyed watching King of Kings in spite of the casting, but it seems high time we start diversifying.


The World According to Mom

mom in garden

On Saturday, Mom and I were watching CNN’s coverage of the Trump rally in Tucson, Arizona and the gathering swell of protesters.

On Trump.

Mom:  I like him. He’s funny.

Me:  A lot of people don’t like him.

Mom: Why not?

Me: Because he wants to get rid of all the Muslims and immigrants, for one thing.

Mom:  Oh, I didn’t know that.

After watching CNN for awhile, she said,  “I still like him. He makes me laugh.”

On Hillary Clinton.

Me: What do you think about Hillary?

Mom (grimacing): Not much.

On her clothes closet.

Mom: There’s so many things in there that don’t belong to me. I don’t know where they came from.

Me: That’s why I brought you some new clothes. Last time I saw you you said the stuff you have is drab.

Mom: You didn’t have to waste money on that. What about my clothes at home? I won’t be here forever.

On cookies:

I bring her a box of Choco Leibniz every week or two; she calls them “chocolate grahams.”


(google image)

Mom: Oh no, I don’t need any more cookies. I’m getting fat.

Me: What about these lemon cookies I got? They’re very light.

Mom: Those are okay.

I open the box, and she eats a few demurely with her coffee.

Mom: But no more chocolate!

Me: Okay.

On Raymond (another resident).

Mom and I take a spin around the floor. She likes to keep moving.

Mom: He’s always walking up and down with that other one (new female resident). It bothers me.

Me: Why?

Mom: I don’t know. It just does.

Me: He likes to keep moving, just like you.

Mom: I guess so.

On cinema:

Mom:  (very animated) I’ve been waiting to see “Liss for Life”.

Me: What’s that?

Mom: You know. They say it’s coming on, but I keep missing it.

Me: Who’s in it?

Mom: Van Gogh, you know. (more emphatically) Liss for Life.

Me: Oh, “Lust for Life.”

Mom: Yes!

Me: Remember who plays van Gogh?

Mom: Schmikkel Ledberzz.

Sometimes Mom speaks gibberish–it comes with the Alzheimer’s.

Me: Kirk Douglas?

Mom: Yes, that’s what I said. (super animated now)


(google image)

On hair stylists.

Mom: She’s never around to color my hair.

Me: I need to pick up your color at ShopRite.

Mom: They don’t have it here?

Me: No. That’s why they can’t color it now.

Mom: Well, it has to get done right away.

Me: I’ll bring the color next weekend, and then she’ll do it.

Mom: I hope so.

On stuffed animals.

I got her a small stuffed animal bunny for Easter.

Me: Do you have a name for the bunny?

Mom: No. He doesn’t need a name.


Ash Wednesday

I didn’t go for ashes today
haven’t gone in years

day after Mardi Gras
dust on the forehead
dust thou art 
and unto dust
thou shalt return

I don’t need to be reminded

I used to go without
thinking why
it didn’t matter
it is what good
Catholics do

a reminder
that we were
cast out of the garden
for eating
the evil fruit

I like apples
I like pears
I like most any
kind of fruit

dust thou art 
and unto dust
thou shalt return

I want to be
so I will
return to dust

but I plan to eat
plenty of apples
before I do


Thanksgiving with Mom and The Tijuana Brass

11:50 a.m. Thursday, November 26. It would be a quiet holiday. Just me and Mom at the Actors Home for their annual Thanksgiving Day lunch.

I was nervous about seeing her. A little over four weeks had elapsed since her TIAs or mini strokes. I was afraid to see her further altered, especially after the dreams I’ve been having: dreams of Mom dying. I’d wake up thinking, “It would be a blessing if she went in her sleep,” just as she used to say. After the momentary relief and positive self-talk, the anxiety and sadness would creep in. My heart skipped a few beats.

When I arrived, her aide “L” said she wasn’t ready yet. I waited and spoke with a couple of the nurses and aides; we wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving. They thanked me for coming.

I saw one of the family members I know with her Mom. She was wearing a royal blue sweater and a silver brooch, her snowy hair swirled in a meringue-y bun.

“You look beautiful!” she said to her mother. She thanked the aide for dressing her so nicely, and she and her family walked toward the elevator.

L wheeled Mom out and said with his usual beaming smile, “Here she is!”

“Hi, Mom, you look so pretty in pink.” She was wearing her pink and beige print dress with a pale pink sweater.

“Thank you, L,” I said. “Why don’t you come with us to lunch?”

“I wish I could,” he said.

I was afraid Mom might freak out as she sometimes does in crowds, and away from her comfort zone. I made a mental note not to reserve a spot for us at the Christmas party this year. Last year she behaved very badly, so we ended up leaving early. I was hurt and disappointed.

Don’t be negative, don’t be negative, Erica. Take a deep breath.

We arrived on the first floor and I wheeled her into the lunch room. Tables were decorated with a trio of autumn-colored balloons tied to a paperweight of some kind. A paper “HAPPY THANKSGIVING’ sign and several paper cornucopias decorated the walls. Rod Stewart singing “The Nearness of You” piped through the speakers.

A friendly bespectacled man in a polo shirt with a clipboard asked our names and escorted us to a table near the window—sun streaming in, you could feel the heat.

“It’s warm today, Mom, about 62 degrees,” I said.

“Really?” she said, smiling.

“Should we get our own drinks?” I asked one of the women holding a pitcher of cider.

“No, someone will take your order,” she said.

“Okay, thank you.”

“Mom, do you recognize this song?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling even more brightly.

“It’s Rod Stewart.”

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a rock singer, but he sings standards too.”

“Mmm,” she said.

“Would you like some apple cider?” a young woman asked us.

“No, thank you,” said Mom.

“What do you want?”

“Oh, anything.”

“Ginger ale?”


“Ginger ale for her, and coke for me and some water,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I can feel the heat,” she said, closing her eyes.

“Yes, like a spring day.”

The next song that came on was “Tijuana Taxi” by Herb Alpert. Wow, that brought back memories of Jackson Heights. Mom and Dad had that album when my brother and I were kids.

“Mom, Tijuana Taxi!” I said.


“Remember, Herb Alpert? We had the album.”

“Oh, we did?”


I don’t think she remembered, but she smiled anyway. If only I had the album cover.

The nice man with the clipboard was going table to table with a camera.

“May I take your picture?” he said.

“Sure, but first would you take one on my phone first? It’s been ages since we’ve taken a picture together.”

I handed him my iPhone and showed him how. He already knew.


“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome.” He took a photo of us with his camera. I wonder where the photos would be displayed.

I need the memories.

Mom stared at her plate.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I said.

“Yes, I have plenty.”

She scooped up some turkey and stuffing with a soup spoon.

“Would you like me to help you?” I said, bringing a forkful of food to her lips.

“No, this is easier.” She preferred the spoon.

I wasn’t that hungry either.

At about 1:30 I asked Mom if she wanted to go back to her room.

“No, I like it here. I like the sun.”

“Okay, we’ll stay awhile longer.”

And I was so afraid she’d make a scene or be unhappy. It seems I was the anxious one.

Rod Stewart started singing “S’Marvelous” over the loud speakers.

“Mom, you know that one.”

I started to sing along.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

Dame at Sea

Dame at Sea

(google image)

It’s been a while since I posted, and I’ve missed my wordpress friends.

Last Sunday evening I got a call from Deirdre, a nurse at the Actors Home, letting me know that my mom was being transported to Englewood Hospital.  Deirdre  said that Mom was unable to raise her left arm, was dragging her left leg alongside the wheelchair and her blood pressure was elevated. All are stroke indicators.

Mom was admitted to Englewood Hospital late Sunday night. My first sight of her was Monday at 8:00 a.m. She was in a private room on the fourth floor in an immaculate hospital. She was hooked up to an IV and on antibiotics. She was sleepy when I first arrived, but within an hour she grew agitated.

“It hurts so,” she said, “it hurts.”

Her face contorted in pain and confusion.

I spoke to her nurse and asked if we could get her some pain medication. She said, “I have to get authorization from the Dr. Y.  I’ll page her.”

After repeated pages, no response.  The hours passed and Mom was screaming and asking for help.

“What’s going on?” I asked the nurse.

“Dr. Y is not responding to me.”

I asked her for the doctor’s number and told her receptionist / secretary that we urgently needed authorization for pain medication.

A young Indian doctor entered the room.

“Finally,” I said. “Can we get her some pain medication?”

“I’m the neurologist,” she said, “her GP has to authorize that.”

“This is ridiculous,” I said.

The neurologist approached Mom’s bedside.  “How are you feeling, Mrs. Herd?”

“Why don’t you do something?” she yelled.

The neurologist looked at me, and I shrugged.

“She has Alzheimer’s,” I said.

“May I ask you some questions about her?”

“Of course.”

A young woman entered the room carrying a clipboard.

“May I take her lunch order?” she said with an overly wide smile.

“Now is not a good time, ” I said.

She left as if scolded.

After the neurologist and the kitchen girl departed, Mom said, “Push it, push it.”

“Push what?” I said.

She motioned to the left bed rail.

I pushed the bed rail.

“Harder,” she said.

“Okay, you’re not going to fall out,” I said.

“Hold me, hold me,” she said, frantically.

“Okay,” I said, hugging her as best I could.

“Push it, push it!”

The day was spent in this fashion: holding her, pushing the side of the bed so she wouldn’t fall out. I pushed a chair against the bed railing and said, “Now you won’t fall, you can’t.”

She gave me a frightened look.

At around 11:45, the nurse said she received authorization to give her pain meds.

“What is that?” I said.


Shortly afterwards, Mom went quiet and stared blankly into the distance. Finally calm.

At 12:20 p.m., the GP arrived, casually strolling in, dressed in couture.

“What seems to be the trouble here?” she said, smiling.

“Well, I’ve been trying to reach you for the past three hours. My mom was in a great deal of pain.”

“I left you a voicemail,”  she said. “There was an emergency this morning.”

She approached Mom’s bed. “How are you feeling, Katherine?” she said, holding her left hand.

Mom pulled her left hand away, shooting her a hateful look.

“She doesn’t like that,” said Dr Y.

She turned to me, “With Alzheimer’s, you really don’t know if she’s feeling pain or if she’s simply confused.” She said this with arrogance.

“She was in pain; I can tell. I’ve been caring for her for the past five years.”

I can’t tell you how many times doctors have tried to explain the symptoms of Alzheimer’s to me, as if I have no knowledge of it. I know all the symptoms. I had to contain my anger.

“So what is the diagnosis?”

“We aren’t certain yet: the CAT scan was inconclusive. We haven’t been able to give her an MRI because she won’t stay still for 45 minutes. You don’t want to subject her to that, do you?”

“Of course not,”I said.

“She came in very dehydrated, and I suspect she has a UTI so she’s on fluids and antibiotics,” Dr. Y said.

“So what’s next?”

“We want to observe her for awhile. I’m hoping to release her by Wednesday.”

On Tuesday, my brother Rick took the bus from Elmira to see her. She was very happy to see us together.

Rick got there at 4:30 p.m. and I got there after work, at around 7:45.

“She was saying ‘help me, help me,’ earlier. Does she normally do that?”

“She has since she’s been here,” I said.

I put on Channel 13 for her – the news hour. At around 8:20, Mom said to us, “Okay, it’s time for bed now.”

I said to Rick, “I think that’s our cue to leave.”

On Wednesday night she was more agitated than ever, shrieking that she was in pain and saying, “Help me, help me,” then, “Jesus, please help me.”

She hasn’t mentioned God or Jesus in years.

I told the nurse she needed a sedative or pain killer. She gave Mom a dose of Lorazepam which made her dopey.

I asked how she was during the day. “She was .  .  . combative. She didn’t want the aide to wash her up.”

Time for another CAT scan. I accompanied her to Radiology, waiting outside during the procedure.

I heard a shriek.

When we returned to her room, the nurse said, “We’re going to change her diaper and give her her night meds. You can wait in the visitors lounge.”

“Okay,” I said.

I followed the sign to the vending machines, craving a dose of caffeine. It was 9:40 p.m. Pouring outside.

I didn’t have the correct change for a soda. Shit!

If only the vending machine dispensed shots of bourbon. I was spent.

In the visitors lounge, the TV was tuned to Fox News; they were blathering on about Trump, Carson & Co. There had been a debate that night or it was in progress. It didn’t really  compute.

I kept walking around the corner to see if her door was open.

After what seemed an eternity, it was.

On Thursday morning, Dr. L from the hospital called me.

He said, “The neurologist and I examined your mother’s CAT scan. There is evidence of chronic TIAs (transient ischemic attacks) or mini strokes. I’m prescribing baby aspirin, but there isn’t much more we can do. She’s being released back to the Actors Home this afternoon.”

I went to see her on Saturday. She was changed. A heightened level of anxiety and lessened ability to communicate verbally.

“Mmm hmmm, mmm hmmm, mmm hmm, mmm hmmm,” was her main form of communication.

She was calmest when I cut and filed her nails and removed her old nail polish: the icy hands warmed by the time I was through.

My friend gave me a green scapular and rosary for her. At first she didn’t want them, but later she let me put the scapular around her neck.

“Hold it when you’re scared,” I said.

“Yes, dear.”

“Do you want the rosary?” I said.

“Yes.” She wrapped it around her right wrist like a bracelet.

Lorin and I had a vacation planned starting November 1: a weeklong cruise to Orlando and the Bahamas. I considered canceling the trip, but realized there is not much I could do by staying at home. If I stayed at Mom’s bedside for seven days, could I will her not to have any more strokes (which is unlikely) or improve her condition?

All I can hope for now is a lessening or end to her pain and suffering.

As for me, I’m a dame at sea.






Paris is the City of Lights

Towards the end of an episode of “The War,” a Ken Burns documentary on PBS, Mom said, “Paris is the city of lights,” with a gleam in her eye.

The men and women interviewed for this film were relating their experiences during WWII, when Mom was a young girl.

“Was Paris your favorite city?” I said.

“One of them.”

“Which other ones did you like?” I said.

“Vienna.” She had a dreamy look in her eyes.

“What about Haworth?”


“Brontë country.”

“Yes, of course.”

Always a fan of books by the Brontë sisters, particularly Wuthering Heights, I assumed her favorite place in Europe would have been Yorkshire, England. She brought back a sprig of heather from the moors which she placed under the glass top of our antique coffee table, which is now in my house. She and my Dad traveled to Europe in 1972; it would be her only trip abroad. She kept a journal during that trip, jotting down her impressions. She used a delicate sprig of heather as a bookmark.

coffee table with heather

Her illustrated volume of Wuthering Heights from the 1940s was among the possessions that got ruined during Hurricane Irene. Most of her belongings were stored in our basement when we got flooded. She doesn’t know this, nor does she need to.

None of this matters anymore.

What matters is this moment, that she is happy recalling her time in Paris and Vienna, no matter how fleeting.

It makes me happy too.

Jesus Hates Commuting

I thought it was only me and thousands of other working people, but it turns out that Jesus hates commuting too. How do I know? Well, he appeared to me on the NJ Transit bus the other day.

He was a tall African American with chiseled features, wearing jeans, a button down white shirt and Birkenstocks.

Before sitting next to me, he removed the soiled coffee cup and food wrappers wedged in beside his seat.

“How can you stand this?” He said.

“I don’t know, Jesus. I guess we just get used to it.”

“And the mildew and dust?” He said, coughing.

“The same. If you don’t mind me asking, Jesus, why are you in New Jersey?”

“Trying to convince Governor Christie from running for president. Not sure I succeeded.”

We sat outside the “teardrop” NJ Turnpike toll plaza for almost thirty minutes. It was 9:00.

“I have to be somewhere at 9:30,” He said.

“So do most of us,” I said. “Can you fix it?”

“This is beyond my powers,” He said, shaking his dreadlocks.

I thought to myself, If that’s the case, then we are royally fucked. I didn’t think Jesus would approve of profanity.

Jesus sneezed.

“God bless you,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically.

“Oh, sorry,” I said.

“Are you late for work every day?” Jesus said.

“Not every day, maybe every other day.”

“How do you accomplish anything ?”

“It’s a challenge.”

Jesus started to sweat.

“Hey, Jesus, do you want to listen to Pandora or read the paper? It’ll pass the time.”

“What’s Pandora?” He said.

“It’s a radio station on the iPhone.” I pulled out my phone to show Him.

“Oh, cool. Sure.”

He was rocking out to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama singing “I’ll Fly Away.”

It was 9:26 when we arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal.

“Where are you headed, Jesus?”

“I’ve got to be at the Brooklyn Bridge to stop someone from doing something stupid.”

“You won’t make it, Jesus.”

“Shit! I mean, shoot,” He said.

“It’s okay, Jesus. Commuting’ll do that to you.”

“I don’t know how you stand it, Erica. I hate commuting.”

We shook hands before exiting the bus; then Jesus flew down a flight of stairs.

The Bow

As I wheeled Mom towards the day room, Raymond swept his arm across his waist and bent his head slightly in a bowing gesture. Then he started to whistle.

“I can’t do it,” he said, only whistling for a moment.

“It’s not so easy to do,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

He smiled brightly at me as Mom and I moved towards the day room / dining room.

“Where are you going?” he said.

“In there,” I said, and he followed us.

I sat next to Mom at her designated dining table.

Raymond looked at us, smiling, “It’s lovely – this,” and he continued on towards other tables.

Raymond was a professional dancer. The daughter of another resident witnessed the bow and said, “He’s a real gentleman.”

“Yes, he is,” I said.

I can’t remember the last time a man bowed to me. It’s not something that happens every day, especially not in the 21st century.

One of the nurses told me Raymond used to dance with Fred Astaire.

He also likes to go from room to room. When he enters Mom’s room sometimes, he asks, “Is this okay?”

I tell him yes.

I wish I knew what he was trying to say. It’s the same way I feel about Mom.

“Mom, I was in the doctor’s office the other day and you know what he had?” I said.

“No,” she said.

“Pussy willows. Remember them?”


As a kid, I marveled at the furry texture of the bud;, they seemed half-animal / half-plant to me.  Where did Mom find such a miraculous creation? 

“They have a long thick stem and little oval blossoms that are silky like kittens. You used to bring them home and put them in a vase,” I said.

“I don’t remember,” she said.


photo by Liz West

Sometimes I wish she would.


*Pseudonyms are used for all residents and staff at the Actors Home.

A Person of No Importance

homeless subway

photo by Gill E

This morning on the “S” train which crosses from Times Square to Grand Central Station, a woman came on with an overflowing stroller containing what I assumed were all her worldly possessions, including bags of clothing and books. Her café au lait skin had sparse wrinkles, and silver braids were neatly pinned to the top of her head. She sat down, her stroller in front of her.

An agitated blond woman in a sleeveless turquoise dress addressed a male passenger, “Can you move in?”

There was a good bit of space in the middle of the car, which she felt was not being properly utilized. The man smirked at her, but said nothing and didn’t budge.

She said, “Come on, there’s room,” and she and another man pushed past him, the silver-haired lady’s stroller and climbed over my feet and that of other passengers who scrunched themselves into tight human balls.

“See?” she said. The smirking man made another face, saying nothing. Then he made fleeting eye contact with the silver-haired lady, which she may have taken as a slight.

“They’ve got the stuff they need for their jobs. I’ve got the stuff I need for my job,” she said to him, firmly, but without malice.

The smirking man said nothing.

We arrived at Grand Central Station; no one said a word.

The silver-haired lady is one of the “people of no importance,” the homeless or less fortunate people you see every day. She’s a person who probably doesn’t make you stop and wonder, who is she, how did she get to where she is today.

Yesterday afternoon, Lorin and I were watching the 1994 film, A Man of No Importance with Albert Finney. He plays a closeted homosexual bus conductor in 1906s Dublin. His true passion is theatre and he puts on amateur performances of Oscar Wilde plays at the local church hall. He recites poetry in enraptured tones to his passengers and has a secret crush on the bus driver played by a young Rufus Sewell.

Like so many (including myself), he is an “average” man of no particular importance to society or the world. But who decides what or who is of value, of importance? Do money. property and station in life truly make the man / woman? If you touch or change one person’s life or a few or a dozen in a meaningful way, are you not valuable? I think so. Who’s to say that the silver-haired lady hasn’t touched someone’s life in a profound way. I guess we’ll never know.