Friday, May 1, 2020

Watching my mother disappear

Florence Fogel, Princess cruise 2011

“Are you my mother?” she asked.

“No, I’m your Older Daughter,” I said. Even though my younger sister died over a year and a half ago, I still refer to myself as the Older one. I manage my mother’s finances from California. I often give her advice and deliver news about her continuing care. She thinks, then, I’m her mother telling her what to do.
Marilyn, Florence, Barb, and Fred, 2007

“Who’s that guy you’re married to? He looks like a movie star,” she would say at least once every phone call. We would switch to my asking about what she had eaten for lunch or breakfast. We used to talk about books we were reading, movies we’d seen, but she no longer is able to read much of anything.
Evan and his grandmom, Outer Banks, 2000

This last call, she didn’t even understand the question about food.

Three weeks ago, my 93-year old mother Florence Fogel moved into a memory care facility after 7 years in an independent living apartment in South Jersey. Three years ago, we started hiring home health care assistants to help her out with simple tasks. We began with 3 hours per day twice a week and ended up at 24-hour care just before Mom moved into the memory care home. Things had come to an unpleasant head the Monday after her recent birthday. No longer able to recognize who was coming in her door, she panicked when a health care worker came in. She was belligerent, out of touch, and violent.

She, of course, was not always this way. My mother spent a good 90 years being the life of the party--one who was always up for a good time. Watching the slow mental decline over the past few years has been difficult for the family to watch. This week’s Zoom call was almost the lowest point—she looked OK, but had little recognition of who we were or what we were talking about.
Engaged! 1948 Mom and Dad

Florence was born in Philadelphia on April 5, 1927, to Helen and Stanley Hencinski. The family lived in Camden, New Jersey in a row house along with other Polish families nearby. Camden was a decent place to grow up in back in those days. Camden High—the Purple and the Gold—was a good place to go to school. She lived through the depression without problems. Her dad worked for a floor refinishing company; her mother was a maverick and family doyenne. As a kid, my brother and I spent many Saturday nights with these grandparents.

My mom met my dad when she was working as his personal secretary at RCA in Camden just after World War II. She was a city gal; he a country guy. They married in October 1948 with a small church wedding. For about 5 years, they settled in a brand new apartment in Collingswood New Jersey, before moving to 7 Greenvale Road in Moorestown from 1955 to 2013—almost 60 years!
Collingswood apartment, 1949

Mom was never a doting mother. She cared and took care of us. She made dinner every night, with barely a day off. She was an average cook with a small menu that was repeated week after week. Thursday was spaghetti day, which became my favorite day of the week. When my father came home from working at RCA, she greeted him with a cigarette and cocktails—Manhattans made from bourbon and vermouth. She adored my father, who was often a grumpy fellow when he didn’t get his way. But they made it work. When I reflect on my past, I realize how fortunate I have been to have her as my mother. Mom was fair, honest, helpful, and caring. I grew up with minimal drama and always knew I was loved.
Fogel Family, 1997

Florence was a social animal! [This virus social distancing has been awful for her.] She was a stalwart Lutheran church member, Girl Scout leader, and bridge player.  For a time she was involved with Ladies Clubs, swimming pool women’s groups, book groups, and a sewing club that met monthly for many years. Seeing the social aspect of her personality diminish has been emotionally draining for the whole family.
Dana, Mom, and Movie star, Cape May, 2013

At my age, we ask ourselves, “Would you rather decline physically or mentally?”

I’ve been dealt the end-of-life physical decline pathway. My mother, the mental decline route. While my days are filled with small, life-altering physical challenges, fortunately I’m still able to hold my own mentally as a 67-year old scientist. If I had had a choice, I would pick physical decline, but had hoped I’d have the luxury of another 20 years or so in good shape.
Great grandson Travis and Granny, 2019

Fortunately Mom could come out to California in November for a good long visit. It wasn't easy for anyone involved in getting her here or helping out with her care, but things went well. The trip has left great memories for the family. Florence was dancing, playing the piano, and talking to whoever engaged her in conversation.

“When will you come visit?” she still asks. No one, not even those in nearby Jersey or Philadelphia, can visit, much less me. Most likely, I’ll never see her in person again. It pains me, and it’s fortunate that she can’t comprehend this.

Most of us in our 60s have lost one or both parents. Their deaths are defining moments in our lives marking the boundary between adulthood and senior adulthood. I wonder if my physical self will hold out longer than her mental self. I hope so. Meanwhile, it’s an anxious time watching and waiting for virus scares and other potential things that could take her out. But, mentally speaking…

She’s disappearing. Before my eyes.


  1. Life is beyond real. And also wonderful

  2. I remember her as a young woman. Your description of her is spot on. And i think you have so much of her best in you. She recently surmised to me that you got your ‘smarts’ from her!

  3. It's hard to lose our parents. Even harder to lose them little by little She sounds like a lovely woman who made the most of the life she was given, much like her daughter.

  4. What a beautiful article. Written from the heart and to the true point of today's life with the coronavirus pandemic. I love that Mom thinks you got your "smarts" from her!


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