Sunday, July 06, 2008

July 4th About Ninety Years Ago

They were mother and daughter. The mother's main problem was advanced age and the ailments and infirmities that can happen along with that. The daughter, nearly thirty years younger, was a victim of multiple strokes. She was aphasic and paralysed on the one side. Together they lived in the nursing home wing at the community hospital.

The mother, Leeza, was sharp-witted but sometimes a little bit repetitive, so as I worked with her over the weeks and months I heard some of her stories more than once. She was born in England and came to this country when she was a little girl.

Speaking with a noble English accent, she would describe her entrance into New York Harbor. Her family made the voyage during the summer of one of the post-World-War-One years. (Or world war "eye" as Lawrence Welk once said introducing a performance of the song "A Long Way to Tipperary.") This was very exciting for Leeza, both because of the trip itself and the fact that she celebrated her ninth birthday as they made their arrival on U.S. shores.

It was night when the big boat cruised into the harbor, exactly on Leeza's birthday. It also just happened to be the 4th of July, and New Yorkers were celebrating in their usual exuberant manner. Fireworks were so frequent and so bright it was like daylight. During the infrequent lulls in colorful overhead explosions Leeza could hear strains of music overlapping from bands and orchestras playing parties around the harbor's edge.

Nine decades later Leeza told me that for a moment she allowed herslf to believe that the fireworks were just for her, a gift from America on her birthday and arrival to her new country.

Her father had died in the Great War, killed not by man's weapons but by influenza. Her mother and her aunt thought a move to the new world would help them establish a new world for themselves. Leeza grew up to become a teacher. She married a retailer and they had a few children, Ella being one of them.

While they were both in the nursing home together, Ella suffered another stroke. She was moved to the intensive care unit of the hospital where she lingered in a brain-dead condition. I remember going to see her there with one of nurse aides who worked with Ella a lot. Ella was "not there."

The ventilator chuffed and wheezed. Ella's face was pink and the ICU nurses had put her make-up on for her, knowing. Knowing that by neurological criteria, Ella was already dead, though her family really didn't understand this. It was obvious and also confirmed by electroencephalogram.

They family was the sort that believed in miracles. If only one had occured long before when Ella was recovering from one of her earlier strokes, like the one that robbed her of the ability to speak for herself. Ella's daughter refused the doctor's request that they consider removing life support. She didn't even want to think about it.

Then one day Leeza requested to go to Ella. We escorted her over in her wheelchair. She saw what we saw.

Ella died quietly a few hours later. Leeza had insisted that the ventilator and intravenous medications be withdrawn, over protests from other family members.

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