When Lily Left Us: Tough to the End

ONE of the running gags passed from one smirking generation to another around my big extended family was that our seemingly mild-mannered mother was one tough cookie to have outlasted our less-than-mild, often unmannered father. After his death at 93 she called herself, without a hint of irony, the Last Man Standing.

So, yeah, I guess she was one tough cookie. No matter what was being dished out, my mother called it guff, and always managed to stare it down. In fact, as someone who knew guff intimately over more than six decades of what seemed a stony marriage, she often gave advice to her children — on not taking it from anyone. “Stick to your guns, Steven,” she would say to me, her youngest, her skinny big-eared boy.

Lily, as I have called her since I was a disrespectful teenager, died recently at 94, mother of 3, grandmother of 12, great-grandmother of 21. A few days before her last breath, I bore witness to the fearless way she approached the end at the very end, when I feared she would be most afraid. “The end is near,” she said flatly.

And it was no real surprise to me that her final words were about saying no. Enough. Dayeynu. No fancy French phrases. No philosophical pronouncements. “No more yogurt,” she said to her caretaker, Monique, who had the spoon in hand. Her final declaration to the world.

Perhaps it was because Lily was such a tough cookie that the other dimensions of her good soul were at times elusive to this boy of hers. But we all grow up, sometimes in spite of ourselves, and the last few years have been full of revelations about my enigmatic mother.

Sometimes, during a slow Sunday visit, her favorite chocolate something-or-other still on her thin lips, a slant of light would pass through the east windows of her New Jersey apartment, making transparent the cancer and the macular degeneration that would dim her final days.

It was then that I would catch glimpses, daguerreotypes, scalloped-edged snapshots of the motherless child I had never really known: the young woman whose girlish joy emerged only when she was with her dear brother Leonard (and they spoke of their Brooklyn friend Mucky); the older woman who had a teenage crush on Harry Belafonte; the spunky Alice Kramden act-alike who could cut everything down to size with a wisecrack; the vamp I had seen only once before in a 1952 Westwood Civic Association dinner photograph.

The oddest thing for me at Lily’s end, so quiet and peaceful in her bed, was that I kept thinking about my father, Mr. Guff, and the way he died. I was sitting with him in some awful hospital room, holding his rough hand. He was in some kind of twilight coma, victimized by stroke, fiddling with the wedding band on my finger.

He grew more and more agitated as he twisted and twisted the ring. Then he moved on, from one finger to the next, unsettled, unsettling, guttural sounds slipping from his twisted mouth, until I finally (finally!) realized that he was looking for her. Lily. Her diamond ring. Her hand. She who had endured his guff for 67 years and who, I thought, barely endured him. She with her wisecracks and stony silences and the kind of resoluteness that would later drive her out of their Florida condo to carve shapes out of marble at art classes in Boca Raton.

When she sat down in my place and took his hand, I hardly recognized my tough cookie of a mother. She cooed at him as she never cooed at her children. She called him her sweet boy. She told him she loved him. (She loved him!) She held his hand to her cheek as she had never held mine. I was 55 years old and I had never seen her great capacity for devotion until then.

Yet after my father died, my newly soft and gooey, sweet tollhouse cookie of a mother did not fall apart as so many lifelong spouses seem to do. In her cool countenance (“a quartz contentment, like a stone,” as Dickinson described it), she stared right into the abyss. And while some fake-somber coffin salesman showed us around the floor models — moving up in price, gleaming coffin by gleaming coffin — she emerged from her stern reverie to raise her eyebrows quickly and quip, “What the hell does it matter?”

To my regret, I was not by her side when she died almost five years to the day later. But at that end, as at the end of each day since my mother went her own way, I find myself taking comfort in imagining that enigmatic smirk, as beautiful as the smart-aleck Mona Lisa’s, making short shrift of the grand pronouncement. “No more yogurt.”

No more guff, Lily. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles, I’m sure she would have said if she had one more breath.