September 11, 2001: I spent most of the day at my mother’s bedside, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, in Houston, Texas. That may sound like an odd place for a family of Jews to gather, but St. Luke’s is home to the Texas Heart Institute and is widely considered one of the best medical centers in the country.
Under the direction of Dr. Denton Cooley (famous for having performed the first successful human heart transplant in the U.S. in 1968, and also the first to implant an artificial heart in a man in 1969), the Texas Heart Institute has performed over 100,000 open heart procedures – several of which I know more about than I wish I did.
My family is all too familiar with the halls of St. Luke’s, ever since my father’s first heart attack in 1984, his second ten years later, and the intimate relationship that saw him on and off the heart transplant waiting list until, ultimately, he’d been the recipient of a new – well, not new but used – heart in 1996.
So, by the time my mother suffered a stroke on August 24, 2001, just a couple weeks before 9/11, we’d already had a 17-year relationship with that institute.
Interestingly, on the first floor of St. Luke’s Hospital – I kid you not – there is a McDonald’s restaurant… as if to guarantee a flow of patients. It’s a strange but not uncommon experience to see people standing in line with rolling IV’s. It has always made me picture everyone in line with IV’s, oxygen masks, in wheelchairs, on gurneys and full rolling hospital beds, buying Quarter Pounders with Cheese, french fries, and Cokes.
Thanks, in part, to that sort of diet, my father was only 47 when he had his first heart attack.
That’s an interesting phrase: “his first heart attack.” May it never enter your vocabulary.
For years now, as I’ve grown closer and closer to that fateful age, I’ve wondered what’s brewing inside me. My father was overweight, a cigarette smoker, and a workaholic. And I’m none of those things. But how much is genetic and how much environmental?
My mother was also overweight, a smoker, and led a sedentary lifestyle. Her stroke, at 64, was devastating, life-changing. She would never fully recover.
My father passed away three months after her stroke, having lived with his second heart – a stranger’s heart – beating in his chest for five and a half years.
At his funeral, two men introduced themselves to me. They were also members of St. Luke’s Heart Exchange program – the support group for recipients and those on the waiting list and their families. They told me they had received the hearts just before and just after my dad’s. His death must have been portentous to them. I’ve often wondered how they’ve fared with their new hearts.
My mother’s physical state stablized, but in the subsequent years her mental state would decline and plateau, decline and plateau. Vascular dementia ate away at her mind and, by the end, perhaps Alzheimer’s, too. They’re known to pal around together.
On Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, at 2:50pm, seven years and eleven days after her stroke, my mother passed away, with several of us gathered around her bedside for the final hours. I was holding her hand. My girlfriend, Tara, was holding my other hand. There was one false alarm, when we thought she had drawn her last breath. Shari, my mom’s caregiver, said, “She’s gone, baby.” We cried some more but then she surprised us by moving again. She still had another five or ten minutes of life in her.
We’re a stubborn lot, the Malows.
At her funeral, my sister read part of an old love letter my father had written to my mother even before they were married 50 years ago. He said, “You never get used to missing someone.”
I guess I’ll have to get used to that.
My mom was, truly, a mom. Her life was devoted to raising her two children – the comedian and the lawyer. And, when we grew up and flew from the nest – giving her less and less to work with – she never gave up on us but she began raising dogs (Bichon Frises), midwifing a couple litters a year. She also did rescue work for orphaned and abused dogs. On the phone, she’d listen to my sister practice every one of her closing arguments as she readied for a trial. And every time I performed in Houston, she came to the comedy club and laughed as if it were the first time she’d heard the “classic” jokes.
From the audience and from the dining room table, I’ll miss her laugh.