Home by Design
A daughter’s startling serenade offers a parting gift of joy to her elderly mother
By Cynthia Adams
A moving episode of Grace and Frankie, “The Party to End All Parties,” concerns a terminally ill friend, Babe, who wishes to exit the astral plane on her own terms. Babe teaches a master class on dying.
Her celebratory, clear-eyed plan required a party.
Our more conventional, terminally ill mother’s exit shared few aspects with Babe’s leave-taking. This was Charlotte not Los Angeles, after all — and we had no plan apart from celebrating her 91st with a party.
Mom rallied as we arrived bearing cake, food, flowers and gifts. Our fragile matriarch was surprisingly alert. Her excitement and engagement were so unexpected it was startling, even unsettling.
Watching her hold court, somehow summoning the strength to sit upright, something clicked in me as someone announced entertainment before gifts. One grandchild read an essay. Another sang Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” But there would be no dignified reading of an essay or poem. No decorum from me.
I rose solemnly. Standing before our emaciated mother, her body sunk into a recliner, her dark eyes fluttered wide as I announced I had discovered my inner yodeler.
Swinging like a batter on the mound, I pretended to wind up and warm up, swinging my arms and shaking out my hands. I let loose a hideous howl.
“YOOOOOO-deeeeeeeeee-lady-hooooooo,” I hollered.
From the expression on everybody’s face but Mom’s, I realized they thought I had done something inexplicably, stupidly horrible. My stunned family obviously did not realize this foolishness was a play on the movie about Florence Foster Jenkins, the 1940s socialite played by Meryl Streep.
Jenkins seemed unaware that her voice was hideous, however.
I knew my yodeling attempt was hideous.
But Mom was grinning and said, “Do it again!”
“YOOOOOO-deeeeeeeeee-lady-hooooooo,” I yowled, windmilling my arms while watching my family’s stupefied faces.
Mom giggled and conjured up a teasing nickname from the past, “Cindy Lou, you just won’t do!”
At this encouragement, I let loose a shriller, off-key yodel, one alerting the neighborhood dogs and the pond geese to flee.
Mom shrieked. “Such foolishness!” she chided, still laughing, her birdlike chest rising and falling with the effort. My heart lifted at her face, now alight, even joyful. We both wiped away tears of laughter while the rest of the family gaped, and I dipped into a low bow.
Her party rally was brief. She strongly had resisted the inevitable, choosing longevity over quality of life, until neither was possible.
Two days later, Mom spoke weakly, with strength remaining to grasp our hands before lapsing into permanent silence on the third day.
It was a slower, sadder, more protracted version of Babe’s party to end all parties. However, death offers strange gifts.
Mom was gently guided to her exit with the support of hospice nurses, loyal health care aides and her family.
Two years later, as her birthday passes again, I ask myself, “Why did I yodel?”
My obscene yodel ricocheted that afternoon, a primal howling registering beyond the yellow walls of Mom’s living room. Inasmuch as it was a spectacle, it was also a keening. Scattering the waterfowl. Causing geese to take flight.
Even as I foolishly flapped my arms, the fowl took to the bluest of cerulean skies. Up and up, whirring, blurring with sky and cloud.
Into the firmament.
Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.