THE BRAVE WIDOWS OF SOUTH FLORIDA
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- About a year and a half ago, my stepfather died at the age of 87. Ever since then, my mother has been getting old.
It's not really a matter of age. True, she's now 88. But at 86 she wrote, directed, choreographed and performed in her Ft. Lauderdale retirement condominium's annual Broadway-style musical. Her fans applauded when she came on-stage, and she shone with a bright inner light as she lip-synched and danced. Last year she danced again, and got a standing ovation. The day after, she went into the hospital with pneumonia.
Since then, she has recovered from a number of ailments - and major surgery - surprisingly well. Last week, back to her energetic self, and with her doctor's permission, she started teaching a chair exercise class again, and started working on the choreography for this year's show.
Then Wilma struck. My mother's community was in the direct path of the hurricane; it swept right over her house. Monday she sat alone, the power out, listening to the wind as it howled above her, shaking the house and crashing down a huge tree in her back yard. She jumped at each round of thunder and lightning.
I know this because I stayed with her during the storm by phone (luckily, the land lines are buried in South Florida), listening to the keening wind and reporting what The Weather Channel was saying about the storm. We went through the eye of the hurricane together, and the backwinds that followed.
My mother's friends, many of them also widows, also went through the storm alone. Afraid to go out, they comforted each other by phone.
After the storm passed, my mother was able to go outside. On her lawn she found two metal awnings ripped from other people's houses. Although there was little damage done to her own house, next door an atrium had disappeared. Most of the neighborhood landscaping was blown away. The streets were littered with trees, road signs and street lights. Many of the streets were blocked.
Here in Vermont, we're used to losing power, but my mother is not. She still had running water and a phone, but she had nothing else. With an electric stove, she couldn't boil water for coffee or heat a meal. As the darkness came down on Monday night, a curfew went into effect. Bustling South Florida became strangely dark and silent. And my mother was frightened. And all alone.
The next morning found my mother weak, dizzy and in pain. At 4 p.m. she went to the hospital. Although the emergency room was jammed with people needing care, the doctors took her right away. They found her blood pressure was dangerously high, which made her an excellent candidate for a stroke. They admitted her for observation.
By then Wilma had arrived in my neck of the woods. I was 1,000 miles away from my mother and in the middle of a nor'easter, and even if I could have gotten to the Hartford airport, the Ft. Lauderdale airport was closed. So my mother was alone in a hospital, and all we had to connect us was, again, a phone.
As I write this, the next day, my mother's blood pressure is starting to go down. The hospital is running tests. Since it has generators, she is probably in a good place for her right now - she has hot food, loving care, prompt medical attention - and a phone next to her bed.
In times like these, my stepsister brings up "The Golden Girls." Why can't some of these widows move in together, she asks? They could pool resources. They wouldn't be alone.
It would certainly be efficient, I say, but I don't think it would work. These are fiercely proud and independent women who have run houses, raised children, and buried husbands. They don't want "assisted living" for the same reason they don't want to take on roommates. They don't want to change their lives. They don't want to have to adjust to other people. They don't want to leave their homes.
There's also another underlying fear, I think. My father and my stepfather died at home, both under my mother's loving care. Most of my mother's friends have had similar experiences. Having a roommate means opening yourself to the possibility that you will have to care for yet another dying person. It would be unbearable. It would be unfair.
Also, these women want to live and die in their own homes. They have taken care of others all their lives. Who, they ask, will take care of them?
I don't have the answer. It tears me apart that I can't be near my mother and take care of her. But how? My life is in Vermont. Hers is in Florida, where she has community, friends, and her work.
In Vermont she would have me, but no life of her own. It seems cruel to try and force the issue. For my mother and her friends, pulling up stakes and going "up north" to be near the children is a sign that their lives are over. The next step is the grave.
So my mother and her friends went through a terrifying storm together, alone. They are well served by their doctors and hospital, alone. They go through sickness and health together, alone. They party and perform together, alone. They live closely in a tight-knit community, alone. I can only admire their strength and independence.
The problem, I'm beginning to think, is mine.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.