What I Didn’t Tell You Then by
(353 Stories)

Prompted By Turning Points

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How could I respond “I love you”? You always ended every conversation “I love you…”, waiting for me to respond in kind. I always heard your criticism in my head: “stand up straight”, “don’t wear your hair behind your ears”, “you missed that note” (screamed from another room as I practiced my singing while taking voice lessons during high school), “why do you need to wear a bra, you have two little mosquito bites?” (that said at full voice to the sales clerk when we bought my first bra). The most disturbing was said across a restaurant table when I was in my 20s…”You are so pretty, I wish I could look like you.”

You were hard to love. You drove my beloved father away. I went far away to college, married a month after graduation and moved a thousand miles away, never to return. Eventually, I established the rule of 3: you could visit 3 times a year and stay no more than 3 days at a time.

Then your sister Ann died and you were alone in Detroit. Rick and I showed you retirement communities and you decided to move close to me. I came to Detroit and planned your whole move. I took you on the grand tour to visit brother Joe in Toledo and sister Stella in Cleveland. I brought as much of your beautiful furniture as I could and decorated your apartment elegantly. You always referred to it as ” that shitty place”, complained about the food and people. You were hard to love. I had you to dinner every Sunday night, one of the few nights that my traveling husband was home for dinner. I talked to Ann’s daughter Lois, back in Detroit. She gave me permission to do less. It became every other Sunday, eventually we went out for dinner. We even brought you to Martha’s Vineyard. How could you complain about this paradise? But you did. We were invited by friends to the Chappy Beach Club one day, but you wouldn’t go. You were sorry when you heard that Patricia Neal had been there that day. Jeffrey showed her his Tomagotchi. You and I had spent that gorgeous summer afternoon inside watching an old movie on TV. Though I live in a historic house in Edgartown where friends from Katama call and ask to park in our driveway when going to the movies, you wanted to be driven to dinner, as if we could find some better place to park!

Eventually you couldn’t take care of yourself, but begged to stay in your own apartment and I hired aides to look after you. You didn’t like them either and treated them poorly. I’d come visit occasionally and take you to all your doctor’s appointments. You begged not to be moved to skilled nursing but the choice was made for us when you slipped on the bathroom floor and couldn’t get up. You claimed you had fallen asleep there after watching the Oscars, but the hospital doctor said you must be in the skilled nursing unit. There you were well looked-after and I came in often and sang a program of Broadway show tunes for the residents. The staff were saints. They liked you because you weren’t catatonic and talked about your beautiful daughter, but to me, it was still only half the phrase.

I got the call while showing an old friend around the island on Sunday, August 8. “Your mother’s showing signs of a stroke and we’re sending her to the local hospital”. The next call was from the ER doctor who told me about TPA therapy, but said the specialist would call. I was on the phone with my brother, a rabbi and professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati when that call came through. Arianne and I were sitting on the porch at Morning Glory Farm, enjoying the view. Dear Arianne, how appropriate. She’s the granddaughter of my father’s oldest friend; roommates in Flint, MI in 1937 and understands my family shit. I listened to the plusses and minuses of the intervention; of what life might be like for Mother if she didn’t have the therapy: she’d have weakness on her left side, have difficulty feeding herself, perhaps difficulty speaking, etc. I explained that she was a woman with dementia and diabetes, a week shy of 97 years old, wheel-chair bound, already on a non-aspirant diet, so these things seemed of less concern than the possible side effects of the therapy.

Mother went in for a CT scan at that moment. I ruled out the therapy. The ER doctor called back. She was having a massive cerebral hemorrhage. The therapy would have made it worse. I had made my first major decision as her health care proxy correctly. They sent her from the suburban hospital to the Beth Israel in Boston. She probably wouldn’t be conscious when she arrived. I reiterated that she was a DNR. Ari and I continued to the galleries further west, never out of cell phone reach. We arrived back at the house at 4:30 pm. The neurologist from the ER at the BI called me. He told me there was some medication that could be administered. To what end, I asked? It would reduce the swelling in the brain, so the family could gather. The family wasn’t going to gather, since the funeral would be in Detroit, I informed him. He offered his condolences. I had one weepy moment, thinking my father had died alone in a hospital room, now my mother would as well. I asked him how long she had. He said he didn’t know; hours, perhaps days.

I called my children to let them know. David, my older son, was doing a PhD at Columbia and lived in Manhattan. He told me that he was in Boston at that moment, attending a birthday party for a high school friend; asked where she was, went to the BI and sat with her for the next 8 hours through her transfer from the ER to intensive care. He was her favorite and it gave me great comfort to know that he was with her. I received updates throughout the remainder of the day and for the next several days. She lingered. She was a tough old bird.

My brother and I spoke several times each day. Late Wednesday night I had an epiphany. One hears that people wait to hear their loved ones’ voices before they can let go. I knew it was time to get a ferry ticket. Mother had been transferred back to her home on Tuesday evening with their version of hospice care. It was good, as I had their direct line and could call anytime. I called early Thursday morning and spoke with Sharon, the head nurse, who I knew well. When she came back from checking on my mother, she told me she had asked her if she wanted to see Betsy. Mother nodded yes. I called my brother. He would fly in that night, my husband and I were on the 5pm ferry.

We found a wailing Banshee. We were assured she was not in pain, probably delirious or anxious. A tremor began in her right hand, she threw her head back, got red in the face and howled. My husband was with me when we stopped after coming off the ferry, but brother Rick and I went back alone after I picked him up at the airport. We tried to talk to her and reassure her that we were both there, but she didn’t respond. We are both singers, so we launched into Broadway show tunes: “Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly”. It was late at night, we were grateful that her roommate was deaf. The rest of skilled nursing was quiet. We said good night.

Mother had always told me that she wanted to be buried in the dress she’d worn to my brother’s wedding. He married on his 35th birthday, after my parents were divorced. He, too, bore Mother-scars. It was the first time my mother saw my father after that bitter event and she wanted to look nice. I took her shopping at a fancy store in Boston and she fell in love with a beautiful, pink silk charmeuse dress. They only had it in blue in her size, but could order it. She had never spent so much on a dress and we wrangled about it in the store. I wanted her to feel good about herself that day too, so I offered to pay for it, if that’s what it would take for her to buy it. She bought it, looked lovely, she and my father each behaved themselves and the wedding went off without a hitch.

Our father had been buried, according to Jewish custom, in a shroud. I thought my religious brother would object to our mother being buried not only in a pink silk dress, but in the dress she’d worn to HIS wedding. But he did not. He explained our father, who had died suddenly 22 years earlier, had left no instructions. Our mother was specific with her wishes. So Friday morning, we went to the funeral home that would handle the body in Boston on its way to Detroit, dropped off the dress and filled in the information necessary for the death certificate.

We visited Mother several times throughout the day. They were now giving her a little Ativan orally and she was calm and seemed to sleep. She still never acknowledged that she knew we were there. The nurse practitioner told us her heart was weakening. When we said goodbye that evening, my brother said, “See you in the morning, Mom”.

I leaned in close to her ear. “It is OK to go now Mom. You have lived a long life and seen many wonderful things. I’ve taken care of everything. I remember everything you taught me. I have your dress ready. I love you.”

Rick’s wedding, 2/12/83

She died at 6:15 the next morning and was buried beside my father, her sister and brother-in-law on what would have been her 97th birthday.




Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Mother, love, pink dress, brother
Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Oh Betsy, this is so touching and sad. I’m so sorry for all you had to go through with your mother. But it sounds like you knew exactly what to do and say as she was approaching the end, from deciding against therapy to giving her permission to let go. It must have been quite a turning point for you. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. John Zussman says:

    The words honest and brave can only begin to define this story about trying to love a mother who was, as you say, hard to love. It captures the struggle of expressing and receiving love in a fraught relationship. And the description of your mom’s final days brought back memories of my own mother’s time in hospice. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  3. Such a poignant story, Betsy. The changes to our expectations that we have to make to preserve meaning and dignity are legion! This struck me deeply…

  4. Courageous and uncompromising appraisal of an instance of the world’s most difficult diads… mother’s and daughters. You captured her narcissism with the emotion of one who felt her impact for decades and clearly struggled to learn from it. Very strong use of the second person in first part of the narrative and your turnaround from cold clarity to love and compassion turned beautifully.

  5. Betsy I knew from your other stories that your mother was a deeply troubled woman. Despite all, you were as wonderful as daughter as she would allow you to be.
    You should have no regrets.

  6. As I said when you first posted this sad story Betsy, you should have no regrets.

    I too remember the words of a friend when my own mother was dying – “Let her go.” and I did.

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for reposting this deeply moving story. I can tell that it came from the heart and was likely difficult to write, but it seems incredibly honest. Good on you for picking out the dress and being the good daughter all those years despite the heartaches. The epiphany you had rings true. Although the relationship was very different, my father died shortly after my sister reassured him that we were well cared for and it was okay to go and we loved him. May we all rest in peace.

  8. This is a deeply moving and powerful story, very well told. You provided just enough details to make the sequence of events vivid, without ever offering too many, which could have killed the pacing. The decision to begin the piece with the antagonism between you and your mother, and the harsh judgments to which she subjected you was emotionally brave and literarily brilliant. The story could have been syrupy if you tried to disguise or downplay the difficulties in the relationship. Instead, there is no syrup at all, just a wonderfully baked savory treat that speaks of deep wells of love that was stronger than all the generational tsuris.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Dale. I wrote this story long ago (for the Chilmark Writer’s Workshop, actually) as therapy, in the aftermath of my mother’s death, though it fit this prompt well, so here it is (again). We obviously had a difficult relationship, but I was her primary caretaker and took that responsibility seriously. She wasn’t treated well by her own parents and had very low self-esteem. For all of our struggles, she did teach me a great deal about subjects that came to define my life and for that I thank her, so in her final moments, I wanted her to know that she was loved and cared for. Generational tsuris a great way to define it.

  9. Jim Willis says:

    An intimate and deftly written account of the journey you and your mother took through your long relationship, Betsy. I think it resonates with all of us who have parents with whom we search for resolution in our times together and times apart. Like you, I put a lot of geographical distance between my mother and myself yet, in a real way, she was always living in an adjacent cranial chamber inside my head. Over the years, being a parent and trying to juggle that life with my own personal life have allowed me to see the struggles Mom faced herself. Understanding and forgiveness have not been far behind. We loved each other deeply, and that’s what counts.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I suppose with distance comes understanding, Jim. As I’ve said to others, my relationship with my mother was certainly tense, but I did what I needed to do to take care of her. If you want to read my favorite story about her, look up
      “Anna Pavlova”. That one gives much more pleasure and some insight.

  10. Dave Ventre says:

    This was so achingly sad and yet vibrant with your love for your Mom. May her memory be a blessing.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Than you, Dave. I did all I could for her, but she couldn’t love herself.

      As I mentioned to Jim, if you want read a happy story about my mother (and my favorite of all my stories), read “Anna Pavlova”.

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