Thelma and Louise: Not everyone picks when they go over the edge

thelmaandlouiseMy mom and her best friend (my Aunt Diana) were the old ladies most women hope to be: Fearless, funny, ferocious and kind.

They vowed for 20 years to go out of this world together like Thelma and Louise, ending the great adventure of their lives by plunging into the Grand Canyon.

Mom sometimes joked it would never work because Diana would grab hold of a tree branch on the way down, saving herself and waving goodbye as mom crashed into the abyss.

But today, mom was proved wrong. Diana died, leaving mom to dangle alone on the precipice, saved not by her own desire to live, but by a fate that has kept her here to watch almost all those she loves pass on.

Buddy Long Nose No. 1 and Buddy Long Nose No. 2 — mom and Diana’s code names for each other —  met as high school freshmen 70 years ago.

Mom was the youngest of seven children raised in a small town by a tough single mother who shunned marriage — but not necessarily men — after her first two husbands died.

And Diana, who was born in Poland, grew up isolated, an only child on a farm, adopted by a doting Polish family who never learned to speak English but always communicated warmth and generosity.

Alone, mom or Diana stuck to the rules. Together, they were trouble.

As girls in the 1940s, they once secretly stirred up an boozy broth they called Hiroshima.

It was a mixture of Polish white lightning and Dr. Gimozo’s Elixir, an over-the-counter  tonic Diana’s parents relied on to cure for everything from the sniffles to double pneumonia.

After the girls drank as much as they could — Hiroshima was their first taste of liquor — they put the leftover Hiroshima in a kitchen cupboard and went to bed.

The next morning, Diana’s mother discovered the Hiroshima when she saw the aftermath — the mix had somehow exploded and blown a cabinet door from its hinges. When she went to check on my mom and Diana — still passed out in bed — she panicked, certain they were dead.

Neither mom nor Diana drank anything with liquor again for years, but it didn’t matter.

Their misadventures continued. After a brief stint in the back of a police car — my uncle called a cop friend after he fell asleep on a beach and mom and Diana tied all the hairs on both of his legs into hundreds of tiny knots — mom and Diana headed to Kent State University, mom to study art and Diana to study journalism

They had big dreams, but they didn’t work out the way they planned.

Both women ran out of money after freshman year and dropped out of college.  Mom went to work at a department store downtown Cleveland and Diana joined the U.S. military.

When I was a in pre-school and the postman dropped off a box from Diana, it was better than Christmas. I was an only child isolated on a farm like Diana had been. And she sent me packages of wonder and adventure –exotic shells, a coconut turned into a purse that looked like a girl’s head with human hair braids, a feathery bird puppet on strings taller than I was,   hot pink silk pajamas with embroidered dragons.

Diana was in the Philippines then, her husband’s military post after she and her family survived the most powerful earthquake in U.S. history,  a 9.2 magnitude upheaval that gobbled up people and houses and cars all around them in Alaska.

I couldn’t imagine that kind of life.  I was hunkered down with mom in a farmhouse on the edge of town where she and Diana grew up. Mom was literally afraid to leave the house. A psychiatrist diagnosed her with agoraphobia, a severe anxiety disorder that causes people to avoid places where they might panic.

I don’t remember how old I was when Diana and her family finally moved home, but when I turned 7, Diana was at my birthday party and somehow ended up sprawled on the grass in our backyard with children trying to yank her apart by pulling her arms and legs in different directions.

Diana survived. She and her family built a house next to the farm where she grew up and brought a little magic into our lives.

Mom opened an art studio at our house. Diana opened a paperback book exchange at hers — first in her basement and then, with booming success, an addition onto her house — giving me free access to mountains of words and information.

As time passed, Diana and my mother would laugh, fight — sometimes not talking for months — and rescue each other during rocky times.

Diana also rescued me, once convincing my mom to change her plan about moving to Amish country to get me away from what she considered the bad influences of pop culture.

“If I know Amanda, she will get in a buggy and get herself the hell out of there,” Diana told my mom. Mom listened. She knew Diana was right.

When Diana’s husband died almost 20 years ago, mom stood by her side.

And in June, when my dad died, Diana — reeling from radiation treatments for the same cancer that killed my father — sat beside my mom’s wheelchair at the funeral home, refusing to leave mom even after an oncology nurse noticed Diana was having difficulty during the service.

Today, not even three months later, Diana died. The radiation didn’t work. It merely stole Diana’s ability to taste her favorite things — cheese, macademia nuts and a shaken Manhattan with a maraschino cherry.

When my husband and I took mom to see Diana at the home of one of her sons two days ago, I worried mom and her walker might not make it inside.

It is a split-level house with a flight of stairs lead up to the main floor. Mom conquered the extra-high stoop and then abandoned her walker and held onto a railings on either side of the indoor steps. I stood behind, my hands on her bum, both steadying and boosting her up with each step.

“I’m coming, Diana. I’m coming,” Mom said, stubbornly forcing herself to climb.

“I know you are, I knew you would,” Diana answered, sitting in a recliner at the top of the stairs.

“Thelma and Louise,” mom half-shouted,  a battle cry.

Upstairs, mom sat on the seat of her walker next to Diana, holding her hand — just as she had done with my father a few months before.

“You know the only phone number I know — other than mine — is yours,” mom told Diana, who was her devilishly funny self, only exhausted and nodding off from the morphine and the toxins her liver — the cancer had spread to her liver — could no longer filter.

It was like watching mom with my dying father all over again. I had to look away.

Today, when I asked one of Diana’s granddaughters on Facebook how Diana was doing, she asked me if I could go to mom’s care center and spend time with her because Diana’s son was going to call.

I knew why he was calling even though the granddaughter didn’t say.

When I got to mom’s care center, I found mom tilted back in my father’s recliner — a green leather beast she never once used until dad died.

She was drunk.

For years, mom enjoyed  a single glass of red wine with dinner each night or maybe a nip of brandy. But she gave it up a couple of years ago, saying it hurt her throat. Even in the moments before dad died, when my husband, our friend and I raised glasses of wine over his his bed in a toast to dad’s honor, mom declined. Not even a sip.

Today was different.

“I drank a whole glass of white wine,” she said through a slur. “I wanted the whole thing and I drank it all.”

A couple of minutes later, the phone rang. It was Diane’s oldest son with the news of Diana’s death.

When Mom was a younger woman, this kind of sadness would have knocked her to her knees sobbing and inconsolable. She may not have left home for days. I have witnessed this several times.

But mom was stoic. She was, for the most part, with my father’s passing, too.

When an aide came in to say the dining room was serving dinner, she looked at mom — still drunk — and wondered aloud if she might need help getting there.

I told the aide not to bother. I’d shepherd her.

I don’t know why mom chose to drink today — and lift the glass at the moment Diana was dying — but I’d like to think it was Diana at work on some higher plane, giving mom permission to live on as Thelma or Louise even after she was gone.

Before she went to eat, mom asked me to make to make her a cup of strong coffee while she stood with her walker and slathered on a layer of pink lipstick.

Then,  mom — without her husband, without her lifelong friend — toddled haphazardly away.