AJC Reporter Craig Schneider holds a portrait of his mother Anita Schneider. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Mom’s last days

The phone rang. A call from Florida. My stomach dropped a little.

 Sure enough, Mom was sick again.

 So I hopped on a plane to south Florida, bracing for another chapter in my mother’s decline, and another attempt to convince her to go into assisted living.  

“No,” was her consistent answer. “I can make it on my own. When the time is right, I will know.” 

This was early 2014, and Mom’s fiercely independent nature had come to work against her. She was 83 and living alone, my father having died four years earlier, and she had a list of ailments and medications as long as your arm: diabetes, heart palpitations, intestinal troubles, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s, a little stroke here and there.

 “I’m not an invalid,” she insisted.

 Over time, though, I found an ace to play. Instead of urging her into a facility in Florida, I said I had found a place in Alpharetta. It was clean and the people were nice. The best part, I said, was that she’d be close to me. We would see each other every week. Anything she needed, I would provide. We’d eat out together at restaurants, watch movies, and go to garage sales.

 She pondered it.

 “OK,” she said. “I’ll try it. But if I don’t like it I’m coming home.”

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Memories of mom on the first Mother's Day her
AJC reporter Craig Schneider treasures precious memories of his beloved mother.

Moms last days

AJC reporter Craig Schneider treasures precious memories on his first Mothers Day without her.

KickerThis is a kicker.

The phone rang. A call from Florida. My stomach dropped a little. Sure enough, Mom was sick again. So I hopped on a plane to south Florida, bracing for another chapter in my mothers decline, and another attempt to convince her to go into assisted living. No, was her consistent answer. I can make it on my own. When the time is right, I will know. This was early 2014, and Moms fiercely independent nature had come to work against her. She was 83 and living alone, my father having died four years earlier, and she had a list of ailments and medications as long as your arm: diabetes, heart palpitations, intestinal troubles, high blood pressure, Alzheimers, a little stroke here and there. We had hired an aide for her, a lovely lady from the Caribbean, but mom kept sending her home. She refused to have the woman work on weekends. She has children, Mom would say. She needs to be with her children. Anita Schneider never liked accepting help from anyone, period. When I walked in the front door of her condo, a place perpetually suffused with the scent of mothballs, I found the dining room table covered with stacks of unpaid bills, unopened mail and offers shed accepted from places like Publishers Clearing House. Her pill box, a long one used to hold pills for the entire week, was a mess. Sometimes she took her medicines, other times not. Subsequent visits uncovered more problems. Her checkbook required a complete re\-figuring. Her phone bill had huge charges stemming from long conversations with companies scam artists, probably calling from places like Jamaica. Just hang up Mom, I implored. Dont even talk to them. She could never be so rude, she said. Her dinner, I found out, often consisted of a bagel with a slice of Swiss cheese. Mom had always been so vital, so full of life, so strong. It was hard to see her like this. Five feet tall, with a little dutch\-boy haircut and a touch of Charlie Chaplin in her walk, she had been like a second mother to my friends growing up, especially the ones who couldnt connect with their own parents. In her working days, she was the bookkeeper the big boss confided in. But you didnt want to cross swords with her. Ive seen her go toe\-to\-toe against a burly store manager who wouldnt let her return an item. She would with her quick mind, steely sense of right and abundant willingness to make a scene reduce him to ashes. But now she seemed frail. I worried about her making it on her own. So the old argument ensued. Im not an invalid, she insisted. Over time, though, I found an ace to play. Instead of urging her into a facility in Florida, I said I had found a place in Alpharetta. It was clean and the people were nice. The best part, I said, was that shed be close to me. We would see each other every week. Anything she needed, I would provide. Wed eat out together at restaurants, watch movies, and go to garage sales. She pondered it. OK, she said. Ill try it. But if I dont like it Im coming home.


**Troubled childhood** Maybe Mom resisted going into a home because she grew up in one. She was only 5 when she entered the Pride of Judea Childrens Home, a four\-story brick building on Dumont Avenue in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. Founded in 1923 by Orthodox and Russian Jews from Europe, the facility took up a city block and included an infirmary, synagogue, kitchen, dining room, living room, sewing and laundry room, library, study rooms and bedrooms. As many as 250 children between the ages of 5 and 18 lived there at one time. The home, as the kids there called it, not only took in orphans but also kids from families in financial distress. This was 1936 and the Depression was devastating the lives of so many Americans. I have an old black\-and\-white snapshot of Mom as a little girl standing in front of the home. Shes wearing a simple dress and has a haircut that seemed shaped by a bowl over her head. The building towers over her. But shes smiling. Moms father, Issac Ginsberg, fought in France during World War I and came back a tense and high\-strung individual. Today he would be diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Back then they called it shell\-shock. Her mother, Ida, who I remember as having a big heart, a big laugh and a fiery temper, was excitable to the point of throwing things when she was angry. Put them in a room together, and a violent quarrel was sure to break out. By the time Anita was 5 and her brother Leon was 10, Ida and Issac had split up. Neither one could afford to feed and clothe their children, so they were taken to Pride of Judea. Separately, Ida and Issac visited their children every week. And occasionally Mom left the home to visit her parents. For a time, Ida made money selling apples on a Brooklyn street corner. Anita stood beside her for hours. _Hold onto my skirt_, Ida told her daughter. _Dont let go. Dont go anywhere._ I know all this from family stories. I also obtained the file kept on my mother at the childrens home. Inside are about a hundred pages of evaluations, medical records, report cards, little notes from her parents. The pages are browned and brittle; if you bend a corner of a page it snaps off. Paper clips are caked with rust. Mom always said the home was a good place. She described it as though it were a summer camp. She was popular among the other children, who she described in ways that reminded me of the old The Little Rascals TV show. Her file told a deeper story. On March 14, 1941, Anita was called into an office to speak with a counselor. _How did she like school?_ the counselor asked. Anita, now 10, attended P.S. 202, the elementary school four blocks away from the home. _Was anything bothering her?_ Anita hated tests. Was this a test, she wondered? She didnt want to fail. Turns out, her school work was spiraling downward. The counselor, who took note of Anitas bitten nails, wanted to know why. She felt tense at school, Anita admitted. Shed been in the home five years now. She was ready for her parents to get back together. She wanted to live with them again. A month later, she met with a counselor again. She felt rejected by her parents, the counselor noted. She feared further rejection. In her room at night, where she bunked with a half\-dozen girls her age, Anita quietly prayed for her mother and fathers safety. She worried they might get hurt in a fire or an accident. And she had dreams. Frightening, recurring dreams, like the one where she was locked in a gas station, unable to escape. She had hopeful dreams, too. In one, her parents have reunited. Anita runs away from the gigantic brick building with its tall wrought\-iron gate, and joins her parents. Everyone is together and happy.


**One of a kind** Some might say Mom was a feminist before that term was coined. She strongly believed in her own rights. But she never wanted a career; she wanted to get married and raise a family. Anita and my father, Milty Schneider, grew up together at Pride of Judea, where he had been abandoned. They didnt fall in love as kids. Anita just knew Milty, who was seven years older, as the quiet, well\-mannered boy who sometimes hung around her brother, Leon. One day, in 1957, Milty showed up at Anitas door. He was 34 at the time; she was 27. He had served in the war, and she was working. He said he had two tickets to see the movie The Ten Commandments that night, and he asked her to accompany him. She declined, saying she already had plans. Too bad, he said. Hed just throw the tickets away, then. Not one to let things go to waste, Anita changed her mind and said shed go. Milty drove her the movie theater in his 1941 Plymouth. Then he walked up to the box office and bought two tickets.

Mom may have been the worlds worst cook. Many an animal died in vain coming to her kitchen. But she was a good sport about it. I remember, when I got older, she had a button that said, Bad cooks make good lovers. Her fashion sense reflected her sense of humor. She carried a pocketbook made from the hide of an alligator, head included. She loved her lunchbox that looked like a big green pickle. Ive never seen anybody clean a house like her. Floors were scrubbed with a pail and wet rag, on her hands and knees. This house is spotless, she would announce when I came in with friends. Keep it that way. So what kind of mother was she? To this day, when something great happens in my life, my mothers voice is there, cheering me on. And when I feel like an utter screw\-up, her voice is there, as well. She could be a hard critic. We passed through so many burning hoops together. When the first girl I loved told me she didnt love me, Mom was there. When a friend on our block in Long Island died very young of cancer, she was there, giving me my first lessons about death. She was the one who noticed that when I squinted into the sun, I closed only one eye. And she dragged me to 14 eye doctors before she found one who would operate on my lazy eye. She was tough, too. If my brother, Howie, and I were bad, real bad, shed threaten to send us to the Pride of Judea home. A few times, to make her point, she picked up the phone and acted like she was dialing the place. At times, she had her mothers temper. She never hit, but she had a slipper she could throw around corners. If I didnt take out the garbage several nights in a row, I became, in her words, a lazy bum, somebody who didnt give a damn for anybody but himself. So much of who I am is either a reflection of her, or a reaction to it. If you know me, you know her. I have a fear of failure to this day. Why do I work so hard at my job? Why do I try to be such a pleaser? Our angels and our demons can come from the same place. Throughout my life, she was the person who could, no matter what, make everything right. This was a blessing and a curse. I became a little too dependent on her on her help and her good opinion. That made it tougher when I went out into the world, and life, as it does to us all, humbled me. I had to toughen up. I looked for my mother in others a teacher, a coach, an editor. The pattern played out again and again. Admire them, bond with them, depend on them. Even now I have to watch out for that.

My parents retired to Florida in 1989, and for several years they seemed to grow younger_,_ playing tennis and card games around the big pool in the condo development. When Dads health deteriorated, Mom kept him at home two years longer than she should have. _Nita, I was raised in a home,_ Milty said. _I dont want to die in one._ When Dad eventually went into a nursing home, Mom spent every day there beside his bed, sitting in a hard plastic chair as they watched a crappy little television. She did that for two years. Mom and I were there when Dad died. Days before, he was pretty unresponsive. But I think I caught his eye and his mind for a moment. I leaned down to his cheek and thanked him, for everything. He looked at me through dark eyes. I felt he was telling me something, something he had been telling me my whole life. _We gave you all we could, kid._ Mom never talked about Dad after he died. I think she took her grief and put it in a corner of her heart. Just for herself.


**Coming to Atlanta** Mom moved into the assisted living facility in Alpharetta in May 2014. She was 83 by then and needed a walker to get around. Our lives soon entwined. Twice a week, I had dinner with her after work. On weekends, I became a regular at her table in the big dining area, meeting her new friends, like Betty. When Mom first got there, Betty had just lost her husband. She was down, but Mom comforted her and made sure she ate and eventually got her to laugh. I took Mom to doctor visits, picked up prescriptions, filed the monthly claims for long\-term care insurance, and ran errands to get toothpaste, soap, shampoo and denture cream. And her beloved ribs. This New York girl fell in love with Southern barbecue ribs. I bought her a big TV and we watched her favorite movies on DVD, movies I watched as a kid, like The Absent Minded Professor with Fred MacMurray. Id walk in and shed say, Theres my Bubbe. Mom lived there for about three years. In the beginning, her health thrived. She was getting her medicines on schedule and regular meals. But over time, the Alzheimers took its toll. When the staff found her wandering around the parking lot looking for her car \(she hadnt driven in years\), they decided she had to move her downstairs to the memory care unit. There, the doors are locked. Her health started to slip. We gradually replaced the walker with a wheelchair. About a year ago, she got it into her head that she was well enough to leave the facility. Im better now, she said. Find me an apartment. Ill take care of the rest. Every conversation, every phone call, ended with her saying she wanted to leave. Mom, Id tell her, you cant leave. You need these people to take care of you. Ill be OK. You have Alzheimers. No I dont. Who told you that? Id spend 45 minutes convincing her she could not make it on her own. Sometimes I would cry. All I wanted to do was please her, but we disagreed mightily. Finally, she would agree to stay. But the next day, she would have forgotten our conversation, and wed start all over again from scratch. Then she started packing up her things. Shed stack her clothes, her pictures and the TV remote in piles, and Id have to put it all back. One day I made big signs with magic markers that said, Dont pack up. You live here. The next day, the piles reappeared, and I found the signs torn in two on the floor. One day when I was at the movies, I got a call. The staffer told me Mom had piled a bunch of her stuff onto her wheelchair and was standing in front of the locked door of the memory care unit. I arrived to see, through the doors frosted glass, Mom pounding her fist on the door demanding to be let out. On the recommendation of the staff nurse, I placed her for a time in a local psychiatric facility to rebalance her medications. Those were two terrible weeks. During that time, Mom went a little mad. Visiting hours were limited, and getting her on the phone was difficult. One evening, driving home from work, I got a staffer to put her on the phone. Craig, theyre going to do it tonight, she said. What, Mom? Silence. What are they going to do Mom? Theyre going to kill me.


**Craig, it hurts.** The medication worked, and Mom came back to the memory care unit. We had months of better days. I was able to focus more on my work as a reporter at the AJC, but Id often find myself writing stories about kids who have to go into foster care. Just like my mother and father did. Then came last years Christmas party. The assisted living facility put on a big shindig, with catered food and live music and all. I sat with Mom in the dining area and brought her a big plate of food, including a lobster tail, which she loved. I cut it into small pieces for her. We had a great time, eating and talking with families visiting their mothers and fathers. Afterward, when I wheeled her back to her room, Mom started complaining about a pain in her belly. Shed had similar pains for months and nobody could pinpoint the cause. Craig, it hurts. It hurts, she called out. I decided to take her to the emergency room, so I wheeled her back through all the guests and out to my car. Craig, it hurts. It hurts. I lifted Mom to her feet and as we were walking to the car door, she lost her balance and started to fall backward. I had her by her arm, so she stayed upright, but the pressure on her frail limb was too much. Craig, Craig, my arm hurts, she said, once I got her in the car. We had to call an ambulance. The X\-rays revealed she had fractured her right arm above the elbow. She would be in a sling for four weeks. I should have been more careful. I still cant forgive myself. Mom was 86 now and I feared shed spiral after that, so I came to the facility every morning and every night to feed her myself for two weeks. She seemed to be getting through it. But two months later, the facility nurse suggested we place Mom on hospice. I was shocked. I thought she was doing well. But she was still dealing with the pain in her belly. She wasnt in imminent danger of dying, the nurse said. But hospice could provide more responsive care. I agreed. I regret that decision.

_**Photo:** Craig holds his mother's glasses, lipstick and other memorabilia._


**Another call** Once the hospice folks came in, Mom was immediately placed on stronger pain killers. Her appetite waned and she became foggier. In February, I visited her five nights in a row to make sure she was eating. I brought her ribs and fed her pieces by hand. On the fifth day, I ordered the staff to take her off the pain medication. The next day, I didnt visit her. I was just too spent after work. The following morning, I was driving to work when my cell phone rang. It was a nurse at the assisted living. Mom had gotten off her bed and tried to walk. Shed fallen and fractured her hip. Later she said shed been looking for Milty. It was Valentines Day. Within a day or two, she took a turn for the worse. She stopped eating anything but ice cream or milkshakes. Not even her ribs. My brother, Howie, came down from New York. Hospice took over. By Saturday I realized my mother was going to die. There was nothing I could do. I couldnt keep her alive any longer. That Sunday evening, Mom was out of it and visibly agitated. The hospice nurse told us that when its time for a person to die, they often resist. It helps, the nurse said, to tell her its OK for her to go. I leaned down to my mothers warm cheek. Ma, you can go now. A Jewish cantor arrived, a lovely woman with a soft demeanor. She whispered a prayer over Mom. I asked her to speak to me and my wife privately, so we stepped out of Moms room and sat on a couch nearby. I told the cantor that I was struggling with what happens when people die. I worry that people just go away. No heaven. No afterlife. Nothing. There is a kind of curtain, she told me. We live on one side of this curtain, and on the other side is God and all the mysteries of the universe. When a person passes, they go to the other side of the curtain. You can still communicate with them in your way, she said. I took great comfort in that. We stood up and I thanked the woman. Just then, the hospice nurse came out of Moms room. Shes gone.


**In the end, one word** Im so glad Mom and I had this extra chapter in our time together. She had become my little buddy. This is the first Mothers Day without her. No card, no flowers, no visit. It will be a heavy day. Theres something Ive come to realize only now. All that time I was busy doing things for my mother consulting with her caregivers, convincing her to stay, watching movies together and sharing meals I was gaining so much in return. Even in her decline, in her dying, she was teaching me lessons about life. What it means to be a son. What it means to be a man. My wife Linda and I dont have children. A friend of mine at work once told me that after he had a child, one thought loomed in his mind: Keep this person alive. Thats how I felt about Mom. Even now, two months after her death, as I return to the habits of my life and work, the sadness remains. You think youre back to normal, then something breaks in you. The grief grabs you by the throat and you wonder if youll ever really be happy again. Lately Ive been trying to communicate with Moms spirit. Its awkward and unfamiliar for me. But I do so want to believe shes not completely gone. One time, I think I caught a fleeting sense of her. I told her I missed her and loved her. I told her I was sorry I couldnt keep her alive longer. And just as the grief was welling up inside me, I felt a silent voice reach out to me. She said only one word. _Live._

Behind the story

[Click above to read more of our Personal Journeys.](http://www.myajc.com/personaljourneys)

**ABOUT THE STORY** For those of us who have lost our mothers, nothing stirs the pain of that loss like the first Mothers Day without them. In Craig Schneiders loving testament to his mother, Anita Schneider, and his struggle to come to terms with her death, he speaks for all of us who walk this path. **Suzanne Van Atten** **Personal Journeys editor** **[personaljourneys@ajc.com](mailto:personaljourneys@ajc.com)**

**ABOUT THE REPORTER** **Craig Schneider** is a 20\-year veteran of The Atlanta Journal\-Constitution. He has exposed problems with the state foster care system, personal care homes, trucking regulations and credit\-card fraud. He has also done stories on [his obsession with the musical Les Miserables](http://www.ajc.com/entertainment/movies/confessions\-les\-miz\-geek/DWmThHQnp17SZjeqohEeYJ/) and [his joy in meeting Bruce Springsteen](http://www.myajc.com/entertainment/tramps\-like\-baby\-were\-born\-meet\-springsteen/M3wFuOk6ue6wsFqb2EqkUI/). **ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER** **Hyosub Shin** was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States 13 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dreams Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves National League Division Series.

Read more of our Personal Journeys