Where I was this time last year was a wholly un-fun place to be. And here I sit trying to wrench out the last of this story. It wasn’t my intention to have this “finished” by the first anniversary of her death. I’d meant to be done with it much sooner. But I think now it is. ‘Finished” – in quotes because well you know… is grief ever finished?
We left off with a priest and the Last Rites. They don’t really call it that anymore. It’s called The Anointing of the Sick. Much more palatable. But when someone’s dying, calling it the Anointing of the Sick feels like a fib. Much less to say, anticlimactic.
There’s a very witty elderly British lady talking next to me and it’s making it impossible to write.
And I just dropped the lid to the jam into my cappuccino at Le Pain Quotidien.
This is going well so far.
Priest. The Last Rites. Because it’s final here on earth and we need to face it. We need ritual.
Is it still Wednesday? It’s been Wednesday for a long time. Was I just off the plane yesterday? Mom breathes heavily. It’s not really quite snoring as much as an open mouth mechanical attempt at inhalation.
Some time passes with little to say. The TV’s in the Home are on full blast. All of them. Two in the living room/dining area (a very small space for two flatscreens.) All at their loudest everywhere. I suppose because no one can hear? It’s deafening. Now, a phone rings much louder than it need in the Room of The Dying. Does anyone care? If they do they aren’t saying so. So I guess I’m the one with the problem.
The spirit of fear lingers and corrodes.
If Mom would only wake up. See us. Recognize us. I hold her hand a lot. It’s not warm. It’s hot. Very hot. There’s life in the veins. Blood pumping. She’s in there.
The chaplain and his wife, Miss Amy, arrive. Their church is down the street and they visit regularly all the … guests. I like them. Especially Miss Amy who has been talking to Mom the whole 6 months she’s been there.
We are long past the funny story of Miss Amy asking Mom if she “knew Jesus” and Mom searching for Him in her purse. Now her demeanor is far from the bright and cheerful messages of hope that accompanied her on the few times we’ve met before. She walks in and stands beside me; holds Mom’s hand. The rest hang back disinterested in her entrance; lying on the other unoccupied bed, sitting in a side chair, out in the hallway. (The TV is still raging.) Amidst all this, Miss Amy asks if I’d like to pray. I say yes. She begins to softly speak of love, of God, of peace –
It is unbearable. Not just the phone and the level of decimal, but the remarkable and unmistakable desire to gain attention and disrupt the light in the darkness.
Then it is shut off casually after about 8 or 9 rings.
“Sorry.” (Read: Not sorry.)
But Miss Amy shall not be moved. She is more mature in her relationship with prayer and the dying. I, however, only want to leap out of my skin and break commandments. But a death glare, loud sighing and the rolling of eyes – all of the expected responses from the baby of the family – will have to do.
I am then confronted with one stagnant reply: “Get over it.”
And It’s still Wednesday. (We didn’t know it but we’d have to make it to Saturday.)
Things escalate. There are more beautiful phrases spoken by family that will forever go down in the annals of The Week Mom died. Phrases that could compete with your favorite album commercials with hits from decades past.
Hits like: “Her lungs will just fill up with fluid!” and “She’ll drown to death!”, all drolly said at her bedside without one ounce of civility or sense of compassion while scrolling Facebook. As if simply stating what was needed for the next run to the grocery.
Those weren’t all the record hits though. There were more: “Why don’t you just put a pillow over her head while I’m gone so you can leave earlier and be done with it.”
I have confessed that one and have received absolution.
All day we were told that she wouldn’t make it through the night or that she had about 24 to 48 hours to live. We were also told not to stay overnight because in addition to it being stressful to the family who needed sleep as well, the dying would more than likely strive to live and not want to leave in the presence of grieving family. It was best for all.
So we stayed overnight.
This was the first true vigil of my life. Myself and one other sibling staying over. I could not would not sleep. So I held her hand, sat up straight, channel flipped as long as I could, and said rosaries. Luckily every time I began to succumb to sleep a caretaker would walk in and flip on all of the overhead lights to check in on Mom. It was like a brief cold shower or midnight slap in the face.
Every moment Mom moved or slowed her breathing my body at once froze and shuttered. I had much to learn about the dying. I have much to learn about what my faith really means in these moments. I felt so weak and frightened. I know now that the evil that lurked wished this upon me. Fear. I also know that the angels, the Blessed Mother, and God protected me from these lies as they had previously, occasionally reminding me that I was gifted a heel to crush a serpent’s head.
I think I was forced to go home and sleep on Thursday, Mom kept… living. She kept beating the odds. What odds? Was she living? The only time we saw her “aware” was when the nurses would come in to bathe her and move her. I think it hurt her because she would shake violently.
Friend, I wish for you that you never see anything like it.
She shivered. Her un-seeing eyes would pop open and fixate on the ceiling. She was in pain. The nurse began to give her small doses of Morphine.
Friday came and we all started to get that feeling. Nurses kept warning us. But only when we asked. No one wants to put a death stamp on anyone. No one can do that. Only God knows. The nurses knew this. They had a deep respect for it.
At times some would ask to give Mom more Morphine for her pain. But in hindsight I see now that it wasn’t for her pain that the Morphine was requested. “More Morphine.” We can’t take this pain of seeing her in pain anymore. Put us all our of our misery. More Morphine, please.
People are not cats and dogs to be put down. (Frankly, cats and dogs aren’t either.)
“You’re getting into a very delicate area,” we were admonished. I silently thanked God. I knew it was a selfish and amoral request. No one would ever admit that this was their desire. But suffering does not have the respect it deserves in our culture. Suffering. “Bad”. Happy? Good!!
There was no way out without us all ultimately suffering. Deeply. Well, guess what? We endured it. We survived.
A nurse would walk in to say “hi”… pause and just gaze. I would watch Nurse watching Mom. What was she looking for? I could see that they knew what dying looked like. They were looking for the signs. They were seeing them. They were at peace with those signs. I imagined them whispering in the hallways or kitchen “Miss Ann is moving on. You better go say goodbye.”
One caretaker came in and I asked her point blank: “What will it be like?” I could tell she didn’t like to answer, especially in front of Mom; something my family never really fully understood. Or if they did, they didn’t care.
She quietly explained to me clinically yet with compassion and grace “what it would be like.” We understood. I felt more prepared. But also now fearful to witness those signs. She did not, however, say that Mom would drown. (I hope you pictured me rolling my eyes.)
Ok, let me tell you a funny story that happened the day before Mom died. One of my brothers told me how Mom would get so angry at her caretakers for bathing her. Mom was a very modest woman when it came to undressing. She had always been this way. She wasn’t a Mom that left the bathroom or bedroom door open for that matter. Ever. So to have someone she didn’t know bathing her? End Times.
Apparently this one caretaker who bathed her often was on the other end of many epithets and one time Mom tried to haul out and punch her in the face. Caretaker ducked, Mom missed.
The day before mom died she started to open her eyes a bit. We were amazed. And we wanted so badly for her to say something or show some recognition. One caretaker came in and suddenly Mom perked up like we had never seen. Her eyes actually twinkled as she beamed a toothless smile, her tongue peeking out of her mouth, at this young woman lovingly looking at her… knowing what was to come. We were amazed. Mom recognized her.
‘Hi, Miss Ann,” the caretaker smiled back and after a few moments quietly left. My brother looked at me and said, “That’s the nurse Mom tried to punch.”
I guess a respect had been born. Or Mom was ready for more… who knows. It was a very bright moment in a suffocating time.
Friday Night we were told unequivocally that we must not stay overnight. It was stressing mom out, (so they said), and she needed peace. True. We needed sleep. Go home. Come back tomorrow.
Friday night I felt a kind of terror I had not felt the whole week. I curled up in my bed; fetal position. Why is death so scary? Well, to be fair this was my very first time to watch it all go down with someone who was a monumental role in my life. Dad died when I was 15. I was around. But I wasn’t there when it happened. And he just “went”. Heart attack. Gone.
This was everything that was not. This was watching someone suffer, lose their mind, then die.
It was scary. And for those Christian friends of mine reading this: I know death has been vanquished. But we are all still here being human. And amongst all of my prayers I was feeling very, very human. A weak piece of flesh with fleshy thoughts.
And then suddenly, as I lie there curled up, a memory:
Do not be anxious for anything…
(I pulled the covers over my neck.)
…But in everything with prayer and petition, and with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God
(…pulled my knees up tight to my chest,)
And the peace of God
Which surpasses all understanding
Will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I remembered it. Or was it whispered to me? I repeated it to myself once, twice and then I found myself reciting it over and over and over. I just kept saying it. Snot running down my nose. Face wet. I didn’t request anything. Asked for nothing. To be quite honest I wasn’t focused on much gratitude either. I just kept reciting and reciting.
Do not be anxious for anything…
And slowly my breath deepened and steadied. And my tears quieted. And my mind and my heart? They were guarded.
I fell asleep.
We woke up early. Then out the door to coffee at Kroger where I heard a song overhead:
Think I’d better leave right now/
Before I fall any deeper/
I think I’d better leave right now/
Feeling weaker and weaker/
Somebody better show me how/
Before I fall any deeper/
I think I’d better leave right now…
I was running for an apple. I don’t know why I remember this so well. Maybe because I never ate it. But the song….
Mom was saying goodbye.
My brother and I were the first to arrive. We walked in and one of the regular caretakers yelled in her thick West Indian accent. “She’s awake! Go see, go see! We ran. Mom’s eyes were wide open looking up as in a haze. We asked her if she knew us. “I love you, I love you.” Reassured her we were there.
My brother put her glasses on so she could see better. I’ll never forget his thoughtfulness.
I’m blind as a bat. If I’m ever, God forbid, in this position, for the love of God put my glasses on before you ask me if I know who you are.
Mom held my hand back with a tight grip for the first time since I’d arrived 4 days ago. I wanted so badly for her to tell us that she knew exactly who we were, who she was, and what was happening. I’ll never know.
That phrase we’d heard in our talks from nurses, “final rally,” came to mind again. Such rejoicing chased down by cold reality.
A friend of mine, who had lost her own mother in recent years, had advised me through this experience to make sure I told Mom everything I needed to tell her before she died. “Leave nothing unsaid, “ I was advised, “You’ll never get the chance again. No regrets. Say what you must say.” I am so grateful for that advice to this day. And I can say that I did. No regrets.
My brother was astounded and was sending the rest of the family live recordings via an app we used. “Get down here! She’s awake!” More family arrived. Mom stayed awake for a couple of hours. When her primary nurse came in to check her stats I was reminded of this as a final rally and asked her about it. She said “Oh, I prefer to call it a final gift.” She took more tests. I watched. I don’t know why but it was just me, the nurse, and one caretaker. Everyone else had exited the room for the moment. They had been once more admonished for speaking about things in front of Mom they shouldn’t. Miss LaTrelle, the nurse, quietly told me that it would be today. Within a few hours. Preparing me.
I began to weep. The whole shoulder-quaking kind.
“Oh no, don’t cry, Miss Fleur.” The caretaker said, thick with dialect.
“No, I am a big believer in crying,” said Miss LaTrelle. She embraced me. Held me. Nursed me.
And here I sit writing this. It could have happened yesterday. But It didn’t. It happened a year ago Jan. 26th, Saturday at 12:30pm Central Standard Time. And this year it will be a Sunday… and next year a Monday…
But it will always be on my husband’s birthday.
The final moments. She was surrounded. Almost all of us there. We watched her slowly stop breathing. Even though we knew what was to come, we were shocked. I can still hear my brother crying out for her behind me.
My niece had to tell me she was gone. Stupid, I guess, but I kept thinking she’d breathe one more time.
And then? Details details.
We went on. Living. And grieving. And trying to figure out this life without all that she brought to it. And some of it is hard to live without. And some of it… is a relief. The topic of much more writing.
I watched her rolled out on a gurney by the most civil, professional, compassionate, respectful giant African American coroner I’d ever seen.
Before he rolled her out, he folded her bed sheets.
I said a rosary as she rode away in the hearse. Okay, it wasn’t a hearse. It was a blue minivan. They took her away in a car.
And then? Well, then the world simply stopped. The clouds froze. The earth stopped spinning on its axis. Phones stopped ringing. Cars stopped on freeways. And every inhabitant on planet Earth – everyone – bowed their heads in respect for the dying. In respect for my mother dying.
And after that? Well, It all started moving again. Babies were born.
So I guess the the most obvious line here is: “To be continued…”
With a prayer:
Oh Mary, conceived without sin,
Pray for us. ALL OF US,
Because, Dear Sweet Blessed Mother…
We have recourse to thee!