“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
—Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
After Mother’s Day, her health took a sudden downturn. By May 23rd, I was officially “worried” about her: the drastic weight loss due to loss of appetite, the lack of energy and fatigue, and the uncharacteristic loss of hope had even caused me to slip her a handwritten note: “Don’t give up. We will get through this. Like you’ve always told me, ‘Buck up!’” It wasn’t until she burned the spaghetti sauce that I really became alarmed. Cooking was her thing. A day later, on the Friday before Memorial Day, we drove down to Lexington Market to buy fish for dinner, stopping at our favorite stall for lemonade to drink on the way back to the car. She walked so slowly. But it was a hot day. She slept for most of the ride home. The “fresh” fish she had bought wound up in the trash can; it looked spoiled.
On Saturday, we went to my brother’s house for dinner. She stayed awake and seemed interested in the suspense-filled Denzel Washington movie we watched, but she did not try to take charge of the cooking and barely touched her food. Before we left, my brother made her promise to call her doctor as soon as possible.
Early in the morning, on May 29th, she called me and asked me to come up to the house to make a doctor’s appointment for her. Within 2 hours, we headed to the doctor’s office for her appointment. I had to get a wheelchair to take her inside; she was growing weaker by the minute. Immediately, the doctor told us she needed to go to the hospital. I asked the doctor if I should call an ambulance or drive her. He said it was okay for us to drive, and he contacted a colleague in the Emergency Room to be prepared for our arrival.
Halfway through the 4.6-mile ride from Mercy Physicians of Overlea to Good Samaritan Hospital, she slumped in her seat; she wasn’t breathing. While I tried to rouse her, a trickle of fluid dripped from her mouth onto my hand. I grabbed a nearby paper towel, wiped off my hand, and kept driving.
When I opened the passenger-side car door outside the Emergency Room, I was shocked. She was still, and her eyes appeared to be falling out of their sockets. Two guards and a nurse hand-carried her into the Emergency Room. My aunt and I were ushered into a private waiting room.
The Lazarus Moment
After maybe a half-hour, our liaison entered the waiting room and told us they were going to soon move her to the CCU, but we could visit with her in the ER bay. She was alert! NOT dead! We were allowed to follow her gurney ride up to the CCU, where we were ushered into another waiting room while the staff hooked her up to myriad wires and placed a breathing tube down her throat.
After another agonizing half hour, I called the CCU desk, per protocol, asking to see my mother. I had to call them three times before they finally opened the wide double doors and escorted us into her room. Her hands were tied in what looked like white lace boxing gloves, which were tied at her sides to the bed frame to keep her from trying to remove the breathing tube. But, again, she was alert! And her ashen skin had returned to its normal color and texture.
The doctors and nurses were asking me questions about her medical history, and I was answering them as quickly as I could. Glancing over at her, I could see that she wanted a pen and paper to write on. With a little support from the nurse, she clearly wrote, “Slow down!” When the doctors asked me the name of the nephrologist she was scheduled to see later in the week, I could not remember the name. Again, she signaled for pen and paper. She wrote down the nephrologist’s name legibly.
But when I gave permission for them to give her emergent dialysis, she shook her head, “No.” I walked over to her, leaned in as close as I could, and told her she could die without this treatment and asked her to reconsider. She reluctantly nodded her head in assent.
Around 2:30 pm, we went home, my aunt and I. Neither of us had slept in 24 hours, and we needed to eat.
My brother and I arranged to go back and see Mom during the last visiting hour of the night. She seemed to be resting comfortably. After sitting with her for a while, we stood on either side of the bed, rubbing her arms and holding her hands. But she kept pulling them away. Once more, I leaned in, asking her what was wrong. Noticing that she was trying to grab my purse strap, I suddenly realized that she was asking where her purse was. I reassured her that I’d taken her belongings home, and she relaxed, grasping our hands tightly in hers. With her tongue, she pushed the throat tube aside enough to mouth the words, “I love you.” We each replied, “I love you too, Mom.” We said good night to her, believing that she would pull through. It might be a long recovery, maybe not even a full recovery; but we would see her the next day.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream….
After 36 hours of worried wakefulness that began on Memorial Day, I slept through the night. Around 5:30 am, May 30th, I was awakened by a phone call from the CCU. Mom had had a rough night, but the doctors were still doing all they could. I cried myself back to sleep, only to be awakened again at 8:18 am. This time, the doctor said they couldn’t do anything more; she was dying, and I needed to get there. After hurriedly dressing, picking up my aunt, and driving 5 minutes to the hospital, we arrived in the CCU at 8:45, only to learn that she had passed away less than 10 minutes before. The doctors and nurses enfolded us in hugs, expressing genuine, deep sorrow for the loss of such a lovely woman. They, too, were in shock that they were unable to save her.
We sat with her briefly, before being asked if we’d like to see her without all the tubes. We were taken to another private waiting area, where we notified as many family members as we could, while the staff removed the tubing, set up a tray with muffins, cookies, coffee, and soft drinks, and called us back into the room. The television was set to a pastoral video with soft music. We were given 4 hours to sit with Mom before her body would be taken to the morgue. But they extended the time by an hour, so that my brother could make it to the hospital.
This had been the head nurse’s inaugural case of compassionate, patient-centered care in the CCU. In a reversal of roles, I hugged the nurse and told her that she had done well, even though she’d “lost” the patient. We laughed through our tears.
At about 2:30 pm, my brother and I walked out of Good Samaritan, had a group hug with our aunt in the parking lot, and drove home to begin preparing to send Mom gently to her good night.
Today marks a week since we began our 3-day Celebration of Life for Mom. This time last Monday, the Viewing was already over. The Funeral and Repast took place last Tuesday. The Burial Service, with a small gathering of family members, was held last Wednesday.
The 2 weeks between Mom’s death and her services were filled with meetings and phone calls with the funeral home: choosing her casket, her burial clothes (including a high-necked blouse and slippers that had to be purchased, as well as her lipstick and nail polish), and other minute details. I took charge of creating the funeral program book and had it printed myself, to avoid letting the funeral home do it at greater expense. The service was planned under the guidance of Mom’s pastor. We were inundated with food, sympathy cards, phone calls, and visitors. Sleep came easily at the end of each busy day. We shared memories of Mom (What Would Mom Do? Or WWMD?) that made us laugh. We cried in private. There was no real time to grieve. Now, however, the constant activity has come to a halt, and we marvel at the silence, mourning our loss and beginning to plan for a future without Mom present.
The best decision of my life was to retire 5 years ago to be Mom’s caretaker, companion, and chauffeur. We spent so much time together, pursuing our shared interests, especially reading books and attending movies, concerts, and other shows, in between the many doctor’s appointments. We argued a lot, but I learned to be a little more patient, to listen more, and to hug a lot.
Over the last 2 years, Mom had been preparing me for her inevitable death: organizing and explaining all the paperwork I would need to use, and generally getting her house in order. Privately, I’d begun to plan her services in my head: from the music to the Obituary, I knew how she would want to be remembered. The services exceeded my imagination. For that, and for all the love shown for her and my family, I am grateful.
Surely Goodness and Mercy followed her all the days of her life,
And she dwells in the House of the Lord, forever.