Written after my mother died, this post and the two prior are about the experience, honoring a promise I made to Mom to write abour our journey so others will know they’re not alone.
You walk in just as the priest is about to give last rites. Your sister moves over to let you hold your mother’s hand and you do. It is warm and strong and the hand you know. Tears stream down your face as you recite the prayer with her because you realize that you will never again be able to say this prayer, one you’ve said countless times in Catholic school as a child and with your children at bedtime, without thinking of this moment and the feel of your mother’s hand. You think of it as a blessing and you also think it stinks. It’s both. Which is frustrating and makes you somewhat mad.
It is ironic that your mother is spending some of her weakest days in the very hospital where she was known as an iron lady, the hospital she helped build into what it is today—a thriving satellite arm of the Cleveland Clinic.
When word gets out that she is failing, blessings come in the form of former students of nursing who were schooled back when she herself ran the school of nursing at this very hospital. There was a time when your mother knew every doctor in the hospital and ran the Greater Cleveland League for Nursing. Now, she knows mainly the old-timers. But they trickle in to tell her how much a kind word or pep talk meant to them, how appreciative they were of the chance to work with her. Former board members send flowers, remembering her days as a hospital administrator. You would think, facing death, these things would not matter as much to her. But, it pleases her to hear she made a difference, particularly at a time when she feels powerless to make a difference in her own health and well-being. To be reminded there was a time of control when things feel so out of control is a godsend.
You are the family member with her that day, it is “your” day, when word comes that a hospice bed is available. Not in your mother’s first-choice facility. And you must talk to her about this, even though you’re sure she’s failing and probably not really in the best shape to make a decision.
You trust your gut. You see her in pain and know that while everyone has agreed to this, you are probably the one with the strength to make it begin to happen. This process of dying. Not that it’s not already happening, but you want it to happen for your mother in a place that specializes in dying. One that will give her and your exhausted sisters some respite from the pain that just keeps coming. So you coax and she agrees that she’ll go if they can promise it won’t hurt anymore there. And you promise her, “Mom, it won’t hurt.” Such a grandiose promise. As if you could guarantee that. And you swear to yourself that if you have to rob a drugstore, she won’t hurt anymore.
The two paramedics that pick her up are female and she likes that. She was always ahead of her time when it came to women’s rights and you see this as some small sign from God that this is the right place and time for her to be going. This may be irrational and silly but it also may be God speaking to you and during times like this, you realize the line between the two is faint. You have to suspend disbelief for any shot at peace. And peace is just what your dying parent needs. That fact you understand.
After she leaves, knowing your sister will meet her on the other end of the ride, you clean her hospital room. As you pick up the discarded coffee cups and newspapers, you think of the angel doctor who discussed Heaven with your mother, unabashed to share her strong faith and hold your mother’s hand. You think of the nurse who took an extra long lunch, delaying your mother’s pain medication an hour too long until she was writhing and you wish her the karma that’s coming her way. You remember the aide who bathed your mother with love and respect, and you remember the one who was rough and impersonal. And you realize again how every job can be a calling or a curse, depending on the energy you bring to the table. Another “trite” truth you will never doubt.
As you take one last look at the room, hesitant to begin the next chapter, the final chapter, you ask God for a sign. That He is here. Show me the paramedics weren’t a fluke. Show me that You see this and care. Nothing. And then, in the woods outside the window, a lone buck, gorgeous in the snow. Ok, God. You realize you may have lost your mind in interpreting a deer in the woods as a sign. But, you are on your emotional knees right now and you take it on faith. See my mother through this, God.
At the hospice, you hurt because you know you have two small sons hundreds of miles away that need their mom. Which means leaving. After a debriefing with the nurse, they get your mother set up with a cocktail of drugs to ease the pain. Before you leave, she motions you over and is able to whisper, “It doesn’t hurt.” You are more thankful than you think you’ve ever been.
The nurse takes you outside the room to hand you a book. She is so kind that you’re sure it’s an inspirational book to help you deal with your overwhelming grief but when you get on the plane, you realize it’s a detailed description of what will happen to your mother as she dies. Emotionally and physically. You start to cry and realize you can’t read this until you get home.
So you get home and hug your boys and they see you’re a bit more broken than when you left. You put them to bed and read the book and then can’t sleep for hours. Chapters like “Expelling Body Waste: Elimination” and “Levels of Consciousness” have introduced a level of detail that is shocking to you. You had no idea dying was such an ugly process. And you are mad at the nurse. Until it hits you, she is giving you the shock treatment now so you can deal later. So you don’t break down in the room the first time you see the brownish film that covers a dying person’s teeth and tongue. Or see the bed sores that are inevitable, despite the expensive air bed that’s been brought in. Or see your mother’s meticulously blonde, coiffed hair turn white and hang limply on her head.
At home, you’re a wreck. You start out strong for your boys but they feel you are not on your game and act out. You yell at the slightest provocation. You’re tapped out. You’ve been giving and giving to your mother and realize you need something left to give them. You disappoint yourself because you thought you’d get through it with more poise. You sing them to sleep with the song that your mother sang to you as a young child and break down sobbing because she had sung it with you in her hospital room just days before. They hug you and love you, even though you are broken. But you can see in their eyes that broken scares them a bit. So you pull it together. Or rather, God pulls you together when you ask Him to do so. You’re humble enough to know this but too exhausted to be as grateful as you probably should be.
Your sisters call at all hours and each has a different version of how she’s doing. One is sure you should come to her bedside today because she won’t make it through the night. Another feels she has weeks to go. You try to sift through their tears and emotional states to take a stab at the truth but you realize the only truth is yours and you’re not there to see it. So you go back.