It is Thursday evening and I am on the road in Helena, Montana. I arrive back at my hotel after a long day of work. In my email box was an ominous note from my father about my mother: “I cannot say that (her) death is imminent, but it may be… she didn’t respond to anything I said… couldn’t get Mom to close her lips on the straw, or suck.”
Ominous indeed. My wife had paid her a visit the day before. While my Mom was not in great shape, she could at least make something resembling conversation. Until now, I had no reason to think her death might be coming in the next few days or weeks. I figured there were months ahead at least before she died. This suited me. I thought maybe I was ready to let her go, but I was not. Not yet.
I spent my last night in Montana sleeping badly. I anxiously checked my email in the morning before my predawn flight back home. Nothing new. I had a sinking feeling that I would arrive back in Washington to find my wife greeting me in tears and telling me that my mother had died. When I arrived back at Washington Dulles Airport in the middle of the afternoon, I promptly called her. My Dad sent a brief email that made me feel a little hopeful. The cloud of doom lifted, at least for a moment. Nonetheless, the persistent headache that I often get under persistent stress would not go away. I popped two Tylenol.
By evening, another email arrived with the prognosis I had been dreading. “The nurse practitioner thinks Mom may die within a day or a week, though no one is certain.” Elevated pulse. Elevated respiration. Urinary tract infection may have spread to the blood. Since she had ordered no extraordinary means to prolong her life, my father stopped her IV, ended the antibiotic, but agreed to give her oxygen and a liquid morphine to relieve her misery.
No, dammit, I was still not ready. I was not ready for my mother to die. This was too fast. Just two days ago, she could swallow food! How could she be spiraling so quickly toward death?
With the help of more Tylenol plus an accumulated loss of sleep from my trip, I managed to sleep soundly until 5 a.m. or so. That is when the thought resurfaced: my mother is in the last throes of life. I tried to get back to sleep but never fully succeeded. It was morning and the headache was back. It was time to pop some more Tylenol.
My wife had to go to work for a while. We planned to visit my mother afterwards while I took care of things that had to be done, even when loved ones are dying. This included chores like buying groceries. It was after 3 p.m. before we arrived at her nursing home, some 30 miles away. We both steeled ourselves. If my mother had days to live, this might very well be the last time I would see her alive. For now, the thought was too large to get my mind around, but I felt its awful weight anyhow entering the nursing home. My feet felt like lead, but we finally made it to my mother’s room.
My father was there. For some reason, although he has been married to my mother for 55 years, the cloud of doom that hung over my wife and I was not affecting my father. He seemed almost happy. In the hallway out of earshot, he explained. “Your mother has been dying for three years. She will soon be out of her misery and with Our Lord.” For my father, his Catholic faith was an instrumental coping mechanism in what was for me what seems a very bleak time. Still I could not fathom his perspective. Your life partner is almost dead. How can you be so chipper?
My Mom was face up on her bed. Mostly she was asleep, but occasionally her eyes would open and she would observe her world from her narcotic haze. She could neither move her eyes nor turn her head. Her fingers were deadweight in my hands. Her breathing was labored, punctuated by occasional coughs. Mostly there was a vacant look in her eyes, but often they seemed to be able to focus on me.
What can you possibly say to someone who cannot talk back and is in the very last stages of life? Her mouth was dry. We used a sponge to give her moisture. I told her I loved her of course. I told her the whole family sent love. We let her know that other siblings were on the way to see her too. We think she understood, but she could not say anything. She could not even utter a grunt.
An oxygen tube went into her nose. It was tethered to a noisy machine six feet away. There was little to really say or do. All I could do is hold her hand. My wife took the other hand. My wife tried to give her drops of water. She asked my Mom to open her mouth. She could not open her mouth voluntarily.
A nurse practitioner came by to assess her situation. She had not seen my Mom in a few days either. She too was shocked by her rapid deterioration. There was little she could do to add to her comfort. A lip balm went on her chapped lips. She tried to clean out her dry mouth with a rubber sponge soaked in water on a stick.
And so my mother drifted in and out of sleep, sometimes seeming to watch us with half an eye open, her breathing always labored, her pulse always high. We pulled back her blankets because she seemed feverish. We took turns talking to her.
What to do so close to the end? The hardest part for me was simply not dissolving into a veil of tears. My wife seemed to find strength that I did not have. She spoke to my mother of simple and pragmatic things. Although my wife has known my mother less than half the time I have known her, both are very bonded to each other. In some ways, my mother’s passing may be more traumatic to my wife than to me. Both grew up near the same area of Michigan. Both shared similar Midwestern values. Heck, they even look quite a bit alike. My wife has been an angel of mercy to my mother these last several months, visiting at least once a week by herself while I worked. If there were a daughter in law of the year award, she would win it without trouble.
But what to say? Eventually I found my courage to say what I felt had to be said. While she could not speak, I knew she knew that she was rapidly dying. “Mom, I love you,” I told her. “I love you more than I can tell you. I cannot begin to tell you just how much you mean to me. I am so sorry to see you suffer like this. I know the last months in the nursing home have been very hard for you. But for me they have been a precious time. Because I have had the time to be with you. Because I have had the opportunity to take care of you for a while, like you cared for me. Because I have enjoyed our time together so much, and feel it is a blessing to have had this time with you at this stage in your life.” She was looking intently. I could tell she understood me, but had no means to say something in return. Nevertheless, I articulated it. “And I know how much you love me too, Mom.”
She drifted in and out of sleep. As a deeper sleep caught up with her, I gently slipped my hand out of hers. I kissed her on the forehead. “Be at peace,” I said, tears welling up. My wife did the same thing. We hugged each other on the way out. It was not until we were in the parking lot that I started bawling like a baby.
I have a feeling I will be crying a lot more before this is over. For the moment, she clings to life. However, her hours are now numbered.
At this point, I just want her out of her suffering. I hope whatever Supreme Being that may or may not be out there is merciful and swift. She has suffered enough. Please let whatever merciful uberforce is out there bring her back to the source so that she is free again. I hope, pray even, that she does indeed have a soul, and this life is but one lesson in an eternal life. I hope she learned important lessons in this challenging life. Perhaps she will be reincarnated. Perhaps she will begin a new and more hopeful life after a period of reflection in another dimension.
Although I still feel some horror in witnessing the process of dying firsthand, I am also not quite so afraid of it. For in the end death is simply an ultimate peace, and she has earned her rest many times. Her misery will soon be over. In addition, those of us who mourn her passing can begin to grapple with dealing with the rest of our lives without her. Of course, she will always live on in our hearts. In that sense, she is already immortal.
Rest in peace, my beloved mother.