A year and a day ago I lost my Mom to her third battle with cancer. It was hard but surreal, and while I sobbed uncontrollably at the time of her death I have not really cried since then. I reasoned that I was probably numb, that the shock hadn't hit me yet. It was all so different and fast, yet methodical and controlled.
She was having a lot of trouble eating, and upon investigation they found her stomach to be full of tumors. They went in to do a bypass in her stomach so that it wouldn't be so painful to eat but when they opened her up they saw it had spread quite uncontrollably and that she had little time left. When she awoke from her anesthesia she was nonsensical and a little silly, giggling and talking in baby talk. We chalked it up to the after effects of the morphine. When the morphine stopped the loopiness didn't and my brothers called me. I flew out the next day.
Her liver was failing and couldn't process the anesthesia or any ammonia from her blood, which was why she had trouble with her cognizance. She refused to take the meds that would help. She kept fighting them and saying they were trying to poison her. So they just didn't give them to her. They felt fighting with her would be too much for her to handle. When I arrived I saw they were putting it in orange juice. I explained to them it was probably the o.j. she was objecting to as she had cut citrus out of her diet because she also had severe kidney disease. We were able to convince her to drink apple juice laced with the icky, syrupy meds and for one afternoon she came mostly out of her fog and I was able to talk to her and explain what was going on. She was very brave. She asked about trying another hospital and I told her that we might be able to if she took her medications and cooperated with the nurses. That was a little bit of a misleading statement. The cancer was extreme. Her condition was frail. She had beaten it valiantly two other times before but this time it had won. It was only a matter of time. After a few minutes of thinking about it she then asked why she wasn't in hospice. I told her that was the next step and she would be moved there by the next day. She said, "Good." and seemed genuinely relieved when she laid her head down on her pillow.
In the years leading up to this she had told me repeatedly that she was ready to die, that she hated chemotherapy, that she didn't want to fight it the next time. But my impression even then was that she was telling my brothers something different. I don't think she was lying to any of us, I think she had conflicting feelings and dealt with them by discussing a different emotion with a different kid. For instance, it upset my younger brother Dereck to hear her talk about her end so she reserved that conversation for me. I was willing to support her no matter what she said because I didn't want to upset her. I knew what she was feeling was something she needed to talk about so I usually listened while automatically taking her more dramatic statements with a grain of salt. My Mom loved drama, so I had been doing that for pretty much all my life anyway.
This led to a pretty brief but big fight between Dereck and I. He wanted her to come home with him, and I felt like it would be too much for him. He is a young man who had been taking care of my mother for decades. She had relied on him way too much, and for way too long. I felt that hospice was the answer because she would get what she needed medically and he would be able to begin the process of life without her. But he knew her better than anyone, knew how much fight she still had left in her, and felt he was the right one to care for her. The problem was we both kept looking at it as a long term thing. We pictured my mother living months, and maybe even another year. There were grand schemes at work in both our heads. The truth was, we were to discover, she only had eight more days.
She was moved to an absolutely wonderful hospice. It wasn't the way I had pictured it: musty, dark and smelling of urine. It was bright and sunny, newly built and still smelling slightly of fresh paint. There was art on the walls and tiled mosaic flowers crept around door frames. There was a patio with a beautiful fountain that was wheelchair accessible. The best thing of all, they welcomed dogs.
My mom had a big white dog named Max. This dog was so sweet and so devoted, and she had said repeatedly that she couldn't die until Max did because the idea of leaving him without her was too much for her. The first few days she was there he was there too. But by early on the third day it was becoming apparent that her condition was changing and we stopped bringing him. She had stopped waking up and talking and had started to breathe strangely. With the nurses coming in and out more frequently, and us spending so much time at the facility, it was too hard to confine him to the one room for so long during the day.
On top of all this there was someone else we had to take into consideration: her husband. My Mom's fourth marriage was to a man she had dated for about two years back in the 70's. They rekindled their romance through the US Postal Service in the late 90's, traveled to see each other and quickly decided to get hitched. Unfortunately, in the years following they discovered Joe was suffering from Alzheimer's and had to be moved into a nursing home. Other arrangements were going to need to be made for his care and so we called his kids. His daughter Trish flew out on the sixth day after my Mom entered hospice.
And then, the next day, St. Patrick's Day 2009 it happened. The universe aligned in perfect order to arrange for my Mom's move to the next realm. My older brother Bill had been handling all the paper work issues, and he and Trish had things they had to work out. They hadn't seen each other since we were kids and even then Bill hung out with her older brother. I decided to tag along, my only contribution being that I knew both of them and I was the buffer for the slight awkwardness of having lunch with a complete stranger you're related to. Lunch went until about one, and I had promised Trish I would be back at the house by 4:30 so I could babysit her daughter while she took care of the kind of grownup errands to which you don't want to drag a 2-year-old. As I started to leave for the hospice I looked over at Max and thought, "it's only a few hours, this is a perfect time to get him over there again."
When we got there Max went over to say "hi" to her. I held out her hand to him to give a lick. He seemed satisfied and found a comfortable spot on the cool floor. I sat down and talked to her about Trish's arrival, how lunch went, all the daily news. Then I had The Talk I had every other day with her since she went into hospice. I told her it was ok to let go whenever she was ready. That she didn't need to worry about us kids because we were handling everything. Bill was doing great with all the paperwork, Dereck was doing great at taking care of the house, and all of us were getting along better and getting closer than ever before. Joe was going to be well taken care of by his kids, and even though Max was going to miss her, Dereck was going to give him the greatest home and take just as good care of him as she had. I also pointed out on this particular day that it was St. Patrick's Day and if she wanted to make sure no one ever forgot the day of her death, doing it on a national holiday was a good start. Trust me, if you knew her you'd know that would be just the thing that would make her laugh.
For the past four days her breathing had been very noisy. This was because as she exhaled she made noises with her vocal cord. About 45 minutes after I had arrived, after I had had the talk with her, and done a few other things, my phone rang. It was my husband. While we chatted I noticed that Max's bowl of water was empty so I brought it and the phone into the bathroom, rinsed it, refilled it, caught up with how things were going back home. As I carried the bowl out and placed it on the ground I was struck by how silent it was. She wasn't making that sound. My words caught in my throat. I hung up the phone and ran out to get a nurse. I couldn't even explain I just looked panicked and pointed back at my mothers room. They know what that means. A nurse came back with me and checked her heartbeat. She told me she wasn't gone but it was coming. It might be in five minutes, it might be in five hours but it was imminent. Bill and Dereck were each pretty far from the hospice at the time. I started making call but couldn't concentrate so I called Bill and had him call whoever needed to know right now what was going on. In retrospect that was probably a really bad idea since he was trying to drive over at the same time.
I sat in the chair next to my mom and studied her face, watching to see if anything happened. They say sometimes people wake up just before they go and say one last thing. I was looking to see if she suddenly looked more blissful, more scared. More lifeless. Which seemed impossible. I neurotically checked her breathing with a finger under her nose every few seconds. Then I began to doubt my senses so I started checking with a wet finger. At first I would feel breath. And then I wouldn't. And then I would. It seems like an obvious pattern but sometimes there was a whole lot of long lags between them. Was she only taking a breath a minute or was I missing 55 seconds worth of breathing at a time? After what seemed like a few minutes of not feeling anything, feeling like I had to know, and not knowing how to calm myself down I grabbed my sunglasses and held them under her nose. When nothing fogged them I rationalized that it had to be that I wasn't holding them close enough, or the tinting made it to hard to read. As I reached for my regular glasses to repeat the experiment I stopped myself. I had lost my mind. I needed a nurse. As much as I feared this was going to be a long day of embarrassing myself by grabbing an increasingly annoyed nurse every 10 minutes, I had to know. But it wasn't going to turn out that way. This was the last time I was to need her.
I always felt this was the perfect end for her. She didn't die frightened. She didn't linger forever. She had her dog with her and someone who loved her. She was in hospice, which she knew would be comforting. She was in a place that was beautiful and artistic. Her kids came together for her. I was sad, and I cried, but mostly in a "OMGMyMotherJustDiedRightInFrontOfMe!!!" kind of way. I had told her everything I needed to tell and I believe we were at peace with our relationship. I had been preparing for two weeks and I knew her suffering was over. It was a good death.
When we met with her pastor about her memorial service I remember deferring a lot of the questions to my brothers. They knew her better than I did, having lived with or near her for years and years more than I had. When asked what music she would have wanted, Dereck mentioned that she loved "Be Not Afraid," and that he noticed it was being performed by the churches choir that Sunday. He requested that they sing it at her service, or if that wasn't possible, that they record the one from the upcoming Sunday and play it. Her memorial service was held the following month so that friends and family from far away could arrange to attend. After it was over I noticed they hadn't played "Be Not Afraid". I wondered at the time if the pastor had forgotten or if they hadn't been able to get the recording, but since it was all over I didn't want to make waves so I never found out why it hadn't been featured.
And so a year went by, and yesterday was the one year anniversary. I had thought about placing an in memorium notice in the paper, but I didn't. I mant to post something on my Facebook wall to commemorate her. But I didn't. My husband approached me and told me it was ok if I wanted to cry. But I didn't. I spent the day feeling like I had forgotten to do something, and couldn't really concentrate on anything but I wasn't depressed or distraught. Although I did feel guilty about that this morning.
My son goes to a small parochial school up the street, which is attached to a church to which we do not attend, but keep meaning to. After dropping him off at school today I walked past the church and the idea struck me that I needed to think about Vacation Bible School this year. His friends will be there and since we are terrible at religious stuff, I don't want him to be too far behind in that area. So I went home and brought up the church's website and saw a link to "Start Your Day." It's not like me to go clicking around the internet looking for religious things, and it didn't look like it had anything to do with Bible camp but, being easily distracted, I thought maybe they'll have a prompt I can use in my quest to update my blog more frequently. Immediately some music came up with the page, but I didn't recognize it. Then I saw the music credit at the bottom of the page in small type.
It was "Be Not Afraid."
And that's when I cried.
I miss her. I almost bought her a Christmas present a few months ago. I sometimes forget I don't have her on this world with me anymore. But hearing that song this morning tells me she's still here, somewhere, and doing just fine. My Mom always told me the God always found her a parking spot and a quarter. Looks like God found a way to give me what I needed today too. It's nice to know he's on the internet!