I slept in that Friday morning because I knew it was going to be a hard day.
Erica was already at work when I got up, so I pulled on some clothes and headed out to get coffee.
When I got home, I sat on the couch a while and thought about my friend B. She says she doesn’t keep track of death anniversaries, which I think is actually a very cool concept. But, with Mom’s being in December along with the rest of the events, I really don’t see how I can get around it.
The month starts with a trio of birthdays: Grandma’s on the 8th, mine on the 9th and Mom’s on the 11th. My estranged Daddy’s birthday is on the 23rd and of course there’s JC on the 25th – which I have always taken issue with because of that hateful phrase, “This is for your birthday and Christmas.” Now there’s Mom’s death as well. So, as you can imagine, December’s not my favorite month.
When I woke up on the 2nd anniversary of Mom’s death, I looked up in the corner of the loft where her spirit tends to hang out.
“Mornin’ Mom,” I yawned, “Here we go.”
As I learned the first time around, death day is filled with memories of being in Georgia, moving Mom to the nursing home, signing DNR paperwork with my sister, and later fighting to remove a foam-tipped swab from between Mom’s clenched teeth when she realized where she was.
Up until that morning, Mom had been basically catatonic for days and that was without our dosing her with liquid morphine. She wasn’t eating, she wasn’t responding, she was wearing a diaper.
“Honey, I’ve seen ’em last 3 or 4 years like this,” the Hospice nurse had told us earlier that week.
“Fuck that,” I mouthed at my sister, A. I had only been home for three weeks and I could not fathom what she and my niece had already been through. First of all, their living room had been turned into a virtual care unit. Mom was laid out in a hospital bed where the sofa used to be. My grandma’s old bedside table had been moved in to serve as a holding station for all of Mom’s meds and the never ending supply of little lotion bottles that were delivered to us in pink hospital bins with matching vomit troughs.
There was an oxygen tank was stationed at the head of the bed with a tube running directly from it, through a regulator, into my mother’s nose – or more often, her eyebrows because she was constantly pawing at her face to pull it away from her nostrils. Just beyond her feet was Christmas. There was a beautiful tree, tons of brightly wrapped presents, Santa figurines, a garland-draped window … and the white candle we had started burning each day in hopes that it would lead her towards the light.
After the nurse left that day, A and I started making plans. We needed help with Mom so that A could get her shit in order before Erica and I returned to NYC. Thanks to the Hospice program, we were able to find a bed nearby where Mom could stay for 30 days while A prepared for a possible 3 or 4 years with her in the living room care unit.
The morning the ambulance arrived, Mom decided to wake up.
“It’s like she knew they pulled up in the front yard,” A told me later as we talked on the phone.
We all met that afternoon at the nursing home to check Mom in and make sure she was okay. Niece V and Erica stayed with Mom while A and I met with the administrators. Piles of papers were signed, directives were given to the floor staff: no needles in her right arm, careful with the sores in her mouth. We went back to the room and someone suggested we try giving Mom a milkshake. She hadn’t eaten in days and we knew that she was a sucker for Dairy Queen.
Erica & I went to the drive-thru. “Large banana shake, extra thick, please.” When we got back, A dripped ice cream into Mom’s mouth with a straw while I put away the clothes and medical supplies we brought with us. She had been in and out of lucidity all day and it was the first time we got her to smile.
I started explaining where she was, that the nursing home was only a temporary situation, and that we would have her back home soon. She couldn’t speak very well by that point, but she had no problem expressing how pissed off she was. She gritted her teeth and glared at me.
“Are you scared?” I asked.
She nodded and gave me a look that I had only seen once before – on the face of a man who believed he was about to drown in the Mediterranean.
I tried again to explain what was going on. “You’re at Golden Living Center in Tifton. You’ll only be here for a few weeks while A makes some arrangements to take care of you back at home. This isn’t forever. You’ll just be here a little while. I promise.”
I moved to the end of the bed and started rubbing her feet while Erica, A, V and I talked about our plans for that night. Mom moaned a little “that feels good” sound. I smiled back at her and joked, “You’re not so mad now, are you?”
She snatched her feet away from me to show that she was.
A and V decided to head back to Fitzgerald. Erica and I were going to have dinner then return to the nursing home to stay with Mom until visiting hours were over.
“Mama. We’re going to go for a little bit, but we’ll be right back. A & V are going home. Erica and I are grabbing food and will be back in about an hour. Do you understand?”
She gathered as much air as she could into her fluid-filled lungs. “Heartbroken,” she forced out in a raspy hiss.
I sighed and turned to walk out the door. A & V said their goodbyes. Erica gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“See you later, Barbara.”
Erica and I had a flight back home the next day so, the four of us decided to hang out at our hotel for a little while. We’d only been there about 30 minutes when A got a phone call.
The nursing home says she’s unresponsive and they’re taking her to the emergency room. Thinking they meant catatonic like she had been the week prior, I told A to relax and finish her drink before we got back in the cars.
“I can’t take it, we’ve got to go now.”
When the nurse led us into a private waiting room, I fell into the plush leather sofa and looked up at everyone.
“Maybe it’s because they know us,” someone offered hopefully – referring to the fact that Mom had just the year prior worked as a nurse in the same hospital.
I shook my head. “It’s bad news, guys. The fancy room is always bad news.”
After the ER doctor talked with us, I held Erica’s hand as I made the necessary phone calls to family and close friends. V & A went to see Mom.
“Prepare yourself. It’s fucking awful,” A reported when they came back in the room.
On the way to the ER, I ran into Mom’s regular doctor whom she had worked with before becoming a nurse.
“I’m so sorry, Susan.”
“I don’t understand. We signed a DNR.”
Apparently the paperwork hadn’t had time to process so she was intubated and hooked up to a billion machines. When we walked through the curtain, I crumbled.
“Oh, Mommy. Mommy, I’m so sorry.” I sobbed and laid my face on her chest. She was so frail and thin. Her mouth hung open, full of plastic tubing. I kept touching her body – her bony shoulders, her hands, her face. “Mommy … Mommy.” Erica cried quietly next to me as I became conscious of the nurse who was in the room.
“Did you know her?”
“Yeah, we did clinicals together.”
“I’m so sorry,” I offered in an attempt to make him feel better.
We spent the rest of the night in a room on the ICU floor.
Everyone took turns holding Mom’s hands and we watched numbers on the machines that kept track of her ever-declining systems. I quizzed nurses on what they meant and I got a very loving, “Don’t worry about numbers honey. Be with your Mama now.”
Mom’s best friend S and her husband J showed up at some point and became glued to the various monitors as well. Collectively we decided we should keep track of her respirations and blood pressure, mainly because those were the only things we recognized. Around midnight, we made the decision to remove the breathing tube.
Believing that the initial improvement in Mom’s blood pressure was a sign that their prayers had been answered, S and J left around 1 AM. Soon after, a night nurse came in to give Mom some pain medication and I caught his arm when he turned to leave.
“Please. Explain what the numbers mean. I need to know.”
He had been monitoring Mom through a small window from a desk outside, and I guess he understood my need to prepare and be better able to predict when she was going to go. He explained that although we were watching Mom’s BP and respirations, it was actually her oxygen saturation level we should keep an eye on. He went as far as to tell me the normal range and the percentage to watch for to know it was almost over.
I sat vigil by Mom’s bed while my sister, niece and Erica napped restlessly on flat sofa cushions in the corner of the room under blankets and sheets the nurse brought in after he explained oxygen saturation to me.
Curled in a stiff arm chair, I laid my head on the bed next to Mom’s feet and counted minutes between SaO2 readings. Occasionally V, would sit up and ask what the number was. Our night nurse watched from his window and from time to time would come in to ask me if I needed anything. “Anything at all.” I told him he had already done so much more than he could imagine. Eventually I drifted off to sleep, my head by Mom’s feet and my arm stretched out so I could hold onto her fingers.
Around 4 AM I woke up in pain from sleeping bent over the arm of the chair and squeezed in next to Erica on the floor. I gave everyone the report – still 72%.
Moments later it was 6:30 and our night nurse said that Mom’s numbers had dropped dramatically in the prior hour. We were below 30% and it was almost time. We all got up and took our place in chairs around her bed. Everyone quietly cried and V took a picture with her phone of her hand holding Mom’s for the last time. Without telling me, Erica did the same thing of mine on the other side of the bed.
For the first time in almost twelve hours, I stopped paying attention to monitors and did my best to be present in the last moments I had with a mom who was alive.
Instead, I watched the clock.
And at 7:28 AM, on December 29, 2010, a nurse put a stethoscope to my mom’s chest and said, “I’m sorry. She’s gone.”
When I met Erica for dinner that Friday night in 2012, I sat down and started to give her the report. “I cried a few times, talked to her a lot, but I didn’t have a huge breakdown like last year. Pretty good progress, eh?”
“Yeah boo, I just hope you make it through tomorrow.”
Turns out, Friday was the 28th.
“Oh goody. Can’t wait to do it all again.”