Last Moments

The last word my mom said to me was, “Heartbroken.” She glared at me with her devil eye – this look she had perfected early in my youth – and spat it through gritted teeth.


“I love you Mom. We’ll be back after we eat. I promise.”

The next time I saw her was after a 45-minute stint in the “nice room” at the ER in Tifton, Georgia.

“You guys. This is a bad sign,” I said to my sister, niece & Erica as we walked into the floral-papered room with plush leather sofas and a TV. There were silk flower arrangements on the end tables and we had a private phone. There were boxes of tissues everywhere you looked.

That afternoon my sister A and I had signed a DNR release, despite knowing Mom wanted otherwise. “This isn’t a life for her … for any of us,” I remember one of us saying.

I offered my call first – DNR all the way – to make it easier on A to say what she really wanted.

“I can take two of you at a time,” Dr. B said from the doorway. A & niece V jumped up. They needed to go first.

“Get ready. It’s bad,” A said as I got up to take my turn with Erica.

“Susan, I’m so sorry. We didn’t get the DNR from the nursing home,” Dr. B, who’d been my GP when I lived in Fitzgerald, told me.

“I understand. If you don’t know for sure, better safe, right?”

When he left us in the curtained space, I heard myself cry out for my mommy and watched my hands trace her frail, bony body.

“Mommy. Mommy. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

When I noticed the nurse in the corner by the monitors, I asked, “Did you know her?” Mom had worked as an RN in that hospital and had gone to school with a bunch of the staff.

“Yes, ma’am. We were in clinicals together.”

“I’m sorry. This must be hard for you.” I tried to console him.

When they moved her to a room, they disconnected the oxygen and a man attached a pump bag to the tube that led to her lungs. “Isn’t that magical? You’re keeping her alive right now. That’s really incredible, isn’t it?” I asked him as we rode the elevator to the “letting ’em go” floor.

It wasn’t until I got to the sitting vigil part of the night that I allowed myself to be present in what was happening. Once we were alone – me, A, V, Erica – for the first time with Mom all together, her with a breathing tube and swollen Mickey Mouse hands, I started taking in every moment. And I remember it all.

The doctors asking us to leave the room while they removed the breathing tube (the closest they come to actually pulling any sort of plug).

A visit from S & J who prayed with us and hoped the brief improvement in mom’s heart rate was a sign she was going to make it.

The night nurse offering, “Anything, anything at all,” and his shock when we were so grateful for the thin hospital sheets and pillows he brought in.

Someone half joking, “She’s not totally dead. No need to make it feel like a morgue just yet.”

Finally, finally getting someone to explain the numbers on the monitors and what to look for … to know.

Wedging the rolling office chair — “I’m so sorry we don’t have any more without wheels” — against the hospital tray table so I could hold Mom’s hand while I slept.

Waking up to, “It’s almost time.”

Watching a last tear roll down her left cheek while V watched one roll down her right.

“I lost my mom 7 years ago,” my doctor said to me last week, as she wrote the prescription for my anti-depressants. “You eventually stop remembering the pain of those last moments and start remembering just the good stuff. It’ll get better.”

The thing she doesn’t understand is … I don’t want to forget.

Why We Need AED Stations

Yesterday, I got an invite for my high school reunion and the sizes for the optional t-shirt ranged from small to 5XL. This explains why there’s a defibrillator every 5 feet in the Atlanta airport. However, it doesn’t explain why there are so few options for healthy food in a land of farms and farmers.

There are more than 200 of these throughout Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

There are more than 200 of these throughout Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

The last time I went back to Fitzgerald, I hoped to make dinner for my family. I headed out shopping – at the Super Wal-Mart, where you now go for groceries in my hometown – and I was floored by the lack of fresh produce.

The majority of the foods available are shrink-wrapped, boxed, processed, chemical-laden products and you guys, there isn’t a sprig of basil or rosemary in sight. No wonder I had no idea about fresh herbs until I moved to Italy.

Sure, you can get romaine lettuce, tomatoes and carrots but the variety practically stops there. Standing in the “produce” aisle, I got so disheartened by the fact that every healthy option was paired with some gross manufactured product that would negate any health benefits of the natural food. Apples sat next to packaged caramel dip. Cucumbers were surrounded by jars of fatty, creamy dressing. Peaches were accompanied by recipe cards for delicious yet, super unwholesome cobbler.

At every turn you are encouraged to drown, distort and disguise fresh, raw food so that it ends up being much simpler to just drive down Highway 129 to McDonald’s where they do all that extra work for you.

My classmates and I are in our very early 40’s and already someone has had to endure a heart bypass procedure. Full disclosure: I do not know what led to that surgery but, I will venture a guess that there are at least a dozen people using one of those sleep apnea machines at night.

In the two years before I graduated, and for several after, there was a rash of teen suicides in Fitzgerald. It was a devastating trend that left a lot of us more broken than we’ve ever been able to share with each other.

So, what gets to me about those 3, 4 and 5XL options isn’t that my classmates are overweight. It’s the sad fact that we haven’t been able to get past our self-destructive phase.

My First Life Lesson

It was early 1978 when Simon Peter Nelson brutally murdered his six children with a hunting knife and a rubber mallet. He beat each of his progeny (aged 12-3) in their sleep before stabbing them to death. (Or, at least the ones who didn’t wake up from the ruckus caused by their siblings’ grisly demise. Nelson claims that they were all asleep when he began their individual attacks, but I just can’t fathom the possibility.)

The intended victim was Nelson’s wife Ann, whose attorney had called Peter that day to notify him that she was filing for divorce. In his rage over the breakup, he decided the best way to get her back was by killing their kids and their dog Pretzel who got the least of it, dying from a single slash to the throat.

Reports detailed Nelson said he “snapped” just like the people on that show on Oxygen. This particular snap lasted long enough for him to violently beat and stab his 6 children in multiple bedrooms of their Rockford, Illinois family home along with the Schnauzer. (My guess is that Charlie the cat, being a cat, probably peaced the fuck out when he saw what was going down, which is why he remained the only survivor in the house.)

After the slaughter, Nelson’s snap continued for an additional 2-hour drive across state lines to the Ramada Inn in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Ann was staying. After hotel security were notified of a disturbance, they contacted the Milwaukee police who found Peter beating Ann in her bathroom.

After he was apprehended, Ann told the cops that Peter said he killed their kids. A phone call to Rockford PD and a subsequent break in at the Nelson house quickly confirmed his claim, and his domestic abuse allegations were soon joined by 6 charges of murder.

Nelson Family PhotoThe case got national media coverage for weeks and like a ton of other children at the time, I was an innocent bystander who got caught in the emotional crossfire of this hideous event. Because until I saw a report on the Nelson story on television, the concept of a parent killing his child wasn’t anywhere on my radar. Once it was, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was life like for those kids? What was it like waking up to your parent beating and stabbing you to death? Did any of them have an inclination or any warning of what might go down after they went to bed that night?

When I crawled into my own bed after seeing the report, I worried in my  sheets for what felt like hours before I finally got the nerve to get up and ask Mom about my newfound fears.

“Susan, what are you doing out of bed? You should be asleep by now.”

“I’m scared to…,” I started.

“What are you scared of?” she asked.

I paused for another second, took a deep breath and  just blurted it out. “How do I know you’re not the kind of mommy who’s going to kill me while I’m asleep?”

She gave me an exasperated look and replied, “Well, Susan. How am I supposed to know you’re the not the kind of daughter who’s going to kill me while I’m asleep?”

When Mom responded to my biggest fear by questioning my own intentions, I got my first lesson in knowing there are no guarantees in life. And Mom apparently got her first inkling that I might kill her. So, instead of pressing the issue, I just went back to bed.

I was 7 and a half at the time and from that point on, the trust mom and I had in each other was a thinly veiled hope for the best.

You Never Know

I had been at home in Georgia watching my mom slowly die on a hospital bed in our family living room for two weeks. She had been placed in Hospice care due to complications from breast cancer treatments, heart disease and a slew of other ailments that eventually led to our sofa being moved out and a makeshift care ward being moved in.

Days were spent dosing Mom with liquid morphine and forcibly shoving Xanax down her quickly withering throat to keep her from having panic attacks when the congestion in her lungs built up so much that she couldn’t breathe without the aid of a nebulizer and oxygen tank.

During that time I had to go out to get supplies from the store — toilet paper, dog food, garbage bags — I stood in line waiting patiently with my items when the cashier closed her register right before I had a chance to pay. I didn’t say anything, or even give her a dirty look, but inside it felt like she had just hit me in the face with a sledgehammer … everything felt like that at that time.

I turned to take my place behind the woman at the register next to me who had her own collection of things to buy.

“Would you like to go ahead of me?”

I couldn’t reply. I knew that any word that came out of my mouth would turn into a full-on public breakdown. So I just smiled at her and put my things on the counter. I paid, turned to smile at her again, and left to have my breakdown privately in the parking lot.

In that moment, that sweet woman saved my life in a way she will never understand. I was so broken, so raw and that simple act … her seeing something in my demeanor, on my face, that inspired her to wait those extra few seconds to let me go first … there are simply no words to express the magnitude of what she did for me.

She had no idea what was going on in my life, or why buying that stuff and getting out of that store as quickly as possible was so important to me, but she stepped aside and let me go through. And it has had a profound impact on me ever since.

I remembered all of this when a friend of mine posted a photo on Facebook of an MTA employee who had fallen asleep on the train. He took up two seats as he napped during rush hour, which meant one extra commuter had to stand. The point was to show how inconsiderate he was and make an example of him online.

But instead of being incensed by the picture, I started to think about why he was so tired. Had he worked all night trying to keep the trains running? Did he have 4 kids at home who kept him awake during the day when he needed to sleep for his late shift? Was his mom sick and dying, too?

Maybe he’s just exhausted and fell asleep at the beginning of the line … way out in the boroughs before the train got packed. Perhaps if she had just said, “Excuse me, may I sit down?” instead of surreptitiously taking his picture to display on the Internet, he would have happily, sleepily and perhaps with a little embarrassment, shifted over and put his bag in his lap where it was supposed to be.

People. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. Do not assume you know the whole story from a 3 second glimpse into a person’s life. Be kind. Don’t judge.

And every once in a while let a stranger go in front of you at the store. You just might save a life.