I wrote this once before, a long time ago. I took it down. I’m ready to rewrite it now. It’s long, but it has to be. Settle in.
When I ask my seven year old how much she remembers about grandma, who died when she was four, she always tries to please me with memories. It didn’t take me long to realize she was enthusiastically describing the photographs in our albums. Pictures of memories, not the real ones. But at least there is that. Those photos will make up most of the connection with my mother, who loved her dearly. That and blue Gatorade. The only thing she’s never needed a photo for is to remember, Grandma drank blue Gatorade.
I have a friend who is a nurse in a cardiac ICU. He told me, after my mom went to the hospital for her bypass, that “Cardiologists think they’re God.” He meant, even when patients desperately need to die, the doctors won’t allow it. They will keep cutting and clamping and injecting. The soul will have long been extinguished but the heart, exhausted, will keep jumping.
My mom begin to die about a year before she actually got sick. She stopped inhabiting her life. She no longer came out on the porch swing to watch the grandkids play, she began to forcefully ignore my sister-in-law’s attempts to make her adhere to her health regime. She was only 68, but a diabetic, obese, arthritic, with a stint in her heart. And a life never fully set right again after Dad died six years prior. Still, she had kept herself quite tidy for years in that condition, taking her medicine and drinking her blue Gatorade. But then, she stopped.
I knew the extent of it after I had my son. Mom didn’t come to see me. It was Christmastime after all, the roads were bad. Even when Jack was admitted to the ICU, and I was more alone than I’d ever been, she didn’t come. When he was a month old I called her sobbing about her indifference. She came then, for a few hours. She held him, and for a little bit seemed like herself.
Months later she had the first real heart attack. She spent almost the entire summer in the ICU. She’d improve, then she’d have another small heart attack. Doctors would restart her heart manually when a screeching siren told them to come do so. Then the pacemaker.
The day she died was a routine visiting day for me; I’d come up with my kids and husband to visit. Even though she couldn’t talk and was pretty loopy from all that time trapped in the underground ICU,she still liked to walk her fingers up to Jack’s chubby thigh and give it a squeeze, then pull back fast. He liked it too. But I walked into her room to find too many doctors, and my mom wincing and flinching away from their touch.
“We’re having a few road bumps,” one said. “We need to get her heart rate up a bit.”
My mother laid in a bed as she had for two months. A tube through her trachea, the speaking attachment long lost and never replaced, so she was silent. Her chest black with the stitches and bruising of the open heart surgery. And the newest insult to her body, a gash ripped up the side of her belly. Something, some tube had began leaking, and it was replaced in surgery. They had to leave the incision open however, so it didn’t get infected. I lifted the gauze and saw a two inch deep gape of knobby, bloody fat, and the black ants of her suture on the muscle below that.
“Man Mom. You’ve really got a doozy here. Tough old broad right here, huh? This is really impressive!” I said cheerfully. She offered the kind of smile you give someone when you don’t understand what they said, but you know you should smile.
When I realized this wasn’t going to be a routine visit, I sent my husband home with the kids, though that left me stranded in Portland, 80 miles from home with no plans that extended beyond that hospital room. I sat with Mom as the doctors injected and jabbed. Her body began to twitch as some fancy jacked up caffeine chemical was put into her IV, and she weakly fought the nurses who adjusted the hot, squeezy blood clot pillows on her legs.
I don’t remember when I started crying, but I do remember, watching her twitch, and looking at the doctor (who I didn’t know) and saying, “Are we at the point now where you’re just torturing her to death?”
He stopped, and I was put in a board room with many people in white coats who looked sincerely sympathetic, no matter how often they’d seen exactly this.
The doctor, who was maybe 5 years older than me, held the piece of paper I’d put on file for them when she checked in. Her living will.
“The will specifies that if the leading physician does not believe that life can be self-supported for any reasonable amount of time, that all artificial methods of sustaining her life are to be stopped,” he said gently. “I’m the lead physician, and I believe the requirements of this will are met.”
Mom always said she didn’t want to be kept alive artificially. And judging by the way she now fought the medical staff, she had the guts to see it through.
I didn’t hesitate, though I brayed sobs as I spoke. “Turn it off. Turn off all the machines. Let her go.”
I signed something, and asked if I could sit alone in the board room for a bit. They let me.
I called my best friend in Portland, Ro, and got her voicemail; muttered something about pulling the plug, and I had no car, and maybe tonight after work she could come get me?
Then I sucked it up and went to my mother.
“Mom?” I said, and she opened her eyes.
“Mom, we’re gonna turn off all this stuff that’s hurting you, ok? We’re gonna get all this junk out of here.” My tone was as if I was telling her we were going to move her bed a bit toward the wall. And what I really meant was, “Mom? You’re going to die now, ok?”
Her nurse unstrapped the leg pillows, the doctors began removing all the needles except one, through which morphine would come.
I rubber her feet, a old sign of affection in our family. “Do you see angels?” I asked her?
She smiled and shook her head. I said, “Not true. You see me right? And I’m an angel.” And she smiled at me. She mouthed, “water.” I couldn’t give it to her (her dying request and I couldn’t give it to her!); not with the hole in her throat. I rubbed a small wet sponge around her lips, she sucked hungrily on it. I rubbed her brown hair, her last perm still holding it’s curl. That was the last time she was coherent.
I sat at her head as the morphine pulled her gently down. I sang “You are my sunshine,” as she had sang it to me on nights that I couldn’t breathe, or nights when the house didn’t seem safe. I told her the story about the time she was a baby and her brothers let her carriage roll into the street and her father’s German Shepard stood in front of it growling until her mother was found.
I don’t know how she did it, but then Ro walked through the curtained door. Not 15 minutes after I’d left a voicemail. OHSU, where my mom was, is a enormous medical city set into the side of a cliff in Portland, which is another enormous city. I didn’t tell her which of the 40 building my mother was in, nor what floor or room. But there she was.
When I saw her I stood up so fast the stool beneath me crashed into the cabinets behind me. I fell in her arms and screamed more than cried, “Thank you, oh thank you. I was by myself. You came. I was alone.” She stood behind me, her hands rubbing my back and my hands on my mother.
Mom hadn’t been in a quiet room for two months. There was always multiple machines whirring and beeping. Now just one, the heart monitor, slowing. Slowing. Her inhales were like stabs at the air, hard and forced. Coming far between. They gave her more morphine. I told her that I’d always remember she’d taught me that your shoes should match your skirt. And that you should sear the pot roast first. Stupid things. I just wanted her to keep hearing my voice.
The heart monitor was barely moving now. But…it kept moving. It hit a low number and stopped falling. The doctor was confused, I could tell. I asked, my voice just a wretched croak by now;
“Did you turn off the pacemaker?”
No. They hadn’t. But they did. And then she was gone. My mom.
I covered her with a sheet because that’s what they do in movies and staggered out of the room to make phone calls. Then I realized I’d never hold her again and ran back inside to do it one last time. I babbled and moaned, called her name. Ro pulled me gently back.
My breasts were hard, hot rocks. My son was nursing but we wouldn’t see each other till tomorrow. I could not be a parent tonight. Ro took me to her house, and I sat on the floor of her shower for near an hour, and I sang the chorus to a song I don’t really know, “every little thing…is gonna be all right…” over and over, mindlessly. I tried to express the milk for relief, but it came out in a weak, glittering spray, broken and light. She fed me, and gave me her left over Vicodin from a sprain. She took care of me when I needed it desperately.
There was arranging a funeral, there was writing a eulogy, there was horrible swaths of pain that day and on random days ever since.
She died in my arms though. That’s the point. The best part, even. All the pain of seeing it and carrying it forever, it was worth it to have her in my arms that last minute.