February 8, 1993
Monday morning. I liked getting up nice and early these days so that I knew no matter what happened while I was trying to get out of the house in the morning, I was going to be able to absorb the bumps.
It didn’t really matter that I’d been sleeping on the loveseat opposite my mother on the sofa in the living room. I was up every few hours anyway listening carefully to make sure my mother was OK. I’d started this practice a few days ago when I’d woken up to hear my mother in the middle of a huge coughing fit downstairs. I raced downstairs to find her gasping for breath, her eyes wild from not getting enough oxygen.
“Why didn’t you call out for me?” I’d asked.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” she panted between coughs. After that, it was time for me to sleep on the loveseat. This night hadn’t been bad. She’d woken a few times to cough, once to use the bathroom, and then settled down quickly to sleep. At first she hadn’t been able to rest propped up by pillows to a 45 degree angle. But the body adjusts to nearly anything, and soon enough, she was sleeping sitting up.
I showered, and got Z ready for day care. I fed him, packed his lunch, and left mother half asleep on the sofa . She sounded good; no rattling, the oxygen line was clear. I packed a few snack items in a cooler and left them at her feet, so she would have a few things to eat before someone got there by ten a.m.
Once I dropped Zachary at daycare, I felt a palpable relief. Not that he was difficult to care for; he was an amazingly agreeable toddler who took everything in stride. But I knew that once he was in someone else’s care, my day was going to start to be about me and not about those that I was caring for. No one at work knew yet how sick my mom was. I wasn’t about to get all blubbery about how I knew all about oxygen saturation and tumors and such. I knew I probably looked tired, but I let everyone figure that maybe I was up late going to bars like everyone else my age.
Today was a cooking day in the Life Skills class I was teaching. I had brought all of the groceries from home for the students to cook chili. It took three trips from the car to get everything into the fridges in my classroom, but it also meant the students would be self directed today, making for a mentally easy day for me. I watched them happily put the ingredients together to create something from nothing, and watched the magic ensue. A good day. I had almost forgotten, for a moment, what day it was.
It was my mother’s birthday.
I’d already bought my mother’s present last week; two comfy sweatshirts that would pull easily over her head. My mother was insisting every day on being dressed and presentable in case guests stopped by, as they often did. She told me privately that weekend, as I helped her with her sponge bath, that it was the one thing that still made her feel normal. Sick people stayed in their pajamas all day. But she didn’t want to be that sick person. So she insisted on getting dressed every day, even though it was becoming increasingly more difficult for her. Like not getting in a hospital bed, it was her own personal mental gauge that things just Weren’t That Bad yet.
I still needed a card, though. As soon as school was over, I hurried to the Hallmark store. I ran in, straight for the birthday section and started scoping out the mother cards. There were so many, how was I going to choose? I didn’t have time for a huge decision here, I wanted to get home and check on my mother and start the birthday dinner I’d planned.
But as I stood there, trying to pick a card out of the dizzying dozens staring back at me, something just snapped. I started thinking of how I’d had to sponge bathe my mother this weekend, how I was now sleeping on the loveseat next to her, how she wasn’t eating as much as she used to, how she was able to do less and less without losing her breath these days. And that’s when it hit me like a mack truck: this would be the last time I ever did this.
Suddenly, everything sharpened. How could I decide? How do you pick out the last birthday card? An impossible task. Do you go mushy or maudlin? Funny or foolish? My breath caught and the sobs came, unbidden. Hard, silent, wracking sobs that I couldn’t stop. “This is my mother’s last birthday,” I whispered to myself. “How can this be happening?”
I forced myself to swallow my sobs. If I was going to break down, it certainly wasn’t going to be in the middle of the Hallmark store.