A Long Slow Sigh

It’s been twenty years since I celebrated this day with my mother.  Her last birthday.  She turned fifty three that day, and would die five days later.  It’s hard to imagine that, that it has been twenty years.  Twenty years, a lifetime between then and now.  She knew me as a child, even though when she died I was doing very adult things:  I was a single parent taking care of my terminally ill mother.

But now, when I look back on those days, I realize how very young I was.  Twenty years will do that to you, of course.  But still, I just wish somehow that I’d been able to know her as an adult.  The way I know my father now.  The way he comes to me sometimes, seeking advice, counsel, as equals.  My mother and I certainly had much more of that type of relationship than any other 22 year old I knew with their mother, but still.

I was selfish.  I was twenty two.

When I watch my father these days, taking care of his aging mother, worrying about her health and her mind and how to manage the eroding of both, I marvel that I won’t ever have to do that with mine.  She used to joke, of course, that the cigarettes she was insanely addicted to were her way of getting out of the maladies of old age, but it was one of those things that was never really funny.  Because sadly, in the end, it was all too true.

I wonder what my mother would be like, these days, if she had lived.  Would she still be working, at age 73, or not?  Would she approve of the life I’ve built for myself, of the ones my siblings have built for themselves?  What would she look like these days?   Would she be one of those mothers that visited often or not so much?  What would she think of these grandchildren of hers?

Questions I’ll never know the answers to.

I miss her.  When friends of mine lose their parents, as they are starting to, I try to help them with some kind, encouraging words from someone who has been there.  But when they ask if you ever get over it, the answer I always give them is a tough pill to swallow.  You never do.  You never stop being sad about it, feeling that a piece of yourself is missing, wishing that life had not been so cruel.  You learn to live with it, you find eventually that the white hot pain becomes a slow, deep ache that you can almost forget about if you try hard enough.  But it never goes away.  Not ever.

Not even twenty years later.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Life Without Tom

“Can I come over?” I asked my girlfriend Fran, staring blankly at the message on my computer screen.

It was three months after Tom had started treatment.  We’d seen him three times, the last time just two weeks ago.  He’d seemed better, less dependent on his oxygen machine and able to actually greet us at the door for the first time.  His hair was returning a bit, even, a lighter shade of coppery brown instead of his usual much darker brown.   We were encouraged for the first time after a visit to him, that he just might come out on top of this thing.

But the messages started flying via email a few days ago; had anyone heard from Tom?  I had talked to him after my appearance on TV during our latest budget battle; he’d called me to tell me a job well done and laughingly called me “The General”, the name he’d dubbed me with in our previous work together on our town budget.  No one seemed to have heard from him via email lately, and there was word around Town Hall that he’d been readmitted to the hospital.  No one seemed to know anything concrete.

It was therefore a complete shock when our new first selectman sent out a mass email announcing Tom’s passing earlier that day at Yale New Haven hospital with his family gathered by.  We hadn’t seen it coming; he seemed to be getting better.

Fran could hardly spit out the words in response to my question; she was in shock, same as me.  I wanted to be with her and my other friends who had known Tom; R just wouldn’t get it.  He liked Tom well enough, had had several conversations with him, but didn’t really understand why all of us were so attached.  He couldn’t tell stories about Tom, talk about our late night strategy sessions or our shots of tequila or how different he’d looked after treatment.  “Come over now,” she mumbled mostly incoherently into the phone before she started sobbing.

R said nothing but gave me a sympathetic squeeze and handed me a bottle of wine as I raced through my tears and out the door.

I couldn’t believe he was gone.  I just couldn’t believe it.   And as we all sat around that night, toasting Tom and telling the stories that I’d craved, we all asked the same question:

What would we do without him?

Visiting A Sick Friend

“You look so great!” Kelly enthused, the pitch of her voice rising so artificially high that I cringed.

She had turned on her personal brand of “hospital charm”, the same charm I’d used all during my mother’s illness and when I visited my ex’s father in the hospital after serious open heart surgery.  I had been prepared to have to fake it until I made it tonight too, so I smiled broadly at Tom and reached down to hug him from his seated position in his recliner.

Tom looked so markedly different from the last time we’d seen him on election night  that it was truly hard to believe it was the same person in front of us.  He’d lost weight, maybe twenty pounds off of his already trim frame.  His hair was close cropped short, clearly an attempt to beat out the eventual demise of it at the hands of his chemotherapy.  He was breathing oxygen into his nose through a cannula; I recognized the snaky  length of tubing and followed it with my eyes to the portable oxygen machine.  Even his voice was different, scratchy and raspy from procedures done via his esophagus.

We all knew that Tom had finished the campaign and started treatments for his recurrence shortly after.  But we’d seen him all year talk about going to this doctor or having that surgery, and we’d all taken for granted his robust health that seemed to allow him the ability to bounce back quickly from them.  When he’d committed to running for re-election, we all took it to mean that the situation with his recurrence could not possibly be that serious.  We’d scoffed at letters to the editor in our local paper that raised questions about his health, called his opponent classless when he’d quipped “ask Tom why we’re not standing at podiums tonight”, and all along never really believed that Tom could be truly sick.

But the evidence was right in front of us, and it was stark.  Tom was fighting for his life.

“So give me the dirt,” Tom said in his new, raspy voice.  “How were the budget workshops last month?”  And just like that, the old Tom was back. We regaled him with story after story, and responded with his trademark salty language, putting us all at ease and helping us see past the scary, obvious reality.  We talked until he grew tired, and we left with promises to return again in a few weeks.

We held it together until we were all safely in the darkness surrounding our cars in the street before we all looked at each other with wide, tear filled eyes.  What if Tom didn’t win this one, either?

Worried

“I’m tired,” Tom said sheepishly, sitting down as the crowd at the local senior center dwindled.

My girlfriends and I had been invited by our first selectman to join him for a campaign appearance at the town senior center; this was a tough crowd for anyone running for our local board of education.  Since we voted on our school budget every year, and since the school budget was the lion’s share of the whole, the constant reminder of the schools being responsible for uptick in taxes was a drumbeat heard weekly at lunches, bingo games and wii tournaments here.  But Tom, a former finance executive until he’d retired to run for our town’s top job, was popular in this crowd for his smart management and fiscal conservatism.  He thought it was a good idea to give us a little face time with this tough crowd with his endorsement.

Tom had been on his game as we’d stood in the back of the room and watched him answer question after question about everything under the sun.  He smartly answered questions about pot holes, unions, police salaries, budgeting and even the stray odd question about things like skunks spraying personal pets.  The girls and I had been meeting with him once every few weeks to get some talking points, some pointers for our own campaigns, and we’d all developed a fondness for him.  He swore like a sailor, he liked his tequila and he was the smartest man I knew.

And he wasn’t well.

Tom had surgery over the summer to remove a cancer recurrence in his lung.  He’d seemingly bounced back quickly; too quickly.  But when we’d met him for a photo session for our campaign literature in August, he’d confessed that he was coming back from the doctor, who was concerned about some spinal pain he continued to have even after the tumor had been removed.  We’d all thought perhaps he would drop out of his bid for re-election, but he solidiered on.  We took this as a positive sign that the doctor visits were precautionary and that he was well on his way back to the fit, healthy man we’d come to know so well.

“Well you don’t look tired,” my friend Kelly chimed in.  “You were on fire with all the old folks.  I think the women all either have a crush on you or wish you were their son.”  She patted his shoulder.

I pulled up a chair.  “Totally.  Tom, I’ve never seen you so ‘on’ before.  All you have to do is repeat that performance tonight at the debate.”

Tonight was the town wide debate between first selectman candidates.  I’d seen him square off against his opponent last week, in front of our Parents’ Council.  It was a shame that only thirty or so people had seen it; Tom had completely buried his opponent.

He sighed.  “I’m going to have to nap in between if I’ve got a shot at this.”

We exchanged worried looks with each other quickly, trying not to be obvious.  The Tom we knew never napped.  He stayed up with us until one in the morning on his sun porch drinking and teaching us the finer points of pension liability and high deductible medical plans for public employees.

“Well do whatever you need to do to be fresh tonight.  Its yours to take, for sure,” my friend Terri said, acting as the cheerleader.

Next to me, I felt Fran touch my arm, a question.  Privately we’d been worrying that Tom couldn’t canvass neighborhoods this time around; it was the key to any small town election.  We’d been privately debating amongst the four of us whether or not we should bring this up to him; could he at least phone some of the people identified as swing voters?  I nodded imperceptibly.  It was October 15.  It was crunch time.  He needed to do whatever it took.

“Tom, have you thought about calling all those undecideds?  I was making phone calls last week for you and there were a lot of people on the fence thanks to all of that negative campaigning the other guy is doing.  I know all they need is a little of the straight talk you do so well to put them solidly on our side.”

Tom shook his head slowly.  “I just can’t.  It’s all I can do to keep up with the job and these campaign appearances.  I’m going to have to rely on the party to help me out on that respect.”

Oh, no.  It was so much worse than I thought. As we’d been working through this campaign, our chief thought had been what if our friend, our leader, the smartest man we knew lost.  But a new worry crept into my head as I stood there, looking at the growing gray circles on Tom’s pale face.

He clearly needed to stop all of this nonsense and get back into treatment.  He was sick.  My friend, my mentor was very, very sick.  What if he won?

The Price of Winning

We stood around the kitchen island, toasting our victory in this year’s budget battle.

It had been hard fought.  We’d had two elections where the votes came within several hundred votes, but we still had been unable to convince voters that a small tax increase was better than the cuts that were inevitable if the budget was kept flat.  Our friend Tom, the first selectman of our little town, had made a sizable cut and put the budget back out to the voters for time number there.  The small group of us that had been working actively to get the voters to pass the vote had assembled late the night of the second vote at his home, drinking with each other and bonding over our mutual loss.  Tom, who had lost a teenage son once upon a time, had reminded us that in the scope of losses, this was not a tragic one.

And so the night of the third vote, we were optimistic that it would pass but still nervous.  When the numbers were tallied, the budget showed a passage by three votes.  Such a small margin was subject to a recount, which had happened that morning.  During the recount, it was discovered that several absentee votes had been miscounted, and the margin increased to ten.  Our side of the room leapt up in relief while the other side of the room demanded to see every ballot that had been classified as miscounted.  It was a tense, nasty, and contentious scene that culminated in some very angry words from some and total jubilation from others.

We’d decided to get together that night at a friend’s house to celebrate.  Which was how we were all standing around her island as our first selectman and now friend poured shots of Petron Tequila for all of us.  I’d never been much of a shot person, but I was grateful for the day’s events and decided to indulge.

“I have something to tell you all,” Tom started as we put our glasses down and he began to pour a second round.  “I’m going in for surgery soon.  I’ve been waiting for the budget to pass before I did.”

Surgery.  It was widely known now that our friend Tom was a bone cancer survivor.  He’d had it twenty years ago, and undergone treatment.  He’d been monitored carefully and was in remission for years until another spot of cancer showed up on his lung.  He’d had that removed, knowing that it would likely return.  “Is it…??” I couldn’t even say the word.

“Yes, it’s a recurrence,” he said, holding the second shot in his hand.  “I had a feeling for a while, but with everything going on with the budget, I couldn’t get into the doctor as quickly as I probably should have.  But I finally went last week and it turns out that it is a recurrence, in my lung like last time.  Drink,” he commanded, and swallowed his shot.

We all looked around at each other, stunned and bewildered.  Drink to his cancer?  Was he crazy?  “So what does that mean, exactly?” I asked, the only person to find their voice.

“I said drink,” he answered, and we dutifully all downed our shots.  “It means I go and get it cut out again.  This is how this cancer works.  It always comes back in the lungs, so they know right where to look.  It doesn’t seem to metastasize, so once they cut it out, I’m good for a while until it comes back again.”

Another friend, Alan, spoke finally.  “So you’re not worried that since you waited it might have spread at all?”

I couldn’t believe we were having this discussion on the night of our celebration.  But he’d been clearly waiting, holding onto this, not telling a soul.  He likely was just so relieved that it was over so he could stop holding the secret.  “No, it’s never been like that before.  Remember I’ve been living with this for twenty years.  I plan on living a good twenty more.  I didn’t tell you all this to bring you down.  I told you this to thank you all for allowing me to get this done sooner rather than later.  Without all of you and your work getting out the voters, it’s clear that this budget never would have passed this week.  And I’d be waiting even longer to get this done, which who knows how that would have gone.  So what I’m saying is thank you.  Salut!”  he’d poured a third shot for us all, and held his glass in the air.

I raised mine as well, but could not feel the easy warmth and reassurance that should have come with the third shot of tequila and Tom’s reassurances.  Instead I felt a cold chill as the alcohol burned its way down my throat.  I hoped he was right.

 

Gone

February 13, 1993

My mother shifted under the blankets we had wrapped around her lap and shoulders, a sign that the morphine was wearing off and that she was coming out of that drug induced haze that gave her the only relief from her struggle for air.  I looked over to my sister, who picked up the steno pad notebook on the coffee table next to the sofa.  She nodded; the last entry on the medication list had been at 3:40 am.  Likely now, around 8:30, the meds were wearing off and it would be alright to give her some more.

She was groggy but clearly awake as we sponged the dried spittle that had accumulated in the corners of her mouth during the night.  We spoke to her calmly about her brother’s impending arrival; he should be landing at the airport within the hour, renting a car and making the forty five minute trek northeast to our home after that.

I lifted up the blanket on my mother’s lap to put her slipper socks on her feet; the air near the floor was cooler on this February morning.  I gasped, gazing down at the dusky purple/blue color I saw on my mother’s toes.  I pressed my thumb into the bloated skin at her ankles; the impression lasted four seconds, not the flash of an instant that I was used to.

“What?” my sister asked, glancing over from her task of tidying the remnants of our long night:  blankets, tissues, half drunk plastic cups of water.

“Look at her feet,” I said.  “That’s what the nurse said to look for.  They always check her feet and ankles for swelling.”

“I’ll make the call,” my sister said, already walking out of the room in the direction of the kitchen phone.  I could hear her as I furiously rubbed at my mother’s feet, trying to remove the purple color there.  I massaged them carefully between my warm hands, hoping to do the work that I knew her heart was no longer able to.

The worried tones of my sister’s voice carried over the quiet voices of my brother and mother’s friend talking in the kitchen.  She wasn’t just calling the nurse.  As I quietly whispered encouragement to my mother, calmer after I’d administered a few drops of liquid morphine on her tongue, I heard my sister phone my father, my mother’s girlfriends and my sister’s husband.

The sun rose higher in the cold, February sky, and with its rise, people arrived.  My mother’s breathing grew louder and more irregular.  My father strode in and I saw him crumble as he looked at my mother’s blanketed figure on the corner of the sofa.  My sister and I stepped back as he took one of her hands in his and started to whisper quiet words to her.   He cried and her face moved enough to show him that she heard what he was telling her.  He kissed her forehead and walked silently into our kitchen to compose himself.

It was truly a full circle moment from the days of detente after their divorce sixteen years prior.

The nurse arrived to examine my mother.  As she lifted the blanket draped across my mother’s shoulders, she could see that my mother’s hands now were the color of red grapes, and cool to the touch.   Her feet too were back to the dark color I’d spotted there before.  “It’s happening,” the nurse told the group of family and friends in the room.  “It won’t be much longer.” The room was quiet.  My sister, brother and I formed a semi circle around my mother and began trying to warm her extremities.  My mother would breathe in long and loudly, painstakingly slowly, and then exhale.  Each one was a herculean effort, but still she continued on.

Finally, we heard a car outside. It was my aunt and uncle’s rental car. I spoke to my mother in excited tones: “He’s here! Wake up! I can see them walking up the drive! I don’t think he has a bat for you this time!”

She looked up, clearly remembering the childhood prank she’d told us all about.  When they were kids, my uncle had put a dead bat under her pillow from their attic.  Her mouth moved slightly, acknowledging that she’d heard and been amused by my joke.  She kept her eyes on the door until he and my aunt entered. She caught his eyes for a few seconds; it might have been one second, it might have been five.

And then, she leaned back on the pillows, her eyes unfocused. Her breathing became scarily regular, and loud, like a machine.  The nurse took a place beside my mother and listened carefully with her stethoscope.  She was unresponsive to any of the nurse’s commands.  We all knew it before the nurse put it into words.  My mother was no longer conscious.  She’d waited for him. She’d given him his chance to say goodbye, and she was exhausted.  The nurse told us that she was still alive, but in a coma.

During the next twenty or so minutes, her breathing was steady and regular, moreso than it had been for the previous two days. But it grew quieter. And quieter. And finally, the nurse told us, “There’s just a few heartbeats left. It’s time to say goodbye.”

My sister and brother and I all gathered around her in a semi circle. My father stood just to the outside of our grouping.  My uncle and aunt stood just outside the circle, along with the nurse and my mother’s girlfriends.

I took my mother’s hand and squeezed it. I thanked her for everything she had given me over my twenty two years with her. I told her how lucky I was to have had her for a mother. My brother, sister and father all said similar things.

I watched my tears drop on her cold hands. Hands that I had held over the last few months while she coughed, hands that had held me while I stumbled and fell over and over in my life.

And then simply, quietly, without fanfare…she was gone.

The Will To Live

The look on Paul’s face said everything that I knew but had not allowed myself to think about over the last three days.

Paul, the husband of my friend Jewel, was standing at my front door.  It was Friday evening, the darkness spreading early in the cold February night.  My house was loud and bright; there were people in the kitchen speaking loudly and a nurse in the front room with my mother.  Friends had brought over dinner and it was being heartily eaten by the five or six people huddled standing around the table. They were loudly talking, laughing and generally trying to forget the reason they were all gathered here.  If you didn’t look over to the sofa, you would never have known what was transpiring that evening.

But Paul did look.  Paul looked over to my mother on the sofa, with her oxygen tubes snaking out from under blankets, her gray pallor and breathing so loud he could hear it before he even knocked on the door.  The horror on his face said everything about what was really going on at my house that night.  We were on a death watch, and my mother was dangerously close to the end.

“Thank you so much for coming over, Paul,” I said, businesslike, trying to draw his attention away from the spectacle that was unfolding.  “I really appreciate you coming to pick up Zach.  I have all of his things together for overnight.  His toothbrush, his pajamas, his blanket, everything you’ll need.”  I paused.  “Thank you,” I said.  “I don’t even know where to start.  Thank you.”

Paul’s eyes slid from the figure on the sofa to me.  Warm sympathy took over the frozen stare as he composed himself.  “Of course,” he soothed calmly.  “As long as you need us to have him, we’re happy to do it.  Just give us a call tomorrow and let us know how it’s going.”

“I will,” I promised.  “I’m sure we’ll know by midday where we’re at.”

“I’m so sorry.”  Paul gathered me into his arms for a warm hug.  I had heard the words so many times in the last few days that they hardly seemed real anymore.  “I wish there was something more I could do.”

I pulled away from Paul and touched his sleeve.  “I can’t thank you enough for helping me out with Zach.  This is obviously not a good place for him to be right now.  I don’t want him to see any more of….this.”   I turned slightly, seeing the hospital bed, the table full of pills, the portable commode in the center of our living room.

I went to retrieve Zach from the crowd in the kitchen and told him excitedly about his nighttime adventure over Uncle Paul’s apartment.  He smiled at me as I zipped up his warm winter coat, oblivious to the fact that this was the last time he would see his grandmother alive.

The nurse on the sofa beckoned me over as I closed the door.  “I honestly don’t really know how she’s still here,” she told me in between my mother’s bursts of loud, mucous filled breathing.  “She is having a lot of episodes of apnea, she’s not eating or drinking anything and she’s barely responsive.   Is there something she could be waiting for?”

“She keeps asking when her brother is arriving.  Every time the morphine wears off, she asks if he is here yet.”  We’d all been wringing our hands for days over the fact that my uncle had waited so long to get on a plane.  He lived in Los Angeles, and we’d called him two days ago with the word that my mother had taken a significant turn for the worse.  Finally, earlier today the word came that he had been able to get a seat on a red eye flight overnight tonight.  He and my aunt would be arriving at some point late tomorrow morning.

“Ah ha.  That must be it,” the nurse nodded at me.  “I have seen it before.  Patients will themselves to live for a person to arrive or an event to happen or something specific, something tangible.  It sounds crazy, but the will to live is a powerful force.  I would say it’s pretty clear she’s waiting to see her brother.  When’s he going to arrive?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I answered.

“I’ll be by the phone.  It could happen tonight, or she could make it until he gets here, I just can’t say.  But you know the drill, right?”

“Call you first.  Don’t call the police until after she’s passed.”  This was Hospice protocol.  Even with an Advance Directive for no heroic measures, Hospice recommended that families wait to notify the authorities until after the death.

My sister came in from the kitchen.  “Everything OK?”

I laughed aloud.  Everything was about as far away from OK as I’d ever seen them.

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