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.
Filed under: 1990s, cancer, death, extended family, faith, friends, Hospice, houseguests, love, mother, parents, siblings | 1 Comment »