My mom passed away in the Fall of 2005. I wrote this to myself the following Mother’s Day.
It was a blisteringly hot July day in central Maryland as I watched my mother nod off to sleep after breakfast. I had been visiting after an extended trip to the east coast to see friends and family throughout the region. It was a Monday and I was flying out of Dulles later that afternoon, but I had a chance to have breakfast with Mom, and she was determined to have it.
Mom had last been in California in the spring, for about three weeks. She had tottered a bit more than her previous stay six months before, but I chalked that up to increasing age (she had turned 80 the year before). She moved as if her equilibrium was just a touch off. And she needed my arm for more than comfort and affection to navigate sidewalks and aisles. Still, it was a wonderful visit – full of pho (after an initial skepticism, mom became an aficionado of Vietnamese food. Go figure), the Fish Market, and homemade kabobs on the grill. Indeed, she was even exercising. She would perform her own version of ‘step aerobics’ to the digital music channel of “Classic Disco”.
During that time, we talked of her next visit the upcoming autumn. We discussed that she had never seen the Grand Canyon. When the family was young, my parents never had enough money for “big” vacations. After the kids had moved on, my parents had a little money, but had become just infirm enough that such a trip might have been a bit reckless. Oddly enough, despite my seemingly constant crisscrossing of the continent during my adult life, I had never seen it either. Well, other than from 35000 feet, and I didn’t think that counted. It was a gift that I wanted to give to her. To both of us.
Mom had begun feeling increasingly poorly that summer. Several urinary tract infections sapped her strength and her normally hearty appetite declined. Her physicians were perplexed at the continuing recurrence and had begun the exploratory, seemingly intuitive process of trying to reveal the culprit of her maladies. We were still a good month or so away from discovering that she’d had a large and aggressively spreading tumor that did her the favor of connecting her colon to her bladder. That carcinomic bridge, which as a bonus nearly completely blocked her colon, would rapidly lead to emergency territory.
But she wasn’t in that territory that morning. I’d been spending a couple of days at my sister’s where my mom lived. The first day I was there, she was “out of it”, barely capable of holding a conversation longer than a few moments. I’m sure she didn’t remember anything. I’d wonder if later she’d think she’d had a dream that I’d been there. My sister was pressed, unwilling or unable to escalate the degree of worry. She’d seen too many days like this to get too worked up and despite my own elevated concern (having never seen her quite this bad), I deferred to her observations as the primary care-giver. In the comfort of ignorance, I told myself that she’d just need to “get over” these pesky things that were ailing her. After that she’d be back to normal.
As if on script, the next day she was feeling great and “more like herself”, and I breathed a bit of a sigh of relief. We’d had a great day visiting and just being together. The following day, Monday, my sister was at work, and Mom was doggedly determined that she and I were going to go out to breakfast. She seemed in a somewhat intermediate condition between the previous two days, and her hands shook so much she needed a straw to drink her coffee, which nearly broke my heart. We came home and sat in the living room just chatting, but she continued to drift off – occasionally mid-sentence. My sister assured me that “this happened”. I sat in the chair with the palpable feeling that I was watching my mother slip away, and I was chagrined that I had no response but a combination of dumbfounded-ness and a rueful smile. I roused her and led her back to her room, and made her comfortable in bed. All she wanted was to sleep. I held her hand while she drifted off and watched her wondering how many times as a child she had done the same for me. I kissed her on the forehead, said goodbye and told her that I loved her. I walked out, and flew away.
The next time I saw my mother was in a hospital right before Labor Day as she was being prepared for surgery to re-sect her colon (we were still unaware of the colon-bladder connection) after a drop-everything-and-fly-here-now trip. We spoke with an almost caricaturish steely-eyed surgeon who was of the “tell ‘em straight” school. He laid-out that “a woman of her age and condition” had a 50-50 chance of making it through the operation and recovery. For some reason, those words didn’t really register with me. I’d never considered that I’d lose my mom on an operating table of all things. So I paced, wasted time, made pointless conversation with my siblings and waited. Several hours later, the surgeon called us into a small private room and described the bisecting tumor (which he could not remove, because she would not survive the bladder surgery.) Although the colon was resected which was good, he said it was likely that cancer would kill her before she’d have a chance to get strong enough to try chemotherapy. Thanks, doc. Have a good day.
She pulled through. There were some pretty touchy hours in recovery, but God bless her, she pulled through. I don’t know how, but she did. She came around to full consciousness in a couple of days. She accepted the news about her cancer about the same way she might have reacted to learning that the Phillies had lost a game. “Oh, that’s terrible, isn’t it?” That’s mom. She was probably the least dramatic person I’ve ever known.
The balancing act became could she recover enough to actually take chemotherapy? We didn’t know, but mom seemed pretty game to try. In a remarkable display of both optimism and small mindedness, my brother, sister and I bickered unpleasantly about where Mom would stay during her recovery and treatment, as if her recovery were a foregone conclusion and something that we’d have to “deal” with. My brother and I wanted her “home”, but my sister was getting twitchy imagining the level of care that she’d be required to give. We moved mom to a beautiful new facility near my sister’s for the meantime, because she still needed 24-hour monitoring.
Another trip out to visit. Mom was regaining strength—surprising both her doctors and us as well. With her colon back functioning and antibiotics being administered to keep a urinary tract infection at bay, she regained her appetite, the color in her cheeks, and the mental acuity that’d seemed to desert her during the summer. We made hopeful plans to celebrate her 81st birthday in October. She began to take very basic physical therapy attempting to get to the point where she could walk again. I let myself imagine a Thanksgiving, maybe even a Christmas which had seemed like a pipedream a month before, though I knew the Grand Canyon trip was gone. When I asked her what she wanted for her birthday dinner, she said pizza and cheese fries. She could have asked for a pack of Marlboro’s and I think I would have been the first one to strike a match.
The week before her birthday, she began losing strength. She was going into kidney failure, and the bright hope of physical therapy rapidly mutated to a somber realization of hospice. Still, we all planned to converge at the facility that weekend. I arrived, and the changes were apparent. Her eyes were cloudy and defocused and her skin had taken on a slack and jaundiced look that radiated illness. On Friday though, she was still delighted to have visitors and was looking forward to her birthday. She was smiling and I’d been able to feed her some solid food, but by Saturday she could only take liquids and was only lucid for a few minutes at a time. So rapid!
On Sunday, October 23rd, my brother and his family came down and we had pizza and cheese fries in a private room at the center. Mom was nearly completely unconscious for the entire time. She wasn’t able to enjoy a cheese fry which she had called out for only a week before. My brother was staggered, having last seen her on a “good” day, and the juxtaposition of the party to the reality enforced just how quickly things had changed. Still, the family was together and we actually had a good time. My favorite memory was that my mom had roused enough at one point to make a particularly skewering comment to my brother. Her physical body was breaking down practically in front of us, but her mind was still sharp and she snickered at her own humor. It was great!
A week later, around 10:15 on a bright Sunday morning that epitomized all the reasons people love Southern California, my sister called me to tell me that mom had died. It wasn’t a terrible surprise. Mom had slipped into a coma a few days before. I was glad that my sister was there at her side and that she didn’t die alone in room that wasn’t her home. We talked and decided that we would bury mom on November 4th – seven years to the day that my father had died. I poured myself another cup of coffee and sat quietly.
The last time I spoke to my mother was the day after her birthday. I was leaving again from Dulles in the mid-afternoon, a flight that I’d gotten quite used to taking over the previous few months. I went to my mother’s room and sat with her. She was able to smile when I got there, but I spent next few hours mostly just holding her hand in the quiet of her room while she slept.
I made to leave and she was able to come to a drowsy wakefulness. I told her that it was time for me to go and my voiced hitched in my throat when I told her that it was probably going to be a while before I’d get the chance to talk to her again. A slight smile creased her face and she squeezed my hand. I kissed her on the forehead and I told her I loved her.
As I reached the doorway, she called out to me, “I love you, sweetheart…”
“I love you too, mama. Good-bye.”
I walked out, and flew away.