I didn’t see her at first. I turned and stepped down into the room, and couldn’t see her beneath the huge mountain of blankets and pillows on the bed. She was tiny, with size five feet, and fingers, and she hated the way the steroids made her slight frame swell. It was common knowledge that my mother limited and self regulated her own medication to hinder that most undesirable effect, looking fat. It would not be a stretch to say my mother was a slightly vain creature.
My sister had called me and asked if I was ready. She the nurse, the caretaker, the one we all turned to in times of medical crisis called, had called me, of course I was ready. I am coming, I heard myself say.
Yes, full time college student and mother of three, but I heard myself say, I am coming. Now maybe other husbands are more modern, more hands on, but mine, well he is the ” where does the silverware go?” questioning type on his rare empty the dishwasher trek to the kitchen made twice annually on both Mothers Day and my birthday. But I didn’t think, I knew I had to go. He could handle it. The family could handle it. And they did.
But I could not stay away. That is what I have come to realize. My motivation for going really had more to do with me not knowing, not seeing first hand than with anything else.
I drove to school and withdrew, not knowing when I would return. At the registrar’s office I filled out the forms…where it asked for reason I simply scrawled, my mother is dying. And as I write this I remember being worried if I had spelled dying correctly, one very rarely writes that word, and it looks just wrong.
The nurse sister, Dawn had two small children at the time, a newborn, and a two year old and I flew from Texas to Connecticut to help her fly back with the boys. We were numb. She had been there already but needed her children, so I flew to her, and we flew back together. Mostly quiet on the flight, and were searched thoroughly, including dumping of breast milk and taking off of baby diapers, as we had purchased one way tickets to Phoenix, a cardinal sin, we didn’t know how long we would be. Two, grieving, five foot two inch woman terrorists with their extra mini me’s age two and newborn, are after all an obvious threat to national security.
My father was not sitting not next to mom, who was still a mass under the pile of blankets, but on the sofa, in their garage conversion apartment. They came full circle, was my first thought. When first married, my parents lived in cold water flat in Springburn Scotland, with a shared bath down the hall. All the women who lived on each floor took turns sweeping the floor and stairs my mother told me. And cleaning the bathroom, which was only a toilet and a sink. For a shower or bath they ventured down the street to the Baths. Everyone they know lived like this. They lived in a tenement, a one room apartment. Here they are again, living in a one room place with a shared bath down the hall, my brothers converted garage.
Dad clutched a paper in his hand, which had been folded in half length wise. He moved the paper from his hand to his back pocket, but never put it down. Much later he did put it down, and I was able to read it.
It was the signs of death, a sheet that a hospice worker had given him, and next to each of the signs or stages, were numbers written in his angular slanted print. It took me a moment, but I finally realized that the numbers weren’t numbers.
They were times. Dad had been keeping track of the moments, the times when each stage started and completed. He wrote the time each symptom or stage had appeared neatly in the margin, some were underlined once some twice. At the bottom of the page was neatly written,
½ a cup of oat meal,
1 pound of ground chuck
350 for 45 minutes
It was Mom’s recipe for meatloaf.
He was doing what he could do, which was watch and tally, and try to not think or feel, it was all he could do to survive. She died a month shy of their 45th wedding anniversary. Mom may have been dying but Dad was not going to be without her meatloaf.
Dawn and I went to Moms beside, where my dad not knowing what else to do had heaped and tucked every blanket they ever owned on top of her seemingly sleeping form. She was medicated with liquid morphine, a little dropper vile was bedside, Dawn examined it with a knowledgeable eye and said, “ Jesus Christ Dad, Moms sweating to death here…”
And then Dawn put me to work. We were doing what we could do which was to wash and clean, and care, and try not to think or feel, try not to fall apart like a poorly basted dress…that could come later. Now was the time for ushering, for helping her teach us our final lesson.
We took the blankets off, one at a time, pealed them away and with every layer, her form became smaller and smaller, until at last she was there, a slight childlike form, her night gown soaked through. Mom needed to be washed. So we washed her. We filled a basin and got her favorite rain bath and started to wash and dry each part of her as she had done for us. Our cheeks and chins ran with tears as we acknowledged her body before us, her tiny feet which once danced and wore beautiful shoes, her legs that ran and chased us, her arms, that held us, her breast which fed us, we went slowly and carefully with great care, and when at last she was clean, Dawn schooled me in changing a bed sheet with the patient still in it. My sister and I moved as one as we stripped the bed, carefully holding mom and rolling her ever so slightly to first move the old sheet, placed on a new one. Each movement was slow care-full, full of thought and purpose.
We watched and listened to her breath between every motion. We got her new nightgown, and cut it up the back as to more easily dress her and to not disturb her peace. We stopped and looked at each other then, just before redressing her. It was then Dawn left the room and returned with the Jean Nate. We then proceeded to cover our mother in Jean Nate lemon fresh fragrance. We giggled a bit, slipped her arms in her fresh gown, propped her pillows to help with her breathing, covered her with a fresh soft sheet, and then with mom clean and seemingly more at ease, we sat beside her and had a cup of tea.
Our mother’s death bed became our playground then. We lay next to her, sat next to her, and ate our meals next to her. We even had the babies on the bed, right there next to mom. Dawn was braver than I, she was the voice then, I was not. I was the watcher, helper but she was the one who spoke to Mom.
I remembered music then, and ran for the CD I had brought from home. I thought that Mom should have something to listen to.
She had not regained consciousness, not since a few days before our arrival. But I felt on some level she was still here, smelling the Jean Nate. So I put on the Enya CD. It was soothing and Scottish after all. And those words usually can’t be used in the same sentence. For the next few hours we watched our mother breathe, and listened to her breath, and listened to Enya sing our mother into death.
Her breathing was labored, and had a strange pitch a whining wheeze that is referred to the death rattle. Each breath was different, no timing or rhythm, no flow. It was awkward and uneven. Time was stopped for us, was it only a matter of hours ago we entered and found her beneath the mountain of blankets? It seemed like days. We watched as her chest rose ever so slightly. It would fall, and we would look, and place our hands on her chest to feel the rise come again, wait, wait to see if it she was going to take a breath.
And then while Enya sang the song, The Wild Child , she took her last breath. We waited for another but it never came. Gone with the last breath was the strain the tension and the pain from her face. She looked younger after death, she looked better after death, she really did.
The Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry was brought out soon after, and we sat upon our mother’s bed and drank a dram of her favorite drink and touched her and Dawn told me the story of her last uttered word.
For Valentine’s Day, Mom received a box of chocolates. She was a chocolate hound….She loved British Chocolate, like Black Magic, Flakey bars, Mars bars and Cadbury Fruit and Nut. Rose’s chocolates were also a favorite. Soon after receiving candy for Valentines, Mom lost consciousness. The hospice worker was convinced she would never come out of it, and it was then I got the call from my sister. But Mom was not through yet. A few hours later, she regained consciousness, yelled “Chocolate!” and without opening her eyes, reached into the box on her bed and stuffed it into her mouth.
Her last word was CHOCOLATE!
Mom stayed with us for a few hours before we called the number the hospice worker had provided. We were comfortable there, talking and drinking and telling stories. But we had another task before we rested that night. Soon the time came and we had to pick out something for Mom to be cremated in. It didn’t seem fitting after all that she be cremated naked.
Dawn and I thought a while, and then it hit us. The purple dress she had worn for her 25 year anniversary party. It was sparkly and silky and she had loved it.
We placed her favorite animal head slippers on her feet, and gave the attendant her purple dress, and that’s the way she went out into eternity.
I hope she liked what we picked.
Like the forgetfulness we can have after having a child, looking down into that new face, our memories of the hours of hard labor fade. Soon some of us are even lulled into a false memory… it wasn’t really that bad, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a baby in the house again?
Nature has a way of protecting us. If we really remembered every agonizing detail the human race would end afterall.
It the same with death.
The first time I waited for death it was my own mothers, in February 2002.
The second was my husbands, in February 2010.
Happy Mothers Day, Helen and Hilda.