fork, this is a weird time.
So, three weeks ago—and two days after I drove up to Bellingham to take her to a scheduled doctor’s appointment—my mom died.
She wasn’t exactly in great shape when I arrived to take her to said appointment: she was lying on the floor in the hallway, with a blanket to keep warm, but complaining of being very cold.
Since she said she’d fallen out of bed, I was hesitant to move her (and told her so), so I called 911. The paramedics arrived a few minutes later, and reached the decision (which I agreed with) to take her to the hospital. “Just don’t drop me,” she said as they carried her in a blanket out to a waiting stretcher.
After several hours in the hospital (I joked that they should call it the waiting room instead of the emergency room—because you get there in a hurry, but then you do a lot of waiting), with blood tests and x-rays along the way (she refused the urine test—I don’t blame her, seeing as how they wanted to use a catheter), the ER doctor wanted to keep her overnight for observation. She wanted to go home. Since they couldn’t force her to stay, they let her go home.
So I took her home.
Almost as soon as we got there, the events of that morning repeated themselves. We even got the same paramedics respond to my 911 call. And back to the hospital we went.
Although she was not so keen on being in the hospital, she agreed to stay for observation. When I left for the day, she was in a pretty good mood, all things considered.
All that changed the next day. I woke up to find voice mail on my phone: my mom, wanting to know what she was doing in the hospital, and asking when I would be there.
When I arrived at the hospital just after noon, she was being examined by a vascular surgeon and her assistant. I had basically just sat down when the doctor began to explain what they were seeing: almost complete lack of circulation in my mother’s legs. They could perform surgery to try to correct the problem—but my mother would likely not survive the surgery. If she did, she would be looking at a very difficult recovery—with a strong chance that they would have to amputate both of her legs at the thigh.
By this point, it had been maybe ten minutes at most since I sat down. If you had looked up the expression “deer in the headlights” at that moment, you would have seen a picture of me next to the entry. Despite having power of attorney, I was useless.
My mom, uncharacteristically (especially in comparison with the day before), was amenable to just about anything. At first, she said she’d like a day or so to think about it. But when the surgeon said the options were limited and that we should talk about it, she said “okay, let’s do that.” Over the next several minutes, depending on how the surgeon worded things, my mom was pretty much agreeing to anything and everything.
After I’d had a few minutes to calm down and make a couple of phone calls (not necessarily in that order), I was better able to think about what the doctor and nurse practitioner were telling me.
All of the possible outcomes sounded horrible. Surgery? She’d likely die on the table. On the off chance the surgery were to succeed? A difficult recovery, made worse by the probable amputation of both legs.
If this had been the evening before, when she was still sharp and in a relatively good mood, and she had opted for surgery, I could see going along with it. But now, when she was so clearly not her usual self, and her condition looked so dire, that was not an option. A successful surgery followed by double amputation? She’d already been having trouble reconciling all the activities she used to do—swimming, exercise classes, yoga, roller skating, ice skating, rollerblading—with her present physical condition. Spending her last days as a double amputee would have crushed her. I could not in good conscience do that to her.
What other choice did I have? I made the decision to go with palliative care and hospice. Although a morphine IV would have her drifting in and out of consciousness, and mostly sleeping, it would certainly be far better than the constant pain that had her forever moving and shifting in search of a pain-free position that she would never find.
After the nurses moved her to another room, where the focus would be on comfort care, I told my mom that I would be going home for the night—to her home, where I would make sure to feed her cat—and would be back the next day.
She looked at me and said something. Because of the morphine, I had trouble understanding, so I asked her to repeat it.
Obviously a time—but tonight? Tomorrow? I thought about it for a couple of seconds.
Right now I don’t remember exactly what I did the next morning, except that I woke up earlier than expected, stopped at Starbucks for an iced coffee and an everything bagel, and then drove to the hospital.
Except for a little bit of confusion trying to find her room, I arrived at 8:15 a.m.
She did not seem to be awake—or, if she were, was barely conscious. But I let her know I had arrived, and set things up for the day ahead.
The day before, a friend of mine told me that it was often comforting to hospice patients to have their favorite music playing, since hearing is one of the last senses to go. So, I brought my iPad, opened the Pandora app, and chose a station that would play Strauss waltzes. After the fifth round of the “Blue Danube Waltz”, I changed the station to Scott Joplin. After the fourth or fifth round of “The Entertainer”, I changed the station to the Cabaret soundtrack.
As the morning progressed, I still had to turn down the hospital’s offered meals, since my mom was doing nothing but sleeping. They offered me the breakfast that had already been left, but I wasn’t hungry.
She had several visitors that morning. I don’t remember who showed up first, but her next-door neighbor, Judy (who had come over to help when I had to call 911 the second time) came by. My aunt Jane, who initially hadn’t been sure whether she should come by (my mother was legendary for her ability to hold a grudge, and she and my aunt each had a different take on the last day they saw each other several months earlier), visited for about half an hour, and was planning to come back the next day.
At this point, one of the hospital’s hospice nurses came by to evaluate my mom. Her conclusion was that it would not make sense to move her to hospice, since we were probably looking at twenty-four hours or less, and it would not be worth risking my mom dying in transit.
This was secretly a relief. Although I was not worried about being able to cover the expense if she were to spend more than five days in hospice (which would be the maximum Medicare would pay for), I was not looking forward to the prospect of my mom lingering for a number of weeks before the end came.
In the meantime, I signed the papers that needed to be signed, and resigned myself to waiting for whatever it was I would be waiting for.
Next, my mom’s friend Claudia came to visit. (In addition to helping my mom with a variety of things, Claudia had gone to my mom’s house to check on her one day to make sure she would be okay while I drove up to take care of whatever needed taking care of.) After a brief visit, we went to the cafeteria for lunch. My uncle Pete was expecting to visit at around 2 p.m. (he’d unexpectedly showed up the previous day, before I’d had a chance to talk to him), but I figured he’d just stay there if he arrived before I got back.
As it turned out, he was late. I was just about to head back to my mom’s place to look for something when he arrived. With the Cabaret soundtrack playing in the room, he sat and we talked about my mom, and this and that.
Shortly after 3 p.m., he left. The nurse came in at that same time. She checked my mom’s heartbeat, and her breath, then looked at me and shook her head.
My mom was gone.
It was so quiet—not at all like you see in the movies. No deathbed revelations, no audible sigh to mark the end. She slipped away quietly, while my uncle and I were talking.
I tried to catch him before he got on the elevator, but I missed him.
Despite the fact that my mom had not talked to him for at least ten years—more likely, twenty—my uncle Pete was the last of her relatives to see her before she died.
It’s a little weird to think that she died without either of us noticing the exact moment. But, the way I think about it, she was in a room with her favorite music playing, and her son and brother having a conversation. She died in the presence of music, conversation, and laughter—not alone in a room with no one present, or in an atmosphere of gloom and despair. She was with people who cared about her.
• • • • • • • • • • •
My mom’s instructions to me were clear: she wanted no services and no obituary. As she saw it, she was invisible to too many people in life, so she damn well would remain invisible to them in death.
The irony is that I have spoken to so many people—both recently and while she was still alive—who thought the world of her. People who thought she had a great sense of humor. People who appreciated her approach to life. People who appreciated her energy and creativity. People who appreciated her fashion sense. People who genuinely liked her.
A tired cliché that nearly all of us hear while growing up is that “you’ll understand when you get older.” From my mother, I learned that this is true. There were so many things I did not understand about my mom when I was a kid. Over time, though, I have come to understand most of them, if not all.
But there were many things she never talked about. When she talked about her life, there was usually a gap between the time she finished high school and when I was born. What little I did know, I learned by accident. For example, when I spotted a couple of different names in her handwriting in books we had, my dad explained that my mom had been married before. “Oh,” I thought, then never questioned further.
From my own struggles as an adult with anxiety and depression, I understood that my mom suffered from both these things over the years. A huge clue was that the horrible migraines she had suffered for as long as I could remember ended after my grandmother died. Whatever health problems my mom may have had in her later years, she never had another migraine.
From my dad (in 2011), and from public records (more recently), I learned that my mom married an African American man in 1958. I don’t know what the laws regarding interracial marriage in Washington state were in 1958, but that was an incredibly brave thing to do at that point in American history. At the very least, that marriage (her second) must certainly have caused friction between her and her family (whatever their views on race may have been).
Earlier this year, my mom talked to me about some of my dad’s behavior while they were married. Apparently, he was kind of a philanderer. She specifically mentioned one incident that took place when I was just a few months old, in which she learned that he had a date one evening. She confronted him, warning him that either he call the woman to cancel the date or we would both be coming with him. He cancelled the date.
That made my parents’ separation when I was in first (second?) grade make much more sense. They got back together after a few months, but I don’t think anything was the same between them after that.
During the three weeks since my mom’s death, I learned that they had filed paperwork with the court in 1974 that established separate property between my parents, so that she would not be held responsible for his dealings with who she saw as shady people. It was not long after that that she stopped working for my dad, and began working for other attorneys.
My mom was smarter and more talented than she let on.
A significant part of my ability with words is due to my mom sending me to our ginormous Random House dictionary whenever I asked her about a word I didn’t understand.
For as long as I can remember, she was always working on one of those hook rugs. At some point this turned into knitting afghans and caps. She was always saying to me that she wished she could have been creative the way I am. I would then point to afghans she had made (which are legendary among the friends of mine I have given them to over the years) and remind her that making those is creative. Her response was that she never learned to knit properly, which meant that she was doing it backwards.
As I went through her closet this morning, it struck me that my mom also had a much stronger personality than she was ever allowed to exhibit. I already knew this to some extent because of her signature—on the business-sized checks she used to use, her signature would start at the very left (where the memo field is) and go all the way to the right side of the check (where the signature line proper is)—but seeing what was in her closet confirmed this for me. Most of her tops (sweaters, mock turtlenecks, blouses, and the occasional sweatshirt) were in vivid colors—whether red, pink, magenta, teal, etc. In her choice of slacks, she may have stuck to blacks and browns, but when it came to tops, she was not going to simply blend into the woodwork.
When my mom was growing up, things were expected of girls. They were supposed to dress a certain way (or not supposed to dress a certain way), conduct themselves a certain way, get married, and become mothers. Those who didn’t want to do those things? Too bad.
I know my mom didn’t regret having me—but I also know that, had she felt she had more of a choice in the matter, she probably would not have had children at all. Maybe she would have skated. Maybe she would have played music. Maybe she would have fulfilled some secret ambition. But she was never allowed the choice. That’s probably why she suffered from depression, migraines, and social anxiety.
What things she rebelled against she largely did within the constraints that had been imposed upon her. She was a working mother when that was still relatively rare. In 1972, she cast a write-in vote for congresswoman Barbara Jordan for president. As a divorced woman, she worked until she ran up against the wall of age discrimination. She opted out of celebrating the holidays with people she didn’t want to be around simply because it was expected of her, regardless of whether or not those people understood her thinking.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me came when I was going through a couple of boxes I found in another closet a few days ago. In addition to a lot of my baby stuff—blankets, onesies, baby shoes, the Better Homes and Gardens Baby Book—I found a small stack of index cards. On these cards is a list of almost every illness and significant medical visit and procedure of mine from age 1 to age 18. Some of the entries (mostly the earlier ones) go into considerable detail. I could look through these cards and tell you the exact date I got the mumps, or when I was given a vaccination that I had already had.
I had been completely unaware of the photos and whatnot in these boxes before then. In addition to my mind being blown, it was at that moment that I wished my mom had shared these things with me while she was still alive. I might not have had as many questions as I think I would have—but, as she often said with regard to computers, sometimes you can’t ask the questions until you know what you’re asking about.
Well, now I will have plenty of time to contemplate such questions, whether I am able to find answers to them or not.
In any event, I now understand that I am very lucky that my mom looked after me the way she did, even when it wasn’t obvious. I also understand that she did the best she could in life given the circumstances she faced—which is really all that any of us can do. And I am very grateful that I was able to be there for her when she needed me most. Opting for hospice care for her was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, even though I made the right one.
As I mentioned earlier, my mom made it clear that she did not want an obituary. Well, this is not that. This is an acknowledgement that that old cliché is true, and an appreciation of someone I don’t think was appreciated enough.
You were not as invisible as you thought.
(13 September 2019—a couple of small word omissions corrected 16 September 2019)
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