As Mom slept, I rubbed her arm absentmindedly and watched the world outside lighten with the rising sun. The tree branches were bowing low in the gusting wind, dead leaves swirling past the window in a crazy dance, much like the thoughts circling around my mind as I tried to think of something, anything, that would make this easier for Mom.
Easier for me.
But what more could we do? She was safe, and comfortable...or as comfortable as round-the-clock nursing and morphine could make her. Mom had seemed so ready to let go in the hospital. Her death had felt so imminent. But now here we were, a whole week later, and it seemed like her heart had not gotten its cue from what her mind was telling it.
So it just kept beating away.
Unless, and this made my own heart skip a few beats, what if we’d misread the situation in the hospital? What if we’d jumped the gun bringing her to Hospice and the reason she wasn’t dying was because she really wasn’t ready. What if we should have tried harder to get her into skilled nursing somewhere, so she would have known we hadn’t given up on her?
What if, what if, what if.
Hold on, Peggy, I chided myself. Stop second guessing. Remember she couldn’t go to skilled nursing because they couldn’t manage her oxygen. And remember how tired she was in the hospital, and how ready she seemed to die. You did the right thing. She’s in the right place.
I looked down at Mom’s sleeping face, so gaunt and pale. Her mouth hung slightly open, lips chapped and peeling, her labored breath stale and musty. I reached for the tube of lip balm on the tray table next to the bed, and my eyes caught the picture of Dad that we’d brought from her apartment.
His pale blue eyes twinkled at me from behind the frame, and I suddenly remembered the sign I’d seen on the way to the hospital the week before. That was no coincidence, I reminded myself, relief rushing through me the same way it had when I’d seen the Hospice ad flash on the billboard that morning. That was real. That was dad telling me we were making the right decision.
But I didn’t know it would be like this, I whispered to him, missing his solid presence more than ever. And I know Mom didn’t think it would be like this, either.
In fact, Mom had probably assumed her experience would be similar to what had happened with her close friend, Tibble, who had passed away in that very same facility the year before. Tibble had made the decision to move to Hospice, and two days later she was gone.
Same thing with her friend Carol. And Toni. They were there one day, and gone the next.
Maybe that’s why Mom feels like it’s taking so long, I mused, maybe she feels like she’s not doing this the way her friends did it.
Smiling to myself at the thought of my rather competitive mother worrying that she wasn’t dying as well as her friends had, I leaned over and kissed the top of her head gently. Oh Mom, don’t be silly, I whispered to her silently, you’re doing fine.
Everyone dies so differently, I thought as I stood up to stretch from my perch on her bed. I tried to decide if it would be better to go quickly, like my dad, without the chance to say goodbye, or more slowly, like Mom, with so much opportunity for closure.
I remembered when our dog Nitro got sick the first time. The vet was able to drain the fluid that had built up around his heart, but warned us that it would fill up again and, unfortunately, there wouldn’t be anything more he could do when that happened. He gave Nitro about two months, and sent us home.
It was the hardest and best two months ever. Nitro, who had been raised as a hunting dog and had never, ever been allowed up on a couch or a bed, suddenly had free reign to do just about anything. He’d sit on the couch and watch TV with the kids, their arms wrapped around his 90 pound body as tight as he would allow. Where we used to sneak him tidbits from the dinner table, we were tossing them to him openly, trying to make every minute of his time left joyful and happy. We showered him with attention, telling him over and over again how much we loved him.
When he died a couple of months later, we were all incredibly sad, but we knew in our hearts he’d known how much we loved him.
With our dog, Cassie, it was quite a different situation. Unlike our other labs, Cassie was not exactly hunting material, at least in my husband’s opinion. Fast as a bullet, though, and with energy to spare, she had a buoyant spirit that I, for one, found hard to resist. She was kind of a pain, but an enthusiastic pain. I loved her a lot.
One early summer evening, I let Cassie and Rip, our older lab, out into our yard one last time before heading to bed. As usual, Cassie shot out the front door like a rocket, Rip a little more slowly, but seconds later I heard a yelp.
“Cassie?” I called, walking out into the yard trying to spot her black shape in the dark. A movement over to my left caught my eye and I saw a giant buck loping slowly toward the field below our house. "Cassie? Ripper?” I called again, my heart starting to thud hard in my chest.
Rip came around from the other side of the house, so I walked out toward where I thought I’d heard the cry, and found Cassie lying on the grass, making a horrible choking sound, her eyes wide with panic. I yelled for my sons who were inside watching TV, and ran to get the car. By the time I was back, Cassie had died.
We’ll never know for sure, but we think that when Cassie flew out the door, she surprised the buck, who was probably eating the apples under one of our many apple trees, so he reared up, his hoof kicking Cassie in her throat, breaking her neck.
Cassie’s death was sudden and shocking and traumatic. No chance to say goodbye, no chance to tell her how much we loved her. She was there, and then she was gone. It was horrible.
Looking down at Mom, I supposed that for the person dying it would be better to go quick and fast, but for the people who love them, having that chance to say goodbye, to tell them you love them one more time is pure gold.
I settled myself in the recliner to try and take a little nap, but despite my weariness from the early morning hour, my mind would just not settle down. I couldn’t bear that Mom felt like she was doing something wrong, as if this whole dying thing was some kind of test, and she wasn’t doing very well on it.
Although, when I thought about it like that, it was pretty typical Mom. Somewhere along the way she had convinced herself that she wasn’t very good at taking tests, a little known fact about my mother that I wasn’t aware of until just a few years before.
My sisters and I had finally convinced her (or so we thought) to move into an independent living facility in Connecticut, a lovely place that seemed like the perfect spot. First of all it was closer to me and Sal, and to Maine. It wasn’t too big, like some of the other places we’d seen, and had an understated charm that was appealing in its simplicity.
Mom even knew a couple of people who lived there already, old friends from Perrysburg who had moved East to be closer to their own children.
Surprisingly, because she’d resisted the idea for so long, Mom seemed to like it, and seemed willing to move forward with the decision. She chose one of the 2 BR apartments that were available, and put down the hefty deposit to hold it until she was able to sell her house in Ohio.
Even more surprisingly, she agreed to have her financial and medical records forwarded - part of the review process everyone had to go through.
Sal and I kept glancing at each other, wondering when the bubble would burst. This was so unlike our mother!
It all seemed to be falling into place quite nicely, until the end of that initial meeting when the nice interview lady said:
“Now there’s just one more thing we’ll need, and that’s for you to take a short cognitive assessment test. Don’t worry,” she assured Mom, who had immediately started to shake her head, “it’s just a formality. We do it right here. Easy peasy. We could probably even arrange for you to take it today so you don’t have to make another appointment. What do you think?”
Mom looked over at Sal, then at me, and I could see by the stubborn set of her mouth that there was no way she was going to take the test that day. Not exactly sure why she was so against it, but knowing I’d seen that look enough times to trust she wasn’t kidding around, I quickly interceded:
“That’s such a nice offer, but I think it’s probably best for us to come back another time. If that’s okay? I’m just worried we’ll run into traffic if we don’t get back on the road soon.”
‘Of course, of course. That’s just fine. Here let me help you with that,’ the nice lady jumped up to help Mom, who was already putting on her coat. Taking our mother’s not-so-subtle lead, Sal and I stood up as well, gathering our things together before following them out to the lobby.
Mom could not get out of there fast enough. She paused at the front entrance just long enough to quickly shake hands with the lady, then pushed her way out the door, leaving Sal and me to do what we could to diffuse the abruptness of our departure.
“Don’t worry about a thing,’ the nice lady assured us, ‘We see it all the time here. Can’t take these things personally! I’ll be in touch to set up another day for you to come back after we get the rest of the forms back.’
We thanked her again, and hurried out to catch up with our recalcitrant mother, who was by then standing in the small garden in the middle of the driveway circle, frowning at some plant she obviously didn’t think belonged.
Not sure if I wanted to strangle her or hug her, I walked over to where she stood while Sal went to bring the car around.
‘What the heck, Mom?’ I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. ‘Why wouldn’t you just want to take the test and get it over with?’
‘I’m terrible at tests,’ she declared, ‘I always have been. I’ll take it when I have to.’
Halfheartedly agreeing that it probably wasn’t necessary to take it until she’d passed the financial and medical reviews anyway, we didn’t talk about it again. But a few weeks later, the nice lady called with the good news that Mom was eligible to join their community, at least financially and medically.
There was just the small matter of passing the "Cognitive Impairment Assessment" before it would be official.
So we scheduled another visit to take the test, and, hopefully, sign the final papers. The nice lady, who by then I realized was really a sales rep masquerading as a nice lady, even sent us a link to the kinds of questions Mom would have to answer, in case she wanted to ‘practice’.
Of course, my antenna should have gone straight up when Mom refused to even look at the questions.
‘Come on, Mom,’ I urged her the evening before the visit, ‘it might help you feel less worried if you know what they’re going to ask you.’
‘I’m not worried,’ she insisted. ‘I’m just terrible at tests. Practicing won’t change that.’
‘Mom, that doesn’t make any sense! Of course practicing will help! Especially if you’re not good at tests!’
But no amount of reasoning would change her mind so, shrugging my shoulders in exasperation, I gave up trying. I suppose I could have been more pushy. I suppose I could have treated her like one of my children and forced her to sit down at the kitchen table until she did as I said.
But she was my mother, and I just couldn’t. Of course she'll pass the test, I reassured myself, after all, she’s still living on her own. That has to count for something, right? How bad could her cognitive ability really be?
Well, as it turned out, I guess pretty bad. Much to my dismay, Mom did not, in fact, pass the test the next day. At first I was horribly embarrassed, my face flushing hot and red as the news sank in. Oh my god, I thought, this is so humiliating! How will we ever explain this? What will her friends think?
Mom, on the other hand, seemed to be unfazed. She glanced over at me, and I realized with a start that she wasn’t embarrassed at all!
Wait, doesn't she care? I wondered, my mind racing trying to make sense of her indifference. Oh my god...did she never really mean to move here? Did she just fail that test on purpose?
Not quite believing my mother could have possibly wasted everyone’s time if she never intended on going through with the move, but not quite putting it past her either, my heart started thudding angrily in my chest, and I had to force myself to concentrate on what the lady was telling us.
‘We so want you to be part of our community, but unless you can pass this test I’m afraid we can’t offer you a spot. We’re willing to let you try again if you’d like, but it would have to be today. Right now, in fact.’
‘No,’ Mom sat forward in her chair, her hands gripping the arms tightly, her gray head shaking back and forth slowly, ‘I’m just not going to do that. I could take it ten times and it wouldn’t change anything. I’m not good at tests. I never have been. I don’t know why you need a test to tell you that I am perfectly able to take care of myself.’
Part of me wanted to march her right into the next room, sit her down and make her take that test until she passed it, because I knew she could, if she wanted. If she'd f...ing practiced, I muttered to myself. Although, I have to admit, the thought did briefly flash through my head that maybe the stroke she'd had a few years before had done more damage than we knew, and the fact that she didn't pass the stupid test was something we should pay attention to.
Except, no. My sisters and I had been keeping close tabs on her the past couple of years and there was no doubt in our minds that our mother was perfectly capable of living independently, test or not test.
But suddenly Mom seemed so diminished, so out of place in what had, until moments before, seemed such a warm and welcoming environment. Even the sales rep seemed less friendly, perhaps even a smidge arrogant, truth be told. It was as though a cool breeze had washed through the room, leaving all of us a little chilled.
I’m not sure if it was embarrassment or anger that propelled me, probably a combination of both, but this time it was me who couldn't get us out of there fast enough. I stood up, grabbing our coats and Mom’s arm at the same time, and headed for the door.
‘Let me walk you out,’ the lady offered, but I honestly couldn’t bear to be around her one more second. In the blink of an eye she had gone from friend to foe, and my survival instinct had slipped into high gear.
‘No, that’s okay, we know our way.’ I’m sure I sounded horribly rude, but I didn’t care. Blood was rushing through my head making it hard to even think straight. ‘We’re fine. Thank you.’
Somehow I got Mom through the lobby and out to the car, the whole while trying to decide if we should just head home, or stop by her friends who lived there to say goodbye like we’d originally planned. I glanced sideways at Mom to gauge her mood, but she was just staring straight ahead out the window.
I stared out the window, too. The child in me, the one who was pretty embarrassed her mother hadn’t gotten in to the top-notch retirement home we’d expected her to, begged me to just head back to Wilton and avoid Mom’s friends at all cost. It’s going to be so embarrassing, she whispered in my ear. They all passed the test! Please don’t go. Let’s just go home. It’s safer there.
But as much as I wanted to listen to that child-self, as much as I wanted to get as far away from that place as fast as possible, my grown-up self knew better.
‘Okay, Mom,’ I said, starting the car before turning to look at her. ‘I think we need to go say goodbye to Roly and Sally. Unless you’d rather not…?’ My voice trailed off, half hoping she would say no.
‘Yes, of course. They’ll be expecting us.’ Mom paused a moment, looking down at her lap. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t pass the test.’
‘I know. It’s okay. Things happen for a reason, right?’
It took Mom another four years, with a few more stops and starts, before she was actually ready to move out of her house. But when she finally made the decision, and in the end it was her decision, she never looked back.
And as I sat in the recliner watching her sleep on that windy, March morning, I realized that I was right when I told her that maybe she just wasn’t ready to die.
Because if there’s one thing I'd learned about my smart, wonderful, though often-times-infuriatingly-stubborn mother, it was that her heart was always in the right place.
She wanted to make her daughters’ lives easier. She wanted to do what we asked her to do.
Just not until she was ready.
*Note to Reader: This is a story in progress, so I am sharing it as I write it, as a way to spur me on. If you're interested in following along, here is the link to the others I've written so far. Thanks!