I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy, but looking back now I can’t help but wonder if my poem did, perhaps, give Mom a little extra boost of courage to take matters into her own hands and get this show of hers on the road.
Because, as it turned out, the very next day my mother, who had hardly spoken a full sentence in over a week, looked me straight in the eye as I was kissing her good morning and said, “I want to stop the medicine.”
“What, Mom?” I was so surprised by the clarity in her voice that it took my brain a minute to make sense of what she was saying. What medicine did she want to stop? Her pain meds? Heart meds? All meds?
I looked across the dimly lit room to see if Lib was listening to this exchange, but she was still dozing in the recliner having been the daughter-on-call with Mom the night before.
“Do you mean your heart medicine, Mom?” I half-whispered, trying not to wake Lib but, at the same time, selfishly hoping maybe I would. “Is that what you want to stop?”
She nodded her head, her cloudy, blue eyes peering up at me wearily, but resolutely.
‘Are you sure?’ I pressed, wanting to be certain she was saying what I thought she was saying.
Mom nodded again, her eyes drifting closed as I sat numbly by her side, wishing Lib wasn’t asleep, or that Sal hadn’t stayed at the apartment to work that morning, so they would be hearing this too.
For a moment I stared at Mom’s face, so familiar despite how pale and gaunt it had become the past few weeks. She wants this to be over, I thought sadly, my heart beating a little faster at the enormity of her decision. How scary it must be to know there’s no way out of this.
My thoughts took me back to the morning, several years before, when I was scheduled for surgery to remove a what-turned-out-to-be benign ovarian tumor. I’d just woken up and was lying in bed, scared out of my wits about what the day ahead would bring, when I noticed a phrase running through my mind that seemingly came out of nowhere, though I recognized it from a children’s book I’d read to my kids when they were little:
Can’t go over it! Can’t go under it. Oh no! I’ve got to go through it!
Over and over, like a song set on repeat, the words looped through my mind, magically pushing away the paralyzing fear that had me wrapped in its tendrils, allowing me to get out of bed and face the unwelcome day in front of me. Why that phrase popped into my head that morning I’ll never know - I hadn’t thought of the book it came from in years - but I’ve never forgotten how it helped me get through something I really, really didn’t want to go through.
And though facing surgery and facing death are hardly comparable, looking at Mom, so frail and sick and sad lying there in her bed, I thought I understood what she was thinking. That even though she didn’t want to go where she was going, there was simply no way around it.
She couldn’t go over it. She couldn’t go under it.
Sadly, and scary as it was, she had to go through it.
And Mom being Mom, a woman with a strong propensity for action when she wanted something done, had probably figured that stopping her heart medication was the one thing still in her control that might speed things up. That would get her through what she was going through faster.
Growing up I didn’t really appreciate Mom’s just-get-it-done nature, rolling my eyes or groaning inwardly whenever she made me help her do whatever it was she wanted done. My mother could be pretty stubborn when she made up her mind to do something, and woe to the person who didn’t jump when she said jump.
Take our summer camp in Maine, for example. My grandparents, who owned the riverfront camp along with the farmhouse across the street, had decided to sell both as they were getting older and it had become hard to make the long trip from their home on Long Island. Mom, who had spent every summer of her life going to Maine, convinced them to let her keep the camp, despite the fact that it was falling down from age and neglect.
“I think you’re crazy,” my grandfather reportedly told her. “But if you want it you can have it. Don’t come crying to me though when it falls into the river!”
Mom, however, had a big vision for the aging camp, so the following summer she piled three daughters, aged 13, 8 and 6, a 12-year-old niece, and a crotchety, old Welsh Corgi named Friar Tuck, into our family’s dark blue Buick station wagon. Waving goodbye to Dad, who would join us in a couple of weeks, our very determined mother drove us over 1000 miles, by herself, to spend the month of August in Maine.
I honestly don’t know how she did it. After driving 2 ½ days with four young children and a dog, Mom then had to open up a run-down, old camp that had been boarded up and empty for years. Mildew covered everything, the musty smell still sharp in my memory from the hours Mom had us scrubbing it off all the furniture in those first few days.
There was no plumbing, so we took turns filling buckets of water from a hose, carrying them up crooked stone steps to the kitchen where Mom, like a general at her command post, would issue more orders for her young charges to carry out.
And though I’m sure we helped a little, it was Mom who, through sheer willpower and hard work, brought her vision into focus that summer. She cooked our meals on a single burner Coleman stove. She boiled an endless supply of water to do the dishes. She filled and emptied the chemical toilet that we used instead of an outhouse.
She cleaned and organized, she cooked and shopped, all the while taking care of four young kids and a dog as she turned that mildewy old camp into a warm and welcoming summer haven where our family would gather for the next fifty years.
Of course, Mom’s single-mindedness when she wanted something done could also be super annoying, especially as she aged and couldn’t do things for herself anymore. For instance, rather than asking someone directly for help, she would oh-so-innocently mention, in passing, how nice it would be if something were fixed, or weeded, or pruned, but then get quite impatient if it wasn’t done as fast as she wanted.
One night up in Maine the previous summer, as Mom was kissing us all goodnight, she mentioned to my brother-in-law, Paul, that there was a branch on a tree outside her room that was blocking her view.
“Would you like me to prune it off?” he asked her. “I’d be happy to do that.”
“Well, if it isn’t too much trouble,” she told him. “Yes, that would be nice.”
“I’ll do it tomorrow,” Paul promised.
But it seemed that ‘tomorrow’ wasn’t quite fast enough for Mom, because when Paul came in for breakfast early the next morning she was a bit put out that it hadn’t been taken care of yet.
“I’ll get to it, Kay,” Paul reassured her, when she nudged him on it. “Just going to have some breakfast first if that’s okay with you?”
Thankfully Mom didn’t press it that morning and let Paul, who had the patience of a saint, eat in peace. Sometimes we weren’t so lucky!
Funny how one of the most irritating tendencies of someone you love turns out to be something you miss about them the most.
“Okay,” I kissed the top of Mom’s head, and stood up from the edge of the bed where I’d been perched. “But I think you need to tell this to a nurse yourself so they’ll know it’s your decision, not mine. Don’t want them to think I’m trying to kill you off faster!”
My weak attempt at humor brought a small smile to Mom’s face. “I wouldn’t blame you,’ she countered. ‘This is no fun.”
“What are you guys talking about?” At the sound of Lib’s voice, both Mom and I turned our heads in her direction, watching as she pulled herself out of the recliner.
“Mom says she wants to stop her heart medicine,” I answered, thankful beyond words that Lib had (finally) woken up. “I was just going to go get the nurse. I’ll be right back.”
As I made my way down the corridor, I couldn’t decide if what I was feeling was trepidation about Mom stopping her medicine or, and this is hard to admit, a certain amount of anticipation for what might happen next. Questions whirled through my head as I marched oh-so-purposefully toward the nurse’s station to report this latest development; Would stopping the medicine make Mom uncomfortable? Would she die faster without it? How fast? Days? Hours? Was this finally it?
I felt my own heart racing as I contemplated the reality of Mom’s decision, of losing her for real. Not that it hadn’t been real up to that point, but somehow Mom wanting to stop the medication that had kept her alive since her stroke seven years before, medicine she had taken so religiously every day, and refilled every month so responsibly, seemed very final. There would be no turning back from this decision, no miraculous bounce back, no surprise happy ending.
Julie, Mom’s nurse for the day, looked up from her clipboard when I tapped her lightly on the shoulder.
“Mom just said she wants to stop her heart medicine,” I told her breathlessly, feeling a bit of an adrenaline rush being the bearer of such big news. “I thought maybe you or the doctor would want to hear it directly from her.”
I’m not sure why I was surprised, but Julie’s calm acceptance of what I perceived as Mom’s final courageous act was not what I expected. Maybe I thought she might gasp a little, or rush down the hall to hear it from Mom’s lips, but Julie, true to her nature, just stood there quietly, nodding her head as if she’d been expecting this news all along.
“Alright,” she said gently, “I’ll be down in a minute.”
Julie, by the way, was our absolute favorite nurse. She had been there the afternoon we admitted Mom to Hospice and her quiet, soothing demeanor had calmed our jangled nerves like a warm salve. Small in stature, with short hair, glasses and pleasant features, Julie was like a lifeboat in a stormy sea.
Her presence made us all feel safer, as though a little bit of heaven was in our midst, and all would be well...no matter what we had to go through.
*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, you'll find Parts 1-27 on my channel page. Thanks!