Despite the excitement of the morning, the rest of the day crept along just like any other with Mom sleeping and Sal, Lib and I, sometimes together and sometimes alone, keeping vigil by her side.
Often keeping vigil was a very passive thing - we would read, or nap, or surf the internet as we tried to distract ourselves from the tediousness of the slowly passing hours. But then there were other times, somehow equally tedious, when Mom was quite needy, requiring our full attention as we tried to make her more comfortable in between nurse’s visits.
We would dab ointment on her dry, cracked lips, taking special care not to disturb the dead, peeling pieces because, tempting as it was to pull them off, doing so just made matters worse.
We would sit by her side, gently rubbing her arm, or leg, or shoulder, or wherever else her elusive pain might be at that particular moment, and try to soothe her agitation.
Mostly, though, we would try to help her quench her seemingly unquenchable thirst. Between the morphine she was on and the drying effects of the oxygen, Mom’s mouth was always parched, making her desperate for sips of water.
Initially she could manage the water glass herself, but as she grew weaker, it became harder and harder for her to lift it off the tray table and get it to her mouth. We added a straw to make it a little easier, then switched to a styrofoam to-go cup, poking the straw through its lid so she wouldn’t spill all over herself. Then, when she lost the strength to even pick that up anymore, we would take turns sitting next to her, holding the straw up to her lips countless times a day.
Of course, toward the very end, she couldn’t even take sips anymore, so we would soak a spongy swab in water, then carefully wipe the inside of her mouth with the pink, saturated tip to try and bring her at least a little relief.
Before she reached that point, though, there was a horrible period where Mom would take a sip of water, swish it around in her mouth for a second, and then spit it out into another cup.
Sip-swish-spit, sip-swish-spit...over and over and over.
“I wonder if she’s having trouble swallowing?” I whispered to Sal and Lib one afternoon, holding up the What To Expect When Your Loved One is Dying pamphlet that we’d been given when Mom had been admitted. “It says in this that ‘difficulty swallowing’ is something that happens in the last few days or hours.”
‘What else does it say?” Sal asked.
Glancing through the rest of the list I found myself holding back a bemused laugh because, at least according to the pamphlet, Mom should really already be dead. True to her tenacious nature, our mother had been experiencing most of the other signs and symptoms that presaged the final days and hours of life for 2 ½ whole weeks:
-Sleeping most of the time. Check.
-Surge of energy. Check.
-Discoloration of skin. Check.
-Not eating. Check.
-Eyelids no longer able to close completely. Check.
“Whoever wrote this obviously never met Mom,” I joked, not sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. “Maybe we should rewrite it for them after this is all over. We could call it What to Expect When You’re Loved One is Dying...Except If You’re Kay Ball.”
The truth is, though, that I found myself constantly looking for signs that would help me know that Mom’s death was imminent. Much like a detective hunting for evidence to solve a crime, I was continually on the lookout - scanning Mom’s deteriorating body a hundred times a day, analyzing my dreams every morning, watching for cardinals and herons, for certain songs on the radio, smells in the air.
Maybe I was just hoping for a heads up so I’d have a chance to be with Mom in her final moments. Or maybe I just wanted some proof that there was, in fact, a higher power at work and I was connected to something bigger than myself. But then again, maybe I just wanted to feel more connected to Mom.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
In any case, as the days crawled along, I found myself, like any good detective, paying attention to every little detail that crossed my path. Mom, of course, was my main focus, and I watched her like a hawk, scared that I might miss a sign and she would die all alone, but equally scared to see the sign, and know what was coming.
Around this time, a good friend of mine, whose father had recently died, shared with me that their Hospice nurse could tell, just by looking at her dad’s feet, that he wouldn’t make it through the night.
“Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed. “I’ve been wondering why the doctors and nurses always look at Mom’s feet, but I’ve been too afraid to ask them why! Do you know what they’re looking for?”
“They’re checking for something called mottling,” Annie told me. “The feet start looking like purple marble, kind of spotted, and they’re cool to the touch. It means the heart can’t pump enough oxygen anymore. Dad’s nurse showed me his feet the night he died and it’s quite noticeable - you can’t miss it.”
At first I was nervous to check Mom’s feet, worried that a nurse or aide might walk in and catch me in such a grim act. Or, even worse, that Mom would wake up as I pulled back the covers and ask me what I was doing. What would I possibly say? I wondered. Oh, don’t worry Mom! I imagined telling her. I’m just checking your feet to see if they’re mottling yet so we’ll know if you’re going to die tonight. No big deal, though! Go back to sleep!
It was a strange dance we were in with Mom as we tried to find a rhythm that allowed us to be honest and straightforward with each other - she was dying after all and we all knew it - but at the same time be able to keep things light and upbeat as best we could, because none of us, especially Mom, were prone to gloom and doom.
And though checking her feet for mottling was a very clinical and practical task for a nurse or doctor, for me it felt very intrusive and predatory, like I was a vulture circling my dying prey. So even though I wanted to check Mom’s feet twenty times a day, I found myself hesitating more often than not.
Once in a while, though, my curiosity would get the better of me and I would oh-so-carefully-so-I-wouldn’t-wake-her pull up a corner of the blanket, exposing her dry, aged feet, misshapen as they were with bunions and hammertoes, and surreptitiously look to see if there was any noticeable change. There never was, so then, just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything, I’d quickly touch the top of her feet to feel if they were still warm.
They always were.
I guess we expected Mom to go downhill fairly fast after she stopped her heart medication, and for the first couple of days it seemed we were right. She was sleeping most of the time and, except for sips of water, hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in almost a week.
One afternoon, shortly after she’d stopped the medicine, I was in town doing some errands when I got a text from Libby, who was with Mom at the time:
“She just woke up and said she’d like some lunch. Julie is going to bring some broth and ice cream.”
“Omg…” I texted back, “she cracks me up.”
And she did crack me up, this mother of ours, who could go from death’s door one minute to eating ice cream the next. Is this normal? I wondered as I drove back to Hospice, angst beginning to bubble up as I considered the implications of another ‘rally.’ There just didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to Mom’s situation, making it really hard to know what to do.
I’d been away from home for almost three weeks by that point, and was beginning to fret about getting the taxes organized for our accountant in time to get them filed by the April 15th deadline. It was already the middle of March. Should I take a chance and fly home for a few days now that she’s eating again? I asked myself as I pulled into the parking lot. I’ll give it til tomorrow, I decided, not for the first time. If she’s still eating then, I promised myself, maybe I’ll risk it.
Lost in these thoughts, I made my way down the corridor, surprised when I saw Sal and Lib sitting in the little vestibule just outside Mom’s room.
“What’s going on?” I asked, “Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” Lib assured me, ‘Mom’s asleep, so we’re waiting to talk to the doctor out here.’ She glanced over my shoulder. “Here she comes now.”
Thankful that I’d gotten back in time for the meeting, we listened carefully as Dr. B, a tall, lanky woman with an upbeat, matter-of-fact manner, went over Mom’s chart with us, then listened sympathetically as Sal, speaking for the three of us, explained our dilemma about staying or going.
‘I totally understand,” she commiserated. “It’s hard enough when family lives nearby, let alone when you’re from out of town. But here’s the thing,” she paused briefly, glancing out the window behind us as if to gather her thoughts.
“I like to think that your Mom’s path right now is much like a leaf that’s floating to the ground. It might fall quickly at first, but then gets caught in a breeze and floats sideways for a bit. Then down it goes again, until it’s caught in another breeze that might actually send it back up for a time. Eventually, though, it will end up on the ground no matter how unpredictable its path has been on its way down.”
We stood there quietly for a moment, absorbing the kind doctor’s words, and as I imagined Mom as a gently falling leaf, dipping and swirling her way to the ground, an extraordinary sense of calm spread through my tense body.
I don’t know that Dr. B will ever know the affect her words had on us that day, but whenever I grew impatient or frustrated with Mom’s unpredictable path in the weeks to come, all I had to do was picture a leaf floating gently to the ground, and I knew all would be well.
*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 1-28 on my channel page. Thanks!