THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Last night I saw my mom. Well, not exactly my mom, because my mom is dead. She died about a year ago.
But the woman I did see as she walked by our dinner table, reminded me so much of my 89-year-old mother that it brought tears to my eyes. Even my husband noticed the similarity. 100 years old, tiny and frail, but somehow still so vibrant. So alive. It made me really sad for what my mom could have been if she’d lived another 10 years.
If her body hadn’t failed her.
If she hadn’t fallen.
If. If. If.
The call startled me out of a sound sleep around 5am on a run-of-the-mill Friday morning. I fumbled for the phone with trembling hands, my heart racing, my foggy brain oddly struggling to remember what to say when you answer a call.
I heard my older sister’s voice telling me that Mom had fallen and hit her head...big gash, blood everywhere. She was on her way to the ER. The nice security man who responded to her pull cord described it as a scene out of a horror film. Groan.
It didn’t take long for us to come up with a plan. We’d been in this situation so many times in the past few years that we worked together like a fine-tuned machine, deciding who would fly to Ohio first, who would call our younger sister, who would call the hospital. The three of us each had our ‘job’ when it came to caring for our aging mother.
My younger sister handled the insurance and finances. My older sister handled all things medical; doctors, nurses, diagnoses.
And I, being the one who could get there the fastest, mostly handled mom.
And over the past 6 years we had been handling a lot. It seemed that mom hit age 83 and her body, which up until that point had rarely been sick, and had never been in the hospital, decided to make up for it.
First it was a stroke and the discovery she had A-Fib. Then a fall down the stairs that broke her back and resulted in congestive heart failure from all the fluids pumped into her. Then pancreatitis and a shunt. Then some weird seizures. Then another fall which landed her on oxygen 24/7. And finally this. Another fall.
As I drove to the airport that morning it occurred to me that mom had probably died in my mind at least a dozen times over the past few years. Every time the phone rang and it was a 419 area code on the caller ID, my heart plummeted and I braced myself for bad news.
But through it all, as old and frail as she was getting, mom was like the energizer bunny. No matter what her body would throw at her, she somehow just kept going. And going. And going some more.
And then a few hours later I walked into her hospital room. The sight that met me was heart-wrenching and I was thankful she was asleep so I had a minute to compose myself.
Her head was swathed in gauze, from chin to crown, making her look like some kind of tiny Russian babushka. Her bony, age-spotted shoulder peeked out from the hospital gown, and her crooked, arthritic hands were clutching the sheet to her chest.
The lights on the monitor beside her bed blinked and beeped in the dimly lit room, and I watched them carefully, trying to discern if her heart was managing things ok. Then I leaned down to give her a kiss, and her eyes popped open.
Oh, how I miss her beautiful blue eyes! And the way they would light up when she saw me. Is there anyone else in the world who will ever look at me the way my mother did?
She smiled her oh-so-mom smile and said, ‘You came’.
‘Of course I came, Mom!’
‘John’s fine. He wanted me to come.’
How often had she and I had this conversation?
But here’s the thing. As much as mom didn’t want me to have to leave my husband home alone in Connecticut, she had made a very conscious decision to stay in Ohio, despite all of us trying to get her to move closer. With three daughters all living at least one airline flight away from her, if not two, she had to know that by staying in Ohio she was at some point going to need us to be with her.
But that’s a story for another day.
The nurse bustled into the room just then, checking mom’s vitals, and I could tell right away that she wasn’t really paying attention. To make matters worse, Mom’s very crooked, arthritic fingers often made it difficult to get a reading from the oximeter and clearly this was one of those times.
First she tried moving it to the other hand, and when that didn’t work, she sighed heavily and pulled it rather abruptly off of mom’s bent finger. I laughed nervously, hoping to lighten things up and hide my growing annoyance with this not-so-friendly nurse.
She shuffled out of the room in search of some other kind of oxygen measuring device, and mom closed her eyes and drifted off. I pulled a chair up next to her, rubbing her shoulder gently as I watched the numbers on the monitor rise and fall, then rise again.
Glancing down at mom’s face I noticed that her normally beautiful white hair was completely tinted pink, like a teenage girl trying to make a statement. Some parts were deeper and darker where the blood was clotted.
I wondered briefly how in the world we would get it out. Could stitches even get wet?
The nurse stepped back in, and pulling the covers back from Mom’s feet, tried to tape an oxygen reader to her big toe. While we waited to see if it would take, mom arched both her feet up, complaining that something was hurting in her legs. Thinking it was most likely just muscle cramps from being in bed for so long, I joked that maybe we'd have some bananas for dinner when we got her home.
Maybe it was because I had made a (very lame) joke about it, but the nurse didn't seem concerned at all. In fact, she didn't even acknowledge that mom had complained about anything. Not a question. Not a word.
Oh, what I would give to go back in time and change that moment!
If only I hadn’t made a joke about the leg pain.
If only I’d asked more questions.
If only the nurse had paid attention.
If. If. If.
Peeling the device off of Mom’s toe, the nurse then tried to tape it to her earlobe, sighing again with frustration. Good Lord, I thought to myself. Why is she even a nurse? Aren’t nurses supposed to be nurturing and kind?
But luckily this time the machine beeped out a number and, though low by any normal person’s standard, for someone like mom who suffered from late stage lung disease, the nurse seemed satisfied. And without even a “Can I get you anything?’ or ‘Ring the buzzer if you need me’, she disappeared down the hall.
It was a long afternoon, but mom seemed to be doing as well as could be expected for someone who had 12 stitches in her head. They were going to keep her overnight ‘for observation’ - a term I learned, a little too late, was really just a euphemism for 'hospital covering its butt'.
Believing mom would be in good hands, however, I did what we always did when she was in the hospital, and waited to leave until the shift changed, in order to meet the evening staff. My sisters and I had learned over the years that it was pretty important for the night nurse to know that this tiny, frail, yet rather stubborn and sometimes not-so-nice-to-nurses, white-haired old lady was, in fact, quite loved.
Assured that this much friendlier nurse had my cell phone number and would call if there were any changes, I kissed mom goodnight and headed back to her apartment in the independent living facility she had, thankfully, moved into the year before.
Even under normal circumstances, there was something very unnerving about walking into my mother’s home when she wasn't there. Usually I might be worried that I’d find some sort of sign that she wasn’t taking as good care of herself as we thought she was - maybe dirty dishes in the sink, an empty fridge, an unmade bed.
This time, however, I was also pretty nervous that I’d be confronted with a gruesome scene from a horror movie, with mom’s blood splattered all over the walls and ceilings. Tentatively making my way through her apartment, I discovered quickly, and with great relief, that some incredibly caring soul had cleaned everything up.
In fact, there wasn’t a trace of blood anywhere, and her bed had been freshly made.
I did find a note from the housekeeper, apologizing that she’d had to throw away a blood-soaked towel and pillow (and p.s. she hoped mom was ok), but that was the only sign anything horrible had even happened.
That was until I bent down to untangle the oxygen tubing from the vanity next to her bed and saw a clump of white hair sticking out of a drawer handle.
Oh my...I sat down on the edge of the bed, my eyes welling up at the image of my mother tripping and hitting her head so hard that it pulled her hair right out by its roots. She must have been so scared and confused! How had she managed to get all the way to the other side of the bed to pull the cord?
But then I realized that I knew how. The same way that she’d done everything in her life that was hard to do.
She. Just. Did. It.
Note to reader: This is a work in progress, so am sharing it as I go along. If you're interested in following the story, here are the links to the others I've written so far. Thanks!