See You Soon
Disclaimer: This is a very long, and somewhat detailed account of my mom’s death. I needed to write it down, but don’t feel the need to read it.
No one should watch their mother die. Well, I take that back. The idea of knowing that she died alone, not knowing I was there, holding her hand and stroking her hair, would have haunted me more. But then again, the technicalities of when she actually died could be debated. Is it when she had a stroke sometime over the weekend, and my sister found her unresponsive Monday morning? Or maybe Tuesday afternoon, when her lungs filled with fluid and they were forced to intubate her and put her on a breathing machine? Or maybe Wednesday night/early Thursday morning, when another catastrophic event occurred in her brain, completely shutting her system down?
No one knows. She was never coherent enough to say anything, and the times her eyes were open, she was gazing vacantly to the ceiling, while moving her left arm up and down, almost out of habit. Or trying to grab onto something, someone. Her left leg twitched constantly, something she would do in her sleep. Nothing on her right side ever moved.
I saw her that Tuesday afternoon and that Wednesday. I sent RR and my wife away to the local children’s museum and to the beach to kill time both days. I had hope. The nurses (many of whom were there the last time) had hope. The doctors were being realistic. I sat at her bedside and held her hand, sang songs, cried, and prayed – all in disbelief that this was happening again. Her eyes open, I would stand in the path of her gaze and say, “Hey Mom!” and ask her to squeeze my hand, which she never did. I examined the skin on her pale, freckled hands – such soft hands, such delicate nail beds. Modest-length, well-manicured fingernails.
She told me once that my dad made her stop biting her nails when she was younger, but she couldn’t break the habit entirely until she got braces in 1977, which tweaked her bite so much that she couldn’t bite them if she wanted.
We left to head back home on Wednesday night, and it was eerily warm in the house for mid-March. I barely slept – hot, restless, my cell phone by my head. We had planned on coming back to regroup, pack, and head back down that weekend. My sister texted me sometime around 5am, telling me we had better come back. Mom’s pupils were dilated and fixed, her eyes rolled in the back of her head. No more leg or arm movement. No movement at all.
I woke my wife up and cried more tears than I’ve ever cried.
At daybreak, we made a plan to drop RR at school from 9am-12pm, in order to pack, line up dogsitters, and plan to be away for two weeks. At 12pm, we started racing on the interstate, my wife at the wheel, RR asleep in the back seat, and my ball of emotions in the passenger seat. I made hotel reservations on the phone. My sister texted me updates. We ran into traffic that haulted our progress, and I almost threw up.
Around 4pm, we pulled into the hospital parking lot. We raced to the second floor ICU waiting room to find my family – sister, brother in law, nieces/nephew, my sister’s in-laws, and some nice ladies from church. We all sat down, and I waited patiently to go back and see her. At some point a nice lady from church answered her cell phone – she says with a thick southern accent, to the person on the other end: “Helen’s dyin.'”
My wife, RR, and I went back to see her, and she was an unrecognizable shell of herself. RR looked scared, but not so scared that she wanted to leave. Concerned, perhaps. I told RR, “Can you say ‘Hi Grammies?'” and she did. With prompts, she said “I love you” and kissed my mom on the forehead. Kissing, of course to RR, means pressing foreheads. My wife and RR then left, leaving my sister and I there to discuss things with the doctors and nurses.
It was all too apparent that this was the end. The neurologist wanted to know if we wanted them to do a CAT scan to see what went wrong, but my sister and I agreed that wasn’t necessary. She was very much already gone. So we decided to have the nurses unplug everything and let her go. The palliative care folks came to talk to us, and my sister and I collapsed into each others arms, sobbing.
They took out tubes and the leg-cooling devices that were trying to bring down her 104 temperature. Interestingly enough, though, her body at 104 degrees felt ice cold to the touch. They extubated her, and her blood pressure immediately dropped. My wife and RR, along with my sister’s close friend and my nephew, stayed in the family waiting area outside. I held my moms hand, and sobbed into her shoulder, telling her I loved her over and over. My sister, on the other side, kept petting her head and taking a wet washcloth and wiping her mouth, which was sore from all of the tubes.
At some point, I started singing this ridiculous song: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Ridiculous, I know. But she used to sing it all the time when we were kids, and it just came out of my mouth.
By 5:59pm, the heart rate monitor stopped completely, and her chest had stopped moving up and down.
My sister and I lingered with her for a little while after. For the last time, I threw my arms around her body and kissed her cheek, saying, “I love you. I’ll see you soon.” which is what I always said when we would hang up the phone with each other.
Moments later, we soberly walked out of the ICU unit, and my sister started making arrangements with the funeral home to come get her body, and talking to the organ donor program about having my mom donate some tissue.
My wife, RR, and I walked out and got in the car, and the rest of the week was filled with tears and funeral arrangements.
Some days, like today, I find myself walking to the corner deli to get lunch. As I cross the street, flashbacks of my mom’s death hit me like a car. My breath hitches and my chest feels tight. I want to forget. I want to never forget. I guess you can’t have it both ways.
To my mom: I love you. I’ll see you soon.