Truth and Circumstances, with a word about Hospice
Nonetheless, Mom’s illness was not the truth about her life. It was just a circumstance, something she had to go through, something she survived. Her truth was the love she had for her family, her children and grandchildren and for anyone else less fortunate than her. If she was the earth, schizophrenia was sometimes the weather she had to endure. But the core of her was sweetness, compassion and unconditional love. Maybe because she suffered in her life, she was always sensitive to others who were suffering and sought to comfort them. When she was well, she was a delightful conversationalist, well read, up to date and interested in music, theater and culture. In the hospital, even when she was confused she would ask others to eat with her or try to feed them. I remember her thanking the respiratory therapist and promising to invite him to our house for a party once she made it home.
Call me morbid, but I am compelled to write about the death process I witnessed. So little is talked about in our contemporary American society. There is so much mystery, fear and taboo surrounding this inevitable event that we all must encounter. I want to know details. In Mom’s case, she went pretty quickly and without much warning. She had a bad cough that progressed to pneumonia with alarming swiftness, requiring intubations and several days on a respirator. She came off the respirator, but was greatly weakened and spent a total of twelve days in the hospital before she died.
Three days before she passed, Mom began to disengage from her physical surroundings. There were painful moments when she did not recognize me. Reverting to childhood, she saw her mother, and made remarks like “I have to get ready for school or I’ll be late,” and “Grandfather is waiting for me!” I tried to visit during varying times of day to catch her when she might be lucid or more wakeful. Late in the evening, two days before she passed, she opened her eyes and said my name. I told her that I loved her and her last words to me were I love you too. From that point on, mom was unresponsive, and my father and I made the decision to put Mom on hospice care.
A word about hospice care. Educate yourself on it. Don’t take for granted that it will be recommended to you or your family member in a timely fashion. Although the hospital physicians were informative and supportive regarding hospice, because mom’s specialist was clearly resistant to the idea, our family experienced a period of agonizing indecision. She won’t be dead within six months, he predicted, and dismissed the idea of hospice care less than 48 hours prior to her death. This doctor was by no means evil or unique, I hear that this type of scenario commonly occurs. In spite of this, with the support of other doctors on the case, the social worker and the hospice team, we signed the papers and the transfer of care was made. Though we knew her condition to be grave, we did not know at the time that mom only had a day remaining to live.
That night, I brought my sister to the hospital to visit mom. She brought a box of instant hot chocolate and the peach colored nail polish that mom had admired. We played music and spoke to her, though she did not stir. As she breathed slowly, evenly, with eyes stubbornly shut, we put lotion on her hands and feet, and polished her nails. The hot chocolate stood on the bedside table, untouched.
The next morning I woke early and something told me to get to the hospital right away. What I did next has no logical explanation. I squeezed a dollop of honey into a sandwich bag, grabbed my nearly empty bottle of Chanel no. 5 pure parfum, tucked them both into my purse and jumped in the car. I wanted my Mommy and I needed to be alone. When I arrived, the room was quiet and still with sunlight shining through the window, no nurses or aides were present. I threw myself on my mother’s breast and cried and rocked and held her for a while. Then I remembered the honey and dipping my finger into the sweetness, placed it on her tongue. I named everyone I could think of , telling her how much she was loved, asking her to let go of the bitterness of life and to remember only the sweetness, the abundant sweetness of her life. Let the sweetness remain, Mommy. Then I took the last drops of the no. 5 and annointed her, her forehead, all the proper pulse points, of course, her hands and her feet. Here’s some luxury for you Mommy, you deserve it.
Hospice came in to give an update. In those few moments, mom’s breathing had shifted so that there were decided pauses in between breaths. She could go on like this for hours, or even days, the nurse said. There is no way of knowing for sure.
I bent over mom and told her I was going to take the boys to sports practice and that the whole family would be back right after that. Tomorrow’s Easter, I told her. When I got home there was a huge mourning dove staring at me in the bird bath for long minutes. I sat there, imagining Mom’s spirit taking flight, asking myself, again, without logic, could this a message of some kind?
By the time we all returned a couple of hours later, Mom had already taken her last breaths.
Image one, Christmas Eve, taken by William Dage
Image two, of Dolores, taken by me around 2002