The Day My Mother Died

Two months into a world without my mother. Hard for me to find the words. But these words finally needed to be written:

I lay sprawled across my mother’s dead body.

I wouldn’t let them take her, those stiff men, absurd in their starched suits, waiting in my mother’s weedy gravel driveway, by the black death van, which had been escorted by a pristine white death car….

No. 

They couldn’t take her.

I had been peering at them through my mother’s blinds. I let the slat drop. I realized I was wailing. Because it didn’t make sense to take my mother from her own house. “This is her house!” I cried out, into my mother’s room. Into the April morning, cruel and mocking in all its crisp cool brightness slicing sharply though those blinds, across me and my dead mother, in the hospital bed….

The hospital bed. A  glacial presence amidst the warmth of the familiar, a fragile antique rocking chair now broken from too many nurses sitting to fill out their charts; my mother’s desk, the letter slots packed with my old birthday cards, checkbooks and yellowed cat notepads; photos of me, brittle starfish and shells she’d collected along the beach, lining her bookshelf.

My mother’s aide came in. The undertakers were threatening to leave, she said, trying to keep her voice even, but I could hear the angst – which only annoyed the crazy-grief-stricken-middle-aged child clinging to her mother’s frail bones, bones sheathed in loose bruised dehydrated skin.

With her fingers, the child combed out strands from her mother’s gray hair. The child held the gossamer strands up to the window light.

The child had thought about getting up for a pair of scissors, to clip some hair to keep once her mother’s body was reduced to ash. But that would mean having to get up off the hospital bed. Leaving this moment. Leaving her mother.

I’d been lying there for two hours. After my mother died, I’d found such relief in finally being able to hold her, as she was free now of the pain of just touching her shoulder in an embrace.

I studied her right hand, splaying her fingers. The hand that once held all her paintbrushes, her nails always rimmed with aquamarine blue; the hand that had sketched her cats, or the crooked cherry trees out her sunroom window, when confined to her house after she lost her license.

She was wearing a plastic fake gem ring her ten-year-old grandson had bought for her. The one, later, I would insist she be cremated wearing, I’m not sure why. Maybe because when I’d paid beforehand for the cremation, I was unreasonably baffled by the funeral director assuring me the cremains “would be all bone, no teddy bears.”

Her circulation having ceased, her fingers seemed bloodless now, translucent.

Beautiful in their translucency.

I lifted one eyelid–I needed to see her blue eyes. “You’re beautiful,”  I told her.

I kissed the birthmark on her forehead which she’d always viewed as a mark against her.

“It’s not,” I said. It’s as delicate as a paper moon.

You’re beautiful mom. You never understood, knew, how beautiful you are.

She’d died somewhere between 3-4:30 am, and lying there at dawn, I had whispered, “Hear the first birds, Mom?”

When my mother had called me the previous morning, I don’t remember what I was doing. Some mundane task, walking around with the phone as I usually do.

But I remember exactly where I was standing when she spoke these words: “Sandy, I’m dying.”

I remember stopping and standing still. I was in front of the windows facing out onto our yard and dogwood trees, the scalloped birdbath.

I remember I made light of her words, laughing a little. “And how do you know you’re dying?”

“I just know.”

I just know.

I remember this conversation word for word because it would be the last lucid conversation between us. I don’t remember our saying how much we loved each other, but her aide–who had held the phone, as my mother was suddenly too weak to hold it herself–said we did, that we spoke words of how much we “loved, loved, loved” each other.

I asked her aide if I should drive out there.

She was in tears, as my mother had just put out her hand to thank her for all she’d done. This determined, opinionated woman now sounded unsure:  “I don’t know.”

We didn’t know whether she was actually dying. She had shown no signs beyond a sudden weakness, and a swelling of her left hand which her doctor attributed to her atrial fibrillation.

By the time I was on the road, she had rallied, was sitting up drinking pear juice.

“She had me fooled again!” her aide texted me, as my mother had “fooled” us a couple of times, especially with her unexpected recovery from aspiration pneumonia.

When I got to her house, my mother was still sitting up in bed, but her color seemed off, a shade of yellow.

And then she had what seemed to be a seizure. Her eyes rolled up into her head. She began speaking gibberish. She vomited what looked like black bile.

“I’m sorry,” her aide said. “She’s going.”

My mother had known. But by this time, she seemed to have forgotten what she already knew, asking, “What’s wrong with me?”

You’re dying.

She began to weave in and out of coherency, speaking gibberish until she found a word:

“Talk!”

We talked. Her aide rambled on about the cats, how Sam ate too much and was getting too big.

Keep talking.” she commanded.

As long as we talked she would not die.

I pulled up the broken rocking chair to sit beside her hospital bed.

And I sang.

I sang the song that had “inspired” her: “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us from a distance.”

She closed her eyes. Her breaths deep and rapid. Her face tense, mouth open.

She began counting. Up to fourteen, before starting over.

Sometimes she’d only get as far as two. One,two. One, two, one two…

I would count with her, feeling how she clutched at lucidity. Clasping it as tightly as a steel bar, though her grip was already loosening as she struggled against her increasing weakness. She would strain forward, as if trying to get up. “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?”

Full sentences began to fail her. As did her strength, with each dose of morphine, when she’d cry out, “pain pills! Pain pills!”

For relief from her pressure sores, we rolled her onto her right side, sliding a pillow under her hips for support.

I’d never been able to imagine myself anywhere else as my mother lay dying, but  literally at her bedside. I assumed we had always been too close for me not to be there when she actually passed.

But the way her dying finally played itself out, afterwards, now, I realize I had imagined a scenario in a bad supermarket novel: At her final breath, I’d be holding her hand, and I would feel her spirit flow through her hand into my body.

I did not imagine what our last moments together would really be like, a disjointed, nonsensical conversation punctuated by random words: socks, coats and half a bike.

“How can you have only half a bike?” I asked.

“A half,” she insisted.

“Where’s the other half?”

We could have argued over this half bike as we could over what was the shortest way to drive home.

But then she thrust her blanket, balled in her fist, at me. “Here.Take it! The coat!”

I reached for the blanket. “Ok. I have the coat.”

When the blanket wasn’t balled in her first, she was reaching her hand out from beneath it to anxiously slide it up and down my arm, tucking her fingers under my shirt sleeve, searchingly. “Socks. Socks!”

I had lost by then my own words.

And she had stopped the counting.

We continued the morphine, and started liquid lorazepam.

She seemed to drift off to sleep around 11pm. Her aide told me to go to bed. “This isn’t how it’s done.”

This isn’t how it’s done.

How should it be done?

I had no idea.

So I went to bed, and her aide woke me at 4:30–My mother was already gone.

I’d missed the moment.

How could you not wake me?”

“I checked on her at three,” her aide said. “She was the same. Then I checked…now.”

And we both looked at my mother. Eyes closed, her face sallow, her mouth open and drooping to one side.

It was only much later when I would realize that my mother would have planned it this way. She would have told me to go to bed and get my rest.

She would have been worrying over me.

And the child, in the end, finally relented, gave in to the undertakers waiting in her mother’s driveway. She allowed them into her mother’s house, the starched men with their shimmering ties perfectly aligned, who promised to treat her mother with “the utmost dignity and respect” – the men the child told to just do what they needed to do, and “fucking leave.”

After all, they were stealing her mother away from her, zipping her into a black bag, rendering her faceless, carrying her out on a stretcher discretely through the side door, as their veterinarian year ago had carried out their dead cat after putting him to sleep, his kidneys failing….

They slipped her mother light as a feather, into the back of the shiny black van, and the child climbed back into the hospital bed. Onto the air mattress that inflated and deflated, and cresting each wave, she cried out for her mother.

Mommy! Mommmmyyy!!  She wailed, growing smaller and smaller, more frail herself, in the void of the rented bed, rising and falling on the waves, crashing over and over…

Emptied of her mother. Left empty-handed.

A lawn mower started up somewhere. Miraculously, a life outside her mother’s house continued.

And now every morning I listen for those first birds. Their singing now laced with the passing of a moment. Of a life.

Of my mother.

 

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Learning How to See

My mother, a professional artist, who passed last Thursday,  4/16/15, was my greatest teacher–the one who taught me how to “see.”

And then how to translate that seeing, to recreate reality into the transcendent of one’s own unique and memorable statement. For her it was the visual arts. For me writing. But the same lesson applied.

Here she is at work on her own “statement,” which was always the canvas. Which she really worked – with brushes and palette knives, but also textures, and her bare hands. She worked those paintings until she got her statement exactly right. Until she had said what she needed to say:

MomSTudio

Mompainting

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My mother Elizabeth Sloan Tyler September 9, 1918 – to April 16, 2015

My best friend; my life-long mentor and biggest advocate: “I love this earth. I don’t want to leave it.”

And she fought very hard not to leave it, to the very end, early yesterday morning.

Her reverence for this earth and genuine awe at all its wonders, and all of the nuances of the natural world, in its lights and shadows… she evoked in her painting and drawings.

Here, one of my favorite pictures of her – sketching on a trip we took to Italy together in 1996. I was sketching along side her in the next doorway. I remember the scratch of our pens as we were sketching the same street view, trying to capture it before it began to rain.

Mom. Mommy. You have left my heart broken. But I know where to seek you: in the all the moods of the sky. Because every time I look up and see the sky in all its changing colors, I will hear you exclaim: “Oh just look at that! Look!”

momItaly

_GJM2665

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Deathwatch and Deflected Moments

As my mother continues to deteriorate, I can wish she’d been taken by the aspiration pneumonia. When her blood pressure plummeted to 58/40, her pulse 30 – occasionally flatlining – and I was told she had anywhere from a few hours to 48 to live.

When perhaps she would have gone at once more swiftly but gently, swept up like a fine down feather, from gradual organ failure over a period of at most, a couple of days. 

Rather than from this horrendous dawdling physical and mental decline. This withering, this near actual desiccation.

Because after surviving the pneumonia, she has been battling gangrene, a result of completely blocked femoral arteries. A gangrene that has now spread up to her left knee, and whose charcoal tones are now emerging on the right leg.

She has developed a blackened bedsore on her left side where her artificial hip is beginning to protrude – She is a skeleton masked by brittle skin, devoid of fat and muscle mass. And as hard as we try to keep her hydrated, it’s becoming more and more difficult for the technician to draw blood for her testing of Coumadin levels. Levels that fluctuate wildly due to the powerful antibiotics she is on to keep the gangrene infection at bay.

And her dementia has worsened; I have talked her down off cliffs; out of true panic and fear, when she is lost in a city with no money, place to live, and is starving; I have promised to rescue her when she is locked alone in churches. She can hallucinate now, and I have admired the cute little chicks scurrying around on her bureau, or a child in a blue sweater. But the hallucinations can be shady men walking back and forth through her bedroom whom I’ve had to have arrested.

If my mother were in her right mind, if she knew her true state – if she could understand that the “big heavy shoe” is actually her left dead foot – she might have preferred that she had died then too, from the pneumonia. When there had been only two options: the invasive, a line into her neck, or the less invasive, powerful IV antibiotics. Neither of which had her doctor expected to work.

Still, as her daughter, and healthcare proxy agent, I had been faced with real decisions. I opted for the IV antibiotics, to assure myself that I was not deciding my mother’s fate. They agreed to the antibiotic route, I knew, only to compassionately appease a grown daughter suddenly reduced to a blubbering child, in the middle of the emergency room.

So they admitted my mother into a private hospital room at the very end of the hall, what I referred to as the “death” room. There was a comfortable rocking chair, and an expansive tray of coffee and snacks the staff rolls in for “families” keeping deathwatch:

hosptial

I am her family.

And I was not hungry.

I was only interested at being at my mother’s bedside. I pulled up the rocking chair so I could lean over her bedrail. She slept as deeply if she’d fallen into a cavernous crater, her mouth wide open, breathing harrowing breaths. I felt I should be memorizing her, the sharp distinctive slope of her nose, the birthmark on her forehead, a pale paper moon against an early morning sky.

For several hours I sat alone, rocking. Watching. Listening. The coffee carafes went untouched. Occasionally a nurse popped in, but no doctors until several hours later; the same doctor who in emergency had told me point blank that the antibiotics would not work.

He checked her blood pressure.

It was back up. 110.

He looked at me as if to say, “Wow.”

And I said, “You didn’t expect this.”

He shook his head. “No. I didn’t.”

My mother slept through the evening, but the deathwatch was over. Depleted, confused, actually annoyed by having said all my goodbyes for no good reason, I went home.

The next morning, I found that PT had come in and sat her  up in a recliner . “Oh I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “I’ve been waiting hours.” She went on as she always would at doctors’ offices. “Oh why do they do this? This is stupid. You wait, and wait, and then they see you for five minutes. Let’s just leave.”

I requested she be moved from the dead-end-of-hall-death-room to a room next to the nurse’s station; she would grow restless and try to get up despite the bell warning on her bed. She would want to get up to go collect all the keys to all her trunks and bags. She would be crying out at times, thinking I myself, her daughter, was dead.

When she finally was discharged, too weak to walk, she was brought home by ambulance – on a cumbersome archaic stretcher nearly impossible to maneuver up the three steps into her house.

As two extremely young EMS workers, sweating bullets, literally rocked the stretcher this way and that, my mother starting complaining: “Well, this is silly. Just let me get out . It’s been a lovely ride but it would be easier…” she said, in truly the best of spirits, as if she’d been off on a canoe ride and was pulling up to the dock.

After the rocking-cumbersome-stretcher ordeal, once the stricken young EMS kids had left, and my mother was settled back into her own bed, she said:  “Well as much as I love vacations, it’s always nice to be back home. But that was such fun!”

Such fun.

“Oh this is such fun!” My mother could often exclaim, sometimes with a quick ecstatic clap of her hands, her favorite square metal bracelets clanking, when we’d go out for one of our long talky dinners. Or when we did used to take vacations together, to a lake house with her grandchildren, after unpacking and having glasses of wine on the deck: “We’re finally on vacation. And what a nice spot….”

When I was visiting recently, she was sitting up in bed, despite the now painful open bedsores on her tailbone, gazing out her windows. She said, though too weak to express much exuberance,  “Well, this is such fun.”

She folded her hands over her blanket. “This is a nice spot.”

A nice spot.

But since her near demise from the pneumonia, I can count other such moments. Few and far between, but ones when she can still revel in the here-on-earth.

Moments her aide too can count, as she recounted to me about how one day last week she and my mother danced together.

My mother had turned to her and said, “Inspire me.”

Inspire me.

Her aide had put on for her a  Judy Collins CD, and the song “God is Watching Me From a Distance” came on.

Her aide began to sing along. And taking my mother’s hands as she lay and bed, she swayed them. And they danced to the music.

And then there are those moments when we are as we’ve always been. Truly small moments, but ones whose normalcy is magnified, like morning dew drops on grass.  Like my giving my mother sips of pedialyte, and her reminding me not to set the glass down on the wood table but on a coaster.

Or her just worrying about me, as only a mother can, as at Easter. Knowing this would be her last, I’d taken some time picking out just the right flower arrangement, brilliant pink azaleas in a basket shaped like a bird’s nest.

But when I arrived, she was sleeping soundly, awoke only long enough to glimpse the flowers.

I set the flowers on her bureau. Feeling a hurtful disappointment something like the childish one of being dismissed by a parent when trying to show them some magic marker drawing you’d been laboring over.

Then without opening her eyes, she asked,  “You ok?”

“I’m ok,” I said.

But as I’ve never been able to hide well my feelings from my mother, she heard the hurt.

“You don’t sound ok.”

I couldn’t speak.

At my silence she opened her eyes, glassy, one eye a slit. “You don’t need to worry about me,” she said. “I don’t want to worry about you worrying about me.”

“And I don’t want to be worrying about you worrying about me worrying about you.”

And we laughed.

Another moment. 

But all these moments are refractions of light on water – too quickly deflected. Since her near demise from pneumonia, would she herself wish she had been taken, swept away on a breeze then?

Maybe. I don’t know.

On good days, when she sometimes thinks she’s sitting in the sun out on a porch lounge, no.

On bad days, when she cries to me that she can’t take another minute of this, that she wants to just die, die, die and “get it over with” – yes.

Still.

She danced.

And we  laughed.  

_GJM2675

Another of my mother’s paintings, one I think she called “Spring Sun.” But I’ve always seen in it that morning dew. Light refracted.

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Don’t Be Like Me

“Don’t be like me.”

This is something my mother has been saying to me all of my adult life.

And she said it just the other day as I sat by her hospital bed, one hand, as always, clasping that metal railing. Afraid of falling.

What she meant was that as an artist, she has always put her art first. Yes, she would socialize, but after all her own caregiving responsibilities, she would prefer to devote whatever precious extra time she had to her painting. To stretch large canvases she would fill with large sweeping brushstrokes, always painting responsively, intuitively.

I had just lowered her hospital bed back down; after eating, to avoid choking, she must remain upright for twenty minutes, excruciating due to bed sores.

More comfortable now, she asked me what was “new.” A general term as she can never quite place me now in time.

When reminded, she will remember that I am married and she has two grandsons. So I can ramble on, this time, about their frog for some reason. How when one of her grandsons had won the frog in a school lottery, it had been the size of the dime, and now had grown ginormous in its very cloudy algae-ridden tank.

“Going to any parties? Meeting any new people?”

As her short-term memory is so short, within the space of a frog minute, she may have me placed as she can, back when I was still single. When she would worry about my too easily retreating from the social. From the reaching out to make new friends. From the cementing of close friendships which at the end of her own life, she feels herself lacking.

“But I am like you,” I reminded her. At her bedside as she lays dying. As I’ve always reminded her.

Because, like her, I’ve always been more apt to retreat from that, the social. The collective, the group settings, from when I was sixteen and preferred writing poetry at my little table in front of my yellow-checkered-curtained window, to hanging out at the mall.

And all the years I was single and working full-time in the city, weekends I reveled in my space and freedom to be alone in my apartment — writing. Yes, I had my friends I’d meet for dinner. But when the writing was going well, my spirits truly soared; I was never happier than when I was immersed in the writing of my novels. And never more bereft and lost than when they were finished.

And so when my mother made this age-old “Don’t be like me” statement, I reminded her of this fact: “We have to like our own company, remember? We need our own company.”

And she nodded, even in her dementia, knowing what I meant. What I’ve always meant–you can’t help that, as an artist or writer. As whatever that inventive, imaginative, innovative someone you are who thrives on the creative outlet for happiness. (Though happiness is such a shallow word and I’ve never been able to find the word I’m looking for. Fulfillment Peace?)

I do strongly believe that we all are graced with creative urges; be it the painting of your nails crazy colors, experimenting with different eyeshadow shades; carving sticks, gardening, cooking, making jam…

But in many of us perhaps the social can outweigh the creative urges. And it is perhaps those beings who are the ones blessed with closer connections outside of their own company. They may indeed have their creative outlets, but are the ones perhaps more apt to reach out, show up at soup kitchens and make meals for the homebound. A kind of charitable reaching out my mother always has felt guilty about not doing more of.

And whenever that guilt would rear its head, I would remind my mother of this fact: that for all of her adult life, from the time she was 20 and had to support her parents during the Great Depression, through those years as my grandmother’s sole caretaker while I was still a small child, then thirteen years of caring for my father as he was reduced to a child himself finally, by his own dementia…that she had well earned whatever residual time to devote to her art.

Because she had to devote this time. This creative urge was never a choice. It was an innate  need.

And that urge has never been a choice for me either. It is indeed innate.

And it has become a true coping mechanism as I try to balance the needs of two elementary school children (nevermind any needs my husband might have) against those of my mother’s, as her prime caregiving director: the one who, as POA, must ensure her live-in aide gets paid; household bills get paid; house insurance premiums gets paid; taxes get paid; the one to run errands, to CVS for more Depends and disposable gloves; to the pharmacy for prescription refills; to coordinate home nursing care for wound changes of increasingly invasive bedsores  and of gangrene; to now find a mason to reconstruct her leaking chimney and replace the metal flashing which evidently was installed all wrong in the first place.

And I am the one to make the funeral and cremation arrangements. To decide on the perfect spot where she will be buried in her church’s cremation garden. And in making these pre-arrangements, I need to do that – to step back and coldly assess her reality. That she will not be around much longer to have these age-old exchanges, when sitting at my mother’s bedside, I could collapse to my knees in grief, as she is suddenly fully herself:

Don’t be like me. 

But I go with the flow of this age-old exchange; I go on to remind her of what she’d always taught me: That you have to find your happiness from within. Because, no matter how much you may, or may not, prefer your own company, at some point in your life, you will find yourself alone. When even those people closest to you can’t always be there for you, because they too may be having their own needs unmet.

But this age-old “Don’t be like me” conversation could go just so far, as our conversations can, small snatches as if trying to catch ladybugs to wish on, when she suddenly interrupted me with: “I don’t know how much longer I can keep holding on.”

I seek out these moments now, as she is suffering so, and at times does cry out that she can’t take any more of it. Any of it.

So I took this opportunity to assure her: “It’s ok to let go.”

She stared at me. “It is?”

“You don’t have to keep holding on, Mom.”

“But I don’t want to fall. Oh no, I’m falling…” She readjusts her grip on the railing, and I realize this moment is not about the real letting go.

She was  panicked.

“You can let go of the railing Mom, it’s ok. You’re not falling.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Because I’m so tired from holding on…” she is suddenly crying. As she can. Suddenly cry.

“Mom.” I put out my hand to her, slip it under the rail. “Let go. I would never let you fall, you know that….”

Gradually she loosens her grip. I take her hand. I rub it between mine. Ice cold from gripping the cold metal rail.

“See?”

She calms down.

And I remind her that she is in bed.

“I am?”

Yes you’re in bed and you’re not falling.

“I hope not, because if I fall there might be frogs jumping all over me.”

And so there may not be so many ladybugs left to wish on, but there are fragments of conversation that stay with her, as the one about my son’s frog, even though such fragments may splinter into the nonsensical.

But my mother’s true sense of self remains steadfast. Even unshakable, as long as she can still turn to me and repeat a saying I now memorialize as I do her pair of china dogs from her childhood: Don’t be like me.

Although a saying I still refute: I am like you Mom.

The best of you.

momsekteching

My mother sketching. If not a paintbrush she always had an ink pen in hand.

 

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