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:
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!”
“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.”
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.
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.
And we laughed.