the last days
I recently read a blog entry written by the ever-eloquent Jamison pondering last days and how we each choose to spend our time–something I’ve thought a lot about, but probably haven’t written much about here. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, so rather than posting a comment, I thought I’d just write it here.
Most readers of this blog probably know that my beloved Mama died when I was 26.
Start to finish, it took Mama two months–exactly–to die on Christmas Eve. Just a few days prior, she had been gardening and doing all the things she did every day. And then, a series of dominoes. My Mama was a woman who never stopped, so to see her go from this woman constantly moving to falling down after walking a couple of steps was basically the most devastating thing–other than her ultimate death.
She had what we thought was a cold. Or rather, what I was fiercely convinced was a cold, despite my bio degree, despite my vague medical training. As much as I have forgiven myself for not seeing the obvious signs–for not knowing–for being so ignorant about her disease–I still wonder if anything would have changed had we known sooner that it was coming.
On some level, I knew something was coming. I absolutely did. I’m a highly intuitive human being and, about a week prior to her falling ill, I had this dream that I found her dead. Up until then, it never occurred to me that my mother COULD die. I never remember my dreams, but this one stuck and tormented me. I remember hugging her the next day and not letting go.
I credit that dream with allowing me to prepare, in some haphazard way, for what actually happened.
I remember the paramedic waking me, telling me they were taking her to Denver Health. I worked nights then and was completely confused. She had a cold–maybe the flu–what was happening?
When I got to the hospital, I was told she thought she’d had a heart attack–went out to smoke a cigarette to calm herself–then called 911. She was eventually diagnosed with CHF, but that was only a symptom of the actual problem–which would take days to fully understand. Eventually, we learned that her heart was basically fine–despite her hard living. It was a childhood illness–something called rheumatic fever–which she had when she was six–that started this spiral. Her heart valve–the mitral valve–had basically been rusting over for 60 years. And, well, like any hinge that rusts–eventually it stops moving. And blood stopped flowing–resulting in CHF–but it was worse than that.
In the weeks after, we would endure constant ER runs. I was her sole caregiver–literally the only human being who saw her most days–the one who took care of all her meds, the oxygen tanks, the bed pans–who carried her up the stairs.
It was this unending trauma, for her and me. This nightmare I couldn’t wake up from–no matter how hard I tried. I did my best to not lose it in front of her, but at night, I would run to stay sane–crying the whole way.
Eventually, we were told she had a 5% chance of making it five years. But that the quality of life would be as it had been–abysmal. Still, we had options–terrifying, horrible options. It was essentially do nothing and hope for the best or open heart surgery.
Being a fixer, surgery was the only option in my mind. And I was the one who had to explain since Mama couldn’t understand the doctors. She had a hearing problem, and I was used to being her translator. If we did open heart surgery, we could do a pig valve–which meant blood thinners for life and more surgery in 10 years since they wear out. Or a mechanical valve, which meant no more surgeries and maybe a chance at what had been. It was a no-brainer for me. And Mama went with whatever I thought was best. I had always been a peer to my mother–even when I was six–but now she was basically my child–her eyes wide as saucers–trusting me to fix it.
With my Mama’s experience, there was literally–really–no warning that it was coming. One day, she had a sniffle–the next, she was barely functioning. Though, I often wonder if she knew–if her little comments weren’t indications that she was protecting me from some timebomb. I’ll never know.
It came into our life like a live grenade. There was no living in the moment. There was no bucket lists. There was holding on for dear life and praying to God she wouldn’t spend the night in the hospital. Or worse–feeling relieved that she was safe with them for just a night.
I didn’t sleep much. Neither did she. And there was very little “normal” anything in those two months. Even the distractions I flung myself at were filled with the anxiety that started that day in October.
Life is often random and cruel. As much as I want to believe in karma, a part of me will always believe that God is an asshole–that there’s no rhyme or reason for anything.
We spend our days looking for magic. For the big things that should mean something. They come and go and then don’t mean anything. Or not enough. Or we’re not ready to receive the magic they offer until years later, when she is gone and you can’t unravel it with her.
Watching my Mama die, I learned a huge thing about life–that’s a lot less cynical. No single moment or experience really means more than any other. Every moment presents an opportunity–a challenge maybe–to love and connect or numb and die more.
There were days when I tried so hard to give her normal–and utterly failed. When she gave two shits about the jewelry I got her for her birthday and instead got excited about cow slippers. I tried so hard to feed her healthy food, but I will always be grateful I said yes to her request for just a bite of my Thanksgiving meal.
I will always be befuddled by the things that derailed all our plans–but changed my entire life. Like the first attempt at her surgery that ended up being rescheduled due to her dental issues. Had it went forward then, I would have spent my entire life hating myself for being angry at her for her impatience that day–for my own lack of empathy–for fighting with her as we waited for them to take her back to prep. Now, I see it was her fear coming through for once after weeks of not complaining even once. Had it happened, we never would have had two quiet weeks of calm. Two weeks that I cherish. Two weeks where she accepted her fate–one way or another–and two weeks where I finally forgave her for all the shit I held grudges about. Two weeks where I actually forgave myself for failing her again and again. She spent those two weeks in the bed I brought down to the living room with me on the couch next to her watching. She slept most of the time, but sometimes we watched movies and I would brush her hair like she did mine when I was a little girl.
The funny thing about life is that everything counts. Everything matters. And nothing does, too, because eventually it all gets blurry. Eventually, you can’t help but be grateful for all of it. Even the shit. But it disappears with time. It’s how you heal, to some degree, but the slow fade of loss also can rip you a new one again and again and again. I would do it all again just to see her face. In the years since my Mama died, as much as advocacy is a huge part of my life–even just writing about her here–what matters more is not letting my life be less in terms of being present, vulnerable, and open. A lot of my suffering has come from that, oddly, but it has healed me in ways I can’t even fathom. It’s such a gift that I never knew about before she died–even with all my knowledge of losing a parent–as much as I actively tried to understand that kind of intimacy. The lesson of a broken heart is to let it break and share it with anyone who will hold it with you for as long as you can, till it breaks some more.