Tomorrow marks one year since my mom died, but I prefer to commemorate this, the anniversary of her last good day. It’s a comfort that she had a good day so close to the end, especially since things had not been good for her for a while.
I flew to New York on the preceding Saturday to give my sister Suzanne a week’s respite. She’d been shouldering the burden of caring for our mom and was burned out.
I spent much of Sunday with my mom in her room at the nursing home where she stayed in between trips to the hospital for radiation therapy. I knew that her health had been deteriorating but was still surprised by her fragmentary awareness and her hallucinations. It was hard to get her to eat or drink anything. By Monday morning it was clear she was getting a lot worse; among other things, she was severely dehydrated and increasingly confused. When the EMT’s came to bring her to the hospital for her radiation treatment, I made a snap decision and ordered a trip to the ER instead. (“Good call,” the driver told me.) I spent most of the rest of the day there, in the ER, waiting at her bedside to get through the interminable triage process. I prefer not to remember the discomfort she was in for most of that time.
But by Tuesday morning, one year ago today, things were looking up. She had been moved to a private suite in a brand-new, ultramodern wing of the hospital. She was medicated, rehydrated, and swathed in clean sheets. She was comfortable for the first time in days, and positively cheerful. She was still a bit confused (losing track of the conversation from time to time) and was still hallucinating (imagining that fluffy cotton strands were drifting down from the ceiling, once in a while trying to pick one off where it had “fallen” onto her arm), but unlike the previous few days, these things didn’t seem to bother her. If anything, she seemed delighted by the occasional strangeness, which was very like her.
We chatted about how nice the new hospital wing was; about her latest medical tests and the latest news from the doctors; about the unworthy trash on every TV channel; about Suzanne, productively back at work; and about my kids, of whom she could not hear enough news, of course. She smiled often and laughed a few times.
We spent an enjoyable morning together. Unfortunately, I made periodic forays out of her room to track down one or another of her doctors and pester them for the latest information, and the news was not good. Her kidneys had shut down. There were signs of sepsis.
By early afternoon they had decided to move her to the ICU and I was told (politely) to scram. They’d call me when it was OK to visit her again. I was assured it would be a few hours. So I headed from Queens into Manhattan to meet Suzanne. At that late hour we still believed there was a good chance our mom would squeak through this medical crisis, surprising everyone once again as she had done six years earlier; and so we spent a wonderfully unworried evening, eating, conversing, and strolling through lower Manhattan together, and making a memorable visit to the patio on the rooftop of her office building, taking in the sights and sounds of New York City on a warm spring night from a dozen stories above the street.
And then came the call from the hospital. One of the doctors told me, in very carefully chosen words, that our mom’s condition was extremely serious and that this was a good time to visit — conveying very clearly, without coming out and saying so, that this could be our last chance to visit. Suzanne grabbed some of her things from her apartment and we drove back to Queens, arranging for our dad to meet us at the hospital.
Our mom was intubated, breathing with the help of a respirator, and so couldn’t speak; but she was awake and aware. We spoke encouragingly to her for a bit. The doctor told us that her condition was deteriorating, and that furthermore they had discovered some previously undiagnosed new cancer. Our dad arrived and had a few private minutes with her. By this time it was quite late at night so we told her we were going back to Dad’s house and would return in the morning. Our mom mouthed the words, “I love you.” It’s the last time we saw her conscious. Considering what followed the next day, it was about the best possible ending to this day.