In memory of my mom who passed away on April 6, 1998, here is an excerpt from Chapter 6:
It seemed that just when Dad’s health had stabilized, Mom’s sped downhill. On April Fools’ Day, less than four months after my mom had stopped her chemotherapy treatments, her doctor delivered the words no one ever wants to hear. Mom was nearing the end of her life. I waited for him to add “just kidding,” but instead he confirmed she would likely live only another few days. Not one day, not a couple of days, but a few. I should have asked him to be more specific. Does “a few days” mean three days, four days, five days? Would he have said “a week” if he meant seven days?
I walked into my mom’s room and stared at her resting in the hospital bed we had moved closer to the windows. When we first admitted her, I wondered why my mother had been given a private room. After hearing the doctor’s words, I guessed I had my answer. I thought about what it must feel like for patients whose hospital roommates, complete strangers, died in the bed next to theirs. Do the admissions coordinators strive to place two dying patients together? Do the coordinators actually know which patients will die during that visit? If one patient dies, does the living one already know she could be next? Or does the living patient have no idea she may die, but she witnesses her roommate’s death and all the hubbub that occurs afterward and becomes scared to death—for real? The scheduling and coordination of hospital room assignments seemed very complicated to me, so I assumed all terminally ill patients just automatically received private rooms for the sole purpose of having privacy . . . to die.
Being Italian, my family found the private room very handy for another reason: the empty bed became a table filled with massive amounts of comfort food—eggplant parmesan, meatballs, crusty bread, and wine and pepper biscuits. Lori and I had vowed never to leave Mom alone—with anyone—except one of us. We took turns going home to shower, but I found it extremely difficult to be anywhere else but by my mother’s side.
It doesn’t matter how long anyone has been ill, when the doctor finally tells you there is nothing else they can do for your loved one except keep them comfortable (also known as doped up on morphine) I beg you to keep from beating yourself up for not being better prepared when your loved one dies. I’m sure there are books on the subject, but I never read them because I never truly accepted that my mother was dying, and by the time the reality of the situation had actually hit me, it was too late to read the “how to” book anyway.
For the previous six months, Mom had been in and out of the hospital every other month. Aside from the fact that the cancer had broken her bones and caused her to wear a cast on her left arm, she had difficulty breathing, which happened when her heart slowed down and her lungs filled up with fluid. The doctors would drain the fluid and she’d bounce right back. Every time she bounced back, it became harder for me to believe she was dying. Some days the urgency surrounding her care in the emergency room freaked me out and I thought she’d die that day. Other days, when I stared at her—her rosy complexion (even without lipstick on her cheeks), her smile, and her bubbly personality—I convinced myself she would come home from the hospital for good. This roller-coaster ride—in and out of hospitals, up and down energy levels—constantly played with my emotions. Maybe I refused to accept her illness, or maybe I really believed she could live forever. I just never imagined, or allowed myself to imagine, the rest of my life without my mom in it.
On the fourth day of this hospital stay, a Saturday afternoon, Lori had returned to the hospital after spending some time with her husband.
“Wand, why don’t you go home for a little while now?”
Mom and I had been watching Wheel of Fortune and I couldn’t bring myself to leave her side—not even to have a much needed shower. Plus, I loved to play Wheel of Fortune. So I stayed and I forced myself to keep quiet so my mom could solve the puzzle before me. If not this game show, Mom would ask to watch The Lawrence Welk Show and, sometimes, Lori and I were blessed to hear Mom sing along.
Since she’d been admitted to the hospital, Mom met with a social worker and a priest every day. After just a couple of sessions with the therapist, my mother had reached a milestone. But “milestone” suggests it was a desired achievement so maybe it makes more sense to call it a turning point. I don’t know, I only remember when my mother told us she was dying and that she asked for private time with each of us. The social worker had told me my mother accepted her death and it was okay for me to give her permission to leave this earth.
I sat on the edge of my mother’s hospital bed and held her fragile but soft hand—the one without any needles stuck in it. I stared into her glossy wide-open eyes and, as I felt my throat closing, I pressed my lips together, hoping to stop the tears from pouring from my eyes.
“Doll, you know I’m not going to get better this time?”
I sniffled and wiped my nose. “Mom, I love you so much. You are the bravest woman I have ever known.” She gently squeezed my hand and I knew what I had to tell her. “It’s okay for you to go. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be okay.”
Those words were the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say to someone, but I loved my mom too much to not give her what I knew she needed to hear. People say when you love something you should set it free and, if it’s meant to be, it’ll come back to you. I wondered how that could be true in this situation.
"You are and will always be the apple of my eye. Be happy," Mom said to me. And then she sang "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and all I could think about were the times my mom sang this song to comfort me through a bad experience with a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a teacher or a sibling. I thought she was my personal magician— making all the bad stuff disappear.
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