health, love, family, home, responsibility, caregiving, elderly parents, physical therapy, hospitals, health care facilities, The July Effect, sepsis, Rory Staunton, hospital infections, Kessler East Orange, Kessler West Orange, post-surgical rehabilitation, mother, father, siblings, sisters, brother, surgical rehabilitation, accurate transcriptions, twenty four hours
(The following is excerpted from my memoir-in-progress, Missing Dad. All conversations recounted here are accurate transcriptions, made at the time they occurred. All incidents described here are accurately reconstructed from contemporaneous notes and emails. No names were changed. There are no innocent people to protect.)
I get up at 5AM to get into the shower and be ready to go with Jannie and Wally by 7. Before I get into the shower, I check the answering machine—no messages. Good.
When I get out of the shower, there are three calls on the answering machine. Not good.
The first is a doctor from East Orange General, telling me that my mother has had a major stroke during the night. He is sorry to say that there is no brain activity and that her body probably won’t live through the day. The second is Wally who has heard the news and is asking me when we should tell Dad. The third is George who has also heard and wants to know what to do.
Frank awakens, and comes out of the bedroom as I am getting ready to leave. I tell him what is happening. I have to go, now, to get to the hospital with Janet and Walter. They will be here in a few minutes. I take the phone number of the client Frank will be working with today, at Cryder House, in Whitestone. There is nothing he can do, so I think he should carry on with his day. I will let him know what is happening. I take my overnight bag with a change of clothes, just in case I need to stay in Jersey.
“I love you.”
“Love you too. Take care of yourself, please.” He holds me and kisses me.
I leave. I am already exhausted going into this day, the last day of my mother’s life.
My brother is coming back from Ohio. Nancy, Chris, and Grant are back on the road north to New Jersey, having arrived in Maryland a scant few hours earlier. I am on the road with Walter (driving) and Janet (riding shotgun).
Walter, Janet and I are trying to figure out how to tell Dad that Mom is going to die today.
“I think I should be the one to tell him,” I say.
There is very little traffic on the way.
We pull into the parking lot at East Orange General. I don’t know how, but John is already here. Janet, Walter and I meet him in the hallway. We all hug and kiss hello, and make our way to the ICU. John is crying. We are numb. Barb, George, Alyssa and Dad are already there. Dad is distraught.
“What happened? What HAPPENED??”
We go into Mom’s room.
Our mother is hooked up to a million tubes and beeping things. Gauges are everywhere. Numbers flit by, without context.
The neurologist enters, introduces herself to all of us, looks for the person she should talk to. She takes me aside. I tell her I have Mom’s health care proxy, and I know her wishes, which are “no extraordinary measures”. She asks me if my father grasps the seriousness of what happened, that my mother/his wife is being kept alive only by the machines. I tell her he might comprehend it if she tells him, but that he is unlikely to accept it from me without her saying it first. Dad has a real respect for medical authority (we will use this later on to help him).
All of us are in a knot around the doctor. I hold Dad’s hand as she tells him. He looks at me, questioning what he has heard. I tell him Mom is gone, only her body is still here.
“Is there any chance?”
“No, Daddy, no.”
We embrace him, I kiss his face, and start to cry.
He doesn’t know what to do next. We speak about what Mom said she wanted, if this situation ever occurred. Mom wanted us to just let go.
“Let’s wait,” he says. He doesn’t want to turn anything off; he wants to give her a chance. Nothing needs to be done right now, so we will wait.
There are tears, lots of them, a priest named Father Mitch, wooden rosary beads, a wonderful nurse named Beth. My two best friends in the world are named Mitch and Beth. I feel that this is a sign, that the priest and the nurse are God’s own angels sent to help ease my way into this new and awful motherless world that I am about to enter.
We have Father Mitch give Mom last rites, even though she is Greek Orthodox, and he is a Catholic priest. This comforts us all. I keep the rosary beads in my hand. (To this day, I carry them in my purse, everywhere I go.)
Mom hangs on for Nancy, Chris and Grant, who arrive around noon.
The hours pass.
Kids, grandkids, kids-in-law, Dad weave in and out of the room in a haze of prayer and silent pleading and endless, endless beeping.
My dad sees me crying at my mother’s bedside and tells me to stop.
“She might hear you,” he says. “I don’t want her to think there’s no hope.”
Despite my earlier reservations about East Orange General, the ICU staff is as good as any hospital staff I have ever seen, in real life or on television. They are sensitive, they are caring. They do their best to make Mom comfortable, and to comfort us. I wish these had been the people taking care of her at Kessler next door.
My mother’s face is gray. Her skin is totally relaxed, softly sagging from her cheekbones. She has a thin stream of black fluid trickling from the right side of her mouth. There is a tube in the left side of her mouth. She is no longer in any pain. I take a white cloth and gently pat away the black fluid, but it keeps trickling. I am on the window side of the bed. Alyssa is on a chair at Mom’s left side. I ask her if she’s scared. She’s only twelve and a half years old; I think she’s a bit young to sit through this. Even my sisters, her aunts, have a hard time looking at our mother like this.
“Oh no, I’m okay. I’ve seen things like this on Days of Our Lives. I’m not scared at all.”
We sit in the room, the wooden rosary beads from Father Mitch in my hand. I haven’t said a rosary in years, but the nuns at Our Lady of Sorrows taught me well. I only leave my mother’s bedside to use the bathroom, or if Nurse Beth asks me to leave for a moment so she can tend to one thing or another in the room.
I will keep vigil until it is no longer necessary. I have my change of clothes in case she lasts until tomorrow.
I look out the window, down to the street. There is a truck out there with the name “Angelica” on its side. My mother’s mother’s name was Angelina. I see this as a sign that she is close by, waiting for her daughter.
The grandkids are hungry and Dad is exhausted—they are going to grab a bite at the Wendy’s across the street and ask me if I want anything.
I want this never to have happened.
They leave to get some food, come back to the waiting room, and then decide to leave again for home and let Dad get some rest.
Jannie and I stay, Alyssa too.
At one point—I’m not sure how long after the others left with Dad—I am alone in the room with Mom and the endless beeping. I am holding her hand. I bring my face close to hers and whisper.
“It’s okay. You can go now, if you want. Dad will be fine, we will be fine. I love you. You can leave. Don’t worry.”
Nurse Beth comes into the room and says she has to tend to a few things.
I leave for a moment to use the restroom.
In a moment, Janet is outside, knocking on the restroom door.
“Come on! Something is happening to Mom!”
Nurse Beth is there.
There is no beeping.
No moving numbers.
Our mother dies at ten to four in the afternoon.
We call the others. They pull off to the side of the Garden State Parkway. We tell John, Barb, Chris, Walter, George. We don’t tell Dad. We will tell him when he gets here.
They come back, it seems like only a minute later.
Dad is stricken, he cannot believe she is gone.
Dad takes me aside. It’s just him and me; the others are gathered on the other side of the waiting area.
He holds his forehead, shock and grief etched on his face. His eyes, wild and full of tears; he says “Claud, you kids…please don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone.”
At first, I thought he meant he didn’t want to sleep alone in the house that night. He had a houseful of family; he wouldn’t be alone. I realize later what he really meant; he is afraid that he will be alone now that Mom is gone, that we kids will leave him to his own devices, that it was our mother who was the center of all things and that now he will lose us, as he had lost her.
You will never lose me.
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