(This is a long post about my mother's death.)
My mother’s terminal illness was found only a few months after her own mother’s death. Her first incidence of the liver cancer was in January 1993. She had surgery to remove about half of her liver and remained cancer free until April 1996. She had surgery then to remove the new cancer growth on her abdominal wall. She never was given any chemotherapy or radiation as neither was effective against her type of cancer. She tried to protect me from worrying about her. Even so, I was very sensitive to her anxieties and knew that she was upset and frightened. After this second surgery in April 1996 she seemed to be in a fragile state, but she carried on and tried to live like everything was normal. I’m not sure exactly when she found out that the cancer had spread throughout her liver because she probably waited a while to tell us that the prognosis was not good. In addition to wanting to protect her children from pain I’m sure that she had to go through her own process of acceptance before she felt secure enough to tell us that she was dying. She told us sometime in late August 1996 that she was given six months to a year to live. We were completely and utterly devastated.
Mom continued to work at her bank job until she was no longer able to withstand it. She stopped work sometime in October. By Thanksgiving she was feeling so ill that she could hardly eat. Since I didn’t have an outside job I spent as much time as possible with her at home. But I couldn’t be there everyday as I had a baby to care for and was still trying to regulate my own new life. She had hospice visits a couple of times a week, mainly at this point to evaluate the progression of her illness and to determine what support – medical, spiritual, and practical – she needed. This was of great help to her and to all of us. However, the time did come that hospice was not able to do everything she required. Mom had already decided that she did not want to die in the hospital. She wanted to be at home with her family. My dad was not able to take a long leave from work to be with her because someone had to pay the bills. I was increasingly depended upon to be there for her since I was more “free” than anyone else. I wanted to do this for her, and I appreciated being able to spend so much time with her while I still could. Even so it was hard on me.
Mom held on until Christmas. She was very sick that day but was still able to enjoy it with all of her family. I don’t think I realized, or maybe I tried not to see, how sick she actually had become. By her birthday on December 27, she was staying in bed constantly and was eating only a tiny bit of Jello a day. I still wasn’t accepting that she was going to die soon. But we did have that talk that people have when they know that there isn’t much time left. Mom told me that I was an excellent mother and to never doubt myself. I know she said some other important things, but I don’t recall the specifics now because I had become very upset. However, I do remember in my soul the gist of everything she said. And I did tell her that I didn’t think I would be able to handle actually being in the room at the time she passed. She said she understood.
On Thursday, January 2, 1997, I received a call from the hospice nurse telling me that Mom shouldn’t be left alone. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I felt somewhat defensive at being put on the spot when I was trying to be a mother to my baby, who happened to be scheduled to get tubes put into his ears the next day because of constant ear infections. In addition to feeling scared and sad about my mother’s impending death I felt guilty for not having seen that she had deteriorated so quickly. The nurse’s attitude was not especially supportive of my situation with my son that day and seemed alarmist. I’m sure she just wanted to make sure we understood the gravity of Mom’s situation.
Mom’s decline was very quick from that point. The last thing I remember her saying is that she wanted a cigarette. At that time she was barely coherent, her speech was slurred, and she could hardly stand and walk. This was on Saturday, the 4th. I stayed that night with her and slept in the bed next to her. Anyone who has ever actually watched someone pass out of this world into the next will tell you that it is nothing like on TV or in the movies. It isn’t usually so easy and quiet and peaceful. All the changes that a body undergoes in the process of death from an illness like cancer can be disturbing and startling to loved ones who haven’t seen that before. It was for me. The last hours of Mom’s life were the most difficult time in my entire life. It was truly the hardest thing I have ever had to do, trying to ease her way into her next life. The illness made her feverish so I had to give her Tylenol suppositories, a peculiar and uncomfortable thing, to me, to have to do. Her skin had become extremely dry so I rubbed lotion on her back, arms, and legs. Although she couldn’t speak she was able to let me know that it felt good. All I could think was, “Why didn’t I think to do that sooner?” I felt so inadequate at trying to make her more comfortable. Soon afterward, she slipped into a deep coma, the kind when the breathing is so labored and noisy with that rattling sound that haunts you for years after hearing it. (They never put that in the movies or on TV. It is much too raw and disturbing. Not that I really think they should show it anyway.)
The hospice nurse ordered a hospital bed for Mom on Sunday so that she would not fall out of bed. But it wasn’t delivered until the next day. Sunday night I came home to spend some time with my son and to get some rest. Then Monday morning Daddy called and said he needed help. He was upset and worried and overwhelmed. We kept a vigil by her bed all that night. I tried to sleep for just a little while, but I couldn’t. Her pastor also stayed with us that night. I read the Book of Job, to try to gain some perspective on struggle and loss, and then I talked to the pastor about it. He said it probably wasn’t the best part of the Bible to read at the time. I agreed, as it certainly didn’t comfort me any.
On Tuesday morning we all took turns watching Mom struggle to breathe. Daddy hurriedly took a shower while we stayed with her. We all were afraid that if no one was in the room with her we would miss something. Maybe she would come up and say something before leaving us. When he was finished my sister took her shower. I was sitting there exhausted and flustered, trying to decided if I should stay for a while longer or if I had time to go home and get cleaned up. Then I went in alone to Mom and told her that I was letting her go, that I didn’t want her to linger and suffer for me, and that I was going to go out for a while to get cleaned up and to maybe rest a little.
As I walked out the door on that January 7, 1997, morning into the cold but sunny day I knew that I wouldn’t see my mother alive again. I knew that she was going to die while I was gone as per our discussion a couple of weeks earlier. I drove home in a daze and looked at all the other people on the road and wondered how many other people had witnessed the things I had seen in the last few days. How many others had sat vigil over their dying mother’s bed? Given their own mothers a suppository? Felt like a complete and thorough failure at being nursemaid at such a critical time?
My eyes filled with tears while driving home, but I never did let loose and really cry. I came home and felt like I was moving through some artificial setting, some surreal scene. I showered and dressed but it seems like it took so very long, and I just cannot recall the period between coming into the house and getting dressed after my shower. My only clear memory is of sitting in my son’s room on his bed and feeling paralyzed and knowing that Mom was now dead. It was just a couple of minutes later that the phone call came from my dad saying that she was gone. I was moving in slow motion and it seemed to take forever for me to get out of the house and into the car to go back to Daddy’s. I was numb and inert.
Walking into Dad’s house was like entering a tragic play. I felt outside of myself, like I was watching someone else’s experience. I went into Mom’s room and saw her body lying there, spiritless and looking so old. It was no longer really her, but I was so overcome with grief and emptiness and longing for her that I burst into sobs. Suddenly, I was thrust back into my childhood when I was only very small and crying and terrified that my mother was gone forever when she was only gone out of view for a few minutes. But this time she really was gone. Momma? Momma? I need you, Mom. Mom?!
That night I was totally exhausted, physically and emotionally. I looked into the mirror and saw my mother’s lifeless, vacant eyes in my reflection. It was startling and frightening to see my image in the mirror looking like an old, tired woman. I wondered if I would ever feel good again. I don’t remember, but I must have fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep. After all this time, I want to imagine that I dreamed of Mom, but I just don’t remember.
The following days are a blur. We made the funeral arrangements and went through the motions required of us. The only thing I remember very clearly was the creep at the burial site who looked like some character from the X- Files. He was the mausoleum salesman, and he had this slicked-back hair. He made me very uneasy. I could just see him doing unnatural things with the corpses. He had some seriously weird energy around him. I’ve dealt with several different morticians over the years while making arrangements for my grandparents, and I had never before gotten that kind of sense from any of them. This guy was exceptionally disturbing.
Another strange image that persists is the mortician’s request for us to supply a pair of panty hose along with the clothes she was to wear in the casket. This was a terribly morbid mental picture, thinking of someone putting panty hose on my mother’s dead body. A different funeral home prepared her body than the one where she was interred and had that creepy salesman. Even so, I can’t imagine how anyone could be comfortable with handling and dressing the dead. But I know it is a necessary job, and someone has to do it. I just keep thinking about how hard it is to put on panty hose while alive. It must be even more difficult to put them on a lifeless body. Maybe I’m a little sick to even think of such a thing, but dealing with sickness and death can make you ponder all sorts of strangeness.
The day of the funeral was expectedly difficult. I felt like we were rushed through the whole thing and that I didn’t truly get to say goodbye. Mom had a Lutheran funeral which was nice, but more structured and formal than I was accustomed to.
Throughout the service her casket was closed which made me feel cut off from her. Some people don’t like an open casket funeral, but that is what I was used to. At the receiving of friends the night before I was so glad to see Mom looking so much more like herself. They did a very good job with her appearance. For me, it was good to have this vision of her to offset the vision of her looking so deteriorated right after her death.
The funeral procession to the mausoleum was fairly long through the trendy part of town that attracts all the I’m-more-important-than-anyone-else types. Nowadays, it seems that fewer and fewer people are aware of funeral procession etiquette. As a funeral procession we had the right-of-way through traffic lights. But of course, we had to encounter one absolute jerk who thought that his time was much too valuable to stop and respect the dead. My family was driving behind the limousine with Dad and my sister’s family in it. Since we had a child seat we couldn’t fit all of us in the limo. We were in a big, tough, full-sized pickup truck so that we could help haul the potted plants and flowers to my dad’s after the interment. As we approached a busy intersection we went through a red light to keep the whole party together. The hearse and limousine had flashing lights as did an escort ahead of the hearse, so there was plenty of warning for oncoming cars. We were going very slowly, too, to allow for quick stopping if necessary. All of the approaching cars stopped except for one.
All of a sudden I saw this little black pickup truck almost strike the hearse. This guy almost slammed into the hearse that carried my mother’s dead body! He tried to squeeze through the space between the hearse and the limo, but to the credit of the old guy driving the limo he didn’t get through. How rude can you get?!? I couldn’t believe someone would actually try to break through a funeral procession, much less to try to do it between the hearse and the family! Then this stupid moron asshole thought that he would try to get through in front of us. HA! Just as he darted in front of us my husband punched the accelerator and BAM! We hit him. And since we were in a much larger, heavier, tougher truck with a stainless steel bumper we didn’t even get a scratch. His little pseudo truck, however, was left with a huge dent all along its passenger side. I’m certain this was the biggest shock of that idiot’s life. Of course, he didn’t stop get any kind of insurance information or to file an accident report. He knew that he was totally in the wrong and that the police would have at least given him a substantial fine if not something much worse. I often wonder who he was and if he learned his lesson that day. I’d love to know what happened afterwards. How did he account for that huge dent in the side of his truck? When we got to the mausoleum everyone quietly applauded us. I was reeling with disbelief and hurt that someone could be so rude as to almost hit a hearse. All in all it was a terrible experience.