It has been an unforgiving pace of life these last few days, one that has not left much time or energy for the written word or the eloquence in which to capture the raw beauty of love, life and the ending of life.
Since leaving Denver for DC, I could not ignore the constant tug, the twisting feeling of time lost and the uneasiness of relying on mind and memory to feel Mom instead of the outstretched hand. Jill and Diane’s voices formed my vision for a little more than a week and what I was seeing wasn’t right. Late Friday, Jill called and just said “I’m putting you on speaker phone”. Immediately I could hear Mom wailing and I knew then where I needed to be.
I took the red eye the next morning and made it to Denver by 10am. Jill and Diane picked me up and updated me on the latest since the previous night. Friday, the palliative care team told Mom in the most candid and gentle of terms that she was nearing the end of her life, that we are talking weeks now and not really months, that she should think of living each day beautifully. (Prognoses are somewhat relative; no one REALLY knows what we are looking at, but the best intepretation is that she is nearing the end of her life–whether that means weeks or months is not as important as how those weeks or months are spent).
I don’t believe this was necessarily unexpected news given the disease and progression of illness, yet it’s startling/sobering/saddening/terrifying/every other adjective, all the same. Jill had patched me through just after she had this conversation with palliative care, and Mom’s children were there to embrace her as she digested the news. (This is one point she has never needed to doubt or will ever wait upon–we have been and are always there for her). As we drove the familiar route to the hospital that Saturday morning, they filled me in on the details of this conversation and how she seemed to be processing.
We arrived at the hospital at noon, and proceeded to the 11th floor. You couldn’t write the following scene even if you were writers for Grey’s Anatomy. We crossed the first positive pressure doorway towards the bone marrow wing only to find Craig wheeling his IV stand as he traversed the hallway, clad in brown sticky socks and the same green checkered patient gown that Mom was wearing. He had just visited with Mom and was heading to his own patient room across the hallway as he awaited his hickman replacement procedure. Bizarre timing. I gave him a quick hug in the hall and then walked into Mom’s room.
Mom immediately started crying when I arrived and I sat on her bed and draped over her as we do. Through tears and sniffles she greeted me, “Hello, raaatface”. Ratface is a pet name she now gives me courtesy of my sisters’ prodding. To hear her gear up and slowly annunciate the words warmed (warms) my heart. She usually follows with a giggle or smile, and that time was no exception. We cracked up and the world was right again, even if she was lying in a hospital bed and her arms had doubled in size since the week before when I saw her last. She had changed in one week, despite my internal protests that she couldn’t be THAT bad. But alas, she had changed and it became a new paint stroke to define what we are looking at. I wasn’t shocked; mom’s inherent clinical nature taught her children well. Her skin tears were more substantial, the bleeding up and down her arms more pronounced. The ill-defined form of her fingers and hands were as apparent as the absence of her (recently cut) wedding ring that once circled her left ring finger. Her arms were as full and heavy as water balloons. Still, she was there. Her eyes showed me, the whispered I love you’s told me. She was there, and she was overjoyed to see me and to know her family was complete again. The sense of comfort that brought was palpable. I, of course, made it known that the world was right again BECAUSE I had arrived. They could rest easy, Erin (third person a la Whitney Houston) was there. This made Mom laugh, and laughter is worth your weight in gold.
Immediately, we have fallen into step with our sing-alongs, laughter, random story-telling, and impromptu dancing and Mom tracks every movement, every expression, every word uttered like a hawk. As Jill mentioned, as we fed her one day, I began quietly singing, “in the morning I wake up, just before I put on my make-up…”. Jill chimed in and we sang to her. She watched us intently and began to cry. You can tell without her articulating–through the clatter and commotion–the presence of her children brings her peace and joy.
Family is everything to us. It may be every Mother’s dream to have a tightly knit family as committed to each other as they are to her. For Mom, it’s her reality and it’s our driving love for her that, during times like this as she’s nearing the end of her life, we race to be with her, to share space and time with her. To sing and laugh, and give her bear hugs. To say ‘I love you’ in every moment. To let her know just how extraordinary a woman and a mother she is. I heard the palliative care nurse say to Mom, “they were lucky to have you then, you’re lucky to have them now”. We’re lucky to have Mom, always.
Until the end, it is our job to let her know our love–always and forever . ~E
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