I arrive at the hospital straight from work. I’m surprised to learn at reception that Mom is still in the emergency room. At the ER entrance, EMTs and hospital staff unload an ambulance. I step aside for a stretcher carrying a middle-aged man in a business suit. A nurse runs beside the stretcher holding a compress against his chest where blood soaks through his shirt. He must be a victim of the accident on the highway.
The ER is hectic: staff shout orders, phones ring, and bedside monitors beep insistently. No one asks me what I want, and I look for Mom. Leslie waves from the back where she’s standing with Dad.
Leslie gives me a kiss. “What’s all that confusion?”
“Pileup on 128. Not my side of the highway. The police closed two lanes.”
I give my father a hug. “Dad, how are you?”
“Thanks for coming.”
His words surprise me. Did he think I might not come? “Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.” I’m convinced Mom’s condition isn’t as serious as they think. She’s been rushed to the ER many times. I turn to Leslie. “What happened this morning?”
“She was unresponsive when they woke her for breakfast, so they called an ambulance.”
“Why is she not in a room?”
“They’re backlogged discharging patients.” Leslie has a no tolerance for inefficiency.
“Just like the military.” Dad leans on his cane. “Hurry up and wait.”
He acts like he hasn’t slept, his face is puffy. His cardigan hangs from his thin shoulders.
“Dad, let me get you a chair.”
“I’m fine. I’ve been sitting all morning.”
“Mom seemed better in the ambulance,” Leslie continues. “That’s what the EMT told the ER nurse. She said Mom was conscious when she came in but confused.”
I try to look past them into the cubicle. “I’ll peek in for a minute and say hello.”
Dad nods and steps aside. “She may not respond.”
Leslie closes the curtain behind me hoping to block out some noise. When she said Mom was confused, I expect to find her thrashing about, she lies peacefully, her eyes closed.
“Mom?” I wait. “It’s Mark.”
Her eyelids flutter, but she exhibits no other sign of recognition. I hold her left hand. She’s not wearing her engagement ring. I assume Leslie removed it for safe keeping.
“How are you feeling? Do you want anything?” She doesn’t answer. She must be asleep because she’d respond if she heard my voice. I hope she’ll recognize me when she wakes up.
I pull back the curtain. Leslie looks up. “Any reaction?”
I shake my head. “Still asleep.”
A nurse brushes by to check Mom’s vitals. I wonder if we’re in the way. Tough luck, if we are.
Looking up from the monitor, the nurse speaks to Dad. “The doctor’s ordered a higher dose of morphine when needed. There’ll be a room soon.”
I lower my voice to speak to Leslie. “Why is she on morphine?”
Leslie takes a deep breath. “This is the end.”
“What do you mean ‘the end’?” I frown like it’s a bad joke.
Leslie acts like she assumes I know. “The doctor doesn’t expect her to last the night.”
I step back from Leslie, shocked by her negativity. Mom’s been in admitted before with a dire prognosis but pulled through every time. She always said she had nine lives like a cat. “Why on earth does the doctor say that?”
“Her kidneys have failed. There’s no chance of recovery.”
“There must be something he can do.” I look from one to the other.
Dad shrugs. He’s empty of emotion, unable to act, like a bystander waiting for someone to tell him what to do.
My chin quivers; my eyes fill with tears. This can’t be true. I saw her only a week ago and she seemed the same as always.
My throat aches. “I’ll be right back.” My tongue fumbles the words. I walk to the front of the ER. Tears stream down my face. I push through the swinging doors and find myself on the platform used to unload supplies. Sobs burst from me.
I’d planned to see her two days ago but cancelled after working in the garden. How can I forgive myself for not seeing her? I might have noticed a change. I could have alerted the nursing staff she needed more fluids. Instead, I threw away a chance to see her, to tell her I loved her, maybe even to save her. And why? My eyes stung and I had to take a nap!
With my head thrown back, I open my mouth and roar in anguish. Three or four times. And then I’m quiet and start breathing again, gulping in the air. Each beat of my heart echoes in my forehead. I hope I’m not getting a migraine. Wiping my cheeks, I see an orderly in blue scrubs smoking a cigarette. He stares at me like I’m an alien stepping out of a spaceship. I ignore him. I’m not the first person he’s seen act like this.
The staff is wheeling a patient out of Mom’s room when we arrive upstairs. After helping an aide settle Mom on the bed, the nurse moves the morphine drip from the stretcher to a stand. She draws the curtain around the empty bed when two cleaners enter the room.
The women speak Spanish, but even so, we listen, saying nothing. The curtain billows around the woman stripping the bed. The other woman cleans the bathroom. She flushes the toilet, runs water in the sink. The bed made, the cleaner looks around the curtain. “We’re done now. You want the curtain pulled back?”
Dad shakes his head. “It’s fine the way it is.”
When they leave the room, the women resume talking in a normal tone of voice.
Leslie breaks the silence. “Mark, I’ll take Dad down for something to eat. We never had lunch. Then you can go to supper.” She turns to Dad. “Let’s find the cafeteria.” He isn’t listening. She touches him on the shoulder. “You haven’t eaten anything all day.”
He scowls as if she’s being unreasonable. “I had two packages of peanut butter crackers. And a Coke.”
“You need something more substantial than that.”
He brushes her suggestion aside. “Not hungry. Don’t feel like eating.”
“You don’t want to cook when you get home, do you?” Leslie takes his arm to steady him when he stands. “You can keep me company.”
He pauses before taking a step. “Gotta make sure my legs are ready to go.”
“Take all the time you need.” Leslie puts her arm around his back.
“Would you like a walker?”
Dad gives me a withering look. “Over my dead body.” I’m surprised at how casually he speaks of death. I suppose for a moment he’s forgotten Mom lying in the bed. “I don’t want much to eat. My stomach’s been acting up...” Their voices fade as they walk down the corridor. “Maybe you’ll find something you…”
I stand at the window watching the sun balance on the horizon. It’ll be dark by four-thirty. Several cars are using their headlights.
I sit in a chair by the bed and hold Mom’s hand, all bones and fingernails. Mom lies with her head tilted back, her neck exposed. She breathes in with a rasping sound, pauses, and then expels the air with a sound like clearing her throat. She’s wearing the bathrobe Rachel gave her last Christmas. Her cheekbones are sharp in her thin face. Her lips twitch as if she’s trying to form a word. I lean closer. “Mom, what do you want to say?”
As much as I try to reconcile myself to her dying, I cannot believe it. Physically frail with her mind drifting out of reach, she’s been unable to regain any quality of life. In her living will, she requested that no heroic attempt be made to resuscitate her if she stops breathing. I must let her go, it’s her time to die. As soon as I think this, I’m ashamed. I almost expect Mom to lift her head off the pillow. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to die.”
In that instance, I remember her, sitting in the living room, knitting a sweater, the needles clicking independently of her fingers. Her hair is dark brown, her skin smooth and clear. I haven’t thought of her as a young mother for the longest time. “By the way,” she asks, looking up, her hands still, the needles no longer moving, “who are you?”
My false memory collapses, replaced by one of her in the nursing home: dozing in her wheelchair, her head tilted forward, her hair newly permed. I approach. “Guess who’s here?”
I’m lightheaded as if turned upside down and shaken free of all sensation. What’s wrong with me? I’m experiencing a gaping emptiness in this nondescript, sterile room, sitting beside my mother on the edge of death.
I’ve lived almost sixty years, but I’ve never in the presence of someone close to death. I’m surprised by the staff’s nonchalance. Another day at work! No one seems to care that something momentous is happening – the approaching end of a life. What do I expect? Mom isn’t an urgent case requiring constant attention from the staff. She isn’t a dying child with distraught parents needing comfort. She’s lived her life and her time to die has arrived.
I wonder if, at this exact moment, she’s reliving, in flashes, the events of her life. Is this possible with the morphine dulling her senses? Or is the will to live so strong nothing can suppress those indelible memories living in the brain? Is she relieved her life is ending, no longer having anything to worry about? I imagine her soul is free of her body, leaving it behind without regret. The brain is left to run down like a forgotten clock, her memories evaporating one by one. Even her tremors are gone. Her hands lie quietly by her side.
I sit up, alert. Her tremors are gone! I lean over listening for her breath. Did she die without my noticing? Then, with relief, I feel her breath against my cheek.
“Mom,” I whisper, “we’re all here with you. We’ll never leave you alone.” I massage her hand and her fingers flutter. “Leslie and Dad are having dinner, but they’ll be back soon.”
Now I have questions I want to ask her. How was your marriage with Dad? Did you have a happy childhood? And the most important question: Did you have a good life?
I freeze. Did I utter those last words aloud! I shouldn’t speak as if her life is over. She may not realize she’s dying. Maybe she’s fighting with all her strength to stay alive. Is a pale flame of life enough to fuel the will to fight?
Elaine, Leslie’s daughter. She looks more mature than her twenty-two years, coming straight from her job, dressed in the latest style. Her boss speculates in real estate. I wish her skirt wasn’t so short, but maybe its length is part of the speculation.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You took me by surprise. I didn’t expect anyone.” I stand to hug her. “Your mother and grandfather are in the cafeteria.
“I don’t want to interrupt you. I’ll wait in the hall.” She turns to leave.
“Please stay. I’d like the company and your grandmother will want to hear your voice.”
“She’s not in any pain?”
I shake my head. “She’s quiet. I don’t know how aware she is, but I think she hears our voices.”
“I feel bad for Granddad,” Elaine whispers. “How’s he doing?”
“It hasn’t hit him yet. He’s been expecting this, but it’s always hard to accept—”
Elaine puts her arm around me. We look down at Mom. “She was a wonderful grandmother. I’ll always remember her.”
“Here. Take my chair. I need to use the washroom.”
Not my reason for wanting to leave. I’m afraid if I stay in the room, I might cry again, and I don’t want to embarrass Elaine. Or myself. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Closing the bathroom door, I hear Elaine speaking to Mom. “Grandma, it’s me, Elaine...”
I turn on the fan for more privacy then rinse my eyes and face. I lower the seat cover and sit on the toilet leaning forward, my head in my hands, thankful for a moment alone to collect my thoughts.
Mom was always closer to Leslie’s kids, for which Rachel never forgave her. When Jennifer was three, we asked my parents to babysit while we were away for the day. They agreed, but the night before, Dad called to say they wouldn’t be coming. “Jennifer is too much for us to handle alone. She’s wild and won’t listen to us.” When I told Rachel, she was livid. “How can they not want to be with their granddaughter? Their attitude is unnatural. They have no patience to play with her. They’ll be sorry when she grows up and doesn’t care about them—”
A knock on the bathroom door. “Uncle Mark, someone is here.” I flush the toilet and run water in the sink. When I come out, Elaine points to the door.
“Excuse me.” A middle-aged, heavy-set woman in street clothes stands in the doorway. She must be the wife of the patient transferred earlier wondering where her husband has gone. Then I see she’s pushing a cart with punch and cookies. “I’m with the Women’s Auxiliary. I’m sorry about your mother. Our prayers are with you.” She rolls the cart against the wall outside the room. “I’ve come by with refreshments. Is there anything else I can do?”
“No. You’re very kind. We’re trying to get used to the idea she’s dying.”
“Is it unexpected?”
“Yes…and no. She’s been failing for a long time.”
“Here’s the Auxiliary’s number. Don’t hesitate to call if there’s anything we can do to help. Enjoy the cookies and punch.” She returns to the nurses’ station.
Elaine takes a cookie. “Do they always do this?”
“I think putting a table outside a door is a signal to the staff that someone is dying. They don’t want loud talking or laughter to disturb the family.”
“Kinda thoughtful, all the same.” Elaine finishes the cookie and pours a cup of punch which she hands to me.
Leslie and Dad open the doors at the end of the corridor. Their voices turn to whispers as they near the room.
“Dad look who’s here. It’s Elaine.”
Dad isn’t aware of her until she comes over to kiss him. His face brightens. “Hi, Elaine.” All his attention turns to her. Elaine helps him into his chair by the bed.
Leslie signals to Elaine. “Let’s give Grandpa some time alone with Grandma.” The three of us leave the room. “He’s expected this for over a year, but, now, he can’t take it all in.”
We stand in the hallway eating cookies. Everything is unreal: cookies and death.
“I’ll take the first shift tonight,” Leslie says to me. “Can you nap and be back at two?”
“Sure. I’ll eat, and then try to sleep—”
“You can take the first shift if you’d rather.
Before I can answer, Dad calls from the room, “Leslie.”
Leslie motions that she’ll be right back.
“I’m tired now. Can Elaine drive me home?”
“Are you sure you want to go?” Leslie is surprised he wants to leave now.
“Yes. I’d like to go home now. I’ll come back in the morning.”
Leslie doesn’t know if she should remind him Mom could die before morning. “We’ll call you if there’s any change?”
“You can tell me when you come by to pick me up in the morning.”
Leslie glances at me, confused by his attitude. Dad appears unaware of the situation.
Elaine helps him on with his coat.
“Let me make sure they get off okay,” Leslie whispers to me, her eyes wide to express her confusion. “Then you can take off.”
Supporting himself on Elaine’s arm, Dad turns toward the bed. He looks older than I’ve ever seen him. He raises his hand to his mouth to send Mom a kiss. “Good night, Harriet. See you tomorrow.” He continues to watch her – the girl he met in high school, the bride he married during the war, the woman he’s lived with for over sixty years. He takes two steps toward the bed. When he whispers, it sounds like he’s saying, “This is the end,” but I can’t be certain. He adjusts his coat and picks up his hat and cane. Leslie takes his other arm.
I watch them walk down the corridor and wonder if I heard him correctly. Does he know he’ll never see her again? Is he acknowledging tonight is the end of their life together? Or does he mean this is the end for him, left to face his death without her.
I’m alone in the room again. “We’ll always be here with you,” I whisper in her ear. “Do you understand?” I’m desperate for any sign she hears me one last time before she’s gone forever. Her eyes are open, but there is no expression.
“Do you know what I remembered on the elevator today when we came up to the room? There was an elderly man wearing aftershave. The smell was so familiar. It reminded me of the week before I left for my junior year in Europe. Remember? You took me to the drug store to buy toiletries and the saleswoman convinced me to buy aftershave. It was Aqua Velva. That was the smell.” I’m always surprised at the bank of memories our sense of smell builds during our life.
“You talked about coming for a visit. But Dad wouldn’t bring you. You could have traveled by yourself, but you told your friends I’d be too busy studying to take you around as a tourist. You wanted to visit so much, but I said nothing. I’m sorry I never encouraged…”
I sit back, empty, the memory gone. Mom wanted to do many things, but never had the courage to stand up for herself. In the end, are we punished with regret for what we wished we’d done?
The thought of dying with regrets is one of my fears. How cruel it would be to have a good life but forget all that and remember only what one never had. I console myself with the hope that at death, regrets become insignificant. The only lasting fact is we lived and had a spark of consciousness during the brief time when mankind lived in the universe. Yet once gone, our existence means nothing.
“Remember one summer camping, we went to a talk about stars at the ranger’s station? Leslie saw everything through the telescope right away. You and I had no luck. But when, at last, we saw the planet come into view, it was like discovering the mystery of the universe.”
I hear a series of beeps, loud and long. I frown at the monitor beside Mom’s bed. What’s wrong with it? This is the worst time for a malfunction! A nurse rushes into the room.
“Why is it buzzing?”
She doesn’t answer. She presses a finger against Mom’s neck and stares at the ceiling to concentrate, then calls for the doctor from a phone on the wall.
I can’t move. My fingers tingle and become cold. A numbness stretches up my arms. I wonder why my hands are floating above the bed, but, looking down, I find them lying on the blanket. I avoid looking at the nurse’s face.
The doctor also feels for a pulse. “I’m so sorry.” He acts like he’s apologizing. “Your mother has passed.” The nurse turns off the monitor.
I reach for Mom’s hand. The skin is warm. She could be alive for all I can tell. The doctor reaches over and closes her eyes. A single tear in the corner of her left eye slides down her cheek.
The nurse places Mom’s hands together on her stomach. She wheels the monitor to the corner. “I’ll give you time alone with her.” She adjusts the curtain to give me more privacy.
Grief wells up inside and I can’t hold it back. I start sobbing from utter hopelessness. I remember the day when Mom answered the telephone and learned her father had died. She flung herself across the bed, crying inconsolably. I was three and followed her into the bedroom, sipping Coke through a straw, wondering what happened. I’d never seen a grownup cry. Putting the Coke bottle down, I climbed on the bed and patted her back. “Don’t cry, Mommy. Don’t cry.” I grieve now for my loss of her and for her loss of life.
The wheel has turned full circle and now I’m the one who is inconsolable. She had a hard life. But she loved Leslie and me. She did the best she could. And we had good times with her. I wish she could live her life again, but this time with everything happy.
I blow my nose. How sentimental. No one can live a life of perfect happiness. Everyone has terrors, disappointments and betrayals, moments you regret and paths you wished you’d taken.
With her eyes closed, I imagine she is looking inside herself. Without her dentures, her cheeks are sunken. Her eyes, with large black circles around them, seem smaller than usual. Her nose is more prominent, sharper, almost like a beak. With her white hair in disarray, I can’t help thinking that she’s like a bird, broken, and lying on the side of the road.
How’s she doing?” Leslie is back from sending Dad home with Elaine.
“She’s gone.” My tears come again, but thankfully not the sobbing. “It was peaceful. It happened quietly.”
“Five minutes ago. I didn’t realize she’d died until the nurse came in.”
“I shouldn’t have left.” Leslie’s hands are fists but hang at her side. “On the way down in the elevator, I told myself to come back.” She starts to weep silently. “I should have been here with her.” She covers her face with her hands. Leslie’s grief overwhelms me.
Mom is gone and with her, a significant part of my life. Now I’m the only one who will remember what we did together, what we said to each other. Come back, I want to shout, please come back. I cover my mouth to keep the words in, but instead, the darkness inside me comes out in a wail, starting low and increasing in volume. I don’t want to stop it. Leslie closes the door. But I’m finished. That moment released the pressure in my chest. I breathe more deeply than I have since coming up to the room. “I’m sorry.”
Mom appears smaller under the blankets as if in death she’s shrinking. “She had a hard life with many fears and demons to fight. She deserved better. I should have been a better son.”
“Mark, you’re upset now, but you know that’s not true. You were a good son. She was so proud of you, I was jealous. She had a difficult life, but she also had a good life. Dad stayed by her side all the way to the end. We must think of him now. Help him get stronger. Give him something to live for. He went to the nursing home every day. His life will be empty now.”
The nurse returns. “You can stay as long as you want. Let us know when you leave.”
“Mom cried at the end,” I tell Leslie. “I saw a tear.”
The nurse turns from dimming the overhead light. “That’s not a sad tear. It’s a happy one, because you were here, talking to her, helping her meet the end. Your presence is the greatest gift you can give anyone. She felt her hand in yours, she heard your voice, and then she left. She was happy, and this was how she could tell you.”
Leslie and I stay another ten minutes. At the nurses’ station, Leslie tells them we are leaving, and then, arm in arm, we go to the garage.
“I’ll call and tell Dad tomorrow.” Tears fill her eyes. “Let’s meet at noon at the apartment and take him out to lunch.”
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