Gripping my cell phone, I struggled to find the right words to tell Dan how scared I was. Since I had arrived that evening after work, my mother had been unable to speak to me again. I stood at the end of the hallway in the wing of her temporary care unit at Riverview in East Peoria. She was there to receive physical therapy while she healed from a broken arm. An exit door to my right was framed by full length windows of the black winter night. To my left, there was the bright fluorescent lights of the hallway. I heard televisions or muffled talk in the nearest bedrooms. I tried to speak quietly but my frustration pitched my voice and caught in my throat. I didn’t expect to arrive tonight and find her so much worse. I had left her room in a panic wondering what to do next.
Last night, sitting on her bed and facing her, gripping her hand, I had asked her again and again, as loud and clearly as I could, “How are you?” “Can you talk to me?” I bravely reminded her, “I love you!” “I love you.” I pleaded for anything… “Hi Mom!” “I love you!” “How are you?” “Can you talk?” She had only stared at me.
In five years of her living with liver disease, and the nightmare of increasingly severe hepatic encephalopathy, she had never reached a point when she couldn’t reply to me, even if she was having a day of complete confusion and disorientation. There was always a response–positive or negative. She could manage a smile or give me a kiss when it was positive, or she could give me a disgusted look or a very long sigh when it was negative. I thought the night before had just been a bad night. So bad that she couldn’t give me a wink or an eye roll. The trauma of her fall and broken arm, the hospital stay, the transfer to Riverview, and two days of attempted physical therapy…Maybe she needed a day or two to straighten out. I reminded myself how poorly she reacted before, when physical therapists arrived at her house to help–how she shrank from their hands and narrowed her eyes at their words. Resisted. The liver disease crippled her mind and her personality. But not her will. She had the will to defy what confused her.
Earlier that day, she had yelled and fought all day when she wasn’t quiet with agitation. Rachel and I thought she was again using her will to protest change and disorientation. That was her spark–her fighting. Wasn’t it?
Yet, I had watched her leave me the other night. The spark she offered me was gone. She let go of me, but I thought she was refusing me. She had begged for my dad, and he went to her bedside and I watched with wet, burning eyes, as he comforted her. In my denial, I thought she was acting. I thought she didn’t like where she was and she wanted to convince my dad to take her home. I thought she was being manipulative.
Your mind will find any logic it can to keep at bay the oppression of loss.
What we didn’t realize was that she was moving in and out of delirium, disorientation, and slipping in and out of a stupor, her conscious mind ebbing like water lapping at a shore, in and out, tipping and tapping at the damp, packed sand; over our toes, then away again.
On the phone, Dan didn’t know what to tell me. I understood there was really nothing anyone could tell me. He had visited earlier in the day while Rachel was there and knew how unsettled my mom was. He saw her discomfort and inability to communicate. He didn’t know what to make of it, and agreed with Rachel and the nurses that something was wrong–but we were still waiting on blood work results and the approval from the pharmacy for a pain patch. A nurse urged me, “Let’s give her the pain medicine and then see if that helps enough for her to communicate with us.”
I emphatically explained to Dan that I had seen her in pain before, even recently, and the state that she was in tonight was not a response to pain. There was something else happening. But I didn’t know what! I felt crazy. My dad and I had helplessly observed her rhythmic grunt and soft cough for an hour, the repetitive moments of her eyes closing and opening–then her pupils searching or widening in what looked like pain. Her skin was cold and clammy, the flesh mottled. I tried to speak in her ear loudly and ask clear questions again. “Are you in pain?” “What do you see?” “What hurts?” “Can you talk?” On and on. I pushed and poked on her body for a reaction. Nothing. I wanted to take her to the emergency room, yet I had no clear reason to. The nurse had checked her vitals. Nothing abnormal. After I pointed out a gargling sound as my mother breathed, she checked her lungs. Nothing serious. There was nothing alarming.
Unable to comfort me, Dan handed the phone to Raine, who had plenty to say. When he heard my voice, he asked “Why does your voice sound sad, mommy?”
“Mommy is sad because Grandma Mary is very sick.” I fought the tears but they came, relentless. “Do you want to say ‘Hi’ to Grandma Mary? That would cheer us up!” He agreed and I rushed back down the hallway to her room and put him on speakerphone.
When I walked in, I saw my mom still and quiet in her bed. The light seemed to fall on her too harshly–her skin look pallid. She stared at the floor to her right, with her mouth slightly open.
However I walked up to her and put the phone near her left ear, letting Raine talk. That would change things, right?
“Hi Grandma!” He chattered loudly in his sweet, five year old voice. Her eyes remained fixed on the floor. I didn’t see her chest rise with a single breath.
I dropped the phone and shouted, “Mom! Mom! Mom!”
My deepest desire to have her again ripped out of me into my hands that sought every part of her face, caressing it, feeling, probing, checking, and then cupping her chin. I gripped her shoulders, shook them vigorously, shouting. I kissed her and wailed against her cheek. My mind was a constant refrain: Where did you go? Where did you go? Don’t go! Don’t go! Don’t go!
My shrieks and sobs alerted my father in the hallway and he came in and saw us. He ran back out of the room for help.
She was taken to the hospital and Rachel, in her enormous strength, made sure she was properly treated in the ER. However there was never a pulse to work with. The pronounced her dead an hour after I had found her. Rachel advised me, lead me, comforted me, explained everything they had done and would do. In her own pain and tears, she comforted me. Dan arrived later and Rachel explained for me that our mother was dead. He joined us as we spent an hour together with our father in the room with my mom.
I found my greatest comfort in holding her hand–the hand I had known all my life, how it felt and how it held my hand.
I found my greatest strength when I comforted my mother, in her death, kissing her cheek and caressing her hair. Her blood and breath ceased, and her skin grew cold, purple, and pale, but she could not have looked more beautiful. My admiration of her strength through her disease and love for us all withstanding…It will carry me and give me hope always.