A month ago, Mom is doing great and going for walks in the sun. I’m juggling things pretty well: her stuff, caregivers, condo, writing, friends. We watch Dancing with the Stars on Monday nights and Doc Martin on Fridays. All is well.
Then it isn’t. A bad cough. No appetite. No strength. Doctors agree she has fluid around one lung. One treatment works for a while. Tests don’t reveal the cause. Everything else looks normal. The doctors don’t agree on what treatment next.
It’s a Saturday, offices & labs closed. Mom’s cough sounds worse, like she’s underwater and trying to surface, fighting for breath. The cough medicine makes her sick. I get her to the ER for relief. After more tests, they send us home. There’s nothing exactly to treat.
On Sunday, she sleeps, when she isn’t coughing. I sit and stare. At her, at a picture on the wall that’s crooked, the spots I meant to get off the rug, the gray sky outside. I’d move if I could. Everything feels very far away.
I finally blink. Being 93 is the terminal condition. There’s no permanent cure to find. That’s what the doctors mean, in all the different ways they say it. The indefinite future when she would pass away has become, almost overnight, the foreseeable future. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t Mom’s ability to be right as rain again. The light is the end approaching. The headlight of the onrushing train.
I’m frozen, realizing its full force will hit me, not her. She’ll be home free. I’ll be the one left with the abyss of loss. I’ll be the one gasping for breath. I can’t concentrate on anything else for days. It’s the opposite of adrenaline. I’m afraid to accept what I can’t change. I must find a way. The truth?
Our talks take on a scorching intimacy that nearly breaks my heart.
“I never in a million years thought I’d get this old,” Mom says.
“It’s remarkable,” I say.
“I’ve lived long enough,” she says. “I might as well conk out.”
“I don’t think it works that way,” I say. “You can’t just decide to go and then go.”
“I’m not any help to anyone.”
“You are,” I say. “You employ four people now, who all think you’re delightful.”
“They do?” She smiles a little. She knows it’s true, but it isn’t ladylike to boast. “I’m looking forward to Heaven. I want to tell Mother I forgive her.”
After years of trying to find out what she has to forgive, the explanation that makes most sense to me is that she didn’t have the mother she wanted. Her mother didn’t love her enough. I guess she didn’t know I thought that too, once upon a time.
Now we talk quietly every morning when she wakes up, and every night before she goes to sleep. The real world is less distracting then, our world the one that matters. In every conversation, she asserts that she wants to stay home with me, not go to a hospital or nursing home. She isn’t ever alone here.
“What’s making you cough might not have a cure,” I say, inching toward truths. I use the word “Hospice” often, which doesn’t seem to bother her. “They help people who need more care near the end of their lives,” I explain. I’m her lifeline, and Hospice is mine.
Staring at death, I blinked and froze. I’m bracing for the worst and inching my way toward acceptance. For everyone who’s been waiting on me to do other things, please forgive me. Finally, despite death’s specter, I’m determined to stay mindful of this hour with her, this joke, this meal. The coping skills I’ve learned while caring for her are the same ones I’ll count on to help me navigate all that comes after the train wreck. The rest of my life.
Staring at death, Mom didn’t like what she saw and chose defiance. She seems better, courtesy of Hospice oxygen and the rallying visits of friends. She’s still having too much fun to conk out.
It’s been a challenging foray into dying. The next fun thing I get to do in April is file our taxes.