Snapshots From Mother’s Last Moments

Thursday, Jan. 8: Message on the machine says “Call Richmond, but it’s not an emergency.” Well, it is and it isn’t. Mother’s taken a turn for the worse, wild heart rate (150) trying to compensate for the barely functioning lungs. But she’s been on the brink and rallied so many times. “We know your mother has nine lives,” says Mrs. K., the supremely capable “care manager” who serves as troubleshooter and supervisor for the round-the-clock aides. “We just don’t know if this is the seventh or the ninth.”

“Try 19,” I say. A victim (or perpetrator) of acute emphysema, when she went onto supplementary oxygen, she investigated, found she could continue to smoke without blowing herself up, and did so. She’s 89, drank, smoked and ate double-thickness bacon every day until she was 87, and then she only abandoned the weed because she had a stroke. Her feeling was that friends, even family, come and go, but cigarettes are forever.

Friday, Jan. 9: Mrs. K. calls. “Well, your mother cheated the undertaker again.” Later, when I talk to Debbie, I hear Mother in the background, voice remarkably strong. “Tell Molly not to come, because I’ll feel like I have to entertain her.”

This is part charming delusion-she barely got out of bed when I was there at Christmastime, and we haven’t actually gone out for two and a half years. But the instincts of the Southern hostess die hard, and she usually rises to the occasion when I come down. I take this reluctance to see me as a sign that she doesn’t want to be recalled to the world of the living. She’s just too tired.

“I’ve had a wonderful life, I’m ready to go,” has been her litany for the last three years, even as her body fought like a tiger to stay alive. To paint, to read, to watch the evening news and have the cocktail hour, to see my brother and me.

Monday, Jan. 12: The doctor says 48 to 72 hours, so down I go Tuesday-as so often before, with a selection of funeral clothes. She hasn’t eaten for days, and, because of the shortage of oxygen, has been disoriented, talking to the departed, but she recognizes and is glad to see me.

Wednesday, Jan. 14: She sleeps, and, most distressingly, keeps asking why God has made her live so long. She struggles to breathe, and to expel or swallow phlegm, lodged in her throat. Both of these things, the aides assure me, are worse for me than for her: She’s partially sedated and voicing reflex reactions. A registered nurse comes and gives her a morphine patch for the pain at 3:30. At 11, I embrace her and when I say good night at the door, she blows me three kisses.

Thursday, Jan. 15: At 6 A.M., Angel comes to tell me she’s dead. The aptly named Angel, young, blond and sweet, is completely shaken, having never seen a dead person. My overwhelming sense is of relief and release, Houdini sloughing off the mortal coils, the metal chains of “support”: The oxygen tube has fallen once and for all. I look at the nebulizer, the auxiliary breathing contraption that had to be assembled four times a day; the medications, the ointments, all the paraphernalia of illness can go into the trash. There’s the feeling of mystery that death inspires: Where is she, is her spirit, lighter than air, already soaring? And of Surcease: of life and of struggle (hers), of guilt and conflicting emotions (mine).

I call Mrs. K., my brother, the funeral parlor. We open the blinds, clean the room, begin to reclaim the apartment for the living. From then on, everything proceeds like clockwork, just as she had planned it: the obituary she’d written, the box (not quite the cheapest, but almost) she’d chosen for what the relentlessly euphemizing morticians call the “cremains.”

An interment rather than a funeral: After all, most of her friends are gone. “I’d love to know which of my friends are still alive,” she told me only last November. “If only I could remember their names.”

Saturday, Jan. 17: The interment in Hollywood Cemetery, the august resting place overlooking the James River, founded in 1847, long before the upstart movie colony which would form a centerpiece of my own professional life. After the interment, my brother and I and our spouses “receive” in her apartment, where beneath her paintings, I arrange photographs of the beautiful young woman she was. Friends come, and family, hatchets not exactly buried but gingerly sheathed.

The aides who were with her for the last year are all there, helping out and reminiscing, recalling-the common theme-how much they’d learned from her. She could be difficult, impossible, but she was a great instructor, and as they absorbed life lessons from her, so she felt her life had some purpose in teaching them.

Over the weekend, I find the log that the attendants had kept, recording “Input” (meals), “Output” (obvious), “Behavior/ Mood” and “Activities/ Outings.” I pore over it, consume it as if it were a thriller. Mother’s last two months come back to life with an eerie fascination, like listening to a black box after a crash, with the pilots talking, not knowing what’s in store for them, while we do.

Connie tells me that Mother looked at the book one day, read “S.O.B.” and was incensed. “How can you write things like that about me?” she asked.

“It means ‘shortness of breath,’ Mrs. Haskell,” Debbie had explained. “We have to use shorthand.”

Mother perused the notes some more. “I don’t want you to write things about me and my behavior, just my medications,” she said.

“But we have to keep a record of your mood changes, if you’re depressed, irritable or cooperative,” they explained.

I read the aides’ notes, but their perception of her, in increments of hourly and daily time, differs from mine, in arcs of months. She seemed seriously worse in November and December, but I now read with pleasure, “Mrs. H had no complaints. Good Mood. Talkative about news and Why do people want to hurt each other she stated as she listened.”

At the end of every day, no matter how weak or withdrawn, she has a cocktail and crackers (at which time, mood generally and not mysteriously improves!) and brushes her teeth. I’ll know things are bad when she stops performing these two sacred rituals. Throughout December, there’s much back pain, her legs are swollen and purple; “S.O.B.” appears more and more frequently.

Dr. W. comes on Jan. 8, when the crisis-an arterial fibrillation-occurs. “Color dusky/gray, breathing difficulties … condition unstable.” Under Input: only Ensure all day, but then, “crackers and cocktail” at 6:40.

On Jan. 10, almost no food, but at 7:50 a cocktail, crackers and salad. “Pleasant mood. Chatting to herself while asleep.”

On Jan. 11, she is “mad because the way we have been trying to make her eat will turn her against all food.” That good old fighting spirit, planning for future meals! At 7:40, she has a cocktail. But there’s no record of brushing her teeth.

On Jan. 12, she takes only Ensure and three teaspoons of ice cream; no cocktail. No brushing of teeth.

On Jan. 13, my arrival is noted. I know the rest. On Jan. 14, she couldn’t get comfortable, and kept crawling toward the edge on one side, then the other. A hospital bed was ordered and set up next to hers.

Connie gives her a sponge bath, then we look at the hospital bed and at her. She’s so small and frail, and remembering how she hated the last hospital bed, we decide to wait and move her tomorrow. And no doubt to avoid it, she dies in the night, in her own bed. In her own home.

Snapshots From Mother’s Last Moments