Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Seven Days

Today I was thwarted in my efforts to get to work, so much so that at last I gave up this fruitless exercise, preferring to return home and get a few other things ticked off the ever growing preparation list for Edinburgh and for life, the next chapter.  I spent a productive and eerily satisfying afternoon working with my senile, octogenarian cat sleeping contentedly on my lap wrapped loosely in the folds of my sweater.  

It’s hard to watch him aging, edging ever closer to the abyss which took his brother less than a year ago.  Each day I see his world grow smaller and dimmer, as his sight and senses fail him and now, his own body.  He stopped jumping on the bed; today I think he even fell down the stairs.  I have to place him in front of his food bowl or he doesn’t know it’s full and now, sometimes, he cries, lost in the shadows of a house which does not grow more familiar until I find him and hold him and reassure him that all will be well.  

I don’t speak cat.  I don’t know how much he understands; I only know it must be terrifying at times to lose control of that which once was so simple, to not understand how or why it is happening and my only mercy is that he probably lacks the memory from moment to moment to be truly afraid.

It isn’t like that for people.  I was reminded tonight, as so often I am, of my mother.  Her passing was not quiet, it was not simple and it was not natural.  There were times when she was sick where we felt helpless, hopeless even; times we were sad, times we were angry, and many days where I don’t even think she knew anymore what was happening.

My mother’s disease was insidious.  It had no outward symptoms.  It had no predictable time table.  It didn’t really have a name.  Yes, there was Lupus.  Yes, there was Diabetes.  Yes, there was even Alcoholism.  But there was something else there too, something soul crushing and confusing, the symptoms of which were not a disinterest in life but rather a “F*ck all” attitude about death.  

My mother wasn’t simply one day unhappy but disappeared over time, backed from the light and retreated into the shadows of despair.  I didn’t see it right away and forever I shall probably bare guilt for that.  But that isn’t what I was thinking about tonight.  

Instead, my little kitty, so small and frail, lying in my lap reminded me that in the midst of the worst moments in your life, there is still beauty and joy.  That’s what I was remembering.  

By the time my mother went into the hospital, never to return, she was already in an altered mental state and went into a coma.  That was hard to see but that week at the hospital, sad as it was, was filled with joyful moments celebrating my mother’s life.  

The day after my mother arrived in the hospital, my best friend showed up.  She walked into the room and said, “Polly, I need you to pay attention.  I need you to hear this.  I wanted you and Laurel to hear this at the same time.  We’re pregnant.  So you need to get better, because you are going to be a grandmother again.”  She’d driven two hours to tell us this.  I still tear up thinking about it.

The priest came by to give my mother Last Rights.  We were never a terribly religious family, my parents both equally lapsed Catholics but we figured at this point, it couldn’t hurt.  Father Patrick.  A good Irish Catholic.  A good man too.  We also had a Rabbi and a Priestess…yes, even in her dying hours my mother was having the last laugh.

The next day the Priest came by and, noting the remarkable change in my mother, she had gone from yellow to human overnight, he said, “She looks better.”  

“I know,”  I replied.

“It’s a miracle.”

“You’re telling me.”  He came by three more times to visit and three more times to give her the last, last, ok probably this will be the last Last Rights.

My father came from work; don’t judge him, he had to go to work for a bit of normalcy, and gave her a big kiss, telling her about the Raccoon he saw in the garbage can and we all watched with perhaps too much hope the heart monitor take a little jump.  The doctors kept telling us not to read too much into it, they never want to raise your hopes or expectations, but there was Father Patrick, telling us to have faith and praying with all his might for this wonderfully flawed woman.  I don’t think he was praying for her recovery so much as for her acceptance of whatever was to be, and for the love of our family to carry us through.  

My sister came home for what was now a death vigil.  On the third day, we noticed the sad state of our mother’s fingernails.  Now one thing you should know about my mother, she loved a good mani-pedi…and she was fearless with them.  She would get little pictures painted on, wear the brightest colors imaginable, did not match her fingers to her toes and loved anything shiny!  So we decided that what she needed was a coma-induced day of beauty.  We brought in all the supplies, snuck in as contraband because it occurred to us that they probably wouldn’t approve of the fumes while she was on oxygen but it was pretty clear we weren’t doing any more damage.  We cleaned her hands and washed her feet.  We buffed off the dry skin and rounded the rough edges.   It was the first time we, as sisters, were taking care of our mother.  It felt like a ritual, like we were returning her to some earlier state, and although she was very young, it felt right for us to now take care of our mother in her time of need; repayment for the years of love and service she had given us without condition or limitation.   

And for a few hours, she got better.

Day four was the worst.  That was the day the doctors pulled us aside, asked who wanted to be present for the discussion and confirmed she was not coming back.  We had to decide, what measures were to be taken?

I have seen my father cry only three times in my life, and each time was when someone in his family was in danger.  He cried when I lay sick in the hospital though he thought I couldn’t see him.  I know him to have cried over each of us at some moment, frightened he would lose us, but this time was different because he wasn’t crying out of fear.  He was crying out of despair and regret.  He was crying because he was losing the love of his life and nothing would ever be the same.  And he was crying because he couldn’t not cry.  And it was strangely beautiful.  It was this incredibly intimate moment between us and I was able to comfort him.   Through me, my mother was able to comfort him, because on our last outing, in the midst of her impending dementia, she had two lucid hours, and in those hours, she told me exactly what she wanted.  My mother was never one to waste an opportunity.  

The papers were signed, the decisions made.  There were two more days and another round of Last Rights.  And finally, the moment arrived.  Our family gathered around.  They turned off the machines.  We held her hands and said our goodbyes.  The room was so quiet.  The nurses turned off the sound of the heart monitor so that we could watch as the beat slowed but were saved from the torturous slowing beep, beep, beeeeeeeep.  We held each other and watched our mother slip away.  I brushed the hair away from my mother’s face and whispered my goodbye.  But I did not kiss this vessel, not after she was gone.   Many times before, but not after.  We left.  And wept.  And began the strange dance of mourning.  But even in this, there was celebration.   

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