We didn’t know that these would be the last words that my 88 year old mother would utter, but it turned out that they were.
“Shut up!” she barked at me and my sisters who had congregated in the emergency room of White Plains Hospital. There were seven of us in that small curtained-off space tending to her needs. My mother, my two sisters, myself and three doctors who were asking her questions and measuring her vital signs.
She was supposed to leave for her four month stay in Palm Beach that week, so this hospitalization appeared at first just a wrinkle in the plan. Something she had eaten the night before hadn’t sat well with her.
I was so accustomed to her being taken to the hospital for whatever ailed her, that the boy-who-cried-wolf effect seemed to be in operation once again. There had been so many false alarms that I dutifully showed up, but never gave her actual condition a second thought.
Molly, Beth and I were gathered near the feet-end of her gurney. We three were talking about our plans for the week ahead. I was due out in Colorado for a business appointment a couple of days later. Molly had her roster of client calls, and Beth’s kids were still young enough to require her full attention. Who would get Mom to the airport for her flight to Florida? Were any of us planning to visit her there this winter?
It wasn’t that we were even speaking loudly, but my mother wanted the complete focus of the gaggle of physicians at her end of the bed, and didn’t want the competition. So she told us to shut up.
I left the hospital shortly after that, knowing that she was in safe hands. I flew to Denver that Wednesday morning having checked in with Molly the night before. “She’s resting comfortably,” I was told.
As soon as I landed, I phoned again to hear Mom’s status.
“There’s been an episode, Jane. Can you get back right away?”
The consultant whom I was scheduled to meet in Denver was at the airport to pick me up. Instead of bringing me to our meeting place, he helped a shaken client go through the process of re-booking a return flight as soon as possible: two hours later.
Mom had had a heart attack while in the hospital and was now in a coma. Not too many people make it through these catastrophic events.
Suddenly everything in my life changed. Including, weirdly, my flying status. Having successfully gotten tickets back to New York, I was now departing shortly after having just landed. The TSA must’ve glued a red flag next to my name on the computers, because for years after that alteration, I was pulled out of every airport line and interrogated; every carry-on dutifully inspected.
When I arrived back at the hospital, they had put Mom into ICU. There were bags of fluid hanging everywhere, tubes going into her body. I’m not sure I’ve seen my mother so still. Her mouth was slightly open. Her hair disheveled. She would have hated that.
We maintained our vigil for several days. My brother flew in from Los Angeles to join us by her bedside. My daughter, fresh off the plane from her time in Japan, stopped in briefly. It wasn’t that Nana would know she had come. It was for me. That I was losing my mother, and I needed the comfort of my children witnessing that fact.
We four adult children, all in our 50’s, remained at the hospital throughout the days. I knitted a sweater. Molly stuffed envelopes rejecting potential authors and wishing them good luck. Beth and Jay chatted easily.
At one point, when I was alone in the room with Mom, I slipped under the covers with her, nestled up against her back, and whispered in her ear. “Thank you for all you did for me. I forgive you, and I love you.” And I meant it.
I knew that I would not be able to withstand another day of sitting in a hospital room. At this point my mother was on a morphine drip, her head reclining on a pillow, her mouth now wide open taking in air. We’d sat for three days with no change in her condition.
I woke up early Sunday morning wondering how I would tell my siblings that I simply couldn’t bring myself back to her bedside. I was writing in my journal when the phone rang at 6am.
It had happened at 5:30 that morning, about when I’d awoken.
She died alone.
Some people wait until all family members have arrived before they can let go. My mother needed us to leave.