January 10, 2017
This is a hard one for me. I have had the words jumbled up in my head for over a week but have avoided sitting down to type them. It is too raw. The pain is too raw and the water works will flow like mad. Sometimes you have to avoid some pain for a while to just do your life. You have to go to this place of daily living and function so that you can feel some normalcy, so that your family can feel some normalcy and know that life will go on and that Mom will be okay. You see, my Mom had a heart attack several weeks ago. She did not feel that thing. What?? Mom was sent to the hospital only because her blood pressure and oxygen levels were very low. She was then admitted for a week and they discovered that she had had a heart attack. After a week in the hospital, Mom was sent home. This all happened after our Thanksgiving celebration. Mom won’t be able to recover from this. It pushed her into congestive heart failure. My once tough as nails Mom is a frail little bird now. My brother, Kevin, called me after Christmas to tell me that my Mom is dying. It is real. Hospice nurses have said so, doctor has said so, it is real. Huh. There you have it. Just like that. My Mom is in the actual process of dying. I know we all are if you think about it, but this is surreal even though I knew it was coming. What is strange is how matter of fact it really is. When you boil it down, it is an actual process with stages that are so typical that a jillion books and articles have been written on it. The stages of death, they call it. There are five, if you are curious. I see them all crystal clear with my Mom. How did it go by so fast? How can I not have my Mom?
I was scheduled to have a pretty major surgery on my sinus. The part that smooshed when I had the seizure has collapsed, for lack of wanting to take the time to explain it any better. The doc crammed me in on December 30 because I had met my deductible for the year. I am having trouble breathing and keep catching colds because it is so messed up. Anyway, I cancelled that thing and we headed to Grand Junction to be with Mom. You don’t get it back. I don’t want to mess this up and have any regrets.
When we got there, I went straight to see Mom and Dad. My Dad looked so tired and you could just see the angst and hope in his eyes. When I was in junior high, my Dad had 3 heart attacks. He has been the one to get sick over the years. My Mom was never really sick until the last several years. I know that Dad never thought it would go this way. He thought Mom would be taking care of him and that he would die first. My Dad has risen to the task with such strength and dignity that he is even higher up on the pedestal I have him on. She can be a mean thing. Meaner than me. The one she is mean to is Dad. I have always been protective of my Dad. He is so gentle and kind and loving to my Mom. He adores her. They have been married 67 years and dated 3 before that. He absolutely loves this woman like you cannot imagine. Her tongue can be as sharp as a knife and yet he still brushes her hair back and speaks gently to her. Many times over the years I have let her have it over being so dang snappy. I tell Dad not to take too much grief from her, but he always tells me he is used to it and can handle her. Used to it? That can’t be good. For whatever reason, he has loved her no less over the years despite her being snarky to him. Laura says snarky is not a word. You all know exactly what I mean, proving that it is a word.
My Dad would do anything to make my Mom happy. My Dad would trade places with my Mom in a split second if he could. His love for that woman is bigger than ever now. She is so lucky, a lucky, lucky woman….because, Lord knows only Dad can handle her. I couldn’t care for my Mom 24/7 like he does. I would, but it would really knock me for a loop, take the wind out of my sail, and be so very difficult because she is a pistol. To see the angst in my Dad’s eyes, the fighting back tears all the time….ow. There is just nothing to say or do to help that. Not a single thing. He sits in his recliner and brushes the arms of it with his hands. He closes his eyes and brushes the arms of that chair with his hands because there is nothing else to do. If she so much as moves a muscle, he gets his walker and shuffles over to her bedroom. If she is in her chair beside him, he just watches her. He will go to the dining room to eat if one of us is with Mom. He is back quickly, sitting in his chair. Every once in a while he shakes his head. I knew Dad wasn’t admitting the reality of the situation to himself. He kept pushing Mom to eat or drink. “Come on, honey, you can’t get better without eating. Please, just eat a bite of egg. For me.” Hospice had told us not to push anything with her. If she asks to eat or drink, fine. If not, just let her be. It is just his nature and he wants to believe she can fight this like the many other times before. My brother keeps telling him to not push it. I just don’t say anything because it is human nature to want someone to keep eating and drinking. It goes against our grain to just let someone die. Strange, but true. We want to keep that body going no matter what….pump medicine in, food, Gatorade, anything to keep it going, even when it is screaming that it is done. Just let dad push it, Mom will likely say no. He feels useless sitting there watching her.
The nurse came in the room and my brothers went out in the hallway to talk to her. Dad was still sitting in his chair for several minutes. I didn’t like that the boys did that because I felt it was disrespectful to Dad. I told him that if he wanted to go talk to the nurse, he should. That is his wife sitting there. He got up and went out and came back in crying. He was told the hard truth. I have only seen my Dad cry a few times. He cried when our yellow lab, Bonnie, died. That dog was my dad’s partner. When he grabbed the keys, she followed without asking permission. He said he would never get another dog after that. He meant it. He cried the day they dropped me off at my dorm room in college for the first time. But the day in the hallway with the nurse from Hospice was different. This time he had tears running down his face. That is something I have never seen. My heart broke into a million pieces right then. I swear it made that shatter noise and everything. It caused me physical pain to see my dad that way. I would take that pain from him if I could. I would do anything to lessen it. There is nothing to be done. I would like to think that Dad could have a few years of peace after Mom is gone. Not to sound cruel, but just do what he wants and breathe a bit. He has cared for her for so long and it has been so stressful for him. She has barked at him for 70 years. That said, he will be lost without her.
I went into the bedroom to see my Mom. Mom and Dad have separate bedrooms at the apartment because she is checked on throughout the night by the staff and he snores. Truth of the matter, she snores just as loud. Anyway, she looked so tiny in that bed. She only took up a sliver of space. Her face was so drawn and thin. I had never before seen my Mom so thin. I sat down on the seat of her pink walker next to the bed and held her hand. I said, “Hi, Mom.” She opened her eyes and said, “Hi, Er.” I asked her what was going on around here and she said not much. She was so happy to see me. Laura piled up on the bed next to her and hugged her. Mom wrapped her arms around Laura tight and said, “Ludie Bell, (she has always called her Lulu, or Ludie Bell) I have waited so long to see you!” It was beautiful. Both of their eyes light up with happiness. Nick got to come with us too. Seeing him was such an important thing because I felt she needed to see that he was happy, healthy, and sober. She and Dad really helped to raise Nick the early years. She always told me he would be all right. She didn’t know when or how, but just that he would be all right. Now she got to see him all right. He was so happy to see her and it was returned ten-fold. I don’t remember what all was said that first evening, I just remember feeling so happy that we made it and that she knew us all and was so happy to see us. Dad seemed relieved as well.
We didn’t stay long as it was late in the evening and Mom was tired. I told her we would be back in the morning. Nick was able to visit with her again the next morning before he needed to be back home. The love between them was so apparent and it warmed my heart to finally get to witness this reunion. Mom and Dad had not seen Nick in a very long time. Different family members have taken Nick’s battle with addiction in different ways. Some have gotten very angry with him as they saw the hurt it caused us as well. Mom and Dad have been consistent in their love and support of Nick. Always and forever. They never pulled back from him in any way, and were always there to support and love him. For Mom to get to see him, for him to be able to say he loved her so much, it was huge. My heart felt such relief that she got to see for herself how great he is. She could rest easy knowing he was ok. Nick left for Denver that day. Laura stayed with us a few more days, but things grew heavy. Mom would come and go. One time pretty fair, the next barely hanging on. My sister, Kathleen, and her husband, Tony, came over the weekend. They were leaving on Sunday and I had them take Laura back home with them. She needed to be back in the regular world, with her friends, and laugh a little. I cried a lot at night……a lot. It was all hard for Laura. So, she went home and traded houses with friends and had a good time. That left Ben and I. My brother, Colin, arrived the next day.
My other brother, Kevin, lives in Grand Junction and has been absolutely amazing with Mom and Dad. He is there at least twice a day while working full time. I don’t know how he does it. The day that Ben and I were the only out-of-towners was really something. I experienced things I did not imagine. I thought this whole deal would just be sad. Nothing but sadness. That has not been the case at all. On this day I was alone with Mom a lot and Ben got my Dad to talk a little and go eat. The time with my Mom is something I will cherish forever. I held her hand as she slept. I curled up next to her in bed. She wasn’t big on starting conversations, but I learned that she listened intently and was responsive when I talked about good memories we had shared.
Growing up, we always spent a week out of every summer at a cabin outside of Frasier, Colorado. The cabin was named “Waboosen” to us as there was a wooden sign with that written on it above the magnificent fireplace. When I googled that name, it says it means “spirit seeker.” This was really no cabin. It was an amazing lodge. Huge. Every summer a whole herd of us went up there….the whole family, friends, my Gram, my Auntie Margie and Uncle Cecil. There were enough beds for all. I always shared a room with Gram. There were three rooms on each side of the lodge with two twin beds in each room. There were two HUGE lofts with stacks of cots up there. These were the perfect place to spy on the adults down below. You had to pull down these ladders that folded up into the ceiling to get into them. I remember my stupid brothers putting the ladder up while I was up in the loft many times, leaving me trapped up there and freaking out. You could walk carefully from one loft to the other by going behind the chimney space. It wasn’t entirely a safe idea, but we did it anyway.
In the center of the lodge was a huge handmade wooden table that could seat all of us at mealtime. There were about 8 big wooden rockers that were absolutely beautiful. They were very comfortable and had the perfect rock. They lined up in front of the massive fireplace where we would sit at night and pop popcorn and stare at the flames. On the back wall there was what I now call “dead heads” everywhere. There were elk, deer, pelts of bobcat, fox, you name it. As a kid, I loved them. My Dad would put me on his shoulders so I could pet them. Ewww. I am not in to that at all now. I think they are far more lovely when they are alive walking the earth. Our dog, Bonnie, would bark at the massive elk head the entire first day every year. That dog was in heaven up there because Labs just want to swim. My dog now is the same way. She would swim every single day if she could. She is the spitting image of Bonnie, by the way.
The door out the back led to a beautiful deck with chairs lined up along it. You could watch the river down below. It was absolutely stunning. My Gram would sit out there in this flowery shirt that Mom made her. She would pull her pant legs up to sun her arthritic knees. The humming birds would land right on her. No joke. It happened all the time and we would all hold our breath waiting for them to leave. Out the front door there was a massive pile of wood for chopping that had a zillion chipmunks zipping in and out of it. Bonnie would bark and chase all day, never even getting close to catching one. I remember the way the wood smelled. I don’t know what kind of wood that was, but will ask my dad sometime. It smelled so good. Kevin would go out and chop wood for the fire and I would sit on a stump and watch him. You could walk about a quarter mile or so down the hill and there was a fishing pond. Dad and I would go every morning. He would fish and I would try to catch frogs. He would let me reel in his fish and I loved gutting and cleaning them. Gross little kid, big sissy mama. I do not partake in that activity now. Not ever. Big time ewwwwwww. I like to fish, but would still choose catching a frog if I had the opportunity. Seems like you never see frogs much anymore and I don’t know why that is. We have wrecked something. I have always had a fondness for them.
When I was a kid there was this place called the Pop Shoppe on 44th avenue in Wheat Ridge. We would go there once a year before leaving for Waboosen. Mom would let us pick out a case of pop in glass bottles. They had grape, strawberry, cream soda (yum!), orange…it was the BEST! Mom didn’t let us have pop on a regular basis, or junky cereal and stuff. Waboosen was the regular rules don’t apply place….. Hello pop and Honeycomb cereal, here we come!
I remember one time catching Kevin and his friend smoking cigars somewhere by the cabin. I don’t remember how old I was. I told him that if they let me smoke one too I wouldn’t tell on him. Yep, that’s me the dainty cigar smoking, fish gutting, freckle faced little girl. How darling was I? So, Kevin being the typical jerky big brother called my bluff. They gave me a cigar and lit it for me. They told me to suck in as hard as I could and then SWALLOW! Of course, after coughing a lung out I was so sick. The boys were rolling in laughter. Jerks. Huge jerks. I think I was green for quite a while.
I talked a long time about memories of Waboosen. My Mom’s response was amazing. Her furrowed brow relaxed. She looked off into the distance and you could see her go there in her mind. She said she could picture that deck and Gram sitting there with a hummingbird on her shirt just like it was yesterday. She smiled a lot. She laughed. Waboosen spun its magic once again. I never knew that it meant “Spirit Seeker” until I googled it just now. That makes it even more magical.
Mom napped hard after the stories. I went out and sat in the chair next to my Dad. He was cat napping, but I knew he wasn’t really asleep as no snoring was happening. I felt a sense of peace in that moment that was unexpected. After napping a while my Mom called out. I went back into the room and asked her if she was okay. She said, “Yes, but where did my Grandma go?” I asked if she meant Gram and she said, “No, MY grandma.” I said I didn’t know, had she been here? Mom said yes, she had been here for a long time. Wow. Cool. I know that is real. Mom has never told me much about her grandma. I asked what she was like and which grandma was it. She said that her grandma and grandpa McGuirk were her saviors and she doesn’t know what she would have done without them. They lived close to my Mom and she would go up there and play cards with them. My Mom’s dad was a severe alcoholic and I know things were hard. She told me their address and I wrote it down, though she said that house had burned down. I intend to drive by where it used to be in Glenwood and just check it out. How come I never knew this stuff? A while later Mom woke again and was speaking about her grandpa and asking where he went. Why did he leave? I said that maybe he had some stuff to do and he would probably come back and see her later. This was blowing my mind. It was such a huge comfort to me to think that Mom was visited by angels. She really was. Mom napped off and on all day.
That evening another amazing thing happened. She asked me why all of the children were in that room and why they were all in wheelchairs. I said I didn’t know. I asked if she saw them right now. She said no, but they were in a room all together and the twins I went to school with were there. I mentioned the names of both sets of twins that I had gone to school with and she adamantly shook her head no. Those were not the ones. Those were the wrong twins. I racked my brain but told Mom I couldn’t remember any other twins. I mentioned that there were the twins that lived on our block, but they were much older than I was. We will say their last name was Jones. I said, “Mom, the only other twins I can think of is the Jones twins. Remember, one of them committed suicide about when I was in high school?” She nodded her head and said, “Yes. HE WAS THERE. He was there in a wheelchair with a lot of other kids.” What the heck?? We did not know this family other than where they lived. The boys were pretty tough and got into a lot of trouble for stealing etc. I am not sure what this whole deal was about, but I know she saw him because it is so very random to bring him up. That same year, or maybe a year after, a friend of Colin’s committed suicide. His name was Robert and he was really a nice kid. He committed suicide in a horrific manner and we all really fell apart over it. I remember the pain like it was yesterday. I am sure Colin does too. Mom remembered him as she spoke of the other boy and talked about Robert a bit. Mom drifted back to sleep and I went for a walk to get a cup of coffee.
I was going into the dining room of the apartment building to get my coffee and the Hope West (Grand Junction’s Hospice) nurse was sitting on a bench working on her charts. I asked her if I could sit down a minute and talk to her. I told her that I thought this time with Mom would be all sad. It had been so beautiful to talk about memories with her. I said that my mom had been seeing a lot of people that weren’t there. She asked if the people were people that were still alive or dead. I said dead. She nodded. She said that was so common at the end of life. The nurse gave me some information about the end of life and it was written right there. Holy cow. I don’t know about you, but I think this is the coolest thing ever. It means you get escorted to heaven by people you love. Wow.
After being in Grand Junction for a week, I knew that we needed to come home. Laura was shuffling around and missing us, I was completely drained and exhausted, and Ben needed to get back to work. It was obvious to me that Mom was not quite ready to go. I wondered if us being there made it hard for her. She has never wanted to miss anything. She actually said that to me at one point during my stay. I have been home for a week now and call almost every day. She will still talk on the phone and respond a little. She still has the edge. Yesterday Kevin got Dad to go eat some breakfast with him. When they came back, Mom said, “Way to ditch me on my last day on earth!” That just cracks me up. I am laughing still. She is so bad! No, it wasn’t that she was having some holy realization that yesterday was THE day. She was just being sarcastic. Naughty and sarcastic. Way to go, Mom!
The doctor came to see my Mom yesterday. She is a fighter. He told Dad and Kevin that it could be two weeks, but not more than a month. They increased her morphine to keep her more comfortable and talked about the possibility of her moving to the hospice facility if things get worse. My Dad took it all really well and said that he just doesn’t want her hurting. For now she is still got some vinegar in her. Dad is a prince. The real deal. He is exhausted and sad. He doesn’t ever sleep well, because he is so afraid she will die and he won’t know.
As for me? I still don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to not have my Mom. Mom has just always been there. She is a phone call away. Mom knows when something is bothering me before I even tell her. She’s my Mom. I told her that I will be okay when she is gone. It is true, but right now I can’t imagine it. I don’t want her worrying that the family won’t be okay, that the MS will get the best of me. I told her that I have a lot of her in me and I am too tough for that. I wanted to release her so that she can be free of the pain. I guess that is the ultimate love. It is so painful to imagine a world without my Mom in it, but I don’t like to see her in such pain. She is not living right now. She is dying. She will go when she is ready, I suppose. For now, I have good days and bad days. God has kind of walked me through this so far. I have not ever been there with someone as they are dying. Experiencing that with my Mom made us even closer. The really amazing part is that I feel closer to God than I ever have before. I have learned so much through this process. It isn’t over yet and I hope to get to see her one more time before she goes. I have peace if I do not though. I have peace knowing that she is in good hands. I told her that maybe she will get to have an Irish coffee with my Auntie Margie up there in heaven. She told me that was ridiculous and I laughed.