Mom and me
Five years ago this week, I flew out to Virginia to take care of my mother. She was recovering from surgery and my dad needed me to help around the condo. My tasks included emptying a drain attached to my mom's stomach and helping her record the fluid on a notepad, finding a home health care worker to take my place when I went home and getting Mom to eat.
My dad picked me up at Dulles. He didn't really tell me anything new, just that Mom was tired and not eating. I had no idea what I would see when we walked through the front door. She was sitting in the kitchen in her wheelchair, no makeup, hair not done. Her face had a yellow cast to it, like a jaundiced infant. She was so thin. The word that entered my mind was gaunt, she was gaunt. Her normally bright blue eyes were dull and almost lifeless.
No one prepared me for this. My father didn't warn me, my mother didn't warn me, no one told me she was dying. No one told me it was time, that she was so tired, that trying to make her eat would be more difficult than nailing Jello to a tree. So I tried. A dietitian came for a visit bringing protein shakes in chocolate and vanilla. My mom drank one and a half that day, but never again. We gave her Ensure, which she wouldn't drink. Scrambled eggs went into the trash.
And every morning, my father went to work, leaving me there with Mom. I don't blame him; I think he was in denial as much as I was. She had a lift chair in the bedroom-she couldn't sleep in their bed anymore-and when she would take one of her many naps, I would tiptoe into the room to make sure she was still breathing. When I saw her chest move up and down, I would tiptoe back out into the kitchen to cry.
One evening, my dad and I went to Whole Foods. We probably spent more time out than we should have, just walking around chatting and looking at people who were still vibrant and filled with life. When we got home, my mom was in her bathroom. She'd had an accident on her way to the toilet. My dad took his overcoat off and we cleaned her up. While we were wiping and drying, my mother said something like "This is how you know people love you." My heart broke into pieces because she really believed that-the only way she knew we loved her is we were cleaning shit off her body. All the other times, she wasn't so sure.
I left a day early. Not out of grief or exhaustion, although I was tired down to my molecules. I left because on my next to last night, my father was wheeling Mom into the bedroom and she told him to hurry-she was going to throw up. She hadn't had anything to eat in two days, and I immediately ran to the phone and called her doctor. She had nothing in her system except pain medication and a little milk, she felt like vomiting and frankly, I thought a doctor should know what the hell was going on. That was the wrong thing to do, evidenced by the reaction of both my parents.
The last time I saw my mother, I lied to her. She wanted to know why I was going home early, and I told her I'd found the home health care worker, so it was time for me to leave. She didn't believe me, but the one thing my mother and I always had between us was the ability to ignore when the other was not telling the truth. Her eyes were sad but she smiled at me, that skeletal face still tinged with yellow.
I never spoke to her again. Two weeks later, it was over. On November 14th, she left her pain and sorrow and anguish behind. Mine was just beginning.