Carl Sandburg was a dirty liar. It’s not fog but rather death that comes on little cat feet. At least for most of us that inevitable end creeps toward us so slowly that we rarely notice, or at least we can choose not to notice.
So it was with Bonnie, whose motor functions continued their slow and steady decline, and with Jim who could not or would not see it. The couple kept dancing until it was impossible. Bonnie loved to read and she continued doing so long after her hands betrayed her, accidentally ripping books apart while trying to turn their pages. Her handwriting returned to a childlike scrawl, but still she sent notes and cards to her children and grandchildren.
Everywhere Jim went Bonnie went, which was how things had been for over 50 years now. If he went to a Dairy Queen to fix a soft serve machine, Bonnie sat waiting for him, sipping a Diet Coke. Every Saturday they went to the movies, just as they had for years. The only place that Bonnie didn’t go with Jim is his workshop, with its steep stairs and its pathways crowded with tools, sheet metal, and lumber. That was Jim’s one concession to the little cat feet creeping closer to his wife.
He walked with her everywhere, his logic being that as soon as she sat down in a wheelchair it was all over for her. He’d hold her hands and later her arms as she shuffled around the house. He refused to install ramps to replace the couple of steps into the sunken living room or into the kitchen from the garage. No outside caretakers, no Med Alert bracelets, on and on. He simply didn’t want to hear those little cat feet.
Years passed, and he was left without choice. Bonnie moved to a walker and then to a wheelchair, but still he walked with her as much as he could–more and more of her weight carried by him, though there was less and less of her to carry. Caretakers dropped by weekly now to help.
Their brother-in-law died, the first death on either side of the family from that generation. Bonnie wanted to go to the funeral, a 20 hour drive under good circumstances, and her health was far from a good circumstance. Getting her in and out of the car was difficult, as was understanding what she needed. Bathing her, dressing her, feeding her–everything that was hard at home was bound to be exponentially harder on the road. Jim asked their daughter to come along.
The trip to Denver doubled as the plot of a Southern Gothic parody of The Odyssey. Our three sailors battled their first foe in Mississippi, when Jim hit a deer. He patched the car together best he could and got his one remaining headlight pointing west again. They checked into a Kansas motel one night to sleep. Jim walked/carried Bonnie toward the bathroom, standing behind her almost like a puppeteer. He lost his balance as they crossed the bathroom’s threshold. Bonnie landed face first on the tile floor, blackening both of her eyes. There’s more to the story, of course, but those are the lowest of the low points.
Bonnie made it through her brother-in-law’s funeral. She made it through the gathering at her sister’s house that evening, too. Maybe a week or so later her son wrote the following.
In the dream, I’m walking in the woods with a young girl. We come to a rapidly flowing river. The girl jumps in and immediately disappears beneath the surface. There’s nothing I can do. I stare at the water’s surface, but I know she’s been carried away by the swift current.
My cellphone rings. “Hello?”
“I shouldn’t have jumped into the river,” the girl says.
“No, you shouldn’t have.”
“Am I dead?”
“Well, if you’re talking to me you are,” I say.
I’m jarred out of the dream by the ringing of the hotel phone. “Yeah?”
“Mom’s not doing well,” my sister says. “We’ve called an ambulance.”
We’ve gathered in Denver for my uncle’s funeral. My trip from Sacramento was easy enough, a single hop between two airports, but my mother’s is another story. She’s living with progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, a neurological disorder that technically isn’t fatal but that robs its victims of muscular control. This means essential functions, too, like her swallow reflex or her ability to cough. PSP doesn’t kill its victims, but choking on dinner will, or a little bit of water that goes down the wrong pipe, or a fall.
The life expectancy for this non-fatal disease is 10 years, and by my mother’s accounting she’s had PSP for a little over 12. She exhibited symptoms long before she received a diagnosis six years ago. When specialists finally figured out what was going on with her balance and her head movements, she called to tell me. I tried hard not to cry. “I’m sorry, Ma,” I managed.
“Oh, that’s just life,” she said.
While my trip was just a point to point airplane ride, getting from Alabama to Denver was the stuff of a Southern Gothic novel for my parents and my sister. She is a godsend to my folks: A devoted, compassionate daughter who also happens to be an ICU nurse. My mother wanted to make the long trek. She was born in Colorado, and it’s where the majority of her family remains. She wanted to see her people one more time before her nonfatal disease killed her.
And so they loaded up the Chrysler, the three of them, and headed west. In Mississippi they hit a deer, taking out a headlight. Further down the road, they ran the car into a ditch. Somewhere in Kansas, my mother face-planted onto a tiled bathroom floor, my father, who served as her legs, tumbling behind her. The fall blackened her eyes and cut her lip. When I see her the following day in Denver, she looks like she’s lost a prize fight.
“Hi, Ma,” I say. For years this has been my standard greeting, and her response is a chirpy “Hi, Jim” in an exaggerated Southern accent, but she can’t speak anymore. The best she can manage today is some recognition with her right eye and a hand squeeze. I sit beside her wheelchair in my aunt’s living room, holding her hand. She motions for water and I feed it to her as if she were a baby bird, gathering water in a drinking straw and dropping it into her mouth.
The house is filled with relatives: her sisters, children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and even a great grandchild. “I’ll be back in a little bit, Ma,” I tell her. I want to make room for other people to visit. Throughout the morning relatives sit beside her wheelchair and talk to her. That afternoon we attend my uncle’s funeral, and then it’s back to my grieving aunt’s house for more visitation.
When it’s time to leave my father gets her loaded into the car and I lean through the passenger door and kiss her goodbye. “I love you, Mama,” I say. “And Jesus loves you, too.” She lets out a guttural wail. It could mean “okay” or “thank you,” or maybe “I love you, too,” or “goodbye” or “I think I forgot my purse.”
It’s 6:40 a.m., and I’ve just hung up on my sister. I throw on some clothes and rush down to my folks’ room. The ambulance arrives at roughly the same time. My father cries and my ICU nurse sister is a flurry of activity. My mother lies on the bed, her limbs curled tightly like a dead spider’s. Her eyes are fixed on infinity and her mouth gapes. She doesn’t breathe so much as pant.
“Hi, Ma,” I nearly shout. “The ambulance is here. It’s going to be okay.” I have no idea whether she hears me. While we wait for the paramedics to do their thing, my father remembers that we’re supposed to check out of the hotel today. “I’ll take care of it,” I say, and I run to the front desk. Away from my family I’m not calm. I can’t form complete sentences or even remember our last names: “The ambulance…check out…we’re going to the hospital…can’t check out…Stafford…Jones.”
“Okay, we’ll hold your rooms,” the desk clerk says. “I hope everything is okay.”
“No,” I say.
We follow the ambulance to the hospital. “They don’t have their lights on,” my father says. “That’s either really good or really bad.” I remember that I’m supposed to be on a plane in four hours. For the next two hours I walk around the emergency room with a cellphone stuck to my ear while an airline’s recording occasionally reminds me that my call is very important to them.
An ER doctor confirms that my mother has pneumonia. “We’ll start her on three powerful antibiotics and see how she does after two or three days. We’re not there yet, but have you talked about end of life decisions? Does she have a do not resuscitate order?”
“Yes,” my father says. “She has a DNR.”
“Okay,” the ER doc says. “No heroic measures, but we aren’t there yet. Let’s get her checked in and see how she does on the antibiotics.”
We walk over to the progressive care unit, one step down from the ICU. We kick around in the waiting room for a bit, and then I see a pair of orderlies wheel my mother into her new room. I approach, but a nurse stops me. “We need just a few more minutes to get her ready,” she says. Inside the room I hear someone say, “She’s a DNR. Not looking good.”
Before they even have her settled they move her to a bigger room, one with a non-hospital bed next to the familiar bed surrounded by dripping tubes and flashing screens. My sister and I call the many family members who gathered the prior day at my aunt’s house, and then some. We repeat the ER doc’s message with variations on “It’s not looking good. You might want to get down here.”
The big room fills up with family. There’s laughter and conversation and a rotating group of people who come to Mom’s bedside to comfort her or say their goodbyes. Just like at my aunt’s house, I’m in and out repeatedly, trying to give everyone a chance to visit while ensuring that she knows I’m there. I get close to her face and stare into her open eye.
“Hi, Ma,” I say. “Can you see me? If you can see me, squeeze my hand.” She does. “Oh, good. Everything is going to be okay. We’re all going to be okay. Are you feeling a little better now that you’re medicated?” She squeezes my hand again. “Well that’s good news. If you want want to take a little nap just close your eyes. We’ll still be here. If you want to let go, that’s okay, too. Are you ready to let go?” She doesn’t squeeze my hand.
Throughout the day I rotate through, staring into her pretty blue eye and scrambling for something to talk about. “Remember the Noel and Andy show, Ma? Remember when I wanted to make a picture for the coloring contest, and we made that picture of the little boy fishing and we used buttons for eyes and I won and you never let on that basically it was all you? You taught me everything I know about being a good parent. I’m sorry I’m crying, Mama. I just wish I could make it better somehow.”
What looks like a tear wells in the corner of her eye, but her gaze remains fixed and her mouth still gapes. “Are you crying?” I ask her. “Squeeze my hand if you’re crying.” She does. “Well, that’s okay. We can take care of that for you,” I say. I grab a tissue and blot the tears from her frozen face. “Are you ready, Mama?” She doesn’t squeeze my hand.
Her kidneys fail, and her face and arms begin to swell. The nurse gives her morphine to help with her pain and relax her breathing, but fluids at this point would just be cruel. She would balloon up even worse than she already is. Around 9:00 p.m. the visitors start filing out of the big room. My sister asks me if I’m going back to the hotel. “I will if you and Dad want me to,” I say. “But I don’t want to.”
“It’s up to you,” she says.
The three of us begin an all night vigil with her, interrupted by a very compassionate nurse who keeps the morphine flowing on schedule. For most of the night my mother takes several short breaths followed by a five second pause. Her good eye is fixed in place now, no tears flow. I can’t tell whether she’s still in there, so I stay in her line of vision just in case. I can’t imagine staring at a hospital ceiling while I die. I don’t know, maybe it would be comforting.
“I’m going to read you a story, Ma,” I tell her. “This was our favorite story for you to read us when we were kids. I won’t be able to read it as well as you, but I’ll do my best.” I read her “A Christmas Adventure in Disneyland” and then my sister’s favorite kid’s story, “Mr. Pine’s Purple House.” “We should read some Mark Twain,” I tell her. “He’s always fun.” I read her “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
The gap in her breathing expands from five to 12 seconds. Occasionally she stops altogether, and my sister and I stare at each other until our mother takes her next breath.
My sister lays down on the extra bed for a few minutes. My father and I sit on either side of Mother’s bed, holding her hands. I worry that the swelling caused by her failing kidneys will eventually make it impossible to remove her wedding rings, but to take them off now feels like a sacrilege. They took their vows seriously, and death has not yet parted them.
My father talks about airplanes and cars. He asks me several times whether I’ve ever seen a ’61 Chrysler 300. Finally he says, “I’m sorry I’m talking so much. I’m nervous, and I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep if I stop talking.”
“Why don’t you take a quick nap?” I offer. “I’ll wake you up if anything changes.”
“No, I want to stay awake,” he says. We keep talking while we stare at her and hold her hands.
The clock on the wall shows that 24 hours have passed since my sister’s call awakened me from my dream. I open the blinds, and the Rocky Mountains are bathed in orange light. “The sun is rising, Mama,” I tell her. “Another Son rose just for you, didn’t He? He loves you, Mama, and so do we. It’s okay to let go. Everything is okay.” My father and sister stand on opposite sides of her, saying similar things. I stand at the head of the bed, stroking her hair and her swollen face. “It’s okay, Mama. Everything is okay….”
The monitor next to her bed flashes two numbers. The first displays the amount of oxygen she’s absorbing, the other is her pulse. They both decline steadily as we say our goodbyes, and then suddenly they reverse direction. “They’re going up, she’s improving,” my father says.
“No, she just sees her people,” my sister says.
The numbers peak and then rapidly descend. My mother blinks her eyes twice, moves her lips as if she’s speaking to someone, and then she leaps into the rapid current and disappears beneath the water’s surface. She is gone.
Much more happened in that hospital room over those 24 hours–Jim talking about cars, Jim talking about heating and air conditioning, Jim apologizing for a lifetime of anger and neglect, Jim baring his soul in ways that only grief can draw out of a private man.
He sat with his son near the foot of his departed wife’s bed. “I shouldn’t have wasted so much money on myself. Instead of spending it on airplanes we should’ve taken more family vacations,” he began, and the confessions flowed out of him like a Dickens character upon meeting his final ghost.
The son rose and grabbed the thin sheet covering his mother. “Don’t do that, don’t cover her face,” Jim said.
“I’m not, Dad. I’m just pulling the sheet up over her shoulder. She looks so uncomfortable.”
A nurse entered the room and looked at Jim. “Is there anything I can get you?”
“Poison,” he said.
Beautiful and terrible all at the same time. Touched me and brought tears. I had a similar experience with my father. Being there is hard, and it affects you in ways you don’t even realize until later, but I would have wanted it any other way. This must be equal parts joy and pain to write, but you are doing it so damn well. Respect.
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Thank you, and you’re right: It hits you later.