It’s About Time

“Be prepared,” the hospice nurse warned when she arrived at the nursing home to remove mom’s oxygen. “Once we take her off, she can go within the hour.”

That was 48 hours ago.

During that visit, the hospice nurse made one thing very clear to me from the beginning of mom's final act. "At Transitions Hospice, we have a policy that no one dies alone."

Mom isn’t letting go. But by this time, I had already lost her piece by piece for years to the dementia that broke down her brain. As I sit by her deathbed, the thought that I churn over in my mind is …Can I handle being here for her last breath? And I honestly don’t know. I should be able to. In the last few years, I’ve cleaned up the mounds of her excrement and changed her diaper afterward. I’ve bathed her. I’ve hired lawyers for her. This is the one last thing she needs from me. And I’m not sure I can do it. I don’t think I can watch the life leave her body. And I'm all she's got because at eighty-seven, pretty much everyone she knew and loved is gone or drifted away. For her final moments, it's either going to be me — her daughter or a hospice nurse — a stranger.

Dena, who’s been in my life since kindergarten, strides into the room like her feet are on fire within with her mask hanging from her chin. She tosses it aside and disturbs the gentle molecules surrounding my mom, our loved ones on the other side who are lingering, trying to coax mom into the light, and me. Once she enters the room, it vibrates with life, not with death.

We were born one day apart at Chicago Wesley Memorial Hospital. Our dads were both drunk and covered in snow at Soldier’s Field, watching the Bears lose to the Lions. While our moms gave birth alone. And from then on, for years to come, it was our drunk dads and our alone moms trying to hold our lives together with shoestrings and cigarettes.

My mom loved her martinis. The day before, Dena told me we would throw her an end-of-life cocktail party. She opens her shapeless black leather purse, pulls out a cocktail mixer and a jar of olives, and sets them down on the hospital tray.

“What’s that smell?” Dena asks.

I point to the diffuser, pumping out a mix of essential oils I concocted.

“You and your hippie crap it smells like a head shop in here.”

“It’s better than pee and death.”

Dena bends over and kisses my mom on her forehead. “Hey Mary, how’s it going?” She turns around and points at my mom’s mouth.

“Where’s her teeth?”

I shrug. Her bottom dentures went missing during the pandemic — hearing aids, adult diapers, hand soap, glasses, and dentures all go missing at an alarming rate in the best of conditions.

Dena pours the drinks into tiny plastic cups used to hold tiny amounts of water, just enough to take pills. My stomach is full of grief, and the vodka warms me and softens out all the pointy edges. We take turns wiping martini juice over mom's mouth with the spongy blue thing used to keep her lips from drying and cracking.

"You like that, huh, Mary?" Dena says, and we both giggle like little girls.

At some point, I decide I need more to eat than olives and order a pizza.

“So, you’re bringing the drinks when I’m dying, right?”

“And a pillow to smother you if you hang on too long.”

“You’d better, or I’ll kill you,” she says.

An easy quiet settles between us as we watch mom's chest, making sure it's still moving up and down.

“Do you remember that perm you got freshman year?” I ask her. “You cut all your hair off, then got this super tight perm.”

Dena’s hair, dark and thick, it’s what shampoo models only dream of, and women who buy extensions hope for.

She takes a bite of the pizza and gives it a dirty look like the spinach covering it had personally offended her.

“You said that you weren’t hungry. I would’ve ordered half sausage.”

“Are you vegan again?” She asks as she picks off the peppers, leaving only the mushrooms and onions.

“Bad perm and all, my mom carried a picture in her wallet for years.”

We looked at my mother. Her mouth stuck open with her once always tidy short, white hair longer now because she couldn’t get it cut during COVID. It hangs at her shoulders. Her face is grey. Without her teeth, I think she looks like the haunted figure in Munch’s painting, The Scream.

“Why would she keep that picture?” Dena asks.

“She thought you looked adorable.”

“Your mom was,” our eyes meet, and we’re not laughing anymore. “I mean is a good person.”

It’s 96 hours later.

Mom’s still with us. I went home to shower and eat. When I walk into her room, Dena’s sitting by her bed, giving my mom sips of coffee.

“I thought you were joking when you said she asked for a cup of coffee.”

“That nurse told me I can’t give her any,” Dena says, wiping the coffee from mom’s mouth with a balled-up Kleenex.

I take off my coat and sit down. Dena’s hair is in a sloppy ponytail. I don’t think she’s showered. I look at my mom. In the short drive over, she retreated into the in-between. Her eyes are bright but vacant.

“The other nurse, the one that likes to quote the Bible at me, said your mom can only have this,” Dena says as she hands me a small container.

It looks like it should be JELL-0, but it’s filled with a clear white gel that looks more like hand sanitizer.

“And I asked her like twenty minutes ago for more morphine,” she says, looking at the time on her phone.

I put the jelly goop down. No one should have to eat that stuff, especially not someone dying.

“I’m calling your brother,” Dena declares. “This isn’t right.”

It’s been a hot topic in mom’s death room. My brother, John. Is mom waiting for him? And will he show? For our entire lives, like Prince, we never knew for sure if he’d make a guest appearance for fill-in-the-blank holiday.

At the moment, I’m barely keeping it together, and my mentally ill, PTSD, addict brother is the last thing I can manage. Since I took over my mom's care, our relationship, which was strained on a good day, quickly turned into a Greek tragedy meets Biblical Cain versus Abel type of thing with full-on betrayals and battles. Eventually, we stopped talking. It may have been the first letter from the lawyer telling him to stop demanding money from my mother. It could’ve been the time I had to call the police on him. Or the time he wrote me a letter calling me the c-word, making an anagram with the letters. For the letter "n," he came up with the world ne'er-do-well, which was both impressive and hurtful.

Now, we communicate through a mutual acquaintance—an older woman from our neighborhood where we grew up. She’s now his surrogate mother. In the last conversation I had with her, she informed me that my mom’s deathbed would be too hard for John to handle.

Finally, Dena gets John on the phone. She talks to him like she’s navigating a jumper off the top of a roof. She repeats his name. Even though he’s refusing, she won’t let him off slide off the hook. She won’t let him squirm away from the dirty business of our mother’s death.

“I’ve already made my peace,” John says. I can hear him take a drag on his cigarette — the television blasts sports center in the background.

“That’s fine, John, but right now, it’s not about you. It’s about your mom. And she needs to hear you say goodbye.”

Dena forces him to say goodbye to our mother, and once she pulls that out of him, she hangs up.

“What happened to him? He wasn’t always such an ass, was he?”

“I kinda think he was. It took us a while to figure it out.”

Dena stands up. She looks around the room.

“We’re done here. We’ve done everything we can do. And we’re not coming back.”

I’m frozen. Even though Dena’s only one day older than me, she’s always been the boss. At our fifth birthday party at McDonald’s, we both got matching plastic wallets with the word LOVE embossed on the front. Dena got a tree trunk brown one, and I got sky blue one. All she had to do was hold out her hand, and I traded her.

“Come on,” she says as she pulls out her car keys.

But right now, I can’t leave. And I can’t stay either. I listen to mom’s breath. It’s a series of phlegmy mucus raspy wheezes. It’s the death rattle. Can I leave her? Her final breath can come at any second now. I’m not convinced that I can handle watching the last of her life trickle out of her. The idea that my last memory of her would be her sleeping peacefully in her bed comforts me.

I clip the oxygen monitor to her forefinger. Her oxygen levels continue to bounce up and down. The normal saturation point for someone not dying is over 95 percent, and mom was hovering around 76. And this is after decades of smoking two packs a day. I imagined her lungs were like two dried-up blackish-purple prunes hanging out behind her rib cage. How they were pumping any air in and out was nothing short of mom’s cast iron will.

We both crutch over it like we’ve done all week.

The monitor reads 84.

“Good grief, she’s never going to die,” Dena says as she hands me my coat and pushes me out of the room. “We’re getting some dinner and lots of wine.”

Now it’s 120 hours later.

On day one, it was excitement about mom’s “transitioning.” For staff, for their faith, or for their sanity, their residents were going home to a much better place free of pain. Now, we were the last two people left at the New Year’s Eve party. The hosts were cleaning up the empty bottles, but mom was refusing to take the hint.

I click my phone to the magnet on the dashboard and dial Dena’s number.

“I’m an awful daughter,” I say when she answers the phone.

On the other end of the line, it’s quiet. We’ve covered this a million times over, sigh.

“Did you put your mom in a crummy nursing home?”

“No,” I whisper.