“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.
“Did you spend all of your mom’s money?”
“Because that’s what a bad daughter would’ve done.”
I don’t reply. Mom’s been in the hospice program for over two years now. I remember all the times I'd left the nursing home convinced that ‘this was it’ only to return to find her with her hair and nails done, smiling and demanding coffee and a donut. And now, days without water, food, or her trusty oxygen tank, she’s still holding on.
“Why won’t she just let go?” I ask.
“Where are you?”
“In the car, I’m going back.”
It’s after dinner. And I had already spent the day with mom, reading to her from Middlemarch. As I read that last passage to her, I know she could hear me. I know she could understand me.
My voice in my ears was wobbly as I read out loud. “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world partly depends on unhistoric acts; and those things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I set the book down and held her hand. Her hand was so warm another effect of dying, the body, it heats up.
"Mom, I love you. You weren't perfect. You made decisions I'll never understand, like letting dad live in the basement after you divorced him. For years, you supported him and fought with him, even though the law said he was no longer your problem."
I wipe my nose with the back of my hand and keep going. “You gave me the one thing that many parents can’t or won’t give their children — acceptance. You took me and the people you met into your heart and met them with non-judgment.”
I stand up and walk to the window, and it's a dull gray winter's day. The kind of day that my mom would’ve spent in a cozy sweater with a never-ending mug of coffee and a good book.
“Mom, John’s not coming. If you are waiting for him, don’t. You did the best you could for him. You almost died for him. There’s nothing more you can do.”
There’s a box of Kleenex, and I blow my nose. It's a sad, snotty mess pouring out of me. I feel a bit self-conscious like I'm in a movie, and my acting is so on the nose it's cringeworthy.
But there's stuff I need to say to her, and it's now or never. And even though she can’t talk and is mostly dead and completely deaf, I believe she can hear me.
That was this afternoon. Now, I had this feeling pulling me back to her. It wasn’t a big loud feeling. It was small and quiet.
“Didn’t we decide last night that we were done there?” Dena asks, forcing me back with her voice rough on the other end of the phone. She’s no longer coddling me.
I want to say you decided, and by the way, you’re not the boss of me, but I don’t. I keep it to myself.
“Why are you going back there?” She demands. “There’s nothing more to do for her.”
As I pull up to the nursing home, my stomach churns. The hospice nurse said that they do not allow their patients to die alone. She repeated that to me every time she came to check mom’s vitals. Yet, the thought of her lifeless husk of a body floating before me and the forest green body bag and the stretcher. I've seen them roll out the bodies. They weren't my mom. This time it will be. I know I have to come clean and tell her the truth. The thing that I haven’t said out loud to anyone.
“I know I talk a good game,” my voice cracks, “but I’m not ready to let her go.”
“But you gotta. It’s time.”
My tears are teetering right on the brink. To release them means something I’m not ready to admit, even after watching my mom suffer. She's my mom, and I don't want her to die.
“What are we doing here?” Dena asks me as I turn the car around and point it towards home.
“I’m going to go to get some ice cream and watch the Golden Girls.”
“That sounds like a real good plan.” Now her voice is soft like she’s put a band-aid on me and is sending me off to watch cartoons.
In a trance, I wander around Whole Foods, looking for ice cream. It’s late. The store, like me, is weary. I can feel it trying to release the frantic Sunday shopper energy like I’m trying to release my mother’s deathbed energy. I get Cherry Garcia. I select it, knowing full well that it’s going to elicit complaints from my family. But I honestly don’t care. To me, this one small decision feels radically defiant, like I’m leaving them to join a coven in California.
“There’s nothing more I can do for her,” I mumble to myself on the ride home. My heart constricts and contracts working to keep me alive while a significant unreplaceable piece of me has cracked off and is working its way back into the stars.
I unlock my back door and set my ice cream down on the counter. My two yippie dogs aren’t there to greet me by bouncing up and down on their hind legs and barking their little heads off.
It’s too quiet.
I can feel the earth turning on its axis—my cell phone rings. Before I answer it, I know who it is, and I know what she’s going to say.
I can barely say hello, before the words tumble out of the hospice nurse’s mouth, choked, and strained.
“Mary passed at 7:09 pm, and she wasn't alone.”
I don’t know if mom needed me to let her go before, she could pass over. I don’t know if her last and final act as my mom was to spare me the pain of watching her die. I don’t know if Dena telling me to turn the car around was some sort of divine intervention. I don’t know if I’m awful daughter who couldn’t stomach being there for her one last time.
I text Dena.
I watch the tiny text bubbles glide across the screen as she replies.
It’s about time. Call u tmrw. Luv u.