On that day 18 years ago, just as we reached a grassy area between the hospital and the parking deck, a torrent of tears gushed out of me like a sea of pent up emotion which flowed for several minutes, punctuated by shortness of breath, sad noises, searing emotional pain, helpless, hopeless. My dad stood nearby stoic, dignified and calm as always, but I knew a similar emotional tsunami had been unleashed inside him. He stood and let me get the first waves of despair out so that I could drive us home.
The ride was quiet and I was grateful. It allowed us to begin processing the day and the way it would change our lives from that point forward. We’d waited for hours in the hospital waiting room while my mother underwent surgery to remove a tumor near her liver. The middle part of a saga that had begun with increased liver enzymes after a routine physical that had led us to this point. That afternoon her exhausted surgeon had finally appeared in the waiting room to see us. His message with simple, “I’ve got good news and bad news”. The good news is that she made it through the surgery and will be kept in the ICU this evening. The bad news is that we could not remove the tumor without endangering the portal vein. That could have resulted in her bleeding out on the table.
We, of course, knew what that meant. She was left with a time bomb inside of her that would eventually rob her of her life and tear ours apart. The next challenge would be telling this woman who had been married to my father for nearly 50 of her 74 years and had been my best friend for all of mine. But my story is not about telling hers. We did and she did her own processing. She found out the odds of survival with chemotherapy. When she learned it was slim to none, she turned it down flat. She saw no reason to torture herself unless there was a fighting chance of a positive outcome and with the regular replacement of a stent through her bile duct, she was able to have a year of traveling with my dad, enjoying a new Lincoln Towne Car, which she joked that she had to get sick to get, before things began to go downhill. The Demon had a name. It was Chloangio Sarcoma, or cancer of the bile ducts, a very rare form of the disease.
When my mother came to terms with her fate, we saw a paradigm shift. She didn’t ask, “why me?” She would say, “why not me”? Was she different than all of the others in the world who had suffered a similar fate? Life is a ride of happy trails and bucking horses. All of us have a singularly exclusive, unique trip. Like snowflakes, no two are alike.
As this most heartless of diseases began to overcome her body, she and I discovered giggling anew. There were times while helping her to the bathroom at night, she would pass gass or some other normal thing, and we started to giggle like it was beyond funny. I am not sure my father ever understood when I would return with her to her room laughing. Her humor was a radiant and contagious thing. For so long she had looked like the picture of health as the stent did its job allowing the bile to get through her liver. Hospital trips were made and taken in stride either for stent replacement or some other problem associated with her cancer. As time marched on one event stands out among the rest.
On this particular afternoon when her hospice nurse was visiting she threw up bile. I had never seen anything like it before and I was grateful to God that the hospice nurse was there. An ambulance was called and I followed it to the hospital. I arrived before the ambulance and stood in the emergency area with her doctor. He told me that she was “probably dying”. I went to the emergency check in area and began giving mom’s information and when the staff member said, “And what is wrong with your mother?” I sat there processing the question as tears began to roll and I said, “she’s dying”. With that she got up and ushered me off to a side room where I could have privacy. I called one of my best friends to let her know what was going on. As I hung up the phone, a nurse appeared with a cold, delicious ginger ale. I have never been in a hospital where they didn’t have plenty of it. It is magical. I sat for a very long time drinking it and thinking when my friend appeared in the doorway. I was so happy to see her.
When I was finally able to see mom, I was not at all prepared for what I saw. I opened the curtain to the alcove she was in while waiting to be taken to her room. She was staring upward with eyes wide open, but she wasn’t seeing anything at all. Later a doctor told me that it was a brain stem stroke from which people do not recover, or so they said. She was non-responsive.
That night and every night, I stayed in her room whether on a cot or in the big chair praying, sleeping, talking to my dad as he made his visits and of course, advocating for her as you must do with a loved one in the hospital. My brother lived in Montana and was preparing to fly out. During my time in her room, I did not pray for a complete healing. I prayed that my mother would rally so that she and my brother could have a time to say good bye. I prayed without ceasing for him and her. Finally the day of his arrival came. My father went to pick him up at the airport. While I waited for them to arrive, our minister arrived and he and I were standing in the hallway outside mother’s room chatting when my dad and brother walked off the elevator. We waited while they both entered her room. Shortly thereafter, my father appeared at the door and said, “I think you’d better come in”. Ralph (our minister) and I went in to see my mother fully alert and talking to her son with a huge smile on her face. My simple prayer had been answered. She had rallied for her last visit with her son. God truly does work in the most mysterious of ways and had answered my prayer. I felt numb. My mother knew she was in her last weeks of life and she did not want to die in the hospital so we took her home complete with hospital bed. The wonderful hospice workers set her up in the den and taught me how to put medicine into her IV. I was terrified of this after seeing television dramas about people getting air in their veins from shots, etc. She said that it was precisely because she was my mother that this would not happen. She trained me well and I learned that what happens on T.V. is not always “reality”.
My brother had a wonderful visit with mom and the two of them talked and talked. I guess God didn’t see the brain stem stroke as an obstacle. After my brother left , things went downhill with a vengeance and the hospice nurse had to deal with her becoming “impacted” and a host of other things as the cancer demon began its closing act. We had to get a nurse in to help at times. I had taken time off thanks to the family leave act so that I could be there full time. As someone dies slowly, it seems as though there comes a point where they are wavering between two worlds. My mother began to do this. The nurses who cared for her took notes for me so that I would not miss any of the unusual things that were happening. Occasionally one of the nurses would get goose bumps. Once, I was two floors above the den and heard mother call out her late brother’s name, “Earl”. Apparently, she had seen him and wanted to get his attention. She called out his name several times.
Once, during one of these times or “goose bump” moments, the room felt like a huge spiritual embrace. Mom asked me if I could come with her into the wavy light. At that point, I left the room. I was struggling with her immanent loss. Her nurse told me later that mom had told her that she hates to leave so, since dad and I would be so sad. When I came back into her room, she looked up and said, “No, she won’t be able to come with me”, as if she had been told. She also seemed to speak to her late sister. Mom said her sister was close by and wanted her to come and pick blackberries with her like when they were children.
Once she said, “He’s coming, but I don’t know when, I have to get out of here. Let me up so that he can see me”. She wanted to go outside and see the birds because she said she had seen birds with names on them. She told me to give away her clothes and I asked, “Are you ready to go?" She said, “Yes”. I asked her if she had seen where she was going and she again said, ”Yes”. I asked what it was like and the only word she could utter was “nature”. Her voice sounded hoarse and it was very difficult for her to speak. She spoke of a wavy light and said her sister was there in it. She said she wanted to go with her but was afraid to go. I told her not to be afraid. She also saw someone named Peggy but I have never been able to figure out who that could be. She said she was ready to go with them and knows that it is ok and that she is ready but worried about dad and me. I told her we would be ok and that I would look after dad.
Mother announced that she was going home that very day. She said nature was all around and that she wanted to go home. She said her sister was there with a man. She said that they wanted her to come into the light but that she was afraid. She said that soon it would be ok and that she was going. She said she was ready to be with them and as she drifted off, the last thing she said was, “mother”.
I was awakened around 2:00 am by silence. I knew she had gone. I checked and became upset seeing her eyes wide open. I called the hospice nurse first. During mother’s illness dad had a mild stroke. I wanted the nurse there prior to telling him. She arrived quickly and took over. God was all over it. Peace had come to mom and to us.
It wasn't until afterward that I recalled mother telling me about her mother’s passing. Family members had gathered around her bedside where she had been in a coma for an extended time. Suddenly she rose up in bed telling them that she had made peace with God and that her brother Oscar was there and she was going with him. At that point, she passed on.
My mother died before I knew anything about nearing death awareness. Her hospice nurses put me onto books like, “Final Gifts”, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, both hospice workers, which had many similar occurrences with the dying explained throughout. As I read that particular book, I knew I had witnessed something fundamental in the dying process and that it had been a blessing to be a part of it.