My dad called me on Tuesday, February 16, 2016 and told me that I needed to come up to my parent’s house. With my mother unconscious at that point, I didn’t expect her to make it through the night. She not only pulled through, but fought for her life during the next EIGHT nights, before finally passing at 6:30 pm on February 24th. To some, it would seem that she was holding onto something- that she wasn’t ready to let go. I think that all of us who stayed with her during that time period thought the same thing at one point or another. We all felt so many emotions throughout those 8 days. Confusion. Sadness. Frustration. Nervousness. Happiness. Grief. But most of all, love.
Here are the things I remember most about that week:
Watching the way my mom consciously knew her time was near, and calling her friends on the East Coast to say goodbye. It wasn’t so much that she merely told them, it was the way that she told them. In fact, on more than one call, she proclaimed, “[Friend], I’m dying!” The tone in her voice and look on her face when she told them was almost jubilant. There were tears when she said goodbye, but she seemed almost happy to let her friends know that she was passing away.
The hospice nurses. We were fortunate enough to have some of the absolute best, most patient, loving, considerate hospice nurses. All of them were amazing, but in different ways. One of them was like a mother hen- always caring, staying on top of things. One was very well versed in her profession and could communicate to us what was happening. One was HYSTERICAL. He sang songs, kept us all relaxed, and told us and my mom jokes in a way that only we would appreciate. All of the nurses said that they had never seen someone as strong and live as long through the process as my Mom, and they were incredibly helpful, professional and consoling.
The compassion and support from people on the outside. I have never seen so much food delivered to one place in my entire life! People were calling and texting, some on a daily check in, to make sure that we were okay. It was amazing. I had one friend literally text me at 5:00 every afternoon to just ask how things were going and if I needed to talk. Our friends and family were incredibly supportive and they were a huge help to us for a multitude of reasons. If you are reading this (and you know who you are), thank you again from the bottom of my heart.
Seeing my mother’s face when my sister made it back on Wednesday morning, despite none of us believing that she would make it through the night. In hindsight, we had nothing to worry about because it wouldn’t be for another week before Mom would pass away. My mom and Jenn are best friends, and I cannot imagine what she must have been feeling when she got the call in the middle of the night, or how it felt to be sleep deprived on the airplane, delirious and wondering whether she would make it in time to say goodbye.But the relief all of us felt was incredible and I am so grateful to my mom for allowing Jenn the time to spend all of those precious last minutes with her.
Being sent a text that I had been fired from my job- while sitting inches away from my unconscious mother- and not giving a shit. At that moment, what I realized more than anything was that my mother was the only thing that was important. Life isn’t about a job, or money, or any of the material things that make up this world. It’s about relationships; being with those you love and who love you. I wouldn’t trade a single second of those 8 days for any job. And although I believe it was a shitty thing to fire me, in a certain light I can’t thank them enough. They not only showed me the type of company I don’t want to work for, but also let me focus 100% of my energy on my mom.
Thursday night. It was this night that my mom had some visitors. My twin boys came up to the house with their mom (Stacy), as did one of the hospice nurses (who was coincidentally a family friend) and a Pastor (Nick, also a family friend). After some small talk, Nick asked Mom if he could talk to her for a few moments, and my mom said yes. Those of you who knew Barb know that religion and spirituality were completely separate things to her, and although she believed in Jesus Christ, no one really knew how this conversation was going to go. Nick asked her if she believed in Jesus, and my mom looked at him, incredulous that he would dare ask her, and emphatically said “Well yeah!” It was hysterical! Nick read some passages from the Bible, talked with my mom about the next steps of her journey, and led what was possibly the funniest prayer. It was great, and I’m sure Mom did it more for me than herself, but it was great that Nick was able to spend some time with her.
Next, my mom asked Stacy to go outside with her. My mom was on supplemental oxygen, so we moved her into a wheelchair and brought the oxygen outside with her. As we all stood around, we came to realize in no uncertain terms that my mom wanted to speak with Stacy- alone. We all laughed and went inside, and my mom made sure to tell me to close the door. For the next hour, she spoke with my ex-wife- who knows what was said! Without knowing the dynamics of that relationship it would be hard to understand, but to those who do, we found it to be amazing.
After speaking with Stacy, we moved my mom back inside to her chair, and she asked the boys to come sit with her for a few minutes. My boys were always so good with her. They always were so aware of how loud they spoke, how gentle they needed to be, and did so without anyone telling them. The self-awareness it takes for even adults to conduct themselves a certain way around someone who is sick can be difficult, let alone for a child. They always carried themselves with incredible keenness, and that day was no exception. As my mom, Chris and Andrew talked, she had three things she asked them to do: Do good in school, take care of one another, and go to church. They talked about baseball, and Nana told them that she didn’t care what they did, good or bad, she would always be proud of them. They hugged, and said goodbye. Then hugged and said goodbye again. The love that was felt in that room between those three was so present you could touch it.
Last dinners- we had several of these! Frantic trips to get a slice of my mom’s favorite pizza, Dad grilling food, every day my mom ate with us (which was a miracle in and of itself), we weren’t sure whether or not it was our last family meal. There came a time when we all knew it would be the last time we ate together, which I’ll talk about later in this post, but it was both fun and painful at the same time.
My mom’s hysterical attitude. Several times a day, my family held our collective breath as my mom seemed to transition to passing away. When this would happen, we would all huddle around her, consoling her, hold her hand, and quietly talk to her as she seemed to slip away. I had done some research and read an article about what to do, and one of the things I read was to tell the person who is passing that it was alright, and it was okay if she wanted to let go. So early in the 8 days, shortly after reading this article and during one of these episodes, my mom had her eyes closed and seemed to not be doing well. We all thought that the moment had come. I was kneeling next to Mom and quietly whispering to her that it would be okay, and that it was okay to let go. Suddenly, she opened her eyes. “I KNOW IT’S OKAY. AND IF YOU WOULD SHUT UP I COULD GET SOME SLEEP!” And with that, she closed her eyes and took a nap! It was one of the funniest moments of the week for me and although I felt extremely foolish, I couldn’t help but laugh at my mistake- thinking that my mom was going to go down without a fight.
Staying up late. As the days wore on, my sister and I made a nonverbal pact that we would alternate nights staying up with my mom. Earlier in the week, my dad was staying up, but he needed to get sleep and had a very tough time keeping his wits on days following little rest, so Jenn and I took turns. I can’t speak for my sister, but staying up with Mom was nice because it allowed me some one on one time with her. Some of the nights she was awake, and others she was asleep, and we would spend time talking, listening to music and watching movies. I’ll never forget after she fell asleep for the last time, I would play Bob Seger and we would listen to it together, and she would respond with facial expressions whether she wanted to hear a specific song or not. At the time, I felt bad when she would grimace upon hearing a specific song, but I realize now that it was the only way she could tell me what she wanted to listen to.
Sunday afternoon. Saturday night, Mom’s pain increased as her body had built up a tolerance to the increased dosages of morphine that were being administered. Because of this, the hospice palliative care prescribed stronger pain medicine on a more frequent basis. We were told that once she was given the medicine, she would most likely not wake up and eventually (although there was no telling when), her body would shut down. It was also something we couldn’t turn back on because her body would suffer from extreme withdrawals if we did. We all sat with Mom, and discussed it with her. At that point, all she wanted was to not be in pain, but she was not quite ready.
Knowing that our final dinner was now upon us, she told us she wanted Chinese food from her favorite restaurant, and their neighbor was kind enough to go and get it for us. We ate like kings. Even my mom ate. We had an amazing time eating dinner the four of us, just as we had done so many thousands of times before. I’ll never forget that meal, and although we were all sad, we still enjoyed spending that moment together as a family.
She asked us to put her in her wheelchair, as weak and in as much pain as she was in, she was still incredibly determined. We wheeled her around the house as she told us where she had secretly stashed Dad’s money for us to go on a vacation. She was divvying up as much stuff as she could, but you could tell she was getting tired. As she was wheeled into her closet, she started to tell my sister what she wanted her to do with all of the clothes, and then paused. In that moment, she knew that she wasn’t sure how much time she had left before her pain medicine started to wear off, so she looked at my sister, no longer caring about the tangible things in life, and said, “You know what? You’ll figure it out.” HA! With that, we moved her back to her chair.
One of the things I forgot about until this past weekend was the irony behind the day. My mom loved NASCAR. She was a huge Chevrolet fan, loved Dale Earnhardt, and even was an amateur racer herself. She used to love to turn the surround sound up on Sundays and hear the sound of the engines roaring by the microphones set up on the track. That Sunday happened to mark the start of the 2016 NASCAR season with the Daytona 500. She told us she wanted to watch it, and we turned it on minutes before the ceremonial declaration of “Gentlemen start your engines!!” Mom asked us to turn it up, so we did. Apparently it wasn’t loud enough, so we kept cranking up the volume. Louder. And louder. And LOUDER until the whole house was full of the sound of pure American horsepower. In this moment, the start of another NASCAR season began with the “Great American Race.” The irony is that, while my mother’s race to the finish line in this life neared, the start of her eternal life began.
The moment my mother passed away. Three days later, on Wednesday, February 24, 2016 at exactly 6:30 pm, my mother passed away beautifully and surrounded by family. We had been nearing that point for a few hours, and after spending that time around her, we walked into the other room to talk to the nurse about what was happening. A few minutes went by, and my dad and I happened to look and noticed that she was very close. Apparently she needed those few moments for herself. As we came back to her, she was calm, pain free, and at peace. It wasn’t more than a few minutes later that she passed. I’ll never forget that moment because I feel like I watched her spirit leave her physical body and transcend into Heaven. It was the single most beautiful and painful moment I have ever experienced, and the emotions were as wide ranging as I had ever felt.
Love. The thing I will remember most over those 8 days is the love we expressed for one another. The hand holding. The talks about life. Reminiscing about the great memories we had. Asking the questions that we never got to ask. Enjoying moments watching TV for the last times. Listening to her tell me the things she wanted me to accomplish in life, and how proud she was of me. Feeling the back of her hand rubbing my cheek like she used to do when I was a baby. Telling her how proud I was of everything she accomplished. Making sure she knew I felt so lucky and fortunate that she was my Mom. All of that love we shared was priceless. But most priceless of all- telling one another “I love you.” It wasn’t just that we said the words, it was how we said it. My mom made sure I knew exactly how much she loved me because of the tone of voice she had. And with every ounce of my emotion and energy, I would tell her I loved her. Maybe she had used that tone when I was a baby, but in my conscious life, I had never heard her express to me how much she loved me as in those days. I felt it. The smile she had on her face when she would tell me was priceless, and without question was the thing I will remember most.
Mom- I love you, miss you and though I can’t see you, I know you are with me and the rest of the family. Thank you for all of the wonderful memories and lessons about living life to the fullest. I love you Mom.