Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The energizer mommy

If you know anything about me, you might think this post is about my near obsession with battery-powered...um...gratifiers. But you would be wrong. Very wrong.

I got a call as I was finishing up a late shift at work. My mother had fallen and was being transported to the hospital. That was pretty much the only information available so when I clocked out I headed south into the depths of hell. Otherwise known as Utah County.

For the past decade or so, when I look into the mirror in the mornings, I see my mother looking back at me.  The same drooping eyes, the same almost-sagging jawline, even the same nose. As I walked around the curtain in the ER that night, I saw my face on my mother, lying unconscious in a hospital bed. It gave me quite a start and I felt like I was viewing my future. Her parchment skin was stretched across her bones and blotched with deep red. Bruises covered one side of her head which was pulled to one side, as was her mouth. She had suffered a massive stroke and was bruised and battered from the resulting fall. She would grasp your hand if you held it but was otherwise unresponsive. We sat for hours as the doctors and nurses bustled in and out. When she was stable she was transported upstairs to a room. At that point, I left one of my sisters to sit with her and took off for home to grab a few hours of sleep.

Sleep wasn't coming easily so I grabbed an overnight bag and threw in an extra shirt and pair of undies. (The only clean pair I had was a black and white zebra stripe which seemed rather irreverent to wear to such a solemn occasion but there was no choice.) I drove like a bat into hell, hoping I would make it before my mother passed. Most of my other sisters had gathered there (including one that took a red-eye from California) and we started our vigil. The stroke had taken one entire side of mom's brain and there would be no recovery. She had been explicit in her living will that she did not want any "heroic measures" so no oxygen had even been administered. She was not coming back from this. We voted to also stop the fluids she was receiving since it would only prolong her death.  She would have morphine to keep her comfortable and that was it. It was all we could do and we were at peace with the decision.

The six of us sisters have had some...severe differences...over the years. Many of us were barely speaking to each other. But we put all those things aside.  We would unite for mom. Other things could wait. We sat in the tiny hospital room on a motley collection of chairs scrounged up and crammed into all existing floor space. When a doctor or nurse came in we did a sort of sideways shuffle out the door to let them in, then closed in behind them like a tidal wave. Each one had the same dour prediction. She probably wouldn't last the day. When evening came, mom was still going strong so everyone dispersed except my youngest sister and me. Since we are the youngest we were presumably more spry (and had no local bed to sleep in) so we would stay the night in the hospital, armed with cell phone numbers to let everyone know when mom went to the light. Or wherever she was going.

The night passed slowly as we tried to get comfortable in a couple of old plastic recliners and listened to mom's labored breathing. The night nurse came in and told us that if he were a betting man, he'd put money on her going that night. It's a good thing he wasn't a betting man or he would have lost his shirt. She was still loudly breathing in the morning, her oxygen level almost normal.

The day passed with more dire predictions. She would go that day. Yeah, right.  My baby sis and I settled in for another night in those damned recliners. This night her breathing changed.  She had been taking four breaths then a 20 second silence, like sleep apnea, but tonight it lengthened to 30 seconds. Only about six breaths per minute but her oxygen level was barely below normal. Unbelievable. And she was still putting out the normal amount of urine for healthy kidneys even though she had had no fluids for over 24 hours. That gap in breathing was unnerving. I listened to the silence, willing her to breathe again even though I WANTED her to let go and head on out of town. But each time when she took that breath (finally!) I would take a deep breath too, just out of sheer adrenaline. Luckily I dozed out of sheer exhaustion.

The next day brought more exclamations of surprise as the day nurses came in and saw she was still kicking (so to speak). Surely this would be the day! The hospice people kept asking if anyone still needed to come or if something was left undone. We'd done everything we could think of to help her find closure and get the hell out of that body but nothing was working.  We'd even all left the hospital for a couple of hours in case she wanted to go alone. We had a priesthood blessing releasing her from her body. (I was dozing in another area at the time and they didn't bother coming to get me for that.  I guess I showed my skepticism.) The nurses gave her a bath and changed her gown. They hadn't done it before because, hey, she wasn't going to be around long enough to need it. Just after the bath her breathing changed very dramatically again. This time to rapid shallow breaths with no pauses.  She had to be on her way out now.

Two of my adult nieces offered to spend the third night so my sister and I could get some sleep in an actual bed. The four of us watched mom till midnight. Her oxygen level had fallen but stopped and leveled out.  Again. Finally we left for a nearby hotel with instructions to be called if anything happened.  Less than two hours into our sleep, however, a call came. Her oxygen level was dropping and dropping fast. We sped through the empty streets and streaked past security, hoping mom wasn't going to be gone before we got there. The four of us again sat and watched the numbers on the oxygen monitor with glazed eyes. It dropped into the 40s, the 30s. We called the others and they rolled out of their beds and did the same speeding and streaking routine. The eight of us sat around her bed cheering her on. She was down to 22!  The nurse told us that when a person's level gets that low it doesn't come back up again. We were giddy with sleep deprivation and relief. We started singing an old song that mom used to drive us nuts with.  And then...we watched that damn number on the oxygen meter RISE! Okay, we had to get out of the room, we were obviously bringing her back somehow. We dispersed to a sitting area around the corner. After a while I peaked in at the meter. She was back up to 55!  How was that possible?! The nurse was stunned. We were steamed. That was it.  She wasn't leaving while we were there, that much was obvious. We huffed out of the hospital in the not-so-wee hours of the morning with instructions not to be called unless she was GOOD AND DEAD. Otherwise we ran the risk of again bringing her back from the edge yet again!

Hours later we finally got a call. My nieces had even had to leave the room, leaving only a brother-in-law to watch. I never got to see the monitor fall and to see mom peacefully slip off. You know, if someone had told me a week ago that I would WANT to see my mother die I would have thought they were bonkers. But after watching the hell and battering her body went through, it would have been actually...comforting. But mom didn't want it that way. Our fraill little mom who was always complaining about how bad her health was obviously had an inner core of incredible strength. I can only I hope I inherited it too.


  1. JZ,what an amazing story. I know you will always be grateful that she she went peacefully (but not without a fight.) Also that you were with her (almost) to the end. Take care and get some sleep.-- cyber hugs to you.

  2. Just incredible. I was glued to my monitor from start to finish. All I can think of to say is that zebra-striped underwear seems highly appropriate for the occasion. I don't know why. But there you have it.

    Take care of yourself, JZ, and let's raise a glass to the loveliness you inherited from your mother -- somewhere NOT in Utah County whenever it's a good time for you. More cyber hugs to you.

  3. I really liked your post. It was well written and honest. You are a very talented writer. I really felt a part of it. I'm glad you were all able to be there.