The last time I saw my mother in my childhood home, she looked pale and shriveled. When she leaned back and closed her eyes, she looked dead. She had lost a lot of weight. Far from being problematic to her, she thought it made her look young and sexy. She kept saying she felt better because of it. I felt a tenderness; I hated to leave her.
Two weeks later, the voice, loaded with accusation, of the orthodox priest announced on my answering machine that my mother had appeared jaundiced in church that morning and one of his parishioners, a nurse, had diagnosed her with only a few days to live.
“She needs to be taken care of,” he said officiously. It briefly went through my mind to ask him if he was suggesting a hit man.
I found it curious that the priest treated my mother as though she had no will of her own. When he inevitably found she was inhospitable to his orders, he pressured me to make her do what he wanted. I alternately felt sorry for him and despised him for this. I knew he was trying to help and I knew the church was concerned about my mother. But he had alienated me and I was the only one currently alive who knew how to negotiate the terrain of my mother’s mind.
I called my friend, Nina, and left a message that the priest was on the rampage and I needed some advice.
I called my mother. She sounded frail, but still had her usual belligerency. I got nothing from her except the acknowledgment that she knew how to dial 911 should she think she needed to, whatever that meant. Alex did a little better: He talked her into seeing a doctor the next day.
I was dialing Nina again when her car pulled up in front of my house. Nina has a great expression: “No one should be alone at a time like this.” I played her the answering machine message and we talked about what to do.
I spent the next morning–Monday– monitoring by telephone my mother’s progress from her doctor to the hospital, getting the news along the way that her next stop would most likely be hospice. I knew it was serious when actual doctors began calling me. I made arrangements to go to Olympia the next day, ignoring the half dozen calls from the priest. In his last message, he said in dramatic tones that my mother was on her Death Bed and she deserved an orthodox funeral.
“So that’s what’s driving him,” I thought.
My mother had prepaid her own death arrangements: no funeral, no fuss, a simple burial, no expense other than what she had already put out. She had worn me out with reminders. It had taken the place of her usual repertoire of lectures: don’t talk about menstruation in front of boys and look-at-how-you’re-sitting-keep-your-knees-together. In the past few years when her memory loss was more acute, I had talked seriously with her about her death and burial as though we hadn’t already been over the material 341 times.
On Tuesday I found my mother in a hospital bed glowing iridescent yellow. She looked like a cartoon character. She seemed a little dazed, but otherwise perky. We were chatting when a doctor, a social worker and a hospice worker all walked in and shut the door. I watched this serious procession and thought, “Wow, this is really it.”
The doctor began by telling my mother she had a cancerous mass that had started in her pancreas but had metastasized all over her body. She had about 3 weeks to live. He fumbled around the actual statement that there was “nothing we can do.”
“You can’t, huh?” my mother said as though we were discussing the possibility of a ride home.
The hospice worker cleared her throat. She opened her notebook and handed me a pile of brochures. With much rattling of papers, she mumbled to my mother that hospice was there to help her Meet Her Goals. I was amazed at her display of discomfort, not to mention the absurdity of the language. I wanted to ask, “Is the goal to die or did you have something else in mind?”
I looked at my mother who was smiling at everyone. I leaned into her. “Mom, do you understand what they are talking about?”
“No,” she said pleasantly.
I leaned in closer and said, “You’re dying. But it’s going to be like we’ve talked about—fast and easy and so you–” here I started to cry– “won’t feel pain.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s nice.” I knew she understood. She was ready to die.
I looked at the three of them. I wanted to say, “You can go now” but it was their show so I just held my mother’s hand and waited. They talked to me about hospice. It seemed that she could go home and hospice would come to her or there was an available bed at a care center down the road. I told them I thought the care center was the best idea. I didn’t want to subject normal human beings to my mother’s house. Also, I couldn’t stand the idea of her being alone in that house, no matter how familiar, while she was so close to death.
She looked a little frightened at the idea that she would not be going home. I told her there would be people who could play Scrabble with her all day if she wanted.
She perked up. “Can we play now?” she asked.
The lab coats left.
My mother gestured around the room and asked, “Now why am I here?”
“You’re dying.” I said
She sat back, smiling, “Oh, that’s right.”
I had spent 53 years trying to make my mother happy. If she died happily while playing Scrabble in the last month of her life, it would do wonders for me as well.
Next installment: Fighting the Priest.