My blogging and writing plans for 2017 came to a standstill when my mother became gravely ill. This is what happened.
My mother died on January 16, 2018, two days before her 80th birthday. May she be dancing with the angels.
For the last five years, she had been ill with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, known as COPD. Yes, she was a smoker of many years, even after she developed asthma.
After years of more and more frequent hospitalizations, In 2017 she became critically ill. It was clear that she was dying to me and everyone around her. She refused to accept it even though she could barely walk 100 feet without collapsing, breathless. Her refusal to do physical or respiratory therapy, her refusal to accept the care of a nursing home turned a manageable (if worsening) illness into a series of traumatic emergency events.
In the last six months, there were at least ten emergency hospitalizations. There was one day in July when she came home from the hospital in the afternoon and went back via ambulance in the evening.
In late fall, she moved to a nursing home, a move she fought as long as possible. By then the disease was progressing at lightning speed. She had become frail and thin. COPD patients often become emaciated, due in part to the body’s struggle to breathe (all their calories go to the struggle for breath).
She refused to accept her death until the day before she passed when she told me, as I watched her entire body struggle to take a breath: “I can’t live like this.” It was the worst I’d ever seen her and it shook me. She was asking for help I couldn’t give. No matter how homicidal I had felt toward her in the past — and believe me, she took me there — I could never help her end her own life.
I’m not sure if she was asking me a question or stating a fact. I think she had moved to the last stage of death, acceptance. If you’ve never read Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ book On Death and Dying, she describes five stages of grief of the terminally ill. Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, and Acceptance. My mother stayed at the denial and anger stages as long as she could. She experienced acceptance one day before she died.
“I’m sorry Mami, I’m sorry this is happening to you.” I was. I stayed with her until she fell asleep in the fetal position. She was breathing a little easier. I kissed her temple and left.
Even though I knew she was dying, it never occurred to me that she would actually die. I know that doesn’t make sense, that’s how it felt. No matter how far ahead you see it coming, you’re never prepared for it when it happens.
When I was called to the emergency room the next afternoon, she was already unconscious and the doctors told me that her pupils were unresponsive. Her heart was slowing gradually. She had gone into respiratory arrest at the nursing home and lost consciousness in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. On the phone, the doctor had told me that it was a matter of time until her heart gave out.
I never thought I’d have the balls to watch anyone die. But it’s like any other life event of someone important to you. You want to witness and support. Of course, I would stay with her, hold her and support her she passed from this world to the next.
I rushed out to the waiting room to get my 17-year-old son, who despite having witnessed his grandmother’s decline, wasn’t expecting this to be the end. We had been in the emergency room so many times over the years. There had been so many late-night ambulance calls, hospital visits, blood transfusions, and yet always, she came back from it. She prevailed. She became, smaller, frailer and weaker, but she held back death with her iron will. Until today.
He didn’t believe that she was unconscious, that she had been overtaken by the illness she fought so hard against. My son touched her face and tried to open her eyes.
“Grandma? C’mon grandma wake up.”
Her only response was shallow breathing from beneath the oxygen mask. I felt his heartbreak, rather than saw it. That crack that happens when the unimaginable crashes through our youthful invincibility. I couldn’t protect him from this pain, this terrible loss.
I touched her, I held her, I cuddled my warm face against her cool face and spoke to her. I stroked her grey hair. Her face was still, she looked asleep. This was the easiest that I had seen her breathe in months. I saw on the monitors that when we touched her, her heart rate went up. But it was much, much too low.
“Let go, Mami,” I said. “It’s okay, don’t worry about us, we will be fine. Rest. You need to rest.”
“You did everything you needed to do, and more,” I said. “You haven’t left anything undone. You need to rest. You’ve suffered enough.”
Our relationship was fraught, she was a difficult woman, and our history included as much conflict and pain as it did love. Maybe more. In her last year, she became angrier as her illness progressed, lashing out in frustration. This made her no ray of sunshine to be around. Instead of the anger or vindication (die, you horrible bitch!) that I had imagined that I would feel, I felt nothing but love and compassion for her as she passed. Part of this was due to how much she had suffered in her final months. COPD is basically slow suffocation. DON’T EVER SMOKE. And even if you don’t, always have an air purifier. This disease can and does hit non-smokers as well.
Whatever sins she had committed in her life, my mother more than paid for as she gasped for breath that in the end no oxygen machine or ventilator could provide. Her body wasted away with the exertion of trying to breathe. No one deserves such suffering. My mother often said that there was no hell, that you pay for your bad deeds in this life. She suffered enough for three lifetimes.
As I looked at her ravaged body I held her hand Pain swelled in my chest. I didn’t recognize the thin bony fingers, that felt as light and fragile as a dead bird in my hand. Her soft and strong manicured hand, sporting her Colombian emerald, was the hand I remembered. The hand that was my anchor.
I watched her shallow breathing as a storm of emotions swirled in my chest. Mostly the desire for a final conversation. I didn’t get to speak to her. But we knew each other so well, I know what she would have said.
“Take care of Marcus.” Her grandson was everything to her. Then, “Go back to the Church; take care of your body, find a man who deserves you [because none of them, including the current one, were ever good enough]; write every day. Don’t waste a second, and never be afraid.” And something about my hair.
A powerful clarity flooded through me as a watched her slow shallow breaths. This clarity that gave me understanding. I realized that she must have endured terrible emotional damage; damage that took deep root and caused the emotional abuse that she rained on me throughout my life. I saw that she carried scars that she needed to protect, which made her incapable enduring vulnerability. I saw that her need to control everyone and everything was rooted in pain and betrayal. I saw that her need to control me and what I did was a misguided attempt to protect me from suffering the same damage. I saw that her inflexibility was a need for safety. She gave me everything material in life, except acceptance. And I saw that she thought she was protecting me by trying to make me into what she wanted. I saw that her emotional abuse of me was her own pain and regret, not hate. I saw to the core of her, and I understood.
This insight (a gift from God or from her departing spirit) allowed me to forgive her. Among the many things I whispered to her that afternoon, were the words, “I forgive you Mami. It’s okay. I understand.” And then she died.
I cried out when I realized that the monitor showed no blood pressure, no heartbeat. For a second I thought that it had come unplugged. But I looked at her and realized the shallow breaths had stopped. She was gone. Just like that.
Doctors and nurses came running, to comfort me because my mother had a Do Not Resuscitate order. They confirmed that she was gone, and I was bent over weeping with the terrible loss. My 17-year-old son held me, a block of granite against my overwhelming grief.
I turned looked up at him (my baby is 6’2) and said, “You’re being strong for me when I should be strong for you.” I embraced him. We held each other and wept as the loss swept over us.
I looked at her body on the bed, and it seemed weaker, shrunken somehow, without her soul. She always told me the body was nothing and that she could care less what was done with her remains. It was her soul she cared about. As I looked at her lifeless form, I saw it was true. It was an empty shell without my Mother’s soul inside it.
I realized that I should say a prayer for her. I stood and bent my head to focus. And in my head, I heard my mother chiding me “Now you’re praying? So now you’re Catholic again?” And I laughed out loud. My son looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “I can hear her making fun of me,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” he said with a smile.
There were many good times. We had love, friendship, and laughter. She was blazingly intelligent, had a great sense of humor, and was a razor-sharp judge of character. She taught me about Jazz, classic movies, and New York City (she landed in Manhattan from Colombia in 1958 and never left). She impressed on me the importance of being well-informed, the importance of participating in a democracy. She inspired my pursuit of journalism as a career, although I have the soul of a novelist.
My mother was an extrovert and had a strong sense of community. She always knew everyone in the neighborhood, from neighbors to congressmen, to business owners to the homeless outside our parish church. She taught me to treat everyone with respect regardless of money color or creed.
My favorite memory of her is when she took off her chancleta and smacked President Richard Nixon’s face on the TV and screamed “LIAR!” It was during Watergate, and I was about 7 years old. Until that moment I had no idea that people in power could lie. Forty years later she was again screaming at the President on TV for much worse reasons.
A hundred times since she passed I’ve thought of calling her to ask her a question or share some news.
In the days that followed, I felt like someone hit me over the head with a frying pan. Stunned. Out of it. Even though I had witnessed it, her death is still hard to believe. This person is a fact of your life, for many years the foundation of your life, from the moment you’re born. It’s hard to believe that the earth still revolves around the sun after your mother dies.
The next day as my son and I headed to the nursing home to pick up her belongings, I looked up at the clear blue sky as the cold air hit my face. Day one in a universe without my mother. How is this even possible?
My mother’s illness and death taught me many lessons, including some about writing, that I will include in another post. I’ve shared this story here as a way to process my grief, and I hope that it helps someone going through the same things, or helps you understand someone who has had this experience.
Please, please don’t smoke, and if you do, STOP. If you can, donate to The American Lung Associaton.