Tuesday, April 8, 2008

My mom is dying. Oh, the doctors manage to couch the truth in their own medical psycho babble: "Nothing she's suffering is life-threatening in and of itself," they say. "But she has so many problems. And she is ninety-one." Yeah, we know how old she is. We celebrated her 89th when she said it would be her last. "No one in my immediate family has ever lived this long," she said matter-of-factly. But she didn't die. Wasn't even close. Sure, her eye sight was failing; her hearing was bad. And her loyal and true mind had begun to fail her. "So," she said casually. "I can't remember the way I used to." While the rest of us struggled with her dementia, it seemed that she had made her peace.

A few weeks ago (is it only a few weeks?), she suddenly had trouble walking. Her feet were killing her. Then the excruciating pain spread to her hands. At the same time, her heart started acting up. It had gone into atrial fibrillation and a fast pulse - a dangerous tango. "It's nothing to worry about," my dad said, trying to convince himself as much as me. But he was wrong. My mom was suffering from gout, anemia, low blood oxygen, and a disobedient heart.

After her first hospitalization, I flew to Florida, hopeful that, with every day, she'd feel stronger and more alert. But things spiraled downhill. The growing pain in her stomach - who said anything about her stomach? - kept her in bed for most of the day and night. The medication twisted her bowels and sent her to the toilet much too often. The swelling in her joints didn't show any improvement. She was miserable.

The doctor palpated her stomach, inspected her hands and feet, checked all of her vital signs. "I've never seen her like this," she said. "I want her back in the hospital now." Dejected, my father, mother, and I passed "go" and drove straight to Sarasota Memorial. This time, she got a private room.

Hospital rooms, no matter how private, are inhospitable cells where the sick and dying are hooked up, poked, and prodded. Despite the insult of it all - and the growing number of black and blue marks up and down her arms where nurses from nurses searching for a viable vein - my mother never complained. She wanted to get better and go home in the worst way, yet she made the best of a lousy situation. "It is what it is," she said without an ounce of anger or self-pity.

Progress was slow. But there was progress. We were all so hopeful. And though I hated to leave, I had a husband at home and work to pursue.

When the phone rang late at night, I knew the news was bad.
"Your mom has had a stroke," my dad said in a very small voice. "You'd better come."
A stroke?
I pounded my fists into the table. I kicked my slippers across the room. Hadn't she suffered enough!

It wasn't a stroke. The attending nurse had come in to give my mother some medication and saw that she wasn't breathing. They "resuscitated" her not once but twice. Then they wheeled her out for a cat scan of her brain
"I don't think she'd stopped breathing for very long," the nurse told my husband.
For VERY long! Any cessation of breathing is too damn long!
Within the hour, my almost 91-year-old father who had raced to the hospital, alone and at night, called again.
"She's just fine," he said. "She had something called apnea or something like that."
"Apnea? You mean sleep apnea?"
"That's it. Sleep apnea."

It didn't matter. The next morning, I was a plane headed back to Florida. I must tell her again and again how much I love her . . . what a wonderful mother she's been. Maybe if I tell her we can still take that family cruise. Or that my son, her only grandson, has found someone special. Or that my latest book, a tribute to her and to my father, will be made into a movie. Or just that I'm happy more often than not, share warm connections with family and friends, and that I owe my strength and open heart all to her.

I don't know how much fight she has left.

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