Her breathing became our obsession. The number on the machine said 12 and even though the respirator was doing the work, I knew that 12 meant she was still alive. We felt a flicker of hope when it shot up to 14 or 20, learning it meant mom was “over-breathing” the respirator but both our hope and the extra effort were short lived. By the time they moved her to the neuro critical care, the machine was frozen at 12. Still I stared. The neurosurgeon showed us scans of mom’s brain, gently gave us clear indications of prognosis and life after this kind of stroke, yet it was still hard to see. We had done this so many times; talking to serious doctors had lost the gravity. How many times had my phone rang, hearing “Lisa, Your mom’s in the hospital, you better come over”? I foolishly missed the lesson of those dry runs. I still wasn’t prepared.
We made the decision to stop the ventilator; we all prepped for a horrid goodbye. They sent us out of the room; assuring us they would rush us right back in once the medical folks did all they needed to. They rushed, we rushed, mom held on. The machine said 12 still. And 17 sometimes. When everyone left me alone with her for a bit I played music on my phone. I waited for the numbers to go up, to show how pleased she was with me. There was no movement.
We watched while her body fought, refusing to die while for years it seemed she had refused to live. A half century or more of smoking multiple packs didn’t seem to diminish her heart or lungs, she fought on. And I got angry. Where was this will power these last years? Was she choosing this just to show she was in charge, always? Was I mad because she wouldn’t die or because she wouldn’t live. Or because I waited for her to say she was sorry and I never did.
They moved us to hospice, took away our machines so we couldn’t watch the numbers. So we listened. For days, we listened to the tortured breathing of a dying woman and wondered is she really dying? Repeatedly we were assured she was only functioning from the neck down and was slowing down. We knew this because now we counted. Even in our sleep, we sat up when a pause became too long. When the pattern changed, when she began to pant, we exchanged looks. A return from a coffee run would be met with,” she’s at 8.” “She’s back up to 14.” “it seems really raggedy”.
Often we asked them to do something, to suction her out, to stop the drowning sounds. And they did, until they couldn’t anymore. They moved her, rolled her, made her more comfortable, all the while we knew she was gone but she was here. Her hands were swelling; her rings had to be cut off. They talked to her gently, we did too. I forgave her, I asked her to forgive me, whispered words of love from grandkids too far away, assurances of love and gratitude. I began to remember the good times. Where the hell had those memories been? We told her it was alright to go, to be at peace. We told stories, we laughed, we dozed, we held on with her from Sunday until Wednesday evening when she changed her breathing one last time.
She spiked a fever and her color changed dramatically, again they rushed us out and said they would rush us in. They bathed her in lavender and prepared her, an anointing. The lavender was calming for all of us and we again began our vigil, having had too many close calls to really feel like this was it.
I was holding her hand up, trying to push some of the fluids back out, rubbing gently over the bruises and the sores. Everyone was chatting. And she stopped fighting. She just stopped the racking breaths, the chest rolling fight. I looked around the room to see who noticed and felt panic in my soul, paralyzed with fear. All of the close calls before and this was so very clearly it. I could have saved so much worrying. But I couldn’t move. My brother hurried up to her face and whispered to her, ”yes, yes, yes, just rest. Yes, just rest. Just let go.”
Yes… yes……yes in time with her breathing. And with that my little brother released us all.