Thursday, June 21, 2012
Here’s what I realized in the past week (and I swear, this will be my last dying-mother story in these pages):
If Oliver, my smelly little Jack Russell mix, is suffering so badly that recovery is not an option, within about 20 minutes I can drive to a veterinarian or call one of the area’s mobile vets and ask them to come to my house. I can hold Oliver in my arms while the vet gives him a shot and he goes peacefully and painlessly to sleep, to a place where he not only gets to chase Darryl the mailman, but actually catch him, too.
As I start writing this on June 15, my mother is suffering badly, and recovery is not an option. She is on her side, curled rigidly into a fetal position. She now weighs 74 pounds, wears a diaper and is losing her ability to swallow. Her feet have started to swell as her kidneys slowly shut down. And I’m sitting here watching her chest rise and fall – from 14 respirations per minute on Thursday, to 11 per minute on Friday morning to eight per minute on Friday afternoon – and praying every inhale will be her last. But instead, she has to suffer, and my siblings and I have to sit here and watch it.
The hospice nurse is supposed to come back Monday, but as she leaves Friday morning, she takes my brother aside and tells him, “I don’t think you’ll be seeing me again,” indicating it will be over before she returns.
Given that, why can’t it be over right now? If I could do it for an ailing pet, why can’t I do it for my mother?
At 2:30am Saturday she wakes with a delirious vengeance. She has been completely out since 6pm the night before, but now she is in a full-on rage, crying non sequiturs (“Sacred Heart! Sacred Heart!”), speaking Polish and demanding to be picked up. “Get out!” she screams at my brother. “Quit patting me! I’m going to cry. Pick me up!”
She wants out of the bed, but she is too weak and frail to lift her head, much less stand on her own, and our backs are wrecked from five days of lifting her. My brother tries to calm her down and I load the oral syringes – 0.75 milliliters of liquid Ativan and 1 milliliter of Roxanol, or liquid morphine. A half hour later, she continues to rage, and I give her 0.50 more milliliters of Ativan. Another 15 minutes go by and still she rails and moans while my brother calmly tells her she doesn’t have to go anywhere, that we will take care of her. She is fine where she is, he tells her, cocooned in clean cotton blankets and surrounded by down pillows, a soft nest my brother’s fiancee, a nurse, prepared before she left for the night.
I dial the 24-hour hospice line and they connect me to a nurse named Sam, who I think was probably asleep when I called. He listens to my hysteria and gently tells me to repeat both doses – another 1.25 milliliters of Ativan and another milliliter of morphine. “If it’s not better in an hour, call me back,” he says.
My brother and I hold each others eyes as I give her the second round of morphine, the syringe slipped inside her mouth as I depress the plunger and shoot it slowly under her tongue; I have already Googled what it would take to give her a fatal dose. Kevorkian, my brother tells me, should be canonized, and I don’t disagree. And yet…
And yet neither of us can bring ourselves to kill our mother.
Saturday turns into Sunday, and we can’t believe she’s still breathing. Her lungs sound raspier and her heart has begun to race. She is quiet, sedated, as people drop in throughout the day to say goodbye. We go through a rough round of changing the linens, the wound dressing and her gown to make her more comfortable. She has been silent for hours, but with every movement, every application of salve to reduce the pressure wounds all over her body, she moans.
And when it finally happens, it happens so quickly that we don’t have time to think about it.
Just before 9pm Sunday, my brother and I are in the dining room and his fiancee sends my sister for us. Our mother’s eyes are leaking, and tiny bruises are appearing on her ear lobes. She begins gasping like a fish out of water, the pulse in her neck is throbbing and her face has turned gray. My brother’s fiancee tells us it’s time.
My brother and sister each take one of our mother’s hands, I hold her knee, and we cheer her on into what comes next.
The funeral is Thursday, and relatives are coming in from all over the country. I predict at least one or two truly spectacular fights will break out among the cousins.
But my mother’s great final gift to me was this: We helped her die, and in doing so, my mother managed to bring my siblings and I closer together than we’ve ever been. Nothing is going to tear that apart.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.