Nov 1, 2017
6 September 2016
I drove west to Harbour Manor through the remnants of a September rain. The road curved gently through a creek bottom where deer grazed in a fallow field with a blanket of dew suspended above their red backs. Above the rise, the sky broke in bands of charcoal to expose the golden light of a valiant sun.
Harbour Manor is where my mother lay in hospice while calling for her life to be over.
I kept the night watch as I was nearest the rest home and couldn’t sleep knowing she was alone.
A misplaced step led her here. A number of years ago, she fell outside of a restaurant and broke her hip. A brace of clumsy surgeons further damaged her condition until, by chance, after ten surgeries, a bacteria took hold of her and refused to let go.
On Memorial Day weekend, she entered the hospital and refused any further surgeries. She did accept a plan to intravenously treat the infection but she was exhausted and critically depressed. She was ready to die. She steeled herself against everyone’s emotions and settled for the course that she expected to be in front of her.
Her granddaughters vehemently protested and her friends questioned her mental stability but she was physically and spiritually immovable from her position. She asked me for my support and I asked her if she was sure that she wanted to die by an infection - I hoped that the thoughts of a protracted and painful death might shake her from her decision - but I knew she’d thought through the scenario. She’d been around this level of desperation most of her life and I expected her confident response. She didn’t want to endure this type of painful death but she was done with living in pain.
During the month of June, on a weekly basis, her condition rose and sank on swells of septicity. Her blood white cell count was more than double a human’s high limit and the open wound in her leg wouldn’t heal. It was evident that she had crossed the event horizon and was being pulled to the singularity of death.
On a sultry morning in July, her doctor called me to her bedside to sign a Do Not Resuscitate Declaration. Ra met me in the foyer outside of mom’s room. We talked with the doctor and the convalescence practitioners. We were convinced - by mom’s condition - that she had a minimum number of days to exist.
While the staff went to prepare the documents, Ra and I entered mom’s room. Though it was clear and clean, the suite trapped the odor of infection. Through the venetian blinds on the window, the sun lay across her face. She was certainly as beautiful as she’d always been. With the palm side of my thumb I softly traced the structure of her brow and temples that so closely matched her mother’s. Mom’s hair hadn’t been colored carmel in weeks and it was taking on a silvery lustre. She slowly opened her once brilliant eyes - now gray and lackluster- and tried to focus on mine. The crow’s-feet at the corners of her eyes compounded as she recognized me. As she trapped my gaze, a flickering slideshow of her ran through my mind. I saw a trillion moments that we’d shared and others I’d envisioned. Her wrinkles seemed to fade and her eyes lost the fog of death. I saw her when she was sixty and I was thirty - a year older than Carrie, Danny, or Joe had the opportunity to turn - after my return from the Army. She was fifty-five and Dad was gone. She was fifty-one and we were at the hospital as Danny took his last breath. She was forty-nine and Joe was struggling to stay alive. She was forty-seven and petting the hand of Carrie’s lifeless body. She was forty-two, in the backyard, posing for photos on her 25th wedding anniversary. She was thirty and holding me as Shelam lay wasting by our side. She was twenty-eight and running out of a laundromat with Shelam in her arms. She was nineteen, clutching Dad, as she wept beside Garnna’s grave in Martinsville. She was sixteen, holding Dad’s hand on her wedding day. She was six, leaning against the fender of her brother’s car drinking a bottle of soda. Finally, she was an infant, looking into the eyes of her mother, the same way I was now looking into hers.
As she had my whole life, she said, “Hey, Shrimp.”
I choked and whispered, “Hey, Momma.”
She asked, “What’s going on - why’s the doctor still here?”
I continued petting her hair and said, “I gotta talk to you about something.”
She asked again, “Why’s the doctor still here?”
I felt a constriction across my chest and said, “That’s what I’ve got to talk to you about.”
She’d witnessed the doctor make his rounds earlier that morning and saw him again as Ra and I entered the room. Shockingly, her moments of clarity came abruptly and were powerful. She could exist for a number of days with minimal function, seemingly unconscious, and then rise to shock everyone with with a rally of health that was odd and disturbing - as if she were being puppeted by an unseen force.
She’d asked what was going on and I couldn’t do anything but tell her. Again, I felt the cold that comes over one’s heart when when you have to push away emotion and accept the responsibility for the death of life in your hands. I felt like a frightened boy again, trying to wipe beads of crimson from the feathers of a Mourning Dove I’d deliberately shot. I was trapped in the moment, twenty years previously, when She and I determined to remove Dad from life support.
My pause was long and she asked again, “What’s going on?”
She shrank into tears as I said, “Momma, we’re at the end and the doctors can’t do anymore for you.”
In a panic she pleaded, “Can I change my mind?”
I compressed all of my anxiety and said, “Momma, it’s too late, you’d never survive the operation.”
With earnestness, as if it were an original idea, she pleaded, “Tell em’ to take my leg!”
With tears in my eyes, I said, “It’s too late.”
She whimpered, “I want to live!”
I felt what was true and said, “I know you do Momma.”
I saw her as that dove, straining and kicking, fighting to fly from my hand.
With tears in her eyes, she cried, “But I want to live!”
I held her hand and exhaled, “I know Momma.”
Agonizingly, she wept until her eyes dried. She stared at the ceiling and asked, “Why am I here?”
Again, as I had at least twice a week since she’d been in this state, I recounted the previous months and our conversations. I told her about all of her loved ones who had visited her. I described her last surgery and the infection. I laid out the chronology of her entrance to Harbour Manor and the medical condition that now racked her body, the terminal state of her affairs, and her decision to have no further medical interventions. She settled, as the piety of her decision months ago seemed to surface in her consciousness.
I traced the veins on her needle bruised hands and was cold with hate for our situation. Why was She here? It was pointless to ask why this road was ending where it was. I never saw any reason in all of the dying. Senseless deaths laid out behind us like fresh laundry, blown from the line, lying in the mud. All of the bright and all of the shine gone out and the world no better for it, with fewer each season to remember the glow. I reckon it’s just what we were meant to do. Watch em’ all waste away until there was nothing left but a husk and us with our teeth grinding in dry mouths with wet cheeks, wishing they’d let go of their suffering. We’d been worn, misshapen like old whetstones, but what was sharpened? What comes from sick and stricken children or a mother and a father burying all of their good babies? What comes of a boy watching them all die. I can tell you, not a damn thing. Not one goddamn thing. What’s the gold to pan from all of this? A pan full of grave dirt; washed with tears, rolled around in a cold stream of grief, sifted for a minuscule glimmer that might feed your empty heart and there isn’t any. We were good at not falling apart. We were good at stifling emotions. We were good at not hoping for much. We were good at keeping low expectations. We were good at being distant. We were good at funerals. We were good at not letting little things get to us. We were good at not talking. We were good at keeping a good appearance and going through the motions of living, all the while, we were dying inside.
Mom was tired of her multi-year disability but that wasn’t the only weariness within her. That’s what no one seemed to see, or, at least, they weren’t talking about it. I saw it but I didn’t want to talk about it either. She was weary of being acquainted with death and I’d known that low down groan that emanated from her since I was a little boy. I didn’t need to see it, I felt it. It’s how I’d always known her. Mothers sing to their babies and I knew her song.
Again, she broke into sobs. With no idea of what to say, I asked her to talk to me. She raised her other hand and wept, “I’m a chicken! I’ve come all this way and at the end I break. I’m a Chicken!” I was shocked that she was focusing on what she believed was her cowardice at death’s’ door. “Mom, you’re not a chicken, you’re the most powerful person I’ve known.” “No, I’m not. I’m a chicken!”
The doctor knocked on the door and entered the room. With compassion, he explained the situation to Mom and asked her if she understood. She wiped her eyes and nose with a balled up tissue and confirmed that she did. He handed us a single sheet of paper printed in black with the areas that we needed to sign highlighted in yellow. I read it’s verbiage and signed it. Mom applied her signature as well. The doctor left the room and we were quiet.
Days passed and the medical staff tried to manage her pain but were frustrated. A staggering quantity of opiates and anti-anxiety medication was applied but she was constantly restless and writhing in agony.
Deep in the morning, a few days ago, I realized why she consistently cried out in fits of agony, “It hurts so bad!”
We were fighting the wrong pain.
After the nurses prepped her for the night, I turned out the lights, moved my chair against her bedside, and settled in. Fitfully, she slept a few hours as I watched the stars rise above the trees outside of her window. She writhed from sleep with a moan and rolled her head back across her pillow.
“What’s wrong Momma?”
“It hurts so bad.” She whispered.
“Do you want the nurse?”
“No…” she groaned. “...it hurts so bad.”
The dim light coming through the window flickered on tears running from the corners of her eyes. I pulled a tissue from the nightstand for her, held her hand, and asked, “Momma, what hurts.”
She held her response, with her eyes seeming to bore holes through the ceiling. She slowly groaned and said, “All of it.”
“All of what?”
She rolled her head to face me, her eyes red and wet, and whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry for what, Momma?”
“I’m sorry you had to grow up the way you did… I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you.”
I felt a new fissure form across across my heart.
“Momma, I’m ok…” “...you and Pop couldn’t do anything about that… I understood it back then.”
“But it hurts me that you were so alone…”
“It’s ok Momma, I’ve never felt any kind of bad about you and Dad not being around… there’s no way you could have… I knew where you needed to be… I knew it way back then.”
“...I’m so sorry.”
“Momma, let that go right now… that’s not anything I’ve ever held.”
She wiped her raw eyes, looked above my head as if she was searching for a face in crowd and whispered through her trembling lips, “It all hurts so bad…”
She broke into sobs, “...Garnna was gone so quick… Shelam was so beautiful… I couldn’t do anything to save her…”
Like a smack to the face, I suddenly realized the source of her untreatable pain as grief and sorrow began to pour out of her. The emotion was staggering and it went through me like a javelin. I held my words and let her unravel.
“... Joe didn’t deserve that… he was so strong.”
She pressed her forearm across her eyes as if to remove the vision. She shook with convulsions of agony, her mouth agape and groaning as she wept, “...and Danny… they didn’t deserve that!” “...oh God… it hurts so bad!” “...and Carrie… Carrie… it was so cruel... She was my best friend… she was so wonderful..."
She forced herself to calm and gouged at her eyes with a collection of tissues. Once again, she searched the space behind me. She finally focused on me and her lips trembled again as she spoke, “I miss her so bad.”
“I do too, Momma, she was really special.”
“Sharek, I’m so sorry.”
“Me too, Momma.”
Her eyes, locked on mine and began to flow again. Her heartbreaking confession continued, “... she was so wonderful… I miss her so bad… and I couldn’t do anything to save her... I died when Carrie died... Your dad broke and we couldn’t do anything for each other.” “It all hurts so bad…”
She rocked her head from shoulder to shoulder with her eyes closed. “It all hurts so bad…” “It all hurts so bad.”
“It was all very cruel, Momma.”
“Yes it was, Sharek.”
Her wave subsided and she dabbed her eyes saying, “Dad would be so proud of you… He loved you so much.”
“I miss him, Momma.”
“I know you do.”
She was quiet, looking through me as if I wasn’t there and she were in a different place. I saw what she was seeing, the faces both laughing and in repose. I felt all of the horrible loss. I thought of the ends they all met and the final moments when their breath failed to return. I thought of the things I wished I’d said and the things I wished I’d heard from them before they slipped away. I felt there was a window closing and shutters being pulled to hide the starlight.
“Momma… I’ll miss you.”
As if she knew what I was thinking, she responded, “I’ll miss you, Shrimp”
I shouldn’t have been surprised that her sorrow was so close to the surface but I was. I’d gotten used to not fully feeling mine and I thought she had too. It made sense, at this point. She knew she was dying. Now, standing at edge of darkness, she’d turned to look at where she’d been and completely embraced what she had to hold. She let the memories in.
When she was physically healthy, she never was one to complain. In front of most everyone, she kept a beaming smile and cheerful disposition. The more she was assailed by tribulation, the more she proclaimed her faith and the ability of God to heal her wounds. She volunteered for church activities and donated her time to compassionate programs or others struggling with life. She opened her home to strangers and people flocked to her. I’m not sure if they wanted to help her or maybe they simply had a fascination like someone stopping at a roadside attraction to see something that had been pulled from the dark of a jungle. Some people seemingly kneeled at her feet, hoping to find help for their own damage. At some point, everyone plied their ability at compassion by recalling memories of Joe or Dad. It was the easiest way to show they cared but simply holding up a fragment of what once was is like knocking at the the door of sorrow without the intention of ever entering the room. Some were able to lay out their troubles with hers but they were splashing along the shore of a great depth.
If you didn’t know her past you’d never surmise that she’d experienced so many tragic events. If you were familiar with her history, it wasn’t something that was easily placed on the table for conversation. If you witnessed what she’d gone through, you’d not likely wade in her waters.
She swam in a kind of ocean that seemed to have no shore. She drifted out in the bottomless, dark, and uncharted region where horrific objects lay anchored below the surface. I’d tried to make my way to her over the years but with each stroke, I found myself further away, as if there were a current that worked against us. There was a point where we almost reached one another but there are overwhelming beasts out there and I was too young and inexperienced to wrestle them. By the time I was capable, she was too far away.
You’d think that we - having endured what we have - would be closer to one another and have long intimate talks about the things that hurt us and spend every available moment together. We did talk but it was always fragmented. Our gatherings were like trying to piece together a picture that’s been torn apart; the fuzzy and twisted edges never align the right way and the important pieces are missing. So much transpired over such a long period, it felt pointless and burdensome to ever try and dig through what was. Anyway, we knew what happened and we knew what it did to us. That was unquestionable. Mostly, I think being near each other made it all real again. We were each a testament of what happened and being face to face, brought out the feelings of being back in some emergency room, hospital cafeteria, mortuary, or graveside. Frankly, that’s where we’d spent our most emotionally significant spans of time. Living with one another at that pinnacle of severity made every other moment that much less fulfilling. I never felt that I was what she needed. I know she cared for me and most likely loved me but like magnets opposed, we remained just out of reach. I knew I couldn’t save her. Now, She wasn’t in the ocean, she was the ocean.
Once again, waiting beside the dying, I wonder what’s on the other side. I like to think it would be like waking in Mamaw’s house with my forehead under Unck’s gentle hand. Maybe from there, it’s just a short walk through the dark to the warm glow of the kitchen. Maybe, they’ll all be in there. Danny and Joe, wet with snow from delivering newspapers. Carrie with Mammaw at the stove making cocoa. Maybe, Pop is there, bouncing Shelam on his lap. Maybe, Mom’s walking up to the porch right now with Garnna bundled in her arms. Maybe, none of us are marked and there is no memory or foresight of what was or would be.
Perhaps it’s a just a fade into an endless and peaceful dark, or, maybe, we rise again as undulating grasses on a field, or as trees, waving under the sky. If fortunate, we are taken by something larger and, again, find our way to a womb and wake as some other life.
Ultimately, I figure it’ll be akin to what Pop told me when I was boy on a cool September morning as, hand in hand, we looked up at a velvety field of stars, "We’ll all return to the Bird’s Road - one day, our own star will grow to consume us, all that we’ve ever known, and all that’s ever been here - at that point, we’ll all be blown along the raised arm of Orion- and we will become something else.