My mother has been “going to die” so many times in the past decade that it should be old hat by now. Her uncontrolled hypertension, allowed to flourish and rampage because she didn’t like the side effects of blood pressure medication caused the first near-death episode in the late 1990s. Her lungs filled with fluid, she had congestive heart failure, her kidneys had literally been worked to death. It was shocking to see a person who had always been healthy, rarely willing to ingest so much as an aspirin, in a hospital bed sprouting acres of clear plastic tubes filled with mysterious chemicals.
I had long resented her vivid living of life in a vague sort of way; I had all manner of nerve related rashes, headaches and tics while she was the poster child for Living Life to the Fullest. She did not second-guess, hang back or wring her hands. She did not get depressed without a damned good reason, and even then she seemed able to work through the appropriate stages of grief and emerge in fine fettle. She did things, made things happen, extracted the brightest colors and juiciest juice from every day she had the pleasure of living.
After that first blow, there was less pleasure in the living. There was dyalisis, the discovery that she had only ever had one working kidney, a failed shunt in her arm that caused terrible pain, and eventually a donor kidney just before Thanksgiving in 2005. There was a great surge of collective hope after the transplant: it worked, her cheeks were pinker and dyalisis was over. We had a holiday of sorts, returning for annual trips to St. George Island in the winter, going on shopping trips to buy the latest lipstick, a resumption of dinner parties and concerts and lunch dates. She tired more easily, and had what seemed like hundreds of bottles of medicine that my father sorted, labeled and dispensed faithfully, but we all agreed that she “seemed more like herself.” Just a little slower.
Except that there were more emergencies, more ambulances, more infections, more “bad days” and an increasing pain in my solar plexus that reminded me that she was not “herself” anymore. She was an old person, a sick person, a person who forgot things and grew querulous because of the large amount of steroids necessary to keep the donor kidney safe and functional. We thought she might die of the infection, when she wouldn’t regain consciousness and didn’t quite know who we were. She thought I was her mother, her aunt, her childhood friend Marion; I was whoever she needed me to be, stroking her hair as I knew she would have stroked mine, telling her comforting stories that eased her time-traveling mind. She got better, and she went home.
We thought she might die from the trauma of falling down the stairs on a June day in 2008, after which she was given morphine, hallucinated and resembled nothing so much as a completely un-medicated paranoid schizophrenic. She distrusted the doctors, told the nurses I was a liar, and made calls to all of us in the middle of the night begging us to get her out. My-brother-the-doctor said it was not an uncommon reaction, that you can never tell until you give a patient morphine whether they will have an averse reaction…to me it felt like falling through a rabbit hole. The morphine ran through her, she spent a long summer in a rehab facility regaining the use of her broken leg, and life went on. It was even less “normal,” but she had not died. Again, she had not died.
Last weekend she had visits from both of her brothers, The Old Jews. They came with their wives, they made plans, they didn’t want to see that she was exhausted, having difficulty getting enough air to breathe easily, needing to sit down and rest at The Farmer’s Market, eating practically nothing. It was a shock to them, the decline that my father, my brother and I have seen over the years, and there was none of the philosophical acceptance we have developed as an emotional wetsuit for riding the waves of her illness. They didn’t want her the way she was, they wanted the sister they remembered; she wanted them to have that sister. By Sunday morning brunch at The University Club she was gray, nauseated, breathing shallowly and unable to speak because her teeth were chattering. I hosted the remainder of Brunch With Uncles with a lump in my throat and rocks in my chest; she left in an ambulance. Among other things, she was a hostess of the highest caliber, and has taught me well.
It was a heart attack, a “minor heart attack” for a normal person, but for her there is no more “normal.” She felt better with oxygen, I saw her Sunday night and assured her that her guests had been well fed, amused and sent back to their distant homes. I offered her the book I was reading for my book club, a sort of historical romance thing that I would not read of my own choosing, and she told me, in the gentlest possible way that my father would bring her something from home; she would rather commit to memory the “Guide to Your Hospital Stay” brochure than read about love in Olde Scotland.
The next morning she had a bad reaction during routine testing, emergency surgery was required, and my brother called to say that I really should come in immediately. A major artery was completely blocked. She is not a candidate for bypass surgery. They would try to insert a stent, but prospects were grim. She might die. I was past being a good sport, I wept in the bathroom of the cardiac waiting area, I told my husband that I thought this was the time; I had gotten used to being told that she was going to die, it had happened so many times, the thing I had worried about since childhood was really going to happen, and then it didn’t but this time…this time I looked at my brother’s face and tried desperately to get ready.
She didn’t die. The surgeon came out practically glowing with success, and told us that he’d gotten the stent in, her vitals had remained stable, and she would be restored to at least her previous level of functioning. She was intubated and heavily sedated and would have to remain in that suspended state until everything was “normal.” Battered on the rocks of adrenaline and tension and “keeping it together,” my brother, my father, my husband and I went to lunch. We talked about books, movies, politics, and other things that seemed jarringly regular. We ate good gazpacho.
Forty-eight hours later she is still sleeping, peacefully unaware of the tubes large and small, and the wires and the liquids and gases that are doing the physiological heavy lifting. Her borrowed kidney is not working well, she might have an infection, and they cannot extubate and awaken her until everything is “normal.” My father is tired, sad and lonely; they have been married 49 years and he would like her to wake up and know that he is with her. I would like her to wake up so I can tell her that the book is not as bad as she thought. Also that I love her, and that I made blueberry muffins for dad, and called everybody to let them know how she was doing, and tidied up the house so it would be nice when she went home.
No matter how philosophical I am, how many times I have been “ready” I am no more ready than I was at six, panicked by every siren I heard when my parents were out for the evening. I want her to wake up, feel better, go home and decide that maybe she’s feeling up to a little book shopping or lunch on a sunny restaurant patio. But I know, as I have for so long, that she might die this time. What do I do then?