One week ago about this time, I was in a hospital room, slowly dialing up the morphine drip and watching my mother suck irregular, shallow breaths. Thee hours later I drove home and collapsed in sheer exhaustion.
Six am last sunday, I woke suddenly, worrying my phone was still in silent, that I might have missed a call. 45 minutes after that, my phone rang, with the news that my mother had slipped quietly away.
It feels like month away, already. And the prior monday, when I checked her into the hospital for what was supposed to be a few tests seems half a year gone.
How are you, is the question I keep getting asked. By co workers, relatives, by friends, by a drunk-dialing old friend who called me at one am last night.
And my answer is – I don’t know. Because most of the time, I feel fine. The sobs that hit me starting when I told the doctor ‘take the mask of’ came in waves the next two or three days, hitting me randomly and passing quickly. And then they stopped, suddenly.
It’s a hard thing to explain to those who hasn’t seen an elderly relative die. There’s no way to explain the absolute certainty that it’s time. My mother’s death was not a tragedy. It was a release, a natural ending to a life already artificially extended with medication and technology.
I’ve witnessed tragic death. Young people struck down by violence or cancer, or people still hale and hearty in old age likewise taken by disease, not the simple end of the body’s span. I was there after my brother’s suicide; a tradgendy not because of his death, but because of the tragic failure of his own mind, and the support system that should have prevented his end. But by the time he took action to end his life, that end was inevitable.
My mother’s death ended pain, fear and suffering. Her mind and body were failing, after a long life. Our bodies have a shelf-life; we can extend this with care, and with luck, or we can shorten it. My mother, like most of her generation, took up smoking when it was cool, and harmless, and she carried on that habit long after she knew what the surgeon general says. She threw the dice and said, if it kills me then, ok, but I’m enjoying it now.
But whatever we do sets the clock forward or back a decade, or two; damage done simply skews the numbers. When the expiration date comes – when the warranty expires – then the machine begins to fail.
My mother’s failure was gradual; she maintained the ability to care for herself until the last couple of months. When she hit the final cliff, it was steep, and short; and she knew she was there. She knew, and lacked only the physical strength and the mental resolve to take control of her own departure. But she made that clear, in writing and in earnest, gasping pleas for help – I can’t go on any more.
So when the doctor asked me what I wanted to do – carry on the fight, postpone the inevitable, or ease the departure, I was able to calmly issue the order. Mentally, I’d had the dialog with myself a dozen times, and know without question what both I and my mother wanted.
The tears I wept, later, after I’d left the hospital for a bit to eat and make necessary phone calls, were not over death. They were tears of release, knowing the terror I’d seen in my mother’s eyes the last six weeks was gone forever; that by the time I was back in the hospital, she would be flying on a morphine drip. Her pain, her fear, her anxiety, for the last time, would be completely gone. I wept because, finally, I know I could help her; I was no longer helpless.
After she was gone, I alternated between numb, sad, and feeling relief; the thought of her ongoing fear and misery had given me incredibly nightmares for weeks. Knowing what we’d saved her, and what we’d saved the living family ended those nightmares, and set me free in a way nothing has in years.
The following monday I went back to work; primarily because I needed something to do that didn’t have anything to do with life or death; tuesday I went to work because I found the backlog of tasks I had to be a crushing load on my co workers. So I worked the week, taking a bit of time as I needed, and sleeping any chance I got.
“I’m ok,” I kept saying; people think I’m pretending. They think I’m playing stoic tough-guy hero. But the truth is, when I say it, I feel it. I’m experiencing sadness, when I think about it, and at odd moments like today, thinking about needing to go buy mom groceries, or wanting to ask her a question about a locket of my grandmother’s with two old photos. Who are these people I wanted to ask; but no one who’d know is now left. I’ll never know who they are.
BUt the sadness, the last week, seems smaller each day.
But other things are bothering me.
I teared up today when I was listening to the school director speak at my daughter’s new school; I started thinking about my kids, and felt a wash of love and sadness and found tears in my eyes. And I’m finding I can’t seem to do anything; every single thing I did at work last week took twice as long as usual, and I know damn well I wasn’t doing it as well as I normally do.
And then there’s the fatigue. I can’t tell if it’s just left-overs; the incredible stress of the last six weeks, the flu I was still battling the day mom died. I can’t tell if it’s something new, some cold I picked up at the hospital, or teh lingering flu turning into a lingering infection.
The fatigue is absolutely crushing. And I can’t tell if it’s my body failing, or if it’s emotional. But it frustrates the hell out of me to fall asleep on the couch at three in the afternoon after doing nothing all day.
Certainly, I understand grief. It’s a bitch, grief, and I’ve counseled others through it, and gone through it myself. The universal truth about grief seems to be that the only cure is time, and that the time seems to have a normal, fairly predictable life span. INtellectually I know I’m nowhere near done with it; I’ve in fact just begun it.
But it frustrates me – things I can’t fix, things I can’t manage, things I can’t control. With the weight of my mother’s suffering lifted, with the physical responsibility for her care gone, I want to let myself feel free; I also feel an intense need to solve things left hanging. I can’t do either; I can’t quite let go on the one hand, and can’t summon the energy and mental clarity to take care of all the business and physical work that needs doing. INstead, I pass out of the couch and wake up two hours later with my face in a puddle of drool, wondering where the day went and why I still can’t get up off the couch.
When people ask me how I am, I say I’m ok; and I mean it. I just can’t tell, right now, exactly what ok means.