It’s December 26th. I’m sitting on the right side of my mother’s hospital bed, away from the tangle of machines on the bed’s left— the cardiac monitor and respirator, the suction tubes and IV. The cardiac monitor blinks red and green. The respirator makes dying bird sounds. The room smells, of lotion and disinfectant, dried blood and urine. A portable dialysis machine is just outside.
I hold my mother’s swollen, bruised hand. I squeeze gently and hope for a response that doesn’t come. Her hand feels dead to me, the jaundiced skin tightly stretched and cool. The remnants of her white pearl nail polish are leftovers from a time when she read fantasy novels by the dozen, played with her gray tabby cat, did crossword puzzles and went to the North Berkeley Senior Center.
My black fleece tights and charcoal sweater are too warm for the overheated room. Without central heating, my Oakland apartment was frigidly cold last night. When I dressed this morning, I felt I’d never be warm. I shivered then. I’m sweating now. I’m trembling now. Letting go of my mother’s hand, I remove the vermilion-framed glasses that match my hair and wipe my damp eyes.
I look at my mother, a too small figure under institutional sheets. Just 5 feet tall, her once round body is shrunken and diminished. Her dentures were removed prior to the surgery. She wore them until the last minute. Does she know she’s toothless? She seems unaware. Except for the time her Haldol wore off, when with flailing arms she tried to sit up, her frantic eyes despairing and questioning, a disturbing horrible episode I witnessed alone.
This is the Medical ICU at Kaiser Hospital, in San Francisco. My mother was transferred here four days ago, after three weeks in Surgical Intensive Care. She didn’t recover from her bypass surgery, her heart isn’t working properly. She needs a respirator, but not the high-tech interventions of the Surgical ICU with its bustling, rushing, strained staff.
Here the pace is slower and the staff calmer, the atmosphere is one of hopeless resignation. The rooms circle the nurses’ station. The patients are extremely sick. Most of them are dying. Each patient has their own R.N. The doctors’ visits are occasional. Relatives visit day and night, with few restrictions.
Through the open doorway I see my mother’s nurse approaching. She’s wearing purple and pink flowered scrubs. In the Surgical ICU the nurses’ scrubs were plain blue. We exchange greetings. She checks my mother’s machines.
“Any change?” I ask.
She shrugs, then smiles thinly and shakes her head no.
“I have the shampoo,” I tell her.
During yesterday’s visit, the nurse told me to get a special shampoo for my mother’s long, matted, gray-blond hair. Even at 82, Mom dyed her hair blonde. She liked to be stylish, and wore long black skirts with colorful tunics. She favored short boots and dangling arty earrings. This morning, before coming to the hospital, I went to three beauty supply stores before I located one in south Berkeley with Klorane Extra Gentle Dry Shampoo, at $19.00 for 3 ounces.
“It’s good stuff. Wait ‘til you see,” the nurse tells me. Then she suggests I leave. “So I can tend to your mother, clean her up.”
“I’ll be back in an hour,” I say.
“Don’t rush,” she says.
I take an empty elevator to the 1st floor cafeteria. When my mother transferred from the Oakland Kaiser, before her surgery, I was impressed with the varied menu. I was happy with the vegetarian selections. But since the surgery, I don’t care about the food. I don’t care about a lot of things.
I order a grilled black bean burger and go to an isolated corner booth. A group of nurses at a large center table are laughing and talking. I feel pissed and resentful. I want the world to stop and comfort me.
I’ve been a social worker for twenty-five years. I understand grief. I studied Kubler-Ross in grad school. I wrote a paper on Death and Dying. I know my anger isn’t rational. Understanding doesn’t help.
I keep telling myself Mom will recover. That she’ll breathe on her own and her cardiac function will improve. Was her color just a little better this morning? Did she open her eyes for a second? I search my brain for signs she’s getting well, but come up cold.
My burger is bland and dry. I’ve had too many hospital lunches since my mother’s surgery, usually alone, but sometimes with one or both of my brothers. My father died at 54, twenty-seven years ago. There’s just the three of us. The last time we were here together, we had a painful conversation.
“It could be worse,” I said.
“How?” my brother, the gynecologist, asked. He lives in wealthy Hillsborough. He’s been a Kaiser doctor his entire career and has a reputation here.
I didn’t know how. It’s like I was channeling my mother, looking for something positive to say.
“What if she doesn’t get better and has to stay on the respirator?” my other brother, the lawyer-musician asked. He lives in liberal Berkeley.
“She wouldn’t want that,” I said.
We all agreed. We decided together. When the time came, if the time ever came…
We were hopeful then. I’m hopeful now. She has to get better. She’s my mother.
After lunch, I leave the cafeteria through the side exit to Geary Blvd. I have nowhere to go and nothing to do. A couple of weeks ago, I walked all the way to Ocean Beach. I had to take a bus back to the hospital. Today, I don’t have the energy for a long walk, but head west anyway.
The sunlight is dazzling, the cloudless sky winter blue. Geary is bustling with cheerful post-Christmas shoppers.
Step by step, I trod along. I flash to an image of the jail where I work, to the mental health inmates in their small outdoor courtyard, walking in circles and going nowhere.
Four teenage Latina girls, walking arm-in-arm, giggle as they bump into me. I smell heavy vanilla-musk perfume. They’re all wearing lavender hoodies. I envy their youthful good looks and exuberance. They’re at the plush stage of life. When they walk into the Cost-Plus World Market, I aimlessly follow.
The store is crowded. The air smells stale. I get jostled and pushed. Sale items are prominently displayed, with huge after-Christmas discounts. People seem frantic to buy.
“Look at these bangles. Do you think they’re real bone?” a middle-aged blond asks her balding, bearded companion.
“It says they’re from Africa on the tag,” he tells her.
I wander the store, feeling superior, like I’m above the crowd. Then I remember my mother and realize if she wasn’t sick, we’d likely be shopping ourselves, taking advantage of the sales. I wonder if we’ll ever go shopping again. I already miss her so much.
“Yeah, all the Christmas ornaments are half-off,” a sales clerk reassures three elderly women with full shopping baskets. The clerk has blotchy, sallow skin and keeps yawning.
I close my eyes to shut out the world and see orange-sparked blackness. I think of the Amtrak tickets for my mother and me, sitting on my desk at home. We’d planned a February trip to celebrate her birthday, taking the California Zephyr to Chicago, then the Lakeshore Limited to Penn Station in New York. I was going to sight-see while Mom visited her younger sister in New Jersey.
We both knew she was too sick, weak and debilitated from a September bout of meningitis, but couldn’t admit it. Or maybe it was just me who couldn’t. I bought the tickets in October, like having them would ensure her recovery. “You’ll be well enough by then,” I kept telling her.
My mother loved our “trips” during the ten years she lived in the Bay area. She was seventy-two when she left the San Fernando Valley after forty years to be near her children. Because I lived just south of Napa, she settled there.
At least twice a year we’d driven to L.A. to visit relatives. Mom loved any kind of traveling. We usually stopped at the Harris Ranch Restaurant in Coalinga. Because I’m vegan, she always worried I wasn’t getting enough protein.
Mom never minded the long, tedious ride down Hwy 5, the flat brown dryness, the cattle stench, the glaring sun. I did all the driving, first in my white Toyota and then in the green New Beetle Mom encouraged me to buy. We both loved that car.
Although my mother usually avoided emotional conversations, something about being in a car in the middle of nowhere made her open up.
“I worry about you. Get out and make friends. Not spend all your time with an old lady. I won’t be around forever,” she’d say.
“I’m fine,” I always answered.
Our last trip, just six months ago, was hard. Mom was testy with our relatives, she seemed fragile and exhausted. She wanted to be home. On the drive back, she kept falling asleep, sitting up in the passenger seat, with her head back and her mouth open. I kept checking to see if she was breathing. I was afraid then. I’m more afraid now.
I feel so lost and alone. Like my life is crumbling. For the first time, I regret not staying married and having children. Maybe my mother was right to worry about me.
A loudspeaker-voice announcing a reduction on Cost-Plus holiday fruitcakes brings me out of my reverie. Although it doesn’t seem possible the store is even more crowded. People are grabbing Christmas ornaments. The combined smells of perfume, popcorn, chocolate, espresso, sweat and pomade are nauseating.
“Excuse me, I’m feeling sick,” I keep apologizing as I rush toward the exit. Nervous sweat trickles from my armpits.
I’m almost at the front door when I see the mask on the wall. I stop cold, drawn to its enigmatic face. There’s no tag that says where it’s from or how much it costs. The hollowed-out wood is painted pale tan and peach. The carved eyebrows and pursed lips are black. My heart tightens. I swallow hard. It’s a woman’s face, with a long narrow nose and deep-set eyes.
Although it seems impossible, the mask looks like my mother. The resemblance is uncanny. I grab it from the wall and rush to the long check-out line. I have to buy it. I need the mask to save my mother. “Please god,” I mumble aloud. “If I buy this mask, let her recover.” I know I’m being irrational, but don’t care.
After an endless wait, I reach the cashier, who calls the store manager for the price. The manager takes the mask and leaves. The cashier touches up her lipstick. I’m impatient. So are the grumbling people behind me.
Finally the manager returns. “It’s $85.00, not a sale item,” he says. He wipes sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
I don’t care about the cost. “I want it,” I say.
I remember being with my mother in Sonoma, in a shop with Zuni artifacts. Like it was calling me, I was drawn to a soapstone bear. I would’ve paid any price for it. I still keep the bear on my coffee table. When I feel stressed, I stroke it for good luck.
I feel the same way about this mask. Finding a mask with my mother’s face has to mean something.
By the time I get back to the hospital there’s been a shift change. My mother’s evening nurse is a pleasant middle-aged woman who works weekends and holidays.
“How’s my mother?” I ask the nurse.
“Done some shopping?” she asks, looking at the Cost-Plus bag I’m carrying.
“I guess my mother’s the same then?”
“She’s resting quietly,” the nurse says.
It’s a practiced response which means nothing. I’m so angry and frustrated, I feel like shaking her to get at the truth. My ears pound with suppressed rage.
But it’s not until I’m in my mother’s room that I feel like crying. I look at her lying there, with her head supported by two pillows. Her eyelids flutter lightly. She’s heavily sedated. And her hair…Her hair is in a ponytail on top of her head, with a pink ribbon tied in a bow.
I’m sorry I bought the goddamn shampoo. Better off with tangled hair, better off with no hair, than this. My god, how she’d hate having her hair done up like an infant, or a senile, ridiculous old lady.
I go to my mother and remove the ribbon, then smooth her hair back on the pillow. A lone tear trickles from her right eye. I’m shaking, trying not to cry.
When I get home that evening, I hang the mask on the living room wall. It still looks like my mother. I trace the mask’s features with my fingertips and kiss its lips.
It’s December 29th. Like everyday this week, I’m at the hospital with my mother. My brothers have visited in the past two days, but now I’m alone. We’re all discouraged and exhausted. My one brother and his wife have a music gig New Year’s Eve. They should be excited about it, but instead are stressed. My other brother has his wife and three children to consider. I have nothing else going on.
The past two years have been hard for my mother, having to admit she couldn’t handle living alone, leaving Napa for Berkeley, moving in with my brother. I moved to Oakland then, but there was no place for her in my one-bedroom apartment.
Every Saturday, I’d take her out for lunch and grocery shopping. Her health kept getting worse, especially after the meningitis. She had trouble breathing and walking. We didn’t talk about her deteriorating condition. It was too hard.
I’m sitting by my mother’s bed when the resident enters the room. She introduces herself and asks if I’m the daughter. We go into the corridor to talk.
“When will my mother get off the respirator?” I ask.
The resident shakes her head. Her dark Asian eyes look sad. “She won’t,” she says.
“Not ever?” I ask. Like I’m the one with heart problems, my chest is tight with pain.
“Her diaphragm is paralyzed. I’m sorry. I thought you knew.” Her face twists with embarrassment.
My mind fills with questions I’m too upset to ask. How do you know her diaphragm is paralyzed? How long have you known? Wasn’t anyone going to tell us? But I can barely breathe, never mind talk. And in the end, what does it matter?
The resident tries to comfort me. “Can I do anything for you?” she asks. “Call someone?”
“No,” I tell her.
I go to my mother’s bedside. I’ve never felt so empty and alone, so emotionally dead. I can’t believe this is happening.
I need my mother to get better. She can’t stay on the respirator. She can’t live without it. I can’t let her go.
I leave to call my brothers.
On December 30th, we have a family meeting with my mother’s doctor—me, my two brothers and my Berkeley sister-in-law. The doctor confirms what the resident said. My mother’s diaphragm is paralyzed. One side was paralyzed before surgery, the other during the surgery, from the cold metal instruments. It’s a complication that happens sometimes. If there’s talk about how long the staff has known, I don’t hear it.
We agree on taking Mom off life support. We know it’s what she’d want. Still, it’s impossibly hard.
We decide there’s no use waiting. We don’t want to prolong her suffering, or ours. At first, I don’t think I can stand to watch her die. But in the end, I know I have to.
The doctor leaves. We wait to be called into my mother’s room. They’ve removed the respirator, but have her on the cardiac machine. She’s sedated. We stand around her bed, holding hands, crying, hearing Mom’s laborious breath.
It’s the most intense, overwhelming, excruciating experience of my life. More than an hour goes by. My doctor brother makes an awkward joke about how long it’s taking. We laugh hysterically. We watch the beats of her heart register on the cardiac machine and obsessively watch the numbers. Her heart doesn’t want to give up.
My mother’s doctor returns. He asks if we want to speed the process up. He doesn’t say her death. We leave briefly. When we return, Mom is quieter. A friend of my doctor brother, a nursing supervisor, comes into the room. She turns off the cardiac monitor, so we won’t watch the numbers.
“You can talk to her,” she says. “Tell her it’s okay to go.”
I look at my mother, really look at her. She’s trapped in a body no longer hers, hanging on and suffering. I have to let her leave. I think what I can’t verbalize. It’s okay Mom. Just let go. I want you to. We all want what’s best for you.
Then I say my final words to my mother. “We’re all with you. We love you.”
My mother’s eyes open for a brief moment. I see her looking at us. Then she dies.
We leave the hospital. I can’t stop crying. We’re all crying, my brothers, my sister-in-law and me. I spend some time at my brother’s house in Berkeley. Then I go home.
I feel afraid as I park in the carport. With weighted legs, I climb the steps to the front entrance. My hand shakes as I unlock my door.
My apartment is cold. It feels empty. I feel empty. I get undressed and open a bottle of Zinfandel. I sit on the living room couch. I don’t listen to music, or watch TV. I sip wine and cry.
The Zuni bear sits on my coffee table. My mother’s mask is on the wall. But I’m still alone.
© 2011 Myra Sherman