Last year November 17 was a Wednesday. It was day six of my mom being in the ICU on a ventilator and a variety of IV medications. It was one day before a week: the time limit her family doctor told us would be pushing it and bordering on inhumane.
I don’t remember that morning really. The first thing I remember is sitting in my mom’s room with my dad and my husband, and we decided we wanted to talk to her doctor. We were confused because we had stopped her blood pressure medication the day before and we expected her to crash immediately. She didn’t. Her blood pressure remained stable. We noticed that during the night her hands and feet had started to swell and we thought this was a side effect from the morphine. We were hopeful, grabbing onto anything, so that we wouldn’t have to let her go.
My dad asked Judy, the nurse, if we could talk to Dr. Fless when she had a minute. Judy told us that the doctor was in a conference all morning, but she offered to help us with whatever we needed. I didn’t care for Judy. She was rough and brusque, and not at all what I thought an ICU nurse should be like. But she came over, pulled up a chair, and answered all of our questions with brutal honesty. Yes, her pressure had stabilized, but she still had a compromised lung, massive heart damage, a deadly infection, and a cancerous tumor that couldn’t be treated. She also hadm’t had anything to eat or drink in six days. The swelling was not from the morphine, it was from her body shutting down. She was dying.
We thanked Judy and went downstairs to the cafeteria to get something to eat while the nurses changed shifts. I remember sitting in the booth, picking at my food, as we discussed what to do. I remember it being very clear that we had to take her off the vent. There was no other option. We decided to go home and get washed up since we couldn’t go back in the room yet anyway. We had no idea how long she would last off the vent. Her oncologist predicted it would only be a few minutes, but she said people have proved her wrong before and lasted days.
My dad went to his house, and my husband and I went to our apartment. We each showered and got changed and headed back. It took us longer than I expected, and my dad beat us there. He texted me while we were on our way back to see how much longer we would be. He had already spoken to Judy and told her our decision, with the condition that she and Dr. Fless had to be the ones to do it. We were on a schedule now because Judy was leaving soon.
When we got back there, Dr. Fless and Dr. Wagmiller (her oncologist) took us to the waiting room to talk. I wanted specifics of what would happen, but they beat around the bush. I asked if we had to be in the room when they actually removed the tube, and they said most people preferred not to be because the person will sometimes make some unsettling noises.
We went back to my mom’s room and they all came in shortly after. I kissed her and then the three of us walked down to the other end of the hallway to wait. It took about 5 minutes before Dr. Fless came to get us, but it felt like forever. I remember trying to make jokes about some of the doctors’ names that were posted on a bulletin board to ease the tension. It didn’t work. When we were allowed back in the room, Dr. Fless warned us about the noises my mom was making. Those weren’t nearly as disturbing as the fact that her eyes were half open and her mouth was hanging completely open from lack of jaw muscles. It was terrifying. I burst into tears and started shaking. I went and sat in a chair in the corner, freaking out, while my dad went to my mom and held her hand and brushed what little hair she had left. My husband came over and knelt in front of me and told me it was okay if I wanted to leave. I asked him why she looked like that and obviously he couldn’t answer me.
After a couple of minutes, I got up and walked over to her bed. We had covered her with a homemade quilt that she always liked, and she was surrounded by some of her favorite stuffed animals that I had brought from home the other night. If she couldn’t die at home like she wanted, I wanted to bring home to her. I took her hand and cried and told her I loved her and that it was okay for her to go. I promised to take care of my dad and told her I would be okay. I asked my dad to switch sides with me so I could give her a kiss (she was kind of turned on her right side). He switched with me and I kissed her and stroked her head and just kept telling her how much I loved her. I took out the rosary we had borrowed from one of my dad’s coworkers (it was blessed) and wrapped it around my hand and held it in hers. Her breathing got slower and slower. At one point, my dad and I looked over at each other because there was such a long pause, but she eventually inhaled again. Judy came in and asked us if she was still breathing because her vitals on the monitors outside (they had turned off the one in her room) were so low. We said she was and she left. At 3:35 pm, about 15 minutes after the vent was removed, my mother took her last breath. She didn’t inhale again. I felt my knees go weak and I thought I was going to throw up. I know I was crying much too loudly, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t let go of her hand, and I couldn’t help noticing how cold it got so quickly. Judy came back in with the surgeon who worked on my mom a couple days ago and he pronounced it. I remember my husband was holding me up and my head was on her bed railing and I was just sobbing uncontrollably. I couldn’t believe it.
The next thing I remember is sitting in the chairs in the corner with my dad. I was holding the rosary and the cross was digging into my palm. I kept looking over at her, lying there in the bed, not moving, still with her mouth hanging open. I don’t know how long we sat there. My dad asked if we were ready, and we started packing up our stuff. I gave her one last kiss on the forehead, touched her cheek, told her I loved her, and walked out. All of the nurses stopped to tell us how very sorry they were. I was shocked that no one came to talk to us, to tell us what to do next. No counselor or doctor or social worker ever said a thing.
We went back to my parents’ house and on the drive there, I couldn’t help but notice how drab and depressing everything looked outside. It was like all the color was taken away from the world. When we got to the house, we started making phone calls. I sat in the computer room and for the first time noticed the blood on the carpet in there. I called my best friend and couldn’t even get the words out. I just cried and she knew. I didn’t have to say a thing. My dad made calls in the living room and it was painful hearing him say the words over and over. We ordered a pizza. I think I ate a slice or two. Then my husband and I packed up our stuff, went to our apartment, and I went to bed. Looking back, I don’t know why we didn’t sleep over that night instead of leaving my dad alone. I think I really just wanted to sleep in my own bed, in my pajamas, instead of in dirty clothes curled up on a chair in the waiting room.
Today I plan to go to church and pray for my mother. Then I’ll be spending a couple of hours with my best friend. At 3:35 pm, I want to be home, silent.