One year ago tonight, Dad took Mom to the ER… and thus began the final five days of Mom’s life.
That same night, in Baraboo, Auntie Katie came to spend the 4th of July with us. My kids used their first sparklers. The sky shone – for a moment – with fireworks – and then the rain started. We all ran into the house, the fireworks people shot off their entire retinue at once, and it was over.
Shortly after that, the phone rang with Dad’s report that he was just pulling into the ER behind the ambulance. I felt such a sense of relief – that Dad was going to be able to rest because Mom was going to be cared for once she was admitted. I didn’t tell either of them that I had already planned to come to Green Bay the next morning. So I slept well, for the first time in quite a long time. Mom had been steadily declining for several weeks. We were not surprised that she required more intervention and help than Dad was able to provide – we were just grateful that they had finally made the decision to do so.
At 8.30 the next morning, after dropping my oldest off at camp in the Dells, I called Dad to tell him I was on my way. His reply sent my anxiety back through the roof. They had sat in the ER all night – ALL NIGHT – and Mom had, with what little strength remained, refused to be admitted. So not only had she not received the help and intervention she needed, but Dad had not slept. I assured him that I was on my way, and asked him to hold down the fort for just 2 more hours. I would be there. We would take her back to the hospital and insist on her admittance. She was unable to eat, or drink. Dad was forcing sips of Ensure down her throat. It was, to say the least, a difficult situation.
I walked in around 10.30 in the morning to find Dad sitting at the kitchen table. Mom was on the couch dozing, and it was clear to me that something was very, very wrong. She was gaunt, and pale, and just simply not right. After he and I talked momentarily, I went in and sat with her, taking her hand.
“What are you doing here??” she asked, when she roused.
“Mom, I’m here to check on you and to help Dad. We need to take you to the hospital. We have got to figure out what’s going on so that we can get you feeling better.”
We put her shoes on her feet, and helped her to the bathroom. Helped isn’t a strong enough word; we carried her. How Dad managed this on his own for so many days is beyond me. This was Monday morning. The previous Thursday, Mom had her liver biopsied. We were biding our time until the results came back – but they were a day delayed because of the Fourth of July holiday. After the biopsy, she never really snapped out of it – it never seemed to me that she came all the way out of the anaesthesia. It had been days since she had had an actual meal. She had stopped smoking. [this was, to me, the truest indicator that something was very wrong. Stopped smoking???]
When we got her in the car – again, no small feat – and were halfway to the hospital, she decided that she wanted a cigarette. Dad hadn’t brought any. He turned around, ran in the house, got her cigarettes, and continued on the drive. She took a few puffs and then, strangely, dropped it and put it out with her foot – on the floor-mat of the car. It was noteworthy to me that Mom smoked her last cigarette on July 5th, 2010 – which was the day that the statewide smoking ban went into effect. She had told me that she wouldn’t be visiting us anymore after the smoking ban went into place. She was right.
Once we were at the hospital and they pulled out her chart from just the night before – the chart that had recommended admittance – we were able to skip the triage and just get up to the room, which was a mercy. Once she was comfortable, and medicated for her agitation, I was able to get a little more out of Dad. I wasn’t at all angry with him for not taking Mom in sooner – he did the best he could, and she could be a real pain in the rear. But when I asked why he had waited so long to do so, he said to me,
“I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. Because I knew she’d never be home again.”
I began to broach the subject with Dad of deciding NOT to do chemo if it was even presented to us as an option. Dad didn’t have the ability to care for her in the way that chemo would require – full time physical care. We needed to think very carefully about what our next steps would be.
From my vantage point of a year later, I can remember smells, sounds, and interactions from the 5th floor at St. Vincent’s that are far more specific than what I can remember about yesterday’s lunch. In hindsight, it is as though someone has shone a huge magnifying glass on the week of July 4, 2010. Even the colors of it all in my memory are bright. And warped. It is a strange recollection.
And so today, Auntie Katie, and our other dearest friends Kate and Christian will arrive. They will spend the day with us – rejoicing, remembering, relaxing. This afternoon, Dad will join us all for dinner and fireworks. He has accomplished much in the last year. I am immeasurably proud of him. He has found hope around every corner and that has helped us all to do the same.
There is a very sweet sense of ‘redeeming the time’ today. If I can’t be 10 years old again, climbing the steps at Lambeau Field with my family to watch the Shopko Fireworks, if I can’t hear Karen McDiarmid [the Shopko lady] sing the world’s slowest National Anthem, if I can’t be with Mom and Dad in Platteville celebrating the 4th with Aunts and Uncles and cousins, and if Mom can’t be here with us today, then we shall at the very least be together. It is indeed the least we can do – but it is also the best we can do. And it is all joy.