The above is the date and time my mother died.
She had fallen earlier in the week, and had a small surgery on Tuesday to shore up a fracture in her femur near a hip implant. It went well, and she was recovering nicely.
She’d had a lot of abdominal surgery over the years. She would have adhesions that needed surgical corrections. Her gall bladder had been removed. Her intestines were a delicate mess.
We were not surprised when she was having trouble moving food through her system and out after the surgery. They were approaching it conservatively, though. They didn’t want to go in if they didn’t have to, so the medical staff was waiting watchfully.
I drove up to the hospital this morning, and mom was in distress. She was in pain, and uncomfortable, and gassy. And she was confused one moment then tack sharp the next. I was Mr Nurse Guy for the next few hours, wiping her face as she coughed up spittle or occasionally threw up something that looked like watery lentil soup and smelled awful.
They planned a CAT scan with contrast, which required my mom to drink a liter of clear liquid — water mixed with an iodine based dye. The PA poured some out in a foam cup and then left the room to attend to something.
My mom took a sip and then asked for a straw. It was the last English I heard her speak.
I got her a straw and handed her the cup, and she sipped dutifully on the straw. She paused to take a breath, then looked past me and spoke a sentence in Hungarian.
Now, my mom is Hungarian by descent, and I had heard her speak a few halting words of it, but this didn’t sound like that. This sounded like a person who really spoke Hungarian. She went back to her drink and again, dutifully sipped until she finished it. And again she looked past me and spoke in Hungarian.
I poured more of the dye solution into her cup, and then hell broke loose. It didn’t happen quickly. It started slowly: she began to throw up a little.
I blotted her lips, and then a cascade of brown came up and everywhere. Suddenly there was a gurgling in her throat and the sound of wet air. Suddenly I was yelling for help. People rushed in. They asked for suction. I hit the call button. Vomit was everywhere. I put my arm around her to lean her forwards or something, anything. I had no idea what I was doing. She had no reaction at all. No awareness of the predicament.
And then suddenly her face bulged and she stared at me and her color changed and the vomiting stopped.
A Code Blue team was there. They pulled her top down. A nurse jumped on the bed, straddling her, pumping like a maniac at her chest.
I went into the hall and texted my brother, who was out of town.
She’s dying before my eyes. Oh my god. There’s everyone here it’s awful
There were 10 people in the room. A machine beeped endlessly. The medical staff shouted stuff. Time elapsed. Another flurry of texts to my brother:
I think she died in my arms
You’re a lucky man to be there, feel love my brother
They’re trying to restart her heart and they can’t
She did not want to be resuscitated
I had forgotten that she had a DNR, and my brother reminded me. I had to walk back into the room and announce that bit of news. Everything stopped. Ten people covered in sweat and vomit staring at me, my mom, eyes open, staring past the ceiling.
A young doctor said, “Do you want us to stop?” He seemed up in the air at the top of the bed. I guess he was on a window sill?
People talk about moments like this one, and they say time slowed down, that time stood still… Well, not today for me. Time was ordinary. Just normal time, with the same space between seconds as always. It was a normal moment I was in. And I had to make a decision in that moment.
“My mom wants you to stop.”
The knot of people around my mom came apart like a scaffold around a completed building. They put things away, they organized. They turned off the machine. There wasn’t much talking. They cleaned up and dressed my mom, and pulled a blanket up to her chin. People die all the time at hospitals.
I guess I was a pretty good son. My mom could be hard to get along with. She was opinionated and could be bossy. She was very smart but that didn’t stop her from occasionally saying something stupid and verging on racist. It was so embarrassing. She talked a lot, and interrupted a lot. Sometimes you didn’t think you were being heard because you weren’t.
But… I could have been nicer.
I could have been nicer. Not that I was mean, but… well, no matter how much patience you have, it eventually gets in short supply.
I wish her last day been different. Romantic, idealized, like in a movie. A gentle goodbye. A kiss. A thank you for everything, mom. For giving me birth and life. For really always doing your absolute best. For always being proud of me no matter how much I managed to not achieve.
She deserved a better last day.
Instead, it was like a bizarre kitchen accident when suddenly you slip and eggs go flying. Tissues and adjusting the bed, and then vomit everywhere, text messages and a bruiser of a nurse pounding away. Who picked this out?
I told my wife my mom died in my arms, which sounds peaceful with warm glances like the end of the Return of the King movie. My arms were around her not affectionately. I was trying to bend her over or clear her lungs or I don’t know what the hell I was doing. It sure wasn’t a hug. I wish it had been a hug.
When she was dutifully sipping from the cup, she looked like a little girl. I remember in the moment thinking that.
I don’t speak Hungarian, but… Maybe at the end she was a little girl again, and saying, “I’m drinking my juice, Mama,” to someone off to my left that I couldn’t see. What did she say the second time when she looked past me? Maybe it was, “I’m coming in a moment, Mama. I finished my juice.”
I have to hope that she died and went with my grandmother, and then her body followed a few seconds later. If not this, then I fed her the liquid that killed her and then I stopped resuscitation. If she left with her mom then I didn’t kill her twice.
I’ll never know. Just like I’ll never know what went so wrong in those last moments, if I should have made different choices, fed her the liquid more slowly, qiestioned the doctors more, or if she forgave me for the times I wasn’t a good son, when I was a smart ass, when I didn’t drive up there, when I wasn’t patient and kind. As patient and kind as I know I can be.
I choose that grandma took her away. I choose that I did my best. I choose that she forgives me. If I repeat this enough, maybe I’ll believe it.
I already believe, though, that she’s forgiven me. For not calling enough. For not visiting enough. For getting caught up in life and responsibilities. For not knowing the end was right there in front of me and giving her a better last day alive.
The end is always right there in front of us. The time to be kind with patience is always right now. I’ve so much to learn and I no longer have my most important teacher.
My mom died on September 14th, 2019, at 2:21pm, at Glen Cove Hospital. She was 91.