Mom is in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and the doctors say that today is her final day. Earlier this week, doctors and nurses flurried around, family conferences calls were made, and national medical procedures were triggered. There were two decisions to make: (1) Do we change her from full code to DNR status (viz., stop the poking, blood draws, and antibiotics)? And, more gravely, (2) Do we “pull the plug,” so to speak?
Photo courtesy of bigstockphoto.com/contributor=shumo4ka
On the conference call, everyone agreed “pulling the plug” was the right thing to do, and that as soon as I could make the 6-hour drive up to Michigan to give the nod of approval, the nurse specialists will begin palliative care. This means they will stop all invasive features and make her as comfortable as possible with morphine and anti-anxiety medicine – until she gets too tired to breathe anymore.
And all I could (and still can) think about is, How does one pull the plug on one’s own Mom? The one who birthed me into this world.
Mom went into the hospital with Job-like symptoms: a staff infection, fluid in her lungs, congestive heart failure, weak kidneys, an unstable heart, and pneumonia. Doctors said she was in respiratory failure and couldn’t keep up in her breathing, so they’d already put her on a BIPAP to prevent her lungs from collapsing in on themselves.
We packed, hopped in the car, and drove all night tonight. After tucking my girls in at the hotel, I head over to the hospital parking garage, find the tower elevators, and lug my pillows, backpack, and laptop with me into the hospital.
I arrive on the scene about 1 am to see that she’s now confined to a bed with an endotracheal tube in her mouth – extending down her throat – to maintain the appropriate exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide.
She has a huge room all to herself. You know it’s serious when the hospital gives you a huge room all to yourself.
When I see her, I’m reminded that I’m here so that the Dr’s can pull the tube out of her – so that her “life can run it’s natural course.” The family and medical staff expected me in later today to do this, but I’m foregoing sleep so I can spend more time with her before others arrive.
It’s about 2 am now and I’m staring at the tube of oxygen.
Without it, she dies. Perhaps she lives, but the doctors say once it comes out, it could take a day – but all indications say she’ll die within several hours max.
I’m standing here with her nurse, Roz (short for Rosland, she tells me), who is explaining the rules of the room to me. The beeping respirator is jarring this time of the morning, when the hallways are quiet and rooms dark. It now reads 100%, which means the breathing machine is doing all the breathing for her. She’s significantly sedated, with her blood pressure strangely bottoming out, then sporadically spiking, like a yo-yo.
I lean in, grab her hand, whisper that I’m here, and begin regaling her with stories of her mommy years. There’s some brain damage due to oxygen deprivation, but she opens her eyes for the first time and nods when I tell her the story about the rocking chair and rocking me to sleep.
I don’t have the heart to tell her that she’ll be dead later today. I don’t have the heart to tell myself that yet. (Indeed, the last two sentences are so unsettling to me, it takes me 30-minutes just to finish them).
So I do something I can’t recommend. I lie to my mom. Another black mark! Never lie to your mother, she always told me. But because I don’t want her scared, I lie.
And, yet, I can see she’s smart enough to know what’s happening. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but it’s still sad. She knows why I drove all this way. She somehow knows I’m here so the medical staff can take out that tube.
And that breaks my heart right in half.
Unable to speak, she stares at me. Her eyes communicate both gratefulness and pensive sadness.
So I tell her we drove in for a Thanksgiving family celebration. That the rest of the family is flying in early next week to celebrate the Holiday, and she needs to start prepping her tasty taters and delicious noodles for friends and family.
I squeeze her hand and tell her I’m not going anywhere. Just like you stayed with me all those sleepless nights when I had toothaches, the flu, bronchitis, ear-aches, and surgeries, I remind her. You sang to me. Held my hand. Prayed strange and weird, yet, comforting, prayers over me. And you stayed by my bedside, Mom.
You stayed with me all night. Every time.
I’m going to miss having a Mom, I think to myself.
I’m wondering how much she understands. I tell her I saw Tom Izzo’s name on the hospital wall as I walked into the hospital and that the hospital sits next to Michigan State University. Mom, I say light heartedly, this is important because you know I love the University of Illinois and work with people there. You can’t spend your last days in Spartan Land.
Knowing she simply tolerated my sports interests all these years, I shift topics. Her eyes have since closed, and I don’t know if she can hear me, but I talk to her anyway. I start with her nails, telling her how pretty they look, that her red hair is as beautiful as ever, and that if she needs anything I’m spending the night with her on the bulky green chair next to her bed.
As I sit there listening to her struggling breaths, I recall one of my graduate professors years ago tearing up in class years after he’d lost his mother, saying, The way you live changes once Mom is gone. Your talk turns tender, your heart becomes more empathetic, and your relationships overflow with reciprocating vulnerability.
I don’t know why I thought about that, but I did. I ponder a lot of things in this ominous room. Don’t we all, when death of a loved one is nearby?
An hour goes by and I’m about to doze off, so I get up to go for a walk in the hallway. It’s been 26 hours since I’ve slept, except for the 2 minutes I may have fallen asleep while leaning against the inside of the elevator wall earlier in the morning.
I come back in the room and ask the nurse for some privacy. I have some things to say to mom. Roz, who had earlier given me free coffee, graciously closes the door. I walk up to mom’s bedside, take a deep quiet breath, and lose it. Niagara Falls.
She sleeps right through it. So I…
- Spend several minutes telling her how thankful I am for the Mom that she was to me.
- Spend several more minutes telling her how sorry I am for being so hard on her.
The machine beepers go off and I wipe away some tears just in case the nurses enter. They don’t. So I continue…
- Spend a few more minutes finally realizing that people only know what they know, that we all have our sins and skeletons, myself included. I should’ve been far gentler with you, Mom, I say. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. A parent just wants to love her kids, I say out-loud, and for her kids to receive that love. I didn’t let you love me enough, Mom. I’m sorry.
Afraid that I’m going to wake her up and scare her with my crying, I go to the sink where I splash some water on my face.
The time is drawing near to pull out the tube. Once out, she might make a full recovery, but let’s be real, the doctors have already enacted palliative care, relatives are waking up with the sole intent of coming to be present with her for this life-ending event, families are boarding planes for a funeral this next week, and Mom will enter Glory soon and very soon.
It’s now 6:30am and my mom is dying. My Mom. The tube. Pulling the plug. Kind of like when obstetricians cut the umbilical cord between a Mom and her baby.
I never understood how Mom’s deal with that. After carrying a baby for 9-months, to have no say-so about it “leaving.” To have the cord cut – just like that – after all that time.
For 9-months a child is growing in a Mom and then all of a sudden he’s out bouncing around in another world. Yes, the nurses bring the baby right back into the Mom’s arms, but now the cord is cut and the baby begins a more independent journey as he spreads his wings in flight.
- Will he struggle or soar?
- Will his heart get broken?
- Will he find his way in this great big world?
- Will he let me love him?
- Will he act in faith or fear most of his life?
Sitting here, I realize the attachment between Mom and child never fades.
- The baby begins crawling, but baby and mom always find their way back to each other.
- As a toddler, he wants his own bed, but when scared with nightmares he waddles into Mom and Dad’s room for comfort.
- A little older, he just wants to play. To Plaaayyyy. But mom’s cooking (if she cooks) and care always brings him home.
- He begins to date, perhaps gets married, and his default tendency is to treat his new spouse like Dad treated Mom.
- As a full grown man, he gets buried in work, misses family reunions, but always feels an unconditional care from Mom.
- He always thinks he knows what’s best for his Mom, but she holds the secrets of life in her motherly heart. And she let’s him tell her anyway.
And Mom will take many of those secrets with her into glory, where she will meet the love of her life, my dad, Danny Bird, or as Johnny Cash sang the dirge, Danny Boy. My parents, reunited.
In a few minutes, hours, or day she will land in glory, where there’s no tubes, no needles, no pills, no suffering.
Just dancing. Laughter – those big, belly laughs. And lots of love. Genuine, authentic, relentless love.
On her last day, I can’t help but think of my first day. Maybe it was the baby I saw struggling to live in the ICU earlier this morning.
On that first day, Mom cut me loose from my struggle to breathe so that I could take flight into the world. And now I’m about to cut her loose from her struggle to breathe so that she can take flight into Heaven.
It’s her turn to float away from me. But I know that one day I will see her in glory, in the one true home. Until then, I’m going to miss you, Mom.
Your proud son, always. – aaron
P.S. I love you, Mom.