"I got to thinking one day about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night in an effort to 'cut back.' From then on, I've tried to be a little more flexible."
(Erma Bombeck)

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My mom is dying and it's torture to witness

My mother is dying and it's torture to witness. I hate it. I hate every agonizing second of it. Maybe I will look back on it and see it differently. I hope I do.

I place my hand on her forehead and stroke her hair back. Her eyes are rolled back, half-closed. She has oxygen in her nose. She is struggling. Every. Single. Breath.

Yesterday was the worst. Or, at least I hope it was the worst. Something tells me there are more days for my residency in hell.

I'm trying to find the light, the good, the sacredness in this situation. After all, I'm a Believer.

I pray the Jesus Prayer over my mom continuously. I hold her hand and stroke her hair. I don't know if she knows it's me or if she even hears us. But I tell her I love her.

Just before my husband and I arrived at the hospital yesterday, she had choked on her own saliva and vomited. Blood mixed with saliva was drooling out of the side of her mouth. She was making a horrible gurgling sound with every breath. Her eyes were vacant and there were four nurses trying to move her body into a better position. She groaned with pain. She cannot speak.

After she was cleaned up and they laid her on her side and propped her head to the side with pillows, I sat down beside her. The bed rail was in the way, but I did my best to reach over it and touch her head. I felt myself collapse inside and began to softly cry, then sob, and the sobs kept coming. I was embarrassed because everyone else in the room was behind me, quiet. But the embarrassment soon faded away and I felt the sobs heaving from my body, coming from deep inside of me, helpless to stop them.

I hate this. I hate seeing my mother this way. I want to take away her pain and end her suffering. I hate for my dad to be left alone.

I'm 60 years old...I have had the blessing of having both parents for far longer than almost all of my friends. But, you know? Age does not ameliorate the loss of someone you love. This is still my parent and I am still her child.

Five nights ago, I had my last conversation with her, but of course, I had no idea it would be our last. My dad had called from their assisted living place to tell me that Mom was refusing to take a shower. “She won't let them give her a shower,” he complained.

I could hear the frustration in Dad's voice, pleading for someone to do something to help. We  had visitors that night, so I walked out on to our deck to talk to dad away from their chatter. Yelling into the  phone (he is nearly deaf), I told him not to worry about it tonight. I asked if he could put someone on the phone (I meant one of the aides from the assisted living place). Instead, I heard him grabbing my mother and putting her on the phone.

“I'm not going to take a shower,” she said.

“Mom, why don't you want to take a shower?” I asked.

“Because I have already had three. They have already given me showers. I'm done with that.”

And so our conversation went. I gave in. There was nothing I could do in that moment, so I told her, “Mom, you don't need to worry about taking a shower tonight. But the next time they come in to give you a shower, you need to take one. It's for your health.”

“I'm not saying I won't take another one, but I don't need one now.” she responded.

Then she continued with a frequent theme. “I want to get out of here,” she said. “I don't like it here. I never wanted to come here.”

“Mom, if you don't let them give you showers, you may end up having to live somewhere away from Dad,” I countered.

“Well, that is alright with me,” she asserted. “I don't think he's all that nice to me, anyway. I just hate it here. I feel like I want to cut my throat with a knife.”

Those were the words that stood out the most from the whole conversation. I knew she didn't know what she was saying, really. I was actually impressed that she put that many words together coherently because lately, she had not been speaking much and she spoke in short sentences. It was almost a comfort to hear her speaking those words, even if I hated what she was saying.

That was Thursday night. I  had a big trip to Ireland to get ready for. I had a huge list of “to do's” to accomplish before we flew out on the following Wednesday.

So, I wrote “Visit Mom and Dad” on the list, but kept pushing it back another day because every day seemed to fill up with errands and work.

On Sunday before our Wednesday trip, I ran more errands. I kept thinking of more items I needed to pick up ahead of our trip. I ran to Fred Meyer, which is only blocks away from Mom and Dad's assisted living facility.

“I should run over to see Mom and Dad,” I thought. But then I looked at my watch and remembered that they would be eating dinner right about this time. “Besides,” I thought, “our dog is at home in the crate and she needs to be let out. And I need to feed her. I'll come back tomorrow when I have more time to visit.”

Later that night, at about 7:30 p.m., Dad called. “Your mom fell down,” he said. (She has fallen several times and fortunately not broken any bones. We got her a walker to try to prevent any more falls.)

“What happened?” I asked.

He told me that the aides were getting Mom into her pajamas when she got angry with them and quickly walked away before they could stop her. She walked toward the apartment door, apparently in an attempt to leave and “go home,” as my dad later put it.

Dad was watching television and saw Mom walk by wearing only her pajama top and her Depends as underwear, but no pants.

“Where are you going?” he asked, bewildered.

She didn't answer him. He said she stopped and looked like she was having a “spell” and then fell over backwards, hitting her head. He thought she had only hit her head on the carpet and told me that she didn't appear to be hurt, but the paramedics were taking her to the ER, just to be safe.

When I got to the ER, I found Mom on a gurney in the hallway, with Dad sitting beside her. I asked the receptionist, “Why is she in a hallway?”

“Oh, we're really busy tonight.”

Almost immediately, Dad told me that Mom had a fractured skull. He looked scared, like he was trying to process it. “I didn't think she was that hurt,” he said.

Soon, a doctor approached and informed me that Mom had been given a cat scan. She had a very long (several inches) fracture down the back of her skull and was bleeding from the brain. He said that if I wanted them to send her to Harborview for brain surgery, he would try, but he didn't think any brain surgeon would operate on a 91-year old woman.

“I'm not going to put her through that,” I said.

“Okay, well....we can try to keep her comfortable here for now,” he said. “We can take another cat scan in four hours and see if the bleeding has stopped.”

He suggested that Dad and I go home and that he would call as soon as they had done the second scan.

We left after midnight and I went to bed late, with the phone on top of me so I wouldn't miss the surgeon's call.

At 3:00 a.m., he called and said, “Your mom is doing great! Her second cat scan shows that the bleeding has stopped. I suggest that we hospitalize her for a day or so to watch her and keep her comfortable and then let her go home. I've seen people completely recover from these things.”

So, I hung up the phone and tried to get some rest, relieved and thankful.

Not even an hour later, a different doctor called and woke me from my sleep. “I'm calling about your mother,” he said. “Her breathing is in an 'end-of-life' pattern.”

I was completely confused. I tried to process what he was telling me. How could things have changed so rapidly?

I struggled to understand what he was telling me. “I don't understand,” I said. “Did she suddenly take a turn for the worse?”

“Yes. I don't think she will last until morning.”

I got up, and stumbled across the room towards my clothing. “I don't know what to do,” I said out loud.

My husband, who had overheard the doctor on speaker phone from his side of the bed said, “Call your brother.”

So, I immediately called my brother, who said he would drive up from Bellevue, an hour-and-a-half away. He said he would bring Dad.

I dressed quickly and ran out the door, driving to the hospital in a daze, praying that I would get there in time to be with Mom before she passed. I didn't want her to die alone.

When I got to the hospital and located her room on the second floor, I found her in a bed with no IVs, no pain relief, no fluids, just writhing and confused and pushing everyone away, trying to tear the hospital gown from her body.

I tried to calm her down and talk to her. I don't know if she knew who I was. She seemed to at times, then suddenly, she would push me away. The nurse in charge assigned a poor young nurse to sit with Mom until they could figure out what to do. We took turns trying to keep Mom from falling off the bed and tearing off her gown.

I asked the nurse if we could give Mom something for pain. From everything I've been told, a fractured skull produces a migraine from hell.

Later, the nurse came in to give Mom an injection of Ativan in the IV in her arm. I asked if that was for pain relief. “Not really,” she said. “It's to calm her down.”

“I think she needs fluids,” I said. “Can we give her IV fluids?”

It seemed to take an act of Congress to get fluids, but they eventually arrived an hour and a half later. I asked again for pain relief for Mom. She had both of those things in the ER...what was the matter with these people...why couldn't they take care of her the way the ER doctor had done?

Finally, the nurse came in and gave Mom morphine. Eventually, she calmed down and her breathing slowed.

I was working off of about an hour of sleep and stayed at the hospital 12 hours that day. I saw two different doctors and several nurses who came in and out. The last doctor I spoke to said that things were “50/50” as far as Mom surviving. He said we just needed to wait another 24 hours and see how she did.

I told him that my husband and I were supposed to fly to Ireland in two days. I told him that I needed to cancel everything. I'm not even sure why I told him, I just needed to say it out loud, I guess. All of my planning for the last six months was for naught.

Funny thing is, when I first learned that I had been accepted to the photography workshop in Ireland, I couldn't believe it. I told my daughter that I was afraid something bad would happen and that I wouldn't get to just seemed like it was too good to be true. It was a bucket list item.

Why didn't I believe I would really go? Maybe I'm prophetic or maybe I'm a pessimist. Probably the latter.

After my 12-hour day at the hospital, I went home to get some rest. I didn't want to leave Mom, but I knew I needed to reboot. I fell asleep about 9:15. At 11:00 p.m., the phone rang with the hospital's number on Caller ID. I feared the worst.

It was the night nurse, calling to tell me that they had moved Mom to the third floor because she was more stable. I was relieved beyond belief. Maybe she would recover. Maybe Ireland was back on again.

But yesterday put all of my notions of normalcy to rest. The day was full of Mom groaning and vomiting. Her mouth filled with blood and she vomited it all over herself and the bed. I asked the nurse why she was vomiting blood. She couldn't give me an explanation, but she tried  her best. She reminded me of a third-grader trying to explain the rotation of the sun. She obviously didn't know, but whatever she said sounded good.

The nurses came in and out again and cleaned her up and moved her to her left side again. I couldn't get used to seeing her this way. The nurses left Mom with her lips bright red from dried blood and her teeth covered in dried blood. I got a wet paper towel and tried to wipe it off. Later, they sent someone in to swab her mouth. I sat by her and stroked her hair, but the truth is that I would often look away because it was unbearable. One side of her mouth drooped down and her eye on that side of her face was closed. Once in awhile, she would open it and I thought she was looking at me. I spoke to her to let her know I was there.

The truth is that I cried when I sat by my mom yesterday because I didn't see the face of a dying 91-year old woman. I saw the face from the photograph of her as a young girl. She looked exactly the same. The same features, the hair smoothed back in a ponytail. Even her skin looked smooth to me.

When I held her hand and scrutinized her face, I saw the face from her wedding photograph, one of only two that have survived from her wedding day. She was a beautiful woman, a Texas girl. She had beautiful brunette hair and flowers in her hair.

When I stroked her hair, I saw the smiling face from the photos of her holding me as a little girl, Mom all of 34 years old and wearing a red sweater.

When the aides and the doctors and the nurses came in, they saw a pitiful woman dying. I talked to them about who she was and the life she lived, so they would know her as someone more and maybe give her better care.

About an hour before I left the hospital yesterday, Mom stopped breathing. Only my dad and my husband were in the room with me. Dad said, “I think she's smiling at me.”

She wasn't smiling. She had suddenly closed her mouth and her face was turning blue. “I think she's turning blue,” I said in a panicked voice.

We gathered around her bed, not quite knowing what to do. We thought it might be the end. Suddenly, she opened her mouth and vomited green fluid all over herself and the bed. It looked like bile.

Distressed, I ran out of the room to get a nurse. I asked why she was vomiting like this.

Before we left the hospital yesterday, I spoke with the nurse and reiterated that we wanted Mom to have morphine whenever she needed it, over and above the morphine drip, if necessary. “Please check on her while we're gone,” I said. “I'm afraid she will vomit and aspirate it into her lungs when no one is there.”

I was assured they would check on her regularly. I felt horrible leaving her again. What if she dies while we're gone?

Two people yesterday told me separately that many people wait until their loved ones leave before they die. I don't know if it's true or not, but I Googled it and apparently, it's a common theme. It's as if many people don't want to put their loved ones through it, so they wait until it's safe to die.

Today, we visited Mom again. I felt guilty for sitting there talking about computers and Ireland and everything else. Her appearance wasn't as shocking. The nurses gave her anti-nausea drugs so she stopped vomiting. In fact, she stayed in the same position for hours while we were there, all the while struggling for every breath.

I felt like we were treating her like another piece of furniture in the room, going on about our business while she hovered between life and death next to us. I wanted to include her in the conversation, to let her know that she wasn't gone yet. I got up and moved to sit by her, stroke her hair, hold her hand, tell her I love her. I'm not ready to let her go, but I want her suffering to be relieved and yes, my suffering as well.

When I close my eyes, I see her face and her struggle for breath, for life. It's torture to witness.

I told God today that I wanted to entrust my mother, her life and her death, to Him. As much as I want to change things, to make them better, I cannot.

I want to trust, I want to believe. Lord, help my unbelief.

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