It was a midsummer morning, I was just pulling away from my house headed for work, and I became extremely uneasy and concerned for my mom. I was 30 years old and working as a nurse, three weeks prior mom had turned jaundice due to cirrhosis of her liver from alcoholism, so I knew her time was limited.
I drove to her house and looked inside the windows. I could see that her husband was gone, most likely took the early bus to the casino, but her purse was on the counter. I grabbed the hidden front door key and let myself in, as I did I announced myself, hoping not to startle her yet praying she’d answer. When she didn’t answer, my heart was pounding as I inched up the stairs to her room. There was an awful smell and I just wanted to run, I was so scared.
I found her in her room sitting on her couch, awake, breathing but sitting in about 3 days worth of bodily waste and vomit. She had no idea who I was and couldn’t speak, she just mumbled. She had a half bottle of vodka by her side and nothing else. It appeared her husband was coming and going each day to the casino and ignoring her current condition. I calmly called for an ambulance for transport to the hospital, not because I knew they could save her, but I sure as shit wasn’t leaving her to die that way in filth and neglect.
I didn’t leave a note for her husband, he didn’t deserve to know where she was. My sis was in Mexico on vacation and I had no way of reaching her. I had to handle this on my own, which I preferred because I didn’t need the rest of the drama from everyone else. There were 1 out of 100 casino’s her husband could have been at, no way of locating him. Basically the ER doctor did what he could based on her current condition and that was to make her comfortable, admitted her directly to their Hospice unit and there I sat staring at her unresponsive body. Her body was full of toxins and she wasn’t expected to wake up, after a couple of days during her “sleep” she woke straight up and was asking the nurse what was happening. The nurse called me right away.
I rushed right over and it was about 10 o’clock in the morning, her doctor wouldn’t be in until that evening and I couldn’t have her sitting there in fear wondering what was happening to her. She needed to know she was dying, but I wasn’t about to let some stranger explain this to her. Her husband was once again out at a casino, wasn’t about to wait for his sorry ass to show up for this critical conversation. I went into her room and sat down on her bed, Joan was as lucid as she could ever be, it was an unexplainable reality. I made small talk asking her how she felt, if she recalled anything from the past few days, trying to gauge her level of orientation. I finally conjured up the courage to tell her where her physical condition was really at and death was imminent.
“Mom you’ve been here in the hospital for 3 days now, I found you at home alone, incoherent and very ill. After many tests and evaluations it is determined that your liver has completely stopped working. This condition is not reversible and you are expected to die with the next couple of days to couple of weeks.” Then with a deep breath I waited for her response.
She also took a deep breath, looked around the room and says “Well I really fucked up didn’t I”? I was in utter disbelief. I responded “Yes mom you did, but at least you gave it all you got.” She was silent for a time and I asked her if she had any questions. She replied sternly “No. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I want ice cream.” I found her some ice cream and spent the rest of the time organizing her transfer to a long-term hospice facility nearby.
In 24 hours mom was transferred and she was in and out of consciousness. By this point she was 5 days without alcohol, she suffered tremors and anxiety and they treated her for comfort. My Godfather and my dad Clint came to see her. Being very Catholic, my Godfather brought a priest to pray over her. In the room was myself, Joan, her husband Leisure Suit Larry, Clint and my Godfather. She looked at my dad and smiled in delight, looked at Larry while pointing at my dad and said “Look honey it’s my husband!” Larry was pissed, I enjoyed his discomfort. We talked for a bit. Then she fell asleep.
Joan’s best friend showed up the next morning to see her, she prayed with her and asked if she would accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior, and mom did. She had been baptized as a child, but I think she was scared and this brought her some emotional comfort. That day mom slipped into a coma.
I went and saw her every day for the next few days and then woke up on a Friday morning with that gut feeling that I had to go to her that day. When I arrived with my latte and bagel she was now in a private room. I checked her hands and they were starting to stiffen, I called the nurse in for a vital check, she was in the “transition” process of dying and it would happen within 24 hours. Joan was very proud of her rings and watch and was wearing them, the nurse advised that we remove them now. She brought me a bag to put them in, but I immediately put them on the same fingers she had them on, except her wedding ring. I envisioned shoving the wedding ring in Larry’s mouth with hopes he’d choke on it and die.
Since I had this quiet time with her I decided I would write her eulogy and read it to her. I spoke to her about it as of she was in the conversation, I wanted her to hear the love I wrote. After I wrote it the weirdest thing happened. She started humming. Not mumbling but humming. No specific tune but it was a song. I called the nurse in and she was in amazement, she went and got some other hospice staff and the Pastor who were all in amazement. They said they’d never seen it before. She hummed for about 20 minutes and then became silent.
Her CNA came in shortly after to bathe her, asked if I wanted to step out and I said no that I would help her. So in silence and peace we bathed her and combed her hair. By that time I was tired and felt sedated. I grabbed an afghan from the end of the bed and crawled into her bed and cuddled with her.
After 30 years of emotional and some physical abuse, my pain and anger lifted and laying next to her was the most comforting precious moment I’d ever had with her. I napped for about an hour and woke up to the sound of a nurse sniffling, she was overpowered with emotion seeing me asleep next to mom. This nurse knew I hadn’t eaten since early and she came in with a tray of food for me.
I called for my sister to please come as mom was declining quickly and I asked her to bring the memory jar. I made Joan and Sis a jar full of 365 childhood memories for Christmas and I thought we could read them out loud and talk about good times.
As we sat there we heard a clinking coming down the hall, then a cart pulled up to mom’s room, IT WAS A COCKTAIL CART! We were so shocked! Here she is dying from the effects of alcoholism and there’s a cocktail cart at her Hospice. We looked at each other and giggled and said “fuck it let’s have a cocktail”. We each ordered one and I ordered Joan a vodka tonic, her favorite, then I grabbed a swab used for moistening their lips and mouth and plunged it into her cocktail. We raised our glasses and said a toast to Joan and I wiped the swab on her lips.
We sat and giggled for hours, cried and shook our heads in disbelief. Then at about 9pm Leisure Suit Larry showed up stumbling in thoroughly intoxicated and could barely walk. I took the initiative to tell him she was on 1/2 hour vital checks as she was nearing her final breath. Standing there swaying he says “She could still pull out of this.” That hit a nerve and I had a cocktail courage moment and I said “You know for a Retired Principal you’re pretty fucking stupid and your denial is pure ignorance.” I must have been a bit loud as our nurse and Pastor walked in. They pulled Larry out and called him a cab and sent him home.
Late that night mom took a turn for the worse and became very agitated groaning in severe pain. I asked for comfort measures and had a gut check that she wanted us to leave. Joan couldn’t have imagined having her daughters see her so helpless and clearly didn’t want us there when she took her final breath. So we left.
The next day I received the call in the morning that she had passed with Larry by her side. Which didn’t bother me that he was there. I’ve seen people take their last breath and it’s a memory scarred in your mind forever. I’m glad he witnessed the outcome of their choices, it was his consequence.
My emotions right after her passing and now are such a difficult topic to explain I’m posting that blog next.
Joan passed in 2001 at the age of 54. Now with her Lord and Savior free to laugh, dance, sing and be pain-free. I refuse to wish her back be cause that would be selfish to want to take her away from eternal happiness.