Wednesday, December 23, 2009

last call

The right brain ponders: The lives we share, or choose not to, with our supposed most-loved ones, are victim by their proximity alone to also be our most contentious and confusing. This despite the rivers of love and understanding that run deep in such relationships, at least as commonly depicted across the maps of popular human culture. More often than not, given to the same flaws as their human craftsmen, these maps are in error. Even at the very end of a lifelong arch, at a time when we are lead to hope that the big picture might at last snap into focus, we are left lacking. No such map exists, or shall ever exist, except for what little landscape of light and darkness that we have foraged out somewhere within ourselves. This is our personal, imperfect guide to the experience of death, as was always the intention, it would seem.

On a recent Saturday morning, Linda and I met with the staff at a local hospice and checked my mother into a private room, a quiet and sunlit place that we understood was where she would take her last breath. Hovering in a coma since the previous weekend, she'd collapsed with a stroke on Sunday afternoon, spent several days in a critical care ward, with hopes she'd somehow bounce back. At 87, she'd held a reputation as a tough old bird, but the time for tough had run out. On the brink of renal failure and paralyzed completely on at least half of her body, she was now presumed never to awaken, or even live out the week.

Earlier, when the decision to withdraw feeding and fluid tubes was finally made, Mom was unplugged from her tangle of plastic tubes, scopes, probes and cables and set free to lean her head back and snore like a logger, as was her style, this time in the numbing embrace of a morphine IV drip.

During a long week in her hospital room, my brother Rog, Staci and I exchanged remembrances, do-it-yourself tips and hour after hour of topics ranging from my mother's current breathing rate, to HBO On-Demand, bargain gasoline, back exercises, best vacation stories and back again. We sought comfort in each other and the common thoughts and events of the everyday. Doubtless in countless rooms surrounding us in all directions, others were relating similar tales, and under similar circumstances.

Her gray head braced by a stiff pillow, the three of gazed silently at the woman between us: perilously near the edge of the past-tense, here was a helpless figure that for each of us at a given time had once been the bright center of our respective universe.

That same week, in the course of a regular-scheduled hour with my therapist, death was naturally the main topic. My summation came in the form of a childhood memory: when I was nine or ten and we lived in Burlington, I'd often ride my bike to the small park across the street from the city library. Here, I would sit and imagine how wonderful it would be when the carnival would return in June, and set up their show on this very lot. On one of these afternoons I looked up from my swing and saw my brother's '53 Ford sedan - canary yellow with a black top - heading up the street, just across the playfield. Mom was driving, alone and at the wheel, window rolled down, and when she spotted me she threw her arm out the window and flapped it in a tall arch, all with a huge, happy smile. As if it was the happiest day of her life. Back those days her hair was a rich, dark brown and her lipstick an impossibly bright red. Beauty, laughing. That image of her through the window, waving and waving with that big smile, in the old Ford, that picture is still as clear as if it had happened a few moments ago. At that same instant, the moment when I raised my hand to wave back, was when I also suddenly realized that She will die someday. She, my mother. Will die.

I lingered on my swing and let it in sink in, and then cried. As every child must discover, it was true.

On Friday morning, having shared the week in Mom's Hospital room, Stacy flew back to her home in Frisko, Texas. The evening just before, this most beloved granddaughter had slept in the chair next to Mom's bed for the entire night, their hands entwined in a familiar fashion, but for a last time.

Two day later, at the hospice, I gingerly combed my mother's hair and left for short trip to the local supermarket, then headed home. When the phone rang a few minutes later, I was surprised to hear the caller announce herself to be Resa, a hospice nurse we had met only an hour or two earlier. My mother had just passed away, she reported.

Whatever goodbyes were coming, had all been made.

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