by Anastasia Jill
My mother is dying. No one has to tell me. I know her decline is inexorable as she grows sicker by the day. Since her heart failure diagnosis, it’s been one ambulance after the other; dehydration, kidney infections, later, COPD, and diabetes all come in succession, one bloated note of music following the same failing melody.
I’m not ready to lose my mom. In doctor’s offices, I beg, “You’re not allowed to die until I’m at least in my forties, okay?” She laughs and reassures me, despite being given less than five years to live. I hadn’t known how to ask the cardiologist, but my mom came out and said, “My daughter wants to know if I’m gonna croak.” We hadn’t expected the affirmative; until this point, my mother was healthy.
Soon enough, I was going to be an orphan.
The local hospital becomes a second home. I occupy myself with loops around the grounds. Despite COVID restrictions, no one asks me questions so long as I wear my mask. The gift shop closes at sundown, but the cafeteria stays open until 3 am. I kill time with sweating bottles of overpriced Coke. The windows run ceiling to floor. I watch the hulked out squirrels hop around, jump on tables, and demand other people’s snacks. A free little library sits just beyond the food court. I take and read books, medical texts, a torn copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
Distractions are important. None of our friends come to visit, and my father isn’t part of my life, nor had he ever been. I am her sole caregiver from diagnosis until the night she passes away. The thought is overwhelming. Luckily, the hospital grounds are large, full of nature and history. I find comfort in the hospice, the shiny walls and perpetually scuffed floors. I know my way around Orlando Health, familiarizing myself with every corner, every brightly lit hall. On the third floor are vintage photographs, nurse and doctor portraits dating back to its opening in 1918. From a squat brick of a building to a multi-level trauma center, this hospital grows in black and white.
Sometimes, I wander outside. Adjacent to the children’s hospital is a body of water ironically named Lake Beautiful. Wooden ducks waft over the surface. It’s unnecessary. This is Florida. Real ducks are nearby in feathered clusters, begging for bread. Geese, too, but they’re jerks who don’t deserve bread. Most of my childhood is blocked out but I remember us at a park when I was five. My mother tried to feed the geese, who flocked on her and pressed her to the outside of our car. She gave them bread, but they still demanded, ignoring the scalpels of their beaks pressing into her stomach and chest.
A handful of doctors would approach with the same level of callousness, neglecting medical and transportation needs under the guise of, “That’s not our problem.” She loses her balance one too many times and ends up in a skilled nursing facility. It will be her last stay, anywhere. She will come home covered in bedsores and retaining fluid, her legs like oblong balloons without color or feeling. She won’t be able to walk or urinate. It takes days for me to convince her to go to the hospital. At this point, it’s too late, and I’ve called 911 without her consent. She will insist that she’s fine; we both know she is not.
She is septic, immobile, and in severe acute heart failure, liver, and kidney failure.
She is brain-dead.
Soon enough, she is going to die.
Some nights, I sleep in the family room. The couch is plastic, and The Parkers always plays on the television. They never turn the lights off, and I hear every single page. It’s cold as a meat locker. I never sleep well, mostly, because I worry.
I worry about the very event that is looming on the horizon. I don’t want my mom to die, but I know full well the end is near. Losing my mom will be the worst and most important thing about me. Forever, am I that girl who lost her mother at 27. I will write about grief and caregiver burnout, heart failure, sepsis and death until my fingertips are calloused and my brain is soft as an uncooked egg. I will grow numb to the concept of her passing but compartmentalize how much it hurt to see her go. At her end of life, I will be at her bedside, holding her mottled hand as she takes a desperate, last breath. Her lips will be purple and puckered from the breathing tube. Her skin will be jaundiced. The monotone doctor will be swift in saying, “Sorry for your loss.”
The night before she dies, I will visit the cancer ward and sit in their small chapel. The walls are fitted with stained glass, birds in various states of flight are captioned with, “Hope. Healing. Peace. Grace. Acceptance.” I stay in the chapel and listen to music. Christine Ebersole sings Noel Coward. I’ll See You Again. This song is a prayer I recite every night, aware that psalms are useless in the face of terminal disease. But this night is different. I will come back to face end of life care. It will be up to me to sign the DNR, to take her off life support.
It takes months for me to wash the outfit — a beige shirt and slacks — that I wore hugging her for the last time. They smell more of antiseptic and gauze tape than they do her, but still, I struggle.
I am in denial, and will be for quite some time.
But the night before she leaves, I am still hopeful, despite nursing reports to the contrary. Her vitals are tanking. Life support isn’t working. I kiss her goodbye, say, “I’ll be back in the morning.”
She is dying, but I think, “Not today.”
Image by Serge Taeymans via Unsplash