By Shell Saurer
The tears wouldn’t stop rolling down my face. For days it was dry and itchy from the assault of so much salt water, and puffy to boot. Thank God for my Ray-Ban aviators.
My heart beat in juxtaposition between the gut-wrenching sorrow of watching life fade from my mother’s rail-thin, tired body and ecstasy knowing that a much better existence awaited her on the other side. I am sad to lose my mama, but excited for her to reach her final goal.
We had a good day together about two weeks ago. She was sitting at a table in the dining room with a mainly untouched plate of lunch in front of her. She didn’t want to eat, but she was happy. And tired. So tired, that instead of eating lunch, she begged to lie her head on the table so she could take a nap.
I wheeled her back to her room and helped her onto her bed. I offered her her daily treat of a Gummy Bear and she raved about it. It was just delicious; so-o-o-o good. The best little candy she had ever eaten. She wanted another one. And then another. And could she have one more? Normally she would eat one or two and her sweet tooth would be satisfied, but this day she ate eight of them!
All hopped up on sugar, she was chattier than usual. She thought I was her mother and was so happy I was there with her. I knew she hadn’t been eating much, if anything, most days but this day and this mood offered me some hope that she was not declining.
That was our last good day.
And…here come the tears again.
I wasn’t able to visit over the following weekend, but wasn’t concerned about it because she seemed to be thriving quite well when I left her that Friday afternoon.
Monday her color was off. Yellowish. She didn’t want to talk. She didn’t want to sit up. She didn’t want a Gummy Bear. What?! There went my alarm bells. She had never turned down a Gummy Bear.
The next few days followed suit. She didn’t really know who I was any more. Mikki, Mother, Daughter…no context, no memory. Then during my Friday afternoon visit, she wouldn’t let go of my hand. She knew I was Mikki and was worried that they were going to take me. Over and over, as she held my hand, stroking it and repeating, “Don’t let them take you” in the gasping, thick-tongued, mumbly voice she now spoke in. It was a bit unnerving, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t expound on who she thought “they” might be or where they were going to take me.
A couple days later, on Sunday, my brother and sister-in-law came to visit and Mom rallied for them. She ate a little lunch when my brother spectacularly coerced her into several “one more bite” moments and was able to hold a conversation. We all were feeling better when we left her side.
Monday was a different story. She wasn’t feeling well. And she admitted it. It must be a trait of that generation, but neither of my parents would ever admit they don’t feel well or take as much as a Tylenol unless their pain level had reached the unbearable capacity. However, when I asked her how she was feeling on Monday, she slowly, thickly, said “I don’t feel good.” When pressed for more info she simply said, “I just don’t feel good at all.”
I asked the caregiver if we could give her a Tylenol and they said she’d complaining of bad back pain earlier and had given her an Oxycontin.
My gut knew she was on her way out at this point, but she’d voiced her concern about my being alone without a husband or children. Thinking she might try to hang on longer than necessary for my sake, afraid about leaving me alone, I decided to tell her about a gentleman I had met over the weekend and had just come from having lunch with. She had been barely awake, but perked right up at this news and asked me several times, “If I lean over and look down, can I meet him? I want to meet him. If I lean over, can I see him?” Wait. What? She was lying flat on the bed. Where did she think she was looking down from?
The hospice nurse, MaryAnn, called to tell me she was concerned about the swift decline over the past 10 days and that she was going to visit again on Thursday instead of her usual Friday visit.
Tuesday I went to see her and she was still in her nightgown in bed, curled up on her side sleeping peacefully, but wouldn’t wake up. I gently shook her, petted her head, shook the bed a little, called her name louder than usual…nothing. The caregivers said she drank a little Ensure in the morning, but she was only awake for a moment to do so, before falling back to sleep.
Wednesday she was on her back with her eyes half open, breathing through her mouth. She was basically unresponsive unless I clapped my hands or made a sudden movement, she would blink. I wanted to hold her hand, but she kept pulling it away. I asked her to squeeze my hand if she knew I was there. Nothing. I knew there was no turning back now, and the sadness ripped through me with searing pain.
I said my goodbyes. I sobbed as she lie unresponsive to my tears dripping off my nose and onto her cheek, remembering how much she hated getting water on her face, including her baptismal blessing a couple weeks prior.
I told her how much I loved her and how she would always be with me. She was getting ready for an incredible journey, where at the end she would see my dad Ron, my sister Sherry, her parents and the aunts and uncles she missed so much. I left feeling depleted and desperate, so I headed to walk the boardwalk on Balboa Island to clear my head and air my soul.
As I stepped onto the boardwalk, my phone rang and it was MaryAnn. She had just left my mother. “But wait,” I said, “this is only Wednesday.” I caught a tremble in her voice as she said she had a gut feeling and something in her heart told her she needed to visit today instead of Thursday as planned.
She went on to confirm my fears. Mom’s body was shutting down and it was only a matter of days, if not hours, before she left us. It was time to call my brother and tell him he needed to come say goodbye. I hung up, called him and left a voice mail. There I sat on the seawall alone, facing the bay, with the happy tourists strolling down the boardwalk behind me as I let the truth of the moment sink in and bent over in pain to let my tears loose again.
As I gathered myself and turned to continue on my walk, there was a woman standing behind me with a large sunhat and concerned, tentative smile on her face. “Are you ok?” she asked? I let it spill forth that I had just gotten confirmation that my 95-year-old mother was on her way out, and I couldn’t reach my brother. She touched my arm and shared that she had gone through a similar situation just a year ago and for me to know that as hard as this moment was, it will eventually get better. She gave me a smile and turned to walk in the opposite direction I was going to walk. I wonder sometimes if she was an angel. I didn’t turn around to see if she was still there. Part of me knows she would not have been.
For three days, I would spend a couple hours by my mom’s side, then leave for a few hours holding my breath, expecting The Call. For those three days, I would sob and tell my mother to reach out and take Jesus’ hand, my dad’s hand, my sister’s hand; let her know they were all waiting for her to take the journey to be with them. The journey was going to be beautiful. She was going to be so happy and free from pain, have her memory and sight back and be with her loved ones. All she had to do was take this journey.
For three days, as her body failed progressively and hung on by a thread, her eyebrows remained firmly knitted together, as if she was worried about something. I tried smoothing her brow, petting her head, telling her she had nothing to worry about any more, smoothing her brow again. The numerous shifts of caregivers all noted that although she was unresponsive, she seemed worried about something and they, too, tried to smooth her brows unsuccessfully.
Friday, November 1st, at about 6:10 pm, I was sitting by her side, delirious from lack of sleep and overspent emotions, reading Theresa Caputo’s (The Long Island Medium) book and thought, I wonder if I can tap into Theresa’s gift, relax and figure out what Mom is so worried about that she won’t let go?
I sat there quietly, breathing in rhythm with the oxygen machine and it dawned on me – MOM HATES TO TRAVEL!!!!! Here I have been encouraging her for days to go on this incredible journey to the great beyond and she hates to travel with such a passion that never once in the 24 years that I lived in Los Angeles did she make the hour drive to visit me from Newport Beach. As she got older, she hated getting in the car to go to the beauty salon, doctor or even out for her beloved frozen yogurt! THAT is what she was worried about – The Journey!!
I leaned over, taking her hand and gave her a big kiss on her forehead, and whispered in her ear, “Mama, you look so tired. You’ve been fighting for several days and you must be exhausted. Why don’t you take a little nap? When you wake up I know you’ll feel so much better.”
Ten minutes later, she was gone.
I am so thankful for these past two years. As mind-numbingly difficult as they were most of the time, I am walking away a much better person. For the first time in too many decades I shared an unconditional love with my mama that I know went both ways. I am blessed beyond belief.
So long for now, Mama. I love you with every fiber of my being.
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Shell Saurer is an event producer, production coordinator, office manager and family caregiver based in Newport Beach, CA.