Say Goodbye to Grandma
|(Mom (Jo) and me.)|
As I turned away from the mirror, something caught my eye.
I snapped back to see what it was. There, returning my gaze, was a familiar face. It was more of an image, actually: an expression, a tilt of the head, a flash of the eyes. Not my face, but my mother's face, translucently superimposed, for lack of a better description, over my own. Like a hologram. No alarm, no sense of foreboding, no feeling that seeing two faces in the mirror was the slightest bit unusual.
The hour, I would remember later, was shortly after noon. I exited the ladies' room and returned to my desk. It's 1991.
My telephone rang at about three o'clock, and at first I didn't recognize the voice on the other end, but then I realized it was Jeff. My college senior son, whom I thought had headed back to Penn State for a week-end of beer, women and general rowdiness, called. His voice sounded strange until it suddenly occurred to me that he was choking back tears.
His Grandma, my mother, he related through spastic sobs, had suffered either a heart attack or a stroke. He and Dad had been with her. Death tried its best strike instantaneously, but following a call to 911 the paramedics appeared, dutifully wielding drug-filling syringes, shock paddles, and an artificial air supply. They quickly transported her to the hospital, only a few minutes away. Unfortunately, between the time Dad found her and the time help arrived, her brain had been without oxygen for nearly ten minutes. But even so, in the emergency room, with my father and son pacing about the waiting room, resuscitative measures persisted on this seventy-four-year old woman, an insulin-dependent diabetic with a history of congestive heart failure and aortic aneurysm.
An ER doctor appeared. Success. They had a pulse. Sort of. She was on her way to Intensive Care.
So, on that sunny midsummer afternoon, my octogenarian father had found his wife sitting before the television in her favorite chair. Her head was flung backward. Her mouth and eyes popped wide open, no doubt in astonishment at her own sudden death. He had witnessed the paramedics' furtive work, and followed her ambulance to to the hospital, where he paced and hoped. And now, his mate of fifty years was being rolled to Intensive Care. She was unresponsive to pain stimulus, her pupils were fixed and non-reactive, and she had little or no blood pressure, but the doctors had done their job, and her heart was pumping, more or less, with the fragile, thready, non-rhythm of an electrically-induced pulse. She was breathing with the aid of a ventilator, and clinically, they said, alive. Another miracle of modern medicine.
Mom always said she wanted to be cremated with no viewing. She insisted she did not want to subject her family to the weeping, wailing. and general circus atmosphere of a three-day post-mortem ritual, but I've always suspected she simply cringed at the prospect of being mourned over by an odd assortment of people for 72 hours, in a situation where a stranger had taken posthumous control of her hair and make-up, possibly using frosted blue eye shadow. I lean toward cremation for much the same reason. That, and my paralyzing claustrophobia.
But I wasn't sure how my dad would feel about cremation. We'd never discussed it as a family. I hung some suits and dresses in the back of my car, just in case I was called upon to host a wake.
Before I left home, I contacted my mother's treating physician, not to be confused with the miracle-worker in the emergency room. He confirmed my fears: oxygen-deprived, unresponsive, not breathing on her own, likely to fail during the night. He gentle but firm, offering sympathy without false hope. I appreciated his candor. He also suggested that should she have another "cardiac episode" the kindest thing to do would be to let her go. I agreed. Then I drove east.
My home town hadn't changed much in the years since I'd escaped: the same old bank high on a hill, presiding over Main Street from its corner lookout, the same monument standing sentry in the middle of town, wreaking havoc on out-of-town drivers who huddled around it defensively, never sure who had the right-of-way (nobody did), the same guys I'd slapped at the drive-in back in high school, perched on the same bar stools they claimed the year I left for college. Now though, they had lower bellies and higher hair lines. But as I turned down Washington Street at one A.M., the peeling paint of my parents' house was barely visible in the darkness. My mother had always left the porch light burning for me, no matter how late I got it. So I guess something had changed after all.
The Intensive Care nurses had been alerted that I would be arriving well after midnight, and that I should admitted. Dad I rang the requisite buzzer well and then proceeded down the dark, narrow hall to Mom's cubicle. The monitoring equipment flashed like the cockpit of some futuristic space craft. The withering bedridden body tethered by plastic tubing, swollen, purple tongue displaced by a hose forcing what were most probably unwanted breaths, was not the mother who drew the blinds and read to me during thunderstorms so that (and she) wouldn't be afraid. That person was gone.
I spoke in hushed tones with the ICU nurse, about the massively distended abdomen (internal hemorrhage?), about the blood in the urine, about lines on the monitor becoming flatter with each heart beat. Dad, in the meantime, was balanced on the edge of a chair, hair uncombed, hands folded between his knees, listening to our words and alternating worried glances between his wife and the numbers flashing on the digital gauges.
"So, how's her blood pressure?" he asked, looking up hopefully.
On the blood pressure monitor, where numbers should have been, there was a digital question mark. He either did not see this, or did not wish to. It was time to take him home. I told the nurses I would be back shortly to spend the night.
Dad spoke very softly on the way to the elevator. He shuffled across the cold tile in a pair of old terry cloth slippers. He had forgotten to change into his shoes. "She's gone, isn't she?" he asked.
I put my arm across his rounded shoulders. He is barely as tall as I am, which is practically elfin, but his hunched posture and his hung head diminished him even further. "She wants to be," I said. "And if she isn't by tomorrow," I continued, "I think we have to help her."
When Dad and I returned from the hospital, I settled him onto the couch with a cup of warm milk, which he fortified with a hefty splash of Jack Daniels. I coaxed him to try and sleep a little. There was nothing he could do. Jeff was in the living room, waiting for us.
"So how's Grandma?"
"Not good," I replied. "I'm going back up to spend the night. Do you want to come?"
He did, and we returned to Intensive Care. The blips on monitor were slightly flatter. There was still a question mark where the blood pressure reading should have been. Mum was gasping for ragged breaths, as if to say, "Okay, if you want me to try, I'll try." With each failed attempt, a yellow warning light on the ventilator announced a mechanical breath instead of a natural one. The yellow flashed were becoming more frequent and closer together. The nurse offered us chairs. We accepted. Jeffrey was in tears and inconsolable. His Grandma had been like a mother to him. More like a mother, I had to admit, for most of life, than his own mother.