It occurs to me that's it's been almost a year since Mom was first diagnosed. And though our count nears 300, it doesn't feel as though I've ticked those days away. It seems the wisest lesson on time comes to us through the immortal genius of Steve Martin as The Jerk:
The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days and the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days and the fifth day you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day and then you came back and later on the sixth day, in then evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it.
Mom & I loved that bit. In fact, that movie played a significant role in our upbringing, as did Arthur & Young Frankenstein. We laughed our way through hard times. We learned those movies word for word. One of Mom's favorites was:
Not everyone who drinks is a poet. Some of us drink because we're not poets.
So, when I think back on coming home from the hospital with an NG tube in Mom's nose, which would not come out until the very end, a clunky pump, a lot more morphine and a slew of family and friends who knew the time was near, I'm searching for humor. I'm sure we buoyed each other up somehow.
Instead, all I remember is my Aunt Terri who showed up one day and didn't leave. She took her vacation time and camped out at the Green Ranch. Home-made tortillas, juevos & chorizo found their way to the table, floorboards were cleaned, the backyard was hosed down, and most importantly, Mom was well tended. She sat with her in silence for hours on end. A post that became increasingly more difficult for me. We bought baby monitors to set about the house in order to keep tabs on mom when we were not in the room.
Hospice immediately sent over a bed and oh yes, now I remember. We decorated her room in a Hawaiian theme. The guest room became a tropical explosion of orange fish & pink hibiscus blossoms with decorative Tiki lights accenting our picture wall. What must have been a hundred pictures of friends and family made a spiritually reviving wall of support and prayer. The only solemn additions to the room were that damn hospital bed and an oxygen tank. We didn't need it, not yet. Mom was still sleeping with the love of her life in her own bed in her own room and breathing on her own. So, the hospice supplies simply stood sentinel awaiting her immanent diminishing.
Days, he said. Weeks maybe, not months.
Joshua flew home from Vegas.
Still we didn't talk of death. We only knew that the tube in mom's nose was keeping her with us and simultaneously depriving her of any and all nutrition. Food and drink became mere palliative companions. Like the skeleton in the dungeons of King Haggard's castle guarding the gate of the Red Bull and all the while lusting for an empty carafe of what he imagined was fine wine, she gulped down a ghostly promise of nourishment only to watch it sucked back out of her nose.
More than any other time through this process, she looked less and less like herself. She could still move about with help, though she fought us off at every turn. Independent to the last. In fact, it should be noted if it has not yet, that not once did I witness an expression of resignation upon her face. She fought for her life. Though the battle was unjust, the odds impossible and the respite obsolete, yet she never gave up.
I think it was then I started to crawl deeper inside of myself. Grief drew me into its womb and I nestled in the dark with thanks. I mined my youth for memories of her skirts spinning, the way she layered her lasagna, or how she flipped her hair when she knew she was right... which was always.
The first time the tube fell out, we did as we were told and went to the ER to get it put back in. If the tube pulls out of the stomach and can no longer do its job, we were told that only an RN could put it back. Like all ER visits, Aunt Terri, Mom & I sat about for hours waiting for an unnecessary x-ray and a replacement tube. We decided that the next time it fell out, we would just handle it ourselves. It turns out that the next time was right as we pulled in the driveway on the way home from the ER.
So, I took hold of the tube and gently fed it into her nose as she swallowed. We got it back in, taped it up and tested it with the pump. Success. It was so successful in fact that I was designated to adjust the tube for all of its shifting. Each new adjustment didn't get easier. Quite the opposite. It became a painful reminder of my mother's lifeline. A reminder that she was starving. I hated that tube. Disdain. Vengeful disgust.
We swabbed around her nose and tried to keep it lubed, but as we were repeatedly told by doctor's and hospice nurses, an NG tube has never been used over a long period of time for someone in this situation. As a result, her nose began to erode, which only added fuel to my spite. How could any righteous destiny decide to cover that resplendent face with bile tubing?
I remember the last time I saw my mother in Seattle thinking even then that she would die looking nothing like herself. Forever my memory of her would be cluttered with her much altered appearance toward the end. This foresight is all the more potent these days. For what I didn't expect was what it would feel like to look in the mirror after she was gone. It is her face I see. Her expressions. Her aching furrowed brown when she cries, taking long deep gasps as she swallows her fear and exhales her courage. Her knowing smile.that puckers her soft lips as her right eyebrow slides up confidently. I am a whirling dervish swallowed in the cyclone of a greedy pursuit for her every expression and then plummeted into sorrow with the reality that it is me smiling back, not her. And then I see her crying. And around I go.
Perhaps someday her likeness will soothe my longing for her. But, today it only serves as a sharp reminder of what is lost.