In college, I was given a memoir assignment. I recently lost my mom, and I hadn’t really recounted the events of her death at this time. I hadn’t talked much about it, and I certainly hadn’t written about the experience. I was afraid to share the details, thinking somehow it cheapened or lessened her death. Ultimately, I chose to share some of the details of the last few hours with her, and it was a cathartic experience.
I could fill volumes with the exact details and my thoughts and feelings from the time I got the phone call to the time her heart stopped beating, but the story I wrote, and am sharing below, captures much of how I felt without all the extraneous detail. Please feel free to comment below, and thank you for taking the time to read.
If you are curious about my thoughts on grief and life without my mom five years later, or if you are grieving or would like to join the conversation about loss and grief, visit this post.
The day I had waited for was finally here – it was a fangirl’s dream come true: The Star Wars exhibit at the San Jose Tech Museum… rooms upon ROOMS filled with props and franchise paraphernalia. I’d been so busy with school and work that despite the exhibit being stationed in my hometown for months, I had almost completely missed it. On the last weekend of it being in town, a fellow nerd and good friend scooped up some tickets and we headed to the museum, where we spent hours walking around, gawking at costumes, weapons, and models of Star Wars vehicles.
We. Fully. Nerded. Out.
We worked up a pretty good appetite marveling at the artifacts from a galaxy far far away, so we decided to walk down the street to refuel when I got a call from my dad.
When I answered, his voice was unlike I’d ever heard it. His panic stopped me dead in my tracks. He was crying and breathless as he told me my mom may have had a stroke.
The shock of his words struck me in the gut and the busy streets around me faded. All I could hear was his panic and the thudding of my own heart in my ears. My throat was dry and my brain stalled as I tried to form words, asking if he had called 911. I stood with ice in my veins as he told me the ambulance was pulling up and I should meet him at the hospital.
I didn’t realize my friend was staring at me, a look of deep concern on his face. I blinked back tears and tried to find my senses, but all I could say was that I needed to go and started walking in the wrong direction. I was lost. I had no idea what to do.
Somehow I gathered my wits and went to the hospital where my dad filled me in: my mom, a type 1 diabetic in renal failure and undergoing dialysis, came home from her dialysis session that day after too much fluid had been taken off of her. Her body was pushed more than usual that day and she was exhausted. After dinner she called for my dad, saying something was wrong. As she called for him, her speech slurred and she couldn’t sit up. My dad rushed to her and called 911, holding her and talking to her even after she stopped responding.
After what seemed like an eternity a nurse took us into a private room. My sister and dad found relief in this – we were finally out of the busy ER waiting room, so we must be seeing Mom soon.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned while working in the veterinary field it’s that small, comfortable waiting rooms are bad. A secluded room is not a place you’re brought to receive good news, it’s a place you’re placed to avoid making scene when bad news is delivered. I knew this, but I couldn’t tell them and take what little comfort my dad and sister had.
I waited anxiously for a doctor to tell us what I dreaded hearing. When he finally came in, he didn’t tell us we’d lost her, but he may as well have after showing us her brain scan.
Another thing I’ve learned in veterinary medicine: white on any scan is bad. It is the indication of a tumor, a mass, or some kind of fluid. In my mom’s case, it meant mass amounts of cerebral spinal fluid leaking into her brain, causing a massive stroke.
Even though my mom was breathing on her own, she was not showing any other neurological responses. She was deemed stable enough to transfer to another hospital, so we followed the ambulance to Good Samaritan, our home for the next five days.
In the days leading up to my spring break, my family and I sat in a room that smelled of stale recycled air, disinfectant, and bleached blankets. Despite the too-clean smells, the room was heavy with the faint scent of our nervous sweat and worry as we waited – for what, we weren’t quite sure.
Late into day four of cafeteria food and daytime TV shows in the waiting room my dad, sister, and I sat up in Mom’s room. As we kept our vigil we didn’t dare to speak and were too afraid to leave the room for even a moment. The nurses, realizing that the visiting hours no longer applied to us, brought us blankets and snacks. One familiar nurse brought in a convertible bed for Dad while my sister and I pushed two chairs end to end and lined them with pillows and overly starched bed sheets. We curled up in our makeshift bed, tried to settle in for what we knew would be the longest night of our lives, and let our exhaustion and the monotonous dings and beeps of the IV, oxygen, and heart monitors usher us into a light and restless sleep.
Around 4AM a disturbance in the rhythmic sounds of the monitors pierced our sleep, waking us abruptly – one monitor wasn’t keeping time as it had been all night. My sister and I shot up and froze, our eyes fixed on the heart monitor as we were mistaken – that the rhythm hadn’t changed and our fears and sleep deprivation were getting the best of us. I was paralyzed with fear as we watched silently with wide and fearful eyes as the big red numbers on the screen dipped from 102 to 97… 92… 87. I reached over and woke my dad. He opened his eyes and saw the frightened message in mine – it’s time.
He sat up and made room for us on the recliner. My sister sat next to him, and I next to her. He reached out and held my mom’s small, pale hand and we were silent for a long time, staring at her and then the monitor.
The only sounds were the monitors blaring at us, and the faint sniffling of my family as we held each other tight.
As her heart rate and blood pressure declined, the alarms screamed for help. A nurse came in as discretely as she could and silenced them, giving us peace for what seemed like both an eternity and a blink of an eye. I tried to thank her, but I couldn’t lift my eyes to meet hers.
I stood and went to her bedside. I stretched my arm out to her, trying as hard as I could to not let my dad and sister see me shaking. Placing my hand on her arm I gave her a squeeze. Her skin was clammy and soft. I leaned down to her ear and whispered to her. I could smell her unwashed hair and the fruity scent of ketosis mixed with sweat as I told her how much I loved her and how thankful I am to have such an amazing mom. I half expected her to smile and say, “I love you too, baby.” I was almost surprised she didn’t. I kept talking, telling her things I should have told her everyday. I didn’t know if she could hear me or not. The doctor couldn’t say for sure.
Tears poured from my eyes and my voice cracked as I told her we’d be right here. If she could hear us, I didn’t want her to hear our fear. I just wanted her to know we were there and we loved her.
I resumed my position next to my dad and sister and we took our turns talking to her; soothing her… Soothing ourselves.
I’d never seen any of them look so small – my mom, my dad, my sister – they looked almost unrecognizable and for a moment I thought that maybe none of it was real.
We held our breaths and each other, the silence between us was a kind of prayer. Our were eyes wide and waiting for the miracle we knew wasn’t coming.
A nurse silently came in and took her pulse. She put her stethoscope to my mother’s chest and listened closely for a heartbeat with a grave face. My dad and sister sat with their eyes fixated on my mom – she looked somehow different now – and I was finally able to raise my eyes to the nurse’s kind eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. My dad turned to face her, “she’s gone,” she told him. We disintegrated then, and the nurse put a comforting arm around my dad and shed a few tears herself before hugging both my sister and me. She turned and unhooked the leads and lines that clung to my mom for the last week, then squeezed my mom’s arm and apologized to her before slipping out to get the doctor.
By 5:20AM we were filing out of her room. Having become fixtures in the both the waiting room and my mom’s room over the last several days, many of the nurses recognized us and offered their condolences as we left. We were escorted to a windowless room with a sofa and some chairs where we were instructed to wait for a hospital administrator. My dad lay on the couch and my sister sat next to him as we waited for other family members to arrive. I felt suffocated in the tiny room and under the weight of what we had just been through and wandered into the hall for a few minutes alone.
Instead of crossing the hall to the bathroom as I intended to, the deserted waiting room caught my eye. I walked in and looked around, seeing it for the first time without the clusters of worried families huddled together, the low chatter of people calling friends and family members with updates on their loved ones, or the litter of food wrappers, books, magazines. For once it was void of people like us – people trying to continue living as we waited. I curled up in an overstuffed brown paisley chair in a corner that faced the row of windows and made my first in a long list of phone calls to be made over the next week. The phone rang and I half hoped nobody would answer – if no one picked up, I wouldn’t have to say it. When the tired and worried voice on the other end picked up I stammered, choked back tears, and feigned bravery as I heard myself say the words out loud for the first time: my mom died.
After the call I felt myself crumble. Saying it made it all too real, and the realization that my life was forever changed crept over me. With bloodshot eyes and tear-streaked cheeks I sat and stared vacantly out the window. The sun was creeping over the foothills, peaking through clouds as dawn painted the sky shades of rose gold and cotton candy pink. I realized I’d have to leave soon. I would have to go back into the world and find a way to cope. I would have to find a way to get through whatever came next, and I had to find a way to get my family through it. I had to find the strength to return to work, to school, to my life. As I thought to myself what do we do, I knew there was only one answer: there was nothing left to wait for; we find a way to keep going now… to keep living.