“Andrew, get over here. Mom’s unconscious.”
I’d never felt like hyperventilating before, until today when I took Esther’s call. I ran upstairs to get my clothes, heart pounding, ever quickly sucking in air, feeling dizzy. Breathe slower, breathe slower. Not today, not today, not today. I floored the gas pedal and peeled out the driveway, wondering, would it be today?
We were caught unprepared. The day before was an ordinary day. That night, we had brought the family over and had dinner together. My aunt spoon-fed my mom on her bed. The kids were screaming and fighting in the other room, as usual.
We had decided we were going to hire extra help for the upcoming month. My aunt had said her goodbyes, having stayed a week to help us, promising to be back in 2 weeks. We were all tired, but feeling up for the next phase of her care. Mom’s wounds were healing, she just needed to get over this hump.
The day before, Mom was smiling as she sat with her grandkids, listening quietly as we bantered back and forth. Her voice was reduced to a whisper; some medication had taken her voice from her. Things were not okay though; she had been visibly declining daily over the past several weeks. Her appetite had diminished, she had been mainly relegated to bed rest, and walking even a few steps was laborious.
We shouldn’t have been surprised that this morning, everything was falling apart. She’s in the ER. We arrive to see her hooked up to an oxygen mask, hooked up to sensors of all different sorts. She’s small, engulfed in blankets and the cacophony of beeping machines. Over the next hours, they run tests and scans and concerned nurses and doctors make their visits. Mom motions to speak over the hiss of the oxygen mask. We can’t hear her, and it takes her several tries, her whisper barely a rasp: Can I go home today?
My sister smiles bravely and tells her no - we need to find out why she fainted.
Mom’s arm has swelled significantly from the day before. She had been complaining of muscle soreness, and the night before I had been giving her a massage across her swollen legs, feet, and now arms.
The doctor comes to give his report. Scans have detected gas bubbles under the skin of her swollen arm. An infection has made its appearance, hidden until this morning. Blood clots are showing up in her legs and her lungs. Her body is in shock, her blood pressure swinging wildly to and fro. There are no real treatment options; surgery is out of the picture, given the weak state her body is in.
We’re in shock. My dad, Esther, Annie and I tag team in pairs, rotating in and out of the ER waiting room and my mom’s rooms, heads in our hands, fighting back tears. Slowly the diagnosis becomes clear - we have a day, maybe a few, left with her. Get the family here as soon as possible.
Nobody can prepare you for the death of a loved one. It’s not that the information isn’t there. Weeks ago, Annie had bought us a copy of A Beginner’s Guide To The End to help us navigate end-of-life caregiving. I can’t say I cared to read it, and it lay unopened in our house. Now I find myself wishing I had at least opened it, to find some sort of comfort over what was happening here.
Objectively, I’d always known Mom was going to die. Pancreatic cancer will kill your mom, a cancer specialist friend had told us. We had asked her to be as blunt as possible with us regarding Mom’s chances of survival, and were grateful to hear the truth. There was no way out. The cancer would be too strong.
But my denial - and maybe faith in the mystery of God - wouldn’t let me consider death. And here it was, looming and menacing, and we only had hours left.
Mom is frail in her last moments with us; skin barely covering her bones. She struggles to whisper to us - bodily functions to perform, worries over whether or not she had done her CT scan correctly. I put my forehead on hers and nuzzle against her cheek, like I do with my daughter, and look into her eyes. They are glistening. I feign a smile under my mask, hoping I can encourage her.
Annie is alone with Mom for a few hours while the others go home to grab supplies or eat food. Does anyone know what 11 over 11 means to mom? she texts. No, we don’t, and it remains a mystery. The minutes tick by and she gets weaker. Quieter. Finally - to Annie and Dad, who are in the room, her last words: I love you.
The doctor arrives again and delivers the news - there are only hours left. Her body is shutting down. Please hurry, Annie texts. My aunt and grandma grab the next flight in to San Diego, but it doesn’t look likely they are going to make it.
At home, I scramble to gather the family and get into the car. Rushing, we run into the long hallways of the hospital and arrive in her room.
Mom’s eyes are closed, and the situation looks grim. I glance at the machines and note her low heart rate and blood pressure. Over the noise of the machines, we say our goodbyes and kiss her generously. The nurses have her body pumped with norepinephrine to keep her alive until the relatives can arrive to see her.
Thirty minutes later, it’s just five of us. Mom, Dad, and the three kids. It feels familiar and right. Five of us, stuffed together in a rental car cruising the backroads of Canada or Wyoming or Southern California on yet another road trip. The five of us, weekly sitting around the dining table sharing prayer requests and singing together per family tradition. The five of us visiting the local salad bar buffet restaurant on Saturday nights.
And then it happens: her heart rate flatlines and the ECG machine roars with one long continuous beep, the way it happens in the movies. I’m standing nearest her, stunned and shocked. Not today, not today…
I lean over to kiss her on the forehead. Immediately, her heart springs back to life and the ECG registers a heartbeat. We sigh in relief, but not for long.
It would be the last ten beats of her heart. Her body gives out soon after.
The next hour is surreal. We cry, we talk, we are shocked. This is the new reality. Mom’s left, but her body’s here. We hold her hands, and rub her feet. With time, her body stiffens. I think about how hours ago, Mom’s soul was there and now - it’s her body. A dead body, I think, how gruesome. Seconds ago, she had been here. I hold tight to her and I want to wail.
We persuade the hospital staff to let us keep her body in the bed for a few more hours until our relatives can make it to the hospital. Sadly, they will have missed her by a few hours. In a video, my grandma weeps as she anoints her daughter’s head with oil.
I head home, shocked and exhausted, crawling into Yomi’s bed, answering a million questions about death and sharing all the things I missed about his grandma until he falls asleep.
That night, I sleep fitfully, struggling to process the speed of her departure and horrified by the depth of her suffering. I wake feeling a complex, muted, impassable sadness. My one solace is that she has arrived. She is no longer in pain. She is home.