She was perfectly still; too still. The life was gone. She was gone. I’d never seen anyone die before. I suppose most people go through their entire lives without seeing someone die. It was nothing like I expected yet it was more then I imagined. Who knew that death could bring laughter? There is a certain release in that laughter. Mom was there, I felt her, touched her, I saw her chest move up and down as she struggled for breath. But then, like a dandelion disappears into the wind, she was gone.
We knew her heart was bad. Dad called it “her bad ticker”. But, with all the new fangled equipment of modern medicine these days, we assumed that mom could beat the odds like she and dad had done so many times before. They both had pockets carved into their upper chest areas that held defibrillators and pace makers; it was as if they had very hi-tech pocket protectors. They were the nerds of the Sun City cardiac set. They were on the latest and greatest of medicines, they had top notch doctor’s watching everything they did. They were on top of it all. No worries. After all it had been more then a decade since they told dad he only had six weeks to live. We had totally planned his funeral, made the arrangements, but we never needed them. He was too stubborn and strong to let the doctors be right. Mom was the same way. She was going to be fine.
But then, in February mom got sick again. I remember the call from dad. It was eleven o’clock PM and the phone rang. It’s never a good sign when the phone rings that late at night. It was dad.
“Hi. I’ve just called the paramedics for mom,” he said.
“She’s disoriented, she can’t speak, and she’s very weak.”
“Okay. I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
“No, Lise will be there. She lives much closer. There’s no sense in everyone coming down until we find out what’s going on.”
“Dad, are you sure? It is no problem, really. I will be there.”
“No, honey. I will call when I know what’s going on.”
Lise’s my little sister. She and her husband and two girls live only a few miles from mom and dad’s and from the hospital. And so began the beginning of the ending of mom’s life; of my life as I knew it.
Around the fourth day of mom’s hospital stay, and several discussions with the doctors giving several very cryptic diagnoses, her main doc from the hospital paid my dad and mom a visit. The sad part of that is that none of us kids were there to be a support to either of them. Because, the news this doctor broke to them would shatter them.
He sat down on the uncomfortable, blue hospital chair.
Why is that? Why are hospital chairs, chairs that family is supposed to sit in, to have their hind ends be planted on for sometimes hours at a time, why are they so uncomfortable? Is it because the nurses really don’t want family visiting? Is their job easier without the busy bodies belonging to well meaning friends and families? I digress.
Taking a seat on the mid evil torture chair, he took a deep breath. And then he said the words that no one really wants to hear.
“I have certified you for hospice care, Mrs. Wright. You are terminal.”
“But she’s/I don’t have cancer”, they said in unison.
“Hospice isn’t only for cancer patients. It is for anyone who has a terminal disease, which you, Mrs. Wright have. I will set an appointment for them to come and meet with you to let you know what services are available to you. We have done all modern medicine has to offer for you. I wish there was more, but, ….” And his voice trailed off to silence.
“How much time are we lookin at here doc?” My dad said.
“About 6 months.”
That news was hard to hear. It was almost unbelievable. She could beat this. Surely she could. Mom and dad always beat these things. Just that week, on Valentine ’s Day, my dad had made a deal with mom. If she could get up from bed and walk with her walker to the gift shop she could have anything in the gift shop she wanted. Mom did it. She made it all the way there, picked out a beautiful ceramic bird. Certainly that was proof she was doing better. So, mom spent a few days in rehab, and two days later she went home. Two days after that she was gone.
It was Sunday, February 18, 2007, around 4:30PM Lise called to tell me that dad wanted us to come to the house around 6. Mom wasn’t doing well. She had gotten up for lunch, and had sat at the table with dad, my uncle and aunt, she had eaten and talked, but she started to nod off right there in front of her food.
Dad took her back to her chair and mom quickly fell asleep. Hospice had been out that morning and put her on morphine and an anti anxiety drug to help her with her breathing, and it was then that they told dad that it would only be 24-48 hours. She was fading quickly, much quicker than any of us had anticipated or were ready for.
So, at around 5:30 my husband Steve and I left for my sisters to drop off my daughter to baby sit for my sister and we all headed to mom and dad’s house. Isn’t that strange? Mom and dad’s house? Now, it’s just dads. When we got to the house mom was sleeping. In fact she was in a deep sort of coma like sleep. She looked peaceful, calm. But the minute I walked in the front door I heard it; the rattle. Fluid was bubbling in her chest filling her lungs and the wall surrounding her heart. They call it the death rattle. Mom was in congestive heart failure and she was drowning.
I come from an amazingly large family. We tend to be somewhat overwhelming and loud at times. We enjoy laughter. In fact laughter had gotten us through many deaths and times of trial in our lives. Many people don’t understand that about us, but we are who we are. I have three brothers, three sis in laws, one sister, one brother in law, bunches of nieces and nephews, in law nieces and extended family that could rival the book of Leviticus. My three brothers were all out of state that day. Two of them were in Hawaii on vacation, and one at his home in N Canton Ohio where he serves as a Pastor. Lise and I and dad were on our own, or so we thought.
We got a hold of my two brothers in Hawaii to let them know what the situation was. I can only imagine the helplessness they felt. As they worked on getting flights home in a hurry, I had the daunting task of making other phone calls to family and close friends to let them know what was happening. Dad, Lise and I took turns sitting next to mom, rubbing her hair and just holding her hand. I honestly believe, looking back, that we were trying to comfort ourselves more then comfort mom. It was a way of having that one last chance to touch her, to be with her, to love her; to be her daughter for one more moment.
As the news spread people began to fill up mom and dad’s house. The grandkids came, my daughter got from school in Tucson to Phoenix in what seemed like a half hour, the associate pastor of our church came, (my brother, one of the ones in Hawaii, is the senior pastor of our church). Good friends came by, all to show support for us and to say good bye to mom. It was an emotionally beautiful sight to see.
Around 8 PM people started to drift off home, and hospice came by one more time to check up on mom. Lise and I were ready to settle in for the night, while our husbands went home to take care of the kids. We continued to spend our time next to mom. We would sing to her, talk to her, and just be quiet with her. Then off and on we went out to the patio to get some air. While the hospice nurse was there the last time, she with the help of my niece in law who is also a nurse changed mom into some more comfortable clothes and gave her another dose of medication. They both assured us that she was in no pain, she was comfortable. I remember several people holding up a blanket in order to give mom privacy as the nurse changed her clothes. It was so gentle and loving. And her dignity was always a constant consideration.
Then, all there was left to do was wait. Laura, my niece, continued to monitor her pulse and her breathing. Finally the moment came when Laura asked me to call everyone in from outside. There were a surprising amount of people left at the house. Loved ones who had stayed, who hadn’t needed to stay, but stayed for us, to be with us, to carry the sadness with us. The older grandkids that had gone home quickly came back. My daughter Ashli arrived just in time. We gathered around mom, waiting, watching her breathe and the laughter began. Yes we were laughing.
Dad, who has an amazing sense of humor and has always been a great story teller, started sharing moments of he and mom’s life together that were so funny. He told of how they first met. Dad had gone to church to greet a friend who had gone off to summer camp. His friends name was Butch. As the bus pulled up, and the kids began to de-board, Butch walked off with what my dad said, was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. He asked a friend standing next to him who she was. The boy said “that’s Joanne Klawitter, she is Butch’s new girlfriend.” To which my dad replied, “Oh that’s too bad for Butch because I am going to marry her.” Dad was always good at going after and getting what he wanted in life. He wanted mom and he got her for 50 years of marriage.
Then he told of how, when my mom would go to work at a camp for 6 weeks each summer after they were married, she shared a cabin with her parents. Dad would go to visit her every weekend. In order to be able to spend some time alone they would go and “sit” in the car. That is how my brother Jeff came along. Again, more laughter rang out through the house.
The other funny story was about how they were on a romantic getaway and were staying on the 17th floor of a luxurious hotel. They got a little frisky one afternoon. In the midst of passion my mom started screaming. According to dad that wasn’t typically mom’s style but he decided to go with it. Finally she started hitting him saying “look at the window”. And there, watching their every move was the window washer. By that point we were laughing so hard that tears were rolling down our faces. This was truly a celebration of a wonderful marriage, a wonderful woman and a family who loved her.
In the middle of all the laughter my sister leaned over to mom and asked her to squeeze her hand if she could hear us. Mom squeezed Lise’s hand with a great amount of strength for a woman who was so close to death. Mom was there with us, in the laughter, celebrating with us.
Then, as the laughter subsided mom’s breathing became noticeably more labored. More and more minutes ticked away between breaths. Then, as Laura and her husband Jason kept their hands on her pulse, they looked at us and said she was gone. It was all done. Tears of sadness replaced the tears of laughter. My nephews had called their dad’s in Hawaii and told them it was all over. Mom was gone. Then, in true mom form, she gulped the biggest breath I had ever seen anyone one take in. She wasn’t gone after all. Again, we laughed. My brother called from Hawaii to ask how we were and I told them she wasn’t really gone. She had been trying to fake us all out. We even joked about how we could picture her over in the corner with Gabriel saying, “Watch this. This will really freak them all out.”
Finally, at 11:47 PM mom took her last breath. We all waited a few minutes just to make sure, but she was definitely gone. Then the pain, the hurt, all the words that never were said, came flooding into my mind. The tears rolled uncontrollable down our faces. The matriarch, the prayer warrior, the true glue that kept this loud, large family together was gone. How would we be able to do it without her?
I never realized how quickly the life slips away from someone once they go. It was as if her soul had quietly gotten up and walked to Jesus. Mom wasn’t there anymore. The body that mom lived in was there, but mom, along with her laughter, her amazing faith, her love for her family, her joy, her very presence, was gone. But we all knew where she was. She was seeing her own mom and dad, her little sister that had died at the age of one. All her aunts and uncles, cousins that had gone before her were waiting for her to welcome her to the most amazing place of all. She was at the biggest family reunion that there is. Not only that, she was without pain, without diabetes, no more asthma, she could eat all the sugar she wanted. She was in heaven.
I can’t say that it was an experience that I would want to repeat, but I never would have wanted to miss it either. It was a life changing event in my life. We said good bye to mom with tears. Tears of sorrow, tears of pain, but we also said good bye with tears of laughter.
That’s exactly how mom would’ve wanted it.